Pete Atkin and Clive James hit the comeback trail

From The Times, March 14, 2008

The songwriting team missed the pop bus 40 years ago, but that hasn't dimmed their determination to get their music heard

John Bungey

What's a definition of a cult artist? Here's one: a singer who made a grand total of £50 from his second album and now discovers that a vinyl copy of said record is being offered for £;200 on the internet. Pete Atkin's response to the hyper-inflation surrounding his 1971 LP Driving Through Mythical America is a mixture of horror and awe. “It's heartbreaking that I'm not getting any money, but it shows that people want the music and that it should be out there.”

You may not have heard of Atkin, but you will know the lyricist with whom he made six albums in the 1970s - Clive James. He is quietly resigned to their fate. “We have always been big on eBay,” he says. “We've never had a problem with the second-hand market. It's in the first-hand market that we struggled.”

The pair's struggle to be acclaimed as a songwriting team goes back almost 40 years, a tale of dogged perseverance and the career-rejuvenating powers of the internet. Atkin and James, chums from Cambridge Footlights, created six albums of poignant, funny, often intensely romantic music, all recorded “for less than the cost of a supergroup's sandwiches”.

James came up with lines such as: “The slide from grace is really more like gliding/ And I've found the trick is not to stop the sliding/ But to find a graceful way of staying slid.” Atkin sang them in the folk clubs and student unions of Britain. They became favourites of John Peel, but in the era of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep and Cum on Feel the Noize, songs that referenced Shakespeare and John Donne weren't in demand for Top of the Pops.

By 1977, fed up with a record label where they played 12th fiddle to the decorous likes of Lou Reed and David Bowie and facing the onslaught of punk rock, the pair retired hurt, realising they were never to be the next Elton John and Bernie Taupin after all. Atkin embarked on a successful BBC radio career and virtually gave up gigs. He produced Just a Minute and Week Ending, where colleagues would wonder why members of the public would write in for the producer's autograph rather than the stars'.

Meanwhile, his lyricist went off to become... Clive James, celebrity Aussie, writer, cultural commentator and master of prime-time telly.

And that, pretty much, was that - at least until the coming of the internet, when a Pete Atkin web page appeared before even the BBC had one. It was the work of an ardent fan, Steve Birkill, who travelled 250 miles to Eastbourne for a rare Atkin gig in 1996 to ask his permission. Fans began to find each other on the site. The singer has since taken to the road in Britain, Australia and Hong Kong, this time with his celebrity lyricist joining him.

“It was heartwarming to find there was an audience,” says Atkin. “But what we didn't have is the old records. They were only available on CD for a while before the label went bust - which is why you will find even these on sale for £75.”

And that takes us to now, and the release of Midnight Voices, the Clive James-Pete Atkin Songbook Vol 1. Atkin has rerecorded some of their best material, partly to offer a new perspective but mostly to offer fans without bulging wallets the chance to hear again Beware of the Beautiful Stranger or Master of the Revels.

“One reason the songs haven't dated is because they weren't trendy at the time,” Atkin says. “I really think that the best of Clive's lyrics are as good as anything he has written. It's a crying shame that more people aren't aware of them.” Thanks to the web, Atkin can run his own label from his home in Bristol. “At my extremely advanced age [he's 62], I find myself at the cutting edge of the business.”

With James, too, there is a strong sense of unfinished business. “This is the work that I'm known least for but which is closest to my heart,” he says. His own musical loves stretch back to Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. “But I'm always rediscovering things. It only occurred to me this year that Ian Dury's Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick is a masterpiece. He is such a beautiful, solid rhymer with an intricate interplay of sounds within the line. But you tend to forget that because you're buoyed away by the sheer rocking energy.”

So why could not James - whose every other venture triumphed - write his own No 1? “It was a bit like Henry James trying to write a play,” he says, and chuckles loudly.

“In fact we had the right song in the beginning, Master of the Revels. Kenny Everett loved it and played it every week on Radio 1. But then he got himself fired over a joke about the Minister of Transport's wife passing her driving test. The BBC got rid of the biggest talent they had on a point of non-principle. It was tough for him but it was a disaster for us.”

A week after talking to the pair I watch them perform at the launch of the new album at the Groucho Club in Soho. Are these just two sixtysomethings trying to rekindle a pop past they should have quietly put behind them? Actually no. Atkin is in fine voice, at least as good as when I last saw him in, oh, June 1975. But you can see why these tunes never stormed the charts. They are more in the tradition of French chanson, of Jacques Brel, works that rely on acutely observed lyrics and nuanced emotions rather than the repetitive grooves and shouty choruses of a UK pop hit.

James is coaxed to the stage and after a brief confab about words, trades verses with Atkin on Laughing Boy. The week before he'd told me: “My singing teacher died of old age waiting for me to improve.” But after a tentative start he's in strong voice, hits all the notes and beams mightily at the ovation.

There are now plans for volume two of the songbook. “One of my fondest fantasies,” Atkins says, “is that after we're long gone the songs might have a life of their own - and that the songs might be what Clive is most remembered for. People will be amazed to learn that he had a career in television and wrote those wonderful books.”

In a music industry obsessed with youth and short-term hucksterism, it's refreshing to meet a couple of gents happy to play the long game.

Midnight Voices: The Clive James - Pete Atkin Songbook Vol 1 is available from

Pete Atkin Home Page