Two Thirty-Year Men in Buxton

by Richard Corfield

Last night in Buxton, for the very first time in 23 years Pete Atkin reunited on stage with the man who in the late sixties and early seventies had been his sublime lyricist and who has since reinvented himself as a media celebrity of gargantuan proportions; Clive James.

Those of us who know Pete's records, and who guarded his heritage during an era so dark it started with "musicians" who wore safety pins through their noses, felt last night that a circle had been closed. Here again were the duo who fate and commercial imperative had robbed of a deserved musical fame, the same grim fate which (to date) has robbed the world of a fabled seventh album.

But what goes around, comes around.

Last night an audience of 571 at the Buxton Opera House were treated to the music of Pete and Clive with each number introduced by the razored wit of Clive James. It is not exaggeration - or sycophancy - to say that the years have added new dimensions to both performers. Pete's voice and music were as poignant as ever, his voice mellowed by the years as well as the recent singing practice engendered by his renaissance. Clive's lyrics were as thought-provoking, literary and timeless as the day they first sliced the vinyl, but the wit that skewered a thousand Japanese game show contestants, coupled with the subtlety and humility of the man who wrote so movingly about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, added a new dimension to the evening, and to the interpretation of their music.

The stage was set with Pete's keyboard, his acoustic guitar, and a grand piano. At stage left a small table and conspicuously vacant chair waited.

Those who know Pete know that he is possessed of a gentle and genuinely funny wit of his own, and he opened with, "Good evening and welcome to the latest in what is proving to be an infinitely extendible series of comeback concerts. As the late and very great Max Wall said 'Show business never quite lets you go, it's like sex: when it's going well, there is absolutely nothing like it in the world; when its going not so well, it's still pretty good.'"

The first number was WHERE HAVE THEY ALL GONE? segueing straight into THE LUCK OF THE DRAW, ending as a portly figure with a characteristic nimble gait drew to the front of the stage, 'And so thirty years melt away. Those were two of the songs that we began writing thirty years ago now, and I am extremely pleased to be here to support Pete again - if that's the word. Tonight I think that you can safely assume that I wrote the words and Pete wrote the music; so when you hear the anguish of unrequited love, the jaded responses of a would-be Don Giovanni, and the angst of a collapsing civilisation, that's usually my bit; and when you hear a beautiful melody and a wonderfully precise singing delivery, that's Pete Atkin...'

The first number with the reunited singer and lyricist on stage was GIRL ON THE TRAIN, 'the quicker-spirited among you will notice that the girl is reading a book by Verlaine - there is a reason for this - yes, it rhymes with train...' Then 'A general point about that song was that it was a precursor to a recurring theme in my work as a lyricist ... sexual obsession ... and PERFECT MOMENTS, which by no coincidence is the next song that Pete is going to sing...'

Clive went on to remind the audience that the budgets that he and Pete were given to record their songs were at starvation level, but that even so, he had been staggered by the calibre of the musicians who had come to play on their albums. These session men included Ronnie Ross, and had inspired the song SESSIONMAN'S BLUES.

As a prelude to THE PEARL-DRILLER (a song based on a visit to a Japanese pearl fishing island) Clive discussed his fascination with precision, something that aficionados will know characterises that particular melding of verbal pyrotechnics and controlled harmony that is the James/Atkin musical signature. Pete's brief stammer on the opening line was rectified by prompting from the audience which Clive correctly identified as emanating from a member of the Pete Atkin discussion group, the Midnight Voices.

Next up was SUNLIGHT GATE, a song which grew out of the tormenting dilemma facing Pete and Clive's American friends in Cambridge when called up for the Vietnam War. Clive explained that they wrote the song to address these issues, but that the song merged elements from different times ('otherwise it would be like watching Platoon on video'), specifically the Pacific Theatre toward the close of the Second World War, a time and place emotionally and geographically close to the formative Clive James, when similar choices had had to be made. Students of the Atkin/James canon understand this now as an important component of their more haunting songs (SEARCH AND DESTROY, CANOE, NO DICE, A KING AT NIGHTFALL). This is perhaps a good moment to reflect that these songs are explicitly and unavoidably a reflection of the time when Pete and Clive worked together, a snapshot of the issues at hand in the early seventies. It is overwhelmingly intriguing to speculate just what this unique interpretative framework will make of the late nineties when Pete and Clive, as they plan, start to write again together.

We must wait and see.

'Impressions in the memory not only stay, but they grow and coalesce,' said Clive, 'and impart a depth in writing which is what we wanted in our songs.' Then wryly, 'it's probably one of the things that made us hopelessly uncommercial with the record companies; record executives tended to look a bit puzzled when they heard some of this stuff...'

The next song (SCREEN-FREAK) was one which 'prefixes one of my continuing obsessions... what the movies do really matters to us, and the way we remember them affects the way we live...'

This song illustrated too the way in which Pete is evolving in his role as a performer. I last heard this song at Eastbourne (Aug 5) but here there were noticeable musical embellishments and effects that made the song converge strongly on its original (A KING AT NIGHTFALL) version. Pete's voice too was stronger and more controlled than it had been even at Eastbourne, and certainly more so than it was at Monyash last year.

For those familiar with the Website RealAudio sound clips, the next song, itself already far evolved from the demo version, was a real treat. This song may well be the one that marks the Atkin/James renaissance with a modern audience. It starts 'with a line from Shelley, '"I am the Eye with which the Universe beholds itself, and knows itself divine", now, if you write that, and at some stage think it, it's usually wise not to tell anyone... especially not the woman you married! Anyhow, I made a lyric out of it and Pete made a song out of it...' So, once again the EYE OF THE UNIVERSE opened, this time interpreted on keyboard. The continuing evolution of this song is intriguing; on the 7th album (Pathway Studios) demo it was played on the guitar with a secondary overdub and was raw and very effective. At Eastbourne Pete played it on keyboard with a rather 'Muzak' feel, and this trend has developed further with the Buxton version. Although not unpleasant, the boppy keyboard sound robs the song of some of its broken-bottle anger. Why? Perhaps the answer lies with Clive's next comment, 'Listening to some of these now makes me realise what a gloomy bastard I was back then...'

Yes, but a literate gloomy bastard Clive. Hopefully Pete will try this number again on guitar, for in that medium this song is easily the most powerful of its ilk; if you liked Oasis' DON'T LOOK BACK IN ANGER, try EYE (it's on the Website) and remember that it was written two decades before Liam Gallagher thought it was cool to expectorate on stage.

It is truly an injustice that this song was not released as a single back in the mid-seventies. But maybe it's not too late: Any Music Biz types out there reading this would be well advised to call Pete Atkin and make arrangements now.

Next up was THIRTY YEAR MAN, with the explanation from Clive that this song stems from his fascination with lounge-bar musicians, as in the Holiday Inn, Louisville, Kentucky ('Imagine! ... No, you only think you can imagine...'). By the way, for those of you who only suspected, the slave in the song is indeed waiting for Julie Covington, the noted EMI artiste who cut THE BEAUTIFUL CHANGES, went on to EVITA and thence to that ultimate concept album, Jeff Wayne's WAR OF THE WORLDS. And the origin of the phrase "Thirty Year Man"? It derives from American career GI's - those who went in for a lifetime's military service at the expense of other career options - 'a Thirty Year Man is a lifer, and that's the idea...'

After CARE CHARMER SLEEP, induced by 'an idea whose origin has dropped away... the worst kind of plagiarism .... this could be very dangerous in a copyright situation...' Clive acknowledged their debt to Tin Pan Alley - 'one of the things they gave us was a form - a long verse and short chorus - ' as a prelude to the melancholy SENIOR CITIZENS.

'Now Pete is going to do one of the last songs we wrote in our active phase, one of those that would have been on the mythical seventh album, an album which never happened but yet might, it's called CANOE. It's a song that needs no explanation but I'm going to give you one anyway... I've always been particularly impressed by prehistoric inventors and innovators... What I wanted to do was connect that kind of man with the astronauts who never actually did any flying; except once... I tried to connect these two things without actually warning of the transition in the song. If you asked me which of the songs we wrote that I'm proud of, the answer is that I'm proud of every one of them, but this is the one where I wonder how it actually happened...'

The song CANOE is a song that has hit big with the Midnight Voices, a song that a handful of this select band of fanatics heard just before the end of Pete's first active singing era in the seventies. It is an important song for all sorts of reasons, one, it is beautiful, two, it makes you think, three it is as topical now (with the release of the Tom Hanks blockbuster movie APOLLO 13) as it was at the time of the real Apollo 13 events, and four, it is quite possibly (along with EYE OF THE UNIVERSE) the song that would have propelled Pete and Clive to the big time. There are those who think that the sixth album (LIVE LIBEL) was a disappointment - quite why I don't know; it works well within the very clear limits set it by Pete and Clive - but those who have heard CANOE - which would have been on the album that followed LIVE LIBEL - will know that it brings together all the elements which made (and make) Pete and Clive's musical collaboration special. This song, together with EYE and SEARCH AND DESTROY are the songs that might have marked their entrée into the bigger market place. So, did they stop too early? Probably, if only by a whisker - and it wasn't even their fault - as Clive mentioned somewhat later in the concert, it was probably the lack of effective management that stalled them. And, it seems to me that without that management, there was no way to deflect the record labels from their unfortunate preoccupation with the voice talents of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious.

Pete sensed the specialness of CANOE, and gave it his all, a wonderful new arrangement that for me was the highlight of the evening.

Thanks Pete. Truly.

For any new fans turned on and into the MVs by Sunday night's events CANOE has to be a must. Check it out on the website (audio.htm), and wait for the release of the seventh album. Who knows, maybe they'll even release it as a single.

Steve Wright, are you listening?

'There were also the songs which were kinda sprightly, more "up" as we say, and in many ways they presented more interesting technical problems than the other kinds in terms of word play...' And what other song could it be? WRISTWATCH FOR A DRUMMER performed with Pete's customary expertise on the guitar and with total verbal authority despite a sensationally convoluted lyric that has made it a favourite among fans since its debut in 1972.

Immediately after the interval Clive went back offstage to find his mislaid notes, returning moments later somewhat crestfallen ('they were in my pocket'). While he recovered Pete played THIEF IN THE NIGHT on guitar. Then 'Early on when we were writing commercially we started meeting agents and record company executives... we wrote a lyric about one guy who was always going on about what was practical... a real PRACTICAL MAN' This introduction confirmed what many of us had always suspected, that it was based on early, real-life experience as our heroes were struggling to find their niche in the big city. Aficionados will recollect that the song finishes with the line, 'There are just some songs that are not for sale,' but as Clive said last night, 'That was a lie of course: All our songs were for sale...'

After BETWEEN US THERE IS NOTHING (a song that as Pete has pointed out has a particular poignancy in the light of Clive's lunches with Diana, Princess of Wales which Clive has documented in his New Yorker article), came another 'monumental song, one which the Midnight Voices explain endlessly to each other. I don't blame them, I have trouble figuring it out myself... A lot of my experience went into it, it's set in Sydney and San Francisco and other places that I've lived... it's called THE FADED MANSION ON THE HILL, and it's got some musical effects in it which stun me...'

Clive introduced THE FLOWERS AND THE WINE with the words 'Here's one that Val Doonican did a cover version of... that one track on that one album probably sold more than all our other songs put together; he rewrote the middle section without telling me, and my feelings about that are just inexpressible...'

'The question of whether we should have used literary references in our songs is a good question, and the answer is, probably not... unless you have to...' But they had to for COMMERCIAL TRAVELLER, another song from the fabled seventh album. The boppy keyboard effect here works well.

After a question and answer session with the audience, the next song was LAUGHING BOY with Clive joining in. Following PAYDAY EVENING, 'Pete has very kindly insisted that I sing tonight... it's a song that we deliberately wrote so that the marketing executive at our record company would show it to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett...' And so Clive soloed A MAN WHO'S BEEN AROUND. Frankly, it's difficult to believe this was not intended as a deliberate parody of Clive's own life since his song writing days with Pete.

Then came a real treat, the first airing of a new song, 'because the web site and its chronicle of our songwriting history has made me want to begin again...' HILL OF LITTLE SHOES is still in its earliest formative phases, but the fact that Clive and Pete are writing again has got to be the best news for their fans since Steve Birkill started this renaissance. For its first outing Clive, acknowledging his own vocal deficiencies soloed most movingly this tribute to the dead children of the Holocaust.

Back to Pete again for another song from the seventh album; LANDSCAPES and then to a song 'that we never did in Footlights, a song that began that serial obsession of mine, although we never meant to sound like President Clinton; it's called BEWARE OF THE BEAUTIFUL STRANGER...'


So what was special about Buxton; was it that Clive James was present? Only partly, Buxton was special because Clive James was there with Pete Atkin and a unique song-writing partnership was reunited. But we need more; more of the songs from the previously released albums played live by Pete again (RAIN-WHEELS, CARNATIONS ON THE ROOF, THE MAN WHO WALKED TOWARD THE MUSIC, APPARITION IN LAS VEGAS), more from the 7th album (COLD BITCHES sounds intriguing, as does MY BROTHER'S KEEPER), and more from the minds, mouths and fingers of Pete and Clive: We need more new songs.

And we need to hear Julie Covington again, maybe she could sing at next year's event?

So from the Sex Pistols and the Clash (pins through noses; "songs" and record titles that brought new definition to the phrase "puerile"), via the Boomtown Rats (things getting better), then Oasis (things getting worse) to Pete and Clive (things perfect) again.

Yep. What goes around comes around.

Perhaps there is hope, after all.

Roy Brown's alternative lyric: PHANTOMS OF THE OPERA HOUSE

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