"And then I eat the stick"
Pete Atkin in Punch!
« : 12.12.19 at 00:22 »
While going searching through back issues of Punch for uncollected articles by Clive James (which I'll share soon), I happened to find an article by Pete Atkin! The sub-editor provided a slightly inaccurate introduction, but the rest of the text is directly from Pete himself. Enjoy!
Itchy Feet (Punch, October 21, 1988)
The BBC producer Pete Atkin used to be half of Clive James. The singing half, who performed the James [and Atkin!] songs. Continuing our series by people who have changed careers, he looks back at his life as the Thinking Man’s Rock-’n’-Roller
I’ve been a radio producer for about seven years now, but from time to time I still have letters addressed to me at the BBC, asking if I’m the same Pete Atkin who used to be a rock and roll megastar (I’m paraphrasing ever so slightly, you understand). They’ve heard my name at the end of programmes and wondered if I might be able to help them get hold of one my old albums. I have a well-worn copy of the Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits they could have, but that’s not what they mean.
For I am indeed the same Pete Atkin—always have been (or maybe never was)—and I did make records in the early Seventies, altogether six albums of the songs I used to write with Clive James (yes, the same Clive James).
The business of being a rock and roll megastar has always lacked a defined career structure. For all I know, being a radio producer may well be part of it; but it certainly includes—or at any rate it did fifteen years ago—the possibility of making an unspectacular, if unsteady living.
I had never nursed a great and single-minded ambition to become a megastar, but it didn’t exactly happen by accident either. Two events lead me towards it. The first was that authentic rock and roll reached for the first time (Buddy Holly singing “Think It Over”; if you’re really interested, I could point out to you the exact upstairs window from which I heard it—“A lonely heart grows cold and old der-dum der-dum der-drum-der”) and the second was that I was manoeuvered by a personable and persuasive schoolmaster (the bastard!) into deciding to do Greek at O-Level. It was the latter, of course, that led directly to my becoming a rock and roll megastar.
I was locked into an academic system that would not allow me out (even though I turned out to be much better at Maths) until halfway through university, and no one in the world I then inhabited seemed to have any notion that studying Classics fitted me for anything other than teaching Classics for the rest of my life.
Having spent the summer between school and university teaching at a hilarious private prep school (I had previously assumed that St. Custard’s was a wild and improbable fiction) I knew that neither teaching nor I could possibly benefit from my becoming a teacher, and by the time I should have been asking myself deeply serious career questions, Clive and I had written enough songs to fill a couple of privately-produced and -pressed demonstration LPs (we sold 90% of them as collector’s-items-of-the-future to cover the costs) and I reasoned that I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t give it a go.
Our original intention was that we would make our fortune by getting established singers to record our stuff, but by 1969 the music business no longer worked that way. We once suggested (one of many such suggestions) to a certain music publishing person that a particular song might be a good prospect for a certain well-known singer. He replied, “Yes right, I’ll send that to he.” I think it was at that precise moment that we knew we had to make another plan.
What turned out to be my first album was originally recorded as a music publisher’s demo. It had been recorded in a tiny basement studio (gone now) near Warren Street Tube station for £462, which was cheap even then. I couldn’t have guessed that the album would make recording history: it was reissued as a collector’s item a couple of years later when I changed companies and is therefore the first record to have gone from total obscurity to the status of a legend with no intervening period of success whatsoever.
As a performer (as opposed to writer) I never earned more than £1,200 from any of my six LPs; the least I made from any of them was £0. (And my manager took 10% of that.) They all sold between seven and eleven thousand copies each (mostly to future Radio 4 listeners, it seems), but the expense of the recordings came off the top of my royalties and although they all more or less covered their costs, that was about all they covered. (Not that after having paid for the recordings I ended up owning them. But I mustn’t be bitter. On the other hand, why not?)
So it was in my interest to keep the costs reasonable. I also assumed that recording cheaply was the best way I could persuade the record company to let me continue making records. I was probably wrong about that; on the whole they seemed to prefer losing money extravagantly to breaking even. There were some artists then who would require a studio to be booked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in case inspiration should strike. They do say that Harry Nilsson once went back to America leaving six weeks’ worth of such booking uncancelled.
I positively enjoyed making detailed preparations for sessions, writing out detailed parts for all the instruments, drums, and all, so the musicians could see immediately the kind of thing I was after and we could waste a minimum of expensive studio time. I used to record three songs a session, adding a bit of brass or strings or extra vocals later.
Some performers find recording a stultifying process, I know, but I used to love the intensity of it. The thought of the potential audience at the other end of the microphone cable got my adrenalin flowing just as surely as the prospect of walking out in front of a live one. But it was the live audiences who paid the rent on the room in the house in Islington which I shared at the time. Clive had a room there too, where he wrote his TV column on Friday mornings before taking it in to The Observer and going home to Cambridge on the weekend. Another denizen, handy in case the rock way of life took its toll on my health, was Dr—as he then wasn’t—Robert Buckman. And it was there I made many a dawn return from the previous night’s gig to find Clive already up and writing.
You could guarantee that the last train back from almost anywhere would leave well before I was onstage, but you could normally use the return half of an Anwayday ticket on the stopping mail train back to London—departs two something, arrives five something.
By 1977, punk had pretty well squeezed out the sort of stuff Clive and I were doing, and although I continued (and continue) to perform, our post-student household had broken up and moved on. I began to write other things for money: for radio, TV, theatre, magazines. I was a monthly woodwork correspondent for a while.
In 1981, at the age of 35, the world’s oldest unemployed school-leaver, I was seduced into regular employment. I am still finding a joyful novelty in regular paydays, in guilt-free days off, in not working alone (as a freelance, my Christmas office parties were pathetic), and in not having to spend half my mental energy every day disciplining myself to work.
The nice people who write to me were usually too poor to buy records back then. A lot of them seem to have proper jobs now like me. Maybe I’ll be reissued in triumph one of these days, seeing that my fans have a disposable income. I have already paid for the cost of the recordings, after all.