A Disproportionate Response

I naturally have a particular and peculiar stake in the songs I’ve been writing with Clive for the past almost forty years, so although our 1970s adventures in the record business occupy only a comparatively small part of North Face Of Soho, the fourth volume of his Unreliable Memoirs, they bulked unnaturally large for me. I therefore hope I’ll be forgiven for bulking unnaturally, disproportionately, and probably unnecessarily large in this response.

I’ve never ever spent much time trying to figure out why the songs Clive and I wrote in the seventies and more specifically the records I made of them didn’t turn out to be hits. That was just what happened. Get on with the next thing. But when I read Clive’s conclusion in North Face Of Soho, the fourth volume of his Unreliable Memoirs, that he feels himself to be personally responsible for the songs’ commercial failure, that it was all the fault of the kind of lyrics he was writing, it jolted me, and I thought to myself: No, that’s wrong, or it’s at best improbable, even though I couldn’t instantly come up with a more plausible explanation.

I’ve thought about it a bit more now, and I still think Clive is mistaken. But I must allow that if Clive truly believes and I have no reason whatever to doubt his sincerity that the cleverness of his lyrics was the reason for our songs’ lack of commercial success, then I must take that belief at face value. What people believe to be true, what they honestly think has happened, even if they are easily proved wrong, can be more influential on what they then go on to do or not do than are the objective facts in the case. That’s no less true for being a truism about history in general. So even if Clive’s conclusion can be shown to be falsely based, his believing it could still account for his drift away from lyric writing, even perhaps for the different kind of lyric tighter, sparer, less allusive which he has written since he has come back to it in the past ten years.

To the extent that Clive’s belief is unquestionably sincere, there is no discussion; the facts don’t matter. The unreliability of Clive’s memoirs is not a joke: that word on the cover of all four books is an important reminder and warning. In this latest volume he further defuses potential criticism by admitting that even his self-deprecation may be a form of self-aggrandisement. So trying to dissuade Clive from his view could be also be an unkindness. If I were to succeed, I might be depriving him of the pleasure he gets from his psychological masochism. On the other hand, I figure that my subjective version is as valid as his (if not as entertaining). And, hey, don’t I have a right to be masochistic too?

So to start from Clive’s conclusion, my first response after my jolt was that I couldn’t think of a single example of a song where the quality of the lyric, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’, clever or dumb, has ever been the primary reason for its commercial success or failure. (I stress ‘primary’ reason and I stress ‘commercial’ success.) I admit there have been songs where the content or the subject matter of a lyric unquestionably makes a difference for instance many folk songs, message songs, ‘protest’ songs, etc. but that’s not the same, and even in those cases the songs that lodge themselves most firmly in people’s brains almost always do so because their music works better than the others’. If you think you can come up with an example that contradicts me, just see if you can quote the lyric without thinking of the tune. Anyway, there have been plenty of commercially successful songs with lyrics more complex than Clive’s (even if that complexity sometimes has more to do with what seems like a wilful kind of obscurity or ‘poeticality’).

Clive suggests another possible reason for our failure to break through: my refusal actually my inability to sing with an American accent. I think that’s also easily discounted. Even Clive himself doesn’t seem all that convinced. He cites Ray Davies as one example of someone for whom an English accent was not a handicap, but it’s easy to compile quite a long list of others: David Bowie, for just one, who was getting started at about the same time as me, and who has like me cited Anthony Newley as an early encouragement in this. But there are too many other examples, from the fifties onward, to take that one too seriously.

I do think there was always a less specific but more significant drawback simply in the sound of my voice. My vocal sound was never naturally ‘rock’n’roll’ or ‘bluesy’ or ‘soulful’, all of them qualities which, if I ever I tried to assume them, felt as phoney or parodic as an American accent would have done. I have often said (because it’s true) that when I started out I hadn’t intended to be a performing artist at all. As I’ve also said, the first album, Beware of the Beautiful Stranger, was effectively made as a collection of publisher’s demos, hence its extremely modest three-figure budget modest even for 1970. That’s not an excuse, but it might be a part of a reason.

And when Clive says that the first two or three albums “had been, on the whole, well received, and they had also, on the whole, dropped dead,” it’s a neat summation, but it’s too neat. The first ‘on the whole’ understates the reaction, and the second one overstates the failure. Altogether the aphorism forgets or ignores just how well those first three albums did. They weren’t close to being hit records, but Beware of the Beautiful Stranger and A King at Nightfall did not exactly drop dead, not even on the whole; each sold more copies than some albums that did make the lower reaches of the charts by achieving their sales total in a comparatively much shorter period. Those two LPs each ended up selling more than 10,000 copies, and that ain’t, as they used to say, hay. And the press coverage was truly outstanding. True, it was mainly the music press, but the music press was, like the BBC playlist, more important then. There was more of it for a start. To forget that early success is also to forget that when Essex Music (our publishers, for whom I was making the records) withdrew the first two albums from Philips Records and took them to RCA, RCA were keen to take me on, and even reissue those first two albums immediately. This was at a time when getting a recording contract was an achievement in itself. True, RCA didn’t offer me a multi-digit sign-up advance, but they really didn’t do a bad job on A King At Nightfall, and the press reaction and the sales kept the graph moving upward. All of that is reflected in my move at the time from playing mainly in folk clubs to much better paid college gigs, and the fact, for instance, that I did three John Peel sessions in each of ’72, ’73, and ’74, as much as any other artist or band at the time.

It takes an effort to remember now, amid the 21st century democratisation and digital diffusion of the music business, what a stranglehold the big record companies and the BBC playlist between them had in the early seventies. There was no way around them, not if you were after commercial success. Clive’s story about Have You Got A Biro I can Borrow? is a good one, and its essence is true, even if the facts are unreliable. (Ladislao Biro was indeed a Hungarian, but his name was and still is a trademark all over the world, something that came to our attention not from the BBC but from Philips Records when we wanted to print the lyric on the LP sleeve of Beware of the Beautiful Stranger. It appeared that we needed permission to use it in the title of a song. This was granted on the understanding that the name would always be printed with a capital ‘B’. It’s for this reason that I have been careful always to sing it with a capital ‘B’. But there was never any realistic idea of its being a single, so the BBC stipulation in Clive’s version is a bit of embroidery, I’m afraid, at least in terms of boring literal truth. (Oh, and it was the Kinks, of course, who yielded to the BBC over a brand name and re-recorded the vocal track of Lola changing ‘Coca Cola’ to ‘cherry cola’ in order that Radio 1 would agree to play it. That proves how important it was to get on that playlist. Only singles, of course, ever got on that playlist. Apart from a handful of specialist programmes, the only place on British airwaves where an album track ever stood a chance of being played was Peter Clayton’s weekly two-hour ‘Album Time’ on Radio 2.)

I can see now that after A King At Nightfall more of the same was never going to be enough to keep the graph moving upwards. I needed to be or to have a band ceaselessly working the college circuit breaking even if I was lucky, doing my head either way or I needed a hit single; or if not an actual hit single, then a single which would attract enough serious airplay to generate album sales. Without either of those, Clive’s right, the record companies “had no idea how to market the stuff.” And that really is not their fault, not if I’m honest. I was giving them almost nothing to work with.

In fact, at this point in our song-writing career there was a new negative influence, one that had nothing directly to do with the music business. After A King At Nightfall we never again received the quantity or the quality of press interest we’d had previously. It may be said that that’s because the quality of the product went down that’s not for me to say but something else did happen at just that time which I believe had a profound effect: Clive began to be famous, immensely famous, as a journalist; his Observer TV column was so famous and successful it boosted the sales of the paper. Ever since then, Clive has been more famous for other things than writing songs. The British (or do I mean English?) have always been deeply suspicious of people who do more than one thing, regardless of how well; they seem to think you can be serious only about one. The consistent neglect of the songs by press and radio and TV interviewers indicates to me at least that Clive’s songwriting is regarded pretty generally by them as an irrelevance, as a ‘hobby’ or even an aberration. And beyond that, whether it’s down to simple jealousy or an unwritten code of practice, journalists on the whole don’t and won’t write about other journalists.

Nevertheless, it was an excitement to be making records at all; having that contract felt like a kind of recognition in itself. That excitement is part of the reason I felt I needed to use studio time as economically and as effectively as possible: so I could be allowed to go on doing it. I can see now that I should probably have gone ahead and spent RCA’s money as wantonly and self-indulgently as I could get away with, but I guess I just wasn’t rock’n’roll enough (probably another part of the problem in itself).

The discipline imposed by the constraints on money and time had some clear benefits, but looking back I can now see that the pressures were sometimes unhelpful. One such pressure finds its way into Clive’s account where he says that “the demo tapes often sounded better to me than the finished album tracks.” I don’t think he’s referring to actual demo tapes there. For one thing there weren’t any. I just didn’t make them, beyond perhaps the odd rudimentary single-microphone cassette recording of just me at home, which I guess is not what he’s talking about. I think he’s talking about rough mixes from the studio, or in practice just one or two of them. Even these weren’t a regular affair because I didn’t have anything on which to play a quarter-inch tape. But there must have been some way I was able to copy something on to a cassette in order to refer to it when I was writing the brass or string arrangements. Looking back at my diary notes, I find there was just one track where the quick, rough, end-of-the-session reference mono mix had a quality to it which we were unable to recapture when it came to the final mix: it was The Last Hill That Shows You All The Valley. If I am right about that, Clive was anything but a lone voice. Roger Quested and I spent a worryingly large amount of expensive time trying to get back to the feel of that rough mix, finally without success. We were working with precisely the same tracks on the same multitrack master tape, but could we recreate that first fine careless rapture? Could we expletive deleted. We had to give up the chase for practical reasons. The “educated ears” never tried to persuade anyone of the superiority of the later mix. On computers these days every transitional mix is itself recorded, and no earlier version, nothing, ever need be lost. In 1973 computerised desks were perhaps not even yet invented; the first one I can remember hearing of was at George Martin’s AIR studio above Oxford Circus a year or two later. All of that wasn’t about the vocal mix, but I honestly can’t think what else Clive is referring to there. Besides, I don’t like to imagine what he himself or indeed anyone else might have thought or said at the time if we had deliberately mixed the vocals back to a point where the words were imperfectly audible. True, on some hit records you couldn’t hear the words, but that didn’t make it a requirement, let alone a guarantee; after all, there were always plenty where you could, and some where you’d have been pleased not to.

But in saying that he had an “uneasy suspicion that the words were being mixed too far forward”, I think that Clive may be obliquely saying something else, a bit like the apocryphal record producer who knew there was something wrong, and who when asked what it was replied ‘It’s either a drum or a trumpet.’ The fact that he was unable to be specific didn’t mean there wasn’t something wrong. My own interpretation of Clive’s phrase is that those seventies albums continued in some ways to be collections of what were essentially demos of the songs; fairly high class ones perhaps, but demos nevertheless. And, what’s more, demos of songs for which there was only ever the slimmest chance of a cover version.

I tried to use the resources available to me in a way that might best enhance each individual song on its own terms, without any concern for creating an overall sound or style. I always assumed that ‘style’ (whatever that is) is something that will take care of itself. In practice, I gloried in the sheer diversity of the songs. That diversity may or may not have inhibited our further success, but it’s not something I can apologise for. Nor do I feel inclined to apologise for not trying to give the records a more fashionable sound. If I’d been able to do that, it might have done more than anything else to make them a more comfortable listen. But I didn’t know how to achieve it. Nor did Don Paul, my producer for the first three albums, whose hands-off approach we saw always as a positive. As things turned out, I hope it may be at least partly true that the lack of contemporary trendiness in the records can now be seen as an advantage, that the lack of an aural equivalent to the clothes we were wearing at least removes one layer of potential embarrassment in listening to them now.

Another now forgotten physical constraint was the playing time of a vinyl LP: twenty minutes a side for a well modulated pop record, only stretchable at some cost to quality. Since we were always over-stocked with songs, I was always looking for ways to make room for as many songs as possible. That often meant routining them as economically as possible, in other words not stretching them out musically, or, to put it another way, perhaps not giving them an ideal amount of room to breathe. That too, I suspect, sometimes contributed to the ‘demo-ish’ feel.

But more important than all of these things, it seems to me and far, far more than the nature of the lyrics was the kind of music I was writing. If you take a random sample of hit records from pretty much any era, the element that most of them will have in common is, critically, repetition. I don’t mean repetition from verse to verse, from chorus to chorus; I mean repetition within each verse. There are many different patterns, but classically a four-line stanza might go: line 1 (four bars), line 2 (musical repeat of line 1), line 3 (musical variation, sometimes only slight), line 4 (musical repeat of line 1). And there’s good reason for that: it works, it hooks a song onto people’s brains. Looking at my own verse structures, there’s hardly ever any of that kind of internal repetition; the melody just goes off hand-in-hand with the words and simply ends up somewhere. Even when I seem to be attempting to follow something like the example I’ve just outlined in Payday Evening, for example, where the accompaniment does use a repeating pattern I just can’t seem to resist the temptation to let the melody do something a bit different line by line. And THAT, for my money, is why the songs didn’t catch on more, why there were so few obvious singles among them. I needed first to recognise this important fact, and second to drive its importance home to Clive. Lyrics be blowed. Clive’s lyrics were and are always a bonus. The egg is on my face.

If, after all this, Clive is still hoping to take some responsibility, to rescue some of his soothing pain, I will concede that when he began sometimes to hand me a lyric that didn’t fit into a neatly repeating pattern, and when I found a way of dealing with the irregularity, he became less and less hesitant about presenting me with such problems. If you compare the songs on the first couple of albums with those on the later ones, I think you’ll find evidence of that. Nevertheless, I’m the one who should have kept him more firmly on track. I should have given him more four-square tunes to work with. I should have taken charge more.

Whatever. Even if all of these possible reasons for our lack of commercial success could be shown to be real and true, any or all of them could have been overturned on an instant by luck. I suppose they still could.

But this is now and that was then. None of this navel-gazing matters. The mistakes we may or may not have made thirty years ago are not available to be made again, so what’s the point? We’re only talking about songs, after all. And yet I do persist in my belief that Clive’s lyrics, whether blameworthy or not, are at least as good as anything he has ever written. My pride and pleasure at having a connection with them are unlimited.

Pete Atkin

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