Are you a poet or a versifier?
Neither. I just think of myself as being involved in popular music. I don’t feel very “poetic” I try to keep that side as unconscious as possible. I tend to think about the Idea. Is the Idea alive or not? If the Idea’s alive, I might carry it with me for years before I find out how to express it in a lyric.
Who does what first in the relationship?
I usually write the lyric first and give it to Pete. He keeps it for any length of time maybe a couple of days, maybe a couple of years until he thinks he knows where it should be stressed and roughly how the melody goes. And then we have a crucial session which may last any length of time, where we work on it together and in that time any amount of the lyric can be thrown out. Sometimes two-thirds of it’ll go, sometimes nothing changes. But Pete’s a very fine natural critic of English and can always tell when I’m writing badly. And everyone needs help... in writing. So I don’t mind that a bit.
Do you “hear” a rhythmic pattern or a stanza form?
I do hear a rhythmic pattern and maintain it in the stanzas as they’re written but sometimes that’s just scaffolding and it can drop away. Pete may set the thing entirely differently. For example, “The Last Hill That Shows You All The Valley” from “A King At Nightfall”, which I wrote as a very slow lament stressed in all kinds of different places and Pete set it as the rocker that it is.
The important thing is to have a discipline, to hear a certain pulse, even though it might change later. But the first thing I hear is an idea. I had the idea for “Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger” ten years before I wrote it. I simply didn’t know how to do it until one day I happened to write down all the words in English which rhyme with “stranger” there are about five and that’s when I realised it had to be a comic song.
So quite often inspiration can start from a small thing. A technical problem.
But the “technical problem” there was surely that you were using a double-syllable rhyme, which nearly always produces a comic effect?
Yes, that’s right. Absolutely so.
You describe what sounds, superficially at least, to be an extraordinarily objective process of composition something completely alien to rock’s original idea of spontaneity, for example.
Yeah, it sounds that way but only because we’re articulating it. It’d be much easier for me to sit here and say ’I’m engaged in an extremely mysterious process which I’m incapable of analysing. I’m just taken over by this mystic feeling.’ And be George Harrison and talk about the Inner Light. But the mere fact that I’m capable of analysing it makes it sound conscious. It’s not all that much. We do work very precisely. There’s no way you can be deliberately casual.
So where does that fit in with the aforementioned rock ideal?
The rock ideal is changing, anyway. I’m not saying we’re replacing what rock there was we’re not that large we’re just a part of rock. But the thing I like most about rock is that, within it, you can encompass thousands of styles. It’s a journalistic restriction to consider that rock ’n’ roll is confined to certain ways and means.
Well, I don’t believe that either
But a lot of journalists do. In fact, we’ve been hammered on a previous occasion by NME in a disastrous interview (by Chris Salewicz). I mean, Pete never said any of those things. I don’t know whether you want to print any of this, but I’d just like to get it off my chest. Pete simply hasn’t got that kind of conceitedness.
(As a matter of interest, I mentioned this to Chris who looked up the tape of the interview and compared it with the article in the paper. He maintains that every last quote was accurate. But let’s not get bogged down this early on. My next question concerned a series of articles James wrote for the now-defunct British rock monthly Cream a couple of years ago. These pieces amounted to a James-eye-view of the creative process as it applies in rock and they drew a lot of adverse reaction from the Awopbopalooboppers.)
James: Well, the series was written from the viewpoint of a lyricist who wants to think about the kind of lyrics you can write now. And just because I admire Sebastian and Newman doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy Holland-Dozier-Holland in fact, I’m more likely to put on a Supremes track than anything when I’m relaxed. It’s just that you write criticism for a very specific reason and that’s to clear the ground for yourself. I put on rock records for the sound, just like anybody else but there’s no point in my writing criticism about it.
Last year we re-printed one of those articles, the one on Dylan. There seemed to be a general feeling that the mode of criticism was foreign that kind of Lit. Crit. “the text must stand up by itself” thing
I never said the text must stand up by itself. You won’t find that anywhere in those articles. I simply said that I couldn’t understand why all the bits weren’t as good as the good bits. If one stanza of “Like A Rolling Stone” is better than all the rest, why can’t the others be as good?
You said that each successive idea was introduced under less logical pressure than the previous one...
The stanzas didn’t build, yes.
But you didn’t say what you thought he was saying.
What I was saying was he didn’t explain what he was saying.
In that case, how can you talk about “logical pressure”? It’s one game to pin down a song as a song. It’s a whole other thing to try and evaluate a song as a phase of an expression of a dominant philosophy, itself undergoing continual change. To me, what you were doing was analysing the lyric as an internally coherent system without identifying what the system had been evolved to cope with structure, as in your own songwriting method.
Yeah, I’m sure you’re right but don’t forget that my article was written as a polemical piece at a time when nobody had said that the poetry of Dylan was suspect.
Sure. It was as a polemic that we printed it, but
And when I wrote that series for Cream it was never meant to be as important as it turned out. It was just me getting my rocks off about certain artists that interested me. I thought it was worth saying at the time that Randy Newman was the most important songwriter to have recently emerged because not many people were saying that then. And it was worth saying that John Sebastian wrote terrific lyrics.
So how do you feel about the opinions expressed in that series now?
I think I came on a bit strong, because it was very important, I thought, that my kind of criticism should at least be written in English. In fact, I write far more hiply for The Observer. It was a deliberate policy. I was sick to death of the monosyllabic gunge that was appearing as rock criticism at the time.
And they mistook your linguistic facility for glibness?
Yeah, this is an equation which will eventually die out by itself. Even Charles Shaar Murray what I am talking about, especially Charles Shaar Murray talks about my academic background. This is all nonsense. I’m the least academic of people and I’ve got plenty of professors in universities who’ll testify to that! I was a disastrous student... but never will I apologise for my own facility for stringing a few words together.
I still think that’s what lyrics my kind of lyrics are about. Pete thinks the same, thank God.
I don’t want to harry you about those articles...
Harry me, harry me.
Concerning The Beatles, you said that around the time of “Sergeant Pepper”, they were moving from “accurate complexity” to “inaccurate complexity.” Would you care to define your terms there?
What destroyed them was a combination of acid and The Wisdom Of The East. Acid and The Wisdom Of The East are the same thing of course. It’s just that one of them is taken in tabular form.
This is a prejudice of yours, this Wisdom Of The East bit?
Oh absolutely. I’ve got an analytical brain, not a synthetic one.
That must cut you off from a lot.
Not necessarily. People can have terrific spiritual scope and still be specific. Yeats is a good example but The Beatles weren’t up to that.
What about the contention of people like Goldberg and Pickering that Dylan is a great mystic, a great religious figure of the Twentieth Century?
I think he’s a great cultural figure of the Twentieth Century. I think his religious content is... open to question. The trouble is, of course, that he’s so vague on the subject that almost anything can be read into it.
Uhuh. Well, it’s this idea of “specific” versus “vague” that I was trying to draw you into when I asked you whether you were a poet or a versifier.
Okay technically it’s a versifying process because I’m not writing self-sustaining poetry. The ideal lyric simply wouldn’t stand up without music. That they do is just an accident.
What sort of “sense” do you expect out of poetry and I’m thinking of Poetry in terms of it being a mode of thought diametrically opposed to The Prosaic, if you like.
Well, Yeats wrote two of the greatest poems I know “Byzantium” and “Sailing To Byzantium” and I can’t understand them. But they’re very great poems. Any poem that was less than that, I’d want to understand.
Mine have to be understandable because I’m not good enough not to be.
So there’s nothing that you’ve written that you don’t understand?
(Laughs) Yeah there are. That was usually because I was fooling myself at the time. I think, er No, I take that back. There’s nothing on the records that I don’t understand. I have written the odd visionary thing which I’m temporarily elated with and then I realize, much later, that I’ve been fooling myself. Usually, when I give it to Pete. He infallibly spots when I’m faking you can tell ’cost [sic] the language goes soft.
Okay. You mentioned the importance of "having a discipline" in terms of attention to form. Isn’t there a danger of over-doing that aspect and thereby squeezing out all the "variables" which might otherwise lift the thing off the ground?
The answer’s yes. Stiffness is a constant worry. It’s the danger of discipline but it isn’t as great as the danger of lack of discipline.
No, it wasn’t stiffness I was talking about. It was the danger of concentrating so much on formalistic elements that you eventually forfeit all options on surprising yourself.
No, I flatly contradict that. It’s only out of technical problems that the ability to surprise yourself comes.
Absolutely. I’m certainly not a good enough poet to discover things that I didn’t know I knew simply by letting it all hang out. In other words, I’m not Blake. And if Blake were here, he’d say that. He’d say: “You’re not Blake.”
Look I believe firmly in the principle that there’s no art without resistance from the medium. Someone else put it like this: the departure point for inspiration is the obstacle. I believe that absolutely.
As far as arranging your own obstacle course?
Well, I couldn’t dream of functioning without rhymes. I’ll put it more strongly: I couldn’t dream of functioning without pure rhymes. I don’t use vowel-rhymes although I admire a lot of people who do. Randy Newman, for example. He vowel-rhymes brilliantly. But I’m not that good, I think.
You think vowel-rhyming is a higher level?
No, it’s a different area. The Beatles did it because it would never have occurred to them to think that a solid rhyme was better than a vowel-rhyme, or vice-versa. They were unconscious technicians. Now there are certain penalties you pay for being conscious of what you’re doing and one of them for me is simply not being able to allow myself to do certain things. Like vowel-rhyming.
How would you feel if a revolutionary walked in here and accused you of playing The Establishment’s game by adhering to these age-old inherited cultural disciplines?
I could attach no meaning to such a statement whatever. To represent the artist as a fool who doesn’t know where his inspiration is coming from that’s playing The Establishment’s game. The most anarchic thing I can think of is to be a formalist. You’re implying that everything about the world is transient except art which I certainly believe. I think art is the only true continuity.
What if this revolutionary then said that art is bound to be artificial in the face of the continuous flux of life? That art just has to come out second best?
In his case he’d probably be right.
You don’t think anyone could be serious and still hold that view?
I’d think they’d probably grow out of it. Most of the artists I’m interested in are no longer young. And the thing we haven’t said in this interview so far is that those of us who first danced to Little Richard and Elvis Presley are now approaching our middle thirties. And the time for youthful inarticulacy is gone. Middle-aged inarticulacy always sounded foolish.
Maybe we ought to define inarticulacy?
I don’t have to because, right now, that’s what John Peel says I need. He’s saying Clive James is a very intellectual fellow and he’s trying to impress us with his knowledge. To which the answer is Clive James is not an excessively intellectual fellow and I’m certainly not trying to impress him with my knowledge. If I were trying to impress him with my knowledge, the songs would be very different. What John’s missed out on is that he’s acting harder than I am. He’s really straining his brain in an effort to appear stupid. Which he certainly isn’t in fact, we’ve got a hell of a lot to thank him for.
Yes, but Yeats, to use your example in fact you’ve used him once as a certificate of precision and once as transcendent purveyor of vagueness couldn’t it be said in this context that he sometimes rose to heights of sublime inarticulacy? I’m trying to open the word up.
Yeah, I know the feeling. You’re getting to the point where you can really no longer explicate what’s in front of you but I think that’s actually poetry being so clear that it’s dazzling. In my view, the only valid obscurity arises from an excess of clarity. Get that down, Boswell! (Laughter.). But, on the other hand, I would never say that Dylan was inarticulate. He had a problem of which traditions to inherit and was naturally a very inclusive talent. Which led him to expand radically the subject-matter available to rock him and The Beatles, they did the job.
Involuntarily, of course.
Yeah, but they still did it.
True. And we’re back to the rock thing, so it’s time to try to pin-point the tradition you are operating in. For example, how do you feel about being diagnosed as a descendant of Cole Porter?
Very flattered. I wouldn’t say we’re inheriting the tradition of Cole Porter even though I admire Cole Porter to distraction. Almost as much as Rodgers and Hart, which is saying a lot.
Well, to me Porter’s a slick versifier but, beyond that, far too brittle and limited to, er... satisfy my soul.
The reason it’s brittle is that he was working in a tradition that demanded brittleness. Rock ’n’ roll changed all that. If Porter could have had access to some of the raw material of rock ’n’ roll, he’d have been an entirely different artist.
I was under the impression that he was a conservative.
Oh no. He pushed all the conventions to the very limit.
I thought that was just bad temper.
No, no. He went as far as he could go. In fact, he was still being censored until very recently. But influence isn’t a rational thing. Though I admire Porter, I’ve been less influenced by him than I have by, say, Oscar Brown Jnr who comes just before rock ’n’ roll and really is the jazz lyricist par excellence. I learnt a lot from him. He really opened my eyes.
Is it an interesting or a boring question to ask you where you and Pete fit into today’s scene?
It’s an interesting question that I can’t answer. I try to keep my expectations low, because it’s a foolish man who expects commercial success from the kind of thing we do. You have to train yourself psychologically to do without it. The work is its own satisfaction.
Do you feel like a crusader of any kind?
Absolutely not. We just want to be part of rock ’n’ roll. I’m always bad-mouthing things like Alice Cooper and David Bowie, but that doesn’t mean I think we’re the replacement or what should be happening. I never feel the wrong people are getting the knighthoods. As far as I’m concerned, David Bowie can wag his brassiere at the audience until the cows come home as long as I retain my right to say it’s rubbish.
What, finally, in your opinion, IS happening?
Well, my view of it is so limited and particular that it’s not even interesting, probably. I tend to listen to the kind of rock that relaxes me. I must have played the Aretha Franklin version of “Spanish Harlem” a thousand times it’s the only thing I can dance to while shaving. It’s so sweet.
I also play The Beach Boys. Love them. I’ve no interest in Van Dyke Parks, who is in no sense a lyricist just a guy who sort of scatters words around but I think Brian Wilson is a genius. And The Beatles, of course.
Generally speaking, people who are breaking new ground. Like Randy Newman when he came along I just sat up like a ramrod. I just hadn’t been expecting anyone like him to appear. He’s the classic Artist on the scene. Not a word does he waste.
But you couldn’t erect this into a critical canon. You have to reserve the right to ignore stuff. Van Morrison, he turned up. I was told to listen. I listened. Music was alright [sic] fine for kids to smooch to, etc. Lyrics were rubbish. That happens all the time.
Of course, I’m no chicken anymore. I can’t keep up.
NEXT WEEK I’ll be Lookin’ Back on the collected recordings of Clive James and Pete Atkins [sic] in the light of the preceding interview. Hope you’ll be there.