Article by Stuart Maconie
From New Musical Express, 16 February, 1991, Page 17.
Typed in by Jeremy Walton
It's Not All Talking
You know him as the potato-headed olympic aesthete with a penchant for laughing at small oriental folk, but in the early 70's CLIVE JAMES was the dog's bollocks in erudite folk/rock circles for his musical collaborations with PETE ATKIN. As their finest moments see the light of day on CD, STUART MACONIE meets the pair to get some of those on-the-road memories ...
Wit, poet, critic, novelist, chat show host, essayist and youth swimming champion, Clive James is the sort of chap oft referred to as a "renaissance man", particularly by those who, unlike himself, have only the vaguest notion of what the renaissance was.
Something of a one-off in British cultural life, he's a genuinely learned scholar who's also a TV celebrity, a critic of some distinction who's managed to take over Andy Stewart's sinecure as the man who ushers in the New Year on the telly. An intellectual who isn't too precious to entertain.
The masses who chortle when Clive reveals yet another Japanese invoice clerk pushing lobsters down his underpants probably aren't familiar with the Jamesian approach to Dostoyevsky or Eugenio Montale but it doesn't matter. Part of his genius is his ease for competing mileux. Auden for couch potatoes, the thinking man's Whicker; part Wogan, part Wittgenstein. As the New Yorker put it, "Clive James is a brilliant bunch of guys".
Twenty years ago, one of that bunch of guys wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star. Or, at least, part of that motley company that takes in everyone from Bob Dylan to Little Jimmy Osmond. In the late '60s and early '70s James collaborated with ex-Cambridge Footlights pal Pete Atkin (sorry about this belated entrance) on a string of albums which drew around them an informed and adoring cult besotted with their elegant, unfussy craftmanship, their considerable skill and charm, with James providing the lyrics and Atkin the adroit tunes and arrangements which move neatly from supper club jazz to '70s rock to lilting folkishness.
It was always too idiosyncratic a blend to ship mega-units back then in the age of the dinosaurs; Led Zep, Jethro Tull, Yes. But even so, its devotees were fiercely loyal. The press were polarised. For every writer who loved Atkin and James' wit and flair, there were those who nailed them as bloodless academics. Such people still exist, except now they make Birdland single of the week.
And now Atkins and James find themselves facing the press again. A new album, "Touch Has A Memory--The Clive James/Pete Atkin Songbook 1967-1974" is released this month, comprising 19 lovingly recalled fragments of their heyday. Yesterday's faithful can replace their battered vinyl at a stroke while newcomers may delight in the music's freshness and graceful melancholy and, of course, Clive James' words -- glittering with wit, weighty with tenderness. Certainly, the protagonists greet the reissues warmly. As Clive remarks:
"I'm more than pleased. I'm thrilled. I stuck them on and I thought they came up fresh as paint. It's not my place to say I'm impressed but ... I'm impressed. I've never worked more intensely and during those years, those lyrics were my main means of expression. If I had anything to say, that's where I said it. I loved it all, loved being in the studio. It made me feel part of the pop culture. Or something."
It's an enthusiasm shared by Atkin. Of the two, it was he who was the musical director. While both knew their way around the songs of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, Pete was also steeped in rock. "Clive didn't take rock seriously except as party music. And this was '68, a real hotbed of creativity. But he soon saw the attraction of it."
Armed with a mutual love of the art of John Sebastian, Holland-Dozier-Holland and Steely Dan, the pair set about a quiet rebuttal of some of the '70s rock wisdom. In Clive's words: "Pop musicians often don't have a lot to say for themselves. The singer/songwriter movement was largely a matter of economics. But it spelt the death of the well-crafted song. There's only so much you can do rhyming 'hand' and 'understand' although The Beatles did it very effectively. But pop is at its least interesting when young performers write everything. It may be terrific melodically but there's nothing in the words."
Needless to say, there's a lot in the words that James wrote for Atkin's tunes, whether they be evocations of love or desperation -- playful as in 'Girl On A Train' or faintly chilling as in 'No Dice'. Atkin and James both regard the lyrics as amongst his best work in any medium, the former explaining: "In nearly everything else Clive has done, you're aware of his voice. But not the lyrics. They're written for someone else to sing. And whilst they're personal, they're not confessional. It isn't Clive getting his rocks off, to use a wonderfully '60s phrase." James is similarly glowing about his collaborator.
"I always think I sort of shoved the lyrics on Pete who's a superb lyricist in his own right. I really do think that Pete should be recognised for what he did. His was a unique, completely non-American contribution to the music of the time."
The records sold respectably and steadily, if not spectacularly and the duo's names became synonymous with an unusually erudite but accessible pop sound. Remember, these were the days of the voluminous loon and the concept suite inspired by Frodo's visit to the lost tribe of the Mugwumps, though, as Pete is quick to point out:
"The early '70s wasn't all Ten Years After and 'Tales from Topographic Oceans'. There was more going on than you think. Bowie was doing Ziggy, the first Randy Newman albums were appearing and Steely Dan were getting going. It wasn't as dour as some make out." (Are you sure? -- Ed.)
Both men speak warmly of their fans. As Clive recalls, "We'd meet them on tour and they'd write us letters. These wonderful, wonderful people. Predominantly 'A' level in an ambience where 'O' level was the norm. Yes, we were open to the charge of elitism."
Other accusations have dogged James. Writing pop songs, like hosting unashamed entertainments on Saturday night TV, has long incurred the wrath of those who see activities like this as a criminal waste of his gifts.
"Everything that I've done, I've been told that it's an out and out betrayal of what I did two years earlier. A waste of talent. I never got to hear about this talent 'til I started wasting it! It was raffishly good fun to be doing something that my intellectual friends didn't approve of. I'm just looking for a button-holing, attention-grabbing way of collaring you while I tell you what I want to say."
Was fame a spur? Whilst Pete is tentative Clive is more bluff. "Yes, but it is in everything I do. But not the only reason, I hope. Critics get no points for pointing out that I'm a show-off. There's no prize for that. I'm self-proclaimedly compensating for some lack in myself ... but then, you might say that of Danny Kaye.
"I'm supposedly a populist. And frivolous. Well, it's flattering to be told to be 'true to your gift' since it implies you have a gift to waste. Everything I've done, even my literary criticism comes out of left-field. I don't accept the distinction between entertainment and seriousness. I don't get it when people say I'm 'merely amusing'. I don't laugh at anything that's merely amusing. Do you?"
Clive James' current situation is well known. Pete Atkin is head honcho of BBC Radio South West. Now that his name appears at the end of radio shows, he gets a letter a month asking 'Are you the Pete Atkin who did those records?' Ultimately, it was in pastures other than rock 'n' roll's Elysian fields that they would reside, though Pete still performs sporadically on the folk circuit. Neither of them found the rock lifestyle a particularly magnetic lure and indeed, they are both far too smart to derive much of a frisson for throwing TVs out of the Hyatt window. "I've always been a bit of a wallflower," says Clive. "Though I did see Bill Haley at Sydney Stadium and I did have a flat-top."
If Clive James had only written his three collected volumes of TV criticism, the most sustainedly brilliant work ever of their kind, meeting him would still be an occasion to slick the palms a little. As it is, I'll excuse my hero worship on the grounds that he's ridiculously good at tons of stuff. The tunes of Pete Atkin confirm that he's no slouch either.
Pete can still get excited over Hue & Cry and Clive still loves Country music ("I had to have therapy to stop singing 'Desparado'"). Having their endeavours available again via the amber of CD obviously gives them a huge kick. As it does me. Anyone looking to flog the originals can get in touch.
[Two images accompany this article -- one of the young couple modelling denim shirts and seated at a piano (caption --"Then: Antipodean love god James (right) takes his first lessons in boogie woogie from Pete Atkin") and one of them later in life looking spruce in jackets and ties ("Now: Establishment media folk both, James and Atkin are nevertheless up for offers from Trowbridge Psykik Pig"). The earlier shot looks like it came from the same session as produced the snap on the back of the "Secret Drinker" LP sleeve. -- JPW]