Whatever Happened To... ?|
by Dennis Turner
published in Record Buyer & Music Collector, January 2001
A Milton Keynes school hall on a Saturday night last October was an unlikely venue for an appearance by a singer who made six highly original, critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums nearly 30 years ago. It has, however, been Pete Atkin's misfortune as a recording artist to appeal to an audience more noted for its loyalty than its number. Although he has made no new records since 1975, Atkin still filled the hall, his middle-aged devotees' enthusiasm sustained by a remarkable website dedicated to their hero.
The six albums were a collaboration between Atkin, who wrote the music and his friend from Cambridge days, Clive James, who supplied the lyrics. A recording contract with Philips followed songwriting stints for the university's Footlights review and the Edinburgh Festival, and television work for the LWT programme, 'What Are You Doing After The Show? The first album, 'Beware The Beautiful Stranger', was released in 1970, followed by 'Journey Through Mythical America' the following year.
Although Atkin became a regular on the college circuit in the early 1970s as a solo performer the music was hard to categorise. James' lyrics reflected his own wide-ranging interests, with typically obscure references to writers, films and musicians, while Atkin's music complemented the words in a way that appeared almost seamless. Both had a deep interest in all forms of popular music, from Cole Porter and George Gershwin, to Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry and on to Randy Newman and Steely Dan. The songs reflected these eclectic influences and although at times they were almost too clever, Atkin built up a cult following which has remained remarkably loyal to this day.
By the time the third album, 'A King At Nightfall' was released in 1973, Atkin had switched labels to RCA. He also had John Peel and Kenny Everett championing his cause on Radio One and David Laing spreading the word in the rock press. This album and the follow-up, 'The Road Of Silk' (1974), are the most consistent of the six records but despite the increased attention Atkin was attracting, they failed to make much of a mark commercially. 'Secret Drinker' (1974) and send-up album 'Live Libel' (1975) completed the set and although there was a subsequent cassette, there was no further commercial release.
For much of the following 15 years, there was little trace of music or artist. Atkin, in fact, became a BBC Radio producer ('Hitch-hikers Guide To The Galaxy' and 'This Sceptered Isle') while James went on to become famous, distributing his considerable talent rather thinly across too many fronts. Interest stirred in 1990 when BMG Records released an excellent compilation ('Touch Has A Memory') and then took off with the launch of the 'Smash Flops' website. This contains absolutely everything anyone with an interest in the music of Atkin and James needs to know, and much that they don't.
The revival is now complete. Not only is Atkin performing again but the music is once more being made available. In 1997, See For Miles re-released Atkin's first two albums on one CD and it was announced at the Milton Keynes concert that the other four would also appear on two-for-one releases, and by next Easter. Earlier this year, moreover, there was an hour-long BBC Radio Two profile of the Atkin/James partnership, presented by John Peel and with contributions from both songwriter and lyricist. James also acknowledged his pride in their combined efforts by including one of the songs amongst his recent Desert Island selection.
For Atkin aficionados, the evening in Milton Keynes was a delight. In such an environmentally-friendly area, he did not have to work very hard to please his audience, but he was totally professional throughout. Slightly donnish in manner and bearing a disconcerting resemblance to a younger Rolf Harris in appearance, Atkin worked his way through a set that had been nominated for his by a poll on the website. Switching between guitar and keyboard, he displayed his usual self-deprecating humour and complete mastery of the material.
His problem, however, is that with no new recorded output for a quarter of a century, there is a limit to how different he can be. There are, after all, only a certain number of ways of singing 'Hypertension Kid'. This did not seem to bother the audience and ironically the whole situation resembled an Atkin/James song from 'A King At Nightfall'. In 'Apparition In Las Vegas', James wrote wittily of the relationship between singer (Presley) and audience (the debris of an era). Unlike Elvis, Atkin probably did 'know the score', and he seemed genuinely appreciative that people today still wanted to listen to his music.
Recommended Listening: 'Touch Has A Memory' (RCA). Splendid compilation of Atkin and James's best-remembered songs.
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