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Tuesday 5 August 1997
Issue 802

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Play it again, Pete


The Pete Atkin web site

The music of Atkin-James was just a fading cult memory from the Seventies - until a dedicated fan used his Web skills to foster a revival. David Gritten reports

BACK in the Seventies they were a songwriting team revered by literate, discerning music fans. Pete Atkin sang his own melodies, variously influenced by pop, blues and Duke Ellington-era jazz, while Clive James (yes, that Clive James) supplied the complex, witty, often dazzling lyrics. In 1977, after six albums which sold poorly enough to make them both cult and legend on the college rock circuit, they called it a day.

James became, well, Clive James, and Atkin moved into radio, carving out a new career as a successful producer.

Atkin and James had been Cambridge University students in the Sixties, and met through the Footlights Theatre Club. Their albums, such as Driving Through Mythical America, Secret Drinker and A King At Nightfall, were recorded between 1970 and 1975.

An amiable, mild-mannered man, with gold-rimmed glasses, Atkin now lives in Bristol, where he was regional head of BBC Radio for a spell. Since 1993 he has been a freelance producer; his best-known credit recently is the 216-episode This Sceptered Isle , an oral history of Britain, for Radio 4.

Atkin had no idea how many fans still felt deep affection for his work, and almost gave up playing altogether. "Until recently, I'd play a folk club maybe once or twice a year, just to keep my hand in," he says.

But that was before the Internet and Steve Birkill.

As well as a veteran Atkin-James fanatic, Birkill, 50, is an electronics and computer whiz. In 1970 he rigged up a special antenna on the roof of his parents' Yorkshire home just to receive a London Weekend TV series What Are You Doing After The Show? with Atkin and Julie Covington singing Atkin-James songs.

He now runs a small electronic design company, and was browsing the Web at his Derbyshire home when he saw a listing for Atkin playing at an Eastbourne folk club. He made the 250-mile journey to see him, and asked to start a Web page.

It began as a simple discography, but in a year has expanded to include full lyrics of 150 Atkin-James songs, 20 of which can be heard online, including recordings of Kenny Everett playing them on BBC radio.

Atkin sends Birkill masses of information about his career, past live performances, and tapes of unrecorded songs. "I regard Steve as an unofficial archivist," Atkin says.

The response has been startling; Atkin devotees who came upon the site while browsing the Web emailed in their droves to proclaim enthusiasm for his work, ask him to play live more, and request re-issues of his albums. "I was really gratified by all the attention and comments," Atkin says. The site receives some 200 visits a week.

Inspired by all this support, Atkin is writing songs again. He is also negotiating with record companies for a reissue on CD of the albums (which were deleted in 1977 and re-released briefly in 1990).

He seems almost bemused by fans' unwavering enthusiasm for his music. "Clearly there are people out there, saying, 'Where can I get CD copies of these records?' But there was no way of knowing that. The Internet is the first democratic way of gauging the interest, of reaching people like this, and tapping into their memories."

It also helps that Birkill is affluent; he owns nine acres near Monyash, in the Peak District. When organisers of the village's annual folk evening sought to expand it into a day-long festival, he offered his land, securing Atkin for a solo concert on August 16.

Birkill has now begun the huge task of annotating Clive James's lyrics. James, who still keeps in touch with Atkin by phone, has visited the Web site, and marvels: "The man who annotated the lyrics knows more about them than me.

"The interest in the records was always intense, and the fans were enthusiastic. You'd rarely see them in second-hand bins. Unfortunately you rarely saw them first-hand either." James also wants to see the six albums reissued on CD.

  • Monyash Summer Folk Festival: 01629 813256.

    14 September 1996: Obnoxious? Me?

  • Other out-of-print Atkin/James Electronic Telegraph stories archived at Smash Flops :

    Clive James 04.10.97: I am a romantic egomaniac
    Clive James 20.09.97: Diana, Princess of Wales - I wish I'd never met her | photo | New Yorker transcript

  • Next report: Phone vouchers ring the changes

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