The Word — The missing replies

For its April 2008 issue, and to coincide with the March 11th official release of the Midnight Voices CD, magazine The Word conducted an interview with Pete Atkin and Clive James. However the editor of this self-proclaimed “music magazine” subsequently decided to exclude Pete’s contribution, on the grounds that he was simply “wasn’t well enough known to Word readers”. Instead they linked what became a Clive James interview to one with an apparently up-and-coming American songwriter called Amanda Ghost! For the benefit of Smash Flops readers, here are the excised parts of the Pete-and-Clive interview. Read each of Pete’s remarks as following on from Clive’s printed reply.

[Editor’s note: I haven’t yet seen the printed edition; I may reformat this the better to match when I do — SJB 13.03.08]

How do you marry the words and music if a different person writes each?

Some of the most effective songs ever were written by pairs or teams of writers, so I don’t think either of us ever saw it as a potential difficulty. In any case, the aim is always to make the words and the music finally inseparable, so that you can’t see the words on the page without hearing the tune in your head — “I read the news today, oh boy...”, “Rule, Britannia...”, “How long has this been going on?” (Hah! That’s a trick one, of course, and a dilemma for anyone equally familiar with the Gershwin song and the Paul Carrack one) — and so that you can’t hear the tune without the words permanently attached to it. It’s that locked-in-ness that makes the ‘One Song To The Tune Of Another’ round in I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue so funny.

But how you achieve it is one of the great mysteries. Instinct, really. I’m always aware as I’m writing the music that when I sing the finished song, I’m going to have to try to convince the audience, on some level at any rate, that I’m making the whole thing up right there and then. It’s a bit like acting, in a way, trying to convince the audience that the words are occurring to you as you speak. I guess it is a kind of acting.

I usually start out by trying to get as deeply inside the lyric as I can, getting rhythmic melodic ideas from the words themselves — and then sometimes going in a different direction altogether if that seems too obvious. Usually it’s getting the rhythm right that unlocks it, that makes the whole thing crystallize. But then getting the music right for one bit of a lyric sometimes puts different demands on other parts of the song, and, as Clive says, that’s when the collaborative process really begins. It’s often hard to explain what I feel these musical demands to be, and Clive often has to take quite a lot on trust. But the collaboration is the key. It’s another one of the other great mysteries. There’s no question that collaboration prods me into having musical ideas I’d never have come up with working on my own.

What’s the difference in approach between writing a song about your own lives and a song intended for someone else to sing?

I’m pretty sure that writing as part of a team tends to steer you away from even attempting to write more personal, confessional kind of songs, knowing that your words are going to be coming out of someone else’s mouth. That doesn’t stop you writing out of your own experience — you can never avoid that — but it may help to keep a certain kind of emotional self-indulgence in check.

What’s the best piece of advice about songwriting anyone’s ever given you?

Nobody ever gave me any advice. Somebody might have said “Don’t do it — there are enough songs already”, but I wouldn’t have paid any attention to that. When people asked him about writing thrillers, Raymond Chandler said you always have to find your own answers. And you have to find them again each time. So Clive and I probably don’t offer much of an example to anyone else.

But that producer’s thing about the string of hooks is dead right, even though it probably applies more to making records than to writing the songs themselves. The great hits all have it. One of my favourite examples is the Four Seasons’ Silver Star (the long version, not that dreadful for-airplay edit). For me it’s a whole sequence of miracle moments, each detail triggering anticipation of the next in the memory, all the way through the half-time middle bit, then after the fast tempo returns, all the way to the orgasmic French horn near the end. But although that is about arrangement and production, the principle’s good, in any kind of writing, probably. The biggest sin is to bore people. Your first duty is always to keep the audience interested.

The songwriters you most admire and why?

Yup, too many. And for too many different reasons. Sometimes a single phrase is enough to make me forgive an otherwise dullish song. But then again sometimes a clunky phrase is enough to make an otherwise pretty good song unlistenable for me. And then sometimes a song is great enough for me to forgive it the odd clunk (like for instance when Great Tom rhymes ‘eye’ with ‘eye’ in Heart Of Saturday Night).

But hey, here goes, a bunch of particular favourites off the top of my head, just for starters: Robert Johnson (and, yes, I do consider him to be probably the first great rock songwriter), Rodgers and Hart (the first songs that made me cry), Buddy Holly (hooks all the way and beautiful, perfect, simple structures), Goffin and King (the pop ideal), Brian Wilson (staggering invention), Becker and Fagen (I sing quite a few of their things for my own amusement – Razor Boy, Deacon Blues), the Barenaked Ladies (for me they’re among the Beatles’ truest inheritors), Oscar Brown, Jr. (showed me wider possibilities early on), Joe Henry (just because the Civilians songs are rolling around my head at the moment). Loads of others. Don’t take any omission from that list to be significant. I did say it was just for starters.

Quote us an example of your lyrics that you feel proud of.

There are times, usually as I’m actually singing one of the songs, when a phrase suddenly hits me with a freshness that takes me aback, usually one of the most conversational kind: “There seems to be no talk of me and you” (Payday Evening), “When, in a later day...” (Touch Has A Memory), “When you see what can’t be helped go by with bloody murder in its eye….” (The Faded Mansion On The Hill). But different ones every time.

I’ve lost track of the number of times when in the course of my rent-paying activities (mostly producing radio programmes) I’ve been working with someone who eventually says, ‘Oh, you’re that Pete Atkin!’ and immediately quotes something from one of the songs. And it’s always a different line. You never know what’s going to grab someone.

And a couplet you’d go back and change if you could.

Going back and re-recording some of the old songs for this new CD has given us the opportunity to tweak a few things. There’s one in The Faded Mansion On The Hill, for instance: Clive asked me to change “believe” in the original to “retrieve”, because it was rhymed with “leave”, and once you’ve noticed that it’s a homophone rather than a true rhyme, you’re well into sore thumb territory and you can’t hear anything else. Well, he can’t, and neither can I. More than that, I think it makes it a better line.

The things I myself would choose to change are rarely so specific. They’re more often to do with tempos and rhythms. When you make a record, you’re always keenest to record your newest stuff. But sometimes a song would benefit from being performed live a few times in order to settle into a natural groove. That happened with the original album version of I See The Joker. After playing it on tour with a band, it changed radically and for once I had the chance to re-record it as a single (John Peel chose it as one of his singles of the year in 1974, one of my proudest moments.)

My approach to many of the songs has changed a lot over thirty years or more of singing them. I hardly ever refer back to the old recordings, so when we came to record them again it was quite a shock in some cases to realise how much. But some of the new versions are essentially hardly any different at all, except that I think I can now sometimes sing them with a bit more understanding than I did originally, and with Simon Wallace playing piano instead of me the musicianship level has gone up no end. (Not that the other musicians weren’t great — often sensationally so — on the old records.)

But there were other reasons for making these new versions. I have no ownership or any control whatever over those original recordings, the six LPs I made in the 1970s, and their availability on CD has been patchy at best; but we’re still proud of these songs, and confident enough from live reactions and from online sales that they still work well for a current audience, so I wanted them at least to be easily accessible.

What kick-starts the songwriting process? A phrase? An image seen from a train window? A chord sequence?

I have notebooks full of phrases, words and music, mostly just isolated snatches, all of which on the instant made me think “There might be a song there”. Sometimes it’s just a rhythmic phrase, sometimes melodic. But almost never a chord sequence. The harmony comes last. And it’s the element most likely still to change up to the point where the song is finished — or at least abandoned and left to go its own way.

How do you avoid stealing from the songwriters you listen to the most?

I always remember Paul McCartney talking about having just written Yesterday and how he played it to people and kept asking “Is that something else? Did I steal it?” I have huge sympathy with that. But the people whose work I admire the most (assuming they’re not downright inimitable, like Randy Newman, for instance) are at a sufficiently high level of my constant awareness that alarm bells ring early if I’m at risk of nicking from them. It’s the people and songs that I admire a bit — but perhaps not all that much — which demand the greatest vigilance. There are only twelve notes, after all.

See also Midnight Voices thread on this subject.

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