The Songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James

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Not many records survived my ill-judged  mid-1980’s vinyl sell-off, but one entire oeuvre made the cut – the series of 1970’s albums by Pete Atkin with lyrics by Clive James.

There are several reasons why the Pete and Clive LP’s were considered worth saving. It wasn’t just that I spent many of my formative years listening to them and  knew all of Clive’s  lyrics by heart. And it wasn’t just that I loved Pete’s musical arrangements and his emphatically English voice. One of the most significant reasons for their retention was the fact that each of the albums carried Pete Atkin’s signature.

In the mid-70’s (6th December 1975 to be precise ) Pete Atkin played a concert at the end of the road. He played Weybridge Town Hall, which was, literally, fifty yards away from my house. It’s difficult to communicate how unlikely this was. No-one ever ‘played’ Weybridge, and if anyone were ever to consider this unlikely concept Weybridge Town Hall would surely be the unlikeliest of venues. It seemed nothing less than an act of God (eclipsed, perhaps, by Leonard Cohen playing Brooklands Weybridge many years later)

At the end of Pete’s concert I went up to him and tried to strike up a conversation. “Where’s Clive?” I said.  “He couldn’t make it tonight,” replied Pete, politely refraining from pointing out that lyricists don’t usually go on tour with singers. And then I told Pete how I lived, literally, at the end of the road, and that if could hang around a second while I nipped back to get the albums…

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Maybe it was because I fancied myself something of an intellectual that the Pete Atkin albums were so important to me in my youth. I was impressed by Clive’s range of reference and allusion, though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to not picking up on a lot of what was going on until I was older and wiser.

In ‘Loose Canon’  Ian Shircore gives an engaging account of the development of the songs, and his relationship with them, over the years. The facsimiles of original working drafts, together with the photographs and the anecdotes, intelligently illuminate both the songs and their contexts, but at the heart of the book lies Shircore’s perceptive readings of the songs themselves. Each chapter moves to a focus on one particular song, and has intelligent and thoughtful close reading at its heart. Particularly intriguing is Shircore’s claim that ‘comparison between Clive and John Donne is not at all far-fetched’. The beauty of both Shircore’s writing and the James/Atkin songs is that you end up almost believing him.

Stephen Fry , in  his introduction to Ian Shircore’s brilliant survey of the songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin, refers to  ‘those of us who have hugged the secret of this wonderfully gifted pair to ourselves’ as a  ‘small and select club.’ (  Charlie Brooker, Stuart Maconie and Simon Schama are among its members) .

The songs are treasures. Check them out if you haven’t heard them.

And check out this radio 4 programme ‘Pete and Clive’