Loose Canon: the extraordinary songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin by Ian Shircore

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Review by Rob Spence

It’s now over forty years since I discovered the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James. In a wonderful series of albums in the late sixties and early seventies, they presented a collection of songs that redefined what popular music could aspire to: literate, enigmatic, poignant, funny, startling lyrics by Clive James, set with invention and sensitivity by Pete Atkin, and sung by him in an engagingly intelligent way that gave full weight to those words.  These were not just love songs, although there were plenty of those. They were songs about alcoholism (“Secret Drinker”) about the death of the American dream (“Driving Through Mythical America”), about Vietnam (“All the Dead Were Strangers”), about the life and death of working men (“Carnations on the Roof”) – no subject was taboo, and the musical treatment knew no constraints either. Despite tight budgets, some of the best session musicians around played Atkin’s innovative music, which, with its instrumentation for brass, wind, and strings filling out the sound was a far cry from the guitar/bass/drums staple of contemporary pop. Despite huge critical acclaim at the time, success was elusive, and the recordings stopped. Pete Atkin became a BBC radio producer. We know what happened to Clive James. My vinyl copies of their albums were worn out by regular plays until towards the turn of the century, when something called the internet happened. A fan, Steve Birkill, convened a group of other fans, named Midnight Voices after a line in one of the songs, and an unlikely revival was suddenly in train.

Since then, Pete Atkin has produced a new body of work in collaboration with Clive James, with their latest, and almost certainly last album, given James’s deteriorating condition, being released last year. It’s appropriate, then, that the first book-length treatment of their work has been produced: Loose Canon is at heart, a celebration of an enduring partnership, written by Ian Shircore, who, by virtue of being the organiser of a folk club in the late sixties, encountered Atkin and James almost at the beginning of their career. I say almost, because the career started when Atkin and James were students at Cambridge, and wrote songs for Footlights. Some of those songs were recorded by Julie Covington, their fellow student, and some ended up on the early albums.

From the vantage point of 2016, the Atkin-James oeuvre looks mighty impressive.  The Cambridge work, the early albums and the songs of the twenty-first century revival add up to an extraordinary canon, remarkable in its diversity and in its ability to sound fresh and relevant even, in some cases, nearly half a century after composition, a fact celebrated by Stephen Fry in his rapturous foreword. Ian Shircore is properly respectful of the material, but is also a fan – he has his favourite songs, and those he isn’t quite so keen on – and one of the many delights of this book is mentally arguing with the author about the respective merits of particular songs.

This is not a book of literary criticism, although Clive James’s lyrics are certainly of a quality that would stand that sort of investigation. Nor is it a technical music book. It is, rather quirkily, a combination of biography, history and astute analysis, with some extended consideration for a generous selection of songs, exploring their genesis, development and performance. The two principals have been interviewed by the author, who is also able to draw upon a treasure trove of archive material. Originals of song lyrics, and a series of photographs covering the protagonists’ careers from before they met to the present day, illustrate the volume, and provide a fascinating extra dimension to the text.

The book is not a conventional, chronological account of the work, although it is possible to trace the progress of the duo as the book proceeds. The short chapters move from personal reminiscence (an evocative account of the late sixties folk club scene), to an exploration of their influences (the great American songbook as well as T.S. Eliot and the metaphysical poets), to detailed analysis of individual songs, often illuminated by the comments of the composer and lyricist. In this way, the picture builds of a really remarkable body of work, worthy of such lavish and thoughtful attention.

As a long-time fan, I found this a joy to read, but I suppose I would anyway. If you have not encountered the songs of Atkin and James, then this is the ideal primer. Ideally, you would read it while listening, and if you are listening for the first time, I envy you.

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Rob Spence writes about books and other things at robspence.org.uk

Ian Shircore, Loose Canon: the extraordinary songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin (Red Door, 2016) 9781910453230 214pp., Hardback

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