Clive James was 70 this week. When he was a mere stripling in his thirties, I discovered the work he had done with Pete Atkin on a series of albums just coming to a premature end in the face of indifference from the great British public and the big record companies. I’ve been a fan ever since, so when, not long after getting to grips with the internet, last century, I discovered Midnight Voices, an online community of Atkin / James fans, I joined up, and have watched with pleasure as Pete has responded to our interest by producing new versions of his older material, versions of previously unheard songs, and an album of all new material. This is one of the best things about the web- none of this would have been possible without it, although Steve Birkill, the onlie begetter of Midnight Voices deserves a huge vote of thanks for his tenacity in getting the whole thing moving, and keeping it going.
The website that Steve maintains contains more than you will ever need to know about Atkin and James, and I commend it to you. For the uninitiated, though, here’s why I think this work is important. The songs (lyrics by James, music by Atkin) struck me then as a callow youth, and strike me even more so now as a grizzled pantaloon, as being quite extraordinary in their lyrical dexterity and musical adventurousness. To listen to them alongside some of the other products of the early seventies is to hear consummate skill and intelligence up against the derivative and inept inanities of the semi-literate. The lyrics of James, intense, allusive, topical, poetic, are set by Atkin using the full range of musical styles available in popular song. So, rather than a typical guitar bass drums set up, those early Atkin albums featured the cream of British sessionmen, often with a jazz background, such as Henry Mackenzie, Chris Spedding,Kenny Clare, Herbie Flowers, Alan Wakeman and many others.
In a series of albums in the early seventies, they produced a long list of brilliant songs, often tackling unlikely topics with intelligence and humour. In my view, they have produced the best songs about the music business; the best song about alcoholism; the funniest song about drug abuse; the only song about the fears of a Mafia boss; the best songs about the death of sixties idealism and the Vietnam war…I could go on, but you get the picture.
It was a real pleasure and privilege, then, to attend this year’s Midnight Voices event, and to hear those songs again, often with new arrangements. My review is here.
If you are interested in intelligent lyrics, sung sensitively and with a brilliant musical setting, look no further. All the old albums are reissued in handsome new editions, and the later material is still available. You won’t be disappointed.
Thirty Year Man by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.