Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Lure of the Lyrics |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Lure of the Lyrics

When I was still in short pants manufactured in Sydney, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s basso profundo voice crossed the Pacific like a Boeing Stratocruiser and landed massively in the Australian hit parade. It sang ‘I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine.’ My unwashed ears flapped. ‘I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine.’ My unwashed ears came to a point. I just loved the way those words were energised by the music, and I walked around for weeks doing my imitation of Tennessee Ernie Ford. I was a long way from Tennessee and eventually my mother was a long way from sanity, but the pint-sized uproar was a birth pang: a new lyricist was being born.

‘Yer load sixteen tons ...’ Australia still had tons in those days. Now it has tonnes. This in itself would be sufficient reason for my living here instead of there. Lyric writers cherish their rhyme-words.

If Tennessee Ernie and ‘Sixteen Tons’ hadn’t done it for me, the Four Lads would have. In their hit song ‘Moments to Remember’ there was a soaring line that went ‘The night we tore the goal-posts down’, and the way an almost impossibly agglutinated set of consonants like ‘goal-posts’ could sit so comfortably on the musical notes fascinated me. How could they sing so easily what I could barely say? Imitating a whole barbershop quartet, I sang the line repeatedly, arousing an intense public reaction in the area of Kogarah, my home suburb. Property prices plunged after I made up a few extra lines to fit the same melody. ‘The night we kicked the dunny down’, I sang, in a mournful serenade to the moon.

More than half a century later, writing song lyrics is my favourite form of writing anything. I’ve never managed to become famous for it. In fact I’m almost entirely obscure for it, and I fear that being attached to me has done a lot to prevent my musical partner, Pete Atkin, from reaching the degree of celebrity that he deserves. But for me, writing lyrics is up there with writing poetry, the chief difference being that while writing poetry has always paid me little compared with writing prose, writing lyrics has paid me hardly anything at all. There are lyricists who become millionaires. I’m not one of them, but lately I’ve found myself writing lyrics again, after a long lay-off that was really due to lack of attention rather than lack of income. You can do without armies of raving fans, but not without a certain level of interest. I’m glad to say that the certain level of interest is not only back, but has gone up a notch.

My colleague Pete Atkin, who composes the music for our songs and does the singing, has just brought out a new album called Midnight Voices, which Amazon is currently re-ordering hundreds of copies at a time to meet the demand. They can re-order it from him. They don’t have to re-order it from a record company, and that’s the big difference between now and when we started. Nowadays you can be in business for yourself. Hundreds of copies aren’t thousands, nor are thousands millions, but to reach only a minority market is no longer the killer that it used to be, when only the majority market mattered, and if the record company wasn’t behind you, there was nothing in front of you except the void.

Today there’s a better chance of not being sunk by your own lack of immediate universal appeal. The old mass markets have been replaced by an infinity of niche markets, all reachable through the Net, which also happens to be — by a mechanism nobody can explain — a surprisingly effective method of spreading news by word of mouth. Today you can reach the few thousand purchasers that you need to keep your little fine-arts factory in business. You can always hope for more, but those happy few should be enough to keep a song-writer going if the song, and not the celebrity status, is what he really cares about. This is probably true for all genuine song-writers, and especially for lyricists, who wouldn’t be trying such a second-fiddle thing unless they found it so satisfactory to get right. You can hear the click when the words fit. If you find it hard to like Carla Bruni, listen to her first album, the one where she sings her own songs in French: the neatness of the carpentry will impress you even if you’re famous in your family for having ordered the pampelmousse under the impression that it was a pudding. Maybe the President of France married the right woman after all. You can imagine her singing him a little song. Vous etes le President / Et moi, je suis une enfant ...

There was a twenty-five-year stretch back there when Atkin and I didn’t write anything together because we thought there was no way of getting through to a public, no matter how small. Pete still did gigs in the clubs, but ‘club’ can be a big name for the back room of a pub equipped with a sound-system from the Jurassic period. Now the public comes to us. Not a huge public, but they seem to appreciate what we do, even if it has no classification. Back at the start, when we told the record-company executives that what we did was a blend of jazz, rock, pop, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and anything else except folk, they would purse their lips and suggest that we call it ‘Different’. The executive who called it ‘Folk’ we preferred to ignore, which turned out to be exactly the way he felt about us. A pity: though he had a small brain, he had a large car, in the back of which we would sit with him while he told us that we would get nowhere unless we wrote a hit. He was quite right, but times change.

For me, there was never any doubt that what we were doing was in a tradition going back to the troubadours, who were never in the hit parade either. The words mattered, but the music came first. Long before I had met Pete in the Cambridge Footlights clubroom in the mid-1960s, I was already continuing my childhood researches into the way music gave an extra dimension to the simplest words. There were countless examples of ordinary spoken phrases being made extraordinary when set to music. In his song ‘I’ll See You Again’, Noel Coward transformed the title line by putting the musical emphasis unexpectedly on the word ‘you’. Nothing when read, but everything when heard.

When I finally found my own musician, I took delight in leaving him room, by the way I put the stanza together, to try the same thing with a lot of other simple phrases. I might have overdone the supply of phrases that weren’t simple at all, but we probably would have been in trouble anyway, because even the most enthusiastic critics didn’t know what to call the results. The word chanson rang no bells in the English-speaking countries. In France we might have done better. In France, the poets have always written lyrics, and at least one serious song-writer has married the President, as I might have mentioned. We had to settle for less spectacular rewards, but some of them were gratifying. I remember one evening when Stephen Fry quoted one of my own lyrics at me, and I was so pleased I couldn’t speak: for me, a rare condition.

Moments like that did something to offset the frustration. The only real cure for frustration, however, is work, and for the quarter of a century we were behind the moon I kept in shape by writing poems, which have their own music, or should have. But I always missed the thrill of hearing a set of syllables being absorbed by a row of notes, in a kind of mid-air mating dance that transmits a new emotion. Then, in the late 1990s, our music came back from limbo. The first generation of fans had found each other through the Net, and it turned out that there was a second generation who had grown up with our songs echoing in the house. We went on tour in both Britain and Australia, and found that the audiences we played to didn’t just want to hear the old stuff, they wanted to hear that we were still writing.

No problem there. We couldn’t stop, and gradually we realised that we had never stopped. The long hiatus had been part of the process. We had just been gathering our strength in the interim, as a coalminer must sometimes pause and mop his brow. ‘If you see me comin’, better step aside/A lotta men didn’t and a lotta men died ...’ What a lyric! There is still a controversy as to whether Merle Travis wrote it or ripped it off. Either way, it made him a lot of money. Sigh.

(Guardian, April 1, 2008)


When Midnight Voices, the first album of the Pete Atkin/Clive James songbook, went on general release in early 2008, the Guardian kindly gave me the opportunity to plug its advent by asking for an article about lyrics. Since the disc had no advertising budget whatsoever, the opportunity demanded to be taken, and I would have enjoyed writing such an article anyway. In previous years, when we went on tour in Britain or Australia, I always answered any request for an article from the print media on route. Writing articles was harder than doing interviews but there was a better chance of sticking to the point, which for me was always how the lyrics and the music blended so that you couldn’t get them apart. Songwriters can avoid the press if they like, but unless they are massive, stadium-filling stars their fastidiousness will cost them. Jake Thackray, a learned and inventive troubadour in the chanson tradition which has so few English contributors, fatally restricted his career by feeling coy about pleasing the crowd, and today he is remembered mainly for his topical songs on the Bernard Braden show, which were nothing like his best things. (His ‘Remembrance’ is an anti-war song that leaves all other anti-war songs in the dust.) Shyness and show business rarely mix. Anyway, the media coverage that we secured for the Midnight Voices album couldn’t have hurt. At the time of this book’s going to press, all six of the early Pete Atkin albums are due for re-release on Demon, Britain’s biggest independent label. Once again, sales will probably be small by rock-star standards, but after all this time it’s nice to be still in the game.