Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — We Shall Be Re-released |
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We Shall Be Re-released

(Sleeve notes for Pete Atkin's retrospective album Touch Has A Memory, 1991)

Aiming at a minority in a market that catered exclusively to majorities, we were doomed, Pete Atkin and I, but it took us almost ten years to admit it, and in that time we wrote these songs. Even at this distance, I wouldn’t claim to be objective about their quality. Subjectively, though, I have always thought of them as the most intense creative endeavour I was ever mixed up in. Writing the words for Pete’s music, I had that feeling every writer gets when he is on to a good thing. I suppose carpenters get it too, when they are planing with the grain. It was the way to go. Since those days I have written books that got more attention than my lyrics, and TV shows that made more money, but nothing else has generated quite that euphoria.

Unfortunately you can’t eat euphoria. Like good reviews, which we also had plenty of, it nourishes only the soul. In those days the magic adjective was “commercial”. If a song wasn’t commercial, it aroused grave doubts among music business executives. These latter were usually even younger than we were and always incomparably more hip. Pete and I had flared trousers too, but the music business executives had hair styles which indicated many hours of rapt communication with the blow-drier. Through long lunches they explained to us, in widely spaced words of one syllable, why things would be so much simpler if we could take a more commercial approach. (The word “commercial”, of course, has three syllables, but not the way they said it.)

They were right. Things would have been simpler. But we had stuck ourselves with the most uncommercial approach possible. A fiercely loyal, highly intelligent audience who understood every nuance and subtlety — and from whom we both still get letters — would purchase every album Pete put out. Alas, commercial success depended on roping in a tangible percentage of all those other people as well.

Perhaps we were behind the times. I like to think that we were ahead of them, and that the era our work really fits into is beginning now. What we were up to — as far as I can tell as a participant — was a sort of post-modern synthesis. At that time you couldn’t be post-modern because everyone was modern. People were young in those days, and very sure of themselves. In the sixties and early seventies, the past began in the fifties. If you said you respected Tin Pan Alley, you were thought of as a throwback. Today, and not just because nostalgia has become an industry, there is a greater willingness to rummage in an older dressing-up box than the one that holds the loon pants, the tie-dyed T-shirts, the headbands and the beads.

When Pete and I began to write together for the Cambridge Footlights popular music was already providing some brilliantly witty work. On the whole, then as now, the popular song was dedicated either to saying something mindless memorably or else to embalming an alleged profundity in semi-literate bathos. But there were exceptions, and how they shone. Pete used to buy the Mamas and Papas albums as they came out, and I still own everything by Randy Newman. John Sebastian’s songs for the Lovin’ Spoonful were among our touchstones. The Holland-Dozier-Holland hits for Motown showed how strokes of seeming simplicity could build into a perfectly satisfactory pattern. We kept in touch with all these developments. I wrote long, ponderous articles for Cream about Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. But what really drove us was the achievement of the previous generation and the generation before that. Before the singer-songwriters, there were the song-writers.

Before I met Pete, I already knew my way around the lyrics of Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, lra Gershwin and Johnny Mercer. Pete knew all that and more. On the Footlights stage, at a quarter to three, with no-one in the place except him and me, he would take me through those pages of the Mercer-Arlen song-book that had been stuck together with coffee-stains and bitter tears. There was a song by Tadd Dameron I had never heard before. From the very first, we wanted to write songs that got all those possibilities in.

My own particular urge was to use all the words in a song that I might possibly use in any other medium, including the scholarly footnote. This occasionally led to excess. Later on we were sometimes accused of wordiness, and sometimes it was true. Usually, though, we were pushing things to the limit in full confidence that the limit lay a good way beyond where it was supposed to be. After all, our heroes of days gone by had done the same.

For some of the songs I wrote the words first and then Pete wrote the music. For others Pete wrote the music first and then I wrote the words. In the majority of cases, as I remember, we worked together at the same time, repeatedly meeting and mutually modifying. “As I remember”, however, is a phrase that by now belongs in a song itself, because the truth is that I would be hard pressed to describe exactly how we did it. We wrote songs in Footlights and in the kitchen of the communal flat we inhabited at the Edinburgh Festival; and then in our walk-up flat in Swiss Cottage, and later on in Islington; and between studio dates for our London Weekend song-show series The Party’s Moving On, which has no doubt all been wiped; and even at Morgan Sound Studios, where Pete recorded his albums on budgets that wouldn’t have paid for the sandwiches the members of Yes ate while they clumped around on built-up clogs, we would be writing new songs in the bar.

Year after year, every song we wrote resolutely declined to be commercial. Val Doonican’s cover version of The Flowers And The Wine made more money than all our other efforts put together. Eventually we had to stop. But our songs, it turned out, had what we always hoped for them to have — a life of their own. Those marvellous people who bought them hung on to them, and now here they are again.

Listen to the songs