Poetry: The Word -- interview, podcast | clivejames.com
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The Word — interview & podcast

The Word's Kate Mossman interviewed Clive James and Pete Atkin for their April 2008 issue, but at some point before publication the editors decided that Pete Atkin was a name not well enough known, so cut out his contribution, replacing his words by those of one Amanda Ghost. Pete kindly supplied me with a transcript of his own comments, which in 2008 I included on Pete’s Website under the above header. I have now (2020) transcribed the published version for our clivejames.com archive, reinstating Pete's replies in place of those of Ms Ghost — SJB

In their 40-year pursuit of a hit, what have Clive James and Pete Atkin learned about songwriting?

Clive James met Pete Atkin in the Cambridge Footlights in the mid-’60s and made six albums in the ’70s, Clive writing the lyrics and Pete the music. Their biggest successes were covers by Julie Covington ands Val Doonican. They’ve just reunited to put out a selection of old songs re-recorded, Midnight Voices.

What’s the best piece of advice about songwriting anyone’s ever given you?

Once I heard a record producer say that in a popular song there should be a hook even before you hear the first words, and then there should be one hook after another until the end. There should be an immediate impact no matter how subtle the thing gets. I can’t remember who the producer was, but he put it well. Then he climbed into a very large Rolls-Royce.

Nobody ever gave me any advice. Somebody might have said “Don’t do it — there are enough songs already”, but I wouldn’t have paid any attention to that. When people asked him about writing thrillers, Raymond Chandler said you always have to find your own answers. And you have to find them again each time. So Clive and I probably don’t offer much of an example to anyone else.

But that producer’s thing about the string of hooks is dead right, even though it probably applies more to making records than to writing the songs themselves. The great hits all have it. One of my favourite examples is the Four Seasons’ Silver Star (the long version, not that dreadful for-airplay edit). For me it’s a whole sequence of miracle moments, each detail triggering anticipation of the next in the memory, all the way through the half-time middle bit, then after the fast tempo returns, all the way to the orgasmic French horn near the end. But although that is about arrangement and production, the principle’s good, in any kind of writing, probably. The biggest sin is to bore people. Your first duty is always to keep the audience interested.

How do you marry the words and music if a different person writes each?

Some of the most effective songs ever were written by pairs or teams of writers, so I don’t think either of us ever saw it as a potential difficulty. In any case, the aim is always to make the words and the music finally inseparable, so that you can’t see the words on the page without hearing the tune in your head — “I read the news today, oh boy...”, “Rule, Britannia...”, “How long has this been going on?” (Hah! That’s a trick one, of course, and a dilemma for anyone equally familiar with the Gershwin song and the Paul Carrack one) — and so that you can’t hear the tune without the words permanently attached to it. It’s that locked-in-ness that makes the ‘One Song To The Tune Of Another’ round in I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue so funny.

But how you achieve it is one of the great mysteries. Instinct, really. I’m always aware as I’m writing the music that when I sing the finished song, I’m going to have to try to convince the audience, on some level at any rate, that I’m making the whole thing up right there and then. It’s a bit like acting, in a way, trying to convince the audience that the words are occurring to you as you speak. I guess it is a kind of acting.

I usually start out by trying to get as deeply inside the lyric as I can, getting rhythmic melodic ideas from the words themselves — and then sometimes going in a different direction altogether if that seems too obvious. Usually it’s getting the rhythm right that unlocks it, that makes the whole thing crystallize. But then getting the music right for one bit of a lyric sometimes puts different demands on other parts of the song, and, as Clive says, that’s when the collaborative process really begins. It’s often hard to explain what I feel these musical demands to be, and Clive often has to take quite a lot on trust. But the collaboration is the key. It’s another one of the other great mysteries. There’s no question that collaboration prods me into having musical ideas I’d never have come up with working on my own.

What’s the difference in approach between writing a song about your own lives and a song intended for someone else to sing?

I don’t think these two categories exclude each other. In this form, as in any other form, I write as Everyman, so theoretically any man can sing the finished song. The challenge is to write as Everywoman, a task which needs not just different wording but different feeling. But we’ve tried never to exclude the possibility that some madly famous singer will want to cover a few of our songs and make us shedloads of money. But our main aim is to create a song that sings all by itself, for keeps

I’m pretty sure that writing as part of a team tends to steer you away from even attempting to write more personal, confessional kind of songs, knowing that your words are going to be coming out of someone else’s mouth. That doesn’t stop you writing out of your own experience — you can never avoid that — but it may help to keep a certain kind of emotional self-indulgence in check.

Which are the emotions that are most worth trawling for inspiration: guilt, rage, love, loss, remorse, sorrow?

All of the above, with the exception of rage, which I can’t handle as a lyricist. Male cruelty to women angers me until I can’t breathe, but the three things I have written about honour crimes have all been poems, not lyrics. Music multiplies rage to rant, in my experience. As for the most fruitful emotion, it is definitely lost love, which has been the biggest theme in songwriting since the beginning of time. We’ve written the occasional thing about found love, but always on the understanding that happiness — as the old adage has it — writes white.

What kick-starts the songwriting process? A phrase? An image seen from a train window? A chord sequence?

For me it’s always a phrase; quite often somthing I hear in the street. All lyricists raid that source constantly. “What’s love got to do with it?” is something anyone might say. But it took a musician to realise that repeating the phrase “got to do” a couple of times would express the turbulent doubt underlying the apparently confident assertion. Noel Coward realised that the perfectly ordinary spoken sentence, “I’ll see you again,” would take on new and intimate life if he displaced the musical stress unexpectedly on to the word “you”. Read it and it’s nothing. Hear it sung and it’s everything. That’s what you’re after: the transformation.

I have notebooks full of phrases, words and music, mostly just isolated snatches, all of which on the instant made me think “There might be a song there”. Sometimes it’s just a rhythmic phrase, sometimes melodic. But almost never a chord sequence. The harmony comes last. And it’s the element most likely still to change up to the point where the song is finished — or at least abandoned and left to go its own way.

Quote us an example of the lyrics that you feel proud of...

There are times, usually as I’m actually singing one of the songs, when a phrase suddenly hits me with a freshness that takes me aback, usually one of the most conversational kind: “There seems to be no talk of me and you” (Payday Evening), “When, in a later day...” (Touch Has A Memory), “When you see what can’t be helped go by with bloody murder in its eye...” (The Faded Mansion On The Hill). But different ones every time.

I’ve lost track of the number of times when in the course of my rent-paying activities (mostly producing radio programmes) I’ve been working with someone who eventually says, ‘Oh, you’re that Pete Atkin!’ and immediately quotes something from one of the songs. And it’s always a different line. You never know what’s going to grab someone.

And a couplet you’d go back and change if you could.

Going back and re-recording some of the old songs for this new CD has given us the opportunity to tweak a few things. There’s one in The Faded Mansion On The Hill, for instance: Clive asked me to change “believe” in the original to “retrieve”, because it was rhymed with “leave”, and once you’ve noticed that it’s a homophone rather than a true rhyme, you’re well into sore thumb territory and you can’t hear anything else. Well, he can’t, and neither can I. More than that, I think it makes it a better line.

The things I myself would choose to change are rarely so specific. They’re more often to do with tempos and rhythms. When you make a record, you’re always keenest to record your newest stuff. But sometimes a song would benefit from being performed live a few times in order to settle into a natural groove. That happened with the original album version of I See The Joker. After playing it on tour with a band, it changed radically and for once I had the chance to re-record it as a single (John Peel chose it as one of his singles of the year in 1974, one of my proudest moments.)

My approach to many of the songs has changed a lot over thirty years or more of singing them. I hardly ever refer back to the old recordings, so when we came to record them again it was quite a shock in some cases to realise how much. But some of the new versions are essentially hardly any different at all, except that I think I can now sometimes sing them with a bit more understanding than I did originally, and with Simon Wallace playing piano instead of me the musicianship level has gone up no end. (Not that the other musicians weren’t great — often sensationally so — on the old records.)

But there were other reasons for making these new versions. I have no ownership or any control whatever over those original recordings, the six LPs I made in the 1970s, and their availability on CD has been patchy at best; but we’re still proud of these songs, and confident enough from live reactions and from online sales that they still work well for a current audience, so I wanted them at least to be easily accessible.

Can you tell us which songwriters do you most admire, and why?

I spent a lot of time deriding Leonard Cohen until he wrote Everybody Knows. On the other hand, Johnny Mercer rarely wrote a negligible lyric, or Cole Porter a dull one. I could go on with this answer forever. When a friend sent me Carla Bruni’s first album, on which all the lyrics are in French, I started listening with some scepticism, but I was soon making plans to marry her. She has since chosen the President of France.

Yup, too many. And for too many different reasons. Sometimes a single phrase is enough to make me forgive an otherwise dullish song. But then again sometimes a clunky phrase is enough to make an otherwise pretty good song unlistenable for me. And then sometimes a song is great enough for me to forgive it the odd clunk (like for instance when [Tom Waits] rhymes ‘eye’ with ‘eye’ in Heart Of Saturday Night).

But hey, here goes, a bunch of particular favourites off the top of my head, just for starters: Robert Johnson (and, yes, I do consider him to be probably the first great rock songwriter), Rodgers and Hart (the first songs that made me cry), Buddy Holly (hooks all the way and beautiful, perfect, simple structures), Goffin and King (the pop ideal), Brian Wilson (staggering invention), Becker and Fagen (I sing quite a few of their things for my own amusement — Razor Boy, Deacon Blues), the Barenaked Ladies (for me they’re among the Beatles’ truest inheritors), Oscar Brown, Jr. (showed me wider possibilities early on), Joe Henry (just because the Civilians songs are rolling around my head at the moment). Loads of others. Don’t take any omission from that list to be significant. I did say it was just for starters.

How do you avoid stealing from the songwriters you listen to the most?

Only by remembering what they did. Conscious knowledge is the only safeguard against unconscious plagiarism. You really don’t want to fool yourself into believing that a figure of speech like “I heard it through the grapevine” hasn’t already attracted someone else’s attention.

I always remember Paul McCartney talking about having just written Yesterday and how he played it to people and kept asking “Is that something else? Did I steal it?” I have huge sympathy with that. But the people whose work I admire the most (assuming they’re not downright inimitable, like Randy Newman, for instance) are at a sufficiently high level of my constant awareness that alarm bells ring early if I’m at risk of nicking from them. It’s the people and songs that I admire a bit — but perhaps not all that much — which demand the greatest vigilance. There are only twelve notes, after all.

What’s the most perfect song ever written?

Ian Dury singing his wonderful Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. As a rich complement to its driving rhythm, it has a text clever enough to turn any other lyricist bright green. You can actually see and hear him singing it on YouTube right now.

The Podcast

The Word writes: Pete Atkin and Clive James began writing songs together at Cambridge in the mid-60s. In the first half of the 70s they made a series of albums for RCA that were the definition of cult success. That means they didn’t pay enough money to feed anyone but nonetheless endeared themselves to a small constituency vocal enough to make sure they weren’t entirely forgotten. In the late 70s they pursued individual careers — Atkin as a radio producer, James as TV’s licensed jester — but remained in touch.

In this latest podcast from our Backstage series, they talk to David Hepworth about the career they almost had and the digital miracle that brought it all back. Their newest release is called ‘Clive & Pete — Live In Australia’ because that’s what it is. This conversation also includes a dilation on the iambic pentameter in popular song, the powerful pull of live performance, the bizarre way the record business operates and the lavatory joke that has sustained James’s career for the best part of forty years. You can stream the podcast below or, even better, subscribe directly or via iTunes for free so that future podcasts from our “Backstage” stream wing their way to your desktop.

New podcast featuring Clive James and Pete Atkin on their forty-year songwriting partnership.
Posted by David Hepworth on 6 October 2008