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Clive James 1939-2019

Clive James 2

At school I was in a folk group with two chaps called Ian Taylor and Jeff Minson. Ian had the looks and the voice, Jeff had a 12-string guitar, and I just tagged along. When was this? Well, one Saturday afternoon we paused our rehearsal at Jeff’s parents’ house to watch the transmission of the very first episode of Dr Who. (Another clue: the coffee bar we played at was called the Jules et Jim.) Eventually Ian went up to Cambridge, where he joined the Footlights. In 1970 he invited me to one of their performances at the Hampstead Theatre Club, and that’s where I met another member of the troupe, the singer-songwriter Pete Atkin, and his lyricist, a talkative Australian called Clive James.

Clive died on Sunday. He and I once joked that we should start a club for people who had voluntarily stepped down from presenting a BBC television series; the two of us would be the only eligible members. But a couple of years later he returned to the small screen and went on to a fame far beyond that which he earned from his wonderful weekly TV reviews in the Observer.

He did a lot of stuff, and sometimes he overdid it, but what will last for me are some of his more serious poems — such “Japanese Maple”, the one in which, writing in 2014, he foresaw his own death — and a handful of his lyrics. The latter could be archly funny, like “The Only Wristwatch for a Drummer”:

The Omega Incabloc Oyster Acutron ’72 / Without this timepiece there’d have been no bebop to begin with. / Bird and Diz were tricky men to sit in with / Max Roach still wears the watch he wore when bop was new. / Elvin Jones has two and Buddy Rich wears three, / One on the right wrist and one on the left / And the third one around his knee.

A number of his lyrics were about musicians, always informed by his huge reservoir of knowledge and an understanding of the condition of, for instance, a session man or a pianist accompanying a torch singer. Above all, he knew how to draw popular culture into the art songs he and Pete wrote together. For me, their magnum opus was the title song of the 1971 album Driving Through Mythical America, in which James imagined the four students shot dead by the National Guard during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University the previous year hurtling to their tragic destiny through the landscape of the American imagination: Baby Face and Rosebud, Moose Molloy and Herman Kahn, Norman Rockwell and FDR, Jersey Joe and the Kansas City Seven. Being Clive James, he even chose their cars with precision: a Studebaker Golden Hawk and a Nash Ambassador.

James and Atkin took a high-risk approach to singer-songwriter music in the early ’70s. The combination of music, lyrics and voice didn’t always work. But it was a risk worth taking, and it still has an audience.

* The photograph is taken from Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James & Pete Atkin by Ian Shircore, published in 2016 by RedDoor.

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mark Kidel #

    Great piece!

    November 27, 2019
  2. Nice story. I have Clive James’s novel “Brrm! Brrm!” and I have kept on picking it up and kept on putting it down for years and years! Not sure why I never sit down and read it from beginning to end. Maybe now is the right occasion!

    November 27, 2019
  3. Phil Brown #

    Beautifully put. There something about the tone of the whole “mythical america” album that still gets to me. And that phrase “there isn’t much a target needs to know” still resonates . I agree about Japanese Maple too

    November 27, 2019
  4. Jeremy Pymer #

    The songs of James and Atkin for me stand alongside those of Dylan and Van Morrison, in that they were original and so different. Both words and music stay with you, teach you, enrich you, through all your life. Ephemeral they’re not, and that is their true worth.

    November 27, 2019
  5. Jeffrey Farrell #

    A glorious obituary. He will be missed.

    November 27, 2019
  6. billysmart #

    As well as the six seventies Pete Atkin LPs, Atkin and James also wrote most of Julie Covington’s first (1971) album, ‘The Beautiful Changes’, a great favourite of mine. Given the enviable challenge of writing for so accomplished a singer with such a radiant voice as their old Cambridge Footlights colleague, James’ lyrics particularly soar in these songs, I think. ‘The Magic Wasn’t There’ conveys complex reflections about the nature of memory and being in a way that seems simple, while the heartbreaking ‘If I Had My Time Again’ feels like a song that has already been around for decades – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMKk8jiytvM

    November 27, 2019
  7. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    Thanks for a fine tribute to Clive James, and his wonderful partnership with Pete Atkin. ‘Driving Through Mythical America’ and its immediate successor, ‘A King At Nightfall’, are albums that I have much affection for, not only for the marvellous songs that Clive James and Pete Atkin crafted together but for the fine musicians that played on them. These included the great Chris Spedding on guitar; what a nice touch, then, that he should appear on a number of the tracks on what turned out to be their last collaboration, the album ‘The Colours of the Night’, which includes a superb reading of ‘The Beautiful Changes’.

    Pete Atkin will, I am sure, continue to keep these songs alive at the occasional gigs he plays, with Simon Wallace on piano, at venues such as The Pheasantry in Chelsea.

    November 28, 2019
  8. GuitarSlinger #

    Never read his work ( shame on ME !! ) But from the article in the NYTimes and this it looks like its about ( explicative ) I do !

    As worldly wise and polymath as I am it never ceases to amaze me the amount of significant work that manages to pass under my radar … only to pop up and smack me in the face .. begging the question … how’d that one slip past me ?

    Sigh .. oh well … the joys of choosing to continue learning rather than remaining stagnant as age sets in

    November 28, 2019
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Anyone willing to offer a good starting point ( or three ) into the books of Mr James ?

      November 29, 2019
      • billysmart #

        I should think that ‘Unreliable Memoirs’, the first volume of autobiography about his childhood would be the book most likely to be read with interest and pleasure centuries hence, when no-one will know who Clive James was. Beyond that, you should find some things of interest in whichever of the many volumes of criticism you come across and there are the subsequent volumes of the memoirs.

        Reading Paul Tickell’s post reminds me that the (now long after the event) satirical verse and the novels are probably the books that you’d least want to investigate.

        December 2, 2019
      • All of this probably answers why I kept on picking up and putting down his brief novel “Brmm, Brmm!”

        December 2, 2019
    • GuitarSlinger #

      The NTTimes obit for anyone interested . Its fairly .. comprehensive ;

      November 29, 2019
  9. Colin Harper #

    I love some of his writing – his anthologies of TV criticism and most of the memoirs. I’ve only heard bits and pieces of the work with Pete Atkin. It generally feels ‘admirable’ rather than ‘enjoyable’ to me, but that’s just me. I wasn’t there at the time. That said, I discovered a few months back that I had Pete & Clive’s first ever BBC radio session on an inherited off-air reel, and it’s beguiling. No idea if these songs were performed on their records in the same arrangements, but they’re fabulous – string quartet, wind ensemble, rhythm section. No popping in to Maida Vale with a guitar and busking it… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqjkDvzebBE

    November 28, 2019
    • Jeremy Pymer #

      Hi Colin

      Steve Birkill, who founded the Pete Atkin “Smash Flops” website and Midnight Voices Forum for Atkin/James fans, kick starting the revival of interest in the songs, which led to new material being written and released, along with a double album of previously unreleased material, not to mention UK tours and one of Australia by the pair, would be very interested to hear of your inherited recording. He may already have one (I haven’t checked the website but he is a completist) but would you mind if I asked him about this?

      If he doesn’t have one, would you be open to sending a copy to him? If so, perhaps we can arrange off line contact via Blue Moment.

      Jeremy Pymer

      November 28, 2019
      • Colin Harper #

        He can easily find me online, Jeremy. If he and/or Pete Atkin want the WAV file of what I put on YouTube they can have it.

        November 28, 2019
      • Jeremy Pymer #

        Wow! Many thanks Colin.

        Best,

        Jeremy

        November 29, 2019
  10. Russell Cartwright #

    James’ early career is overlooked in the obits. As well as a lyricist – inevitably I came across Atkin via Peel – he began his criticism in ‘Let It Rock’. I recall him comparing the Beatles’ writing with Schubert. And billy smart is right about the Julie Covington LP who I also think was in Footlights.

    November 28, 2019
  11. Paul Tickell #

    Oner of the great things about the Blue Moment blog is that over the years it has made me re-assess quite a few reputations – as well of course as introducing me to artists I was not acquainted with. However, having re-visited some of James’s work, I feel pretty much the same as I did over 40 years ago.

    I never much liked him in any of his spheres of activity. I found his obsession with the Japanese sinister rather than hilarious, his humour itself forced and his lyrics studied. As for his more literary output: beyond the no-nonsense wild post-colonial boy persona, it was the same old middle-brow sensibility beloved of the British establishment. Fitting then, as far as I was concerned, that The Sex Pistols should have given him such a hard time at the Granada TV studios in Manchester when they were recording a Tony Wilson So It Goes in 1976.

    James now looks very square and out of place on this series if you check out the So It Goes clips on You Tube. E.g. his take on the music press is the sub-culture as seen through the eyes of some Oxbridge clever-clogs imported from Light Entertainment.

    The Pistols were not the only ones to have a go at James at the time. One critic made the pointe that, whatever its qualities as light verse, the satirical poetry only ever took on easy targets, and had little interest in savaging the powerful.

    When James wasn’t telling you about how many languages he had learned and how many books he had read, he wrote about them. These literary essays are for me the most depressing aspect of his work. He has very little of interest to say, re-cycling in more combative journalistic prose the received wisdom of middle of the road academia and of bourgeois literary London. E,g. he has nothing to say that has not been said before about the great Mexican poet, intellectual and politician Octavio Paz but that does not stop him from ‘churning one out’ on Paz. It is is an exercise not an essay.

    Finally, ‘Driving Through Mythical America’, as an example of the Atkin-James songwriting team: for me it is a problem that Atkin is not just tuneless and flat but that his voice is so inexpressive. I find the song itself highly dubious. The lyrics use the deaths of four students to get off on presenting a series of half-Studebaked slices of Americana. It feels like a very self-conscious B movie seen from a comfy armchair miles away from the action and from the horror of state troopers shooting four protesting students. As an antidote to its smug fantasy I had to go and listen to the ‘real’ thing – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s ‘Ohio’. And even better: listen to The Isley Brothers’ version which segues into ‘Machine Gun’. I don’t imagine that the The Isleys in particular would have much time for what sounds like two white professors droning on about a mythical America when blood and brains are on the ground.

    December 2, 2019
    • And the Blue Moment Comment of the Year Award* for 2019 goes to… Paul Tickell on Clive James! An interesting and provocative take, whether you agree or not.. (*just invented by me for the occasion; may not reappear)

      December 2, 2019
    • Jeremy Pymer #

      Hi Paul

      Guess you feel better having got that off your chest. James is open to a good deal of criticism, as any writer is. But his fault main fault – a bit of a smart arse from time to time – didn’t diminish his ability to produce imagery of pure lucid beauty and precision, or to write about difficult subjects. I wouldn’t class anything from the Sex Pistols as worthy of the name of criticism, however. What makes you feel that CSN&Y were nearer the action (re Driving Through Mythical America) in more than a geographical sense? And I doubt James’s theme about mythical America would be lost on the Isley Brothers or any other American of colour – after all, that myth and all the iconography of which it is redolent, and which James puts into the song to demonstrate it, is precisely what those people, as well as the four dead students, have suffered from all along.

      December 2, 2019
      • GuitarSlinger #

        Kent State ? Myth anD iconography ? Sorry mate but Kent State and every word written about it including ” Ohio” is Fact … not Fiction or elaborated truth

        December 2, 2019
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Hmmm … well good sir .. your rather extensive and erudite comment has me seriously reassessing both the glowing post mortem reviews’ obits etc of Mr James’s works as well as the need for me to take the time and effort to read his writings . So .. perhaps I’ll leave Mr James to hat evals of history … continuing on without him

      In as far as Neil Young’s ” Ohio ” ( CSNY recorded it but Neil’s the one who wrote it almost immediately after the Kent State massacre ) being closer to the ground as Mr Pymer challenges you on ?

      Suffice it to say of CSNY Neil and David had their ears to the ground witnessing much of what was going on first hand and more often than not being part of the resistance of the 60’s 70’s

      December 2, 2019

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