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Pete Atkin


  1. 1.
    Beware of the Beautiful Stranger
  2. 2.
    Girl On The Train
  3. 3.
    Have You Got a Biro I Can Borrow
  4. 4.
    Touch Has a Memory
  5. 5.
    The Master of the Revels
In the early '70s, the songwriting partnership of Pete Atkin and Clive James was held in high esteem by the British music press, yet commercial success proved much more elusive.
Their unique attempt to fuse the discipline and craftsmanship of Tin Pan Alley with the self-expression of rock, while refusing to accept any limitation on what constituted appropriate subject matter for lyrics, inevitably set them on a collision course with their record companies' marketing departments. An Atkin-James album could embrace a brief encounter in a railway carriage, the Vietnam War, and the lot of an aging session musician, while James' points of reference took in the full panoply of art, cinema, literature, and poetry, sometimes leaving his work open to accusations of being wordy and pretentious. In its own way, Atkin's music was just as erudite, drawing on every form of popular music from show tunes through folk, jazz, and rock. Both words and music, then, were no match for the blistering anti-elitism of punk when it arrived, and after six albums the partnership succumbed before the irresistible union of record company indifference and the Clash.
The pair first met in 1966 as members of the Cambridge Footlights Revue that spawned so much British comedy talent, from the satire of Beyond the Fringe to the surrealism of Monty Python. (It was this connection that would later result in Atkin and James being invited to perform alongside the likes of John Cleese and Peter Cook at various Amnesty International benefits, subsequently released on DVD under the Secret Policeman's Ball titles.) James, recently emigrated from Australia, was a postgraduate student, six years older than Atkin, and already acquiring a reputation as something of a guru among the younger students.
Though they managed to finance a couple of private recordings of their earliest songs, it wasn't until 1970 that a full-fledged record emerged in the form of Beware of the Beautiful Stranger. In fact, the album had been recorded as a collection of demos to showcase the pair's talents as songwriters for other artists, but producer Don Paul was a friend of popular BBC DJ Kenny Everett, who took a shine to the album's opening track and began playing it on daytime Radio 1. As a result, Philips agreed to issue the album as it stood, and Atkin's career as a recording artist was launched. Later that same year, fellow student and subsequent Evita star Julie Covington released an album composed almost exclusively of Atkin-James songs called The Beautiful Changes.
Though Everett's heavy rotation of "Master of the Revels" would normally have guaranteed success, British record-buyers were having none of it. By the time the pair's second album, the more rock-oriented Driving Through Mythical America, arrived in 1971, their beyond-the-mainstream status was confirmed. On their final album in 1975, Atkin and James opted to close their RCA contract with an album mainly composed of mildly scurrilous send-ups of artists like Leonard Cohen ("Doom from a Room") and James Taylor ("Sheer Quivering Genius"). James even made his vocal debut with a spoof of the irksome Telly Savalas hit "If" (mercifully omitted from the CD reissue). Amusing though it seemed at the time, it nevertheless made for an unfortunate swan song. Exhausted by all the ceaseless wrangling with RCA, Atkin went on to find a new career in radio production with the BBC, though he continued to make the odd appearance in small folk clubs.
Meanwhile James quickly became one of the most familiar figures on British television, where his lacerating wit and coruscating wordplay secured him a seemingly endless sequence of programs tailored to his unique style, before he finally quit in the late '90s. A prodigiously gifted writer, James also excelled as a novelist, essayist, critic, and poet. His weekly column for The Observer during the late '70s virtually established TV criticism as an art form in itself, while the first volume of his frequently hilarious autobiography -- Unreliable Memoirs -- became a critically acclaimed bestseller.
And there the story might have ended were it not for the Internet and a nostalgic fan named Steve Birkill. His Smash Flops website launched in 1997 not only reminded aging fans how much they'd enjoyed Pete Atkin's records, but prompted Atkin to start performing in earnest again. Soon he was joined by James, whose appearances guaranteed much larger attendances. Many members of the audience, though, were doubtless totally unaware of James' earlier career as a lyricist, and were often to be heard wondering who that chap on-stage with him was. But Atkin certainly acquired many more new fans as a result.
Another consequence was the long-overdue CD reissue of Atkin's back catalog, a small selection of which had been previously available only on a rather slapdash compilation called Touch Has a Memory. For older fans, however, the big question was whether Atkin would resume where he'd left off decades earlier. The answer came in 2001, when he began by releasing a pair of albums called The Lakeside Sessions, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, which featured newly recorded versions of many songs left over from the '70s. Yet the composing partnership was finally renewed in 2003 with the release of an album of brand-new material called Winter/Spring. While no radical departure from their original work, it found James newly determined to pare his lyrics to the bone and Atkin sometimes adopting a funkier style informed by his beloved Steely Dan. ~ Christopher Evans, Rovi


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