Interviews Musical Ramblings

Clive James – Coulda been a Contender

…and then there was the time that literary critic, author and TV personality Clive James could have been a pop/rock star. Paul Rigby remembers an interview with the great man who recently, sadly passed away

During recent years, we seem to have been losing a whole host of well known,  national figures. I’m writing this at the start of December 2019 and in November alone that meant Chef, Gary Rhodes and theatre director and writer (amongst many other activities) Jonathan Miller, who also past away. 

As a book lover I was sad to see the passing of Clive James, a superb literary critic, TV celebrity, author (his autobiographies are a delight) and (not too many people knew this but he did confide in me once) a bit of a whizz at the Tango.

I bet even fewer realised that he was also a music star. 

It’s true. Alongside his friend and colleague, Pete Atkin – top ex-BBC Radio producer, responsible for the likes of This Sceptred Isle, Week Ending and Just A Minute.

Clive James - Coulda been a Contender

Pete Atkin

Again, how many of you knew that some music critics still group both James & Atkin with contemporary luminaries such as Lennon & McCartney and Elton John & Bernie Taupin and have described their work as “poetic” and “sensitive”? How many knew that they created six nationally distributed albums, mostly on the major label, RCA?

Clive James presented his musical ability with honest candour. I was fortunate enough to talk to him. It must have been around what 10, 15 years ago or so that we chatted. I can’t really exactly when. I do remember that he viewed his musical prowess, with massive amounts of self-deprecation,  as, “…non-existent. I can’t play an instrument and I’m singularly devoid of musical gifts but I always loved it. I didn’t seriously start to listen to music until I was a teenager and then I started to listen to the hit parade in Australia. The hit parade was very important, we’re talking about the 40s and 50s now, before rock’n’roll, so the emphasis was on the ‘song’ as it where. There were always songs that I was learning: House Of Singing Bamboo, Talk To The Trees and so on. I always think of that wonderful Spike Milligan line ‘I talk to the trees/that’s why they sent me away’.” 

The creative affair began when Clive James and Pete Atkin met in Cambridge University. Atkin would lay the music over and sing Clive James’ lyrics. 

Clive James - Coulda been a Contender

“In Cambridge, Footlights (the forum for students to perform to a live audience) was very competitive,” remembered James, “we all did our own stuff. I immediately knew that Pete had a musical grip on the words. I figured that, if I stepped in with my lyrics, I’d stop him writing his. So that’s really why I kept the pressure up. I bombarded him with at least four lyrics or ideas for new lyrics a week for about 10 years.”

Within their work, Pete tended to do the singing. Clive had been known to ‘talk’ – in a Telly Savalas manner – one or two songs himself. Clive, however, tended to disagree, “I’ll tell you a secret, you’re the first to know, they’re not meant to be spoken tracks…I was singing. I’ve got a bit better since, I’ve had a bit of singing training in the last couple of years, to improve my breathing. I can now practically hold a tune now.”

It was on radio that initial public awareness occurred, with a song called Master Of The Rebels. Radio1 DJ, the late Kenny Everett, loved it.

Clive James - Coulda been a Contender

“Kenny was a big, big fan,” explained Clive, “He was playing it every time he came on the air. Unfortunately, he got fired that very week which was a blow to us as well as to him. But those were the breaks.”

Attachment to RCA didn’t lead to the supposed stardom that may, even should, have followed. The problem was that RCA had difficulty in categorising the pair, also single-lead artists garnered most of the attention so marketing support was nil. Clive James even found that, whilst on tour, shops had no records to offer prospective buyers. 

Clive James and Pete Atkin split, amicably, to pursue new careers because of a lack of funds and no faith in the record industry. “I started to feel guilty,” declared Clive. “We never made any money and I thought I was going to ensure Pete’s starvation. We both had families to feed. The way I saw it, Pete was staying poor because of me. We split and went into separate careers, Pete into radio, me into TV, we flourished and then the music caught up with us.” 

Clive James - Coulda been a Contender

Clive James might not have been considered a classic lyricist but his musical reputation has grown steadily over time. Whatever his position in musical history, Clive was sure of his feelings towards his musical past, “It’s turning out to be one of the most important things in my career but I always thought it was.”

If your interest is piqued at all, you can find recordings from the pair right now on Amazon such as this one or this or several others. There’s a host of CDs available. There’s even a book called Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin. 

Pete Atkin’s website is here : www.peteatkin.com

Click James’ site is here: www.clivejames.com

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