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Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin

Ian Shircore
Red Door Publishing


From Fifty Years in the Racket

At the time of writing, Clive James is Britain's best-known living poet. With the possible exception of Roger McGough, whose early fame was greatly helped by having a Number 1 hit single with a pop group that included Paul McCartney's brother, he is just about the only poet whose status as a household name spans every household in the country.

It's a level of recognition poets like Wendy Cope, Andrew Motion and even the wonderful Carol Ann Duffy can only dream of. But these people are singleminded. Poetry is what they do. Clive has never been remotely singleminded. His fame is based on a vast range of tire­lessly productive creative activity. He has written serious poetry and bestselling memoirs, thoughtful literary criticism and a new translation of Dante to set alongside several decades of trenchant, informed and opinionated newspaper and radio journalism and a long string of hugely popular television chat shows and documentaries. By being everywhere, doing everything and refusing to pigeonhole his talents, he has become an inescapable part of our culture.

What he's not known for - beyond a small and passionate cult following - is his songwriting. The 200 or so songs co-written by Clive and his musical partner, Pete Atkin, are probably the least-known part of his creative output. And that's a shame, because this catalogue of wonders, built up over nearly half a century, includes some of his finest work.

Nobody loves a smart-arse, they told us. But it's not true. Some of us can't help being drawn to the flash and glitter of pyrotechnic wordplay, the knotted allusions and cross-references and exuberant technical ingenuity that show up in everything Clive writes, in poetry, prose or song. For us, it's about savouring the phrase, the idea, the image, the moment. Each stanza, paragraph or verse gives us something unexpected and unworn, thrown together with reckless energy in the laboratory of an extraordinary mind. When carping commentators accuse him of flaunting his erudition, dressing himself in false modesty and just plain showing off, the response surely has to be 'Yes, and...?'The man is unique, and he gives us unique pleasures, for which we are grateful.

When I first knew Pete and Clive, in the early 1970s, the songs were the thing. As each new album brought fresh and unpredictable joys — 'Touch Has a Memory' on Beware of the Beautiful Stranger, 'The Flowers and the Wine' on Driving Through Mythical America, 'Thirty Year Man' on A King at Nightfall and The Road of Silk's 'Senior Citizens', to pick just an arbitrary few - I was convinced that the James/Atkin partnership was on its way to fame and fortune. I was not alone. I saw the reaction as audiences heard these songs for the first time and instantly took them to their hearts. And I became in­creasingly aware that the songs were gaining influential fans, such as John Peel and Kenny Everett, whose enthusiasm would surely help them reach a broader public.

In the early volumes of his Unreliable Memoirs, Clive mentions veral times that he and Pete had a master plan. The way they saw it ack then, the songs they were writing would be the gold mine that nded everything else they wanted to do in their lives. But for that to ork, they would have to make a hit single of their own or, as seemed ore likely at the time, produce songs that other, better-known artists ould cover. That wouldn't make them household names, but it could tentially generate a stream of songwriting royalties.