Pete Atkin

7th April 2022 - 8pm

PETE ATKIN was born in a non-university part of Cambridge in 1945.  He had some violin lessons at school, picked out tunes on his grandparents' piano, and formed a group with some mates to play mainly Shadows' and Ventures' instrumentals plus a few Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly songs.

Much to his own and almost everyone else's surprise he was offered a place at St John's College, and started discovering what the university was.  While he was there he joined the Footlights club in 1966, which produced comedy revues and cabarets, and where he met an Australian graduate student called Clive James.

1966 was a heyday-time for popular music, and Pete and Clive found they had a mutual enthusiasm for the idea of writing some songs together – Pete writing mostly the music and Clive writing mostly the words – and what they started then they carried on with for the rest of their lives.

Pete went on to make six LPs of their songs in the early nineteen-seventies, and to build up an audience for them by also recording lots of sessions for the John Peel Show on BBC Radio One, and by performing at folk clubs and colleges all over the country, mostly solo but sometimes with a band on tours to promote the new albums.

They never did have the hit record they always hoped for, though, and by the end of the seventies, Clive was famous as a journalist and critic, and about to be even more famous as a TV personality.   Pete joined BBC Radio as a comedy producer, which meant he was less able to gig regularly, but they never gave up on the songs.

In the mid-nineties, back in the earliest days of the internet and e-mail, Steve Birkill, one of their original fans, contacted them and started a website which was soon discovered by hundreds more of their original fans.   Steve organised a one-day festival in the Peak District in 1997 at which Pete played almost every song he and Clive had ever written.   In 1998, he booked Buxton Opera house, and got Pete and Clive together on stage again for the first time since 1975.   The Revival was under way.

Here's some of what Steve Birkill said in the Buxton Opera House programme:

These weren’t the average kind of 3-minute pop ditty… Defying categorisation, they fell awkwardly rockwards of jazz and popwards of folk – they weren’t any of those things – so the record shops never knew quite where to file the discs. Clive’s lyrics were poetic without being poetry, dazzlingly clever and witty without being fey or obscure, powerful and poignant, ironic and tragic, and meaningful without compromising their credibility as popular song. Pete’s tunes were driven by an offbeat ear for melody which took them through chord changes seldom heard in the rock idiom. But they worked, and they inspired a passionate devotion in those who heard them. The critics adored them, as did their fellow musicians; Atkin and James were compared by Charles Shaar Murray with the likes of Lennon and McCartney, Brooker and Reid, John and Taupin or Rodgers and Hart.

Between 1970 and 1975, Pete had become something of a cult figure, playing close on 300 gigs up and down the country, recording numerous sessions and guest appearances for radio and TV, and releasing those few albums and singles – they’ve since become collectors’ items, highly valued on the secondhand market, all the more so because fans have refused to part with them.

In the noughties, Pete and Clive put together an out-of-a-carrier-bag two-man show which they toured around the U.K. three times and once around Australia, in the course of which they started writing new songs, which Pete has since recorded.  

By 2010 Clive had unluckily accumulated his own personal collection of unwelcome medical conditions, which, as it turned out, meant that his song-writing energies were now devoted to writing a remarkable sequence of poems.  But although he wasn't writing any new songs, this didn't mean he'd lost interest in the existing songbook.  Far from it.  He could no longer get to Pete's gigs, but Pete visited him in his house in Cambridge and sometimes sang them for him.

Clive made it to his eightieth birthday, but that was as far as he could go.  He left behind him a bookcaseful of some of the very best, most entertaining writing of our time, and that includes a couple of hundred song lyrics.   Pete still sings these songs as often as he can.  If you get the chance to hear them, don't miss them.  They will astound you and move you and make you laugh.

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