|Born||22 August 1945|
|Instruments||Vocals, guitar, keyboards|
|Labels||EMI, Essex Music, RCA|
|Associated acts||Clive James,
Pete Atkin (born 22 August 1945) is a British singer-songwriter and radio producer notable for his 1970s musical collaborations with Clive James and for producing the BBC Radio 4 series This Sceptred Isle.
Born in Cambridge on 22 August 1945, Atkin attended Romsey County Primary School and The Perse School, where he learnt to play the violin. In 1959 he formed a church youth club band called The Chevrons for whom he played piano with four schoolfriends. He studied Classics and English at Cambridge University where he was a member of St John's College. In 1966 he joined Cambridge Footlights, for whom he became the musical director of the revues.
Atkin made his first recording in 1967: a private pressing of 160 copies of While The Music Lasts. Next year he was taken to EMI with Julie Covington to record the most popular number from the 1967 Revue Show: the complex Duet, which had appeared on his first album. At six minutes, it was too long to be a single and has never received commercial release; the tape has since been lost. Atkin released another privately pressed album in 99 copies entitled The Party's Moving On in 1969.
Essex Music funded the recording of fourteen tracks in 1969. The producer, Don Paul, was a friend of the disc jockey Kenny Everett, who played, amongst others, the song Master Of The Revels which is the first track on his first album Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger. The lyrics to this, and all but two of the other tracks on the album, by Atkin, were written by Clive James who met Atkin whilst they were both members of Footlights.
Before the release of Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger in 1970 Atkin, Covington and Dai Davies recorded a series of twelve 15-minute programmes edited by James for London Weekend Television. These shows, also called The Party's Moving On, each featured three songs and were broadcast only in London late at night. They led to the commissioning of the larger revue format series What Are You Doing After The Show?
Atkin did, and still does, write his own lyrics, but it was the collaboration with Clive James that produced his most famous songs. Pete Atkin and Clive James recorded six albums in the 1970s, as well as writing an album for Julie Covington, best known for her number one hit Don't Cry For Me Argentina in 1976. However, despite Atkin's popularity on the college performance circuit the records did not sell in any great numbers. When singer Val Doonican recorded a cover version of the song "The Flowers and the Wine" the royalties from that alone exceeded the total from all album sales. For Atkin, touring provided a respectable but not luxurious income.
The release of the fourth album, "The Road of Silk" was accompanied by a promotional tour with a backing band featuring the guitarist Chris Spedding, in contrast to Atkin's usual solo tours. Despite the investment this implied, Atkin and James became increasingly dissatisfied with their handling by their record label, RCA. After the release of the next album "Secret Drinker" they had no wish to continue the relationship, and to fill their contractual obligations they concocted the album "Live Libel", a collection of humour pieces which Atkin had used over the years to lighten the mood in concerts. Paradoxically this album resulted in their most successful tour to date, as Clive James joined Pete Atkin on stage for an evening of song, satire and poetry. Clive James read from the first of his epic poetic satires, "The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media" while Pete Atkin sang songs from the latest release and previous favourites.
To their dismay, the offers from other record labels did not flow in after the tour ended. Clive James returned to his blossoming career, while Atkin, after trying to make a living as a carpenter, responded to a Situation Vacant notice from the BBC, and thus embarked on the next phase of his career.
James' lyrics were far from mainstream popular music, being frequently dense with poetic references. At their most accessible they might describe the life of a machine tool shop supervisor, as in Carnations on the Roof. A song such as My Egoist, in contrast, is translated almost entirely from a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire. Other references include Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies and William Shakespeare's sonnets.
Atkin's musical settings drew most of their inspiration from Tin Pan Alley, although in the above mentioned Carnations on the Roof he set a somber description of a working class life to themes characteristic of Tamla Motown. Often Atkin turned James' intentions upside down, as with The Last Hill That Shows You All The Valley, which James wrote as a dirge but which Atkin set to a thumping, angry rock beat. The combination worked as James' mournful cataloguing of man's inhumanity to man became a cry of protest.
A sonnet in French by Gérard de Nerval, El Desdichado, which begins "Je suis le ténébreux, le veuf" (roughly I am the shadowy man, the widower), inspired two separate lyrics by James, one of which was The Shadow and the Widower, an interior dialogue reflecting on a failed romance as a man wanders home through a sterile urban landscape. The same poem, coincidentally, was set to music and performed by Flanders and Swann. A detailed breakdown of the references within this song (and several others) can be found on Pete Atkin's website.
After this James became a well-known television personality and Atkin became a radio producer. Their music catalog went out of print until all six original albums were re-released on CD in the 1990s.
In 1976 Atkin's recording contract with RCA Records expired and he concentrated on renovating his house and building furniture for other people. He also wrote columns on DIY for the UK environmentalist magazine Vole. Chris Parr of the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh commissioned Atkin to write a musical play for their Festival season in 1977. The result was A & R, which was substantially re-written for a 1978 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Donmar Warehouse in London where it ran for six months in repertory.
In 1981 Atkin succeeded Griff Rhys Jones as BBC Radio Light Entertainment Producer. He subsequently became a Script Editor in 1983 and Chief Producer, Radio 4 in 1986. His productions included Just a Minute, My Word!, My Music, Week Ending, Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful (written by Guy Jenkin and Jon Canter, and starring Martin Jarvis), After Henry (by Simon Brett with Prunella Scales, Joan Sanderson, Ben Whitrow, and Gerry Cowper), Second Thoughts, Christopher Lee's The House, Flying The Flag, Peter Tinniswood's Uncle Mort's North Country, Jarvis's Frayn, My Grandfather, Martin Jarvis reading Richmal Crompton's Just William stories, and Yes Minister.
Atkin moved to Bristol in 1989 to be Head of BBC Network Radio there. After four years in post, he became a freelance producer in 1993. His most notable freelance production is This Sceptr'd Isle — a 216-part specially commissioned history of Britain, written by historian Christopher Lee and read by Anna Massey, Paul Eddington, Peter Jeffrey, and others (including Atkin himself under a pseudonym), recorded and broadcast over 14 months in 1995 and 1996. It was re-edited for release on ten BBC double cassettes and won the 1996 Talkie Award for best non-fiction, best design, and Talkie of the Year. Atkin also worked as script editor for Hat Trick Productions, as part of their sitcom and drama development team.
In 2005 Atkin provided the voice of Mr. Crock in the animated movie "Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit". He also received a "special consultant" credit for the movie "Chicken Run" (2000), which was created and produced by the same studios, Aardman Animations. Both Aardman and Pete Atkin are based in Bristol.
In 2001, 2003 and 2005 Atkin and James undertook national tours of the UK talking about, reading and singing, their songs, poetry and prose. In 2003 the duo also toured Australia. Atkin has also performed occasional concerts in folk clubs.
The revival, however, dates back to 1996 when Steve Birkill, an electronics entrepreneur and satellite television pioneer, approached Atkin at a concert and asked permission to create a website celebrating his work. Pete provided a good deal of background information for this, and along with the usual fansite materials, there was a mailing list to which the interested and the curious could subscribe. Unusually Birkill elected to distribute the messages manually rather than relying on an electronic mailing list such as majordomo. He named the list "Midnight Voices" from the lyric of the song "Payday Evening".
Birkill also invited Atkin to headline a local folk festival he supported in Monyash, Derbyshire. On the strength of Atkin's performance and the response to it, not to mention Atkin himself realizing he still had an audience, this was repeated the following year, with accompanying performance CD releases by subscription. The second show also featured a tribute band, a varying cast of amateur players under the rubric of "The Beautiful Changers" whose performance was at least enthusiastic. Consensus among the Midnight Voices was that the shows should be an annual event. Later versions of the show used small theater or school hall venues, with other professional artists invited to perform as well.
At the 2000 show, Atkin announced that the music conglomerate BMG, which had acquired the RCA catalogue and rights, had finally released the master recordings for the final four of his albums. They were subsequently re-released on CD in the same fashion as the first two, whose rights had been owned by a different company.
Atkin then recorded The Lakeside Sessions—a double CD of new recordings of some of the Atkin/James songs which never made it onto vinyl the first time round. The CD Winter Spring is made up entirely of new material co-written with James. His latest CD "Midnight Voices" made with Simon Wallace consists of reworkings of 15 songs originally written and released in the seventies. It is available from Hillside Music's website only in 2007 but set for a wider release in 2008. The title is in part a tribute to the "virtual and actual group of friends and aficionados" i.e. Steve Birkill and the other members of the Midnight Voices discussion group.
In 2002 the electronic music outfit Lemon Jelly used a guitar sample from The Pearl Driller (from Driving Through Mythical America album) as part of the Nice Weather For Ducks.
The Midnight Voices mailing list has now been replaced by an online discussion forum with multiple subject areas.
Most of this article is derived from Atkin's own sleeve notes or from the sources listed here. Where the source may not be clear it has been included as a comment that is visible in Edit mode.
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