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Things I Have Learned

Clive James On Rock Music - And Why It Must Be Turned Down
Joel McIver , May 26th, 2009 05:32

On the eve of the reissue of his six albums from the 1970s (recorded with song-writing partner Pete Atkin) Polymath James talks us through rock – and why it needs to be turned down from 11. As told to Joel McIver

I hated punk rock

I just couldn't listen to it. Later on, when I did listen to it, I found that there were a few things there. I hated the noisemakers. I still hate the noisemakers. I always thought they should turn it down a notch. I always think that excessive noise is a sign of inadequate music. Some of the amplifiers go up to 11, as Spinal Tap said, and you can't hear what's going on if it's played too loud. I like terrific artists like Nick Cave… all us Aussies are proud of Nick Cave.

AC/DC are the loudest band on the planet, so I only listen to their slow songs

I usually have to listen to the slow numbers to know what they're doing, and I also turn it down. I'm the guy who lunges forward and turns it down. But most of this is just because I'm getting old and crusty. There's sometimes an advantage to being a stick-in-the-mud: you can sit back and say, 'Go on then, impress me'. Then a tiny part of the music might come out and get you, and I have to admit that this happens even through the noise. When I heard that first big concert that Elbow did for Radio Two, I could hardly understand a word, but I knew straight away that something was going on. The way that the phrases were shaped, and so on. But there are a few good things in every movement, no matter how repellent. Even one or two of the hip-hop songs – which I detest; I loathe rap – there are one or two good numbers in it. You hear something and you think 'Hey, that's fabulous'. There's scarcely a case of a musical genre that's all bad. People get into it and they'll start making something interesting anyway.

I'm not musical

I can't read music. I'm completely lacking in gift in that direction. It's not that I haven't got a sense for music – I can hear it; I can't imagine anyone being more sensitive to music than I am, it blows me away – but I can't do it. Thank God, because then I'd have to do that, and I've got enough other things to do. It's interesting because music and writing are connected. In fact, when they were recruiting code-breakers during the war, they'd look for people who could do chess and music and mimicry. Mimics are usually musical, because what they're copying is the music of the voice, and I can't do that, but I can hear it all right. It's an unusual thing. You get someone like Pete Atkin, and he can hear everything. Not only can he hear anything, he can do it – and I'm just fascinated by people who can pick up instruments. I did a few little things on piano when I was very young, because my mother had a piano in the house, but I'm one of those people who can't even tap his fingers on a table to make the sound of a galloping horse.

Pop is oversaturated

Ninety percent of it is not going to work and you're flat out just coping with the other 10 percent. The creativity never stops. When something like Elbow comes along, you could never have predicted it. Suddenly it's out there and it's like a symphony orchestra, it's enormous. That goes on happening, and I'm getting a bit old to be a teenager, you know. I think old is the new young, by the way. I'm very keen on being old, but I'm definitely not a teenager any more. I'm not going to listen to everything that happens. I'm going to wait for it to come and get me.

The lyrics I wrote in the 70s were the work of a young man

Oh yes! I was not only young, I was probably showing off. I was trying to drag too much in. I thought pop music could do anything, and I think it can, but you've got to concentrate. It took me a while – like about 40 or 50 years! – to really know that. I think the stuff I'm writing now is as good as anything we ever wrote. I don't write the big epic numbers any more. Some of my best writing is in those big epic lyrics…'The belt of Orion' - ha ha! That's keen young stuff, you know – I'm not sure if I could pull off a stroke like that now. I would do something simpler and neater.

I don't really lack imagination

Not really, I'm always getting ideas. If a day comes when you haven't got an idea, you can write a lyric about that!

Becoming a curmudgeon an inevitable part of getting old

It is, absolutely, ha ha ha! Believe me, I used to be a young man, and I was awful. I'm never a cynic, though. I always think that creativity is always there. I'm fundamentally optimistic, but sceptical. When you're young, you don't need anyone to filter it for you: you're into everything. It doesn't come with a label on it saying 'This is part of the magic 10 percent that's worth listening to'. Actually, that's what I love about popular culture – it's a huge, exultant, exorbitant mess, and you have to find your way through it – and even the best stuff won't shine out by itself, someone has to find it.

I never listen to the six albums of songs with Pete Atkin in the 1970s but I'm going to soon.

I'm very pressed for time at the moment because I'm off on the road with my one-man show and I'm also publishing three books this year, so I've been very busy. But I'm going to make time to sit down and listen to the whole thing from beginning to end, which I've never done. I used to listen to them a song at a time – I still think that the song is the basic thing. I never liked the idea of the concept album much, it's the individual songs that I'm interested in. I'd like to listen to them all the way through and see how it all adds up. With the last album, Live Libel we had a contract that we wanted to fulfil and put behind us. When I listen to it now, there are actually quite a few good numbers on it. Pete still uses some of them now, breaking up a series of serious songs with one of the foolish ones. I was actually in two minds whether it should come out as part of this collection. I'm delighted with the whole of the reissues, I had a whole lot of fun writing my share of the notes. Quite a lot of it should be new to the readers. And the records sound brilliant, I think.

A new album was always going to happen

There's almost enough for a new album, which would be quite a thing to do, wouldn't it? I just love the stuff we're doing. It was always going to happen: we work very slowly, we chisel away at it, we've always got a new number going back and forth between us. I did a lyric about a year ago, and Pete just sent me his first version of it. I listened to it and I thought, 'That's a winner, that's fabulous!' Then I figured out a little bit more that I could do to it, and it went back again.

Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger, Driving Across Mythical America, A King At Nightfall, The Road Of Silk, The Secret Drinker and Live Libel are all reissued by Edsel