Tuesday 19 January 2010

Clive James vs Sandy Denny: A No-Brainer

Climate change is nothing to sing about. This doesn't stop people writing hand-wringing ditties with titles like 'We Are The Cancer of the Planet' (Brittany Franks: clearly no Jackson C Frank) or parroting 'Climate change, climate change ' Ice is melting / It is so strange…' (the web is full of them, heaven help us).

A brooding, haunting quality would convey the message a lot more subtly. Something which favours restraint over fulminating bombast. Something which mixes dark fatalism with serene beauty. I offer The Sea, by Fotheringay, which, because it was written in 1970, is also refreshingly free of proselytism.

Fotheringay, a vehicle for the majestic voice and oddly disquieting songs of Sandy Denny, filled the gap between her leaving Fairport Convention in 1969 and launching her solo career proper with The North Star Grassman And The Ravens in 1971. The Sea is the highlight of their eponymous 1970 album, the sole legacy of the band until a successor was belatedly released in 2008.

The voice of the song is the voice of the sea, immortal and implacable, and so ubiquitous that it's difficult to hear properly. 'Is that what you hear?' the song asks. 'Can you feel it now?' The mood is ominous, rather than stormy. Its calm actually adds to the disquiet, just as a threat is more chilling when delivered in a hush. And threats don't come more chilling than, 'You will be taken, all you ladies and gentlemen'. Cataclysm is inevitable. Indeed, the enemy has, undetected, already crept through the lines of defence: 'The sea flows under your houses in London town…'

And so it is with Denny's voice: majestic whether full-throated or restrained. The music is wonderfully descriptive: acoustic guitars (Denny and Trevor Lucas) emulate the swell and surge of the tide, Gerry Conway's cymbals evoke crashing surf, and Jerry Donahue's guitar rides the currents gracefully, like light reflected on water.

A mood of impending dread similarly infects The North Star Grassman And The Ravens. The title track touches on the legend that foretells disaster if ravens leave the Tower of London. 'I wonder if they flew one day / And no-one ever knew they'd gone…' The psychology is disturbing: there is some confusion about whether the worst is about to happen or has already happened. This is what it is to be mad. (Crazy Lady Blues is the album closer.)

Next Time Around, etched in brooding, minor chords, describes a city engulfed in flood, whilst Late November jumbles manmade and natural disasters in an apocalyptic vision. One line - 'I see only smoke from the chimneys arise' - seems to foretell the image that haunts our own collective, post 9/11 nightmares. It might be significant that Denny is shown reading tea-leaves on the cover of North Star Grassman.

Ah, but prophecies are necessarily couched in oblique, mysterious language, and who at the time could decipher their meaning? Certainly not Clive James, who contributed a critical analysis of Sandy Denny's writing to the March 1974 issue of Let It Rock. Favourably comparing her singing to Elizabeth Schumann and Joan Sutherland, he owns to disappointment with her 'slapdash' songwriting. 'In general the linguistic points of the song are undistinguished going on feeble,' he opines about the Fairport song Autopsy. His tone is lofty and patronising throughout. 'Eminently listenable even when one has abandoned all attempts to find the lyric substantial,' is his comment on The Sea. 'The linguistic mannerisms are out of control,' is his verdict on Late November, and, with crushing finality, 'Next Time Around demonstrates that a strophic form can't be sustained even by the most scrupulous singing unless either (a) the argument advances, or (b) the imagery varies.' Which is, of course, pontificating claptrap and pompous nonsense.

Perhaps he was so unforgiving because he perceived Denny as a rival. At the time of writing (1974), Clive James was an erstwhile lyricist, playing Bernie Taupin to Pete Atkin's Elton John. The Atkin/James partnership had been enshrined in four albums - Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger, Driving Through Mythical America, A King At Nightfall and The Road of Silk: more were to come. As late as 2008, Atkin and James were touring major concert halls in the UK. The best songs of the early period, or, more accurately, someone's idea of the best songs, were gathered on a 1974 retrospective, The Master of The Revels. This is surely the place to go to study the songwriter's art, and learn by comparison where Denny was going so sadly wrong.

The Master of The Revels contains not one, but two songs sneering at superior musicians. Thirty Year Man is told from the standpoint of a bitter jazz pianist, jealous of the attention the young girl singer in the band attracts. Sessionman's Blues takes a pot shot at session-musicians, which is rich, since all the accompaniment on Pete Atkin records comes from hired hands. With mind-numbing literalism, the line, 'Doublin' on baritone' is a cue for a baritone solo from Ronnie Ross, which hasn't managed to lodge in the public consciousness like his solo on Lou Reed's Walk On The Wild Side.

The preceding tune, Perfect Moments, is actually graced by a tenor solo from the great Tony Coe, revisiting the bleary smokiness of his work on Solid Air by John Martyn (recorded eight months earlier in November, 1972). If Perfect Moments has been forgotten, while Solid Air is worshipped by new generations of music lovers, that's not the fault of Tony Coe.

Girl On The Train fantasises about, erm, a girl on the train. The object of James' wandering eye happens to be reading a book of poems. Ever competitive, the lyricist sizes up the competition. 'She kept on the job of improving her single-track brain/Ploughing steadily onward through obsolete Monsieur Verlaine.' (If the poet had been William McGonagall, James might have found his true soulmate.)

Coincidentally, Bob Dylan went on to reference Verlaine on You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go - 'Situations have ended sad/Relationships have all been bad/Mine have been like Verlaine's and Rimbaud's' - comparing a self-destructive love affair with the notoriously ruinous relationship of French Symbolist poets V and R. This, it strikes, is a subject worthy of a song: fixating on a pretty girl in the same train compartment is just banal.

Of course, James' determination to become a writer is laudable, and, then as now, versatility is essential for the successful hack. But the only possible excuse for The Wristwatch For A Drummer is a mix-up between the folder with the Pete Atkin lyrics and the folder with the ad copy. Here, jazz drummers are recommended the 'Omega Incabloc Oyster Accutron 72' as a tool to navigate tricky time signatures. This is characteristically smart-arse and superficial, and notable only for James' knowledge of jazz drummers, some of them obscure and/or unlikely (Baby Dodds, Max Roach). Another line from Dylan springs unbidden: 'You have read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books…'

If Clive James was a bit less concerned with 'strophic form' (whatever that is), and not so fond of parading his learning; if he was a bit more self-aware and, crucially, if he had learned to sublimate his feelings of inadequacy into great rock 'n' roll riffs (Elizabeth Schumann and Joan Sutherland!?), he might have penned, 'I Wanna Destroy You'. Instead, that task fell to Robyn Hitchcock (cf The Soft Boys, Underwater Moonlight), and James found the fame he craved by ridiculing stupid game shows and mocking intellectual pygmies on his too-frequent TV and radio appearances.

But is it fair to take him to task for an article written 34 years ago? I'm sorry, but the old wound was re-opened when James, in his guise as a radio pundit, recently voiced scepticism about global warming. This was around the time I re-listened to The Sea, and realised its full significance, and it so happened that I also came across a secondhand copy of The Master of The Revels, which I purchased with £2 and an open mind.

Except that James is too guarded to deny climate change outright. His exact (weasel) words were 'nobody can meaningfully say that the science is in.' It comes as no surprise. First he denied Sandy Denny; then he denied climate change. Here is a man who has made a speciality out of denial.


  1. I came to Sandy Denny through "Unhalfbricking" thirty odd years ago. It is still one of the most beautiful things I own. It has shared many an evening with me, in different places and times, good and bad. I have never had a car or a home without "Unhalfbricking" within a hands reach. Likewise, for thirty years a compilation tape of Sandy's other FC stuff alongside her Fotheringay lead vocal stuff has been re-made religiously every time the tape machine in my latest banger munches it. I am listening to "Late November" now as I type. The song's power and emotional impact has not diminished in its forty years. Sandy's work was at times a little patchy - it is the same of most artists - but there are so many solid gold nuggets in her work that the blips don't matter at all. They make the gold shine brighter and richer.
    I have never yearned for anything by Clive James. I never will.

  2. Sandy Denny - over rated due to early death
    Clive James - Genius and vintage wine
    and that's all there is to it


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