Usually, it’s the singer not the song, but this CD is an album’s worth example of the opposite.
Like most people, I first became aware of Julie Covington in 1976, as an actress in the short-lived ITV series, Rock Follies, about an all-girl group. The show lasted two series, spawned a top 10 single and disappeared, after which Covington recorded the defining Evita song, ‘Don’t Cry for me, Argentina’, which she’d sung for the original cast soundtrack, taking it to number one for a week in early 1977.
A follow-up single peaked at no 12, and that was it. None of which endeared me to the lady.
Flash forward twenty years, to the end of the Nineties. I’ve lately discovered the web-site Smash Flops and the mailing group Midnight Voices, dedicated to one of my favourite singers, Pete Atkin.
For those of you still unaware of this massively under-appreciated singer, Atkin recorded a half dozen critically acclaimed but commercially negligible albums between 1970 and 1975 before having his career blown away by punk. The songs that were released really only scratched the surface of those written by Atkin with his song-writing partner, Clive James: yes, the Clive James.
Smash Flops taught me a lot of things I hadn’t known about Atkin and James’ career in the music business, including the fact that Julie Covington was both a contemporary and a friend of the pair at Cambridge, and that in 1970, long before her ‘solo’ career, she had released an album, The Beautiful Changes, composed almost entirely of Atkin/James songs, and what’s more, of Atkin/James songs that had not been recorded by Atkin himself.
The renewed interest in Atkin generated by Smash Flops had led to the first CD re-issue of Atkin’s albums, via SeeforMiles records. And on the back of that, SeeforMiles had also negotiated to re-issue The Beautiful Changes with some bonus tracks, completing all the recordings made at this period. Attracted by the thought of all those unheard songs, and their witty, intelligent lyrics, I bought it.
Covington does a good job on this album. Her voice is clear and distinct, powerful when it needs to be, and does not allow itself to be overshadowed by the sometimes heavy orchestration – notable on the opening track, ‘The Magic Wasn’t There’, an unsuccessful single. Nor have Atkin/James skimped on the selection of songs, keeping the best for themselves. As well as the opening track, gentle, sweet love songs such as ‘For Instance’ and especially ‘The Standards of Today’ stand up alongside the duo’s best efforts.
Nor do they refrain from testing Covington: the title track, and ‘Queen of Lights’ contain some of James’ most mysterious and impenetrable lyrics, inexplicable after forty years by even the most brilliant of Midnight Voices scholars.
On the other hand, Covington ends up singing ‘Ice Cream Man’, a very much of its time song, and one of the very few Jamesian lyrics that I really dislike: self-consciously clever, superficially sophisticated, but very much a hollow, self-defeating exercise. And there’s a cover of Atkin’s own ‘The Original Original Honky Tonk Night Train Blues’, on which the composer duets, which appeared on Atkin’s own first album: it’s rearranged here as a cabaret/revue song, which is not only plain awful, but sticks out like the sorest of thumbs.
Overall, I do enjoy the album, but to be honest I’d play it far more often if it were by Pete Atkin himself.
Amusingly, my favourite track on the album is one of only two not written by Atkin and James. This is an irony that has happened too often for it to be surprising any more: I have grown used to buying albums with one impulse in mind only to find that the best track rejects the intent of my purchase.
This was the original closing track, an adaptation of William Blake’s poem, ‘My Silks and Fine Array’, featuring some of Britain’s top session musicians of the period. The track builds from softness for force, Covington’s voice growing and changing along with it, soaring out strong, and the arrangement is the most overtly ‘rock’. Brilliant stuff, worth the album for itself.