The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘The Eye of the Universe’

There are three versions of this song, but unfortunately the one I want to talk about exists only in the recesses of my memories of a concert almost twenty years ago.
As I’ve mentioned before, Pete Atkin’s music career reached a premature end in 1976, with the release of the contract-fulfilling album, Live Libel. The near-simultaneous arrival of punk, closely followed by New Wave, changed the zeitgeist, not to mention the commercial concerns, of the British music industry to push the likes of Atkin – already an unclassifiable singer – off the edge.
Atkin and James were always well-stocked with songs, and were still writing more. In preparation for a seventh album, Atkin pulled a dozen or so together and began to put together demo versions of these, before it became apparent that it was to be a redundant exercise.
One of these tracks was ‘The Eye of the Universe’, then shorn of the definite article. The Smash Flops website features audio clips of these demos, giving an indication of how Atkin’s thoughts were then running as to the arrangement and instrumentation. ‘Eye of the Universe’ 1977 would have been an guitar based, midtempo song.
But of course that never happened.
Move forward twenty years, to 1998, and a sunny, late Sunday afternoon drive from Hyde to Buxton, visiting the Opera House for the altogether unanticipated pleasure of seeing Pete Atkin play live on stage. A pleasure compounded by the unadvertised presence of Clive James, joining him on stage.
It was a nostalgic pleasure, never mind that, for the most part, it was nostalgia for something I had failed to experience the first time round. There were old songs I’d never expected to hear on stage, and ‘new’ songs I’d never suspected the existence of. One such was ‘Eye of the Universe’.
Atkin was switching between instruments according to the demands of each song. Acoustic guitar, grand piano, electric piano. Had I known of ‘Eye of the Universe’s prior half-life, I would have been surprised to see Atkin sit himself down behind the electric piano, whilst James expanded on the inspiration for the lyrics, which lay in poetry: I no longer recall the details.
Then Atkin started to play, a driving, attacking arrangement, the piano pounded rhythmically, his voice full of anger and passion. The PA was so clear, his voice so distinct, that I didn’t miss, or misunderstand a word of these hitherto unheard lyrics. In a single bound, ‘Eye of the Universe’ became one of my five favourite Atkin songs, an instant classic.
After the concert, whilst I was getting an autograph, I mentioned how impressed I’d been by this song. Being always happy to talk music, Atkin said that he’d want to record it with a full band, that it needed that full-bore treatment. The idea suited me.
It took three years from then for Atkin to get around to tackling the backlog of Seventies songs, two dozen of which appeared as The Lakeside Sessions double CD. Not until this was a finished product were we faithful fans of Midnight Voices let in on this and, though he wasn’t intending to start listing tracks etc. at that point, my instant, eager plea for confirmation he’d included ‘Eye of the Universe’ was answered. Yes, it was on the CD.
And in due course, the CDs arrived. I eagerly scanned the track listings, discovered ‘The Eye of the Universe’ as track 3 on the second CD, A Dream of Fair Women, and hustled it into the CD player. And sat back and listened in shock and dismay as a light, smooth, dreamy, almost jazzy and floaty electric piano intro led to Atkin singing the song with an easy, languid air, in a similar tempo to the old demo. The passion of the song at Buxton, the anger and drive, the pace he put into it, all of it gone.
Pete Atkin has spoken about how a song is never really finished, that no matter how many times he has played it, he is reassessing it. Over time, his music has changed. And to my considerable disappointment, in respect of this song, it changed dramatically in the three years that separated the stage at Buxton and the studio at Bristol.
The song exists. The words exist. All that has happened is that everything that made the song so alive to me, that made me want to have it, to repeat it, to fully absorb it into my ears and my head in the way the best of music, the music that fills the Infinite Jukebox always has, was refiltered through the songwriter’s ears and removed from consideration.
I can listen to the soft jazz version. I can listen to the guitar snippet. I only have a near twenty-year old memory to provide me with the version of the song that I loved. This is a particularly ethereal element of the Infinite Jukebox.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.