The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘The Faded Mansion on the Hill’

The only other time thus far that I have featured a Pete Atkin track was from his relaunched career, that began, in effect, in 1998. Since the Monyash Folk Festival that established the existence of a still loyal audience, eager to hear more music from Pete, and more words from Clive James, there have been four new collections, of music written but never released in the Seventies, and music newly written in that so welcome revival.
Before that, we had to rely upon six albums recorded between 1970 and 1975, which really ought to be numbered as five, since the last of these was the classic Contractual Obligation Album, a collection of all those comic songs that relieved the intensity at gigs but didn’t necessarily hang together as a group to be experienced all at once.
There are many tracks spread over those first five albums, not all of them of the standard of the most impressive tracks, but every one is one fan’s favourite or another, and the least you can say is that there is nothing that is not at minimum interesting.
There’s at least a half dozen tracks I could have chosen as a first subject, but ‘The Faded Mansion on the Hill’, from Atkin’s third album, A King at Nightfall, has always been a particularly evocative track, despite the limitations of the recording process: not the equipment or the session musicians, who were always drawn from the finest of the period, but the minimalist budget afforded to Atkin’s albums.
It’s unfair to call this a sprawling song, but both musically and lyrically it goes through changes. And the words have a dark aspect to them, ameliorated by the musical setting chosen by Atkin, a deliberate tempo, electric piano-based melody to begin with, contrasting to the determined oblique angle of the words. When you see what can’t be helped, Atkin opens, go by with bloody murder in its eye. The couplet evokes an unspecified horror, which is amplified by a matching pair of lines, a man on a rack, a voice about to crack.
From here, James broadens the scene, surveying… well, it has to be seen as people in general, a mass leading ordinary, unfulfilled (litter of) lives, with stupid children and bitter wives, bereft of self-esteem, and and the urge of every observer to climb away from these dispiriting scenes of decay.
The temptation is to think this just a trick played by fate, these sick, hate days that might, if we think it so, just be a phase, but the mind is ground down by a thick weight.
And then we see the culmination of this miasma of lines, the faded mansion of the song’s title, out of whose gateways comes an aged car, carrying a single passenger, an old man, old because time has not yet found the time to kill.
The music shifts, a percussion track matches it stride for stride, Atkin shifts into a different, smoother melody, singing of the yachts in Sydney Harbour, the yachts of James’ childhood and youth, fleeing for the open sea, the freedom of the Pacific, their sails white and blinding, like driven snow, through the metaphor is unexpected. Outward they go, escaping from what we’ve already seen, with the ease of dolphins and seabirds, on the edges of their separate domains. They are alive, and living their days, as if the cemetery of home can be wished away, be left for dead.
Another turn. The hope is vain. Atkin sings with anger and desperation, an anger that desperation is all there is or can be. Where they are is still the graveyard of tall ships, just as surely as the grass that yearly breaks up more of the driveway in the mansion left so far away. Nor do they have more than this illusion, James once again producing a matching couplet, the beach the poor men never reach, the shore the rich men never leave, a contrast that is plain and inescapable and forever.
In an echo of their departure, returning to what holds even them in place, the homing yachts return between the headlands, lowering their sails, calling to one another, intent no doubt upon the bar where beers and wines and spirits will be drunk and spirits maintained unrealistically high. But all the while behind them, the avenue leads back up the hill, into the hill, back to the crumpled old man.
And in a line that turns back upon itself and evokes the weariness of inevitability, writer and singer come together upon the understanding that time, tonight, might find the time to kill.
Lyrically, melodically, this is an epic of regret. At each turn, Atkin finds the music, the melody, the tempo to match each phase of this story. None of this can be helped, it is how things are for the majority of men (and women), and even the yachts can only escape for a time. Time will, in time, find the time, and we are none of us immune. All that is left are a few chords of piano, falling into silence.
And the remembrance of where we have been.

5 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘The Faded Mansion on the Hill’

  1. I have enjoyed reading your thoughts about Pete Atkin. I found it particularly interesting to hear that he faced a strict budget for the recording process. Do you know how he managed it? I could learn a thing or two as the piece is great.
    Best Wishes, Charlotte

    1. To be honest, Charlotte, I’ve no details. I do know that Pete Atkin’s original career in the Sventies was a struggle. He received small budgets for recording, discs weren’t pressed at the right time, etc. Atkin’s music was difficult to categorise, making him one of those artists the record company didn’t push because they didn’t know how. One single cover made the pair more money in royalties than the six album career put together! But Atkin was a wonderful musician who learned to use the studio as effectively as possible, and his music was distinctive enough to attract the top session musicians of the day. Try the Smash Flops web-site, which is devoted to Atkin and James. I’m so glad you like his music.

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