The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘The Last Hill That Shows You All The Valley’


Though I first became aware of Pete Atkin in 1970, with Kenny Everett playing ‘The Master of the Revels’ on his Saturday morning Radio 1 show, my first extended exposure to his music didn’t come until three years later, and from what nowadays might seem like a most unlikely source, Noel Edmonds’ Sunday morning Radio 1 show, back when Master Edmonds was in it for the music, or at least was giving a convincing impression of being in it for the music.
Atkin’s third album, A King at Nightfall, his first for RCA, was out, and Edmonds was playing tracks from it most weeks for quite a long period. One in particular caught my attention, and I determined to record it next time it was played. Unfortunately, my timing, not for the first or last time, was flawed. I did manage to get on tape the last track Edmonds played, but it was not the one I wanted. What I ended up with was ‘Carnations on the Roof’, a song that proved, in its lyrics, to come very close to home for me, but that’s a story for another day, maybe.
The one I wanted was ‘The Last Hill That Shows You All The Valley’.
I can’t remember when I finally did catch up with the song. It might well have been the mid-Eighties, when all the Pete Atkin albums were long deleted, but my mate John M had the lot, and lent them to me to put on cassette for my car. Eventually, I would collect all six on Vinyl, and then twice over as CD-reissues.
And John was the first to clue me in on something I hadn’t before known about ‘The Last Hill That Shows You All The Valley’, which was that Clive James had written its words as a lament, but that Pete Atkin had read them and thought that this was an angry song, and written the music to reflect that.
In many ways, the Pete Atkin albums of the Seventies are not very well recorded. Atkin had the use of some of the best session musicians of the period, who always enjoyed the challenge of his arrangements, but his recording budgets were always restricted, as applying to a cult artist who did not fit any easy category musically: and the recording budgets very definitely outweighed the promotional ones. Since pressing his albums was never RCA’s priority, Atkin’s commercial career was forever being shot down by the albums not even being in the shops to buy.
I was glad to finally hear ‘The Last Hill That Shows You All The Valley’ again. It’s built as a rock-ish song, a marching beat, a fuzzed-out guitar, and Atkin’s undisguiseably English voice doing its best to rasp and roar, but the limitations of the recording process undercut that aspect from the somewhat tinny bass and drums intro. There is little power to the music, and not of the kind Atkin’s arrangement would seem to require.
But is that really a drawback? The music is adequate for what is most often the best purpose of an Atkin/James song, which is to showcase Atkin’s voice and James’ words, and here they are, without being swamped as a stronger production might have done.
And yes, the song is angry, and bitter. It’s about defeat. It’s about the crushing of hope and optimism, by the forces of might, the forces of reaction. You might hear it as about the Seventies crushing the optimism of the Sixties. Each of the song’s four verses begin on the last hill, the last hill before what has been torn to pieces behind you can no longer be seen. First it’s the valley, where the rally was held: what you see are burned books and a worker-priest beaten until he bleeds, sights that show the reality underneath what you dreamed, and how it was never green.
Then it’s your travel: but what you see is the ruins of the Indian camp the army destroyed, the dump-trucks full of gravel, here to fill in the graves that have been opened, and make them level: the buffalo will not return this year.
Atkin’s voice grows harsher as the enormity of what you see grows. The act of looking back that brands you as a dreamer, but what you see is that the dreams were always real – or is that real to you, refusing to recognise reality, or real-real? The imagery becomes fabulous: the Persians went ashore at Iwo Jima, Christ was in the gold-mines at Kalima, and Atkin spits out in disgust that he was denounced, because his mother was, what else, a Jew.
And then he gathers himself for the final scene. The last hill lastly shows you the battle. It shows you everywhere you cried for joy. And the wastes that are the aftermath of battle, the savagery that it perpetuates. Killer dogs run down your barren cattle. Your kid Cassandra walks collecting metal. And you will see, when those rows of dust-clouds settle…
And for a still moment we await what we will see after the bomb has been dropped and it is the line that no-one has been able to interpret, but which, pin-sharp, gives us a vision of the future most vivid and foreboding: there are helicopters on the Walls of Troy.
And straightway you see them, ancient and modern, a War of today, Vietnam, meets a War of then, lifting off to hover like olive bumblebees on the last barrier of the World.
The music fades. Like Ozymandias’ two pillars of stone, like Hendrix’s two riders approaching, we understand that it is the end. And Pete Atkin’s arrangement calls on us to rage, rage, rage, against the dying of the light. Against all the forces that will not let us grow and mature and come together.
This is one hell of a song, and that is one hell of a line. To think that it was Noel Edmonds who brought it to me all those years ago.

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