Tag Archives: Song Lyrics

Loose Canon – The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin







As  Stephen Fry puts it in his introduction to Ian Shircore’s survey of the songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin, ‘those of us who have hugged the secret of this wonderfully gifted pair to ourselves can’t help feeling rather special and discerning, and we don’t need anyone else to clutter up the premises of our small and select club’.

As a long-time fan of the pair’s work (see  ‘My Long Weekend with Pete and Clive – http://www.bernardokeeffe.com/?p=452 ) I understand exactly what Stephen Fry is on about. In 1973 the rock critic Charles Shaar Murray included James and Atkin alongside Bowie, Elton John, Lennon and McCartney and Jagger and Richards in a list of the country’s best songwriters. To say that James and Atkin never quite made it as big as the others would be to give new meaning to the term understatement.

That the wide awareness, recognition and acclaim which  Atkin/James deserved never quite materialised has made familiarity with their work a passport to Fry’s small club. An encounter with another member has, over the years, led to instant bonding and ritualistic  reciting of favourite lines (in my case from ‘Beware of The Beautiful Stranger’ or ‘Girl on The Train’). I had one such encounter with a friend at University whose cartoon of me (now sadly lost) had me holding a pint of beer, wearing a sensible sweater and the line ‘concerning us there are no fables, no brilliant poems airily discarded, just liquid circles on formica tables’ in a thought bubble coming from my head (club members are now nodding wisely and saying to themselves ‘Payday Evening’ from ‘The Road of Silk’) .

And yet it seems this select club has, over the years, boasted more significant members than I had realised –  Charlie Brooker, Stuart Maconie and Simon Schama, for example. Ian Shircore’s ‘Loose Canon’ may well spread the news more widely and lead to a surge in membership, but more likely it will be a compulsory purchase for all card-carriers who will press it, together with the music itself, into the hands of those lucky enough (in the sense that those yet to see Venice are kucky) not to have heard the songs before.

‘Loose Canon’ is a great book. Shircore gives an engaging account of the development of the songs, and his relationship with them, over the years. The facsimiles of original working drafts, together with the photographs and the anecdotes, intelligently illuminate both the songs and their contexts, but at the heart of the book lies Shircore’s readings of the songs themselves. Each chapter moves to a focus on one particular song, and has intelligent and thoughtful close reading at its heart. Particularly intriguing is Shircore’s claim that ‘comparison between Clive and John Donne is not at all farfetched’. The beauty of both Shircore’s writing and the James/Atkin songs is that you end up almost believing him. *


‘Girl on The Train’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGYGVigFXhg&list=RDEGYGVigFXhg

‘Beware if The Beautiful Stranger – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Butt2hVdyzg&index=2&list=RDEGYGVigFXhg




(*The Atkin/James song ‘Sunrise’ ( off ‘Beware of The Beautiful  Stranger’) directly addresses Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’. ‘How many clever men have called the sun a fool before today’ asks James’s song, cleverly, with Donne’s opening line ‘Busy old fool, unruly sun’ clearly in its sights. As Ian Dury once sang – ‘there ain’t half been some clever bastards’. John Donne. Clive James. Clever bastards both.)




Randy Newman and Short People

Short People

How do you teach irony? It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times over the years and the only answer I can offer with any degree of honesty is  – with great difficulty. There’s a simple reason for this. With irony you either get it or you don’t, and trying to help those who don’t get it is, believe me, not an easy task. That’s why, when I teach irony, I reach for Randy Newman.

I thought of Randy Newman this week when John Bercow (5ft 6in), in response to a joke made by David Cameron that referred to the Speaker of the House of Commons as one of the Seven Dwarfs, questioned whether such ‘heightism’ was any more acceptable than racism or sexism.

It reminded me of the great Newman song ‘Short People’

Here he is singing it – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NvgLkuEtkA


And here’s the first verse –

Short People got no reason

Short People got no reason

Short People got no reason

To live


They got little hands

Little eyes

They walk around

Tellin’ great big lies

They got little noses

And tiny little teeth

They wear platform shoes

On their nasty little feet


Well, I don’t want no Short People

Don’t want no Short People

Don’t want no Short People

`Round here


Is this a song that hates short people? It certainly seems to be and, clearly, a lot of people in America at the time of its release thought it was. In 1978, legislation was introduced in the state of Maryland to make it illegal to play “Short People” on the radio.

So, it seems that Randy Newman hates short people. They’ve got ‘no reason to live’ and he doesn’t want them around. The question to ask, though, is whether the words are his. Once you realise that the words are the words of a character and they are being presented for our disapproval because we know, like the writer, that such views are clearly absurd and extreme, you begin to get the point. The speaker’s prejudice against short people is irrational and extreme, a form of outrageous bigotry about which we can only feel critical. What Newman is doing is exposing all forms of prejudice and discrimination in all their absurdity. He’s showing that John Bercow in equating ‘heightism’ with sexism and racism, is absolutely right.

The trouble is, though, that like any form of irony, not everyone will get it. Those who complained to radio stations clearly didn’t, nor did some of the good people of Maryland.

That anyone shouldn’t get ‘Short People’ seems especially strange when you consider that Randy Newman makes it quite clear in the song itself what he thinks, and what we are supposed to think, about the expressed attitudes. In the next verse (the part he calls ‘ the nice and friendly part’ in the Youtube clip) he drops the voice of the speaker and gives us another

Short People are just the same

As you and I

(A Fool Such As I)

All men are brothers

Until the day they die

(It’s A Wonderful World)

He’s still having some ironic fun with those brackets, but this clearly is someone else’s voice, someone who is standing up for those much-maligned short people.

Then we’re back to the bigot –

Short People got nobody

Short People got nobody

Short People got nobody

To love


They got little baby legs

That stand so low

You got to pick ’em up

Just to say hello

They got little cars

That go beep, beep, beep

They got little voices

Goin’ peep, peep, peep

They got grubby little fingers

And dirty little minds

They’re gonna get you every time

Well, I don’t want no Short People

Don’t want no Short People

Don’t want no Short People

‘Round here


So there you have it – a lesson in irony. Work out where the writer stands in relation to what’s being said and where he wants you to stand. If you’re lucky you’ll get a little helping hand but if you’re not you’re on your own and just have to bring to your reading the sense that sometimes what you read or hear shouldn’t be taken at face value.

You can teach irony and satire through other songs. The Kinks do it admirably in ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ and ‘Well Respected Man’ and even 10CC’s ‘I’m Not in Love’ can teach the lesson of speakers sometimes meaning the opposite of what they say. Ironically, one of the songs which is of little use in teaching irony is Alanis Morissette’s ‘Ironic’.

Randy Newman, though, is the king. He pulls off the ironic trick time and time again (check out ‘Rednecks’ and ‘Political Science’), presenting speakers and attitudes that we are not intended to trust and that we are supposed to criticise. He is one of the supreme satirists, a master of mordant irony  – the English teacher’s (and John Bercow’s) best friend.

(NB I am 5ft 8”)