|Pete Atkin - The Road of Silk (1974) (Courtesy: Peteatkin.com)|
A SMASH FLOP
The Wall of Death is a fairground sideshow consisting of a high fence constructed in a circle so that it forms a cylinder. The audience sit in an elevated position around the fence so they are looking down into the cylinder. A motorcyclist then drives around the inner circle, accelerating, until there is enough momentum for him for him to ride up onto the fence and travel round and round continuously. They rely on the centrifugal force to keep them at a right angle to the fence, or parallel to the ground, and to stop them from falling. Sometimes two riders travel in opposite directions, passing each other. This ‘entertainment’ is the subject of Pete Atkin‘s song The Wall of Death, which appeared on his The Road of Silk album in 1974.
Pete Atkin is a singer-songwriter who made a series of six albums through the nineteen-seventies, although he mostly wrote the music, while poet Clive James contributed the lyrics. There were a few exceptions where Atkin wrote both the music and the lyrics. The albums began with Beware of the Beautiful Stranger, in 1970, to the contract-obligatory Live Libel, in 1975, and a compilation, The Master of the Revels: The Essential Pete Atkin, in 1977. Sales were disappointing, so James returned to his other interests, while Atkin looked elsewhere for employment. Another compilation appeared in 1990, followed by several twofer and definitive reissues in the ensuing decades, until Atkin began recording again in the noughties. Atkin’s singing and playing style (he plays guitar and keyboards) can be classified as folk-rock, with elements of soft rock.
Clive James was born in Australia, educated at Oxford and became a polymath author, critic, journalist, broadcaster, translator, memoirist, poet and lyricist. He is probably best known for his television chat shows and documentaries. Atkins is similar however in that, following his lack of record sales, he eventually became a successful radio producer and writer.
Clive James’ lyrics for The Wall of Death are obscure, but they appear to be concerned with the rider challenging an onlooker with, ‘Okeydoke, my armchair hero/ Let’s see if you’re equal to the task/ Put your money where your mouth is . . . The Wall of Death/ Is a time of truth.’ Certainly the dangers are emphasised, ‘He said “Rest your hand against the woodwork/ Feel how the wheels have made it warm . . . The Wall is the socket for the eyeball of the storm/ The Wall of Death/ Is an act of faith/ It’s a shriek of wrath/ At the loss of youth”.'(1)
Pete Atkin arranged, conducted and produced all the songs on The Road of Silk, including The Wall of Death, at Morgan Studios, London(2). He accompanies himself on acoustic guitar, while Mike Moran plays piano and Daryl Runswick provides bass guitar. The drums by Terry Cox(3) sound full, probably because Frank Ricotti also adds percussion. Paul Keogh‘s electric guitar weaves in and out of the entire track, with a full but tasteful solo. All of these musicians were and, of course, remain very experienced, working with a list resembling a who’s who across the musical genres.
It is possible that the version of the song I heard on Alan Freeman‘s Saturday Rock Show was a session produced by Tony Wilson for John Peel‘s Sounds of the Seventies. It was recorded on 14th May 1974 and first broadcast on 28th May 1974. The studio was LH1 and the station, BBC Radio 1. At this session, the musicians were different to those on the album; Pete Atkin sang and played electric piano, Les Davidson played guitar, Maurice Adamson provided bass, and Andy Munro was the drummer. What makes this track and the parent album special is that it continues the English tradition of folk rock begun with Fairport Convention. To a measure of American rock and roll, Atkin not only sings Clive James’ lyrics, but does so with an English accent.
(1) Lyrics from Pete Atkin’s own site, Smash Flops: http://www.peteatkin.com/d4.htm
(2) The site has helpful session notes for the albums, including The Road of Silk: http://www.peteatkin.com/sessiond.htm
(3) Drummer Terry Cox was born in High Wycombe. I know it well! He worked with Pentangle, David Bowie, Elton John and many others.