Beware of the Bull: The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray, by Paul Thompson and John Watterson
Scratching Shed Ltd., 2022
The first time that I encountered JakeThackray was in the mid-seventies. He was on a Sunday evening TV programme called That’s Life, in which Esther Rantzen and her wryly amused co-presenters tutted and smirked at the failings of contemporary consumer culture --and were absolutely delighted by oddly shaped vegetables and pets behaving strangely. In the midst of all this Thackray had an all-too-brief tenure as the resident minstrel, singing songs that were clever, funny, and poignant in equal measure. At first glance his most startling characteristic was his appearance: remarkably chiselled features and piercingly intense, deep-set eyes, with which he cast a coldly disdainful glower over the cosy TV studio. More often than not it was just Jake and his acoustic guitar, delivering a composition in which he offered a succession of hilarious one-liners within a musical narrative that transcended the genre of comic ditty and left the listener moved by his acute observations.
Paul Thompson and John Watterson’s biography Beware of the Bull: The Enigmatic Genius of JakeThackraygives a fascinating insight into this supremely gifted singer-songwriter, journalist, lugubrious wit, and mesmerisingly complex individual. Not that Thackray’s ‘enigmatic genius,’ as the authors describe it, meant that he never put a foot wrong when it came to lyrics, some of which we might now find questionable (to put it mildly). But to consign Thackray to the outer darkness due to some offensive turns of phrase would be to wilfully ignore his abundance of compassion for the characters in his songs, combined with his biting wit about their comedic frailties.
Throughout his life Thackray was a proud Yorkshireman, born in a Leeds maternity hospital in 1938. John Philip Thackray (‘Jake’ was a nom de plume adopted in his twenties) was the third son of Ernest and Molly, whom the authors describe as an unlikely couple given their respective characters. Ernest was a ‘stern and unemotional’ policeman who could be violent when drunk, whilst Molly was a devout Catholic blessed with a dry humour that her son inherited. Ernest Thackray’s run-in with a local big-wig over a traffic incident during the course of his duties led to his demotion (according to family legend), which had a financial impact on the family and seemingly forever made Jake resentful of establishment figures blinded by their self-importance -- hence Thackray`s later warning to his audience to beware the nonsense (he used a less polite word) spouted by figures whom he describes only by their honorific titles.
Whilst Jake was growing up the Thackray household seems to have been wracked by a tension which occasionally boiled over, a neighbour attesting to once witnessing the teenager and his father “fighting, rolling and scrapping on the kitchen lino.” Thackray's devout Catholic faith seems to have provided some sort of respite from all the domestic conflict, and would continue to offer solace throughout Thackray’s life; he even remained an altar boy until he went to university at the age of nineteen. However, Thackray was not an unconditionally staunch believer in Roman Catholic doctrine, once saying of his religion “it’s my backbone, but it’s also my burden.”
After graduating from Durham University in 1960, Thackray spent four years as an English teacher in France and fell in love with its culture. Here he wrote poetry and planned a novel to eclipse Samuel Beckett’s best efforts. It was also in France that he began his career as a musician and songwriter (having previously been a mere dabbler at the piano). He discovered chanson, a lyric-driven type of French song whose most celebrated proponent during the mid-twentieth century was Georges Brassens, often cited by Thackray as by far the greatest influence on his own music. Brassens, a self-described anarchist, sang his highly articulate, sardonic, and musically complex songs to his own nylon-strung guitar accompaniment in a style that Thackray incorporated into his own musical persona, both on record and in front of an audience. The poetic craftsmanship with which Brassens fashioned his songs, conjuring up all manner of memorable characters and situations, would also be Thackray’s modus operandi. The authors describe Brassens’ sympathies as lying with “the outcast, the underdog and the poor, and his anarchism underpinned his hostility to authority” – which also sounds very much like Thackray’s natural disposition. Ultimately Brassens’ influence would, as the authors put it, make Thackray into “a Yorkshire chansonnier, creating and performing a body of work rooted in the north country of England, and yet whose poetic approach and musical style were recognisable to anyone familiar with the Frenchman.”
On returning to England in 1963, Thackray found employment in Leeds as a teacher at Intake County Secondary School. It was also around this time that he started to learn the guitar, of which he would become a highly skilled player, particularly when it came to fingerpicking. Whilst he was at the school the headteacher spotted Thackray’s unconventionally charismatic personality, creativity, and ability to win over an audience, and encouraged him to perform his early songs in front of pupils and colleagues. These shows soon led to performances in local venues such as church halls and pub tap rooms. It was on one of these occasions that Thackray was spotted by a BBC scout who offered him the chance to appear on local radio singing his own compositions. By 1966 he had made several radio broadcasts and had his regional television debut, although not everyone at the BBC quite ‘got’ his demeanour and song delivery, so that for a time there was doubt about how to categorise or use his talents. Eventually, however, the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment (Sound) came across a tape that Thackray had made of his songs and was struck by their quality and originality. Soon a radio programme pilot was on offer along with a music publishing deal, although Thackray, with characteristic insouciance --and mindful of his teaching commitments-- proved initially somewhat reluctant to take up these opportunities. Even so, by April 1967 Thackray was in the EMI studios at Abbey Road at his first recording sessions. During subsequent visits to Abbey Road he would rub shoulders with The Beatles, John Lennon in particular expressing his admiration for his songs to the extent of taking a cassette of them on the group’s 1968 jaunt to India.
In August 1967 Thackray’s first LP, JakeThackray’s Last Will and Testament, was released. It contains some of his best loved songs, including The Statues (one of Lennon’s particular favourites), Ulysses, about an over-affectionate lunatic of a pet dog, The Black Swan, a heart-rending tale about a group of drinkers down the local pub who have no other purpose in life but to carry on boozing in the absence of their beloved, and the supremely comical Lah-Di-Dah. This latter composition tells of a bridegroom-to-be’s promise to keep his temper with his fiancée’s family in the run-up to the wedding, despite her dreadful Aunt Susan and various obstreperous uncles, plus her mother with her unappealing cat. Added to this he has to endure her father’s endless reminiscences about his cricketing and Second World War feats, which he can just about stand although he will have to show considerable fortitude when listening to his medical complaints. With its sometimes overly-lush orchestration, the overall sound of this first LP is not representative of Thackray's stripped-back future records but it already showcases a remarkable artist who could combine belly laughs and fine-tuned pathos in meticulously crafted songs.
Although he was now a recording artist Thackray initially continued in his teaching role, making sure that, although he might be in a studio or in front of an audience at the evenings and weekends, he was always back in Leeds by Monday morning to take his English class. However, the upscaling of his performing career from radio to television would ultimately forced him to choose between the two careers. His TV breakthrough came in March 1968 on the wonderfully named Beryl Reid Says ‘Good Evening,’ a comedy sketch show vehicle for the celebrated actress, which featured him performing one of his songs each week. Although the commute from Leeds to London to record his spot was exhausting, Thackray was initially reluctant to give up teaching until persuaded by his agent that it made financial sense to concentrate on life as an entertainer, given all the work offers that were coming in. As a regular on Tickertape, a children’s TV show, Thackray was once more expected to perform songs every week, although ones more or less related to the content of each programme, so that his ability to come up with a steady stream of bespoke compositions was tested to the limit. It was also around this time, in August 1968, that Thackray married his wife Sheila, and soon afterwards they set up home in Pangbourne.
Thackray’s appearances on Braden’s Week, a Saturday night prime time show fronted by actor and comedian Bernard Braden, gave him national exposure on a larger scale. As with Tickertape, but this time for the benefit of an adult audience, Thackray was expected to come up with a new song each week, with the added complication that it should be a topical musing on the week’s news, with the occasional selection from his own back catalogue thrown in. Unsurprisingly for someone who was growing increasingly disaffected by his entertainer role, rather than seeing his nascent career in television as a potential springboard to bigger and better things, Thackray felt nervous about and somewhat trapped by his achievements so far, or as he himself said “I never enjoyed it…Staring at the red light and shaking with fear!” His disarming honesty in this respect caused him to steal the show on one episode of Braden’s Week when, having twice fluffed his guitar intro, he announced, “…and that is a cock-up,” at which the audience roared with laughter. Nevertheless, such was Thackray’s popularity amongst viewers that he regularly appeared in all four series of Braden’s Week.
With Thackray's star firmly in the ascendant, by 1969 it was time for another album of songs, this time entitled Jake’s Progress. Like the previous record, it contains several of his most memorable songs, including Family Tree which, although it includes some decidedly objectionable lyrics, still paints a vivid comedic picture of the singer’s kith and kin, including brother Richard who, aged thirteen, was presented to the Queen only to go and spoil it all by offering her a cigarette. Then there is the almost McCartney-esque melodic wistfulness of I’ve Been Left on the Shelf with its observations on the single life, juxtaposed with Thackray's most artfully comedic best in The Castleford Ladies Magic Circle. This playfully eerie song describes how, in a candlelit upstairs room, with broomsticks from Woolworth's and unbeknownst to their husbands, various respectable ladies engage in pagan rituals. As the author Neil Gaiman said of this latter composition, “One of the things I love most in the song is the incredible approval of these Women’s Institute types going off and consorting with Satan, and it’s beautiful and hilarious, but it’s also human, because it’s not about beautiful young women in the forest, having sex, it’s about lovely retired ladies.” Although not met with the same critical acclaim as his first LP, Jake’s Progress still achieved its fair share of plaudits, with one journalist describing Thackray as nothing less than a North Country Noel Coward.
From this point onwards Thackray became, in earnest, a peripatetic folk singer (for want of a better phrase) who travelled extensively around the British Isles performing his songs in a multitude of clubs, pubs, and other types of venues. He was never a crowd-pleasing ‘act’ seeking to charm the punters with his magnetic show-biz personality, as can be gathered from his opening line at a night-club in Newcastle in 1969: “Hello, my name is JakeThackray and I sing songs about the human condition.” Even so, his intriguingly witty and curiously honest stage presence led to continuous gigging up and down the land, although, as he confessed to a journalist, his dream from early on in his performing career was to retire on his royalties to a remote Welsh cottage where he could write a “funny-odd novel” and generally indulge in “bits of this and that.” The Welsh cottage part came true at least when, in late 1969, he moved to the hamlet of Mitchel Troy Common a few miles from Monmouthshire, where he and his family stayed for the best part of twenty years.
More television and radio work followed alongside his live appearances until, in 1972, a third studio album appeared entitled Bantam Cock. By most estimations it is Thackray’s finest, not least for the musical arrangements which infuse the songs with a laconic jazz acoustic aura that perfectly complements them. The title track alone is worth the admission fee, with its tale of the adventures of an overly amorous fowl. Alongside this comedic gem with its zinger of a punchline, songs such as Go Little Swale and Old Molly Metcalfe showcase Thackray’s endearing talent for evoking the beautiful Yorkshire landscape and the people who inhabit it. Then, of course, there is Sister Josephine, a brilliantly accomplished tale of an escaped burglar who has been hiding out in a nunnery for fifteen years disguised as one of the Sisters, has introduced them to pontoon and --it has been noticed-- is oddly hirsute compared with the other nuns.
A year after the release of Bantam Cock came an event which, for Thackray, was the highlight of his career. In October 1973 he appeared at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff on the same bill as his hero Georges Brassens, the only time that the chansonnier ever sang on a British stage. Given that Thackray described Brassens as “easy, easy, the greatest songwriter in the world, bar none,” this meeting and their time together before and after the concert were moments to be treasured -- although in typically self-deprecating fashion Thackray turned down the chance to sing with the Frenchman on the night. Meanwhile, throughout the seventies Thackray’s occasional TV work continued even though it was a medium that he increasingly grew to loathe. Be that as it may, these appearances on the “flickering rectangle,” as he described the telly, have proven an invaluable fund of performances for posterity. It is a source of regret that all those hundreds of occasions when Thackray played to overcrowded folk clubs up and down the country went unrecorded, except for a few notable occasions which now form part of his discography. Although reviewers of these shows were often highly complimentary, if a little nonplussed --with one remarking that “Mr Thackray has a way with offensive songs which can almost render them drawing room material”-- Jake himself had begun to be worn down by the constant travelling. The diary he kept during this time offers an evocative insight into his peripatetic lifestyle with entries such as “Off to Boscombe Down. Unfindable. When I found it, unspeakable…Staggered through an hour, feeling more and more weary, wise-cracking quite nicely but very bored and tired with the job.” This draining existence as a solo performer was somewhat alleviated when Thackray took on Alan Williams as a double-bass accompanist and the two men embarked on a series of adventures together. These included one incident in 1982 when they went to perform for British forces in Germany and got their marching orders from the East German police, having inadvertently penetrated the Iron Curtain. Meanwhile, despite Williams' assistance, Thackray’s disenchantment and frustration at having to be a performer (although he used a more colourful term) were expressed in regular on-stage complaints about the expectation to keep the punters entertained between songs with humorous patter. As he told one audience:
“I like the job. I like being a singer...But, perversely enough, you can’t be a singer without having to talk…I’d just prefer to sing the songs one after the other; I sing, you go clap, I sing, you go clap…or not as the case may be. And for me the evening would trot away nice and briskly. Because if you don’t talk, people, I can see ‘em, they’re going 'Say, can’t the bugger talk.' Going home afterwards in the motor car I used to think 'How did you sing the songs? Well that was a bit duff' and then I thought 'What did you say in between?' And I remembered and then I started blushing…and there’s nothing worse than blushing to yourself in the dark.”
Ironically, however, in the style of his friends Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrot et al, over time the impromptu raconteur aspect of Thackray’s performances began to equal and, at times, outdo the musical content. Even so, this didn’t mean that his deep-seated antipathy to the time-honoured artificialities of show business grew any less prevalent, a case in point being his aversion to what he termed “the plastic encore” in which the audience applaud at the end of the show as the performers leave the stage, everyone knowing full well that the expectation is for them to reappear as the applause continues, or, as Thackray put it:
“We’ve marched off and the way we march off, you’re supposed to think to yourselves, ‘Well, good God. Those lads, by now they’re out to the bus stop…So in a spirit of politeness you carry on clapping for a bit…there’s the last few claps in you and suddenly we come swerving back on here and you’ve got to start all over again. We’ve been nowhere near the bus stop.”
As an antidote to the plastic encore, Thackray proposed as his final statement of the evening “That was the last song, goodnight, and we’re going to sing another one.”
Released in 1977, On Again! On Again! would be Thackray’s last studio album and one noticeably pervaded by the spirit of Brassens, to the point where, on two of the tracks, English-language adaptations of the Frenchman’s songs are credited as Brassens/Thackray. Although the title track is a product of its time in terms of its misogynistic premise --a man’s complaint about his excessively talkative wife-- such is the skill and humour with which Thackray laments her incessant chatter that the cleverly comedic lyrics override misgivings about sexism. Other tracks include the exquisitely reflective love song To Do With You and, in a similarly meditative vein, The Rain on the Mountainside, which sees Thackray once again eulogise the Yorkshire landscape. Meanwhile The Hair of the Widow of Bridlington is a tale at once charming, defiant, and edged with melancholy.
Around this time Thackray took more and more consolation in spending time with his family in Wales, but also began to experience writer's block. Although the live work continued, his television appearances after That’s Life became sparse. However, in 1980 the BBC offered him his own series, JakeThackray and Songs, which would be a triumphant last stand in the world of the flickering rectangle. Music journalist Ian Anderson described it thus: “filmed in folk clubs, sweating, hardworking, absolutely not compromising anything to be ‘safe’ for television, he brought the atmosphere of a packed club into our sitting rooms for the first time that I can remember.” In total the programme featured thirty of Thackray’s greatest songs, and by the time it ended in February 1981 it had given his career an unexpected boost, so that he made appearances on such diverse platforms as Radio 1, Nationwide and Tiswas --the latter mainly because his sons loved the show.
However, while this renewed interest seemed to herald interesting prospects for Thackray at the beginning of the 1980s, Thompson and Watterson note that “as the new decade dawned he was becoming unreliable.” This increasingly manifested itself in no-shows at gigs, much to the frustration of his agent, who relates that on one occasion Thackray stated that he’d been delayed by a snowdrift --even though it was the middle of August. Thackray would finally turn up at the respective venue weeks later, full of apologies, and offer to perform for free. This didn’t placate folk club owners, who grew wary of booking him. Increasingly, it seems, he grew tired of having to yet again perform his greatest hits at venues considerable distances away.
Then there was the drink. Having grown up in a heavy drinking culture Thackray had, over the years, developed an alcohol dependency which, up until his later life, he had more or less been able to disguise as social conviviality. His increasing frustration with performing meant that alcohol became a way to numb his anxieties. This eventually led to a parting of the ways with his agent, although he did continue to work both on stage and, under the auspices of producer Victor Lewis-Smith, on the radio. By 1986 Thackray had finally written enough new material to put together an album, but when offered a deal by a small record label, he chose not to go through with it. Eventually his financial situation suffered, and with bills unpaid, his house had to be re-mortgaged –although he had been offered fifteen thousand pounds to film a thirty-second commercial for a paint manufacturer, an opportunity that he turned down because of his socialist principles. Thackray’s column in the Yorkshire Post, beginning in February 1989, showed that he still retained his ability to captivate an audience with his lyrical storytelling, and allowed him to offer his unique take on all manner of subjects. However, his repeated failures to submit copy on time led to his contract being terminated although, surprisingly enough, the Catholic Herald then offered him a regular column which he entitled ‘View from the Pew.’
Thackray’s alternative career as an engagingly witty columnist eventually came to an end, due in no small part to his unreliability. Then in May 1990 he and his wife separated. With little money, Thackray moved into rented accommodation above a greengrocer’s shop. The flat was out of bounds to friends whom he would, instead, arrange to meet in pubs or cafes. With no agent or record contract, Thackray had to personally write to promoters and the BBC for work, but was continually rejected. His life revolved around Monmouth and its pubs, where he could still have the locals in fits of laughter with his tall tales. Under the stewardship of a new agent he did manage to perform at a series of small venues in the mid-1990s but, whilst still able to spin a hilarious yarn, he regularly forgot the words to his songs. By 1999 Thackray had vanished from public view, not least because he had slipped on a muddy bank whilst out walking and, in the process, broken both wrists, putting paid to guitar-playing for the foreseeable future. Friends and admirers in the media tried to contact him about new projects, but he proved impossible to get hold of or didn’t turn up for meetings, in spite of signs in the early 2000s that his work was being rediscovered by a whole new generation of fans. Eventually, in December 2002, Thackray died alone in his flat of a heart attack at the age of sixty-four.
Despite the sad ending to his life, when his demons finally swooped in en masse to overwhelm him, JakeThackray’s efforts to combat, expose, and ridicule such aspects of human experience with his formidable comic gifts and deep sense of compassion made him one of the most extraordinary singer-songwriters whom this country has ever produced. Although he took his inspiration from Brassens, Thackray’s body of work and performing style are uniquely entrancing in their own inimitable way. Not, however, that the man himself would have felt at ease with such eulogies or wanted to be mourned as a legendary performer who died too soon, as the defiant lyrics of his first album's title song, The Last Will and Testament of JakeThackray, demonstrate.--Mark Jones