Jake Thackray: A Retrospective (Including Interviews with Ian Watson and Ian McMillan)
As a new musical based on the work of the singer-songwriter Jake Thackray prepares to tour nationally in 2006, following a successful run in Yorkshire, we take a look back at the English chansonnier’s unjustly-neglected achievement.
Jake Thackray, who died in 2002, was an accomplished guitarist and a lyricist of great charm, delivering in his trademark dark-brown voice a wide variety of witty songs about human foibles. These range from tender love ballads to celebrations of eccentric characters, whether accident-prone relatives, lovelorn blacksmiths, or criminals dressed up as nuns to avoid detection. Thackray loved to counterpoint his down-to-earth voice with refined tangos, waltzes or polkas. For example, in Lah-Di-Dah, his most famous song, he contrasts an elegant dance tune with a wry lyric about an antagonised young man resigning himself to the prospect of having to put on airs for the benefit of his fiancée’s irritating middle-class family. His diction was impeccable; listening to him sing in his magnificent, almost baroque Yorkshire accent with its rolling r’s, we are reminded of what an expressive instrument the English language can be. Shrewd, compassionate, and full of earthy humour, Thackray’s songs are unique in English music.
Despite the extremely English (and beyond that, Yorkshire) characters with whom most of his work is concerned, Thackray’s work shows a decidedly Gallic musical influence, blending his distinctive home-grown vocals with a continental guitar style. According to Ian Watson, one of his closest friends and the producer of the new musical based on his work, Sister JosephineKicks the Habit, this similarity to chanson was not accidental: “After graduating from Hatfield College, Durham University, with an honours degree in Modern Languages, Jake spent some years teaching in France. It was during this period that he got to know and love the work of Georges Brassens, who was very much the top man in popular music in France at the time. Jake started teaching himself the guitar and composing his own songs… under the influence (albeit at that stage a distant influence) of Brassens. A good few years later, when Jake was back in the UK and had spent some time teaching in Leeds, he… was approached one night after a concert in Cardiff by a university lecturer, Colin Evans, who …was in fact a friend of Brassens. Before very much longer, Jake, too, was a friend of Brassens.”
This explains how Thackray came to evolve a type of song that combined lyrics with clever, almost Cowardian rhymes with a French guitar-style: three parts Swaledale to one part cabaret sophistication. Nevertheless, in spite of his friendship with Brassens and his own career as a solo performer, he remained a very retiring and shy individual, something that Watson attributes to his upbringing: “It's only conjecture, but I suspect this was rooted in the fact that he was brought up by Jesuits to have a very keen, some would say exaggerated, sense of guilt, which was not helped, apparently, by a very strict mother who never gave him credit for any achievement, insisting that he should give thanks to God for any success which came his way.” It may have had something to do as well with the way he was received by the public, and his ambiguous position in English music: "It's...quite likely that he got trapped by his own reputation as the writer and singer of very funny, sometimes 'naughty' songs, when a lot of what he wanted to say was very serious and deeply poetic. Because the UK does not have the sort of music-halls that you find in Paris, dedicated to a long tradition of popular, serious song, Jake had to settle for adoption by the folk clubs, which happily looked after him but into which he fitted uneasily.”
Thackray never abandoned his Catholic heritage, despite his upbringing: “Jake remained a committed Roman Catholic until the day he died: it was very much in his bloodstream and many of his intros, when he was performing live, referred to Catholic life at length. What is often forgotten, too, is that when he gave up performing in the early 90s, he took on a weekly column in the Yorkshire Post for four years. [It] was often brilliant and again frequently referred to matters Catholic.”
During the 1960s and 1970s Thackray performed a weekly spot, as a writer of topical songs, for light programmes on BBC television. This did not bring him stardom, though it did afford him some measure of success. When we contrast his situation with the status enjoyed by his French counterpart, the ironic and iconic Brassens, the disparity is startling. It cannot have had anything to do with talent, for Thackray was as gifted as Brassens. When Watson is asked why Thackray did not get more recognition than he did, this is his response: “Mainly, I guess, because he didn't fit any existing pigeonhole. Television didn't really know what to do with him. Singing a weekly point number for Frost or Braden or Rantzen was never going to get anywhere near his real talent; the tradition of song he was coming from was European, when the tradition finding favour in the UK was American; and whatever the venue he performed in, he was always the square peg in a round hole.”
Nevertheless, Watson is optimistic that Thackray’s music may be finding more success now: “There is a massive resurgence of interest in Jake's work already. BBC4 TV has commissioned Victor Lewis-Smith's Associated Rediffusion Television to produce an hour-long tribute to Jake for transmission at the end of the summer, hopefully with a repeat on BBC2. And… Sister Josephine Kicks the Habit is playing to packed houses, with...a major national tour in 2006 looking ever more likely.” –Isabel Taylor
Ian McMillan, official poet for Barnsley FC and a BBC commentator, was a writer for Sister Josephine Kicks the Habit. We talked to him about his involvement with the show.
How and why did you become involved with the production of Sister Josephine Kicks the Habit?
I got a letter from the producer Ian Watson asking me if I'd like to be involved. I was intrigued and excited straight away, and I wanted to be part of the project.
Were you familiar with Thackray's work before you worked on the show?
I was aware of Jake, but I didn't know his work as intimately as some people do. Writing the play has certainly opened my eyes to his genius.
How would you describe Jake Thackray's music to somebody who had never heard it before? What makes it unique?
As a poet, I can see how good his words are. He really knows how to play with words and make them do exactly what he wants. I love the way he plays with vowels. Listening to the songs over and over again made me realise what a master he was at placing vowels in just the right place to build atmosphere and mood.
Do you think that Thackray evokes a certain type of regional identity in his songs? If so, how would you define it?
There's something you might call Northern in the songs, but it also feels oppositional: in opposition to the establishment, to wherever the seat of power happens to be.
When you composed the dialogue for the show, did you consciously try to write it in the Thackray idiom?
I wanted to make the dialogue meaty and full of wordplay: the kind of dialogue that Jake might appreciate, if not write.
What do you hope to achieve with this project? Are you happy with the response to the musical so far?
I'm very happy with the response. I hope the musical tours the country and informs loads of people about Jake and his work.
Do you see this as a uniquely Yorkshire production, or do you believe that it will have a wider appeal in the rest of the country?
I think time will tell, but I'm sure it can tour nationally, if not internationally!
Interviews conducted by Isabel Taylor. Many thanks to Ian Watson and Ian McMillan for their time, and to Sarah Willans for helping to arrange the interviews.
The Fall Live at the Witch Trials Dragnet Grotesque Totales Turn A Part of America Therein, 1981 Hex Enduction Hour Room to Live Perverted By Language 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong The Complete Peel Sessions Sanctuary Records (all).
Sanctuary records have started an epic remastering of the Fall’s back catalogue. Led by the manic Mark E. Smith, the Fall have recorded over 25 albums, and performed more sessions for legendary DJ John Peel than any other band. Their music tends to focus on the darker side of English life, with Smith casting his cynical eye over anything and everything that takes his fancy and dissecting it with a world-weary drawl. The band are still going today, and Mark E. Smith must be admired if for no other reason than that he’s the eternal square peg and is still refusing to compromise over twenty years since the first Fall album hit shops. As these remastered albums, a new compilation, and a collection of everything the band ever recorded for John Peel demonstrate, Smith’s influence on the entire English underground cannot be underestimated or dismissed. The albums have been remastered and reissued before on various labels, but Sanctuary have stepped in to provide Fall fans with Definitive Edition remasters, rendering the lo-fi punk as clear as a bell, and, with extensive sleeve notes, providing the fascinating story behind this complex and unique band.
The Fall’s first two LPs are bolstered by an array of bonus tracks and live performances. Live at the Witch Trials is a well-performed, well-produced piece of music, signposting the path along which punk merged into new wave and the whole scene dissolved into itself. Mark E. Smith sounds fresh, vital, and mental on this record.
Dragnet, the second album, again features bonus material and expands on its predecessor’s quiet brilliance, while pulling some more tricks into the ring.
I've always wondered about the attraction of the Fall, and now, after listening to these two great agit-rock albums instead of the numerous live bootlegs or reissued compilations, I can understand it.
First released on Rough Trade in 1980, Grotesque was their third record. Subversive, cynical, and loud, it offers the first realisation of Mark E Smith’s grand vision; everything, in fact, that the Sex Pistols threatened but never promised to deliver.
Totales Turn showcases the Fall recorded live at various different concerts. Raw, edgy, and unpredictable, this is rock’n’roll at its most primitive, with nothing but the music and the message left. It is an exceedingly good collection of vintage Fall.
A Part of America Therein features the 1981 Fall line-up, with Mark E. Smith, Karl Burns, Stephen Hanley, Mark Riley and Craig Scanlon ripping their way through America. Originally released as an American-only album before later sneaking its way into the UK on import, this expanded edition sees the sound cleared up, and bonus tracks recorded on the same tour thrown in for good measure. Caustic, rocking, and enjoyable, it is indispensable as a companion piece to the Fall’s studio albums of the time.
Hex Enduction Hour from 1982 is regarded as the band’s first bona fide classic album, and rightly so. This is a superb recording, with Mark E. Smith at his scintillating best, and a fascinating document of a band out of time. With an obligatory bonus disc of B-sides, live performances and Peel sessions, this remaster is dedicated to the memory of John Peel himself.
How do you follow a triumph like Hex Enduction Hour? If you’re a normal band, you record more of the same and milk the cash cow. If, however, you’re the Fall, you record the perverse Room to Live, which is as different from Hex as possible. There is a more scattershot approach to recording technique on this album; material like Solicitor in Studio and Marquis Cha Cha are recorded almost live, and have a spontaneous, back-to-basics sound to them. Inspired by England in 1982, this album takes on topics like the Falklands war, suburban living and TV punditry. Hardly ever mentioned by casual listeners, this album is a little gem hiding away in the Fall catalogue.
By 1983 Brix Smith (guitar and vocals, and wife to Mark E. Smith) had replaced Mark Riley on guitar, and her influence is felt on Perverted By Language. The album itself seems more spartan than before: the stripped-down sound of Room to Live coming to its natural conclusion. It has very little, content-wise, to do with the Hex era, but it didn’t hold any clues either as to where the band was going next. To say that it was a holding statement may be taking it a bit far, but there is certainly no other album like this in the Fall canon. A difficult listen initially, it is a record that grows on you.
“Oh no, not another Fall compilation,” I can hear you moan. Well, yes, it is another Fall compilation, but for the first time in the band’s long and varied career, it is fully endorsed by Smith. Not only that, 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong is fully chronological, starting back in 1978 with Repetition from their debut EP, right through to Green Eyed Loco Man from last year’s great The Real New Fall LP. Thirty-nine tracks from their years with Rough Trade, the successful Beggars Banquet years, and the chart-bothering Fontana period are all covered on two discs and well-written sleeve notes. A complete discography is also included. This is the first Fall compilation to survey the years 1978-2004, and it is a fan’s dream, with cherry-picked classic Fall moments including The Man Whose Head Expanded, Hit the North, Telephone Thing and Touch Sensitive. I have previously been critical of endless compilations, but this one raises the bar and might as well be subtitled A Beginner’s Guide to the Fall. Faultless.
The magnificent The Complete Peel Sessions box set contains twenty-four sessions, with ninety-seven tracks that span twenty-six years. Here are tracks from every line-up and every album, from the beginning Futures and Past to the closing Job Search. All the key tracks (Guest Informant, Kurious Oranj) make this a potted history of the Fall.
There will never be another Mark E. Smith, whose current Fall line-up is still touring the world and bringing his unique world-view into the houses of the holy. He remains the ultimate outsider, the rebel’s rebel, and one of the most interesting songwriters and observers of English life that we have. He should be revered for his contribution to the past twenty-five-plus years of music. Long may he continue his dogged individual, perverse path, bringing a touch of humour and intelligence to a scene that every so often threatens to eat itself. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Fall.—James Turner
Widely regarded as one of the greatest English dance bands, Tickled Pink returns with a triumphant and occasionally tongue-in-cheek take on English music. A seven-piece outfit comprising Simon Care (melodeon and concertina), Rob Kay (keys, vocals and recorder), Trevor Landen (bass and vocals), Gerald Claridge (electric guitar and vocals), Guy Fletcher (drums, fiddle, mandolin and vocals) and Mark Hutchinson (lead vocals, electric and acoustic guitar), they cover material that is astonishing in its depth and diversity, from a straight cover of the mighty Jez Lowe’s highly political anti-war song Japs and English to an interesting interpretation of The Model (yes, the Kraftwerk classic) which elicits a smile as well as an urge to dance. The high point of the album, however, is the tour de force Nees for Speed (feat. Speed the plough). Energetic and powerful, it is the sound of a band pushing forwards. The last two tracks provide the best closing to an album that I’ve ever heard, from the political folk-punk rant of Apathy, which sounds like the best song Joe Strummer never wrote, to Soldier’s Joy, which has to be heard to be believed and is contemporary English dance music in its truest form, mixing the best of traditional and electro dance and coming up with something original that benefits both genres. This is a mighty, mighty album.
Northeast dance band Whapweasel’s third album Relentless put them on the national scene with its vibrant performances and innovative arrangements, and won them Best Dance Band of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. This, their fourth album, gives us more epic performances and wilder arrangements, without losing the subtlety and style that made them so successful to begin with.
The current line-up includes Brian Bell (bass and djembe), Heather Bell (keyboards), Mike Coleman (acoustic and electric cittern, mandolin, and acoustic guitar) Stuart Finden (tenor sax), Robin Jowett (melodeons), Fiona Littlewood (tenor and soprano sax), Bob Wilson (drums/percussion), and Steeleye Span’s Rick Kemp moonlighting on electric guitar.
The band’s main strength is the versatility that this diverse line-up gives them; the brass provides them with new twists to old ideas, and the more traditional sound adds to the appeal of their hybrid style of dance music. Here is a spiritual successor to the likes of the Morris On albums. With superb material like To the Trees, Hanging Off The Edge, Polka Dynamo: Charismatron and Toots Suite, this is the best record that Whapweasel have made yet. If you like the new wave of English dance music, then you’ll love this album. It’s brilliant.
You may recall that I mentioned Mawkin a few months ago, when I raved about their demo CD. Now their debut six-track EP has landed on the doorstep, and it is clear from listening to it that the lads have taken a tremendous leap forward: they now sound absolutely amazing. The band consists of David Delarre on guitar, Jamie Delarre on fiddle, Alex Goldsmith on melodeon and Danny Crump on bass. The sound is confident, clear, and refreshing, that of four talented musicians working in harmony with each other and allowing each other room to breath. The album provides some superb moments of musical synchronicity, from the opener Saint Anne’s Reel/Lexy Macaskill, to the gentler sounds of Enviken’s Waltz/The Pernod Waltz, and the superb closing set Something about Tents/A Tent Deficit Syndrome. This is a major statement of intent (no pun intended) from Mawkin, who are one of the best of the many new talents now hitting the roots scene.
This trio made their mark last year with an amazing performance at the Cropredy Festival, which launched them onto the acoustic scene. The group, made up of sisters Danni, 19, and Beth, 13 (both vocals and guitars), along with their friend Helen, 18 (bass guitar), have now released their debut CD, containing tracks all composed by Danni.
With a confident, mature sound that belies the girls’ ages, this is an absolutely superb first album. Unique strident vocals and some incredibly strong songs make this an easy album to like and a difficult album to stop playing. Tom McGrath’s help on keyboards and drums fleshes out the sound without being intrusive, while tracks like Blank Literature (my favourite), Darling, the title track and the stunning Pretty Eyes all showcase a major new talent-in-waiting. With the right concerts and radio play, these girls could reach the level of success that they deserve. Here is a major release from an exciting new band.
John Renbourn The Black Balloon CMRCD1063 The Nine Maidens CMRCD1062 The Guitar of John Renbourn CMRCD1124
The John Renbourn Group The Enchanted Garden CMRCD1123 Castle Music (all albums; remastered series)
Four of guitar legend John Renbourn’s later Transatlantic recordings, which cover the latter part of an ongoing career at the pinnacle of acoustic guitar playing, receive the remastering treatment.
The Black Balloon (1979), Renbourn’s first collection of Elizabethan music since 1970’s The Lady and the Unicorn, is a delight from start to finish, mingling traditional material like The Moon Shines Bright with original pieces such as The Pelican and the title track to create a beautiful album of acoustic guitar music, with suitable accompaniment from Tony Roberts on flute and Stuart Gordon on tabors.
The Nine Maidens (1985), of which the title track is the centre-piece, is a celebration of South-West music and lore. Some guitarists might drift off into self-parody, but this doesn’t happen to Renbourn; a deftness of touch, an intimate knowledge and love of the surroundings that create this music, and above all the skill required to make a record like this hang together are all evident in this overlooked gem from the mid-eighties.
This excellent reissue series continues with The Guitar of John Renbourn, made in 1977 for Keith Prowse Music’s collection of specially-recorded instrumental passages for the film, television and radio industry, and appearing here in its first commercial release. The acoustic guitar is Renbourn’s forte, and the twelve tracks on this album showcase his versatility and mastery of many different styles, with vocals on several songs from Jacqui McShee. This is an interesting addition to the Renbourn catalogue.
1980’s EnchantedGarden saw Renbourn joined again by McShee. The album also features John Molineux on vocals, dulcimer, and other instruments, Tony Roberts on flute and vocals, and Indian musician Keshav Sathe on tabla and percussion. A combination of traditional folk songs beautifully sung by McShee (Plains of Waterloo, Maid On the Shore), mediaeval music, a familiar Renbourn staple (Douce Dame Jolie, Belle Qui Tiens Ma Vie/Tourdion), and the final track Sidi Brahim with its Indian overtures showcase the virtuosity, talent, and breadth of style of this group. It is a superb album throughout.
With sleeve notes from acclaimed folk writer David Suff, these are essential reissues for acoustic guitar fans.
Eliza Carthy and the Ratcatchers Rough Music Topic Records TSCD554
Eliza Carthy returns with the stunning follow-up to 2002’s Anglicana. Ploughing a similar furrow of English music, with the addition of Anglicised versions of tunes by John McCusker and Mike McGoldrick, the album takes its title from a form of village justice: when a man was perceived to have done something bad, people would converge on his house in the middle of the night, banging on pots and pans. Thankfully the music on this disc is far more melodious, featuring the musicianship of not only Ms. Carthy, but her long-term collaborator Ben Ivitsky and the duo John Spiers and Jon Boden (who are also behind the amazing record Bellowhead). From a cover of Billy Bragg’s King James Version to original arrangements of material like The Gallant Hussar, this is English music at its very best, presented and performed by four of the most innovative and exciting musicians on the scene at the moment. Perhaps because they have toured so much and worked so closely together, the sound here is organic and rich. The album represents yet another triumph for Eliza, who gets better and better with each release.
Rainbow Chasers Some Colours Fly Talking Elephant TECD073
This new project from Ashley Hutchings is a wonderful acoustic collection. Hutchings provides his distinctive vocals and steady hand on the bass, but keeps a fairly low profile on this release, allowing his younger protégés to fly.
The superb twin female vocals of Jo Hamilton (who also plays viola, acoustic guitar, and keys) and Ruth Angell (who plays acoustic guitar, fiddle, violin and shaker) send shivers down the spine when they soar, particularly on the beautiful Ghosts in the Rain, inspired by a sonnet by the American poet Edna St.Vincent Millay. Their performances are matched by Mark Hutchinson (vocals, guitars, mandolin and keyboards), which makes for a potent vocal combination when all four sing together.
They are all superb songwriters and performers, and there isn’t a bad track on this album. In his five-decade career Hutchings has been renowned for talent-spotting, responsible for discovering talents such as Sandy Denny and John Tams. The individual musicians on this album may well be his greatest discovery yet. --James Turner
Rock and Pop Releases
Jeff Beck Group Truth EMI Records 8737492
The first Jeff Beck Group album, Truth, was responsible for introducing the world to Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. It was maverick guitarist Beck’s first project after leaving The Yardbirds, whose shadow looms over this collection, particularly the opening, an unrecognisably heavy Shapes of Things. Mining a rich blues-rock seam that Led Zeppelin (whose debut album appeared six months after Truth) would exploit more successfully in the seventies, the epic Morning Dew and a slew of blues classics, as well as some oddball covers, ensure Truth’s place in the classic blues-rock pantheon. This is a stunning album.
Alan Hull We Can Swing Together: The Anthology 1965-1995 Castle Music CMEDD946
Here is a thorough overview of the career of Lindisfarne member Hull, who also made a name for himself as a singer-songwriter of no small measure, penning the evergreen We Can Swing Together, Lady Eleanor, and Fog On The Tyne.
Castle have done Hull proud, gathering together material from solo albums Squire and Pipe Dream, and his last record before his sudden death of a heart attack, Statues and Liberties. His unique voice is given free rein here, and we can only wonder what artistic heights he might have scaled had he lived.
Various Artists Immediate Mod (Box Set) Castle Music CMETD1078
Here is a superb three-disc set from Castle/Sanctuary that does exactly what it promises on the tin, covering the best (and the rest) of the ‘Swinging London’ Mod music released on Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label.
The more obvious tracks include Tin Soldier by the Small Faces, the legendary Angel of the Morning by P. P. Arnold, and Micky by Twinkle, all nestling alongside obscure songs like She Was Perfection by Murray Head, as well as material by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Tony McPhee, and Chris Farlowe. With informative sleeve notes and 50 tracks covering all elements of the Mod scene in the late sixties, this is a great introduction to the music, and to Immediate, which, it could be argued, was the first great independent record label.--James Turner