Jake Thackray

TrackAlbum
Lah-Di-DahThe Last Will And Testament Of ...
Jumble SaleThe Last Will And Testament Of ...
The Last Will And Testament Of ...The Last Will And Testament Of ...
Sister JosephineBantam Cock
The Black SwanThe Last Will And Testament Of ...
Brother GorillaBantam Cock
The Rain On The MountainsideOn Again! On Again!
ScallywagThe Last Will And Testament Of ...
On Again! On Again!On Again! On Again!
The Castleford Ladies' Magic CircleJake's Progress

 

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Jake Thackray playlist

 

 

 

Contributor: Duncan Harman

The joy of the musical misfit. Artists too idiosyncratic to slot neatly into canon. Not that Jake Thackray would necessarily welcome such a description – in part because he passed away in 2002, but primarily because he wasn’t a wilful maverick; wry when the prevailing wind was for earnest, and somewhat subversive within singer-songwriter parameters, yet it’s difficult to understand his work without acknowledging the awkward fit between aesthetic and the polyester dystopia of late 60s/early 70s Britain, where the chansonnier tradition was either a mild curiosity or foreign, francophone muck that probably shouldn’t be trusted.

Thackray was a schoolteacher from Yorkshire; more Freddie Trueman or Geoffrey Boycott than Jacques Brel, thus tinged with what Alan Bennett – also raised in Leeds – delightfully described as ‘ee-ba-gummery’.

He also came to prominence as the musical turn on TV shows such as Braden’s Week and That’s Life! – the BBC’s weird consumer affairs/Britain’s Got Talent hybrid that clogged up the airwaves because polyester and dystopia. The uncomfortable figure hunched upon a stool; he plucks the nylon strings of his acoustic guitar, enunciation strangely clipped, his lyrics generating titters from an audience more attuned to the occasional saucy phrase than any satirical inflexion.

In many respects such appearances downplay the nuance inherent in his material; perspiring beneath the studio lights wasn’t his natural habitat. Instead, Jake works best as intimate storyteller. Song as narrative, not light entertainment. As with his beloved Georges Brassens – the French troubadour who heavily influenced his style – Thackray considered himself a poet-singer, which sounds pretentious when not referencing Leonard Cohen, yet as a term it illuminates his work quite neatly; the phraseology, the pace behind each track, and above all else the wordplay he used to portray parochial backdrops – jumble sales, farmyards, civic gatherings – as venues for darkness, potency and sexual frustration.

Idiosyncratic. He spent time in France as a young man, learned the guitar as an adult, played it in a style more akin to classical than folk or rock ‘n’ roll. Having emerged from the Yorkshire folk club circuit he was spotted by EMI producer Norman Newell, who at first paired him with an orchestra, possibly in an attempt to site him firmly in the Brel tradition. This resulted in the 1967 LP The Last Will And Testament Of Jake Thackray; a strange yet fascinating record full of odd cadences – it’s not that the orchestration is unsympathetic, but you can tell that the songs weren’t written with such accompaniment in mind.

Lah-Di-Dah (one of several tracks he also recorded in French, his accent impeccable) introduces the playfulness that typifies his material, the characters he sketches – in this instance the family of his newly intended – familiar grotesques. “I’ll bill and coo with your gruesome Auntie Susan. I’ll stay calm, I’ll play it cool.” He refers to his future mother-in-law as “a crabby old batface,” bemoans his other new relations, yet it’s all executed with tongue firmly in cheek and a wonderful touch of tenderness, each verse punctuated with a floated aside: “I love you very much”.

Matters of the heart are recurring themes in his songs. As is religion; a devout catholic, it’s possible to detect a theological melancholy stalking the lyrics. However, he approaches these themes at quirky, oblique angles; a storyteller’s sense of flow married to the satirist’s capacity to view everything as ridiculous. “My love life was as humble as my features when I stumbled on the Jumble Sale” – also on Last Will And Testament – with its proffered smile amidst the blouses and old pyjama-tops. The Last Will And Testament Of Jake Thackray (see top clip) is a breezy appeal not to mourn him without a smile. “When I turn up my toes, when I rattle my clack … I want no great wet weepings, no tearing of hair, no wringing of hands.”

Sister Josephine – from 1972’s Bantam Cock – parodies the ecumenical with its tale of an unusual nun. By this stage – from second album Jake’s Progress onwards – Thackray had reverted to the intimacy of guitar/double bass accompaniment; a sound that far better complimented his delivery. On Sister Josephine, with its pared-back musicality, it’s as if he’s challenging his fruity baritone to process as many inventive rhymes for the titular nun as it can handle – a task it accomplishes with aplomb.

Such verbal dexterity has a drawback of course: Jake remembered as a purveyor of witty – and occasionally bawdy – vignettes, when much of his material carries emotional depth and an anthropological outlook. The Black Swan is steeped in heartbreak; it may be set in a Yorkshire hostelry (“One more pint, landlord, of your very, very best bitter”), yet both its despair and musical fit arrive as continental in flavour. It’s also a song divorced from hope, the protagonist’s conclusion – in what would turn out to be prophetic – steeped in alcohol.

Brother Gorilla – an adaptation of Brassens’ Le Gorille – may at first glance appear to be one of Thackray’s several, animal-centric whimsies, yet its satirical undercurrents are biting; metaphor wielded as a weapon. The Rain On The Mountainside visits another recurring scene: the countryside – or rather, the composure with which uncomplicated people go about a rural life framed by its bleakness. It’s social commentary – wrapped in this instance by a soundtrack not a million miles away from Joni Mitchell – but Thackray never bludgeons the listener; even a track such as Scallywag – “Blackguard of the neighbourhood, no good, you scandalise, your name is mud” – uses snobbery and class to pillory the very same people cocking snooks in the subject’s direction, but in a manner that isn’t overt or hectoring. Socialist, Catholic, and a man beholden to the subtleties behind story; there was a hell of a lot going on.

In real life Thackray could also be something of a difficult character, and some of his material can be equally as complex. On Again! On Again! arrives with one of those Howitzer opening lines you rarely get this side of an Arab Strap lyric – “I love a good bum on a woman, it makes my day.” The second line, and there’s a pun – in Latin; a Jesuit education never leaves. The song however is essentially about that tired, ugly trope: the nagging harridan. “Give some women the ghost of a chance to talk and thereupon they go on again, on again …” This is obviously problematic – even at the time he faced accusations of chauvinism – yet he then subjugates the sexism by stating “Please understand I respect and admire the frailer sex, and I honour them every bit as much as the next misogynist.” Is Jake citing his questionable view of women, or does his knowing acknowledgement of such lazy sexism suggest something post-modern is in play – a reflection of the social/stereotypical attitudes of the period, perhaps? If he painted grotesques, then none were exaggerated as much as himself.

His story lacks the happy ending. Introverted and not one for the trappings of fame, he increasingly grew to fear live performance, just as he fell out of love with music itself. By the early ’90s he’d become something of a recluse, reliant on his faith and the bottle; when he died, at the age of 64, he’d been partially forgotten, and it wasn’t until the 6 Music generation ‘rediscovered’ him that his legacy was fully appreciated. But a smile to finish with – The Castleford Ladies’ Magic Circle.

It’s not an especially substantial track, and doesn’t ripple with acerbic wordplay in quite the same way as other songs, but the mental imagery it conjures is a delight. “The Castleford Ladies’ Magical Circle meets tonight,
in an upstairs aspidistra’d room that’s lit by candlelight.” The provincial setting, the jam and Jerusalem trimmings, a house plant as verb – it’s all a set up: “Elizabeth Jones and Lily O’Grady, and three or four more married ladies, are frantically dancing naked for Beelzebub.” The suburbanite black mass (with a great pay-off at the end of the final verse); it’s a wonderful proposition, sitting within both the same Northern sensibility as the humour of Victoria Wood and the Franco-Belgian troubadour tradition. Absolutely idiosyncratic, but never a contradiction.

 

 

Jake Thackray photo

Jake Thackray (1938–2002)

 

The Jake Thackray Website

Jake In A Box: The EMI Recordings 1967-1976 (4CD box set)

“Jake On The Box” BBC TV documentary produced by Victor Lewis-Smith

Jake Thackray: a tribute by Ralph McTell

Jake Thackray biography (iTunes)

An occasional writer for the music press, Duncan Harman loiters on Twitter at @lazerguidedblog

TopperPost #785

3 Comments

  1. Ian Ashleigh
    May 2, 2019

    Thank you Duncan, possibly an overdue appreciation of Jake Thackray.
    Harvey Andrews and Jake Thackray were great friends, in 1986 Harvey Andrews released an album Old Mother Earth which featured a song ‘Me and Jake’. I could not find an audio of the song but I did find this transcription of the lyric on a German website. The idea of Andrews as Brel and Thackray as Brassens was always intriguing.

  2. Paul Thompson
    May 2, 2019

    Thank you for this excellent piece of writing. More people need to know about Jake – he is a lost national treasure.

  3. Andrew Shields
    May 3, 2019

    A fascinating piece. Didn’t know much about Jake before this but really enjoyed all of these selections. Also, from watching some of his live clips, he could have had an alternative career as a stand-up comedian.

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