Isn’t it funny how frequently inspiration comes from the most unexpected of corners? Who would have thought that my latest musical obsession would have stemmed from a chanced upon half hour programme…on Radio 4 of all things?
Until the point I heard Isy Suttie talking enthusiastically about Jake Thackray on the radio station’s Great Lives slot, I had never heard of Thackray at all. But I was immediately captivated by the snatches of his music played on the show and won over by the reverence shown him by both guest and presenter and so I went and bought myself a cheapo compilation of his songs straight away. However, until last week, and Nick’s ‘Bring Something That Isn’t An Album’ theme, I hadn’t actually got round to listening to it. In fact I almost didn’t at all. I thought we were planning to miss a week due to Nick’s imminent birth so I had ordered a couple of records that would have fitted the theme perfectly. Upon realising my mistake with the dates, though, I knew that my new purchases would not arrive in time so I thought, with low expectations it has to said, I would give Jake a go. I would never have guessed at the treasures contained within.
Thackray’s songs have left me spellbound. Utterly charming, witty and poetic but often cut through with pathos, they also have an honesty, an integrity that make them so, so hard to resist. Put it this way: within seconds of first song The Blacksmith and the Toffee Maker starting up, Thackray was already my latest hero. And that status was only strengthened when it became apparent that this was a man for whom seeking that status would be, genuinely, the last thing on his mind – Thackray’s modesty is obvious and is rendered by his infatuation with his songs’ characters, their tales and the sound and words of the English language in general that are on display throughout this compilation.
But Thackray’s music is also intriguingly hard to pin down. His background is interesting and sheds light on some of the juxtapositions of his music. Born in a poor part of Leeds in the late 1930s, Thackray became an English teacher upon leaving university and started out on his career in France teaching in Lille, Brittany and The Pyrenees. Whilst there he discovered a love for the songs of Jacques Brel and Georges Bresson, before heading back to the UK (via a brief stint in Algeria) to teach in a school in Leeds.
As a result you are frequently blindsided by his songs – English scenes are often tinged by the faintest echoes of Gallic chansons, irreverent one minute, heartrendingly melancholy the next, every word carries weight, every song tells a story; what seems at first to be seaside postcard smut is often turned on its head when the next line reveals a previously undisclosed double meaning. This is clever stuff, disarmingly simple music that reveals a hidden depth with lyrics that demand to be listened to, worked out and, crucially, enjoyed.
And I have enjoyed Thackray’s lyrics like little else I have heard. On the night, I printed out the lyrics to Thackray’s tour-de-force Lah-di-Dah for Rob and Graham to read through as the song played. I think these lyrics are amazing, not just because of the tale they tell (about a bridegroom telling his prospective bride how he will get along with her gruesome family for her sake) but because of the sound of the words themselves and their meter:
And I’ll smile and I’ll acquiesce
When she invites me to caress
Her scabby cat
There’s not a duff track on this compilation. If you don’t like the music, the story will have you in stitches (in Leopold Alcocks he rhymes wisteria with hysteria, Brasso with Picasso), if he plays it straight you’ll be close to tears (Old Molly Metcalfe, The Hair of The Widow of Bridlington). Accusations of misogyny miss the point – even though these were unenlightened times, I’m not so sure Thackray wasn’t being ironic all along. Besides, seeing as he’s now my latest hero, it’s better to switch off your PC detector and enjoy the magnificence of the wordplay, the luminosity of the music, the genius of the man, warts and all!
Rob listened: I love this club. I went through the same experience Tom describes above as Thackray accelerated from zero to hero in the space of two or three tracks, but with Tom as host rather than Matthew Paris.
And what a wonderful discovery. Ignoring the detail for now, Thackray – his songs and their delivery – was so redolent of aspects of the 1970s that I took in with mothers’ milk. Listening to this selection felt at times like having a past life uncovered. Which also brought some sadness. As we left after Round 75 was complete I wanted nothing more than to talk about Thackray with my father. I have no idea whether he was a fan, or even aware, other than knowing that he didn’t have any of his records. I feel sure however that he must have at least recalled him fondly. Dad was a Yorkshire man, like Thackray, and a fan on music and comedy that prized wordplay above simpler levers, from Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine in the 50s to Keith Michell and Dave Allen in the 80s. Dad’s also pretty much the only person I think I could reach out to have the conversation that would place Thackray where I want to see him in the context of the sounds behind my childhood house, the TV appearances on That’s Life! and the web of references and connections to others of the time. That’s not something I can do now.
I should return to the album and, in fact, that’s what I’ve been doing almost constantly this week. Jo’s sick of hearing ‘Lah Di Dah’ and of me pausing all chatter so she can register the beauty in the glottal brick wall Thackray powers his accent through during the last of the song’s three titular syllables.
I would take issue with Tom’s description of the music as ‘disarmingly simple’. It sounds pretty deft and complex to me, even, perhaps especially, when plucked out on a nylon-stringed guitar. But it’s Thackray’s words and their delivery that deliver the win here. It’s almost bracingly novel to hear someone deliver a lyric as a single, onward-questing tale. No verse, verse, chorus, verse here. Thackray is a balladeer in the old sense of the word, telling tales, finding titillation, bringing joy. And he’s funny too. The record is packed with details that warrant dwelling over, but one of my favourites is the pure comic genius in the slightly overwrought delivery of the line “I was amazed, and really rather tired”. This guiy knew how to wring a laugh.
That’s enough. You should hear this and hear it carefully. If you love the English language, and particularly if you or your parents set serious foot in the late 60s or early 70s, you’ll be entranced.