The legend of Jake

Jake Thackray? Wasn't he that chap who sang saucy songs on That's Life in the Sixties? Yes, says our poet-in-residence Martin Newell, but this anarchistic Yorkshireman was also the country's finest chansonnier - and one of the great tragedies of British popular music
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I can't remember how we got onto the subject of old light entertainment shows on TV. Perhaps it's just something that chaps of middling age do. But suddenly, a light went on in my companion's eyes and leaning towards me with the air of a connoisseur he said: "You remember Jake Thackray, do you? I've got loads of his recordings. I can make you copies of some if you want - many of them aren't very available anymore."

I can't remember how we got onto the subject of old light entertainment shows on TV. Perhaps it's just something that chaps of middling age do. But suddenly, a light went on in my companion's eyes and leaning towards me with the air of a connoisseur he said: "You remember Jake Thackray, do you? I've got loads of his recordings. I can make you copies of some if you want - many of them aren't very available anymore."

A few days later, when a CD compilation arrived, I was still only mildly curious. I remembered Thackray from my young teens in the late Sixties, as the musical relief on popular TV shows such as That's Life and its forerunner, Braden's Week. He sang witty, sometimes near-the-knuckle songs about randy cockerels, country buses and libidinous gorillas. A dark, saturnine-looking Yorkshireman, he played a nylon-string guitar held upright on his knee and blinked into the camera as he enunciated his lyrics in a gulping velvet baritone. To me and to most of my Who 'n' Kinks-obsessed mates he was that bloke off the telly that sang the funny songs - a bit unhip but well worth watching.

Now though, listening back to this collection of his songs - a few of which I half-remembered - I was struck by how affecting many of them were, how deft and unusual his guitar style was and, chiefly, how ingenious were his lyrics. What I heard when I began to listen to his words... There were rhymes, internal rhymes, neatly tailored codas and all manner of rule-breaking, scansion-defying curlicues. This was a master songwriter. How had I missed out on him? Why had I never heard him on Radio 2 - especially now that other "neglected" properties such as Nick Drake and Clifford T Ward had all been so carefully renovated? One or two of my other contacts came out of the closet as Thackray fans and furnished me with further missing pieces of the jigsaw, until finally, in one crackly over-recorded form or another, I'd amassed 75 songs. And so began my tentative attempts to unravel the ball of string that was Jake Thackray, English chansonnier.

Jake Thackray died in Monmouth, Wales on Christmas Eve 2002, aged 63. His life had ended in straitened circumstances, for a man who'd notched up more than 1,000 radio and TV appearances during his maytime. The singer-songwriter, who'd been declared bankrupt two years earlier, was reportedly ill with alcoholism. At some point during the two decades preceding his death, he'd begun to lose all confidence in his playing, his songwriting and, by the sound of it, himself.

Shortly before his death, a group of his fans, made the pilgrimage to Monmouth, where Jake gamely posed for photographs with them. In his youth and well into early middle age, Jake Thackray had been a moodily handsome man with a strong bone-structure. Although he was Yorkshire born and bred, anyone might have been forgiven, having been shown a picture of the dark-eyed young singer, for guessing that he was southern French or possibly Spanish. The pictures that I studied now, however, showed a man who might have been a roofer with a drink problem. His once-strong jaw was blurred by a classic alcohol oedema; his once-upright posture was stooping and painfully apologetic. Worst of all and most shocking in close-up, were his eyes, now craters of deep-seated melancholy. He was almost unrecognisable. I found the pictures unbearably sad.

Born in Leeds, shortly before the onset of the Second World War, Thackray was brought up a Catholic and remained so throughout his life. In some ways, he was a typical beer-drinking, rugby-loving Yorkshireman, holding political views which were left-wing bordering on the anarchistic. These views later broke surface in the content of some of his songs - pomposity-pricking tales of cuckolded policemen and Blimpish old army officers. Where other songwriters might have veered into ranting stridency, however, Thackray's songs were always lent elegance by his sharp and sophisticated wit.

In another life, a bright lad such as he might have remained in Leeds, to become a popular schoolteacher - which he briefly was - and a better-than-average stalwart of his local folk club. Yet he didn't do that. He studied modern languages at Durham, spent two years teaching in Lille, and then later went to Algeria. It was France, though, that turned his head. It was there that he discovered chanson, that arcane and definitively French music form which is capable of encompassing storytelling, poetry and humour, often within the same narrative. More importantly, he discovered the work of Georges Brassens who became his hero, musical inspiration, friend and mentor.

Brassens, an anarchistic southern Frenchman from Sête was 18 years Thackray's senior and already a well-known star in France. It was said that every French home possessed at least one Brassens record. The young Frenchman, having left home in his late teens to seek his fortune in Paris, had spent part of the war in a German labour camp. After the war, he gradually made the transition from anti-establishment outsider to household name, without ever compromising his ideals. The young Yorkshireman was captivated by this chansonnier who had stayed close to his roots, even after he had achieved the fame of which he appeared so disdainful. It was said that Brassens once asked a radio station not to play his songs too frequently, lest they become cheapened by ubiquity.

In the early Sixties, while other young musicians of his age became intoxicated by music from across the Atlantic, Thackray fell head over heels for French chanson. When he returned to England, so fluent in French that he could successfully translate Brassens songs into English - Thackray had become to all intents and purposes, a chansonnier. When Brassens finally came to the UK for a single concert in 1973 - not to London but to Cardiff - Thackray described supporting Brassens there as the pinnacle of his career.

However fervently he flew the flag for the genius of his hero, Jake Thackray almost certainly didn't realise that during the process of his apprenticeship to the master chansonnier, he had actually developed a style of his own. In the mid-Sixties, his songs began to attract attention - at first in the folk clubs and then, with a regular slot on local regional TV - though Thackray, being Thackray, continued to teach. By the end of the decade, however, he was appearing on Saturday nights on national TV, and filling venues the size of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where his audiences would cheer him to the rafters. Typically recalcitrant, he refused to play the encore game: "That was my last song - now here's another one." And on being bathed in overhead stage lights: "These lights... D'you know, I feel like a Lancaster bomber."

Thackray was a funny man. Which made it all the more moving when he waxed serious - for instance, singing a wrenching song about a young shepherdess who froze to death, counting in Cumbrian dialect while she did so. It was the sucker punch. You were laughing along with him and suddenly he might deliver a touching song about married love, or about a widow whose malicious neighbours had cut off her hair. Jake could do serious. Jake could tell a story. And therein may have lain one of his main problems.

A chansonnier can sing a funny song, sing a serious song, declaim a poem or tell a story - all of them at once if needs be. It's what a chansonnier does. But the job description doesn't exist in our country. Comedy over here is a cul-de-sac out of which it is almost impossible to reverse. Take Billy Connolly, for instance, an excellent musician and a good actor. Could he fill the Albert Hall, seven nights on-the-trot for a music concert? Or Jasper Carrott, a good guitarist, songwriter and former mainstay of folkclubs in his younger days? Or Victoria Wood, a fabulous musician and great songwriter? Could they do it? So it was that Jake Thackray for a wider TV-viewing public who had never seen him live, remained that bloke off the telly who did the funny songs - or even worse, a novelty artist.

In the platinum-shifting musical age of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Thackray's albums sold steadily, if not hugely. It was easier to say what his music wasn't, than what it was. He was a Yorkshire chansonnier with a folk/flamenco guitar style who utilised jazz-chords. But he wasn't jazz. Nor was he, in the strictest terms, folk. And he certainly wasn't rock. Veteran producer Norman Newell (no relation) did his valiant best with much of Thackray's recorded output. Some of the studio recordings, to modern ears at least, might now sound slightly dated, straying tweedily close to easy listening in places. And yet, by virtue of his lyrics alone, easy listening was the one thing that many of Jake Thackray's songs could never be.

Fortunately, a reasonable amount of live recordings exists and it's with these that the essence of his wayward genius can be appreciated. The closer in the listener gets, the sharper the details of his songs become. There's a very good case, on some inspired future day, for someone, somewhere, to put together a definitive, celebratory Jake Thackray compilation, à la Heaven In A Wild Flower, the album which posthumously brought Nick Drake closer to the mass appeal he missed out on in his lifetime.

In the meantime, a musical based round his work, Sister Josephine Kicks The Habit, which Thackray was working on at the time of his death, will open at Helmsley in Yorkshire on 24 May and then go on to the Swaledale Festival before touring nationally. His hardcore fans run yearly "Jake-fests" in various parts of the country and Thackray's songs continue to be played in folk clubs by anyone brave enough to take on the fiendish challenge of learning the guitar parts.

"The strange thing is," says David Harris, from the main Thackray-dedicated website and archive, "Jake didn't think he was any good at all. He'd tell people he was rubbish. And he really believed it."

In his last years, Thackray led a solitary life in Monmouth, semi-estranged from his family, his despairing fans and the people who wanted to help him. Whatever shadows closed in around him, they remained private ones. Occasionally, rock musicians working in nearby Rockfield Studios would relate poignant tales of sighting him coming out of a shop with a carrier bag full of the alcohol with which he buttressed himself during his long "retirement".

Jake Thackray was a man of piercing intelligence and wit who was possessed, in commercial terms, of a huge but difficult-to-market talent. Georges Brassens his French mentor and counterpart, died nationally cherished, conferred with the Légion d'Honneur. That Jake Thackray died in relative ignominy by comparison is a peculiarly British tragedy. In "The Poor Sod", a short and ineffably sad song about an impoverished old farm labourer, Thackray sings:

"The bramble bush catches his sleeve, the blackthorn catches his cheek. When will the north country leave the poor sod alone?"

In a way, perhaps it never did.

'Sister Josephine Kicks The Habit - The Musical': various venues, from 24 May. For details visit www.jakethackray.co.uk. 'The Very Best of Jake Thackray' is out now on EMI Gold

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