This overview of the career of singer-songwriter Jake Thackray was originally written for Kettering. a ‘Magazine of Elderly British Comedy’ edited by Peter Gordon, which I was an avid reader of as well as a regular contributor to. Very much a magazine that knew its audience, Kettering allowed its writers as much room as they needed to enthuse over all manner of neglected and forgotten corners of British humour, all the way from the early cinematic escapades of Music Hall stars who in some cases really ought to have stayed there right up to BBC Four’s controversial docudrama ‘reimaginations’ of the private thoughts of comedy legends and their somewhat debatable relationship with actual factual detail. Every issue was full of fascinating detail on programmes and performers that had previously essentially just been names to me, and even some that were entirely new to me altogether; I’ve got especially fond memories of Ian Greaves’ feature on World In Ferment, Phil Norman’s on the Henry Root books and the evolution of ITV’s Sunday Night ‘edgy’ comedy slot, and Jem Roberts’ history of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue that later led to a full official book on the show, and I’d like to think that my own contributions fulfilled a similar role for other readers. There were of course a handful of contributors seemingly fixated on Benny Hill and On The Buses and very little else, whose starting point appeared to be a weird sense of aggrieved anger over the fact that everything they liked was ‘banned’ by the ‘PC brigade : (‘ in the sense of being freely available and regularly shown on numerous repeat channels, although I personally just ignored their ‘legitimate concerns’ which probably only served to make them more angry still although some people are just never happy even when they have what they want or indeed have had it all along. Anyway, I say it ‘allowed its writers as much room as they needed’ but this is actually a substantially edited version of the original feature, which I trimmed down to fit a reduced page count and I can no longer find the longer one. It’s a longshot, but if anyone out there can help, please let me know.
This may have been written for a comedy magazine, but it’s actually very difficult to know how to describe Jake Thackray as an artist. Humour – droll and loaded with acidic wordplay and punning contempt for the high and mighty and low and lawless alike – is a very large feature of his music, but only in the same way that introspection was for Nick Drake, nature and history for Sandy Denny and the theft of crystallised ginger for The Incredible String Band, all of whom were much closer contemporaries of Jake Thackray than the more gatekeepery elements of his following would have you believe. Personally I discovered his music through the same routes around the edges of sixties pop music that led me to stage and movie soundtracks, George Martin’s comedy records and the likes of Ivor Cutler and Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth, and was surprised to discover that he was regarded as a comedian first and foremost in some quarters. Not as surprised as I was, however, to later discover that he had become a fashionable name to drop amongst hipsters, a revelation that in all honesty kept me laughing for about two hours. That’s the worst excesses of his fandom, though, and it is probably debatable how much interest any of them actually have in his music anyway. Jake Thackray’s proper active fanbase are a model of enthusiasm, devoted to spreading the word about his work in its own right rather than about themselves, and with several successful instances of securing a limited release for material that would in all honesty have little to no wider commercial potential to their credit. At the time that I originally wrote this, despite his one-time ubiquity – appearing on Pebble Mill At One so frequently that it’s referenced as a joke in more than one late seventies/early eighties comedy cash-in book – it was actually quite difficult to get hold of any of Jake Thackray’s material. Now of course it’s all on Spotify, and if I did what I originally set out to do with this feature and encourage people to actually listen to him like they would any other sixties artist who made albums and wanted hits, then doubtless you’ll all be straight off there after reading it.
You can read – and hear – more about Jake Thackray in Sounds Of The 60s, a look at some of the records I discovered through Radio 2’s long-running show of the same name, here, and also in Black And White Christmas, a feature about long-forgotten festive pop records from the sixties, here. He also gets a mention in Tape Over This And I Will Thump You, a feature about the long-lost art of compilation tapes, here. You can also find a longer version of another of my Kettering features looking at Gerry And Sylvia Anderson’s bizarre collaboration with Stanley Unwin The Secret Service in Well At Least It’s Free, a collection of some of my columns and features. You can get Well At Least It’s Free in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Born in Pickering, North Yorkshire in 1938, Jake Thackray originally had an academic career in mind, and after graduating from Durham University spent four years teaching in France. There he became a fan of of ‘Chanson’, the musical tradition exemplified by such performers as Jacques Brel, Barbara and his personal favourite George Brassens. On returning to Yorkshire in 1964, he took up the guitar as little more than a hobby, composing his own songs to relieve the monotony of practising. This hobby soon proved to have a more practical purpose, as he found it a useful tool in getting his students to pay attention, and his compositional skills quickly moved beyond the level of the ‘singing schoolteacher’.
Though informed by the works of Brel and Brassens, Thackray’s lyrical preoccupations were more concerned with humorous quirks of misfortune, depicting a stylised Yorkshire of hapless boozers, luckless swindlers, philosophising handymen and corrupt (in all senses of the word) officials. All human life could be found in his songs, caught up in wry tales of torrid romances, rueful rivalries and minor brushes with the law, in an idiosyncratic lyrical style crammed with implausible rhymes, poetic descriptions, deft deployment of ‘long’ words and slang, and puns both intellectual and awful. Performances at local folk clubs followed, and with singer-songwriters very much in vogue on television, Thackray soon began making regular appearances on the likes of The Frost Report and On The Braden Beat. Able to compose suitably topical numbers, or at least fit one of his existing songs to a current concern with a bit of introductory chat, he quickly became a favourite with viewers, leading to interest from EMI Records.
In April 1967, Jake Thackray visited Abbey Road’s Studio 2 to record over twenty songs for a prospective debut album. Sensing commercial potential, EMI pushed for the songs to be re-recorded with full orchestral backing. These new album sessions took place in August, with accompaniment from bandleaders Roger Webb and Geoff Love, and the results were released in November as The Last Will And Testament Of Jake Thackray. The album opens with one of his best-known numbers, Lah-Di-Dah, in which a groom-to-be solemnly promises to be nice to his horrendous in-laws-to-be at the forthcoming wedding. Elsewhere we meet a loathsome cactus, ride a “clumsy and cumbersome, rumbustious” Country Bus, and witness a frantic love affair conducted at a Jumble Sale. Personal Column speculates on the real life stories behind the nameless individuals offering and seeking ‘services’, The Statues joins two now-sober individuals trying to explain to a judge why they were seen to drunkenly assault a statue of Sir Robert Walpole (something to do with defending the honour of a nearby female effigy), and the title track – a close relative of Brel’s Funeral Tango – urges mourners to get the mourning out of the way then “let carousals begin”. The release of the album was closely followed by a Christmas single, Remember Bethlehem/Joseph, the b-side a touching tribute to someone Thackray felt had been unfairly overlooked by composers of Christmas carols.
Released in July 1969, Jake’s Progress abandoned the orchestration in favour of a more sympathetic approach courtesy of what would become his regular recording band – guitarist Ike Isaacs, bassist Frank Clarke and pianist Frank Horrox. This perfectly suited a more laid-back and introspective set of songs than his debut; half of the album is made up of love songs, whether they concern tragic passion (One-Eyed Isaac), unlikely romances (The Blacksmith And The Toffee Maker), the thrill of dating (Salvation Army Girl), letters to Agony Aunts (Worried Brown Eyes), or female inscrutability (Sophie). Elsewhere, it’s business as usual; Grandad and The Nurse are added to the gallery of exasperating rogues, The Hole sees a man’s innocent jabbing of his finger into a gap in a wall escalate into a media circus, Family Tree lewdly rampages through “the prancing phantoms and ghosts of my rude forefathers”, and The Castleford Ladies’ Magic Circle is as faintly sinister as it is wryly amusing.
By the spring of 1970, Thackray was back in the studio with a full orchestra to record some of his more topical numbers. This album was never issued, for reasons that are not entirely clear; this is a shame, as these abandoned sessions included some of his finest songs, the most arresting (sorry) being The Policeman’s Jig. A witty yet vitriolic response to recent clampdowns on ‘obscenity’, in particular the trial of the editors of Oz magazine, for all its clever lyrical gambits (“a masterpiece comes in Right Handy”), there’s a real indignance to the lyrics, which not only accuse the Police directly of dubious motives for their interest in ‘pornography’ and tacitly of taking backhanders from the owners of grubby sex shops, but also stops only just short of punningly labelling them ‘wankers’. Even all this time later it still packs a punch, possibly explaining EMI’s apparent uneasiness with the album. Live Performance, recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in November 1970 and released the following March, was the perfect context for his music, with the strident solo performances bolstered by inter-song wit and a rowdy audience. As well as the expected favourites, the set also included a handful of new numbers, some of them (notably Leopold Alcocks and The Lodger) drawn from the abandoned 1970 sessions.
In keeping with the musical mood of the times, 1972’s Bantam Cock is Thackray’s most coherent ‘album’; this is reflected in the loose jazzy style, verging at times on a primitive kind of funk. In keeping with this, the lyrics draw largely on the grubbier corners of life, from the sexually insatiable avian of the title track to the delightfully coarse tale of Isabel, who gets her kicks from intercourse up against national monuments. Bleak in an altogether different way is Old Molly Metcalfe, a haunting number about a lonely shepherdess based around a peculiar traditional sheep-counting chant. On the more upbeat side come Brother Gorilla, a translation of Brassens’ Le Gorille in which a judge fresh from handing out death sentences comes a cropper at the hands of an amorous ape, and Sister Josephine, a ‘right funny nun’ who might just be an escaped convict in disguise.
Coinciding with a stint as a regular on That’s Life!, 1977’s On Again! On Again! noticeably favours ruminations on particular topics over the usual comic narratives. The title track is an appropriately extended rant about nagging; some have labelled the song misogynistic, a charge that’s hard to refute as that’s the basic point (and wryly noted as such in the lyrics), but when you’ve got lyrics like “on again, on again, on again ‘till the entire congregation passed out and the vicar passed on and the choirboys passed through puberty” it’s clearly a rant with tongue very much in cheek. Other highlights include the poignant The Hair Of The Widow Of Bridlington, a two fingered salute to The Brigadier, and a re-recording of Joseph.
Jake Thackray & Songs was recorded live late in 1980, in tandem with a BBC2 series of the same name. The album is mostly composed of old favourites, with several lengthy monologues and a handful of new songs. The Bull warns against trusting anyone in a position of authority, from world leaders all the way down to “those well-known men, so overglorified, there’s one of them here and his name’s on the poster outside”, while The Remembrance – barely ‘comic’ in any sense of the word – is a grim chronicle of futile wartime gestures, like Wilfred Owen with a sense of humour. Ending “a couple of shakes before we got killed in the war”, it’s lent extra poignancy by the fact that it was effectively the last that the general public heard of Jake Thackray. Unassuming funnymen with guitars fell rather suddenly from favour in the early eighties, with even big names having to either reinvent their act (Jasper Carrott) or else virtually disappear from television altogether (Mike Harding, Val Doonican and Roger Whittaker to name but a few). Tired of the rigours of touring and dogged by financial troubles, Thackray opted to retire from music to concentrate on a career as a newspaper columnist. Increasingly religious and happy to live a quiet life, Jake Thackray died in 2002, having not performed in public for over a decade.
The Last Will And Testament Of Jake Thackray urged all concerned to get cracking with a “roll the carpet right back” kind of a shindig and that “if the coppers come around, well, tell them the party’s mine”. Though the police have yet to get involved, that’s basically what Jake Thackray’s fans have done. For many years, only a single compilation of his work was available, until a group of fans obtained permission from EMI to release a privately-pressed second compilation. This paved the way for a full re-release of his EMI material in 2006, including the two shelved albums, tons of rare and previously unreleased tracks, and the Live Performance show in its entirety. It’s impossible to bracket Jake Thackray as either a comedian or a folk singer; he was both and so much more, and his music has much to offer even the most desperately humourless Fairport Convention fan, not to mention all those comedy enthusiasts who never quite ‘got’ where the jokes were with Nick Drake.
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If you’ve enjoyed this, you’ll enjoy my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
All Its Wonder To Know is a feature on a track by Jake Thackray’s close contemporary Nick Drake that has somehow disappeared from history; you can find it here.
You can read – and hear – more about Jake Thackray in Sounds Of The 60s, a look at some of the records I discovered through Radio 2’s long-running show of the same name, here, and also in Black And White Christmas, a feature about long-forgotten festive pop records from the sixties, here. Jake also gets a mention in Tape Over This And I Will Thump You, a feature about the long-lost art of compilation tapes, here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.