One of the great critical rehabilitations of recent years has been that of Jake Thackray. During his life he was dismissed by many who were aware of him at all, thanks to his regular appearances on Braden’s Week and That’s Life — two TV series that were the precise opposite of credible. He was hugely popular from the late 60s through the early 80s, but never a critical favourite until a group of fans started, after his death, reissuing his material and promoting him as what he was — a true songwriting great. Particularly since the 2006 box set Jake in a Box, collecting all his EMI studio recordings, he has become a name that it’s relatively credible to drop.
(I think I can take a tiny part of the credit for that — an essay I wrote in 2007 is the top reference on Thackray’s Wikipedia article, and I’ve seen a number of broadsheet articles on him over the years which seem to have paraphrased big chunks of that piece.)
Thackray’s songwriting is rooted firmly in the rural Yorkshire working class — he was instinctively liberal, internationalist, smutty as hell, and *compassionate*, and all this came across in his songs. He was almost indescribably brilliant — influenced by George Brassens and other chansonniers, but with an utterly Yorkshire point of view. It’s a real tragedy that he was never recognised in his life as the missing link between Alan Bennett and Jarvis Cocker, but probably the superior of both of them.
If you like Yorkshire, smutty humour, working class life, mockery of the pompous, and celebration of the eccentric, different, and nonconformist, then you owe it to yourself to listen to Thackray’s songs, if you haven’t already.
But Thackray *is* now being recognised, to the point that there’s even a popular tribute act, Fake Thackray, otherwise known as John Watterson, who with guitarist Paul Thompson has just released a new album, The Lost Will and Testament of Jake Thackray (both the album’s title and its cover parody that of Thackray’s first album, The Last Will and Testament of Jake Thackray). On this collection (endorsed by Thackray’s son Sam, his longtime friend Ralph McTell, and for some reason by Neil Gaiman), Watterson performs fifteen songs by Thackray which had never been given a proper release.
Some of these songs will be familiar to fans from surviving TV appearances — “The Cenotaph”, “The Bull”, and “One of Them”, in particular, are almost as well known as the most popular of his records. Others, though, haven’t been heard in forty years or more, surviving only in off-air cassette recordings of radio broadcasts; and in a few cases the song has had to be reconstructed — Paul Thompson has written new melodies to surviving lyrics for three songs, and in one case (“Kinell”) only one verse of lyrics and a couple of odd lines survived, and Thompson and Watterson wrote the rest of the song around that.
It’s testament to their devotion to Jake’s music that the resulting album is as good as any of those released in his lifetime. Watterson sounds quite spookily like Thackray, and Thompson has his guitar sound down perfectly — many of the recordings are ones which I would swear were Jake himself.
This is truer of the songs for which a recording exists on which to model the performance (one of the few flaws with the album is that it opens with “The Ferryboat”, a reconstructed song which has the least Jake-ish performance of the entire set, although even there the only difference is that you’re thinking “that’s someone who sounds *very* like Jake Thackray” rather than just thinking you’re listening to a Jake Thackray record), but impressive in its own way is the way that Thompson has perfectly modelled Thackray’s melodic style on those songs. I’d defy anyone who was familiar with Jake’s work to listen to this album and guess which ones were the songs that Thompson had finished.
But sounding like Jake wouldn’t be as useful if the material wasn’t up to standard, but some of these are among the best things he ever wrote. “One of Them”, in particular, is an astonishingly beautiful song about the hurt caused by racist, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted jokes. (Warning, the song uses language that falls into all those categories, including the n word, in order to attack its use):
There are great songs here on all sorts of subjects, from a topical song about a council workers’ strike to the lovely “Our Dog” (“You haven’t got a bloody clue you never ever do the things that proper dogs do/Like finding your way home or what to do with bones as proper dogs do/You walk in your sleep, you feel worried by sheep/Oh Jesus Christ I’ve never ever known a dog as clueless as you” — a song to which most dog owners I know could relate, myself definitely included).
But the two best are undoubtedly two songs about the First World War: “The Cenotaph”, a song inspired by a comment from Thackray’s mother about war memorials (“Why don’t they put the names of wives on it? Those poor buggers are dead…”), and especially “The Remembrance”, which the liner notes to the CD correctly call one of the greatest anti-war songs in the English language.
Not everything on the CD is golden — in particular, “God Bless America” should have stayed unheard. The liner notes compare this portrait of a clueless, bigoted, American to Randy Newman’s “Rednecks”, but Newman was writing as someone from the culture he was attacking (and even he later realised that the song was too open to misinterpretation). Here Thackray is just attacking everything about American culture, putting Vietnam, the KKK, and “grilling a n****r… Southern style” on the same level as The Flying Nun and pronouncing “tomato” with an American accent. A song intended to attack bigotry seems instead to be an example of it, and the song’s not really defensible.
But on the whole, this is a remarkably good album, easily the equal of any of the four studio albums Thackray released, and it showcases all the sides of Thackray’s work, from the pomposity-pricking parodies to the humorous slices of life to the gentle, compassionate, ballads.
Normally with this sort of recording, one would end by saying that it makes one go back to the original artist and listen to them again. This made me want to listen to *this* again.
The Lost Will and Testament of Jake Thackray can be ordered from fakethackray.com (it’s also available digitally from the usual stores). If you like Jake’s music at all, get yourself a copy.
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I’ll have to get this as I found “Our Dog” particularly memorable the one time I heard it on Radio 2 in (checks Genome) 1988.
Yeah, I remember talking with you about Thackray around the time the box set came out, and you telling me about this great song he did about a dog, and me trying to figure out if you meant “Ulysses” or “Dog” or one of the other songs he did, and coming up blank…