Jake in a Box

Thackray Reconsidered

Jake Thackray has been on the verge of Nick-Drake-style rediscovery since his death in 2002. He used to appear regularly on British TV in the 1960s, but most people from my generation have no idea who he is. I was first introduced to his music when I was about 11; it was my mother who first played it for me, and for about six months I fell in love with the only album of his she owned, The Bantam Cock.

As a child I was a huge fan of the smutty, innuendo-laden British humor of the ’60s, in which the main sources of comedy were sex, people falling over and men dressed as women. I loved the Carry On films and Round the Horne, and it was into this tradition that I mentally slotted Jake Thackray. A song like “Bantam Cock” (about a cockerel that had sex with every bird in the barnyard) or “Sister Josephine” (about a criminal hiding out dressed as a nun), seemed to be of a piece with the postcards of Donald McGill or Rambling Sid Rumpo.

After about six months I forgot about the cassette and never listened to it again. Over the years, when I thought about Thackray’s music, it was with some embarrassment. As a pretentious teenager, I’d noticed the horrible conservatism, racism and sexism in some British working-class and populist humor, and out of self-loathing for my class I lumped it all together. For far too long, in my adolescence, Morecambe and Wise or Tommy Cooper were on the same level as Benny Hill, while I was busy worshipping talentless, middle-class pseudo-intellectuals like Newman & Baddiel. However, in my early twenties I was starting to grow out of this ridiculous prejudice and appreciate that someone could be funny without politically posturing or dropping references to Hegel. It was then I decided on a whim to pick up Thackray’s first album, The Last Will And Testament Of Jake Thackray.

On a first listen I was very disappointed. There was nothing of the smutty innuendo I remembered, and precious little in the way of laugh-out-loud jokes. Other than the title track, which contained some very funny lines, it didn’t sound anything like the stuff I remembered. But I kept listening, and was slowly won over. It was “Lah-Di-Dah” which really did it for me:

Now we’re agreed that we’re in love
We’ll have to face the lah-di-dah
The eyewash, all of the fancy pantomime
(I love you very much)
I’ll try love, I’ll bill and coo
With your gruesome Auntie Susan
I’ll stay calm, I’ll play it cool
I’ll let your tetchy uncles
Get me back up, cross my heart
And I shan’t get shirty when they say I look peculiar

Once I realized I wasn’t listening to someone who was “just” a comedy songwriter, I started to understand just how special he was. But it took the release of Jake in a Box, 2006’s 4-CD box set of his studio recordings, to convince me that he was one of the best songwriters of all time.

Thackray was an absolutely unique guitarist, whose style influenced mine more than I realized for a very long time (he’s certainly a large part of the reason that, when I play acoustic guitar in the studio, I always use nylon strings), and he pulled in ideas from all sorts of different musical styles. His own style is a mix of traditional English folk and French chanson - he was especially influenced by Georges Brassens - and musically, it’s likely appealing to people who enjoy Nick Drake or Richard Thompson. But I also hear Django Reinhardt and Jobim in there, especially in his irregular chord progressions. Victor Lewis-Smith, in his liner notes for the box set, says he can also hear baroque music — not inconceivable, though it’s likely just an artifact of his guitar style (with very complex moving basslines and countermelodies).

He was also a very underrated vocalist, with a gorgeous baritone voice and a wonderful accent -very, very noticeably Yorkshire, but sung in a clipped, well-enunciated tone that many people compared to Noel Coward (a comparison he apparently detested, but which is nonetheless apt). Jarvis Cocker’s vocals are obviously influenced by him to a tremendous extent. But it’s his lyrics that impress the most. Thackray can be both hilarious and desperately sad in a way that is specifically British, even more specifically Northern and still more specifically Yorkshire; his lyrics are very much in the tradition of Alan Bennet’s plays. I could very easily imagine Bennet writing “It Was Only A Gypsy”.

Thackray has a few themes to which he returns time and again. Sex is one — its comic possibilities and the fact that the less attractive among us also enjoy the act. More importantly, he also often wrote songs about the fact that normal, physically unattractive people living workaday lives need love just as much as anyone else. “The Blacksmith And The Toffeemaker”’s last verse sums up the philosophy of many of his songs:

This is as much of a romance as all of the others that you get And not so much a song and a dance as your Romeo & Juliet, nor as wet Because their love didn’t go to their head; no call to go berserk The spinster went up to bed and the blacksmith went to work Don’t smirk! Such loves are few; they were happy, they were true

Thackray also identifies with the people he’s writing about - the sort of thing that could very easily turn into patronizing mockery. But Thackray clearly felt he was one of these people - “To Do With You” is a self-deprecating cousin of both “God Only Knows” and “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun”:

There may be better-read and better bedtime women Eruditer wives at night than you And if I were the simple sort of bloke For Kierkegaard and Kant and cocoa Dearest, I would have no more to do with you

It’s a great verse, but not the best in the song:

There may be smoother-moving, tongue-and-grooving women. Better-spoken, shorter strokers than you. But they’ve all got, as like as not A lot better taste in men than you’ve got Dearest, I shall have to just make do with you

If that doesn’t sum up the real sentiments behind more than 90% of relationships, I don’t know what does. It really is a love song, and a beautiful one, at that.

Thackray was sometimes accused of misogyny, mostly because of the song “On Again On Again”, in which he complains about his wife talking all the time. Personally, I don’t see the song as misogynist at all, even though it contains the line “I honor them every bit as much as the next misogynist.” The song is much, much too clever for that. For a start, the narrator is going “on again, on again” himself - it’s a long, wordy song, almost like a W.S. Gilbert patter song in places. This reads as a classic unreliable narrator to me, especially with the way the repetitive, thudding bassline underscores the words. It’s also an incredibly funny lyric - women’s bottoms are “palpable proof of God’s existence a posteriori”. Even if he were misogynist, how can you not forgive anything of someone who could write that line?

There’s a long tradition in Yorkshire of mixing very earthy humor with religious and philosophical ideas - a tradition that dates back to at least the twelfth century Mystery Plays which are still regularly performed in York - and Thackray belonged to it. He may be the only 20th century British songwriter to write about his devotion to a mainstream religion without turning into Cliff Richard. Thackray was a devout Catholic, and this apparently caused him some guilt about his more sexual songs (his instinct was always toward the earthy and the physical, and against people who poke their nose into other people’s business or want to stop them having fun, which doesn’t always accord with Catholic dogma). He wrote quite a few devotional songs, of which “Remember Bethlehem” is probably the best-known, but “Joseph" (a song about Joseph’s attitude to Christ’s birth) is probably the best.

But even in his most secular songs, religion is an intrinsic part - just looking through a list of song titles, we see songs like “Sister Josephine,” “The Vicar’s Missus,” and “Salvation Army Girl,” and in most of his songs some mention of his religion comes up. The interesting thing is that it’s never preachy, and often even rather dismissive towards religion. It’s the writing of a man for whom faith is a part of life, but an everyday part, and a faith that’s secure enough that it can be mocked. Only someone who truly believed would write:

The Blessed Virgin herself, in answer to my prayer, despite the vulgarity Shimmering softly, dressed in blue and holding up a hand I cocked a pious ear as the Mother of God began Well she went on again, on again, on again, on, and I Will have to state how very much I sympathize with the rest of the family

Thackray’s other main subject is the pastoral. Here he is essentially a Northern counterpart to Ray Davies - a city boy, but one who loves the countryside, the poetry of Yorkshire country place names, the intrigues of village life, the work of the farmer, and the passage of the river through the small towns where young men are leaving for the big city, leaving the old men with their memories.

But rather more than Davies, Thackray is very aware of the downside of country life. This is most obvious in “Old Molly Metcalfe". The lyrics page unfortunately misses out the best bit of that song: the spoken introduction, one of the best things Thackray ever wrote.

In Swaledale, North Riding of Yorkshire, sheep farmers used to, and some of them still do, count their sheep in a curious fashion. Not in the English way - “one, two three, four five,” but thus:

“Yan, Chan, Tether, Mether, Pip
Azar, Sazar, Akka, Cotta, Dik
Yanadik, Channadik, Thetheradik, Metheradik, Bumfit
Yanabum, Chanabum, Thetherabum, Metherabum, Jiggit.”

Having thus reached twenty they then take a stone in the hand, representing the sheep that’s counted and if they have more than twenty sheep to count they begin again.

Yan, Chan, Tether, Mether, Pip
Azar, Sazar, Akka, Cotta, Dik.

Another twenty, another stone and again

Yan, Chan, Tether, Mether, Pip.

Another twenty again a stone and so they go.

Yan, Chan, Tether, Mether, Pip.

Not a right long time ago there was a shepherdess on a moor in Swaledale. Well, a shepherdess; “shepherdess” is a word for a woman with a pretty pinafore with petticoats, with a complexion and a cleavage. No this woman was a sheep minder. She was sent to mind sheep up upon the moor as soon as she was able — the age of eight. She scarcely left the cruel place and was found rotting with her ghastly sheep at about the age of twenty-eight. Here is a song for her.

One of the main tests for any artist is if their personality comes through in their work. Thackray’s comes through in every note and line of his work, and the personality is that of someone with a genuine love of life and of language, a strong intelligence, and a marvelous sense of humor. It’s the sound of someone comfortable in his own skin. The world that Thackray writes about is a hard world, with simple pleasures. You take them where you can, with whom you can, and you enjoy them for what they are. There are busybodies, prudes, mothers-in-law, and policemen who will poke their noses in and try to stop you having fun, but God makes sure it’ll all turn out more or less okay in the end. The police will spend 20 years looking for a burglar, but it’s all right; he can hide in a nunnery and no one will notice he’s a man.

Jake Thackray is finally starting to get the respect he deserves. There is an organization, the Jake Thackray Project, dedicated to releasing live albums; a musical, Sister Josephine Kicks The Habit, and even a tribute band, the Fake Thackrays. But a lot of this is because he’s no longer with us; people can dismiss the orchestrations on his early recordings, or his religion, or anything they dislike, and create a Jake in their own image, one they can understand. Get the box set (priced at not much more than one new CD) and hear him for yourself, without others’ preconceptions as to what Jake really intended. He’s bigger than them.