Jake Thackray - A Modern Minstrel
written by Lance Bosman
photographs by George Clinton
She was fond of fishing boats, and all the beardy crew.
And partial to a salty kiss or two.
Some of them would whisper “Marry me and stay.”
But blackbirds do their singing from a different bush each day.
(The Widow of Bridlington)
More than simply lyrics set to tunes, Jake Thackray’s songs are colourful musical stories. Bawdy, satirical or sentimental, they cut through the shallowness of convention and respectability, and probe under our underlying instincts and emotions. Bizarre subjects are one side of his songs; but he mostly builds aural pictures from mundane events covering all levels of society, rustic and urban, the high and low. What adds to the modern flavour of his lines are the guitar accompaniments, where jazz chords are often combined with common chord sequences.
Jake reached popularity some years back through radio and television, notably Braden’s Week. Before that he lived in France where he found inspiration in the songs of George Brassens. But where Brassens’ music is peppered with political comment and veiled references to sex, Jake leaves politics aside and points to more carnal delights, yet with a sense of humour and understanding that somehow absolves them.
In contrast to his outward ruggedness, Jake spoke with a soft, almost apologetic Yorkshire brogue about the problems in seeking music to fit his lines, and of devising accompaniments from what he admits is a sketchy knowledge of chord progressions.
‘The guitar didn’t figure a bit during these years in France. I was interested in writing verse and in the French musical scene which is so much based on their own. It doesn’t imitate any other sort of idiom, being based on their own folk music. Also, they were very struck by swing, they didn’t seem to take much to bebop. A lot of inspiration for French singers has come from Grappelli and Reinhardt. In folk songs, George Brassens is startling because you’re anticipating what’s coming next and then he drives off somewhere else which is really satisfying. He’s very swinging but he still uses a lot of peculiar French lines and minor keys – its all bloody minor keys with frog singers.’
‘Back in Leeds, teaching, I was playing the piano and an enthusiastic but poor trumpet. I can’t remember starting the guitar but I think it was easier than carting around a bloody piano. And it occurred to me that the guitar could come into the classroom and get the kids to write things and set them to the music. Sometimes I write but I preferred them to do the writing, and they used to come up with some funny little tunes. I encouraged unusual layouts a bit and in fact discovered that a child would whistle a tune or they’d devise a little phrase, say in four-four, then add the words which would turn it into seven-four which was unusual and often worked. It didn’t matter about notation, we worked with a tape recorder. We had a little guitar club and I was teaching them shapes, but my own shapes, very rudimentary, because I was never taught myself. I remember there was one kid who showed me minor 7ths, just using a finger barre and not playing the fifth string. So that’s what I do regular now, but it was him who put me up to it.’
As Jake says, pop music encourages guitar playing and singing. Does it then follow that kids, once prompted to take up the guitar through pop, will eventually come round to expressing themselves on more individual levels?
‘I think the children will eventually by themselves get fed up with received music and they’ll want something different. I remember when I was teaching, the Dave Clarke Five was playing three-chord stuff, and a lot of children knew these changes and could spot them when they listened to the latest Dave Clark. In that ‘Feelin’ Glad All Over’, for instance, they weren’t impressed at all; they said ‘Christ, we can do that’. So there wasn’t musical discrimination; I’ve got no theories how children will discard pop commerce, but I’ve seen some that have and I know more will!’
When it’s difficult to imagine a different tune to the words of his songs, you know that Jake’s found just the right balance in lyric, line and mood. As he explained, the melodies are usually prose inspired, but its fair to add, they’re not in the least subservient to the lyric.
‘I heard a very impressive bloke, Steven Sondheim, a little Night Music, and musically he’s incredibly well educated. He said that you discover that they both come together, that you find a verbal cadence which matches the phrase. He thinks that the words impose on you a musical line. And I think that’s what happens when it’s very good, when it’s happening well. For me, at other times, words arise and then I’ve got to find a tune. It might be a couple of sentences or a verse, then it’s a matter of finding out what’s going to fit it. Sometimes you’ve got to labour it and squeeze everything into a tune that the song isn’t any good. But all in all, I prefer to start with the words, you know, when they fall neatly into place, they satisfy something; you say to yourself “that’s a good combination, it fits, its true.”’
The vivid descriptive content of Jake’s song readily conjures to mind images of the incidents. This prompts the question as to whether the narratives are imagined or based on actual events.
‘ I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m a keen observer on life, oh Christ no. I’ve got to sit down with a pot of tea and a sheet of paper, though I sometimes think about words in cars. The only example I could give which would be convincing is the song I wrote about the Widow of Bridlington. There was this knockout bird who was a widow with five kids, all left home, and I asked her what she did and she had a job as a Guinness rep, and she said ‘I’ve just discovered that I can do anything – I’ve bought a motor bike, 750cc’. A little later up came the words Widow and Brid which sounded pleasing; after that bit of enthusiasm it was hard hard work.’
Another very individual angle to Jake’s lyrics is the use of slang and vernacular. This spurs immediate contact, recalling that which we voice spontaneously in everyday chat and are yet somehow reluctant to apply to the written word.
‘A lot of popular songs don’t have common expressions though there’s no shortage of American ones. But words is words, I’m not conscious of them, they just find their way in. It’s a matter of working with them and fitting them in when you know its just right. But I find its difficult talking like this because the way I do it is almost as indescribable; and I’ve got different feelings about the songs than other people have. Even so, I think it should be articulated; a bit of both, a little instinct which you can’t explain, and also to be a bit self-aware of what you’re doing, to work within a conscious discipline.'
Though Jake may be self-effacing in regard to his guitar work, the chord changes are just right and are sometimes inspired. Common chords mixed with major, minor 7ths dominant 9ths and passing chromatics merge in a happy blend of contemporary harmony set along traditional lines.
‘Look at my bloody mitts there, they’re labourer's hands those, they’re from picking up bricks. I was never taught the guitar and I wish I had been. My hand positions are not only wrong but they limit me. There’s only so far I can go, and I’m trying to play plectrum a bit more. Ike Isaacs said to me once, ‘Listen Jake, it’s all well and good you piddling about with the guitar and coming up with a nice sound or a nice progression, but if you want to be conscious of what you’re doing; though if you’re not you will still be able to get something nice, but you won’t know what you’re doing and where to go on.’ He was encouraging me to take lessons, which I didn’t do and really should have; because you know yourself that you’ve only got to close your eyes and put your hands on the fretboard and you might just come up with something. My accompaniment’s mostly a mixture of eye-closing technique and the more or less educated thinking about where to go from there. Another explanation, and don’t lets muck about, is that its very easy to play. I don’t go for things that are difficult; I’m a very limited player. I play only my own changes, so when I’m making them up like that, I must be sure I can handle them. I’ve got some songs from when I used to run a little musical club, and these also keep to very easy shapes. For example I’ve got one long song accompaniment just changing from A to E so they can sing it at home and practise the changes and then do it without thinking.
But to move on from that, I’m learning plectrum playing and how to position my hands. I’ve got a Mickey Baker book and though it’s painful to work through, it’s ever so good. You know, it has a system where there are evergreens unnamed and then you play an alternative version of chord work. I find that very useful because I play through the standard changes and that helps me to make up tunes in my own mind and it also shows me how others use these progressions. These Mickey Baker alternative versions I find inspiring but it ain’t half hard work.’
Music aside, the verses stand well alone as modern prose. Take for instance a line from ‘The Statues’ where a couple of blokes boozed up to the eyeballs stagger from the local and into the park where they behold two statues, the gritty Sir Robert Walpole and a bronze Venus spring to life and cavort. ‘We saw the ancient Squire shaking with a century of petrified desire’. Others too, like ‘Personal Column’ and ‘Village Scallywag’ as just as inspired. Whatever the subjects – inhibitions, the lack of them and innocent or profane relationships – they arise unconsciously from Jake’s mind in a way he finds difficult to describe.
‘You see, if I’ve got eight children, I’ll say in fact I’m fondest of that little bugger over there you know, whereas you might say, well okay but…you see, I can’t be objective one bit. And I wouldn’t want to be objective about it. Making songs up, if you want to inject a bit of realism into it, to write about things as they are, you cant go up to somebody and say ‘Hey I want to write about this bloke with one leg and what do you think one-legged blokes are like?’ Writing is so personal, though I’m glad you like the music and the words. There are occasions when I use words for the sake of making a gesture. In a song I did recently I used the words tongue and grooving woman and getting onto the short strokes. Thought it doesn’t actually say the short stroke bit, I thought that’s a good pun, it’s about physical marriage, so I’ll send it in. I once did a series for the BBC and was really irritated by a producer in Braden’s Week who said I’d never get away with ‘Bugger’ – change it to something else. Well I got so mucked about with it; anyway there was another bloke in the programme, a right swine he was, a lovely bloke, but very coarse. He bet me that I couldn’t submerge certain unspeakable expressions into a song and get it passed. You know the various rhymes for a wanking – Jodrell Banking – well, I got eight of them all into a song, and they read it over and said it sounded very picturesque. But it was deliberate; otherwise I prefer language to come as it comes.'
For public performances Jake slips in some easy going patter between numbers and has in addition Alan Williams double bass to support his accompaniments. On record the backings vary, sometimes orchestral though they’re more successful when there are smaller groups, notably in ‘Jake’s Progress’ where Ike Isaacs adds tasty fill-ins.
‘The one I prefer is guitar and string bass to back the voice. However I’m beginning to be persuaded that it might become a bit monotonous for a record. But Alan and I play like that in public and I would want the record to sound like public J.T. sound. Perhaps to make a record, to get some variety into it, it might be a good idea to do just live recordings. I know a mate of mine listened to the latest record and he said ‘Well its fine; I like it a lot but I wish you could have had a bit more excitement in the background because you listen to one, then there’s a silence, then you listen to another one’. I don’t mind that, there’s nothing wrong with having the same backings.’
A casual vocal style, Jake delivers his words occasionally clipped as if through an intake of breath, or quite the reverse, allowing syllables to roll from his tongue across almost an octave’s sweep. I wondered if these were effects that he deliberately strove for?
‘Not really. The roll and clipping of words has been unconsciously acquired. When I’m writing things down, I’m always singing them. I’ll spend the morning writing something then I’ll go out and I’ll be singing phrases, learning how to enunciate the words I’ve made up. And if the words don’t fit into the voice then I’ll chuck ’em out.’
Commissions for radio and TV encourage mixed standards. On one hand they have provided incentive for writing songs; but then, working to a schedule limits the time to select and refine ideas.
‘Well, I’ve stopped doing them and perhaps that’s a bad thing because now I’m writing hardly anything at all – I’m such an idle bastard – it's as well to have a deadline. But unfortunately when I’ve had deadlines I’ve done a lot of rubbish and some of it’s on record and I feel ashamed of that.’
‘I’m beginning to get frightened about the lack of songs and the lack of interest some people are showing hearing the same songs. For instance, Alan night after night is listening to more or less the same 30 songs, which must drain him. So that sort of person might drive me to write. The drying up thing is bad in another way insofar as if you’re making a living out of it you’re thinking to yourself, I’ve dried up so I’ll revert to what I was doing before and then it loses qualities doesn’t it?’
‘And yet I know when things are down, if I stare at the paper long enough, ideas will come, they’ll pick up. I’ve gone through arid periods before and came out with the goods by trying hard. The music industry grates on me from time to time but what do you do except battle on.’