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 loathesome 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 punningly labels 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 publically 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.
Not On Your Telly, a book collecting some of my articles on the archive TV we never get to see, is available in paperback here or as an eBook here.