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Jake Thackray biography reveals hilarious and heartbreaking story of a gifted composer

'Beware of the Bull: The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray' centers on one of British songwriting's most gifted composers. Even John Lennon thought he was fab.
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Beware of the Bull - The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray

Paul Thompson & John Watterson

(Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd.)

His first two albums were granted four stars by Billboard. The Miami News described his second LP as “one of the greatest disks of the year.” He earned Stateside comparisons to Tom Lehrer and Noel Coward. He ruled British television for a decade, and numbered Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel and Randy Newman among his closest musical bedfellows.

Yet the majority of people reading this… actually, they’re probably not reading this. They took one look at the title, “Jake Thackray… never heard of him…” and drifted off to complain about the latest listicle. “Paul McCartney’s 5 Ugliest Shirts, Rated.”

So, a quick introduction. Jake Thackray was brilliant. Most Brits of a certain age would have encountered him, first, on either television’s Braden’s Week or, five years later, That’s Life. But he popped up elsewhere too, from local radio’s Look North to the national My Kind of Folk. He had his own show, Jake’s Folk; he released five albums for EMI (two for Philips in the US, plus a $100 single on Dot); and John Lennon was a firm fan.

Paul McCartney once reflected on Lennon’s listening, while the Fabs were out in India. “He was listening to a lot of folkie stuff – he had about half a dozen cassettes with him – a Buddy Holly, an Incredible String Band tape, some Dylan and a tape the singer Jake Thackray had done for him... He was one of the people we bumped into at Abbey Road. John liked his stuff, which he’d heard on television. Lots of wordplay and very suggestive, so very much up John’s alley. I was fascinated by his unusual guitar style. John did ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ as a Jake Thackray thing at one point, as I recall.”

Who’s Jake Thackray? Only one of King Beatle’s favorite artists.

Beware of the Bull - The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray has been a long time coming. Thackray died on Christmas Eve 2002, aged 64, by which time he’d been out of the public eye for the best part of two decades — his last major appearance was the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1981, and a near-simultaneous TV series, Jake Thackray & Songs, with guest appearances from Richard & Linda Thompson, Maddy Prior and Ralph McTell… the first and last of whom happily reminisce on Thackray in these pages.

His name, however, was always hovering in the background. Britpop hero Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) long ago declared himself a firm fan; Cerys Matthews and Philip Jeays too. Others who have raised their hands include co-author Watterson, who has been performing as Fake Thackray since 2014. And reading through the book, with the occasional diversion to play the old records, you understand why such devotion remains rampant.

It’s a story of three parts. The first is devoted to Thackray’s youth and upbringing, the son of an alcoholic policeman whose background was equally rooted in poverty and Catholicism. But he was a clever kid, rising above his background to attend university in Durham, and launch a career as a teacher, both in the UK and in France. And he didn’t have a musical bone in his body.

It was his time in France that changed that — how, where and why, nobody knows and the authors can only guess, even with an army of Thackray’s friends and family pouring their stories, thoughts and memories onto the page. When Jake left for France, he could maybe plonk a piano a little. By the time he returned, he was playing guitar and writing and singing songs, too.

The second part of the book begins there, because what songs they were. Droll, dark, lugubrious (there are words that nobody who writes about Thackray can avoid, and that latter is one of them)… if you call them “insights into the human condition,” that sounds deadly dull, but it’s true. They’re just not the kind of insights you might be expecting.

An evening spent listening to Thackray perform was an evening spent in the company of gruesome auntie Susans, a bumpy country bus (to rhyme with "malodorous"), itinerant drunkards, lovable rogues, and the search for love through the personal columns of the local newspaper — in other words, he sang about precisely the same kind of people he was singing to.

There was the married couple whose happiness is being destroyed by the wife’s devotion to a cactus. The wanted criminal who hides out in a convent, disguised as a nun, without arousing a single suspicion. (Just some curious questions over why the toilet seat is always standing up after Sister Josephine has been to the bathroom?). The cautionary saga of a young man who, through idle curiosity, jammed his finger inside an odd-looking hole, and has been walking around ever since, with a door stuck on his hand. And the joy of puncturing pomposity, battering bombast, and tearing down pretension.

Thackray initially returned to teaching following his arrival back in Leeds, where his newfound talent for writing short, religiously-themed songs established his lessons among the most bizarre on the entire curriculum. Under Thackray's tutelage, the class would adapt these songs for musicals, and his own first recordings were tapes of the ensuing performances.

At the same time, however, he was also entertaining in local pubs, working men's clubs and folk clubs, nominally a part of the explosion of wry acoustic singer-songwriters who emerged throughout the English hinterland in the wake of the mid-60s folk boom. His work was not, however, thematically comparable with the general bill of fare. Neither traditional air nor broad "hey nonny no" ever escaped Thackray's lips.

Rather, and perhaps appropriately, his own precedents included such Gallic masters of languid observation as Jacque Brel and Georges Brassens (Thackray would later translate and cover the latter's "La Gorille” and “Isabella”). But still he slipped into the English tradition, a wandering minstrel entertaining the masses with cogent, potent, observations of the world at large.

Of course, Thackray the pub player had nothing in common with his academic counterpart; he himself later described the two sides of his musical career as "the Holy and the Horrid," as a razor sharp eye for Everyman came firmly to the fore, bringing with it an exquisite understanding of the foibles which make life so entertaining.

By 1966, Thackray was a regular on local radio, but wider recognition was not far away. Arranger/composer Brian Fahey was out driving one day, when he heard one of Thackray's radio performances. He passed his discovery on to EMI staff producer Norman Newell and, in late spring, 1967, Thackray was summoned down to London to perform for the suits. Days later, he was signing to EMI's Columbia subsidiary. When it came time to record in earnest, he was taken to Abbey Road. But even with an orchestra behind him, Thackray remained… Thackray.

And maybe that was where things started going wrong. As soon as they started going right.

A fervent socialist and working class to the core, Thackray loathed fame and despised authority. Occasionally, in the early years, he would bow to its demands — tone down a particularly spicy lyric, perhaps, or agree that maybe this song was not the right one to sing on that occasion. But increasingly as the years passed, he followed his own path, which instinctively strayed far from that which the entertainment industry (which he never felt a part of, even as it paid his wages) deemed appropriate.

He loathed it when people described his songs as “funny,” even though so many of them were — his wife tells of hearing him laughing out loud as he wrote them. At first, his disaffection was known only to a handful of close associates. But slowly, it began to emerge on a wider stage, and that leads us to the third part of the book.

He began missing gigs. He stopped answering the phone, and ignored his mail… even when the envelopes contained checks, as his family discovered years later, when straitened circumstances forced them to sell their home. His songwriting slowed and might even have stopped, but Jake always had an excuse, no matter how bizarre or unlikely it was. There’s a wonderful quote from his agent, Alex Armitage, on this very topic:

“…He’d lie. Gloriously, stylishly. He was once delayed by a snowdrift, a freak snowdrift. It must have been a freak snowdrift, it was August. Swans did remarkable things in the lanes around his house. Trees came down. In fact, the same tree came down many times. Jake was obviously a man of infinite compassion and mercy because he spent a lot of time beside the deathbeds of people he loved. The excuses were glorious.”

But the excuses only worked for a time. First one agent dropped him, then another. Admirers would offer him work and Thackray would turn it down. Or, he’d seem enthusiastic and then drop out of sight. Once, suddenly aware that his excuses were beginning to fall on disbelieving ears, he had himself photographed with his forearms in plaster, to prove that he really had broken both wrists in a fall.

It’s not all misery. You get the sense that Thackray still enjoyed life — he involved himself in charity work, helped out at the local branch of Amnesty International, sang and played his guitar for his friends, and so on. So long as there was no fuss he was happy — and his musical career, to his mind, was nothing but fuss.

Drink played a part in all this; alcoholism, sadly, was his father’s most lasting gift to his son. But shyness, stubbornness and a crippling lack of self-confidence, too, brought him down. The only thing Thackray hated more than being told his songs were “funny” was hearing someone say they were actually any good.

And so he whiled away his last years, and died alone in his flat on Christmas Eve, and the only consolation for those he left behind was, he’d left instructions for his funeral as the title track to his very first album, 35 years earlier, The Last Will and Testament of Jake Thackray.

Beware of the Bull is a wonderful book — painstakingly researched, loaded with anecdote, and cluttered with photographs, memorabilia and lyrics. And perfectly subtitled, too. The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray… he would have hated it.