Beware the Bull: Singer Jake Thackray’s Extraordinary Life Revealed | Music
IIt was around 1999 that Neil Gaiman first heard someone else mention the name Jake Thackray. Growing up in East Grinstead, West Sussex, in the 1960s and 1970s, the British-born author and creator of Sandman saw Thackray as a vague voice on the outskirts of childhood, that lugubrious woolly raptor of a man, his hazy, owl-hoot voice steeped in dark Yorkshire bitterness, which dole out fun topical songs on light-hearted consumer affairs TV shows like Braden’s Week and That’s Life!.
“I was exactly the wrong age to like or appreciate it,” Gaiman told author and Thackray fan Paul Thompson in 2019. “Then 20 years ago I was talking to [singer-songwriter] Thea Gilmore on great songwriters and she just mentioned [a song by Thackray called] Castleford Ladies Magic Circle. Gaiman ordered a Thackray CD from Amazon and, as he puts it, was “suddenly in love.”
What Gaiman fell for was the uniqueness of Thackray’s voice. “Intelligence, absolute naked emotion,” he continued. “This desire to be both funny and sad at the same time. Once you’ve heard enough of his songs, you realize there was no one else like him.
Since his death in 2002 at the age of 64, his television and singing career long over, Jake Thackray’s cult following has remained small, steady and exclusive. And while famous fans such as Gaiman, Gilmore, Alex Turner and Cerys Matthews have all praised this Northern ballad and his softly sung alliterative tales of amorous boozers, lonely widows and rejected country girls, the man himself remained something of an enigma.
That’s about to change with the publication of Thackray’s first biography, Beware the Bull: The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray. Co-written by committed fans Thompson and John Watterson, it’s a book that seeks to unravel the mysteries surrounding Thackray’s life. These range from his poor Catholic upbringing in Kirkstall with an abusive father to his formative years teaching in France and traveling Europe, his meteoric rise as a television performer and recording artist in the 60s and 70 and, ultimately, his progressive rejection of it all. in the 80s.
“The ultimate problem was that Jake didn’t fit,” says Thompson. “He spent four years in a Catholic seminary then from 1960, at the age of 22, he lived and worked in France and Algeria. He wrote poetry, fell in love with and was influenced by French poet-singers, or chansonniers, notably Georges Brassens who wrote elegant songs about the outcasts, the downtrodden and the poor. By the time Jake returned to England in 1963, he had found his inspiration to become a poet-songwriter. But England in 1963 was not really a country for a chansonnier.
Instead, Jake became a teacher at Intake County Secondary School in Bramley, Leeds, where he learned to play nylon-string guitar (like Brassens), wrote musicals and started to perform in local pubs. It was there, in 1965, that he was spotted by BBC Girl Scout Pamela Howe. Within three months of his first radio recording, Thackray landed a spot on regional television and, through the perseverance of Howe and the BBC’s head of light radio entertainment Roy Rich, landed an EMI recording contract and made her first appearance on national television, on the 1968 BBC highbrow sketch show Beryl Reid says good evening.
“The first time I saw Jake was on TV,” says singer Ralph McTell, who befriended Thackray on the ’70s folk circuit. stopped you in your tracks before you even heard his voice. His playing, his punctuation, his rhythm, his way of speaking had nothing to do with American or British folk music. He had his own way of do it all. Anywhere else he could have been cherished for it. Here he was compared to Pam Ayres.
McTell thinks that, in another world, Thackray would have been celebrated in the cafes and concert halls of France and Belgium, where they understood his clever and poetic European pun: “Instead, he became a part of the 70s pub circuit, after a bunch of sea shanties. The public would not always be able to absorb the nuance, the subtlety. Jake came to love this world of the pub circuit, but intellectually he was miles ahead.
“I sincerely consider him one of the greatest songwriters this country has ever produced,” says friend and fellow folk singer Mike Harding. “He’s up there with Richard Thompson for me.” Harding singles out songs such as The Castleford Ladies Magic Circle (about a group of suburban witches “dancing frantically naked for Beelzebub” while “their husbands play billiards in the club”) and The Hair of the Widow of Bridlington (about a free-living woman being punished by her neighbors “because she was wild as blackbirds are and they were in a cage”). “It could be feminist songs,” says Harding. The singer also cites another more controversial song, On Again! Again! in which the song’s protagonist, an avowed misogynist, complains about some women’s propensity to talk at length (“I like boobs and arms and ankles, elbows, knees / It’s the tongue, the language, the language of a woman who ruins the work for me”).
Despite the singer’s protest that he wrote about “incontinence insanity in conversation…not a generalization about women,” this lyrical, free-flowing Thackray-style masterclass sparked accusations of misogyny that have stuck. One of the theories Thompson advances in the book is that Thackray wrote in character, much like an English Randy Newman. It’s a theory reinforced by a story by McTell: “After a gig in London, we sat down late and I pulled out my Randy Newman albums. Jake sat there, jaw dropping with each song. I particularly remember the effect [1974 deep south concept album] The good old boys had. It was such a buzz to see how instantly these two writers connected. Under [their] exquisite observations lie in a deep love of humanity and its frailties.
One question Thompson set out to answer while writing the book is why, while Thackray was writing in his absolute and most Newmanesque heyday in the late ’70s and early ’80s, his production and live appearances have they started to decrease?
“His greatest studio album was his swan song,” Thompson says of On Again! from 1977! Again! “TV work dried up because formats were changing, but also his audience was dwindling because that 70s folk era was changing. He also found himself trapped in work he no longer loved. .
Thompson also cites Thackray’s growing lack of self-esteem, which he believes may be related to his violent upbringing or his faith. Towards the end of his life, the singer became increasingly dependent on drink to banish anxiety.
“I was drinking with him one night and he said his dad was a fucking horrible bully,” Harding says. “Then he said to me, ‘I am an alcoholic.’ I said, ‘You’re fucking kidding.’ We were all heavy drinkers, but it turns out that when Jake went to the bar for a round, he also had two heavy ones on the top shelf. So if you drink five pints, that’s up 10 vodkas. He hid drink all over the house. I was perched.
Gradually Thackray stopped showing up at concerts and bookings began to dry up, along with the money. “He was hopeless with money,” McTell says. “I sometimes wonder if it was the recklessness of a lifestyle that was denied him, coming out of this religious clutter.”
“Jake was also an ardent socialist, anti-capitalist,” says Thompson. “He categorically refused to advertise Dulux paint, even in the depths of his financial troubles when his family begged him to do so.”
By the 90s, Thackray had separated from his wife, Sheila, and lost the family home. He moved into rented accommodation in a small flat above a greengrocer on the main street of Monmouth.
In the hands of other biographers, the last few years might seem like a tragedy, but it’s to Thompson and Watterson’s credit that they focus on the positives, including the columns Thackray wrote for the Yorkshire Post and the Catholic Herald, his involvement with a group of committed fans planning a Jake Thackray musical, Sister Josephine Kicks the Habit, and the discovery of a cache of never publicly performed Thackray lyrics. Either way, the final chapters, up to his death from a heart attack on Christmas Eve 2002, make for difficult reading.
“There was definitely a sadness in writing the book,” says Thompson, “but it’s a life worth celebrating without denying the sadness, and a chance to spotlight a remarkable songwriter.”
The light continues later in the year with the November release of a two-disc DVD, Jake Thackray at the BBC, plus a “Jakefest” at Scarborough in October, and the reissue of his since-deleted 1981 live album. long, Jake Thackray and Songs.
“I think Jake would find it amusing and intriguing to have his songs loved and appreciated again,” McTell says. “You always wanted to tell him, ‘They’re great. You know they’re good. I know how hard you worked on them. They’re little treasures, all of them! But he wouldn’t have any of that.