So much more than just a North Country Noël Coward, singer-songwriter Jake Thackray produced some enduringly witty and well-observed songs.
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It seems that Jake Thackray is often compared to Noël Coward. Certainly his erudite, clipped, staccato tones are reminiscent of Coward’s measured delivery, and it’s true that both performers deliver self-penned songs infused with carefully observed wit and hilarity. But listen to the works of Jake Thackray and you will discover so much more than a singer in thrall to Noël Coward. For all Thackray’s politely delivered words, his ditties so often deliver a turn of phrase or accent that instantly signals his upbringing in Leeds and his honest passionate love of the people and places of Yorkshire.
It is hard to imagine Noël Coward tackling the sort of topics that Jake Thackray does. Though both were born into unremarkable suburban families, Coward soon became part of the theatrical elite, adopting the airs and graces of the upper class to affect an accent and lifestyle far from that of his birth, gradually becoming more upper class than most of the upper class. Jake Thackray though wrote gleefully of jumble sales, buxom lasses, poultry and North Country buses. If Noël Coward had experienced the rough pleasures of any of those earthly delights, then his usually forthright and frank biographers have failed to record it.
Born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1938, Jake Thackray initially flirted with the notion of becoming a priest after attending St Michael’s College in Leeds. Thankfully for the sake of music he instead decided to become a teacher and left the priesthood well alone to those of a more sober disposition. After graduating from Durham University, Jake spent almost four years teaching English in France, roaming across the country to schools in Brittany, Lille, the Pyrenees, and for a brief period Algeria. Upon his return to England in 1964, he took up a teaching position back in his native Leeds.
His French travels proved an important part in developing the Jake Thackray style of singing, far more than any cursory study of Coward’s compositions he may have casually undertaken. It was in France that Jake Thackray first heard the likes of Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel, deeply passionate singer-songwriters in the chansonnier tradition who performed lewd, crude songs of love, suffering and desire. Thackray went on to collaborate with Brassens on tracks such as Brother Gorilla (Le Gorille). Initially though he remained a teacher, performing his songs in the classroom to a captive audience and in local pubs and clubs around Leeds and Bradford to a slightly less captive, but equally enthusiastic audience.
Regular spots on local radio and television brought Thackray’s work to the attention of composer Brian Fahey who recommended him to the EMI record producer Norman Newell. Lured down to London, Newell recorded the sessions which would become Jake Thackray’s 1967 debut album The Last Will and Testament of Jake Thackray and would go on to oversee all of Jake’s subsequent studio releases.
Jake’s Progress, Jake Thackray’s second album released in 1969, bore witness to the fruits of his labours since the first album. Occasional appearances on the regional TV show Look North, had earned him a chance in 1968 to appear nationally on the BBC show Braden’s Week, hosted by Canadian consumer champion Bernard Braden. Now broadcasting nationally, viewers were apparently appalled by the rough Yorkshireman with his bawdy suggestive songs. Jake’s natural charm soon won the TV audiences over though and he stayed with Braden’s Week until Braden himself left in 1972, subsequently joining the show’s natural successor That’s Life. The demands of the weekly topical consumer show format meant that Jake had to write and perform a song every week. While other performers could afford to craft their songs over months and years, Jake Thackray worked dedicatedly and diligently to produce the songs that made his name.
Jake’s Progress showcases many of the regular themes of Jake Thackray’s songs. The opening track Country Girl for instance, is that perfect blend of an outwardly respectable composition which hides a barely concealed licentiousness amongst its rough bucolic verses. Amidst the goat milking, church hall dances and catalogue clothes, there lurks a lustful maiden who thinks nothing of lying down in moonlit bracken with her many lovers before brushing the straw from her hair and returning to respectable society. If ever a song served to distance the earthy, shameless, observant humour of Jake Thackray from the staid considered wit of Noël Coward, then it would be this one.
More pastoral love scenes are enacted across the album. On The Blacksmith and the Toffee-Maker, Jake Thackray spins a comic yet tender tale of a shy blacksmith wooing a village toffee-maker pining away into a lonely spinsterhood. Salvation Army Girl features the respectable titular heroine playing her bugle in village pubs while all the time whispering sweet lusty promises to Jake. On the Shelf also features a woman on her own, coping and getting on with life without tears. It too is a sensitive and tender paean, devoid of false pity and with the very merest touch of lament and melancholy. Nurse is all innuendo and lust, in the finest Carry On tradition. The dramatic pay-off to all the yearning and pleading is truly wonderful and sadly, far too clever for me to reveal here.
Aside from his sardonic observances on the machinations of love and lust, Jake’s Progress also contains many moments of humour which demonstrate Jake Thackray’s unique and lively sense of wit. The Hole is pure whimsy, telling a tall tale of Jake sticking his finger through a hole in a door to relieve the boredom while waiting for a bus. As the ludicrousness escalates, police, dogs, and reporters from the BBC gradually gather before Jake is taken to court, pleading an excuse of ‘justifiable curiosity’.
There is plenty of self-deprecating humour at Jake’s expense too. On Family Tree, the Thackrays are revealed to be a reprehensible clan of uncouth sinners, whose only brush with the aristocracy came with the rape of a duchess and the offer of some Woodbines to the Queen. Jake delves further into the misdeeds of the Thackrays on Grandad, another degenerate relative whose cast-iron constitution and dipsomaniacal habits lead Jake to suspect that the old man will fight off the clutches of death and escape from his grave as soon as the pubs open.
The song which best demonstrates the heights of Jake Thackray’s preposterous whimsy, is perhaps The Castleford Ladies Magic Circle. A wonderful tale of suburban devil worship, thanks to the deft subtle touches of Jake Thackray, it is easy to picture the scene as Elizabeth Jones and Lily O’Grady (and three or four more married ladies) practice their unspeakable pagan rites. These North Country witches have no need for fancy, expensive props and familiars, instead relying on their ‘Woolworth’s broomstick and a tabby cat’. I could wax at length about the joys and horrors to be found in the ‘upstairs aspidistra’d room that’s lit by candlelight’, but it’s perhaps best you listen and enjoy the antics of the Castleford Ladies yourself. Take it away Mr Thackray.