Archive for the ‘music’ Tag

Max Boyce – Know your arias from your elbow

Who would have expected an album recorded in a small Welsh rugby club would create a major superstar of 1970s comedy?

Max Boyce - Live At Treorchy

Max Boyce – Live At Treorchy

Max Boyce,
Live At Treorchy,
One Up OU 2033,
1974

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Nationalism can do odd things to people. I don’t feel there is anything intrinsically wrong with believing your nation to be a fairly decent place full of thoroughly decent people leading highly decent lives. That nation of yours is going to be there every time you gaze out of a window or open your door, so you might as well try and like it, or at least feign some sort of passing interest. It is though, a short step from believing your respective country to be the best and by far the most decent, to experiencing a strong desire to conquer the known world and subjugate all other nations until they reach your required state of taste and decency.

Along with wanting to vanquish all the people of the world, nationalism also seems to bring with it certain other odd desires that are not entirely natural. Take for instance the sudden urge to address huge baying crowds from a balcony. Or the need to adopt emblems and insignia, and to wear stylistically improbable items of clothing. With their crisp black shirts, natty armband accessories, leather jackets, polished metallic eagles and shiny knee-length boots, nationalists have always managed to look stylish and cut a certain dash while they attempt to vanquish their foes and crush the peoples of the world. Apart from Nicola Sturgeon of course, who manages to look like a school dinner lady all dressed up for a night at the bingo.

Striding about the stage of some random Welsh town hall, adorned from head to toe in red with matching scarf and hat, Max Boyce certainly looked the part of the ardent nationalist. Add into that equation an enormous rosette the size of a cart wheel and a giant leek that was taller than Max himself, and you have the living embodiment of Welsh nationalism and its greatest ever comedian. Even Hitler or Mussolini in their prime would have felt underdressed and a tad shabby watching Max Boyce in his prime.

It wasn’t always like this. The covers of Max Boyce’s first two albums In Session and The World Of Max Boyce, both first released in 1971, show him in his pre-giant leek days. His chunky knitwear adorned with hues of brown and beige, his hair long but tamed, Max looks every inch a jobbing folk singer. By 1974 when Live At Treorchy was released, Max Boyce’s amazing transformation from folk singer to the very personification of Welshness was well under way. Gone is the brown woollen uniform, replaced instead by the ubiquitous leek and Welsh rugby wear that he would make his own. The leek is just a regular vegetable at this stage, and Max’s hair is still un-permed, but the puckish grin shows that he is well on his way to becoming the most Welsh person to have ever walked the valleys or waved a daffodil in anger. With the exception of 1977’s The Road And The Miles…, which sees Max flirting with rock superstardom in denim flares and a shirt open to his navel, the red and white clad rugby obsessive was a look that would serve him well.

Much of the appeal at Live At Treorchy comes from the instant rapport between Max and his audience. Born in 1943 in the mining town of Glynneath, Max Boyce worked in the mines himself and his tales of hard toil and of the emotional release offered by rugby and beer come from the heart. There is no affectation or effort to ingratiate himself with his audience. It is simply a man at home in his surroundings and the response of an audience who recognize one of their own. The material and topics Max sings about are instantly familiar to his crowd.

Much of the material on Live At Treorchy makes reference to Welsh rugby, which enjoyed a period of exceptional skill and dominance during the 1970s. I could devote a doctoral thesis to investigating whether it was the dominance of Welsh rugby which gave rise to the mass appeal of Max Boyce or vice versa. Suffice to say, the album both begins and ends with rugby related comedy, with only a few non-rugby related songs included to prevent the audience from rising from their chairs in a frenzied state of nationalism and marching immediately on London to overthrow the government.

Opening track 9-3 tells for instance of the 1972 defeat of the mighty New Zealand All Blacks by the Carmarthenshire club side Llanelli. The match is still talked about and mythologised forty years on and the details are now a matter of sporting legend, but Max Boyce explores much more than just the minutiae of the match. He tells of the atmosphere that the match generated, the camaraderie and mass elation that the result provoked, and of the Felinfoel beer induced revelry that caused many a headache and absence from work the next day. And probably the day after that as well.

More rugby tales follow on The Scottish Trip which relates more about the experience of travelling to a match than it does about the enjoyment of watching the match itself. It is a tale of hard working men bonding on a rare day off, and also of the scarcity of toilets on the motorways of the early 1970s. A similar track Hymns And Arias finishes the album, telling this time of a trip to Twickenham, detailing the songs sung and the various ways the Welsh got one over on their English hosts. It is a rousing crowd pleaser on which to end the record, with the line ‘Wales defeated England’ inevitably earning the loudest, most raucous cheer of the night.

Less drunken tracks, such as The Outside-Half Factory, relate a tall yarn of Welsh rugby players being constructed deep below the ground, hidden from the scheming gaze of English rugby league scouts. There is also Asso Asso Yogoshi, a cheerful tale of glib casual racism blessed glossed over, that despite its obvious affection for the touring Japanese rugby side and their brave sporting spirit, is just the sort of song that gives the 1970s a bad name. Wales has yet to issue Japan a formal apology for the track…

Astonishingly though, there are songs which are not about rugby or annoying the English. The Ballad Of Morgan The Moon is a long rambling story/poem which tells about how the eponymous Welsh inventor made it to the surface of the moon in a coal powered rocket fashioned from an old winding-engine.

The non-rugby songs also showcase the serious side of Max Boyce. Duw It’s Hard is a reflective lament for the lost pit in Max’s home town of Glynneath which generates a moment of genuine pathos amidst all the musical merriment and rugger. Max is honest enough to acknowledge that life in the mines was tough and full of hardship, but the replacement of the pithead baths with a supermarket imbues the song with a reflective sadness at the inevitability of change and the loss of communities. Ten Thousand Instant Christians is another reflective number which marvels at the empty chapels dotted around Cardiff on the day of a rugby international, while inside the stadium hymns such as Calon Lân and Cwm Rhondda can be heard ringing out with such faith and devotion.

Did You Understand? is a track written about the 1972 colliery strike, the indifferent decision makers in power and how the nation’s sympathies with the striking miners faded over time. With its portentous piano chords playing over Max’s piercing vocal lament, it is a powerful moment of social commentary that reveals the folk club origins of much of Max Boyce’s act.

For all its parochial Welsh charm, Live At Treorchy achieved great success for Max Boyce outside of his own safe heartland of support. The blend of working class humour and gentle comedy saw the album sell by the thousands, spending 38 weeks in the charts and reaching number 21 in the run up to Christmas 1975. The follow up album We All Had Doctors’ Papers achieved even greater success becoming (so far) the only comedy album to have reached number one in the UK charts. Which, given the competition, is quite an achievement.

To end then, here is Duw It’s Hard, Max’s wistful farewell to the mining industry that made him and thousands like him into proud Welshmen.

Jake Thackray – Not the North Country Noël

So much more than just a North Country Noël Coward, singer-songwriter Jake Thackray produced some enduringly witty and well-observed songs.

Jake Thackray - Jake’s Progress

Jake Thackray – Jake’s Progress

Jake Thackray,
Jake’s Progress,
Columbia SCX 6345,
1969

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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.

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