Throughout July I’m going to be writing a blog a day about a favourite singer/songwriter, Pat Fish: mostly his work as The Jazz Butcher, but also with Sumosonic and Wilson. I’ve already set myself my list of cues, but I’ll be reordering them to provide an almost chronological narrative.
Southern Mark Smith (Big Return)
It’s intriguing and illuminating, and at times disorientating, when bands reinterpret their own material: not just granting themselves more bars for a guitar solo or to play out in a live version, but when they change the essential mood of the song. The Jazz Butcher reworked ‘Southern Mark Smith’ quite rapidly in the first years of their existence as a band. The first version was recorded in the summer of 1983 and came out as their debut single soon after; it was later collected on The Gift of Music (1985). The second (‘Big Return’) was recorded the following summer and appeared on their second album, A Scandal in Bohemia (1984). The first has a roughness, jauntiness, and directness to it; the revised version is smoother, but hints at a musical energy and rage that only fully emerged many albums later. In the first version, the organ mostly sets down the main chords, while on the later one it moves more sinuously, reinforcing a song built around guitars, acoustic and chorus-pedalled. In the first version the guitars are choppily asserting a rhythm, but in the revision they’re softer and more melodic.
There are differences in the lyrics, too. In the first, thousands of people are ‘queueing in the rain to meet the pope’, while in the second, there’s a less specific ‘thousands of people out there’ who ‘have to be okay’. By some rules of lyric and poetry writing, this shouldn’t work (be specific, go in fear of abstractions, etc.), but it does: attention turns from the rain-sodden seekers of salvation to the singer’s own ambivalence. In the first version ‘don’t you know they only make those bracelets out of plastic’ suggests disenchantment with consumerist disposability; crucially in the revised version, this becomes ‘don’t you know they only make pop records out of plastic.’ This could come across as self-contemptuous, but in the smooth-running musical context of the revised version, it comes across only as cautiously self-aware.
The self-awareness is important, because, cryptic though it is, it appears to be a self-referential song about finding one’s personal or musical identity. For a long time I thought the Southern Mark Smith of the title was Gerard Langley of The Blue Aeroplanes, who had been speak-singing his lyrics since 1978; there’s been two-way traffic between the two bands, but when they first became aware of each other I don’t know. More recently, Pat Fish, who is essentially is ‘The Jazz Butcher’, has said that the title is an oxymoron: Mark E. Smith is irreducibly northern (English) in his identity, and a southern one would be a contradiction in terms. So it’s about coming to terms with those inner contradictions and mysteries, but because it never says so directly, it’s less earnest than any paraphrase can make it sound. There’s an aura of melancholy about it too, especially in the ‘Big Return’ version, to do with the way the vocal melody descends.
I must have first heard it in the summer of 1986. Chris F., a friend at sixth-form, was appalled that I was listening mostly to early Genesis (Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, etc.) and put together a tape with a few Jazz Butcher songs on it and some early James (the Village Fire E.P.); and maybe some Woodentops and Jesus and Mary Chain. He didn’t make me see the error of my ways (I’d still defend Nursery Cryme if I had to), but he did open me up to a whole load of new bands. He handed the tape over to me at the Angel-on-the-Bridge in Henley. I may be conflating several such afternoons, but also present was Huw R., whose younger brother would go on to become a Chemical Brother, and Peter Crouch, who would go on to play guitar on several Jazz Butcher albums.