The Jazz Butcher: Next Move Sideways
Let’s be clear from the outset: I hate ‘driving music’, if by that we mean bland, unchallenging, predictable, steady-paced stuff that aims to lower blood pressure and heart rate as you hurtle down the fast lane. Moreover, I rarely actually enjoy driving. But for a long while, living in north Wales but trying to keep in touch with friends and family in southern England, I was doing quite a lot of it. And it became almost ritualistic to put on a tape of Fishcotheque, the Jazz Butcher’s first album for Creation Records, which begins with ‘Next Move Sideways’; so much so that I associate it very closely with a particular junction on the A4074 in south Oxfordshire. Something about the opening few chords before the song really gets going also embodies my reluctance to set off on any journey, so maybe that’s why this one feels so closely connected to driving. And of course the lyrics have a lot to say about bypasses, buses, and the car-oriented atmosphere of 1980s Britain.
Fishcotheque was released in 1988, but I suspect the songs and the recordings date from late 1987. (Looking at the live line-up, by December 1987 the band has become Pat (guitar and vocals), Kizzy O’Callaghan (guitar), who does play on the album, and Paul Mulready (drums) and Laurence O’Keeffe (bass), who don’t.) It was recorded at Alaska near Waterloo Station, and takes its name from a fish and chips restaurant under the arches of a railway bridge.
‘Next Move Sideways’ is every bit as much a political song as ‘Olof Palme’, but it’s a bigger survey, and kind of Condition-of-England song for the late 1980s. The lyrics are looser-knit than on some of Pat’s earlier songs. Where his wittiest earlier songs had been built around sharp rhyming couplets — ‘Hungarian Love Song’ on Distressed Gentlefolk had been the pinnacle of achievement in this regard — the rhymes in ‘Next Move Sideways’ aren’t insisted on. Likewise, the vocal melody almost deliberately avoids having a catchy tune; in this regard there’s a similarity with The Blue Aeroplanes: what the vocal line lacks in melody, the guitars more than compensate for. The atmosphere is one of disempowerment, of a personal melancholy (‘your letters never arrive’) that isn’t purely personal because it’s due to the political stagnation of the time. It’s a song about being literally and metaphorically bypassed. From this point of view, the single most devastating line is ‘Smoking on the bridge like a tourist by the Houses Of Parliament’: we had become tourists in our own country, and the representational democracy wasn’t representing us. The other great, deep, and complex line is ‘I smell the diesel in the air, it lets me know I’m alive’: it hints at Marx’s recognition that there’s something revolutionary and destabilising about capitalism, even when it’s expropriating everything and polluting the country; all the references to traffic in the song hint at circulation, though the instinct of the owners of capital is not to ‘spread it about’.
Musically, I love the way the relatively careless vocal line plays off against the rhythmical tightness, particularly the very abrupt staccato chords; and the way those chords play off against the sparkling guitars; and the way that Alex Green’s saxophone solo cascades generously over the later part of the song. Musically it manages to acknowledge both downtrodden melancholy, and a concerted effort to make sense of everything, and a gift of optimism that comes unexpectedly from some entirely other place.