Tag Archives: Jazz Butcher

Thirty-one songs: Pat Fish (The Jazz Butcher)

In July I set myself a challenge of writing a short post every day about songs by Pat Fish, who has mostly recorded as The Jazz Butcher / The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, but who has also recorded with the bands Wilson and Sumosonic, and contributed to records by the Spacemen 3 and The Blue Aeroplanes. Like the #bookadayUK writing I’d been doing in June, it was a way of trying out an approach that’s different from the scholarly writing that I do as a lecturer: freer, more impressionistic, more autobiographical, and more evaluative, though hopefully still imbued with a desire to get the facts right.  It was also a way of finding out how to write about popular music.  And it was an excuse to listen to some great music.

With the exception of the first and last,  the posts are arranged chronologically by the date of release of the song, so this sequence also forms a kind of fragmentary history of the band to date.

1: The first song I ever heard by them: ‘Southern Mark Smith’

2: Best guitar solo: ‘Partytime’

3: A song that makes you laugh out loud: ‘Bigfoot Motel’

4: Best cover version: ‘Roadrunner’

5: Sang the wrong lyrics: ‘Girlfriend’

6: A song about the weather: ‘Rain’

7: A song with a day of the week in the title: ‘Big Saturday’

8: A song that reminds you of a certain event: ‘What’s the Matter, Boy?’

9: Title alludes to a film: ‘The Human Jungle’

10: Makes you feel like you’re in a film: ‘City of Night’

11: A political song: ‘Olof Palme’

12: A song that should have been a hit: ‘Angels’

13: One you want to listen to in the car: ‘Next Move Sideways’

14: A song with a number in the title
: ‘Looking for Lot 49’

15: Best closer on an album: ‘Keeping the Curtains Closed’

16: Song you liked at first but liked less over time: ‘New Invention’

17: A song about travelling: ‘Hysteria’

18: Best bassline: ‘Pineapple Tuesday’

19: Reminds you of somewhere: ‘Daycare Nation’

20: Song you used to put on a mixtape: ‘Girls Say Yes’

21: Favourite song from least favourite album: ‘Rosemary Davies World of Sound’

22: Best Guest Appearance: ‘Whatever Happened to Our Golden Birds’

23: Best Intro: ‘Lulu’s Nightmare’

24: Best ending: ‘When Eno Sings’

25: A song about music: ‘Scarlett’

26: A song about other worlds: ‘Come, Friendly Spacemen’

27: A song you disliked at first (but came to like): ‘Old Snakey’

28: Song about death: ‘Sleepwalking’

29: Reminds you of a great night out: ‘Quality People’

30: A song with a name in the title: ‘Shakey’

31: If I could choose just one: ‘Sister Death’

Some of the cues I took from the ‘Thirty Day Song Challenge’ and a later similar one; others I invented for myself.  Thanks too to Paul and Rachel for their suggestions; to David Whittemore, whose Jazz Butcher website was an invaluable resource for fact-checking; and to Pat, who stumbled across the blog and kindly expressed his appreciation.

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#31songs: 31: If I could choose just one

The Jazz Butcher — a desert-island disc

At the outset of this project I was grateful to Dr H. when she pointed out that there were 31 days in July, not 30, and that I might use one of them for the Desert Island Disc option; but now I’ve got to the end it’s proving tricky.  There are certainly other songs that I’d like to write about. Thinking about the relation of Pat’s songs to 1960s soul music has been interesting; and recalling that he did a cover of ‘Stand By Me’ at the first Jazz Butcher gig I went to, in March 1987, has made me hear ‘Swell’ (from Fishcotheque, recorded later that year) quite differently.  But ‘Swell’, lovely though it is, wouldn’t be my desert island disc.  As soon as I’d started blogging this series, Dr D. of London mentioned ‘She’s On Drugs’, and I instantly regretted not keeping the cue ‘Song about drugs’.  I also wish I’d had the categories ‘A Song about Eccentrics / Eccentricity’ (that would be ‘Mr Odd’ sorted), ‘A Song about a Town’ (that would be ‘Chickentown’), ‘A Song about Separation’ (several, including ‘Swell’ and ‘Racheland’), ‘A Song about Animals’ (many, many songs, from ‘Girls Who Keep Goldfish’ on the first album down to ‘Animals’ on the most recent).  I worried, starting this project, that I might find myself coming to dislike aspects of Pat’s songwriting when forced to describe them, but I’ve actually developed renewed respect for the sharpness of his ironies and their awareness of limits, and for the performances by all the players, including Pat’s vocal performances.  I’ve also realised that even an allowance as generous as 31 songs doesn’t do justice to his output.

In any case, the idea of being trapped on a desert island with just one song to listen to is terrifying, and reminds me of a story from the days when cars first had auto-reverse tape players: someone crashed his car while listening to Wham!, and found himself trapped in it for hours, upside down, with the first Wham! album on auto-repeat; ‘It was terrible’, he said, somewhat ambiguously, ‘I thought I was going to die.’

But, if I were selecting just one song from the ones I’ve already written about, I suppose I would opt for ‘Pineapple Tuesday’, in that months on a desert island would allow me to devise a strange dance to go with it; or ‘Girls Say Yes’ for the guitar solo alone; or ‘When Eno Sings’ because it would lead to the image of Brian Eno in his tiny craft coming to the rescue, or because it would lift my spirits.  Or alternatively, with the Wham! anecdote in mind, I could choose this one, which must be one of the few indie-rock songs to take its inspiration from the dying words of a saint:

 

#31songs: 30: A song with a name in the title

The Jazz Butcher: Shakey

It seems amazing to me that twelve years elapsed between Rotten Soul and Last of the Gentleman Adventurers, the crowd-funded album that Pat and Max put out in 2012, but it’s true.  The interim saw live action from Wilson, of course, and a couple of compilations, Cake City (2001) and The Jazz Butcher’s Free Lunch (2003), and also Pat continued gigging fairly frequently,  often solo, sometimes with pre-recorded backing tracks, in Northampton, Oxford, and London.  He had been performing some of the songs on Gentleman Adventurers since around 2005 (‘Shame About You’ and ‘Shakey’), so it was clear that he hadn’t gone away.

While parts of Rotten Soul (‘Mister Siberia’ and ‘Tough Priest’ especially) had sounded like Wilson tunes, Gentleman Adventurers forges a more coherent sound, outlook, and aesthetic, while being as musically wide ranging as any previous Jazz Butcher album.  It’s an album full of contempt for a risk-averse culture; as the sepia tinted cover might suggest, it’s an album of tobacco stains and wine stains.  I hesitate to say ‘maturity’, because that word has come to suggest a kind of easy-listening a-dolt-orientated-rawk; perhaps it’s better to say this is the Jazz Butcher’s ‘late style.’  The sound is fittingly acoustic, but avoids the clichés of the ‘unplugged’ era, and allows effects and electric guitars their place.

‘Shakey’ doesn’t, strictly speaking, have someone’s name in the title, but for my purposes today, nicknames are allowable:

‘Shakey’ takes Brian Wilson as its emblem of a life lived to the full, or indeed to overflowing, but it begins with a glance at Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’: ‘There is a town in north Ontario’ is a direct lift, and the chords are similar. I’m not sure quite how much we’re supposed to bring Young’s song into play; for me the reference to north Ontario links into ‘You wouldn’t last an hour out there’, to suggest a brutally cold world as the frame for everything else that happens. That’s not how Young’s song sees the town, which is an idyllic place he returns to in memory and imagination. Is ‘Shakey’ stripping the romantic gloss from Young’s song, and finding an altogether more brutal and degraded world: ‘a father battering on his son’, and chopping out his Class As on the kitchen floor.  What’s great about this lyric is the way it plays off our expectations about the magic things that Brian Wilson did musically against his distinctly un-magical and disorderly private life.  Do the magic things come at a cost?  A cost of being considered scum by someone?  A cost of personal loss.  ‘Walk away, you can’t afford it.’

#31songs: 28: Song about death

The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy: Sleepwalking

Late in 1999, Pat and Max convened in Peter Crouch’s home studio in London to record an album of new material. Released the following year, Rotten Soul (Vinyl Japan, 2000) contains some of the best Jazz Butcher songs ever recorded, but the restrictive studio environment means they’re not always the best imaginable versions.  In particular, the drum machine, though expertly and subtly programmed, is still a drum machine, and lacks the variation in accent and timing that live drums would have allowed.  It works best on the songs where its appearance is minimal, and on those (like ‘Mister Siberia’ and ‘Tough Priest’) conceived as glacial and impersonal; it also works pretty well on ‘Come On, Marie’, a song where  it becomes more obvious than ever how much Pat has learned from Motown, and where a fairly  strict, mechanical rhythm is entirely suitable.  It’s least good on ‘Niagara’, a great song, but one that needs a more live feel.

‘Sleepwalking’ is apparently a song that Pat had written some years previously: his notebook from around the time of Illuminate mentions it, with a big note saying ‘Rejected for the third album running’; so it may date back to 1991 and Condition Blue.  That it’s a song about death, and about someone dying slowly and painfully, is only an interpretation — it may be a song about deep depression, or being trapped in a relationship and not having the strength to let go — and I guess my seeing it this way is influenced by the same album having Max Eider’s song ‘Diamorphine’ on it. (And if that’s not a song about palliative care, I don’t know what is.)

Musically it starts in an understated way: a drum pattern, a rhythm guitar, a bass guitar, the vocals, and Pat Beirne’s harmonica embellishments; but it builds slowly and unostentatiously; there’s a continual building up of pressure which the guitar solo only partly releases.  In the choruses the ‘on and on and on and on’ builds it, while the ‘sleepwalking’ releases it; Pat’s vocals are nuanced in tone, especially in the choruses.  This could be, reading the lyrics, a terribly bleak song, but it’s given warmth and humanity by the vocals, the harmonica, and Max’s guitar parts (when they come in, from 1.20 onwards). It doesn’t build to the volume or the levels of distortion that some of the songs on Condition Blue did, but the feeling of restraint throughout makes it all the more powerful.

 

#31songs: 27: A song you disliked at first (but came to like)

The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy: Old Snakey

‘Disliked’ is probably too strong for it, but ‘Old Snakey’ on Illuminate wasn’t one of my favourite tracks when the album came out.  It has a kind of B-movie narrative scenario of an Egyptologist haunted by the spirit inside a purloined statuette, and probably by the spirits inside his liver, and while it’s not as conspicuously as comedy song as some of the early Jazz Butcher material, it’s one of the lighter-hearted pieces.  That would be fine, but in the chorus the vocal melody and everything else falls heavily on the beat (‘SOME-thing THAT old SNA-key FOUND a THOU-sand YEARS a-GO…’) in a way that seems intended to accentuate the comedy. Madness used to do this sometimes when they weren’t doing up-beat ska numbers, and it wasn’t funny then.

In February 1999, after Sumosonic had called it a day, Pat and Max were joined by Owen Jones on drums and Pat Beirne on harmonica for a gig in Hamburg with a laid-back, acoustic feel to it.  A recording came out in January 2000, Glorious and Idiotic, and it’s well worth a listen.  It’s heavily weighted towards the pre-1986 Jazz Butcher material, but the version of ‘Old Snakey’ fits in very nicely; in this version it’s light and it’s spacious and suddenly it makes sense — musical sense, that is, not lyrical.

There’s no version on YouTube at present, but if one turns up I’ll update the blog.

JBC_glorious_front

#31songs: 25: A song about music

The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy: Scarlett

I thought it would be easy to find a self-reflexive song in the Jazz Butcher corpus, but it hasn’t been.  In the early songs there’s a lot of self-referencing (most explicitly in ‘The Jazz Butcher Meets Count Dracula’ and ‘JB vs. PM’), and calling out names of the band members (‘me and Max and Dave and Jones …’); in ‘Conspiracy’ there’s a self-mocking account of their willingness to engage with the Big Questions, like the Egg-Potato Phenomenon; but whereas in most twentieth-century poets’ volumes you’d find the poem about poetry, I can’t think of a song about songwriting. ‘Scarlett’, from the Illuminate album, qualifies by virtue of a brilliant moment when the camera pulls back, so to speak, and we see the band in the act of recording the song.  What had been, in the first chorus, ‘We put all our faith in constructs’, and ‘We put all our faith in strangers’ in the second becomes, in the third, ‘We put all our faith in magnetic tape.’

But never mind if it doesn’t really fit the criteria: there’s a lot else to like here. (And there’s not a version of it on YouTube at the moment, so you’ll have to take my word for it.)  At the start there’s a lovely contrast between the coarse sound and boxy echo of the rhythm guitar and the liquid drops of melody from the other guitar; the rhythm section aren’t obtrusive in this song, but they give it a subtle groove. And Pat’s vocal performance is a good one: I like the hint of a stoned Bob Dylan in the phrase ‘And a silver haze descends’ and even (is it?) the hint of Elvis in ‘Don’t you wanna come down’?  There’s a rich, warm, reassuring sound to the song, as befits a song about reassuring someone who’s lost their self-confidence; but the reassurance never becomes cloying or saccharine, as befits a song that reminds us that we put our faith in insubstantial and impermanent things.

#31songs: 24: Best ending

The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy: When Eno Sings

Another song  made from found phrases, ‘When Eno Sings’ isn’t especially coherent in its lyrics, but with music and a performance as persuasive as this, that doesn’t matter.  Though Eno is a less obvious influence on the Jazz Butcher sound than (say) The Velvets, he’s clearly important to Pat, not for his ambient works or for the music of his songs — though the lyrics to ‘Groovin in the Bus Lane’ (on Big Questions) acknowledge its musical similarity to Eno’s ‘Blank Frank’ — but for his dadaist willingness to toy with lyrical nonsense.

Someone has put together a curious video for it: no insult meant to the Jazz Butcher, but the crowds pictured therein are a better turnout than at the gigs I’ve been to; I can only guess that this is an act of wish fulfilment on the part of another die-hard fan.

Though I’ve selected this one for its ending (the whole final minute or so of ‘It’s a love thing’), it captivates from the beginning, the bass and the echoing guitar line locking in perfectly, and the subtle daring of beginning a song that’s so musically joyous with the lyric ‘Sometimes I cry / When the feeling fails to come …’.   Thanks to what’s quoted from his song titles, Eno emerges in this song as a kind of fantasy figure, a minor deity, ever present but always out of reach: he’s on a faraway beach, he’s at the chinese opera, he’s in a tiny craft.  As for that concluding vocal line, it’s a development of the 1960s soul / Velvet Underground choric mode (think ‘Na nana nana na’ from ‘Rain’, or ‘Radio On’ from ‘Roadrunner’), but the hard dry sound of those earlier songs has gone, and the vocal style is warmer.  The brilliant twist is the repeat that leaves out the adjective:

It’s a love thing, it’s a feel thing
It’s a drug thing, it’s a ______ thing

Answers on a postcard please, to Mr B. Eno, c/o Opal Productions, Somewhere in Deepest Oxfordshire.

JBC_Eno_nbk1

from Pat’s notebook, Aug. 1994

JBC_Eno_nbk2