Tag Archives: Jazz Butcher

#31songs: 20: Song you used to put on a mixtape

The Jazz Butcher: Girls Say Yes

Chris F., who introduced me to the Jazz Butcher’s music when I was at sixth-form college, also introduced another friend, Pete Crouch. Around this time Pete was primarily into Mark Knopfler and J. J. Cale, and Max Eider’s guitar work grabbed his attention very quickly.  For a brief while he had a covers band, called with seeming arbitrariness Peter’s Walnut Whirls, and they did a set of cover versions that was half Dire Straits, half Jazz Butcher, with ‘Roadrunner’ thrown in. Pete went off to University somewhere to do American Studies, but continued to follow the Jazz Butcher around. This led to Pete doing some guitar and a guest solo on Pat’s 1991 album, Condition Blue, and becoming the main guitarist on the tour that followed (documented in soggy low-fidelity awfulness on the live album Western Family — something went wrong with the master tapes), and on the next studio album, Waiting for the Love Bus.

Condition Blue is one of the great Jazz Butcher albums,though it divides fans: those that like the more whimsical and gentler side of Pat’s writing aren’t so fond. It came out of the breakdown of Pat’s marriage and apparently some kind of breakdown.  The lyrics are generally more abstract and oblique than usual; witty, but with less of an obvious point to make.  The music is louder, and more exuberant, and several of the songs have extended play outs where it’s clear that every one is having a lot of fun.  If I’d allowed myself more songs for this blog I’d certainly want to be writing about the tribute to Harlan Ellison (and crazy people who stand at junctions shouting at the traffic), ‘Harlan’; ‘Honey’, ‘Shirley Maclaine’, and ‘Racheland’.  And the track ‘Vodka Girls’ belongs to this session.

‘Girls Say Yes’, along with ‘Still and All’, is one of the gentler tunes.

From the very beginning, the sound is rich and seductive: from the female ‘has’ (presumably courtesy of Sumishta Brahm), and in the rich chorus of vocals around ‘don’t try, don’t try’. Pete’s guitar solo bears the fruit of those years listening to Knopfler and Eider.  There’s a pair of triplets somewhere in the middle of it that are straight out of Knopfler (at about 2:55), but the great thing about this solo is that it doesn’t sound like an alien imposition, or an imitation; it has its own identity, and it belongs perfectly to the song; it lifts the song in just the right way, and doesn’t feel like it’s in competition.

 

#31songs: 19: Reminds you of somewhere

The Jazz Butcher: Daycare Nation

Whoever thought of this cue was probably anticipating songs that evoke magnificent scenerylike beaches at sunset, and they reckoned without my painfully literal imagination.  (I once did a word-association test, as a preliminary to being a subject in some other psychological experiment. They said ‘Doctor’.  An image of a doctor in a white lab coat flashed into my mind’s eye; I hesitated, and responded with ‘Doctor.’)

‘Daycare Nation’ makes mention of Royal Oak Station, in west central London. I can’t listen to it without thinking of Royal Oak Station, though beyond that, it also evokes the backs of houses that you see from the train as it slows down coming into Paddington.  It’s another song from Cult of the Basement, but as there’s no YouTube version of the album recording, here’s Pat performing it at the 12-Bar in 2007:

On the album it fades in over the noise of underground trains; the bass line comes in with the mechanical simplicity of a musical box or a nursery rhyme,  and the saxophone breathes gently and seductively.  It’s a night-time song.  We’re potentially in classic singer-songwriter territory (bedsits, eccentrics, and a patronising display of pity), but ‘Daycare Nation’ is impersonal and non-narrative, and that takes it somewhere different.

You’re living in your own home

You’re living in your own world

You’re living in a waking dream

You’re living in the best of all possible worlds

The smell of contagion

In the hall of your apartment

And a soft little scratching

On the wall of the room next to yours

The way the second stanza undercuts the first is brilliant; there’s nothing in the music to signal the difference. The ‘soft little scratching’ lands perfectly between being specific and leaving us to imagine what might be living next door, or in the wall cavity.  The thousands of ‘Mr Odds’  cross references another song on the album, more upbeat and comical: when there was just one Mr Odd he might be a figure of fun (though also of pathos); when multiplied, the pathos comes to the fore.

They’re not real

They’re there by accident

They’re not real

It’s just an accident of birth

The closing lines are the most troubling: the song has made it quite clear that they are real, living in a specific place and time; these lines register either what the government would have you believe (this was the era of ‘care in the community’), or they register the appalled response of someone who can’t quite take in the magnitude of it. What’s great about this song is the way that it records direct acquaintance with dilapidated bedsit-land (smells, sounds) and  at the same time the perspective from far off, the perspective of the intercity commuter coming into Paddington and wondering about all the lives going on behind all those windows.

* * * *

And here’s an acoustic rendition of ‘Mr Odd’, with an anecdote about the real-life antecedent for him: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDADLhmXf30

#31songs: 18: Best bassline

The Jazz Butcher: Pineapple Tuesday

By the time of recording the third Creation Records album, Cult of the Basement, in January 1990, the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy line-up had reached a degree of stability.  The rhythm section of Paul Mulreany and Laurence O’Keefe had been in the band for two years, and although Kizzy O’Callaghan had retired from touring due to ill-health, I had the impression seeing the band, and even listening to the recordings, that they understood each other as musicians.  Cult of the Basement is one of the great Jazz Butcher albums. It makes a virtue of its musical diversity with odd short tracks (The Basement, Fertiliser, After the Great Euphrates) and samples.  Only one of the songs (‘My Zeppelin’) seems throwaway, its comedy country-and-western stylings a glance back at the Glass-era band.

Whether having a stable band is a prerequisite for creating a great groove only musicians can say; perhaps complete strangers could have done it.

It’s not really a reggae bass-line, but it has a reggae feel to it, and the song is reggae-like in that everything coheres around the bass.  I especially like the way it starts with an unpromising stop-start drum beat, and then everything suddenly springs into life.  The guitar lines are wonderful too, but they’re leaves and flowers on the branches; the lyrics are minimal and relatively obscure, but the delivery is delicate and fits around everything else.

#31songs: 17: A song about travelling

The Jazz Butcher: Hysteria

‘Hysteria’ is the third track on Big Planet Scarey Planet, and after ‘New Invention’ and ‘Line of Death’ (about the USA bombing of Libya in 1986), it represents a brief change of tone and pace. It runs the risk of being a touring band’s song about life on the road, but the complaints about the hardships of touring are only part of it; it’s really a song about America from viewpoint of a European, and as such it fits well with the first two songs, the first being about an Americanized Britain, and the second being about American paranoid fantasies about Arab leaders.

There wasn’t a video on YouTube, so I’ve made one:

 

The Jazz Butcher website also has a live version from 1989, which goes at a much faster tempo than the studio version and loses some of the mood:

 

Musically, there are some unusual things going on here.  The 3/4 waltz rhythm is part of it, and the vocal line has some unusually big leaps in it, especially when we get to ‘It’s alright for a while’.  There’s a suggestion in this, and in the descending chords, of some Sixties folk-pop classic, but never specific enough to make it into a steal: is it the Beatles’ ‘Hide Your Love Away’, or Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?’  The organ line (funereal at the start, but warbling at the end) takes it out of straightforward folk-pop territory, but also has a sixties ambience about it.  The spaciousness of the song also gives it a cinematic feel.

What stops the lyric being simply a touring song, or simply satire, is the way it’s caught between distrust and disdain on the one hand, and longing on the other; and even the longing isn’t resolved.  At one point its a longing to join in the luxury and excess, if only as respite ‘We drove the bus through Heaven / There were people in their best suits in the bar. / We’re far from home, we’re far from well, / I wish I could have joined them for an hour’. Elsewhere it’s pity (‘But look at its children, too human and sad’), and elsewhere its a desire to change it.  The song builds to a final list:

So what for did we come here?

Well, we came here to learn,

‘Coz somebody told us

You’ve got books here to burn.

And we came for your buildings.

And we came to see your fountains.

And we came for the restaurants.

And we came for your women.

And we came for the Pacific Ocean.

And we came for the drugs.


And we came for your souls.


Sounds stupid, but we came for your souls.

Those ‘fountains’ might be ‘mountains’ (see here), but it doesn’t matter too much.  While some of these in isolation might read like straightforward decadent rock and roll (the women and the drugs), taken with interest in  books, and architecture, and the fountains/mountains, it’s more complex, and the final touch is both to admit to some sort of reforming mission (‘we came for your souls’) and in the next breath to admit that such a project might have been utterly misguided.

#31songs: 16: Song you liked at first but liked less over time.

The Jazz Butcher: New Invention

‘New Invention’ was recorded in February 1989 and was the only single off the Big Planet Scarey Planet album.  I seem to remember Pat introducing this around the time of its release as ‘a song specifically designed to overthrow the government’, and while that introduction has a healthy dose of self-mockery in it, this and the album pursued the condition-of-england idea from Fishcotheque with greater directness and aggression.  I like the lyrical richness and the implication that there’s more to be said than can be packed into one song — it’s the lyrical equivalent of pushing the guitars into the red zone — especially when we get to this passage:

Grace and hailstorms, trains and brainstorms,
All-night bus rides, brand new life forms,
Ancient Rome in your very own home,
Sex on the phone — I can’t see for the pheromones.

For Big Planet Scarey Planet the band returned to John A. Rivers in Leamington Spa, and the sound is notably different from the cleanness of Fishcotheque.  At times there’s a psychedelic shimmer to it that anticipates Levitation, the band that bassist Laurence O’Keeffe would join a few years later.  The vocals sound different too, with Pat unleashing anger on this song, and delivering a different tone, a cold fury, on the almost-spoken ‘Bicycle Kid’ (‘evil little fucker put his pet through the window …’).

Why I came to like this less wasn’t because of its failure to overthrow Margaret Thatcher, but the feeling that some aspects of the production were distinctly of their time: the digital reverb just a bit too pronounced; too much top end and not enough bass; snare drums sounding too big.  After the next two albums, Cult of the Basement and Condition Blue, this already sounded dated.  Condition Blue  had big songs, but their magnitude didn’t feel like a trick of the mixing desk.

Having said all that, re-listening to ‘New Invention’ to write this, I found it’s not as drenched in reverb as I remember it, and the sheer energy of the song, verbally and musically, has impressed me again.

 

#31songs: 15: Best closer on an album

The Jazz Butcher: Keeping the Curtains Closed

Filled though they are with wonderful material, the Glass-era Jazz Butcher albums never had a strong sense of shape.  Part of the problem was the band’s musical eclecticism. Yes, the right songs were chosen as closers, though I’ve never been fond of ‘My Desert’ from A Scandal in Bohemia; in the case of Sex and Travel, ‘Walk with the Devil’ is the real closer, and ‘Down the Drain’ a brief, bitter coda.  ‘Angels’ is a great last track to end Distressed Gentlefolk, but doesn’t bring the album together; no song could achieve that.

With the Creation era, the albums began to be coherent entities rather than stockpiles of brilliant songs, and when it comes to perfect closers, I’m spoilt for choice.  ‘The Good Ones’ (especially as a song that follows ‘Bad Dream Lover’), from Big Planet Scarey Plants?  ‘Sister Death’ from Cult of the Basement?  ‘Racheland’ from Condition Blue?  the American record company resequenced the album so it ended with ‘Still and All’, a decision that makes no sense and indicates how careful Pat had become about such matters.  But this one sets the standard:

The lyrics pick up ‘Next Move Sideways’ and the state of the nation as gauged by roads, cars, and public transport, but now presented in the third person. Musically the clean guitar sounds and the delay on the lead guitar line keep it sounding spacious; the simple melodic bassline in the intro and play-out gives it a kind of optimism despite itself.

#31songs: 14: A song with a number in the title


The Jazz Butcher: Looking for Lot 49

The early Jazz Butcher records had shown an intermittent interest in rockabilly beats, with songs like ‘Red Pets’ and ‘I Need Meat’; their friends The Woodentops likewise mixed those insistent pounding rhythms into their work.

The beat, the harsh echo on the vocals, and the pause in the middle of the chorus locate ‘Lot 49’  clearly enough in that lineage.  In the background there are delays on the guitars that almost start to work against the basic beat, especially in the closing 30 seconds or so, and by the end there’s a feedback drone that suggests a more psychedelic style, but these things are only hinted at; ‘Lot 49’ is classical, concise and focused, and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Lyrics-wise, the title alludes to Thomas Pynchon’s 1960s classic of delirious paranoia, The Crying of Lot 49, and just like that novel, the Jazz Butcher’s ‘Lot 49’ is concerned with postmen, postcards, and the unreliability of the postal system.  I think the Jazz Butcher song must have first alerted me to Pynchon’s novel, though it was my interest in literature and science that have me the final nudge towards reading it.  The novel’s fantastic, particularly if you’ve been reading Jacobean revenge tragedy for your exams and have murderous henchmen called Antonio spilling out of your ears with their poisoned Bibles, or skulls, or signet-rings.  That said, I don’t think you need to read the novel to appreciate the song.

#31songs: 13: One you want to listen to in the car

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.

#31songs: 12: A song that should have been a hit

The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy: Angels

The Jazz Butcher website says that the later Big Planet, Scarey Planet album reached the top of M.T.V.’s alternative chart in 1989, but on the whole the charts and the band have scarcely been on speaking terms.  In the era on Glass Records, from the 1983 to 1987, the eclecticism of the music must have made them a difficult band to market, but the small-scale nature of Glass probably meant there wasn’t in any case much promotional muscle behind them.  In a just world ‘Southern Mark Smith’ would have been a hit, ‘The Human Jungle’ would have been a hit, and ‘Hard’ would have been a hit. They even performed ‘Hard’ on Channel 4’s The Tube in February 1986, and, in a feat of astonishing neurological resilience, Pat claims to remember something of the experience.

One might argue that the British record buying public didn’t get the Jazz Butcher’s variety of irony and emotional reserve. That’s where ‘Angels’ comes in, recorded in May 1986 as part of the Distressed Gentlefolk album, their last for Glass Records. The whole sound and emotional attitude of the song is quite different, while still recognisably being The Jazz Butcher.  There was even a video, reconstituted here by a fan from a wobbly VHS tape:

In sleeve notes for a later compilation, Pat says he wrote it on the day the USA bombed Tripoli (i.e., 15 April 1986.)  If the lyrics seem a little abstract, his remarks on that compilation aren’t the place to go to for clarification: ‘I never make any sense when I start to talk about this tune. The lyrics just showed up, like automatic writing or something.’  It could easily be the sort of ‘life is hard when you’re on the road’ song that bands with a busy touring schedule end up writing, and 1985-86 were the busiest touring years for the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy. But this one largely avoids the specifics of musicianly suffering, and so becomes a more general song about distance, separation, and longing.

Fans have always loved it; I get the impression Pat has mixed feelings about its simplicity and directness.  Someone called out for it once at a gig and he said words to the effect of ‘you don’t want to hear that stadium shit, do you?’ In the production that John A. Rivers brought to it, the sound is almost too big, shimmering in digital reverb and a big snare-drum sound, but the song itself is solid, and works when played by the band or played solo.

#31songs: 11: A political song

The Jazz Butcher: Olof Palme

The Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated on 28 February 1986.  Exactly when Pat wrote and recorded this song I don’t know, but as the split with Max Eider came later that year (27 November, after a gig in Zurich), it was some time in 1986; the recording surfaced on the fabulous compilation Big Questions (The Gift of Music, vol.2) released the following year.

Around the time ‘Olof Palme’ came out, the only kind of leftist political songwriting that got attention was in the vein of Billy Bragg: passionate, direct, unambiguously committed.  (And by the way, if my sources are to be trusted, Billy Bragg and Pat Fish were born on the same day in 1957.) Most indie bands were perceived as anti-Thatcherite and belonging to a 1980s version of the counter-culture, but there was a gulf between indie irony and playfulness on the one hand, and what counted as political writing on the other.

For me at least, ‘Olof Palme’ was a revelation about a different way of writing political songs. It’s the first song in this series that doesn’t currently have a version on YouTube, but there’s a snippet on the Jazz Butcher website that gives a flavour:

Although Max contributes, this is almost a solo piece; it’s broadly in the cafe-jazz line of Jazz Butcher writing that started with ‘Party Time’.  There’s another strand to their early writing that I haven’t represented here, except perhaps in ‘What’s the Matter Boy?’, and that’s kind of witty drinking song; Max Eider’s ‘Drink’ and ‘Down the Drain’; ‘Olof Palme’ grafts that strand onto a more serious purpose, but keeps the light-hearted tone.

Well, you didn’t read about him in the English papers much
But he used to govern Sweden with a magic touch
Everybody liked him even though the liquor prices were high
And my god are they high

But all the taxation helped to pay the bills
For stuff like better work conditions and the curing of ills
It made sense, and ladies and gents that’s why…

I can’t think of any other song that makes a concise justification for redistribution and makes it light-hearted. Reminding us of the high price of alcohol in Sweden while exhorting us to drink in Palme’s memory is a lovely touch.  It’s not the first political song in the Jazz Butcher’s work: ‘Real Men’ from Scandal in Bohemia has macho masculine identity in its sights; more tongue in cheek, ‘Red Pets’ on Sex and Travel celebrates all things female and Eastern Bloc to an unstoppable rockabilly beat; and in ‘Southern Mark Smith’ there’s a passing reference to the BBC as an mouthpiece of the establishment. But ‘Olof Palme’ is the one where Pat really nails it, quietly, modestly, and brilliantly.