REVIEW: Paul Rhodes’s verdict on Paul Thompson and John Watterson: Beware Of The Bull concert and book launch

Book launch for Paul Thompson and John Watterson’s Beware Of The Bull: The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray

Paul Thompson and John Watterson: Beware Of The Bull – The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray Concert & Book Launch, presented by Black Swan Folk Club at National Centre for Early Music, York, October 28

DESPITE being a household name in the mid-to-late 1960s, Jake Thackray is now largely forgotten.

His  humorous topical songs popped up on That’s Life (and before that Braden’s Week). The ephemeral nature of much of his television material was not made with posterity in mind. His slim album output does not fit neatly anywhere – certainly not anywhere near the mainstream.

For those who cottoned on in his lifetime (he died in 2002), or have discovered him through famous admirers, Thackray is held in the highest of esteem.

Paul Thompson and John Watterson have done much to keep the cult alive. Watterson’s Fake Thackray project is much more than a tribute turn, also breathing life into songs unheard in decades or putting new music to works never completed.

Two rarities graced the performance at the NCEM, The Ferryboat, extolling the charms of a public house, and a scabrous number about National Service that was aired, reluctantly, once in 1986.

The new biography seems to have kickstarted a wave of renewed interest in this Yorkshire chansonnier. Thompson and Watterson have produced a wonderfully researched book, the work of dedicated fans rather than biographers for hire.

It does not shy away from the sadness of his decline and later years, and also makes a strong case for his writing (Thackray was a columnist of note for the Yorkshire Post in the early 1990s, his contributions posted, often hilariously late, from his Welsh outpost).

Tantalising gaps in the story remain, particularly how Thackray’s time in France and civil-war Algeria transformed him both as a guitarist and performer. What the French made of Thackray is also unknown.

His love of their language and the chanson form is well documented however. Unique among his English contemporaries Thackray sought to write songs that contained both humour, poetry and insight – in the French style of Georges Brassens, where the words come before all else.

Watterson and Thompson performed ten songs, and 50 years after Thackray’s heyday, crowds continue to laugh and admire his singular dexterity with words. The performers chose their selections carefully, as Thackray’s humour is sometimes dated (all on stage exchanged knowing looks after the line “I shan’t lay a finger on the crabby old bat face” from La-Di-Da, which drew a consciously muffled laugh). His stories of the underdog, or sticking it those in authority, will never go out of style.

The artistry of the material shone. Bantam Cock, freed from its maddening keyboard refrain, was out-and-out funny while the Widow Of Bridlington was both sad and wry (a precursor to Richard Thompson’s Beeswing).

Thompson and Watterson did a splendid job performing these difficult songs. Perhaps Thompson unnecessarily underlined a line or two, in contrast to Thackray’s determinedly deadpan style, but it was a treat to hear the tunes live.

Thackray was a complicated man, marked by his difficult upbringing in Leeds. This working- class hero really did have (smelly) feet of clay. In later years, after the stage fright and weekly terror of performing on national television had passed, his songwriting slowed dramatically as he toiled to write more serious works. One of these, Remembrance, is one of the best anti-war songs, but not one you are ever likely to hear on November 11.  

Yorkshire is the centre of the Thackray cult, so with luck we will be graced with many more opportunities to savour this underappreciated master of his craft channelled through Thompson and Watterson.

Review by Paul Rhodes