It was around 1999 when Neil Gaiman first heard someone else mention the name Jake Thackray. Growing up in East Grinstead, West Sussex, in the 60s and 70s, the British-born author and Sandman creator had perceived Thackray as a vague voice on the peripheries of childhood, this lugubrious wooly jumpered raptor of a man, his voice a foggy, owlish hoot steeped in dark Yorkshire bitter, who doled out droll topical songs on such lighthearted TV consumer affairs shows as Braden’s Week and That’s Life!.
“I was exactly the wrong age to like or appreciate him,” Gaiman told author and Thackray fan Paul Thompson in 2019. “Then, 20 years ago, I was talking to [singer-songwriter] Thea Gilmore about great songwriters and she just happened to mention [a song by Thackray called] The Castleford Ladies Magic Circle.” Gaiman ordered a Thackray CD from Amazon and, as he puts it, was “all of a sudden in love”.
What Gaiman fell for was the utter uniqueness of Thackray’s voice. “The intelligence, the absolute naked emotion,” he continued. “That willingness both to be funny and sad. Once you’ve heard enough of his songs you realise there was nobody else like him.”
Since his death in 2002, at the age of 64, his TV and singing career long since over, the cult of Jake Thackray has remained a small, steady and exclusive one. And while famous fans such as Gaiman, Gilmore, Alex Turner and Cerys Matthews have all been vocal in their praise for this northern balladeer and his soft-sung alliterative narratives of lovelorn boozers, lonely widows and spurned country girls, the man himself has remained something of an enigma.
That’s about to change with the publication of the first Thackray biography, Beware of the Bull: The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray. Co-authored by committed fans Thompson and John Watterson, it’s a book that seeks to unravel the mysteries surrounding Thackray’s life. These range from his poor, Catholic upbringing in Kirkstall with a violent father to his formative years teaching in France and travelling Europe, his meteoric rise as a TV performer and recording artist in the 60s and 70s and, ultimately, his gradual rejection of it all in the 80s.
“The ultimate problem was that Jake didn’t fit,” says Thompson. “He’d spent four years in a Catholic seminary and then from 1960, aged 22, he lived and worked in France and Algeria. He wrote poetry, fell in love, and was influenced by the French singer-poets, or chansonniers, most significantly Georges Brassens who wrote elegant songs about the outcast, the underdog and the poor. By the time Jake returned to England in 1963, he’d found his inspiration to become a poet-songwriter. But England in 1963 wasn’t really a home for a chansonnier.”
Instead, Jake became a teacher at the Intake county secondary school in Bramley, Leeds, where he taught himself to play a nylon-strung guitar (like Brassens), wrote musicals and started performing in the local pubs. It was there, in 1965, that he was spotted by BBC scout Pamela Howe. Within three months of his first radio recording, Thackray landed a slot on regional TV and, through the persistence of Howe and the BBC’s head of radio light entertainment, Roy Rich, scored an EMI recording contract and made his first national TV appearance, on the highbrow 1968 BBC sketch show Beryl Reid Says Good Evening.
“The first time I saw Jake was on TV,” says the singer Ralph McTell, who would befriend Thackray on the 70s folk circuit. “He was extraordinary looking. His appearance stopped you in your tracks before you even heard his voice. His playing, his punctuation, his timing, the way he phrased, had nothing to do with American or British folk music. He had his own way of doing everything. Anywhere else he might have been treasured for that. Here he was compared to Pam Ayres.”
McTell believes that, in another world, Thackray would have been celebrated in the cafes and concert halls of France and Belgium, where they understood his clever, poetic European wordplay: “Instead he became part of the 70s pub circuit, up next after a bunch of sea shanties. The audience wouldn’t always be able to absorb the nuance, the subtlety. Jake ended up liking that pub circuit world but intellectually he was miles ahead of it.”
“I genuinely regard him as one of the greatest songwriters this country has ever produced,” says friend and fellow folk singer Mike Harding. “He’s up there with Richard Thompson for me.” Harding singles out songs such as The Castleford Ladies Magic Circle (about a group of suburban witches “frantically dancing naked for Beelzebub” while “their husbands potter at snooker down the club”) and The Hair of the Widow of Bridlington (about a free-living woman punished by her neighbours “for she was wild as blackbirds are and they were in a cage”). “These could be feminist songs,” says Harding. The singer also cites another more contentious song, On Again! On Again! in which the song’s protagonist, a self-confessed misogynist, complains about certain women’s propensity to talk at length (“I love breasts and arms and ankles, elbows, knees / It’s the tongue, the tongue, the tongue on a woman that spoils the job for me”).
Despite the singer’s protest that he was writing about “the folly of incontinence in conversation … not a generalisation about women”, this lyrical, fluid masterclass in the Thackray style drew accusations of misogyny that stuck. One of the theories that Thompson puts forward in the book is that Thackray was writing in character, in the manner of an English Randy Newman. It’s a theory strengthened by a story of McTell’s: “After one London gig we sat up late and I dug out my Randy Newman albums. Jake sat there with his jaw dropping at each song. I particularly remember the effect [1974 deep south concept album] Good Old Boys had. It was such a buzz to see how instantly these two writers connected. Beneath [their] exquisite observations lie a deep love of humanity and its frailties.”
One question Thompson set himself to solve while writing the book is why, when Thackray was writing at his absolute peak and most Newmanesque in the late 70s and early 80s, did his output and live appearances start to diminish?
“His greatest studio album was his swan song,” Thompson says of 1977’s On Again! On Again! “TV work dried up because formats were changing but also his audience was getting smaller because that 70s folk era was in a process of change. He also found himself trapped by a job he didn’t enjoy any more.”
Thompson also cites Thackray’s increasing lack of self-esteem, which, he believes, could relate to his violent upbringing or his faith. Towards the end of his life the singer grew increasingly reliant on drink to banish anxiety.
“I was drinking with him one night and he talked about how his father was a fucking awful bully,” says Harding. “Then he told me: ‘I’m an alcoholic.’ I said: ‘You’re fucking joking.’ We were all fairly heavy drinkers but it turns out when Jake went to go to the bar to get a round in he’d also have two large ones off the top shelf. So if you’re drinking five pints, he’s up 10 vodkas. He hid drink all over the house. I was poleaxed.”
Gradually, Thackray stopped turning up to gigs, and bookings started to dry up, along with the money. “He was hopeless with money,” says McTell. “I sometimes wonder if it was the recklessness of a lifestyle he was denied, breaking out from that religious encumbrance.”
“Jake was also an ardent socialist, anti-capitalist,” says Thompson. “He refused point blank to do a commercial for Dulux paint, even in the depths of his financial problems when his family were begging him to do it.”
It’s a life that deserves to be celebrated without denying the sadness
Paul Thompson, co-author, Beware of the Bull
By the 90s, Thackray had separated from his wife, Sheila, and lost the family home. He moved into rented accommodation in a small flat above a greengrocer’s on Monmouth high street.
In the hands of other biographers, these final years might read like tragedy, but it is to Thompson and Watterson’s credit that they focus on the positives, including the columns Thackray wrote for the Yorkshire Post and The Catholic Herald, his involvement with a group of committed fans planning a Jake Thackray musical, Sister Josephine Kicks the Habit, and the discovery of a cache of never publicly performed Thackray lyrics. Regardless, the final few chapters, up to his death from a heart attack on Christmas Eve, 2002, make for difficult reading.
“There was undoubtedly a sadness writing the book,” says Thompson, “but it’s a life that deserves to be celebrated without denying the sadness, and a chance to shine a light on a remarkable songwriter.”
The light-shining continues later in the year with the November release of a two-disc DVD, Jake Thackray at the BBC, plus a “Jakefest” in Scarborough in October, and the reissue of his long-deleted 1981 live album, Jake Thackray and Songs.
“I think Jake would find it amusing and intriguing that his songs are being valued and enjoyed again,” says McTell. “You always wanted to tell him, ‘They’re brilliant. You know they’re good. I know how hard you’ve worked on them. They’re little treasures, all of them!’ But he wouldn’t have any of that.”
• Beware of the Bull: The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray by Paul Thompson and John Watterson is published on 11 August by Scratching Shed. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.