The French have a word for it, and that word is ‘chanson’. A pop song, or an American standard, is generic, the ‘you’ and ‘I’ not individuated, so anyone can identify with the emotion. The ‘chanson’ is specific, with character, story and situation. It is in some way a drama, and the words are what count most.
However, the French don’t have a monopoly on ‘chanson’ and two of the greatest exponents of the 1970s were Leon Rosselson (happily still working) and Jake Thackray, who died in 2002. Thackray had good sales of four albums, a TV career writing a song per week for Braden’s Week, That’s Life! and later, the David Frost Show. He even was in the Royal Variety Performance. Alcohol and other personal problems intervened in the 1990s, by which time Punk and its successors had made him deeply unfashionable. He died penniless in a bedsit in Swansea.
All of this is touched on in this hour-long tribute show by Tony Cima. This is manifestly a labour of love, as Cima knew and clearly adored Thackray. He covers most of the best-known, and even notorious, songs in the catalogue. The words are wise, witty, bawdy, and even when sentimental are written in a clear-eyed way. Titles include ‘Isabel Makes Love on National Monuments’, Bantam Cock and ‘The Blacksmith and the Toffee-Maker’, a touching story of two plain people who learn how to settle for what they can get. Thackray was particularly influenced by Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, whose Gorilla Song he translated.
Thackray was a poet, and his tunes are a vehicle for his poetry. They can be clumsy, with unnatural stresses and poor scansion. However, the words themselves are always worth listening to. He has been accused of misogyny, mainly because of ‘On Again! On Again!’, about women who don’t stop talking. However it’s balanced by ‘The Widow of Bridlington’, who gets a second wind after the death of her husband. Laddish, yes. Misogynistic, no.
Thackray had a distinctive, lugubrious Northern delivery, which this show misses. He didn’t have much of a vocal range, and that’s just as well, since Cima’s voice is a bit thin and lacks the same character. However, he knows how to put over a song well. If you’ve never heard of Jake Thackray, it may sway you to see it that he influenced performers as diverse as Morrissey and Arctic Monkeys. This is a show not just for Thackray fans, but for anyone with a serious interest in songwriting.