Jake Thackray: Songwriter, Comedian, Yorkshireman

There is something wonderfully romantic about the songs of Jake Thackray. Though the legendary singer-songwriter passed on in 2002, his legacy remains in live recordings of his performances from the 60s and 70s.
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There is something wonderfully romantic about the songs of Jake Thackray. Though the legendary singer-songwriter passed on in 2002, his legacy remains in live recordings of his performances from the 60s and 70s.

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"He had a very humorous lyrical style. Terrific songs - the words are a craft," said Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner in an interview with Lauren Laverne back in 2009. "He was a Yorkshireman".

That Yorkshireman he spoke of was Jake Thackray - and a Yorkshireman he certainly was. Born in Pickering in the north of the county in 1938, he was, as fellow singer Audrey Laurie observed to the Guardian, "into all things Yorkshire, like rugby and a pint".

There is something wonderfully romantic about the songs of Jake Thackray.

Not romantic in a love sense - although it could be argued that songs such as 'The Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker' and 'I Stayed Off Work Today' describe the belly butterflies as well as any other.

Romantic, instead, as they are a snapshot of a bygone era - 60s and 70s working class Britain.

Jake started out teaching English across France, and even finding himself in Algeria during the early 60s, at the height of the war. Removing himself from his home country for such a pivotal period in popular culture had a profound effect upon him.

"I missed out on rock," he said. "All of my influences were French".

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Indeed, it was during his time spent over the Channel that Jake began to discover the world of the chansonnier - French singer songwriters such as Georges Brassens, whose lyrics spoke of love and life in a funny, storylike fashion, often with a beginning, middle and end.

Eventually returning home to the county he so loved, Jake picked up a job teaching at a school in Leeds - and picked up a guitar, too.

But whilst his musical style and references leaned heavily on a French influence, the characters and humour within those songs were so very English.

His tales involving the likes of clumsy relative Leopold Alcocks, the widow of Bridlington and Caroline Diggeby-Pratte provide situational comedy which somehow manages to be both slapstick and subtle.

His humorous observations and graceful melodies made him a success on the folk circuit, and eventually Jake was presented with a slot on BBC radio, before going on the secure his own TV series, 'Jake Thackray and Songs'.

Despite this recognition, he is still relatively unknown today - largely due to the fact that he effectively stopped recording songs in the late 1970s. Indeed, many of those available today are live recordings.

'Sister Josephine' tells the story of a tattooed convict who escapes prison and disguises himself as a nun in a convent, and Jake has a habit of making even the most mundane circumstance comedic.

From the entendre-laden 'The Lodger', where he hilariously details the pitfalls rooming in a house with his landlady's "three lovely daughters", to the sweet love song 'La-Di-Dah', Jake had a real way with words - and it is clear to see why he is cited as an influence by the likes of Turner, and the Courteeners' Liam Fray.

Some of his work is straight, laugh out loud, such as 'Tortoise', which opens:

"There was a man who when he won stuff on the stalls in village fairs, would always choose a tortoise, not a goldfish, nor teddy bears. He always answered when they asked him, what he wanted as a prize, 'I'll have another of them little crunchy pies'."

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However, the best of his work mixes the whimsical with wonderful wordplay and clever punnery, as seen in 'On! On! On! Again', where he begins, "I love a good bum on a woman, it makes my day - to me it is palpable proof of God's existence, a posteriori".

Of course, this song went on to be a worldwide smash hit for Sir Mix-a-Lot. This is not strictly true.

But just as the profile of fellow Northern poet John Cooper Clarke has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance over the last year, I hope that the same fate will befall Thackray.

In just 12 months, Clarke has found himself presenting 'Have I Got News For You', appeared on 'Celebrity Mastermind', written a poem for a McCain Oven Chips advert - and of course been paid homage in the final track of Arctic Monkeys' most recent album, 'AM'.
In many ways, they share the same dry, sarcastic sense of humour. If you like Clarke, I'd wager you'll like Thackray.

Naturally, some of his references are a little archaic nowadays - he speaks of eating pilchards, and the war, and Brasso (a metal polish), and he is also, in my opinion, delightfully un-PC. Gordon Tennant, organiser of Jakefest, a festival tribute to the singer, described his music as "saucy. Saucy, seaside-postcard humour".

We often hark back to comedy of years gone by, such as Morecambe and Wise, the Two Ronnies and Dad's Army - and Thackray is no different. In short, he is one of the funniest story tellers I've ever heard.

It is people like Jake who make Britain great.

Here's five of his best:

1) 'The Hole'

2) 'La-Di-Dah'

3) 'Sister Josephine'

4) 'Tortoise/Our Dog' (Live)

5) 'Leopold Alcocks'