August 08, 2001
Credit: William Whiteside
Who is the Jazz Butcher?Twenty years of his exhilarating rock'n'roll and mordant wit have given Patrick Fish a cult following.
Their disagreement had nothing to do with my own difficulty, and I had never met Fish at that stage, but from that moment on, I found myself curiously drawn to his work. I now own every Jazz Butcher album, and I've seen the group countless times live, in many countries.
It's not quite the introduction to their music that I would have chosen, of course, and yet, looking back, the trauma seems almost worth it. One of the most talented and distinctive musicians Britain has ever produced, Fish's admirers include Michael Stipe of REM, and Teenage Fanclub. Largely unappreciated in the UK, his fans are overwhelmingly American: the Jazz Butcher has an especially devout following in LA, where the group still sells out the Roxy.
A couple of years ago, Roland Emmerich, the director of Independence Day and The Patriot, chartered a private jet in Cannes with the sole purpose of seeing the Jazz Butcher perform in Majorca. Pat Fish, says Alan McGee, the founder of Creation Records, is "as good a songwriter as I have heard in my life - ever. He has been criminally overlooked by a world obsessed with celebrity, not worth".
You don't need to get out your private Lear jet to see Patrick Fish most days - I travelled by Silverlink, out of King's Cross, to Northampton, where he lives in a small terraced house. Fish, an elegantly gaunt figure in his early forties, showed me into his small living-room. On his sofa, shrouded in smoke, is a middle-aged Turk called George. George is in a contemplative, almost visionary mood, and soon launches into a very strange monologue - basically a eulogy to British ale and the East Midlands. "That is how my young life was," says George. "Leicestershire lanes... wonderful, wonderful. Always more Ruddles... always more Leicestershire... Ruddles County... Ruddles bitter. Sometimes at room-temperature, sometimes cold. My God," he goes on, "the days I had there."
"Ruddles," George says again, and sinks back into his cushions. We drink foreign lager for an hour or so, then my fellow-guest leaves.
In terms of orthodox possessions, there's not much here to show for 20 years of unique, exhilarating rock'n'roll, coloured by Fish's engaging irony and self-deprecating humour. He once wrote a song called "The Devil Is My Friend" (inspired by a pompous remark once made by a fellow-musician to an interviewer) that contained the lyrics: "I met the devil, he was sitting in a bar; he bought me 15 rum and cokes, and then he went too far."
His titles have been magnificent, both for his albums (A Scandal in Bohemia, Sex and Travel) and songs, which include "Mind Like a Playgroup", "Girls Say Yes", and "She's On Drugs". Cake City, a compilation of the Jazz Butcher's best work, is released in the UK next week, on Vinyl Japan.
Though he was tirelessly championed by the legendary west-coast DJ, Deidre O'Donaghue, who died earlier this year, Fish has been largely ignored by British presenters, with the notable exception of BBC's Andy Kershaw. Part of the problem, I suggest, may lie with the band's dreadful name. It started as a joke, says Fish, in a pub. The Jazz Butcher was an imaginary figure - a frighteningly virile vocalist, rarely troubled by self-doubt.
The Jazz Butcher made his stage debut in 1982 with his long-term collaborator, guitarist Max Eider.
Pat Fish, whose real surname is the barely more plausible Huntrods, signed to Glass, a small independent label. The nucleus of the group - Fish, Max Eider and drummer Owen Jones, who are still in the band today - had met at Oxford University; hardly the most auspicious of rock'n'roll apprenticeships. In the early Eighties, the band - which then included David J, from the revered cult band Bauhaus - bonded with Mancunian punk legend and pugilist Mark E Smith, of the Fall.
This is one of the curious things about the Jazz Butcher group: their demure-sounding CVs offer little clue to their true instincts. A few years ago, the band's tour-bus was pulled off the M1 into a roadblock specially arranged by South Yorkshire police, who suspected that one of them was in possession of fire-arms (only replicas were recovered). If some of their songs sound like comfortable English whimsy, their typical live act is a bracing experience more reminiscent of Velvet Underground or the Clash.
The group returned to the UK last week, from the US. Their general feeling is that the American shows went well, not least because the tour did not culminate, as many have, in acrimonious disorder. Drink, Fish concedes, has played a pivotal role in shaping his career. If other bands have outdone them in terms of turnover, the Jazz Butcher, I suggest, can hold their own with anybody when it comes to musical differences.
My earlier interview with Max Eider included his memories of a night in Zürich, when the guitarist made one of his many spirited, but ill-fated, attempts to leave the band.
"We met for a beer the next morning," he continues, "and I said, 'Well, good luck. At least it didn't turn violent'." "Yes," Max said. "At least it didn't turn violent."
"I kept repeating that consoling phrase to myself when he'd gone, but then the fog of liquor began to clear, and I suddenly remembered Max lifting the table up and hurling it at me, with all the glassware, whoomph, in my chest. Still," Fish adds. "At least it didn't turn violent."
A more recent tour ended with the singer having his face stitched up at a roadside shack in Valencia, follow-ing a collision with the machine heads of Max Eider's guitar. The only available anaesthetic was Smirnoff Blue. ("I had a rush of blood," Eider said. "I'd say it was more of an accident really. I have never attack-ed him knowingly.")
The Butcher spent the first half of the Nineties on Alan McGee's Creation label where, on albums such as Cult of the Basement and Big Planet, Scary Planet, Fish recorded many of his greatest songs, among them the magnificent ballad "Girl Go". Another song from that period, "Bicycle Kid", is a wonderfully observed study in high-rise angst. Like Morrissey, Ray Davies, and other interesting British songwriters, Fish has a strong sense of place - he's almost unbelievably besotted with Northampton - and he has embraced and celebrated the mundane details of urban life, not stood aloof from them.
There's been a kind of purity to the career of the Jazz Butcher group: Fish, Owen Jones and Eider have never married. None has children. None has a real job (though Jones, whose girlfriend lives in Hamburg, gardens for the novelist Günter Grass). Their healthy contempt for the forces of conservatism has survived undimmed, and in the studio, as in life, they passionately berate its various incarnations - Thatcher, Blair, Tesco and Railtrack.
Rotten Soul, their last studio album, released earlier this year, rages at the band's usual demons, but is a record made by men, not boys. Its climax is an eloquent, bold and very moving song called "Diamorphine", which Max Eider wrote immediately after the death of his mother. It's unlikely to be a summer dance hit.
He seems untroubled by the knowledge that many of his less- imaginative contemporaries have made fortunes as bankers, lawyers, or admen. "Fish," Alan McGee said, "is the sort of character that almost doesn't exist in Britain any more. Money or no money, he will always do what he does. But Pat Fish is a true star." By what definition?
"By the definition," McGee went on, "that he has written songs that stand up against anything. If Noel Gallagher had written 'Girl Go', it would have been a number one, no question. But you know what? Fish has written some of the great songs of the last 40 years and, sooner or later, great songs get remembered." The best possible future, he suggests, is that "somebody who loves him - somebody like Michael Stipe - will make a film and use one of Pat's songs, and it'll sell 14 million."
As I'm getting ready to leave Fish's house, two young men - part-aspiring musicians, part-fans - knock at his door. He invites them in, even though it's nearly midnight, and pours them a drink. If he ever does strike it rich, this kind of relaxed accessibility will probably be the first thing to go. For the time being, though, there's no sign that Pat Fish, a man of huge originality, inventiveness and wit, is about to be visited by that far more suburban accomplishment, great fame.