October 20, 2017
“Don’t you know they only make those pop records out of plastic?” Pat Fish asks on “Southern Mark Smith”, a signature early single from his band the Jazz Butcher. The implication is clear: Pop is disposable, and there is no need to take it so seriously and be so smug about it. Indeed, if the cliché about hurting the ones you love the most is true, Fish has an extra special fondness for pop. Over the course of the four albums and 41 tracks collected on The Wasted Years, he skewers pop in every which way—from the left, from the right, lyrically, musically, conceptually. And he shows his love by doing so with great care, meticulous wit, and, well, some great pop music.
Fish (nee Patrick Huntrods) formed the Jazz Butcher in Oxford, England, in the midst of a post-punk indie scene that had become almost unbearably self-serious and was starting to be swallowed up by New Romantic synthpop. Fish essentially took the punk rock ideals of irreverence, scathing social commentary, and not necessarily being great at playing instruments, and carried them into the nascent world of guitar-led indie pop. In true punk spirit, he teamed up with a classically-trained, prodigiously-talented guitar player, Max Eider. Along with an unsettled cast that at one point included ex-Bauhaus and future Love & Rockets bassist David J, Fish and Eider went about making the Jazz Butcher the indie successor to the rowdy-but-sharp British pub rock of Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, and the like.
In the process, the Jazz Butcher became one of the most essential, continually interesting indie bands of the 1980s and beyond. They always seemed to be on the verge of completely falling apart, succumbing to drink, going broke, or some combination of the three. How they managed to continue and make some great music in the process was a mystery to them as well as anyone, and The Wasted Years doesn’t try to solve it. Instead, it simply presents the band’s first four albums, released one per year between 1983 and 1986 by the tiny Glass label. No bonus tracks, outtakes, live cuts, radio sessions, etc. But that is just as well because every facet of the nascent band is laid out scattershot-style on the albums proper.
A truly and modestly brilliant lyricist, Fish sings songs about all sorts of things, but mainly food, Russians, women, Russian women, and men. He’s biting and cynical, but never mean-spirited and also very funny. In one of the early Butcher’s signature tunes, “Party Time”, he turns ‘80s hedonism on its head, declaring it no more than “better than a cold bath with someone you dislike”. Before The Wasted Years are through, he has skewered macho men (“They play bad darts and drink bad beer”), stuffy British tourists (who “would never dare abuse the hospitality [they’re] given”), even love itself (“It’s like the bends for a diver, a back seat for the driver”). Yet Fish never comes across as a smug wiseass who thinks he’s above it all. When he does talk about women and relationships, it’s with the awkward self-doubt of a natural born wallflower. “Hey girl, please don’t think me rude,” he says at one point, “I owe you some kind of gratitude; I don’t know how these things are done.”
Underneath the cunning and mirth is a melancholic, almost defeatist undercurrent, and it lends some of these songs a surprising beauty and gravitas. The debut, Bath of Bacon, goes too heavy on the silliness and novelty, aiming at such esoteric targets as the Normal’s S&M-flavored underground hit “Warm Leatherette”. But starting from sophomore effort A Scandal in Bohemia, Fish and friends become more balanced and focused. On “President Reagan’s Birthday Present”, Fish addresses Cold War tension: “A squad of Bolsheviks came flying through the air… they were communists and assholes,” he says, capturing the era’s zeitgeist more succinctly than a hundred Simple Minds songs. But he also leaves room for sweet, jangly guitar pop like “Girlfriend” and “Only a Rumour”. By the end of fourth album Distressed Gentlefolk, “Angel” is tender and heartfelt enough to put one on the verge of tears.
The music is, perhaps not surprisingly, all over the place, but never dull. There is acid garage rock, stomping Antmusic, dub reggae, Bavarian waltzing, and, of course, some jazzy numbers with cool, finessing solos from Eider. All in all, there is an airtight, five-star double-album to be culled from The Wasted Years, but compilation albums are already available, and the full-on Butcher experience is well worth the price of admission. The band would subsequently sign with Creation Records and release even better, more consistent material. Amidst temporary leaves of absence and side-projects, they remain a worthy concern and still perform live. With any luck The Wasted Years is the first salvo in a career appreciation that is long overdue.