January 09, 2018
January 09, 2018
Glass Records, the London-based label created in 1981 by musician Dave Barker, was home to an unusually motley collection of pop and rock acts. Some were castaways from defunct bands (David J. of goth originators Bauhaus and Nikki Sudden of cheeky experimentalists Swell Maps signed to the imprint after their respective projects crumbled in the early ’80s), others were new artists like synthpop outfit In Embrace and the psychedelic preachers Spacemen 3. No one artist sounded much like the rest of the roster; what seemed to connect them was a cavalier indifference to their potential commercial prospects.
No artist in the Glass stable exemplified this spirit better than the Jazz Butcher, a project led by Pat Fish (real name: Patrick Huntrods), a singer/songwriter from Northampton, England, who, at the time, was cobbling together lo-fi demos in his bedroom using a cheap tape deck. The band signed to Glass in 1982 and went on to release a quartet of albums and a smattering of singles that experimented freely with dubby pop, jazzy rambles sung in French, tumbledown rockabilly, and fuzzed-out rock.
That stylistic range fit well within the electrifying, unsettled post-punk aesthetic of the time, but somehow the Jazz Butcher hasn’t been canonized in the manner of many of its contemporaries. That could change with the reissue campaign that Fire Records recently launched, starting with The Wasted Years, a multi-disc set compiling the group’s first four LPs for Glass. Shaggy and often uneven as the records are, together they provide a fascinating spotlight on how Fish’s songwriting evolved from spirited insouciance into mature introspection.
The Jazz Butcher’s progression was steep and fast. Separated by only four years, the albums that bookend this collection‚ 1983’s In Bath of Bacon and 1986’s Distressed Gentlefolk‚ share plenty of the same DNA, but feel miles apart. On the debut, Fish has yet to shake off the sensibilities of the bedroom demos that got him a record deal. “It’s really just the sound of a few mates failing to take seriously the fact that they’ve got an LP to make,” he has said. That’s a little dismissive to the music he was making at the time, an appealing jangle-pop minimalism akin to Tracey Thorn’s early band Marine Girls, with small spurts of virtuosity from guitarists Max Eider and M.K. Daley. But Fish’s comment does jibe with his boyish lyrical concerns on Bacon, which include food poisoning, a hotel for sasquatches (“Bigfoot see a neon sign/Bigfoot reach for his credit card”), and “Girls Who Keep Goldfish.”
Those interests stay pretty much the same on the follow-up, 1984’s A Scandal in Bohemia—it’s the music that improves markedly. By this point, the Jazz Butcher was a full-fledged band, with Fish and Eider joined by David J. on bass and drummer Owen Jones. These seasoned musicians, and the guiding presence of producer John A. Rivers, give the music a new verve on the wobbly sea-shanty folk of “My Desert” and the winking garage-rocker “Caroline Wheeler’s Birthday Present.”
The Jazz Butcher’s final two releases on Glass set the stage for the rest of Fish’s career to date. The wonderful 1985 mini-LP Sex and Travel retains a loose, playful approach to guitar pop, while Fish’s lyrics become more focused and sharp, whether exploring his romantic troubles as heard on “Only a Rumour” and the bitter “Walk With the Devil,” or the insanity of the Cold War (“President Reagan’s Birthday Present”).
Gentlefolk completes his transformation into a fully-formed songwriter. Credited to the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy (with like-minded friend of the band Felix Ray replacing David J), the record boasts some of Fish’s finest material: “Still in the Kitchen” is a devastating glimpse into a depressive mind (“Be lonely/You’re already all alone anyway”), while the smoldering “Angels” balances the agony of heartbreak with gratitude at the support of his loved ones. Fish diminishes the impact a bit by mixing in Jonathan Richman-like goofs like “Domestic Animal” and “Big Bad Thing,” but even those moments are presented with wit and a welcoming smile.
In the years that followed, Fish would only get better. He would soon leave Glass for Creation Records, a label with far more clout and the money to support his creative growth. Their relationship resulted in some of his most commercially-successful efforts—his 1988 cover of the ’60s pop classic “Spooky” gave him his best-ever position in the UK indie charts—and a crystallizing of his persona as a sensitive freak who pours his heart out to a female companion with the same fervor that he imagines, say, contracting the bubonic plague. (The high point: 1993’s Waiting for the Love Bus is a frothy delight, with Fish at his most lovestruck and giddy.)
The Wasted Years, despite its sardonic title, is a worthwhile look back at the path he took to get to those heights. While it’s not a complete document of the band’s start—this set ignores standalone singles and b-sides from this era, like a rollicking cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner”—it sets the table for a three-decade-plus journey that continues to surprise, confound, and satisfy.