THE JAZZ BUTCHER is one of those artists who make indiepop kids of a certain generation go misty eyed, and with good reason; Pat Fish, the man behind the jazz curtain as it were, was an all-round gentleman of the whimsical song, someone you’d definitely find in the kitchen at parties; a sometime indie television host, and a man who could turn his songwriting hand to outright heartstring-tuggers such as “Hard” or its whimsical rock’n’roll via the A53 flip on the 7″, “Grooving In the Bus Lane”; could self-mythologise with tongue firmly in cheek (“Southern Mark Smith”), commemorate assassinated Scandinavian leaders in Bonzo’s-style jazz (“Olaf Palme”) or proceed into the outright surreal: did we ever find out whether the elephant had any “Water”?
He released 15 albums from 1983 onwards, first for Glass, then for Creation, with the most recent, 2012’s The Last Of The Gentleman Adventurers, appearing on Vinyl Japan.
Pat had been unwell for some time, suffering from cancer from which he was in remission, and making a final live appearance at Preston Pop Fest at the end of the summer alongside C86-era contemporaries such as Close Lobsters, The Wolfhounds and The Jasmine Minks – who he supported the last time I saw him at The Lexington in 2017.
He seemed well at the Pop Fest, had a next gig scheduled for Bristol’s former Bath Road tollhouse The Thunderbolt early last month, but was taken from us two days before after pulling one of his semi-regular Live From Fishie Mansions livestream events on the Saturday, telling those virtually assembled that he was feeling too rough to play.
But – and let’s tread lightly past the Bowie Blackstar comparisons here – he has one final, long-playing, posthumous song-postcard for us, The Highest In The Land, which is out via Tapete this very Friday.
The songs on The Highest In The Land were written throughout the past seven years – and he really did see it coming, it would seem, as album producer Lee Russell recounts.
“He’d been around the block and knew he was on the last lap,” says Lee.
“We had closure; we had worked together for three months, and then on the last day I drove him home. And for the first time we hugged and said goodbye, and that was it.”
Also recalling his quietly eccentric and determined aesthetic with real fondness is Pat’s Northampton housemate, bassist and intellectual sparring partner Dhiren Basu.
“It was a big thing for him that a record company [would] come and ask you to make an album,” he says.
“That was something that he felt really, really strongly about. As a close friend said, the people he really admired were Lou Reed, Syd Barrett, John Cale and Kevin Ayers, and they were all people who did not bend for anything.
“There was a sort of ambition to be an English dandy and that uncompromising nature of just saying: ‘This is what I’m here to do.'”
In musical terms as well the recording was a closing of the circle, featuring as it does former Weather Prophets and Primal Scream drummer Dave Morgan and founder member Max Eider.
Producer Lee sums up the man the making of the album thus: “He was not delusional. We all go through life acting like it’s going to last forever, but that’s a lie, and Pat was cleverer than the rest of us.
“He actually was facing it. He was in no mood to compromise his life in any way whatsoever, you know, he was sitting at home waiting for his coffee to brew, and he just went. He didn’t have to stop smoking or drinking or taking drugs or doing gigs. He missed one live stream, and that was it. He was still Pat Fish. He was still the Jazz Butcher.”
And so let’s lovingly place the needle on this final Jazz Butcher record: which begins with the cafe jazz of “Melanie Hargreaves’ Father’s Jaguar”, in which Pat sings of that grand old motor, “a lovely shade of lilac … a proper car of destiny.” Wonderfully eccentric in a proudly English way, a way that internationalist Pat wouldn’t equate to the reductive and hollow jingoism that passes for national pride in the current climate, it’s very él Records, and leaves you wondering what kinda record Pat might’ve made with Louis Phillippe‘s oversight; it’s certainly a last, loving song from a man who bgan his career alongside those other great eccentrics, Television Personalities and Monochrome Set. A muted trumpet takes it away in the middle, swing stylee, along with call and response vocals. It’s clever and it’s fun. Pop from a louche alternative universe. Great stuff.
Second track “Time” you may well by now, given it’s been out with us a coupla months. Over a characteristically Jazz Butcher Northamptonshire indie blues, more than a little reminiscent of 1984’s “The Jazz Butcher Meets Count Dracula”, Pat intones ominously but with a light touch over the spook-rock twang: “My hair’s all wrong / My time ain’t long / Fishy go to Heaven, get along, get along,” the beat a clock metronome; and with that lyrical devil-may-care and intelligence, totally pulls off rhyming ‘time’ with “a one-way ticket to a pit of council lime”. Later he pulls back with the eye, maybe, of someone glad to be nearly done with it all and decries wage slavery with an acid turn. Here it anyhow, just to entice you and remind you what a great tunesmith he was. Screw it: is.
“Sea Madness” is a coastal breeze of old-skool indiepop, gently eviscerating “Albion’s perfidious, uncaring wedding bells” for an immigrant, Northants music scene legend Turkish George, who’s still dreaming of those “Ankara girls, [who] used to come in the summertime … long, long gone,” Pat’s voice just cracking as he sings of that beautiful sea madness of yore.
“Never Give Up” drops us down into a sweet swingtime for a recounting of an unreciprocated lost love: “I would tear my stupid life in two / For half an hour with you / And you said that might be arranged … I thought once or twice a smile had been exchanged.” C’mon, aww. These are true emotions made sweet, jangly country pop, a summation of something that shoulda coulda been. Genuinely moving when you burrow inside. It comes with a fine coda, the sweet, cinematic instrumental “Amalfi Coast May 1963”, living one’ best life above Mediterranean blue with a cherry-red Lancia convertible and fine cocktail awaiting; and if there is an afterlife, you hope Pat is getting to spend some time in a fine safari suit and a cravat in some heavenly seaside sojourn.
The jaunty guitar pop of “Running On Fumes” is another tune with a darker, whimsical cast once you lift the lid. At once a critique of the 250mph pace of the now, “Nothing in the tank / Nothing in the bank … People like us can’t have nice things,” Brexit, and the refusal to address the architects of our national downfall; and, intertwined, a nod to those who have gone before and who Pat was convinced he was to join sooner rather than later: “Lemmy and Bowie and Prince all gone / Everyone’s running on fumes.”
You have to say, as an opening couplet, “I’ve got this fish / From Genghis Khan,” which opens the door on the turnaround swamp blues of the title track, “The Highest In The Land”, is sheer excellence; the riff of “Smokestack Lightning” is herein repurposed for an acoustic shuffle, Texas via Towcester. “Sebastian’s Medication” aims both barrels at the Brexit folly with the winning encapsulation: “The gammons are all whining for some kind of reclamation / But they don’t know what they want to reclaim … How the hell are you supposed to leave a continent?”, all couched in bouncy fuzzy pop, bursting with classic, classy hooks. “You ain’t gonna get me / Just / Yet”, Pat declares, and the silver lining is: they never bloody did.
“Pat was an internationalist,’ says friend Dhiren; “I think he felt far closer to Europe than his own country. He was always very political, as with most thinking people who’ve got a sense of justice. He was always going to be an intellectual left-winger.”
One last song, then: one last song, ever: and it’s the sleepy shimmer of “Goodnight Sweetheart”, a sad and sentimental enough closer at the best of times, a passing of a love (a love of life?) and what sounds like a near-death experience on the M1 and a final reaching out to a Big Love, a time of “stupid railway station bars” ; the way Pat spills out the first line of each verse as a part-spoken triplet over piano chords really calls to mind Nina Simone’s take on “Mr. Bojangles”; and Christ, why not. You may, like me, find your vision a little blurry.
Those of us who knew, knew, and there are many of us, scattered the length and breadth of the island and way beyond, for whom The Jazz Butcher has been a bright, sweet, brilliantly acerbic presence many a long year. The Highest In The Land is a fine encomium and – it hurts to write this, a little – epitaph for Northampton’s foremost gentleman and indie bard. If you’re new to Pat and his work or had a velleity and have never quite scratched the surface, The Highest In The Land is a rather good place to start; no artist in waning tailspin, here, just the man himself on fine form. Quite a few of his Creation-era albums were reissued for Record Store Day 2020, including Fishcotheque and Big Planet, Scarey Planet; they’re still about, still exceptionally reasonable investments, so go for some of those, too.
Cheers Pat. Let’s hope you’ve swapped the bus lane for something deservedly grander, with your chosen deity supplying you with a vintage Gretsch or three and your own personal cloud. You? You were bloody lovely.
The Jazz Butcher’s The Highest In The Land will be released by Tapete Records digitally, on CD and album on February 4th; you can order yours now from Norman Records or Rough Trade.