Graham Reid | | 5 min read
Recently when considering the first album in 16 years by the re-formed Britpop-era band Shed Seven, Elsewhere noted how many extremely good second-tier bands were around behind the big name players like Blur, Oasis, Pulp, the short-lived Placebo and others.
The same was true in the post-punk era when bands like Magazine, PiL, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Gang of Four, the Cure and others grabbed the headline . . . and quirky or challenging outfits like Flying Lizards, the Soft Boys, the Slits and This Heat were somewhere further away from the microscope of attention.
Among those in the second division were the Jazz Butcher out of Oxford.
Right from the start they were an odd ensemble who sometimes seem to take as their reference point Monty Python absurdity distilled into droll pop-rock with dollops of black humour, dry wit and left-field political and social comment.
They sometimes went by the name The Jazz Butcher and His Sikkorskis From Hell . . . and frontman Pat Fish, a literature graduate, was sometimes the Jazz Butcher.
Over their long and odd life – intermittently active from about '82 to just five years ago, some albums on Creation label alongside My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub and Ride among many others – they had about 20 members pass through.
Their Creation years are worth considering but that was a later incarnation of the original band which broke up in the late Eighties.
Now, through Fire Records in Britain (distributed in New Zealand through Southbound), their first four albums have been reissued in the CD/booklet set The Wasted Years.
For their debut album Bath of Bacon ('83) Fish penned a witty introduction (Gloop Jiving on which he introduced the band in the manner of kitsch nightclub crooner) before they launched into their Jazz Butcher Theme: “Now it's happy hour in the abattoir, “ he speak-sings before ticking off a few old dance styles/recipes?. , “The mashed potato, with the fried alligator, you get down on your back, you like it like that . . .”
It's a catchy slice of nonsense pop (with saxophones) over a driving beat which also has Fish shouting “psyche out” before a bizarre sax and guitar solo then “drum and bass now” and it cuts back to just that . . . Then “Hey hey what's that sound, everybody dig what's going down” like early edgy Lou Reed.
It is absurdist, referential comedy for the dancefloor . . . and you are away into the album with Party Time (“and it's better than a cold bath with someone you dislike”), Bigfoot Motel (yes, about Big Foot and what is in American fast food), sex and advertising (Sex Engine Thing), a brooding sonic piece which is almost dubbery about inscrutable Chinese people (Chinatown where he sounds closer to Bowie in his Laughing Gnome/Anthony Newley) and a jaunty piece in French (La Mer).
This could all be easily dismissed as casual comedy if many of the swinging songs weren't so damn catchy, some propelled with the momentum of the early Clean and Bats (Zombie Love, Poisoned by Food).
On the title track he songs, “the words just when I opened my mouth” . . . but that's not true (“the tune just came when I took LSD”) because this is smarter than that.
It end with a Beatlesque ballad Girls Who Keep Goldfish (“interest me strangely”).
Because this is irresistibly catchy it was hardly any wonder that the small Glass Records label (early Teenage Fanclub, Spaceman 3) would get them back for another studio shot.
The result was A Scandal in Bohemia (1984) which opens with Southern Mark Smith, and yes Fish does have some of the angry urgency of the Fall's frontman, although the song soars on wings of furious guitars and phasing. And the message get much more serious.
A Scandal in Bohemia is a step up on every level with clever rhythms (both Real Men and Marnie might owe a debt to both Adam and the Ants as well as Heaven 17's Penthouse and Pavement), and some Stray Cats' rockabilly/runaway boys energy (I Need Meat which opens “I've been riding on a runaway bus”).
There are such knowing pop references throughout the Jazz Butcher's catalogue (also here are nods to Barrett Strong's Money, punk thrash and Alice Cooper on Caroline Wheeler's Birthday Present, Postcards Records' jangle pop and more).
If their debut Bath of Bacon was Fish and friends having a laugh and being eccentrically English then A Scandal in Bohemia is more thoughtfully refined on all fronts, with the humour intact.
Sex and Travel ('85) actually got the Jazz Butcher onto the UK indie charts (number 25) and is yet another shift, it is a more emotionally muted outing and more serious in intention.
Fish comes through as a classy, thoughtful (albeit still droll) songwriter, like a Lloyd Cole in places (Only a Rumour).
On the catchy Holiday he is offering a snapshot of the polite Englishman abroad: “He is neat and he is tidy, he will will wash and have his dinner, he will have the steak and mushroom, regular English speaking gentleman . . .” It's a lyric worthy of Ray Davies.
Elsewhere some of these songs have the withering accuracy of a jaded traveller (the dramatically arranged Walk with the Devil), but the wit is still there (Down the Drain).
If the first two albums won you over, you'd be up for this one. But not the best place to start, you need the backstory which the first two sketched in.
If your taste runs more to Billy Childish and the Rutles than Billy Idol and the Beatles, then the first two Jazz Butcher albums here are very much worth checking out.
The Jazz Butcher's final album for Glass Records and the end of their first incarnation was the easy-sounding Distressed Gentlefolk ('86) which has a gentle folksy strum and intimate ballads (Still in the Kitchen with a lyrical nod to Marianne Faithfull's Ballad of Lucy Jordan) offset by urgent power-folkpop (Big Bad Thing, Hungarian Love Song) and sometimes a deep melancholy (The New World).
And the swinging and summery Who Loves You Know is instantly familiar and located somewhere between the Thirties and a Fifties pop ballad, with a lovely piano part. At a pinch Split Enz might have done something like in their early days and slipped it in after Late Last Night.
Also here is the singalong Domestic Animal about Man as a sexually and emotionally repressed animal in a natural world of fornication.
On many levels, notably the musical breadth, Distressed Gentlefolk was the zenith of these early, not-so wasted, years and you can hear why Alan McGee would have wanted them on his Creation Records.
As a songwriter Pat Fish was peaking just as the band he founded was falling apart.
If this early edition of the Jazz Butcher went past you then Fire Records have done us all a favour by resurrecting these albums as The Wasted Years, packaging them like a book and letting the joyful, sometimes eccentric and always engaging music of the Jazz Butcher come to life again.
Everybody sing, “In the springtime cats have sex, in the springtime rats have sex, in the springtime fish have sex, but our Domestic Animal stays very good indeed . . .”
Southbound Records have a few copies of The Wasted Years. Check their website here.
For other Fire Records releases and reissues at Elsewhere start here.