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Monday, 24 March 2008

Written in granite: Some Good Advice

I don't understand how Bill Fay managed to slip below my radar and stay out of sight for so many years. All I can think of is that all the people who usually suggested obscure records from the late sixties and early seventies that I'd be bound to like must've assumed that I'd already be familiar with his work given that it was so clearly exactly the kind of thing I'd be bound to adore. But no, it was only a few years ago when Wilco brought his name into the global conversation (thank you Wilco) that I managed to get hold of MP3s of the two albums. You couldn't buy them at that point because the company who'd released the twofer CD reissue had gone bust, making it even more expensive to buy than the original vinyl LPs. I did have a copy of the rather wonderful Deram compilation box Legend Of A Mind, which also included a number of other delights (and, er, some fairly stodgy stuff as well) and that had Screams In The Ears, the 'b' side of his first single. So for a while I made do with these MP3s until eventually the two albums were properly reissued. These came with stickers prominently displaying a quote from Uncut magazine saying that Bill was "The missing link between Nick Drake, Ray Davies and Bob Dylan". Well, I suppose a sticker reading "A bit like an English David Ackles!" probably wouldn't've sold many records. We'll come to Ackles at some point, but Fay reminds me of his American contemporary in many ways. I wonder if they were aware of one another's work? However where Ackles' provenance is simply odd (it sounds as though he's blending country, folk, musical theatre and the European songwriting tradition), Fay is not just firmly English but firmly southern English but isn't whimsical in the Cambridge/Canterbury way (nothing wrong with a bit of that, but surely the North doesn't have a total monopoly on England's supply of lyrical grit? Oh, perhaps it does...) or a cheeky Cockney chappie. Of the three references made on that sticker Ray Davies is the closest. Fay also has a whiff of the music hall about him.

When Wilco started to drop Fay's name into conversation, and Jeff Tweedy played Be Not So Fearful in the I Am Trying To Break Your Heart documentary film, MOJO magazine ran a piece wondering what had happened to Fay, speculating that when he left the music business after his second album, Time Of The Last Persecution perhaps this was because it documented a crisis of faith leading to madness and depression. Indeed perhaps, like Drake, he'd left not just the music business but the land of the living... Hilariously the next issue printed a letter from Fay to the effect that although he thanked MOJO for its concern he was fine and that he hadn't left the music business, it'd left him because nobody was buying his records. Personally, although Persecution is an absolutely fantastic album, it's the eponymous debut that caught my imagination, along with the single released a year or so previously. Although the aforementioned 'b' side, Screams, was probably more commercially viable at the time, being a kind of existentialist foreshadowing of You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties to a rock backing, the actual 'a' side, Some Good Advice, is a wonderfully eccentric and very beautiful song, kicking off with the perfectly sensible hint that "If you want to build a shed, go ahead and build a shed". Well, you can't argue with that. But it also warns "don't pick your nose or your ears will grow" - now he tells us! The first album is a lushly orchestrated affair with thirteen short songs. Vignettes is probably the right word. They sometimes sound as though they're from an earlier age, Sing Us One Of Your Songs May and Gentle Willie, these are songs that take then topical themes (er... war, again, a lot of it about at the time, as at most times) but come at them from very odd angles indeed – something that can also be said of Ray Davies. The Room starts off a bit like Where Do You Go To My Lovely? (going to Paris, an heiress) but then charts a descent into drug hell and perhaps rather a lot more. Fay's songs aren't vague, though, it's just that the economy of the writing is stunning. Like Pere Calders' short stories, he manages to suggest so much with so little, to find the extraordinary in the commonplace and vice versa, a very difficult trick to pull off in a two-minute song, and one Fay manages with consummate ease over and over again. There are so many lyrics that begin intriguingly enough but then the writer seems to think "oh hell, we must be up to 2 minutes 30, I've only got another 30 seconds left if this is to be a single!" so the rest is garbled. As a fan of narrative lyrics this often annoys me. Although there are times when it can be hard to fit the story you want to tell into few enough words to condense into something that can be sung before outstaying its welcome.

Fay did make one more album, with The Bill Fay Group, in the late seventies, finally released a few years ago as Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and there was also a compilation CD of tracks from 1966-70 called From The Bottom Of An Old Grandfather Clock, some of these tracks sound like alternate takes from the first album but without the orchestral settings, although the sleeve-notes claim that they're demos. You have to keep reminding yourself that this was a time when major labels would fund a whole album of songs like this with full orchestral backing and would then allow the artist to make a second album even when the first failed to sell.

If Dory Previn was – to paraphrase (translation: misquote) Virginia Woolf on Middlemarch – writing for grown-ups, then there's something adult in Fay's songs too, even though they can sound almost childlike in places, rather like fables. Of course, the test of any good fable (Aesop, La Fontaine, etc.) is that while you can tell it to a child it will remain with the adult. Given that it took Fay's records 30 years to achieve even a modicum of recognition (and, like Ackles, nothing like what they deserve) it seems safe to align him more with the tortoise than with the hare. But we all know who won in the end, don't we?




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