Apart from: ‘How long did it take you to write it?’ the most common question people ask anybody with a book out is: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’
So here’s where, in a long, long, long piece about a pair of musicians. (It started as the draft of a little talk, but I thought I may as well go the whole hog and make a proper essay out of it.)
Make a list of great love songs and Jake Thackray’s ‘Lah-di-dah’ will be on it. And if not, your list is wrong.
It’s not a showy love; this isn’t a fierce and burning flame that needs to be proclaimed to the world in the highest vocal registers; we are not talking dramatic metaphors, nor the surrender to the power of physical beauty, nor the threat of high tragedy should things not work out. It’s simply a bloke remarking that he’ll put up with anything for the love of the girl he adores.
The track is timeless, notwithstanding the fact that its language – of wartime service records and pale ales – speaks of a different age. Jake Thackray’s work endures just as all great literature, film, music and art endures. Thackray knew that there will always be bores, and witterers, and toe-curling social occasions. And there will always be a bloke who will put up with anything for the love of the girl he adores.
Thackray’s delivery is perfect. To call it ‘droll’ does it no justice; he understands that a line such as ‘I shan’t lay a finger on the crabby old batface’ can only work when delivered with the deadest of pans. It is a comic song, sure, but the comedy is there to serve the whole; it is ‘witty’ in the truest, most intelligent, sense of the word. He is being funny, but he is pouring out his heart. Every word is sincere. This applies across the breadth of his repertoire; even his most jaunty and bawdy works have room to breathe and at Thackray’s most bitter-sweet he can make you cry.
‘Lah-di-dah’ could be found on Jake Thackray’s debut album, a record that EMI had been chewing its paternalistic nails over. For all its synonymy with the birth of swingin’ pop music, this was an organisation whose heart had only ever reluctantly strayed further than the Light Programme. But here was a love song – a medium that they understood. Their orchestral arrangers stayed just the right side of syrup, keeping faith with the melody. Above all, there was none of the ‘Look! Look! Over here! Funny song!’ musical tourettes that they were wont to inflict upon Thackray’s more straightforwardly comic work. The glockenspiel punctuation of the final bar was their single blemish – I guess that they simply could not stop themselves.
(They’d go on to do far worse on some of his other material: for those who know the repertoire, I’d probably point to the clunking ‘ta-daa!’ stab inflicted upon ‘Leopold Alcocks’ as my personal un-favourite. Like a ham-fisted jokester’s self-satisfied use of the exclamation mark, like the worst type of pub bore compelled to add ‘nudge, nudge, you know what I mean!’ as you shuffle in embarrassment and look at your feet. As a writer whose roots are in comedy, this sort of thing hurts.)
Whether being comic or serious, Thackray’s work needed no such crappy adornment. He’d prove this on ‘Jake’s Progress’, the masterpiece recorded with a laid-back jazz trio. And, perhaps above all, the live performances captured on the ‘Jake Thackray and Songs’ DVD where, in the main, he was supported only by the double bass of Alan Williams, a player who was utterly aware of his role.
So that’s Jake Thackray, and ‘Lah-di-dah,’ a song that I first heard as a child, by an artist who truly should be thought of as one of the best that Britain has ever produced. Then, much later in life, I found that Thackray had recorded a version in French: ‘Tra la la’.
There was something about it. Foreign language versions of British pop songs were, and are, nothing new of course; the Beatles had done it, as had many artists of the 1960’s. As somebody who arrived too late for that decade, my first introductions to the concept were most likely Blondie and Abba. Presumably there was a commercial motive for ‘Tra la la,’ but there was a clear foundation of solid love underpinning it as well. Thackray had spent some time working in France, and – as all reasonable people would – had fallen under the spell of Georges Brassens, a musician whom the Englishman would go on to cite, champion and cover.
Brassens is another figure whose work resonates around my own childhood. I was fascinated by the physical appearance of his records, with their inescapably foreign covers and the paragraphs of peculiarly alien words on the back. Our family knew nobody remotely French (‘continental’ would have been the term used in my house) and the question of going abroad for our summer holiday simply never arose.
I was puzzled as to why my mother and father would listen to such music, even as I was drawn in myself. Brassens sang in that unmistakeable Thackray-like baritone; I had no clue what he was singing about, but I knew that I loved the ambience of it; the melodies; the conspiratorial warmth of his voice, like that of a favourite uncle placing his arm around my young shoulders and explaining to me secrets about the world of which my parents might disapprove.
I accordingly learnt my first French words: ‘Le Gorille,’ which means ‘The Gorilla.’ This has been of little practical use to me.
My knowledge of Brassens is sketchier than of Jake Thackray and my appreciation of his art, whilst very genuine, remains rather superficial. I simply enjoy the sound that it makes. As I recall, a recent BBC4 documentary about French chanson saw an expert pondering that lyrics and message are considered to be more important to the form than playing and melody. If my recollection is true then Brassens must surely be an exception; my French remains rudimentary but I will listen to Brassens until the cows come home. Lord knows what I might feel about him were I properly bilingual.
Back again to ‘Tra la la’. As I said, something struck me as profoundly authentic about Thackray’s performance. After all, this Yorkshireman was essentially an English exponent of the chanson; for all his meticulous skill with the English language and his addressing of topics that were as British as British could be, ‘the continent’ was the basis of his art. ‘Tra la la’ is not merely a British song re-recorded with French words. To my ears, ‘Tra la la’ sounds – simply – French.
I can’t remember when I first had the thought: ‘what if people had been fooled…?’ But this is where Frédéric Debreu enters the picture.
An early plan was to write a book about an English fan of Brassens: an uber-enthusiast, just as Jake Thackray had been. A working class bloke from the North of England, who enjoyed a pint; a man full of humanity; a performer with complicated feelings about performing. This character would perform the great man’s work with accomplishment, and to general approval across France; somehow his music would spread internationally and achieve unexpected commercial success; the world would suddenly be turned on to the music of this monumental French artist. At the time, I’d been asked for ideas for a screenplay, and I had produced a very bad first draft. It did not work at all. As a writer, my fascination is people, yet this was essentially a cartoon; it was too ‘big’; the plot only narrowly fell short of Brassens’ music ending global famine and stopping all wars. (Although I’m sure that, given a chance, it could.) Quite rightly, nothing happened with the screenplay and it sat in a file. Until I twigged.
Brassens… Thackray… writing about real people is tricky. Aside from the research required to portray them with the respect that they deserve, who was I to put words in their mouths, to highlight their flaws or to ascribe them motives? I would wish Brassens and Thackray to remain heroes on the page, which would make them one-dimensional. And nobody would respect a brace of one-dimensional figures, least of all, I suspect, the ghosts of Brassens and Thackray, who would regard their sloppy canonisation with an eye-rolling contempt. Beware of the bull, etc.
But Frédéric Debreu! He came to me out of the blue. To create my own legendary figure and then – oh golly – I could even write his songs for him! He would be worshipped by his fans, just as Brassens and Thackray are, but for some reason his reputation would have failed to have spread outside his region. So I would have carte blanche to set to work on a once great artist, now neglected and ripe for resurrection.
Brassens… Thackray… Debreu – should they be thought of in the same breath? Debreu’s fans and the folk from his region think so. But then of course you can’t always trust fans and you certainly can’t always trust people who seek a champion for their cause. Critical appraisal goes out of the window as soon as there is an element of ‘one of us’ – that’s why nationalistic music etc. is generally so ghastly. It’s possible that Thackray himself has some dullard fans who worship him purely because he’s from Yorkshire; that Brassens has professional-Frenchman type adherents with little understanding of his music.
For all that everybody says about him in the book, it’s possible, therefore, that Debreu has remained obscure because he is second-rate. Not ‘bad’ but simply not the scandalously overlooked one-of-a-kind genius that his admirers would have us believe. This would give me an excellent get-out, for my lyrics could never aspire to approach Thackray’s; it is a rare luxury for a writer to be able to knowingly leave in a weak phrase with a casual ‘sod it – that’ll do’. But of course the fault for this could be in the English ‘translation’ – perhaps his words were sublime in the ‘original French’. Who knows? I’m not even sure that I do myself, but it has been fun wondering.
So that was the genesis of Frédéric Debreu. He emerged obliquely from one of the great love songs.
Debreu’s recorded output is, of course, unavailable at present. But I urge you towards Brassens and Thackray. You’ll find a wealth of compilations of the former available; personally I’d seek out anything containing the track ‘La Mauvaise Réputation’ (which was the working title for the book) as a good starting point; the live recording of ‘Putain de Toi’ from ‘Georges Brassens #3’ is exactly how I envisaged Debreu’s riotous shows. David Yendley’s blog/website http://brassenswithenglish.blogspot.co.uk/ is a truly excellent place to spend an afternoon.
Of Jake, there is a fan website at www.jakethackray.com. EMI’s ‘Jake in the Box’ 4-CD compilation features pretty well the sum total of Thackray’s studio output; the DVD ‘Jake Thackray and Songs’ brings together performances from his BBC shows and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
And, of course, you can discover Frédéric Debreu via my book, and make your own mind up. But, in the meantime, here’s ‘Lah di Dah…’