The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, February 04, 2003
THE WILD WOOD OF BILL FAY

The theme of this month's Mojo magazine is Great British Musical Eccentrics. While it is obviously preferable that artists such as Vashti Bunyan and Robin Gibb (as a soloist) are written about in any capacity than not at all, there's something faintly odious about the way in which Mojo seeks to pigeonhole people like Jarvis Cocker, Richard D James, Ray Davies and Andy Partridge, none of whom could fairly be described as "eccentrics." Worse still is a perfectly fine list of British albums which are labelled as having been produced by "eccentrics." In the case of records such as Rock Bottom, this is a vacuous and virulent insult; in the case of others such as Maxinquaye it is quite inexplicable. The received subtext would appear to be Records Made By People Who Fail To Adhere To The Tenets Of The Camden Town Good Music Society. People who are not normal. Musicians whose music is somehow far less real than REAL MEN like the increasingly hapless Solomon Burke.

Among this list is included the eponymous 1970 debut album by the singer, pianist and songwriter Bill Fay, the sleeve of which portrays him walking across the Serpentine. Well, OK. And your point is?

One point is that this album was released on CD in the autumn of 1998, combined with his far less (ostensibly) cosy 1971 sequel, Time Of The Last Persecution. Having just painfully left hospital, I seemed to require quietly disturbing, yet fundamentally pastoral, music to ease my various manifestations of pain; and this CD left a mark on me, much more so than, say, Dylan Live At The "Royal Albert Hall" which came out at the same time, which I listened to once, was knocked out by (at least the electric second half) and which I duly filed away, never to be listened to again.

English music, as much as or more than any other, demands of its appreciation its relationship (real or imagined) to the environment in which you listen to it. And I cannot listen to Bill Fay's exquisitely tortured music without thinking of Oxford in that transitional, queerly sunny winter of 1998-9. How can it make sense in South London?

On the CD there is also included both sides of his solitary single from 1967. The B-side "Scream in the Ears" is a surprisingly volatile take on electric Dylan, but the A-side "Some Good Advice," painfully perfect in its two minutes and 18 seconds, is, I am convinced, one of the most punctuating singles I have ever heard. And it is so fragile; a repeated descending minor key piano chordal range with melodramatic drumrolls every eighth beat and a mellotron floating above the music like Banquo's ghost. Lyrically it is what the title suggests; advice to a young child, more probably advice to himself. "If you want to build a shed/Then go ahead/And bulid your shed...And if you want/To paint a gate/It's not too late/To paint your gate." Sounds like a Junior Choice reject? No...it's so frail and hopeless a scenario, so shattering in its humility. Hear how the guitar suddenly shreds halfway through the track before disappearing again. The final lines, sung with evident relish, are: "Don't listen to/Anything anyone tries to tell you." Except he doesn't. It's one of the greatest singles of its year, or indeed any year. You may cry at it if your mind is framed in a certain way.

Then nothing for three years, until he emerged, clean-shaven atop the Serpentine, for his 1970 debut. The sonic palette was magnified immeasurably (though not everyone agrees) by the involvement of Michael Gibbs as arranger. On the sleeve there is a telling commentary by Fay wherein he states that as a boy he spent five years constructing a small wooden box. When completed, he took it to his woodwork teacher, who proclaimed it the worst piece of woodwork he'd ever seen and smashed it with a mallet. This album, he stated, was the first creative thing he'd done since then. He would do what he needed to do, and then go away again to dodge any further mallets.

So this is what he needed to say, and he needed to say it all at once. Critics complain that Gibbs' orchestrations compete with and drown out Fay's songs, but here the large sonorities are to me as apposite as those Gibbs was later to devise for Joni Mitchell's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. One only has to hear how the strings and brass rise and fall with terrible suddenness behind Fay's vocal on "The Sun Is Bored." The record is much more explicitly bleak than anything Nick Drake did, but not terminally so. The brief but biting "The Room" is the nearest the record comes to the atmosphere of "Some Good Advice," but here Fay presents us with a black and unsentimental portrait of drug addiction which again and again finds no respite in the unresolved graveyard of its minor chords battling against his fatalistic, semi-croaked "forever." "We Want You To Stay" is pretty unambiguous in its message, too, though Gibbs lifts us out of the despair with his radiant sunlit chords, as well as an uncredited but instantly recognisable John Surman on soprano sax. The desperate faux-Cockney of "Sing Us One Of Your Songs May" is reminiscent of the John Cale of Helen of Troy tackling "Yesterday Once More" - who the hell am I? But there is hope and light until the end, with the mildly rebuking but essentially positive message of "Be Not So Fearful."

The record didn't sell - was hardly promoted - but Fay still had some more things to say, and say them he did, albeit ten million times more brutally, on his second album, Time Of The Last Persecution. This record was scarcely even reviewed, let alone promoted, and its cover depicted a now long-haired, bearded and very weary-looking "Billy Fay." Out went Gibbs' lushness; in came what was essentially the working band of improv guitarist Ray Russell, who had appeared, albeit relatively restrained, on the first album, but who was now given licence to do whatever was needed. And certainly in that strange period between 1970-76, bookended by comparatively conventional careers, Russell was as near as this country ever got to producing a guitarist as proficiently fiery as Sonny Sharrock.

How worst to describe Persecution? The name of Syd Barrett immediately springs to mind, but more pertinently, imagine a Syd Barrett who, in a rare moment of utter clarity and lucidity, saw his situation, saw the world and for 30 or so minutes was able to make complete and articulate sense of it. Not so far from Roger Waters? Perhaps not - and there's certainly an element of Waters' later misanthropy in songs like "Let All The Other Teddies Know." But there is a severely scarifying assuredness to the brutality into which this record more often travels, especially on its second side. The songs on side one, including bruised ballads with divine Beatles chord progressions like "I Hear Your Calling" or "Don't Let My Marigolds Die," give us an idea of the suppressed immense rage at which Russell's guitar intermittently and immaculately scratches. The focus on the very Barrett-esque "Laughing Man" is as sharp as last Thursday afternoon's snow. A horn section appears on "'Til The Christ Come Back" but its repeated fanfares become increasingly higher-pitched and more discordant. The track fades out just as it's about to explode.

And detonate the music does on side two, most pronounced on the devastating title track over which Fay's Cale-like croon (and even Bryan Ferry in a sour mood-anticipating croon) over stately Sunday school piano chords is increasingly subverted and finally drowned in a freeform whirlpool, Russell taking off for atonal space; trombonist Nick Evans and tenorman Tony Roberts not far behind him. "Come A Day" is the equivalent of the previous album's "Be Not So Fearful," but no easy salvation is to be found here as again the track disintegrates into shards of improv noise causality, the piano continuing sternly underneath the apocalypse. The album, and Fay's career, ends with the still terrifying lullaby "Let All The Other Teddies Know" (with its sinister aside "be ready when the cupboard explodes"). This song is relatively peaceful, but Russell cannot resist adding some more Sharrockian runs towards the end, just to let you know that the demon, and death, still exist.

And that was it. Fay released nothing more and until the 1998 CD reissue (and in its sleevenotes) had been assumed to have vanished without trace, into some sort of Drake/Barrett type of self-imposed hell; another casualty of causality. But stories are not always so facile. With the renewed interest, Fay bemusedly re-emerged to say that actually he had been holding down a perfectly good day job for the last quarter-century, and yes he did still write songs but didn't feel any great need to put them out on record; because (he didn't say it, but we knew it anyway) everything he had, was driven, to say had been said, definitively and finitely. The malletphobia out of his system, he could then resume his life. Art, music, as catharsis. He didn't die, didn't go mad, didn't do drugs. He lived, and lives, as you or I do. Still...listening to it again in Oxford in January 2002, I still smell death in the notes of this music. But that's wholly my fault, and not at all his, that his music can make me cry and terrify me like that of Dylan never has done or could ever do. And that's not Dylan's fault, either. But it's nothing to do with "eccentricity" - it's simply people trying to make aesthetic sense of their existence. How else do we create?


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