It's odd now to think that I once thought of The Jazz Butcher as a Creation Records band. Well, they were a Creation Records band for a time but, having given a listen or two (or few dozen) to the new 4-CD box from Fire Records called The Wasted Years, I think it's safe to say that the earlier version of this band were far too iconoclastic and original to be pigeonholed by any easy label, um, label. The music here spans the band's first 4 records -- In Bath Of Bacon (1983), A Scandal in Bohemia (1984), Sex and Travel (1985), and Distressed Gentlefolk (1986) -- and the selections here routinely offer up to an even half-attentive casual listener some of the best UK indie one is likely to encounter from this era. For those of us who knew some of this, or lots of this, and were well-aware of front-man Pat Fish's skills and genius, this set is a gift that reaffirms all that, and serves as an easy way to re-acquaint ourselves with this band's very best material.
In Bath Of Bacon (1983) succeeds when it offers up music that largely doesn't give a fig about any trends of the era, like the throwaway "Love Kittens" or the fun "Sex Engine Thing", Fish crafting material that's witty, if not entirely well-considered (the regrettable "Chinatown", for instance). Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that some of this is indeed jazzy in a roundabout way ("Bigfoot Motel", for example). Still, there remain a few genuine nuggets here ("Zombie Love", or the aching "Party Time", perhaps).
Album number 2 from The Jazz Butcher is what some might argue, the first real Jazz Butcher record. A Scandal in Bohemia (1984) opens with the big, bright, witty pop of "Southern Mark Smith (Big Return)", a number that sees front-man Fish name-check band-mates Max Eider and David Jones (David J), 2 big factors into why this record is so good and essential. What pleases the ear still is the extent to which A Scandal in Bohemia (1984) reveals how well Fish and his crew were able to deliver such buoyant and lovely music without having a lot at their disposal. The light "Soul Happy Hour" sees Fish and his band serve up something that has echoes of both Brian Wilson and Roy Orbison in it, and yet which remains delightfully light of touch. Given a bigger budget, and a larger studio, one wonders what Fish could have made of the rollicking "Real Men", or the airy "Mind Like A Playgroup", for instance. Still, that's not to knock what's here but, rather, to highlight how much Pat Fish, Max Eider, and David J were able to deliver within the confines of early Eighties indie trappings.
Sex and Travel from 1985 is a superb record, and it's clearly the highlight of this Fire Records set. Opening with the lyrical "Big Saturday", the album serves up some of Pat Fish's best material. As he straddles territory that's both indie proper, and something a bit more adventurous, Fish seems to have finally found his style here, and so, The Jazz Butcher is a real band here, at least on this record. The spry "What's The Matter Boy?" nods in the direction of the band's earlier records but with far more success and confidence, while the pointed "President Reagan's Birthday Present" reflects the era's very real political concerns, as does "Red Pets" to some extent. And, as others have undoubtedly pointed out, "Holiday" seems Pat Fish's grab at the Ray Davies mantle, even if it sounds a bit like stuff from Robyn Hitchcock in the era.
If 1986's Distressed Gentlefolk was anything, it was likely the entry-point into The Jazz Butcher for a lot of Yanks, given the album's release via the BMG-associated Big Time label here in the States. "Big Bad Thing" sounds more robust and it's an indication that this record marked a turning point for the band. As Fish says on the band's official website, the band were drinking a lot at this time, making things a bit wobbly. And, sure there's a slight disconnect between the more routine indie of "Nothing Special" and the lovely and genuinely-jazzy "Who Loves You Now", for example. Still, there's a real breadth of material here and a listener shouldn't gripe too much about the leap from the gently-ramshackle "Domestic Animal" to the lush "Still in the Kitchen" when the difference in material indicates how in command Pat Fish remained in these years. The final record before the band's leap to Creation Records, Distressed Gentlefolk remains an odd collection of suitably odd indie-pop but there is, like elsewhere on The Wasted Years, a lot of heart and insight on offer here.
Perhaps wisely, the folks at Fire Records didn't attempt to compile the "best" Jazz Butcher cuts here on The Wasted Years. Rather, by serving up the first 4 albums, The Wasted Years serves, instead, as a 41-track crash-course into one of the best, more underrated, and creative acts from those wilderness years between the first few waves of post-punk and the semi-renaissance of the C86 period and after. Wildly unlike anything else being cranked out in the early Eighties on either side of the Atlantic, the music of The Jazz Butcher was richly lyrical, decidedly melodic, and wholly fresh. And it remains so now, more than 3 decades later. One of the odd side-effects of the fact that The Jazz Butcher have been perpetually underrated is that, finally, they will get some real attention as The Wasted Years is a superb introduction into their music, as well as a remarkably and convenient way to get a lot of great music all at once.
[Photo: Uncredited from label]