The Jazz Butcher's 'The Violent Years' Covers One of the Best Periods in British Pop
The career retrospective of the veritable Pat Fish, aka the Jazz Butcher, continues with four (more) albums of crazy/beautiful indie pop. Not your typical Creation Records fare.
The Violent Years
The Jazz Butcher
9 March 2018
Creation Records is rightly recognized as one of the prime movers of British independent music. In 1988, though, the label was just starting to hit its stride. That year, it released the debut albums from the House of Love and My Bloody Valentine, two progenitors of the soon-to-be-trendy UK shoegaze scene. It also issued Barbed Wire Kisses, a compilation from noise pop groundbreakers the Jesus and Mary Chain, as well as albums of fey indie pop from Felt and the Pastels. This handful of albums pretty much established the aesthetic that would make Creation famous, at least until Oasis came along.
There was an outlier, however. Creation has just signed Pat Fish, the creator and sole remaining member of the British indie group the Jazz Butcher. The Butcher had already released four albums of alternately manic and gorgeous indie music. Fishcoteque, their fifth, was their first for Creation. It, too, came out in 1988. It incorporated many of the sounds that could be heard on those other '88 Creation records. Strangely, though, it had little in common with them. It was outward-looking as much as inward; it was not afraid of humor, wit, or self-deprecation; and it was art masquerading as pop rather than the other way around.
Fishcoteque is one of four Jazz Butcher albums collected on The Violent Years, which also includes Big Planet Scarey Planet, Cult of the Basement, and Condition Blue. The albums were released once-per-year between 1988 and 1991, all on Creation. The Violent Years is the sequel to The Wasted Years (2017), which compiled the Butcher's first four albums. The Violent Years also represents the heart of what the Jazz Butcher was all about, throwing off most of the throwaway silliness that marred parts of Fish's early work and getting right down to focusing on what he did best, which is make something out of everything. All of it is worthwhile, and much of it is very, very good. In fact, there isn't a better run of four albums in the entire history of British indie music.
The Violent Years is an apt title. Fish devours pop culture, pop music, and the human condition with a ferocity and zest that is relentless and sometimes ruthless. The allusions and references come fast. Lionel Richie, Thomas Pynchon, "Dueling Banjos", science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, Ray Davies, and Madonna's "You can dance" invocation from "Into the Groove" -- all these and more make appearances, cycled through Fish's psyche and made to work in service of his wit and songwriting skill. The name-dropping isn't novel, though, in part because much of it is couched in meaningful social commentary, and the rest is couched in lyrics that are worth reading.
Also, there is a funk/rap song about chicken. There is a country-western number about flying around in a Zeppelin, "Over Mexico, where tequila's not expensive, and the weapons are extensive." There is a Bo Diddley stomper about an ongoing infatuation with Shirley MacLaine ("This is the last thing that I thought could ever happen"). Original guitarist Max Eider had left, but a stable of talented players is more than capable, even approaching metal-like intensity on apocalyptic grinders "Line of Death" and, erm, "Do the Bubonic Plague". Furthermore, Fish employs sampled sounds and bits of dialogue for additional color and, often, disorientation.
This barely-controlled chaos isn't even half the story with The Violent Years, though. Within the compilation are at least a half-dozen tracks that could've/should've been enduring indie pop classics. Why, Cult of the Basement alone boasts the unbeatable one-two punch of the whirlwind powerpop "She's on Drugs" and the shimmering, heartsick "Pineapple Tuesday". Not only do such songs temper the Butcher's inherent near-madness. They also feature some of the most delectable guitar jangling this side of the Smiths. Furthermore, there is what would be Fish's "secret weapon" if it weren't in plain earshot. The man can write a devastating, devastatingly beautiful ballad. With judicious programming, The Violent Years is an awesome dream pop album. From the gorgeous "The Good Ones" to the equally gorgeous "Sister Death", from the plaintive "Racheland" to the wistful "Susie", these are dead-serious, sincere meditations on tragic, bygone relationships, which seem to be the only kind Fish has ever had.
Even with Fish as the only constant, the playing on The Violent Years is of a piece and consistently top-notch, with appearances from then-and-future members of Spacemen 3, the Blue Aeroplanes, Suede, and others. The production has dated fairly well but can not completely escape the tinny confines of the era. Perhaps in an attempt to remedy this, the remastering overplays its hand with reverb and volume, so the hi-hats tend to sound like churning water. Too bad, but not fatal. In true Creation fashion, these albums have long been out of print, so it is great to have them collected and bound and with liner notes from Pat Fish himself, no less.
Certainly, there was nowhere else in the post-synthpop, pre-Britpop morass where you could hear the Velvet Underground, the Clash, Television, Talking Heads and Nick Lowe all coming together in the space of nine or ten songs. In terms of combining melodic gift with intellectual heft, only the Go-Betweens might have been considered Fish's peers. But even they had two songwriters. There has never been, nor will there ever be, one like the Butcher. The Violent Years is essential. And would you believe the best was yet to come?
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