Bill Fay has been dubbed “Britain’s musical Salinger” and is arguably one of the country’s most criminally undervalued songwriters, releasing two albums for Decca in the 1970’s and then disappearing from the music landscape after the label rashly dropped him. An aura of mystery has been placed upon Bill’s shoulders by the music press, but his absence from the scene has been forced rather than purposely maintained. He has written and recorded all his life but the will of record companies to put out his work has not always been there, forcing him to pursue half hearted “second” jobs, like factory worker and assistant in the Selfridges fish cellars. After years of neglect, his music has recently undergone a quiet resurgence, led by the likes of Wilco and Jim o’ Rourke. But it is a resurgence not for mystery’s sake. Instead it is born out of a warm regard for an underappreciated talent and, in response, he has just issued a new album of home-made and archival recordings.
When Bill Fay walked into a London recording studio to lay down the songs for his first album in 1970, he thought he had stepped through the wrong door. He was met by a full piece orchestra, ready to play in accompaniment to his wispy north London voice. “I thought I’d wandered into another version of Beethoven’s Fifth” he says, obviously expecting more frugal backing. Yet most great art is made by chance and after Fay had left a tape with Mike Gibbs, a young first time arranger, at the behest of the records producer, the composer set about fixing Fay’s piercingly simple, achingly spiritual lyrics against a string filled modernist baroque sound. For a moment becoming a bed-sit Riddle and Sinatra, for people who worked to understand themselves and loved expression.
“I’ve always written and recorded” says Fay “It’s something I’ve been doing for fifty years; it just comes as second nature to write a song.” Music for him is a way of expressing where he is inside at a particular time, a document of his state of mind, an exercise in a style of state-of-consciousness writing, penning what he feels, with no immediate pre-meditation. He has though, like anyone who has led a life happily manacled to music, early musical memories, which no matter what a psyche does to expel them, have an effect when a twenty-something sits down to write. Bill says “My Uncle Will was poisoned by mustard gas in the trenches, I can remember him just sitting there, in his chair, while my Aunt May played ‘Sunshine of your Smile’ on the piano for him.”
He is inspired still by that 1915 generation. “They were not confronted with the same things I was in the 60’s.” Like many men and women of the time, the relatives he recalls from his formative years gave up jobs, love and a fuller life, to care for kin scarred by war. The ghosts of these people dwell within Bill’s music, his grandfather writing music hall songs on his guitar, his aunts and uncles singing around the piano. In the song “Goodnight Stan” he sings about an ‘old boy’ coming home from his allotment, with nothing to defend himself against a drastically changing world but a watering can and a weary knowledge. An ode to an aging man, who couldn’t comprehend a new age.
Yet his songs are much more than an homage to a past generation. They express a deep spiritual journey Bill has pursued all his life. “I always believed there was something to find out” he says “that we were in our day to day lives asleep to a greater reality.”Many of the songs on the first album, the self titled “Bill Fay” are devoted to the start of that journey, especially Garden Song, which expresses his attempts as a young man to connect with the natural world, to depose those mental barriers, which dismiss nature as “nothing special”, which labels a tree a tree and then moves on to other business. “I sing in Garden Song ‘I’m planting myself in the garden’, to try and wake up and connect in a deeper way with the reality of sky and trees surrounding us, not just the world of city, media, and man’s preoccupations.”
Ultimately for him, came a realisation that there was a source from which all life flows, a realisation that led him to the Bible after discovering a book of sermons by 19th century ministers and reading the work of Teilhard de Chardin, which had an enormous effect on him as a young man. “If you become more awake to the wonder of the natural world, if you actually feel it, then perhaps in a way you turn away slightly from the world of man. But once you feel that life element, you begin to feel the anti-life element too and begin to want answers to the terrible things that happen in the world.”
When in 1971 Decca approved a second album, Bill recruited guitarist Ray Russell, another deep thinker with a highly original electric guitar playing style and Alan Rushton, a respected London drummer, who still plays the capitals jazz clubs today when not teaching drums, to accompany him. Time of the Last Persecution is a much more pared down record, that focuses on that “anti life element” and it is, in a way more dramatic, more compelling than the first. You can imagine the songs playing themselves out in a dank concrete room, lit by bare bulbs, to an audience with a grimly indifferent nature as he bellows “It’s the time of the anti- Christ, make for your own secret place”. But now and again light floods into the room like Aphrodite wishing away a murder scene, as he sings in “Don’t let my Marigolds Die” ‘Hey don’t let no one get you down.” It is an opposing mix, both a warning and a wish.
Themes of religion and fear for the direction of the world, return for his latest album, Still Some Light, recorded on a portable keyboard and £15 microphone. But this time it is much more, it’s a thank you, to his parents, to his family and an ever so brief regression to childhood. “Still can see that little boy, his heart full of joy. They were diamond studded days, eighteen carat gold” he sings on one song. He talks with an unbridled passion about a post-war London, full of bombsites and wasteland, where a child’s imagination is free to run wild. Of stealing gooseberries from a neighbours garden, planted remnants from “Dig for Victory”, train spotting in London with his friends, and walks in the country with his father. It’s a reminder that there is only a brief time in life when nothing matters, before deeper thoughts set in and ones foundations suddenly seem less steady.
He admits that “ I certainly would have loved to have sold enough to make another album during the Decca years, but all’s well that ends well, I couldn’t ask for more than the response the music from back then is getting now.” A traceable legacy of Bill Fay’s musical life is for the first time in decades, available to those who wish to seek it out, thanks mainly to David Tibet, whose Coptic Cat label has issued both the new album and “Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow”, recorded in 1978. He closes that album with a song called Isles of Sleep, in which he sings “Nothing has changed, only me, the worlds still the same, but I’m not the same.” He is still changing, he says, still learning “Still trying to stay awake to the world and understand prophecy.” What’s more he is still writing too and has many songs that are good enough to record.
In a music world that already has its anointed heroes, its empty vessels and comfortable old shoes, it is always a wonder to find a man existing outside the system, who thinks what he wants to think, feels what he wants to feel and sings those thoughts in turn. No matter what spiritual storms may rage throughout his music, there is a calm centre to be found, a comforting middle, an assured sense of something else, something better and a conviction that you will find your way through. Or as he sings “Be not so nervous, be not so frail, someone watches you, you will not fail.”