England’s indie rock icon gave us one final Jazz Butcher classic before departing this astral plane
Patrick Huntrods, better known to his legion of fans as Pat Fish, passed away in October 2021 from a heart attack at the age of 63 years after a career that spanned four decades and resulted in 14 albums.
The very definition of a “cult artist,” Fish comes from a long and revered line of eccentric British musicians that includes Syd Barrett, Vivian Stanshall, Robyn Hitchcock, and John Otway, among many others. After playing in anonymous bands with names like Nightshift and Sonic Tonix, Fish concocted ‘The Jazz Butcher’ persona in 1982 and carried on with it ever since; much like the original Alice Cooper band, Fish was the Jazz Butcher, and The Jazz Butcher was the band.
Although somewhat enigmatic about his past, no biography could beat that which Fish offers on his website: “Born in West London at a time that left him just too young to be a hippie and just a little too old to be a punk, Pat Fish grew up in an era where the Bonzo Dog Band appeared on children’s television, Syd Barrett was on Top of the Pops and the Adult World was represented in shows like The Avengers and The Prisoner. Disappointment was an inevitability.
Artist: The Jazz Butcher
Album: The Highest In The Land
Label: Tapete Records
★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Fish failed to ‘get’ the glam rock thing (probably too much of an excitable wee football fan) and found that the seventies drove him down some fairly obscure musical paths before punk rock came along to save the day. By then, however, all those mad little songs by Eno, Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen, John Cale, Peter Blegvad and Tony Moore were already locked up in his head.”
Starting with his 1982 debut, In Birth of Bacon, and right up through his recently released swan song, The Highest In the Land, Fish defied expectations. His band name might change on a whim, from The Jazz Butcher to The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy or The Jazz Butcher and His Sikkorskis From Hell. Fish also fronted bands other bands, outfits like the Black Eg, Sumosonic, and Wilson that all enjoyed various levels of popularity in the U.K. but were virtually ignored stateside. He worked for a while as the host of a music show called Transmission for ITV, dabbled in record production, and collaborated musically with fellow travelers like David J (Love & Rockets), Spacemen 3, David Kusworth (The Jacobites), and The Blue Aeroplanes.
VIDEO: Pat Fish interviews The Perfect Disaster (yes, that’s Josephine Wiggs of The Breeders!) in 1989 on Transmission
No matter where his creative muse took him, Fish always circled back around to The Jazz Butcher. Inspired by free-thinking, free-wheeling artists like Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Kevin Ayers and Peter Laughner, Fish’s erudite lyrics always displayed the man’s intelligence and unique view of the world, whether he was quoting novelist Thomas Pynchon or writing a tribute to the master of ‘speculative fiction’, Harlan Ellison. You could never tie Fish down, and JB songs were endlessly complex and brimming over with Fish’s witty lyricism and observational sense of humor, often underwritten by constant stylistic changes. One song might be jangle-pop, another a furious punk-rocker, and a third performed in cabaret style, and often on the same album.
Needless to say, this lack of adherence to a single style or musical direction won Fish few fans in the record biz, and his U.S. audience was never more than a dedicated cult that appreciated his musical risk-taking and high-IQ lyrics. All of which brings us around to the elephant in the room, The Highest In the Land, the final will and testament of Mr. Pat Fish, The Jazz Butcher. A nine-song collection recorded as Fish was undergoing cancer treatment, it was his first album since 2012’s Last of the Gentlemen Adventurers. And sadly, it would be overshadowed by the artist’s own mortality.
Fish gathered together an all-star roster of longtime Jazz Butcher collaborators to make The Highest In the Land, including original JB guitarist Max Eider and guitarist Peter Crouch, bassist Tim Harries and drummer Dave Morgan. Working out of Lee Russell’s Dulcitone Studios in rural Northamptonshire, Fish assumed that he was recording his final album and was determined that he would not go quietly into that good night but would instead rage against the dying of the light (my apologies to Dylan Thomas…).
In the Tapete Records press release for the album, producer Russell says of Fish, “he was not delusional. We all go through life acting like its going to last forever, but that’s a lie, and Pat was cleverer than the rest of us. He actually was facing it. He was in no mood to compromise his life in any way whatsoever…”
As a result, while the tracklist for The Highest In the Land is, perhaps, a couple of songs too short, it’s also the perfect length for what Fish was trying say with his final musical statement. The album starts with “Melanie Hargreave’s Father’s Jaguar,” a jazzy little stroll through nostalgia that sports wry wordplay and filigree fretwork floating above light-handed brushwork on the cymbals. A muted horn adds to the dreamlike vibe Fish has created with his throwback musical arrangement.
With “Time,” however, Fish gets down to the nitty gritty of life, crooning slick rhymes that other songwriters would build entire songs around: “my hair’s all wrong, my time ain’t long, Fishy go to heaven, get along, get along;” “I took a long weekend in the psychedelic shack, and when you cross that bridge you ain’t never coming back;” “I’ve got scars and stripes and burns, I’ve got the law of diminishing returns.”
The lyrics of “Time” are delivered over a sparse atmospheric soundtrack, Fish’s breathless vox accompanied by a steady rhythmic drumbeat and wiry guitarplay. It wouldn’t be a Jazz Butcher track if he didn’t poke the bear with bit of political polemic, using one verse to jab a sharp verbal stick at child labor, private prisons, and life in an authoritarian regime, ending his magnificent tirade with the line “time’s running out, the money’s running out, you don’t need me to tell you what it’s all about.” With these words, Pat Fish is finished educating his audience; he’s taught us all he’s going to. By contrast, “Sea Madness” is a whimsical, country-flavored pro-immigrant tune written in honor of Turkish George, a longtime fixture on the Northampton music scene.
The six-string interplay spun from the ether by Eider and Crouch for the highly-personal “Never Give Up” is stunning, matching Fish’s winsome vocals and gentle lyricism, the song’s lilting melody a thing of true beauty. A left-leaning intellectual, Fish began his career in defiance of the Thatcher era and ended it during the despised Boris Johnson years. As such, songs like “Running On Fumes” and “Sebastian’s Medicine” are socially-conscious political diatribes that are both topical and timeless. With a shitkicker country rhythm, the former song delights with lines like “existential threats pile up like mashed potato snow around my door, they say that fear’s a man’s best friend, and every day it seems I have more” as Fish name-checks David Bowie and Motörhead’s Lemmy with his commentary on modern society.
If “Running On Fumes” brings Blood On the Tracks-era Dylan to mind, then “Sebastian’s Medication” is Fish at his most Dylan-esque, his opaque, word-a-minute lyrics delivered talking blues style above a shuffling rhythm. Criticizing England’s “Brexit” from the European Union and the right-wing propaganda that brought it about, the singer sums up his fellow countrymen’s decision singing “the gammons are all whining for some kind of reclamation but they don’t know what they want to reclaim” above a shadowy guitar riff ringing menacingly in the background. Opening with a mesmerizing guitar line, “The Highest In the Land” gently mocks people’s reliance on pseudo-spirituality and demagoguery, often to their own detriment and well-being. Fish sings “I’ve been a monk since I was eight years old, don’t want your money baby, don’t want your gold” while tying the worship of false idols to the isolationism currently embraced by too many Brits.
Closing out The Highest In the Land, “Goodnight Sweetheart” is another personal ode, a low-key ballad reminiscent of Nick Lowe, with shimmering guitars and sparse percussion, the song instead relying on Fish’s unique, crooning vocals to carry the slight melody. Although it may seem like a downbeat tune to finish the album, it’s actually a lovely reminder of the concepts like love and friendship that fueled Fish’s entire existence.
It may be a somber goodbye, but it’s delivered with the quiet fury of a man that’s said all he’s had to say. As final statements go, The Highest In the Land is right up there with Warren Zevon’s The Wind , Johnny Cash’s American IV, and Bowie’s Blackstar as artistic triumphs.
Mr. Fish will certainly be missed, but he left us one last loving missive in The Highest In the Land.