I was deeply saddened this afternoon to learn of the sudden death at the age of 64 of Pat Fish, better known as The Jazz Butcher (“Butch” for short), which was also the name of a band he played in, when they weren’t called The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy or the Sikkorskis from Hell or JBC, and before his later bands Sumosonic and Black Eg and Wilson. The moniker thing was always a tricky bit when discussing the man and his music, especially since even Pat Fish was a pseudonym for the man born Patrick Huntrods in London in 1957. Whatever he was called, and whatever he called whatever he was doing, he was just an absolutely brilliant songwriter, and a charming singer-guitarist with a vast and rewarding studio and live career to his credit.
Pat Fish attended Oxford University in the late 1970s, and began playing with a collection of local musicians thereabouts, while reading Lit. Hum. at Merton College. A couple of his early collaborators (Rolo McGinty and Alice Thompson) went on to fame and acclaim as members of The Woodentops, while a couple of others (singer-guitarist Max Eider and drummer Owen P. Jones) stayed on with Butch to anchor his most impressive creative period in the 1980s, aided and abetted first by David J (former Bauhaus, later Love and Rockets) and then by Felix Ray on bass. (Note that I am pretty sure Jones is the only one of those core Jazz Butcher Conspiracy musicians whose stage name just might be his real name; I do know all the others’ true monikers, but why complicate things further with that, yeah?)
The Jazz Butcher’s 1983 debut album, In Bath of Bacon, found the group’s formative line-up in flux, but Fish’s unique blend of smart-to-silly lyrics, interesting instrumentation, and ear-worming sing-along melodies was already in full and fine effect, as were Eider’s exquisite jazz guitar stylings. By the time the second Jazz Butcher album, A Scandal in Bohemia, was released in 1984, the “Me n’ Max n’ Dave n’ Jones” line-up, as Butch name-checked them in the lyrics to the tremendous single “Southern Mark Smith (Big Return),” had cohered and utter madness and magic then spilled out, frequently and ferociously. This is about the time when I jumped aboard the Butcher bandwagon, having heard their song “Caroline Wheeler’s Birthday Present” on Washington’s (then)-great free-form radio station WHFS, which most thoroughly addled and altered my consciousness, making me realize in less than five minutes that I had a new favorite group, right then, right there, right now, and that I had to rush out post-haste and go into deep credit card debt to acquire their entire catalog at extortionate import-level prices. But it was worth it, and then some. Because do you know what happens if you leave a fish too long in an elevator? You don’t? Well, listen to the song for a clue.
From A Scandal in Bohemia‘s stellar musical platform, the Conspiracy leaped off the high dive and raged on prolifically through a tremendous series of singles, EPs, and albums, culminating with the Distressed Gentlefolk LP in 1986 (Felix had replaced David J on bass by this point) and the related mini-album Conspiracy, credited to The Jazz Butcher vs Max Eider. (In addition to his always scintillating guitar work, Eider generally also wrote and scored a couple of spotlight numbers of his own on each of the Conspiracy’s albums, and they’re often among the group’s finest works). Things seemed to be going swimmingly for the group from the devoted fan’s perspective, and of course that means that the classic Jazz Butcher Conspiracy then immediately blew itself up while on tour supporting Distressed Gentlefolk, with Max Eider departing to pursue a solo career.
Max’s debut album, The Best Kisser In the World, came out in 1987, and it was a joy to hear and behold. He and Jones also played on some David J records of the period. Pat Fish, for his own next move, left his long-time label home (Glass Records) to sign with Alan McGee’s hugely-influential Creation Records. The first fruits of that new partnership emerged in 1988 when The Butcher released Fishcotheque, featuring Herr Huntrods backed with a new crew of collaborators. I liked it a lot, but I did miss the “Butcher vs Max” dynamic, as on this and (most) subsequent records released under the Jazz Butcher rubric, there was definitely more of a “front man” and “supporting band” vibe to the proceedings than had been the case when Max served as a key foil and co-frontman for the group.
Fish remained active under the Jazz Butcher persona with a variety of collaborators through the latter part of the 1990s, at which point he apparently tired of the constraints evoked by that musical brand’s baked-in associations, opting to form and record with the more electronic Sumosonic as a next step forward. But that was to be a short step, as Creation Records dropped the group after their first album. Phooey! And so, at that point, why, and well, and golly, it sure made perfect sense (no, no it didn’t, not really) for an unexpected Butch and Max and Jones reunion that resulted in the delightful Rotten Soul album in 2000, credited once again to The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy. The ever-volatile Max and Pat pair worked together on and off and on and off again over the years following, while Eider’s solo career built strength upon strength with a series of just soul-crushingly brilliant and beautiful records, one of which, Max Eider III: Back In The Bedroom, I named as my Album of the Year for 2007.
Fish’s post-Conspiracy and post-Sumosonic trajectory then anchored itself around a new band called Wilson, which gigged like champs over the years, and then, time passed, and of course, it once again made perfect sense (no, not really, no it didn’t) for Max and Pat (and Jones on one song) to join forces again for yet another delightfully unexpected album, Last of the Gentlemen Adventurers. That record, released in 2018, was funded through crowd-sourcing, to which I eagerly contributed. As a donor of a certain level, I was offered a meaningful memento from the band, and I asked Max to send a hand-written set of the lyrics to the group’s epic song “D.R.I.N.K.,” personally inscribed to my daughter, Katelin. (Ironically, neither Katelin nor I drink anymore, and the cautionary tale contained in that song is probably as good a reminder as any of why that’s a sound idea. I mean, God forbid we start playing “Sweet Jane” sober, especially with that god-awful “heavenly whine and bullshit” coda that Lou insisted be grafted back onto the song decades after its better original release. Doug Yule was right, in this case, dammit!) (But I digress). Anyway, I just told Katelin about Pat’s passing and she sent me a photo of Max’s kind gift, which I share below; you can click on the image to hear the song itself.
Anyway. I’m very sad that Pat the Butcher of Oxford and Wilson has flown away from us all on short notice. I knew he’d had some health issues in recent years, but I also knew that he was back gigging as long as the damnable virus let him do so, that he was active with online performances after the pandemic shutdown (he had one scheduled for last Sunday night, which he had to cancel because he was not feeling well), and he’d recently announced that recording of a new Conspiracy album was underway, with Max back in the fold once again. Max’s announcement on the Butcher’s official Facebook page noted that Pat “died suddenly but peacefully on Tuesday evening,” so it wasn’t an expected demise, and 64 years is just way too young to be saying farewell for folks of his capabilities and capacities. In thinking about how to title this post, I elected to use “Only A Rumour,” the title of a gorgeously dark song from 1985’s Sex And Travel, which contains these lyrics: “And how I wish I knew for sure how many years I had before this state I’m in will put me under the ground.” I guess we all wish we knew that, but all I know right now is that Pat didn’t get enough of those years on his tally.
All of that said, even as I’m very sad to lose an artist who moved me so deeply over the years, I’m also so very happy to have the catalog he left behind, which always makes me smile, so good is it all, and so smart, and sometimes stupid-smart, and other sometimes stupid-stupid, but in the good sense, always fun, always meaningful, always a pleasure, always a joy. The catalog is rich for exploration, but I’ll end this post by appending a special Jazz Butcher edition of my “Five Songs You Need to Hear” Series, featuring a quintet of my favorite Pat Fish numbers. (I’ve already linked to “Caroline Wheeler” and “Southern Mark Smith” and Max’s “D.R.I.N.K.” above, so I’m kinda sorta gonna ignore them and cheat and include five other songs below; consider those bonus cuts above, all of which you also need to hear). RIP Butch. You were one of the great ones.
“Grey Flannelette,” from In Bath of Bacon (1983)
“Holiday,” from Sex And Travel (1985)
“Real Men,” from A Scandal in Bohemia (1984)
“Partytime,” from In Bath of Bacon (1983)
“Angels,” from Distressed Gentlefolk (1986)