In the early '70s, the Decca/Deram label released amazing records by artists like Michael Chapman, Egg, T.2., Mellow Candle, and many others. However, for me, the crown jewel of this marvellous era would be 1971's Time of the Last Persecution, an album by a singer-songwriter named Bill Fay, which featured accompaniment from the amazing Ray Russell and his equally talented group. Time of the Last Persecution is bold, unnerving, and ultimately honest in a way few records are. The material Fay sung about on the album could be excluding, but he portrayed it in such a way that one would feel fascinated, envigorated, and immersed within the music. This is not to belittle his other recordings. His first single "Screams In The Ears" and it's follow-up album Bill Fay are beautiful pieces of music, with great arrangements.
I cannot deny my love for Bill's voice as well. It has an indescribable tendency, a certain "duende".... and coupled with the intense, evocative imagery of his lyrics, brings forward the greatness of Bill Fay's music. I was able to e-mail Bill a few months ago to conduct this interview. He is still in the process of answering the questions, but I figured due to the length of the answers he so graciously provided me with, each of these would read very well on their own. Bill's story of his childhood and first memories of playing piano are about as wonderful to read as his music is to listen to. Please enjoy after the jump.
More to come soon.
When did you start to write songs? Who were some early influences for you? Did you come from a very musical family?
Mum's side of the family was musical, yes, though she herself rarely went to the piano. She could 'vamp', which in itself looked impressive, where the left hand kind of strides backwards and forwards while the right hand picks out a tune. Such a lot of movement going on, which I could never do. For some reason, then, though able to, she rarely did, and only for short bursts. She must have learnt it as a kid from one of her older brothers or sisters, or perhaps her dad. It wasn't a 'central' part of her life, then, as it became so for me.
Her dad played guitar and wrote and sang songs, more in the music hall tradition, 'parlour' songs, ditties, just for his own pleasure. Each of her five brothers and sisters could either play a musical instrument by ear, or sing. According to my old aunt Ede, they would have a musical gathering on a Sunday, and people would sometimes stop outside and listen to them. I recall as a kid, my uncle Charlie coming round and playing his accordian to us, and as a small child, seeing my grandad play his guitar and sing, but apart from that, I didn't grow up witnessing their musicality. It wasn't til later years, when I came to be able to play the piano after a fashion, that Aunt Ede, Aunt May, and Aunt Beatt, would come round our house on occasions and along with my mum, and myself on piano, would sing all the old songs that they knew.
Although I was to grow up as part of a significantly different generation, I remained, and remain, deeply connected to that generation, hence songs like, 'Sing Us One of Your Songs May' and 'Goodnight Stan'. I read some reviewer say that there was 'more than a whiff of music hall' about some of my songs, and I think he's probably right. I still have a tape of one of those gatherings with my aunts.
Neither my brother, who is four years older than me, nor I, can remember how , or when, an old piano arrived at our house. It wasn't there when we were very young. Pianos were popular in those days. My mum's side of the family certainly had one. Mrs. Jolly, two doors from us, had one that she played, and I later found out that in her younger years, she had played in Pete Townshend's dad's band, 'the Squadronairs'. Four doors the other side, Mrs. Iredale had one too. I recall hearing both of them play, as a child, not imagining that I'd come to play one, though not as well as them. Further up the road another lady had one, and a friend of mum's, a five minute walk away, had one. She had played piano at the local cinema in the silent movies days. Perhaps because pianos were popular, they were relatively inexpensive, and therefore within reach. Our one perhaps arrived about the same time as our dad bought us a Dansette record player, after which Rock and Roll came to live in our house as well. My brother had bought a guitar, and mum and dad might have thought, "Well we might as well throw in this old piano that's going for nothing, maybe from my mum's side of the family..."
Apart from my mum 'vamping' on it occasionally, it remained unplayed. It was a mystery to me. I couldn't make any sense of the long row of black and white keys, until about age late 14, early 15, a steady girlfriend of my brother's, later to be his wife, came round and showed me a simple piano 'party piece'. It was attractive, and something I played again over the next few days. I began to realize that it had a structure. An all important realization. Basically, it was a sequence of four lots of three notes, all on the white keys. I started to play one set of three notes all together at the same time, and realized it was a chord. Later on, though I don't read music, I came to know that was C major. Similarly, the other sets of three notes became A minor, F major, and G major. Very simple structure chords and easy to remember. You just play one note, miss the next, play the next one, miss the next again, and play the last one, and all together. Visually simple 'triads'.
What's more, these four chords were the basis of the majority of songs that were around at the time, and I started to play and sing Ricky Nelson's 'Poor Little Fool'. There were different ways of playing these chords rhythmically as well, which I went on to do. Blues and rock and roll were in three of those chords, though that wasn't the direction I went in. Having been given a key which unlocked the door to the mystery of that long row of black and white notes, my next step, over quite a period of time, was playing those four chords in every 'key' on the piano, involving a mixture of black and white keys, not so visually simple to remember, but very rewarding to play.
Over a very long period of time then, the piano itself was my teacher, my main 'influence', with 'inversions' discovered in all the 'keys', and what i believe are called 'major 7ths', 'augmented' this and that. At one point, I started playing cross-hand and started writing different pieces of music, not songs though. It was a great process of discovery then, learning from the piano itself, something new almost on a daily basis.
When I was 18, I went to Bangor, North Wales, to study electronics, but used to seek out pianos on a regular basis that were in different college buildings. There were two main ones that I learnt off, an upright and a grand, in different rooms, where no-one ever was, so I used to quietly play those and the great process of 'discovery' continued. In the last year there, 1964, three of us shared a cottage, near the mountains, where the buses were very infrequent into town. I'd bought a cheap harmonium and used to play it regularly in the cottage. The music was taking over more and more, rather than why I was there, to be studying electronics. I wrote the first 'song' on it, though not the words, and although I didn't know it at the time, it was to have strange, ongoing consequences...
I've tried to convey that the biggest 'influence' was the piano itself, its own chords. It's what i listened to most. Growing up in a house where the radio was on a lot of the time though, from infancy onwards you hear and absorb and 'know' all kinds of music that touch on different genres. Rock and roll was massive for us as kids. 'Moonlight Sonata' is a beautiful piece of piano music. You get to hear all sorts along the way, but whether they're influences or not, is hard to say.
During '64, very early '65, when all I'd done was write a tune, I was aware that there was a lot of 'progress' going on in other people in the world of music. an older student at Bangor, who was a 'folk enthusiast', had got hold of the early Dylan imports, before he was well known, and lent them to us. We played them a lot at the cottage. They were great. I had a Schoenberg LP too, I used to listen to. English and American bands were going through big changes. 'See Emily Play' seemed to me to be a 'leap forward'. Me, on my own small slow path of 'progress', all I'd done was write a 'tune'. It was to be some time before musically and lyrically I'd progress enough to reach something like, say, 'Garden Song'. that's from a different 'influence', but we'll leave that til further down the line...