Bill Fay: a very likeable and unaffected bloke

One of the most decent men I have ever met in the record business is Peter Eden, the remarkable independent producer whose work in the late 60s and early 70s encompassed folk (Donovan, Clive Palmer, Mick Softley, Heron), pop (The Fingers, The Crocheted Doughnut Ring, The Pyramid), jazz (John Surman, Mike Westbrook, Alan Skidmore, Norma Winstone) and singer-songwriters (Mike Cooper, Bill Fay). We were having lunch a couple of years ago, and I asked after Bill, who is another truly humble and appreciative soul. Peter told me that his wife had asked the same question out of the blue a year or so earlier, during his little granddaughter’s birthday party. He was in the process of telling her that they hadn’t spoken in years when the phone rang – and it was Bill (who likes to ring you, rather than the other way around). A few minutes later my phone rang – and it was Bill. A coincidence, of course – but strangely fitting, given the enigmatic nature of the man, whose music all but disappeared for decades before being rediscovered, reissued and praised from the rooftops. I won’t rave on about Bill here, largely because he finds praise embarrassing, but thought I’d post the paltry selection of snippets about him I’ve found in the contemporary music press.

Bill’s first release was the terrific Some Good Advice / Screams In The Ears 45, produced by Peter and issued on Deram in August 1967. Accompanying its release was this small profile from Record Mirror’s weekly ‘Names & Faces’ column, which appeared on September 2nd 1967 (alongside a piece about Robert Plant!). ‘Names & Faces’, incidentally, is a great resource for info about and pictures of obscure 60s acts, and would make a terrific little book…

The disc was not a hit, though it did manage to get released in America. After its release Bill languished for a couple of years before Peter persuaded Decca to fund an album of his songs, which was released on its budget Nova imprint in February 1970. It’s a strange set that find his deeply personal ruminations set to grandiose jazz and pop arrangements. Nothing sounds quite like it, and I know several people who’d take it to their desert island. Reviewers were enthusiastic – on February 21st Disc & Music Echo called him ‘a creative young man who builds his music round his poetry, and comes up with songs that are not likely to cause a revolution in music – but the arrangements are excellent and at times the sound is suddenly full and exciting’, while on March 7th Melody Maker said the set was ‘a little reminiscent of Peter Sarstedt, though Fay’s songs are more poetic and less cynical. The arrangements, by Michael Gibbs, are really excellent’. On April 18th, Record Mirror said ‘this is what might be described as ‘improved folk’, since the normal quiet guitar has been nicely augmented by sweeping string orchestrals, woodwind and brass. His Dylanesque voice is not pretentious, in fact it is relaxing. Just the right arrangements develop into symphonic progressions, and enhance Mr. Fay’s far-from-fey lyrics,’ concluding that it was ‘a triumphant debut’.

Nonetheless, despite Bill’s obvious knack with a tune and lyric, Peter Eden remembers that the Decca execs deemed him too vocally similar to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and did little to promote the LP. It was fast sinking without trace when music journalist Jeff Cloves contacted Bill, with a view to profiling him for the great ZigZag magazine. The resulting piece appeared in its May 1970 issue, and seems to be the only interview Bill gave at the time:

The appearance of the piece impressed Decca enough to send the album out to reviewers and radio stations, and on September 3rd 1970 Bill was showcased on the BBC radio show Sounds Of The 70s:

Sales remained slow, but Decca miraculously allowed him to make a follow-up, this time with avant-garde guitarist Ray Russell producing. Taped in October 1970, the astounding Time Of The Last Persecution appeared in February 1971, and sounds like the work of a different artist. In place of his debut’s catchy and quirky orchestrated pop are dense, enigmatic and despairing songs with improvised, sometimes cacophonous arrangements, and lyrics packed with Biblical imagery. It was promoted via an austere advert whose chart-friendly hook was to quote from Revelation:

Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a cryptic record, initial reviews were unenthusiastic. On February 20th the NME called Bill ‘another rather tuneless singer who writes his own songs’, adding that ‘Londoner Fay is 28, and has the right sound in his voice for today’s folk tunes. He plays piano and is backed by a six-piece at times, including guitarist Ray Russell, who helped produce his second LP, which is versatile and interesting.’ A week later Melody Maker stated that ‘Bill Fay follows a somewhat predictable path. He seems to find his inspiration, in part, in Biblical accounts, and sees pollution as a symptom / cause of doomsday. He has ideas that are worthy of attention. The difficulty is that, either through the limitations of the medium or Fay’s own intellect, the critic is left with an impossible decision. Is the album intended as a series of brief sketches, or as an end product in itself? If the latter, then it is unconvincing and uninspiring.’ Record Mirror agreed, writing that ‘Bill’s private form of folk-rock has the necessary ingredients, but an emptiness pervades – probably due to the lyric content and his not-so-tuneful voice. There’s a kind of coarseness here that attractive folk-rock must measure carefully to succeed. Slightly jazzy at times, probably due to Ray Russell’s influence on guitar.’ The album sold next to nothing (originals have cleared £1000 in recent years), Decca dropped him, and he faded from view for over three decades before his renaissance began.

I have a (very!) long letter from Bill in which he sets out his personal and musical history in eloquent and touching detail. I won’t reproduce it here, for obvious reasons, but next time he calls (whenever that may be…) I’ll ask his permission. In the meantime, here’s a brief Q&A he gave me a few years back:

How would you describe your music?
My music was a product of the age I was at – being young then meant things were pretty intense. My songs reflected the world’s troubles, not mine. I wanted to write songs that were personal and comforting in one sense, but that also reflected the heaviness of the outside world. And the world at that time was heavy. So the song ‘Time Of The Last Persecution’, for example, was inspired by the student deaths at Kent State University in Ohio. The first album is a gentle affair overall, and Time Of The Last Persecution was my Slow Train Coming, I suppose. It was a very happy marriage between my songs and Ray Russell’s musical style. Biblical ideas, prophecies and so on, had started to permeate, and gradually I came to believe. I wasn’t trying to convert people, though. The record’s Christian, but hopefully not in a narrow way. I know full well that it’s a heavy album, but I stand by it. I feel there’s a therapeutic release in its intensity. It may be a bit immature lyrically, but if terrible things are happening in the world, how can you not face them and try to respond to them?

Do you know how many copies the albums sold?
Around 2000 each, I think.

What did you do when you weren’t recording?
I wasn’t a working musician. The albums only took a day each to record, so other than that I worked in various jobs. I was in a factory at one point, which I referred to on one level in ‘I Hear You Calling’. I didn’t play live, and until Ray Russell’s band came along on the second album, I had no group to tour with anyway. We did some radio sessions, though, and one concert in a town hall in St. Albans where we played straight through the entire second album. Sadly I didn’t think to tape it.

What happened after Time Of The Last Persecution?
I didn’t get a new contract, that was all. Whether my manager, Terry Noon, decided I should leave Decca, or they decided they’d already lost enough money on me I don’t know. But my contract was up, and though I continued to record we couldn’t get another deal and consolidate what we’d achieved.

Its sleeve has led to a lot of assumptions about your state of mind at the time.
That photo was taken during the recording session. It was serious music, and I was concentrating. It wasn’t a set-up or a pose, but people always read meanings into things, and they assume that because I had a beard I was undergoing a drug meltdown or personal problems of some sort. I wasn’t.

How do you feel about the perception of you today?
I’m amazed by how uncannily accurate some of the reviews on the internet are about my music, but I’m not a Nick Drake figure, I’m afraid. Though I’m well aware of the other side of life, I’m lucky enough always to have had a cheerful disposition. The most touching and meaningful thing to me is that people genuinely valued my music when I thought it no longer existed.