By Chris Greene
Name: Bill Fay
Genre: Alternative Folk/Rock
Top Albums: Time of the Last Persecution (1971), Life is People (2012)
Top Tracks: “Be Not So Fearful” (Bill Fay), “I Hear You Calling” (Time of the Last Persecution), “Time of the Last Persecution” (Time of the Last Persecution), “Planet Earth Daytime” (Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow), “Never Ending Happening” (Life is People), “Be at Peace With Yourself” (Life is People), “Life is People” (Life is People), “War Machine” (Who is the Sender?)
This February, Bill Fay surprised many by announcing an upcoming album due in April called Who is the Sender?. Fay also released the album’s first single titled “War Machine”. The first single and various online leaks have revealed that the upcoming album will consist of alternative gospel songs that focus on the topics of war and peace. Perhaps the album’s most intriguing quality is that for the first time, Fay has nothing to prove. He has already distinguished himself as the preeminent songsmith of the last fifty years, at least to those who have actually bought his records. But the road to recognition wasn’t straight forward.
According to Allmusic.com, Bill Fay spent the late 1960s and early 1970s working odd jobs around London, such as sweeping factory floors, tending to parks, and even teaching in local schools. In an interview with The Aquarium Drunkard, Fay states that music was mostly a private family affair. However, when offered a record deal by Deram, an offshoot of Decca, Fay was willing to branch out and pursue a career in music.
His self-titled debut album, released in 1970, was greeted with little fanfare. While Bill Fay is the singer-songwriter’s least focused effort, it contains traces of what was to come. For example, in the album’s opening track, “Garden Song,” Fay sings, “I’m planting myself in the garden…waiting for the rain to anoint me and the frost to awaken my soul,” which reveals Fay’s budding quest to seek something deeper. But perhaps the album’s overarching message is lost in the big band and often grandiose strings arrangements. While the elaborate jazz and orchestral accompaniments suit songs such as “Be Not So Fearful” and “We Want You Stay,” other times they smother Fay’s introspective lyrics.
Undaunted by the commercial failure of Bill Fay, he returned to the studio in 1971 to create Time of the Last Persecution. Recorded in just a few days and released with little promotion from the label, Persecution also failed to capture a widespread audience. Fay’s recording contract was not renewed and it seemed his days as a professional musician were over. He returned to working odd jobs and creating lo-fi home recordings. In hindsight, Time of the Last Persecution was an unprecedented masterpiece that the public simply wasn’t ready to receive. Persecution is classified by some as apocalyptic folk rock, as it makes numerous allusions to the books of Daniel and Revelation. It delivers a striking message, which can be summed up by a lyric in “Pictures of Adolf Again” in which Fay states, “Christ or Hitler….that’s the choice you’re gonna have to make.” While the unabashed and often acerbic lyrics found in Persecution lead some to view the album as a dark, pessimistic outcry from a disturbed youth, the album is more so a profound call to action. Songs such as “Omega Day”, “The Dust Filled Room”, and “Inside The Keeper’s Pantry” contain the motif of getting up from a chair, which can be interpreted as a spiritual awakening. Why is everyone getting up? Where are they going? The answer is in the title track. They are following Christ. Despite Fay’s revelation of the world’s darkness throughout the record, particularly references to the Kent State massacre and the Holocaust, Fay is convinced that society will make a redemptive choice in the end. It wouldn’t be right to discuss Fay’s second studio album without giving a nod to lead guitarist Ray Russell, whose heart wrenching and unique guitar style sets the mood for the album, particularly in tracks such as “I Hear You Calling” and “Time of the Last Persecution”.
No longer signed to a label, Fay’s third album, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, was privately funded and recorded. It was released locally in the late seventies and consisted of twelve finished songs and eight demos. Though full of rough edges, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a stunning work of art. Its opening tracks, “Strange Stairway” and “Spiritual Mansions”, establish the record’s cosmic sound. The third track, “Planet Earth Daytime”, ranks near the top of Fay’s catalogue. It features one of Fay’s greatest rock arrangements and reintroduces the anti-war theme that began in Bill Fay and would become even more prominent as he aged. But without the support of a label, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow seemed doomed to remain a lost treasure. Fortunately, the internet was developed.
The advent of the internet helped many obscure artists, including Fay, experience a late career resurgence. After attracting attention on the web, Fay’s previously deleted albums were re-released in 1998 and 2005, along with the compilation disks From the Bottom of an Old Grandfather Clock and Still Some Light, which contained previously unreleased songs and demos. Finally, around 2011, Fay was approached by Los Angeles record producer Joshua Henry, who fondly remembered listening to his father’s old vinyl Bill Fay records. Henry wanted Fay to record a new album. Fay initially declined, feeling uncomfortable entering a professional studio after forty years of home recording. However, Henry was persistent and Fay eventually agreed.
In 2012, Bill Fay released Life is People on the Dead Oceans label. The record was an overwhelming critical success, rightfully making several album of the year lists. Bill Fay was back, but his musical style had changed. Life is People often substitutes the younger Fay’s alternative rock arrangements with low key piano ballads that emphasize Fay’s lyrics. “Never Ending Happening” is perhaps the definitive example of Fay’s scattered, yet profound poetry. It touches on the beauty and joys of living, despite the world’s difficulties and injustices. “Be at Peace With Yourself” is another touching song from Fay’s comeback effort. When Fay pleads,“Be at peace with yourself, ‘cause nobody else has to walk in your shoes quite the way that you do”, the sincerity in his words is clearly evident and persuasive. If Bill Fay can find peace after being overlooked for his entire career and working odd jobs for forty years just to make ends meet, surely anyone can find the beauty in living.
If the album’s message wasn’t already clear, the title track “Cosmic Concerto (Life is People)” spells it out in an epic eight minute anthem that seems to be nothing less than a love song to life itself. Life is People assured that Fay could quit his day job and finally have the career he once dreamed of. Fay was invited onto the Jools Holland Show, in which he performed “Never Ending Happening”. But Fay ultimately decided that he didn’t need fame. Instead of embarking on a tour, Fay told NPR that he plans on returning to doing what he’s always done. The Life is People digital album booklet reveals that all Fay’s income from the record was donated to charity. He also dedicated the album to Joshua Henry’s father as a thank you for “playing the songs all those years ago”.