Bill Fay’s ‘Time Of The Last Persecution’ revisited

❉ An appreciation of an almost forgotten album 50 years on from its original release, by Johnny Restall. 

Dire predictions. Conspiracy theories. False prophets. Brutality and fascism. Trying to find a safe, sane refuge from the madness all around you.

The unflinchingly bleak lyrical concerns of Bill Fay’s remarkable album Time Of The Last Persecution could scarcely seem more relevant to the political and social landscape of the past few years, despite being released in 1971. The fact that the record almost disappeared without a trace following its initial release 50 years ago only adds to its overriding sense of warnings unheeded, of a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Time Of The Last Persecution was Fay’s second and final album for Deram (an imprint of Decca Records), following the low-key success of his eponymous debut the year before. Like its predecessor, it was entirely recorded in one day and mixed in another. However, while Bill Fay tempered its more downbeat aspects with wistful chamber-pop whimsy, its sequel dug its heels deep into the dirt and darkness, though not at the expense of the singer-songwriter’s gift for yearning melody and his warm, weary voice. The ornate arrangements of the former record are replaced by a smaller ensemble led by Fay’s piano, and gilded with a startlingly abrasive edge by Ray Russell’s prominent, biting guitar. At times, the album is almost a meeting point between a more baroque version of Ray Davies’ lyrical domestic details, and Fear-era John Cale – tuneful, but with an underlying sense that the structure could spiral out of control at any moment.

If I were to pick one characteristic song to introduce the uninitiated to Time Of The Last Persecution, I would select I Hear You Calling. Over gentle arpeggiated piano, Fay’s haunted vocal reaches out to the listener in the verses, before resigning into the rueful chorus refrain: “All my time is lying / On the factory floor.” Despite the dejected chorus, the verses cannot seem to surrender, with the titular first line repeated again and again as the song fades, as though even utter exhaustion offers no respite from the calling voice.

Musically it is pretty and accessible, yet it is shot through with an almost uncomfortable tension and spiritual longing, that can be felt in the pit of the stomach. The lyrical structure is deceptively straightforward but its precise meaning remains elusive, mixing references to a coming messiah with stark images of blackened air and desolation. It is never clear who is calling, nor whether they offer deliverance or destruction.

The title track was apparently written in response to the infamous murder of four students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard in 1970, reworked as a kind of religious apocalypse. Fay confirmed this in an interview for Rob Young’s excellent book Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, expanding on the song’s exhortation to “make for your own secret place,” explaining that “you’re entitled to come away from seeing riot police clubbing people, look at other things in the world as well, and not to get consumed and overcome by it.” The music of the song seems to echo this philosophy, its lament building to two furious climaxes that collapse in on themselves in violent cacophony, before a tentative solitary piano emerges from the rubble in the final moments to soothe the track’s scorched earth – sad, bruised, and chastened, but a kind of battered hopefulness all the same.

Fay’s album certainly does not advocate mindless escapism, resolutely refusing to “look at other things in the world” at the expense of harsh reality. The verses of the gorgeous Tell It Like It Is invite the listener to find solace where they can in the strange minutiae of daily life: “Peace be in your Sunday picnic / And your old school friends who’ve passed away…Peace be in your team losing / And in your dustbin that blew away.” Yet the chorus insistently repeats the song’s title, tethering these moments back down to the harder facts of life.

The entire record seems an attempt to balance the dark traumas of the external world with the personal need for succour and comfort. Perhaps inevitably, its scales seem to weigh more towards darkness than light. Omega Day opens the album with cryptic references to broken climbing ropes, followed by songs skewering the escapes of flippancy (on Laughing Man) and paranoid fantasy (with the bizarre conspiracy theory of Plan D). Meanwhile, Pictures Of Adolf Again predicts the return of the nationalistic right with grim certainty, delivering a stark warning against “all the Caesars to come.”

Finally, Let All The Other Teddies Know closes the record with little place remaining for childhood innocence, instead urging the next generation to be ready “for when the cupboard explodes.” It concludes with a reprise of the instrumental coda first heard in ‘Laughing Man’. Almost an inversion of the title track’s closing moments, a tender solo piano is slowly drowned by a long strangled scream of guitar before falling into jarring dissonance. It seems to suggest that while beauty and peace must be cherished if life is to be worth living, their chances of undamaged survival are poor.

Due in part to the darkness of the album and the long creative silence that followed it, as well as Fay’s dishevelled appearance in the cover photograph, rumours accumulated that Time Of The Last Persecution chronicled terrible personal troubles as well as more existential concerns. Fay refuted this strongly in his interview for Electric Eden in 2005: “It was the problems of the world that I was talking about, not my own problems. The world was going through heavy times – or our view of the world was a heavy world.” Instead, he had simply got on with his life, accepting that his music, never heavily promoted by Decca, would remain largely unknown. 27 years later, a first-ever reissue in 1998 from the now-defunct See For Miles Records led to a feature in Mojo magazine, covers of his songs by the band Wilco, further reissues from Cherry Red’s Esoteric Recordings, and a quiet return to the spotlight.

Although Fay has recorded a welcome three further albums for the Dead Oceans label since his resurgence in the 21st century, Time Of The Last Persecution endures as his masterpiece. Now 50 years old, it should be celebrated alongside its more acclaimed peers as a work of extraordinary power.

❉ Originally released in 1971 by Deram Records, ‘Time Of The Last Persecution’ was reissued in the USA on 180 gram heavyweight vinyl via 4 Men With Beards in May 2013, and as a limited eidtion vinyl LP via Universal Music for Record Store Day 2021 Drop 2, on 17 July 2021 (UMC 3538131).

❉ Johnny Restall writes and draws inky pictures. You can find him on Twitter @johnnyrestall.

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