“Sixty? He wasn’t sixty, you bloody twats!”
That was my initial reaction to reading the headline that Billy Franks had died suddenly late last year. It was the shock of it all, the disbelief that the media could get it wrong in much the same way they had when they commented that a friend was survived by three children in his native Ireland when he suddenly passed.
The media had done its’ fact checking; there were three children and Billy Franks was sixty.
Sixty. It didn’t seem possible. It was only yesterday when he’d been bounding around the stage of the Greyhound, the Marquee and other iconic London music haunts. As much as you could bound around on those cramped stages.
The Faith Brothers are, as far as I am concerned, probably the most under-rated band I’ve come across. You’ve got your own pick, I’m sure, they are mine. Eventide, their debut, to this day remains firmly and resolutely in my top ten favourite albums.
There was something oddly reassuring about buying the CD version, as well as hearing it on Spotify. When I first listened to the vinyl version, it sounded like it was scratched. The unsettling click signalling a small jump on the plastic. That’s when you got frustrated as record buyer; a brand new vinyl and there it was, damaged.
Closer inspection of the LP revealed no imperfections so I stopped berating myself for being a clumsy oaf. The replacement version carried the same fault at which point I realised it must be on the master tapes.
Proof of it comes with its’ emergence, reassuringly, on the streamed version as well.
Eleven songs but rarely for albums of that era, it captures some of the energy of their live performances. Eventide with its base in the soul which made the Faith Brothers name also underlines the scope of Franks’ lyrical abilities.
From the elegiac title track through the thoughtful Easter Parade – his own Shipbuilding – and the jangling guitar of Dust In The Soul. All of them influenced by his upbringing and the inequalities of society at the time. Eleven songs which whizz by in a little over forty minutes.
Fast forward two years to the follow-up A Human Sound. You can instantly identify Steve Lillywhite’s production with the bombastic drums dominating the soundscape.
There are some great tracks but it was a shift away from Eventide and probably not one I was following at the time. The punt at the big time didn’t come off despite support slots with some of the biggest acts of the era, U2 among them.
The break-up of the Faith Brothers led Billy onto a solo career. A move ‘oop north’ meant I sporadically heard his recordings. Not signed to a major label, the airplay for arguably the best songwriting of his life was missing. Undeservedly so, as well.
He has (had) a healthy YouTube channel with plenty of clips of live performances.
Among them is the excellent documentary, Tribute This! The full version is shown below.
As was commented during the course of the programme, it was as much a road-trip as having an end product. To be fair, it sounds like the sort of idea many of us had as the ales filled an evening. They got off their arses and tried. Hats doffed for that.
An unknown singer-songwriter? Stretching the theme a little I think but an unusual and marvellous idea. I’ve pulled together my favourite tracks from his solo career and hope you enjoy them. His book, A Far Cry From Sunset, is still available through Amazon.
Billy went on to walk the Camino Way last year, documenting it on the blog, The Kid Stays In The Picture. It’s an interesting journal of his journey and the people he met along the way.
For his musical career, Billy’s own website stands as a memorial to his talent.
His death may not have grabbed the headlines in the way other musicians and actors did last year but few pierced my heart with as much sadness.
2016 really was a bastard of a year.