I have previously admitted in this space to there being at least one area of popular culture in which I enjoy no expertise, that being heavy metal music. Following an enlightening conversation with our very own Ro Merrill (all praise and laudation be unto her name), I have been granted the gift of a brief introduction, albeit not necessarily an indoctrination, into the mysteries of the several genres that comprise such endeavors. I’ve been listening to a fair amount, not only of the form as currently practiced but to its forebears and influences. Along the way, it occurred to me that there was at least one performer whose active period began prior to anything recognizable as heavy metal who has not of late received his due attention.
And so, I went digging into my nearly half-a-terabyte of genre related music and found the subject of our Essai du jour, the English musician and failed parliamentarian, founder of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, Screaming Lord Sutch.
Before Arthur Brown, before Iggy Pop, before Ozzie Osborne, before Alice Cooper, decades before any of the growling, snarling death metal performers of recent years, there was Sutch. Born David Edward Sutch in 1940, he took on the stage name as above, with the title amended thereunto of 3rd Earl of Harrow. You will find no sutch (sic) listing in Burke’s Peerage. The first part of his nom de scène was inspired by the 1950s novelty performer, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The second was made up out of whole cloth.
His 1963 novelty song “Jack the Ripper” is the prototype for a great many of the tropes common to heavy metal, and made a sufficient splash in his home country that a short documentary was made about him and his band, The Savages, which concluded with a full version of the song including the simulated disembowelment of a mannikin.
Sutch’s tune, by the way, bears no relation to the surf guitar standard composed by Link Wray that same year. In case anyone was wondering. “Jack the Ripper” a la Sutch bears a more than passing similarity, structurally and musically, to the Hollywood Argyles’ 1960 hit, Alley Oop, based on the American comic strip. Thematically, however…
Yeah. Not a thing like it.
The putative 3rd Earl of Harrow ran for Parliament nearly forty times, with what can be charitably characterized as limited success. He did garner more votes on occasion than actual, legitimate political parties, including in 1990 when the Social Democratic Party responded to losing to him by disbanding. There’s at least one modern political entity that might want to take note and follow this example.
Later in the decade, Sutch performed on stage and on vinyl with a variety of major rock ‘n’ roll musicians, including the Who’s drummer Keith Moon, Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, and several members of Led Zeppelin. The album he recorded with the Zeppelinists, Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, was declared in a 1998 poll conducted by the BBC as being the worst album of all time. Not a high watermark in the legendary band’s repertoire.
Despite his exuberant stage presence, Sutch battled depression in later years. He committed suicide by hanging in his late mother’s house on June 16, 1999. He was fifty-eight years old.
A word about His Lordship’s inspiration, the aforementioned Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, seems relevant at this point in the proceedings. Hawkins was born in 1929. Inspired by both operatic and blues singers, he began performing his piano act in the early 1950s, during which period took to wearing leopard skins and red leather, and other outrageous costumes. His most influential recording was his 1956 hit, “I Put a Spell on You”, a performance of which is in the link above. The piece has since been covered numerous times, including by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nina Simone, Carlos Santana, and Marilyn Manson, and by Bette Midler et alii in the 1993 film, Hocus Pocus. He passed away in 2000 at the age of seventy.
Arthur Brown, Screaming Lord Scutch’s first significant follower down that dark, flamboyant musical path was born in 1942 in Whitby, England, the very town in which the Demeter ran aground in the novel and several film versions of Dracula, precipitating the Vampire Lord onto British soil. Brown still performs his wild and crazy act at the age of eighty, although perhaps a bit less frenetically in these latter days.
Our lagniappe this time is from one of my favorite groups of the 1970s, English folk-rockers Steeleye Span. A few days late for Halloween, but you are welcome to put “The Twelve Witches” aside for next year. Just don’t forget where you stashed it.
And so, until next time…
Be very afraid.