30 December 2008

Screaming Lord Sutch - Jack the Ripper



Normally when looking at any piece of banned or censored material from two decades ago or more, there's a sense of indifference to it. In rock music in particular, what counts as operating on the outer edges of outrage in one decade seldom means much ten years later once the dust has settled. Does The Shamen's "Ebeneezer Goode" still shock anybody, for example? I would have thought by now it's even included on late night "Retro Party Flashback!" shows on local independent radio stations, probably preceeded by a naughty chuckle from the DJ as he or she puts it on. Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax" certainly seems to be played like it was never the subject of censorship these days.

It's a genuine surprise, then, to encounter a banned single from the early sixties which still causes you to do a sharp intake of breath now. In this case, it's not so much the song which feels questionable (although there is a case to be made there) but the video itself - featuring Sutch knifing various women gleefully in his role as Jack the Ripper. Whilst the song itself is an ace piece of very early rock music, where Joe Meek and Sutch combined to created a track which was raw and seething in comparison to their slick and somewhat twee British peers, the video is an uncomfortable watch. It would be banned even now.

Much has already been written about what Screaming Lord Sutch and The Savages contributed towards rock music, and summarising it here is going to be a tough job. Suffice to say, the band were formed as a reaction against the poor state of British popular music rather than out of a desire to be slick and professional. Hence Sutch and his merry crew would utilise stage props, extremely loud amplification, wild drumming and unpredictable behaviour, such as, on one occasion, setting fire to effigies of Cliff Richard. The few clips available online now point towards an act that seems somewhat corny by present day standards, but it's important to consider just what else there was around at the time. Compared to the aforementioned Cliff or even any number of Brian Epstein approved Merseybeat pros, there's something quite unique about them which (cliche alert) was ahead of its time. Whilst other acts were polishing their boots and steam ironing their suits for their appearances on prime time television, Sutch and the Savages were too busy being unbroadcastable. More to the point, they were largely excellent musicians (Noel Redding, Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore all passed through the ranks at some point) immersing themselves in rock and roll and allowing themselves to improvise and occasionally appear out of control. There are numerous reports to the effect that they were one of the best live bands in the country at the time, and whilst I'm obviously far too young to have ever witnessed them, the amount of professional musicians willing to testify to the fact has to count for something.

Less appreciated is the fact that The Savages drummer, Carlo Little, was actually Keith Moon's teacher, offering him lessons when he first purchased a kit. Therefore, Moon's frantic, wild style owes a great deal to the band. You can read Little's account of their meetings here: http://www.carlolittle.com/savages/savages2.htm

Whilst Sutch was always a great lover of outrage and practical jokes, one can't help but feel that the Monster Raving Loony Party (a joke political party he set up to campaign in various elections, for the benefit of any overseas readers) did ultimately blot his copy book, causing him to be remembered as a "character" and figure of fun rather than one of British rock music's first eccentrics, and a pioneer of sorts. Their output was inconsistent, Sutch's voice was certainly nothing to write home about - although his rather character-filled imperfect vocal style predates a lot of other artists as well - but the stir they created clearly got a lot of musicians thinking about how to present themselves, alternative ways of playing, and also what place outrage and unpredictability had in rock music. Anyone declaring that in terms of sales and commercial appreciation versus actual influence on music they were effectively the British Velvet Underground would be greeted with derision. They would also probably be sent down a dark cellar somewhere and whipped for crimes against critical judgement, but somewhere in that statement lies the kernal of a truth.

While we're here, it's possibly also worth looking at the 1977 disco version of "Jack The Ripper", which is rather less pleasing, but does include Sutch sounding ever so slightly like Nick Cave in places. Probably a coincidence, but a cheering one nonetheless.

1 comment:

Sergio the Walrus said...

http://www.vimeo.com/7497771