Looking back 50 years at Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends
The odd and the eccentric have long held a cherished place in British society. From politics and fashion to science and art, it’s often been those who “dared to be different” that pushed culture forward.
In his 2015 book, Great British Eccentrics, author and journalist Steven Tucker wrote, “these islands have long been a stronghold of eccentricity and peculiar behaviour. For whatever reason, eccentricity seems to have been enthusiastically embraced as being one of the defining characteristics of the British people, one of the many things that have become part of our national identity.”
Centered in the London area, the British rock music scene of the 1960s provided the culture with a number of notable eccentrics, from madcap satirists like Vivian Stanshall and Roger Ruskin Spear of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and cosmic travelers like Hawkwind’s Dave Brock and Nik Turner to madmen like the Who’s Keith Moon or the Pretty Things’ Viv Prince. Nobody made a bigger splash, arguably, on the mid-‘60s British rock scene than the self-proclaimed “Lord” Sutch. Born David Edward Sutch, the would-be rock star was enamored by the horror-infused R&B sounds of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and took on the stage name “Screaming Lord Sutch, 3rd Earl of Harrow” despite having no legitimate claim to nobility. Over the years, the U.K. music press would shorten his name to simply Lord Sutch.
VIDEO: Screaming Lord Sutch “Jack The Ripper”
During the early ‘60s, Sutch became known for his horror-themed performances, the singer dressing like Jack the Ripper and coming to the stage from a black coffin, using skulls and daggers as props. He fronted a band called The Savages which, at times, featured pre-fame talents like guitarists Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore, keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, and drummer Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix Experience). Sutch worked with another legendary British eccentric, producer Joe Meek, on early singles like the enduring “Jack the Ripper,” “Dracula’s Daughter,” and “She’s Fallen In Love With the Monster Man.” As noted music historian Richie Unterberger wrote of Sutch in All Music Guide, “his early ‘60s singles – mostly over-the-top Halloween novelties or covers of early rock and R&B standards – are genuinely energetic and fun performances that rank among the few out-and-out raunchy rock & roll records waxed in Britain before the ascension of the Beatles.”
By the end of the decade, however, with many of his former bandmates finding success elsewhere and his horror-rock shtick growing stale, the singer coaxed Page into producing the sessions that would become known as the Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends album. Page has been quoted as believing that these were merely demo sessions, something he did to mollify his old friend, and that he didn’t know they would be released commercially (with his name prominent on the album’s front cover, no less). Further muddying the waters was Sutch’s use of nameless studio musicians to fill out the jam sessions arranged by Page for the album. Just about every musician of name involved in its recording have since disavowed their contributions.
At the time of its release, Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends was almost universally loathed by critics in spite of music contributors like Led Zeppelin’s Page and John Bonham, guitarist Jeff Beck, keyboardist Nicky Hopkins and bassist Noel Redding. Writing for Rolling Stone magazine, J.R. Young called Sutch “absolutely terrible” and that the musicians sounded like “a fouled parody of themselves.” Writer Colin Larkin named Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends as the worst album of all time in his 1994 book The Top 1,000 Albums of All Time, a status it retained in a 1998 BBC poll of British music fans. The album’s reputation has been further tarnished through the years with numerous dodgy vinyl and CD reissues, including under the title Smoke and Fire (often giving little or no credit to Sutch).
It’s been 50 years since the February 1970 release of Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, and the album is due the respect of reappraisal and a bit of retrospection. Yes, Sutch’s vocals are undeniably bad – tortured, affected, guttural shouting into the abyss – but honestly, no worse than many a tosser fronting a band in the punk era to come a few years later. When not howling at the moon, Sutch talks-sings many passages; on the album-opening “Wailing Sounds,” his growling voice dances alongside scorching fretwork courtesy of Messrs. Page and/or Beck. Sutch’s vox are somewhat muted beneath the screaming guitars of “’Cause I Love You” while the cult-fave “Flashing Lights” offers up a stellar soundtrack, with Page’s shimmering lead guitar matched in intensity by some truly heavy rhythms courtesy of bombastic timekeeper Bonham and bassist Redding (if ol’ Noel had played this good with Jimi, he’d never have been replaced).
Page’s presence, and that of the singer’s rock star friends, can be heard across six of the twelve songs on Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends. The other half-dozen tracks, recorded in London with members of the Savages (including longtime drummer Carlo Little) and various session players, are somewhat wan by comparison. The sound is distinctly shallow on “Gutty Guitar” and “Smoke and Fire,” both of which feature somewhat weak-kneed and unimaginative guitar solos from Kent Henry (who would go on to play with Blues Image and late-period Steppenwolf). Sutch’s original “L.O.N.D.O.N.” is anarchic enough to have benefited from the contributions of his superstar musicians; as is, it stands as an engaging slab of proto-punk attitude and proto-metal fury captured on wax a few years before the New York Dolls and the Dictators would find a similar sound laying in the NYC gutters.
VIDEO: Screaming Lord Sutch documentary
Thankfully, Page and pals are back for tunes like “Thumping Beat,” a blues-rock romp that displays a taste of the Sturm und Drang that Page would bring to Zeppelin in the years to come (with an admittedly MUCH better singer in Robert Plant, of course…). “Union Jack Car” (named for the auto on the album cover or vice versa?) is a pleasant little rocker with Chicago blues rhythms, shards of sizzling guitar, and absurdist lyrics while the album-closing “Baby, Come Back” is a rollicking slice of 1950s-styled old-school rock with a “Peter Gunn Theme” riff and an overall foot-shuffling vibe with an outrageous vocal performance and razor-sharp guitar licks.
Lord Sutch would follow-up on his debut two years later with Hands of Jack the Ripper. A live concert album, Ripper included unintended contributions from “heavy friends” like Ritchie Blackmore and Nick Simper of Deep Purple, Matthew Fisher of Procol Harum, and Keith Moon of the Who, none of whom knew that the show was being recorded for album release (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). As the 1970s wore on, Sutch largely left his musical career behind in favor of politics, becoming a perennial candidate for the British Parliament. Sutch founded the National Teenage Party during the 1960s, which later evolved into the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, which still boasts of over 1,000 members today. Sutch stands alone in British political history, losing more than 40 elections between 1963 and his death by suicide in 1999. Sutch published Life as Sutch: The Official Autobiography of a Raving Loony in 1991, and his longtime friend Graham Sharpe wrote a biography of the singer, The Man Who Was Screaming Lord Sutch, published in 2005.
In spite of his meager recording legacy (a bunch of singles, two legit albums, and a handful of questionable compilation discs), Screaming Lord Sutch continues to cast a long shadow on pop culture in the U.K. and elsewhere. His songs have been used in TV ads, in movies like the 2017 Steven Soderbergh film Logan Lucky, and have been covered by artists like the White Stripes, Beach Day, and the Black Lips. What Sutch lacked in talent, he more than made up for with ambition and a charismatic personality (as well as a star-studded Rolodex™). In spite of widespread critical derision, somebody here in the states bought copies of Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends (I plead “no contest”), the album peaking at #84 on the Billboard album chart (on the strength of the marquee names on the cover, no doubt), a better showing than many of Sutch’s contemporary rockers.
Although the Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends album has taken a somewhat-deserved beating over the past 50 years, to be fair, Sutch never aspired to creating great art as much as having a good time. In spite of its shaky reputation, the album has been reissued on CD and vinyl numerous times through the decades. It’s memorable today not only for the talented musicians that Lord Sutch helped send on their way to rock stardom, but also for the pure, un-distilled rock ‘n’ roll spirit with which the singer imbues his (admittedly mediocre) performances.
Writing on musician Julian Cope’s Head Heritage website, The Seth Man says of the album, “for all its errant looseness, Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends IS insanely no-frills rock’n’roll and nothing less.”
That should be enough to redeem the long-suffering Lord Sutch in the eyes of the rock gods…after all, artists like Michael Bolton, Kiss, Starship, Aerosmith, and Styx (among others) have delivered far worse albums over the past 50 years.