Graded on a Curve: Screaming Lord Sutch, Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends

Screaming Lord Sutch was a colorful character from the early days of the Brit rock ‘n’ roll scene, and in 1970, in a major stab for a little bit of hard rock glory, he fronted a band including such banner names as Page, Bonham, and Beck. What resulted instead was a whole lot of infamy. The album was titled Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, and it’s been called the Worst Record of all Time, but whenever that kind of assessment is made you can be sure those awarding the dishonor are barking up the wrong tree.

Anybody who’s dedicated a large portion of their existence to the appreciation of music is likely to have audibly evaluated a certain container of audio as being the worst record they’ve heard in their entire life, and possibly with an expletive or two thrown in for emphasis. Indeed, on a mercifully meager handful of occasions over the years that very sentiment has also passed the lips of this writer.

Bad LPs are no rarity of course. And after spending the night out on an especially good date or perhaps just completing a fine hang with some old friends, encountering a severely subpar album can deflect off your consciousness like so much water rolling down a duck’s feathers. But when severely disappointed expectations or just a foul mood enter the equation? That’s when those personal assessments over the most awful sounds ever experienced can arise.

However, I can’t help but consider it troublesome when some person or group makes the attempt to rate a record (or any art object, for that matter) as “The Worst of All Time.” This is partially due to what should be obvious, the flat-out impossibility that any one human being or committee of individuals could’ve somehow listened to every musical document placed onto shellac, vinyl, tape, or compact disc.

Another problem comes through how the “Worst of” endeavor attempts to make definitive what’s always been subjective. Talking, reading, or writing about art is really just a way to articulate a (hopefully) always evolving individual perspective in a discourse with other viewpoints. Making a list that leads to the worst record ever made can certainly inspire discussion, but the overriding impulse is directed towards mockery and even more so, smug superiority. Where “Best of” lists also strive for the authoritative and easily fall victim to the expected choices, at least they come from a place of praise.

No doubt some readers feel that I’m taking things a little too seriously. And maybe that’s true. But it’s the smugness that really sticks in my craw. To elaborate, the desire to ridicule art over its badness is largely a commentary on how a society perceives itself as the locus of sophistication, and by extension, the root of all insight. Unsurprisingly, most “Worst of” lists lack any entries from the decade of their making.

Once upon a time Plan 9 From Outer Space was a cult movie. Yes, even back then some people just treated it derisively, but it was also valued by a group of fans for its creative verve and oddball choices in the midst of blatant obstacles and a seeming lack of common sense by its maker. Flash forward a few years and the movie had simply become the impetus for laugh-riots at the expense of Ed Wood’s folly, a trend that didn’t subside until Tim Burton’s excellent biopic humanized the filmmaker.

Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, the 1970 LP led by the late Brit rock eccentric Screaming Lord Sutch, was apparently voted the Worst Record of All Time in a poll taken in 1998 by the BBC. When discovering this recently, I immediately thought of my own copy. Bought used a long time back from the clutches of a local used bargain bin, upon first listen I found the grooves to be well-worn with play. The previous owner(s) seemed to disagree with the BBC’s pool result, and so do I. While I don’t really play the album very often, it’s definitely a keeper, and I’ve even been tempted to upgrade to the Sundazed Records reissue.

I’ve no clue what the worst record of all time is (and as outlined above, find the idea of awarding this backhanded title dubious), but I feel confident in stating that Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends ain’t it. The LP’s also been described as the Plan 9 From Outer Space of rock ‘n’ roll, a distinction that might initially read like just another way to crown it with the distinction of terribleness.

But a comparison between Ed Wood’s film and Sutch’s reliably off-center attempt to celebrate the root of the rock ‘n’ roll spirit (and in so doing, promote his own self, natch) does make clear that both the movie and the record offer the possibility of actual enjoyment. And that Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends was made in tandem with some key figures from the then blooming hard rock scene adds a very interesting twist.

Unlike the small but intense cadre of folks who champion Sutch as an exponent of the days when rock ‘n’ roll was considered by the culture at large to be gauche kid’s stuff, I won’t make any lofty claims for the man as any kind of major artist. However, I do enjoy his early singles, a bunch of them produced by cult Brit knob-twister Joe Meek (the man behind the boards for The Tornados’ “Telstar,” amongst a bunch of other material) and a few even featuring early guitar work from Jimmy Page (noted for a whole lot of things, including the soundtrack to Death Wish II.)

Yes, spinning a decade’s old bootleg LP of his early singles titled Story does position Sutch (in cahoots with his band, the Savages) as an attempted artiste of the kind of stoopid doopid junk sounds that partially defined rock ‘n’ roll’s early days, low-brow excursions that by the late-’60s were basically six feet underground. Nabbing wholesale the persona of that eternally swank American original Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Sutch milked the hijacked gimmick like a prize Bessie and as the era progressed instigated himself into all sorts of situations.

Forming the Official Monster Raving Looney Party, he ran for parliament in over forty elections, chalking up a very impressive losing streak. He also haunted the Swinging London scene to the point that some claim he’s the room intruder “all dressed up like the Union Jack” in The Rolling Stones’ “Get off My Cloud.” While his singles work remains enjoyable, particularly around Halloween (especially the goofus “Jack the Ripper” and some of the other horror themed cover choices), Sutch’s biggest talent was his charisma. This is probably why he had so many Heavy Friends.

By the ‘60’s end, rock had changed substantially, but that didn’t prevent the Cotillion label from offering Sutch an album deal. And right here is where Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends’ issues begin. To be frank, the guy’s modest charms were tailor made for 45s; while listening to Story is fun, a big prerequisite when slapping it upon the turntable is the knowledge that it’s a comp.

But Sutch surely wasn’t going to say no to the prospect of getting a full blown album in the racks, tapping Page as his producer and recruiting (or more likely, calling in favors from) a bevy of rock heavyweights; beside Page on guitar there’s Jeff Beck along with bassist Noel Redding, drummer John Bonham and pianist Nicky Hopkins. Additionally, six other musicians play a part in Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends’ creation, the most well-known being Kent Henry, a member of Blues Image and later Steppenwolf.

If the album had landed anywhere close to expectations, this bunch would’ve easily snatched the title of greatest supergroup of all time. Needless to say it didn’t, getting lambasted in the rock press and scorned by those who bought it with expectations at least somewhere in the neighborhood of Zeppelin or Hendrix.

But falling short of that yardstick doesn’t mean Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends is actually a bad LP. It’s nowhere close to a great one either, but it is an okay if very flawed example of (then new) rudimentary rock structure servicing a rather untraditional, or perhaps undisciplined (many will obviously say unexceptional) lead vocalist. Intended as a “back-to basics” and employing a one-take approach, much of the record registers like the tapes of a more than competent but highly unpolished (and surely unknown) band rocking out during some weekend barn party. The kicker is that the singer is a “local legend.”

He holds that status for a reason; you kinda need to know him to really dig what he’s up to. And this fictive situation solidly extends to the actual album; most of the Brits hearing Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends back in 1970 were part of a new rock generation, one that would’ve largely considered Sutch’s brand of mayhem trite or old hat. And most Americans didn’t know Screaming Lord Sutch from Sir Lord Baltimore. After breaking into the Billboard album charts on the name recognition of the backing band, it stalled at the #84 spot due to bad reviews/word-of-mouth.

What they heard wasn’t a collision of eras and agendas attempting to make an unfussy rock album, a descriptor that serves as a pretty good encapsulation of the LP’s contents. Instead, ears felt betrayed by undistinguished rocking that was fronted by a growling, unfocused flake. And opener “Wailing Sounds” is emblematic of much of the rest of the album.

While they are the length of an airport landing strip away from the quality known as “tight,” the musicians do manage to hang together loosely and spark up some tangible energy. Anybody who’s ever witnessed a truly lame band attempt to move muscle in some dive bar can tell the difference between uncut crap and low-key heat. And if the music falls back on (soon-to-be) clichés a little too frequently, chilly lobes can still be warmed from the contents of this LP.

Also very likeable are two regurgitations of early Kinks-style thud with “Cause I Love You” and closer “Baby, I Love You” (needless to say, the lyrics aren’t exactly what you’d call ambitious), the later also notable as a toned-up Roy Head rip. And contrary to some reports, Sutch’s emoting doesn’t really sink the proceedings. Along the way, he seems less incapable of conforming to the expected hard-rock vocalist role and more just unbendingly true to his own cracked vision.

To wit, on a song like “Thumping Beat,” his growling (proto-Lemmy) throat grease turns what would have otherwise been a no big deal bit of heavy strutting into something that, if not completely “wrong,” is unquestionably “off.” But he actually hangs in pretty well during the white boy R&B bastardization of “Union Jack Car.”

Really, the main problem with Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends is that it’s too long, an issue compounded by some of the cuts being decidedly lesser than others. Six of the better selections pressed onto a 10-inch EP would’ve cut some much spicier mustard. A dozen songs just becomes wearisome, and even eight is pushing the matter a bit.

I do feel confident in claiming that this LP, in all its unedited, slapdash glory, isn’t the Worst LP of 1970 (the year of Sweet Baby James), much less the Worst of All Time. Hell, it’s most assuredly better than Sutch’s ‘72 Heavy Friends follow up (this time with Keith Moon and Ritchie Blackmore, amongst others) Hands of Jack the Ripper. That one is a recording of a covers-heavy live affair that mostly sounds like a bland oldies revue show.

However, Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends comes off like a very twisted dude trying to get some of his more famous countrymen to stoop to his level in an attempt to conquer the rock charts. That it fizzled is no surprise, but it’s far from a complete failure.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 9/5/13

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