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

Remembering Screaming Lord Sutch, born on this day in 1940.Ed.

This very heavy solo debut by renowned English loony Screaming Lord Sutch (aka the 3rd Earl of Harrow) comes with some very heavy baggage. And I’m not referring to the late Lord’s Heavy Friends, who included such rock luminaries as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, John Bonham, Noel Redding, and Nicky Hopkins.

No, I’m talking about the album’s deplorable reputation. A 1998 BBC poll crowned Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends the worst album of all time, to which I can only reply that the people polled did a grave injustice to Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII. And plenty of others have heaped scorn upon this benighted 1970 LP, which mortified just about everyone including the people who played on it.

Me, I think they’re being unfair. I rather like Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, and not as kitsch either. The musicians who recorded the LP would go on to condemn it as a bunch of demos that should never have been released, but to my ears it sounds like rock’n’roll primitivism at its best. The album has a lovably raw-boned, one-take feel to it, and what it lacks in polish (there is no polish) it makes up for in pure bluster and monolithic garage rock raunch. If you’re a fan of “You Really Got Me,” Blue Cheer, the Troggs (and who isn’t a fan of the Troggs?), or any number of sixties garage bands, you’ll most likely dig what’s on offer here.

There’s no denying Sutch was a fascinating character, and that the world was a far more interesting place with him in it. He may have had no more connection with the peerage than the infamous Nazi broadcaster and English traitor Lord Haw-Haw, but during his time on this planet he recorded a whole slew of timeless horror rock classics (“Jack the Ripper,” “Murder in the Graveyard”), basically invented Alice Cooper’s shock-schlock stage act, and ran for Parliament innumerable times, both as a representative of the National Teenage Party and as the proud founder of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party (that he never won a Parliamentary seat is a sad commentary on the intelligence of your average English voter).

Toss in a tragically aborted foray into pirate radio and what you have is a great English eccentric in a long line of great English eccentrics, and while Lord Sutch wasn’t as witty or bright as a lot of great English eccentrics (I’m thinking in particular of the Bonzo Doo-Dah Dog Band’s Vivian Stanshall) there’s no denying he made stodgy old England a livelier place.

But back to the record, which has all the subtlety of a brick. This is heavy, blues-based music being played by some of the guys who helped invent the genre, and the lack of slick production values makes it sound all the heavier. But if you like heavy music, and you don’t really care whether the sound is all polished and pristine and clean, this baby will scratch you where you itch.

That said there is an elephant in the studio, and the elephant is Lord Sutch himself. The man couldn’t sing a lick, and makes Jimmy Dandy Mangrum sound like Luciano Pavarotti. To call his voice “serviceable” is being far too generous; the man couldn’t carry a tune in a double-locked suitcase, and I have no doubt you could squeeze better vocals from a bulldozer. That said, you can’t fault his enthusiasm, even if he doesn’t quite live up to his “Screaming” moniker.

But let’s put Sutch’s lack of rudimentary singing skills aside for a moment and focus on the music. Jimmy Page had a hand in writing six of the LP’s ten tracks and played on eight of them, and the Led Zeppelin guitarist brought both his love for good old-fashioned rock’n’roll and his knack for creating big menacing riffs to the table. He would later say, “I just went down to have a laugh,” adding that the whole thing was “a bit of a send-up” that “sort of reversed itself and became ugly.” But it should be remembered that Page is a perfectionist and that one man’s ugly is another man’s Blue Cheer.

And that’s what Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends is–a titanic sonic blast. If it’s a bunch of sloppy rave-ups you’re looking for, this album can’t be beat. Whatever Page had to say later it certainly sounds like the musicians involved are having a marvelous time, and every ponderous riff and shaggy dog of a solo resonates. Some of the songs on Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends make Led Zeppelin sound like a fairy light proposition, and what you take away from every listen is the feeling that you’ve just been, to quote a certain well-known song, trampled underfoot. This is heavy metal in the truest sense of the term, with about as much swing as your average wrecking ball and played with a ramshackle abandon that does credit to the idea of rock’n’roll as primal art form.

I like every single song on Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, and that’s more than I can say about some of my favorite Mott the Hoople LPs. Do Lord Sutch’s vocal shortcomings diminish my pleasure in some of these songs? Without a doubt. But I just ride ‘em out, and if truth be known I’ll take the 3rd Earl of Harrow over Geddy Lee or Jello Biafra any day.

My favorites include “Wailing Sound,” which opens with an ominous Led Zep guitar riff and features Lord Sutch at his wailing best (i.e., worst). “Flashing Light” boasts a big Bo Diddley beat and some wonderfully shambolic drum shuffle by John Bonham, to say nothing of Sutch backing himself up on vocals (it’s groovy, man!). And Page lets loose on guitar, evidently in an attempt to approximate the sound of a speeding mongoose run amok in an English seaside tea shop. “Smoke and Fire” is a psychedelic journey to the center of a burning building; Sutch’s echo-laden vocals are a hoot, and Page’s guitar wank is incendiary. And “Smoke and Fire” proves beyond a doubt that Sutch, who penned it his own damn self, had actual songwriting skills.

“Union Jack Car” (see album cover) may be the most charmless song of all time, but if it’s a good ear pummeling you seek this baby’s for you. Lord Sutch sings with the same subtlety that John Bonham puts into his drumming, and he puts even less nuance into “Thumping Beat,” which more than lives up to its name. This one has Kent Henry (best known for his work with Steppenwolf and Blues Image) throwing down on guitar, and you wouldn’t know it’s not Page. “L-O-N-D-O-N” is a loving homage to the world’s most swinging city, with Sutch going to the trouble of spelling out the town’s name while letting you know it’s the place to be if you want to see fashion, stars, newsstands, or the dungeon in London Tower. For once Sutch is up to the task on vocals, and Kent Henry plays like a motherfucker.

“Gutty Guitar” is a subterranean tour through the London sewers, and boasts a sound as murky as the Thames back in the day when it was every bit as filthy as the Ganges. “Would You Believe” is the sound of Swinging London and features lots of cool backing vocals, to say nothing of a far-freaking out instrumental break boasting a totally spazoid turn by Page on ax. “Cause I Love You” is a heavier than heaven Troggs rip on which both Page and Bonham bid a fond adieu to finesse and instead do their best to level the studio; if ham-fisted overkill can be a virtue (and I believe it can be), both men are virtuous indeed. As for “Burning Light,” I can only wonder whether Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant stole its wonderful opening to create the great “Comin’ Home.” The two are dead ringers for sure.

Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends is the perfect demonstration that “good” is as much in the heart as it is in the ears. By the standard measures of quality–i.e., those used by musicians and listeners who demand a high-quality musical product developed using every tool in the studio armamentarium–Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends is an abysmal record indeed. But if you’re of the opinion that the virtues of quality production and studio perfectionism (to say nothing of good singing and long practice) are highly overrated, and are in short punk, then Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends is a hoot. And to the extent that its participants never anticipated its seeing the light of day, the album stands as a wonderful (albeit opportunistic) prank. But who cares if Page et al. were upset? As a great man once said, “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”


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