The best worst album ever – The story of ‘Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends’

❉ Martin Ruddock dusts off a true cult album, by the eccentric media figure and shock-rock pioneer.

Some album sleeves almost dare you to pick them up. But, a Union Jack-painted Rolls Royce, being leant on by a blonde longhair clad in bad taste regency clothing could go either way. Morbid fascination might, however get the better of you, as might the names of the famous guests brazenly displayed on the cover. If you get as far as taking this record home, the contents might make you feel slightly sea-sick with the teetering line the contents tread  between genius and terrible, sometimes in the space of seconds. It’s a sloppy garage rock classic. Will you make it to the end? Introducing the best worst record of all time, Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends.

Many grew up only knowing David Edward Sutch, aka Screaming Lord Sutch in middle age, as a novelty figure, a sort of oddball political mascot to be seen on cheesy TV shows and at the end of a line of shuffling, uncomfortable-looking electoral candidates at electoral counts. A self-proclaimed lord and heir to nothing, he would invariably be scruffily dressed, everything clashing, with an omnipresent top hat and rosette. He’s slightly unfairly best known as the Lord Buckethead of his time.

But a Google Images search of Sutch tells a different story. The top hat, leopard print shirt, and rosette are all there, but nestled in-between are pictures of Sutch’s other career, the British rock pioneer, specialising in shock-rock. In early pictures of him, the lank-haired, heavily made-up Sutch has a permanent maniacal leer on his face, and is often clutching a prop knife. Sutch’s grand-guignol classic Jack The Ripper, produced by Joe Meek is an acknowledged garage rock classic. It came out when Alice Cooper was still in junior high school, when Marilyn Manson was a glint in his Dad’s eye.

Throughout the mid-‘60s Sutch and backing band the Savages presided over wild stage shows featuring knives, daggers, corpse dummies, with Sutch variously terrorising his band or prowling the audience, screaming and leering. Sutch, who borrowed his ‘Screaming’ prefix from the similarly wild Screaming Jay Hawkins knew he had limited vocal ability, but his dynamic stage presence, and sheer enthusiasm steered him through a variety of horror-themed 45s and bizarre publicity stunts. His political activities and musical career became more and more entwined, the latter paying for his campaigns. He fought and lost his first by-election just months after Jack The Ripper came out. He would still be seeking election as late as November 1997.

By the late 60s, Sutch’s career was in something of a flat spin. The Savages had been a fertile breeding ground for young musicians, with luminaries like Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore passing through the ever-changing ranks. Sutch relocated to America in early 1968 to seek his fortune. By early 1969, he was going nowhere fast, until he visited Page, who was in L.A. on an early stateside trip with Led Zeppelin to call in a favour. “He came to me and said ‘I wish you could help me out, I’ve got a chance to make an album, and I’ve been in the business for twelve years’. I just went down to have a laugh, playing some old rock n’ roll, a bit of a send-up. The whole joke sort of reversed itself and became ugly,”” Page would later recall.

Page enlisted Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and entered Hollywood’s Mystic Studios with Sutch and bassist Daniel Edwards in April 1969 to cut a few tracks, written by Sutch, with Page occasionally credited, despite the guitarist’s protests. The music was basic, a lot of it heavified versions of R&B and rock n’ roll tunes, with a couple of Zeppelin-esque jams concocted by Page and Bonham thrown in. The musicians were under the impression that these were demos, so nobody was taking it particularly seriously, with Page and Bonham on particularly loose form. Page found himself nominal producer, and would later deny that some of the lead guitar work was his. At any rate, Page, Bonham, and Edwards smashed through around half the album in record time in a handful of sessions, before moving on to better things.

At some point Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding and super-session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins joined the party too, although the credits are vague. This vagueness over who took part where seemed to be quite deliberate. Without quite enough tracks from this sloppy superstar jam session to fill an album, Sutch called in some local musicians to complete the sessions, and got them to play in the style of Page, Bonham, Redding, and co. The Americans may also have overdubbed on the Page recordings. Sutch also fell back on some tracks cut previously in London with members of the Savages, and Jeff Beck overdubbing some gutty guitar on, well, Gutty Guitar.

Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends came out in February 1970 on Cotillion records. Jimmy Page, mortified by the weird, slovenly mix, and strange overdubs, immediately started back-pedalling on the level of his involvement, but his and Bonham’s contributions are unmistakeable, especially on the groovy Flashing Lights –  a kinetic, tight Zep-groove driven by Page’s motorboating guitar and Bonham’s massive bears that could have fallen off the back of Zeppelin’s debut album. Flashing Lights is a camp classic, crowned with Sutch’s gnomic chant it’s actually a hilarious pastiche of psychedelia. In fact, a lot of the ‘songs’ on Heavy Friends are based around things that Sutch can hear, see, or both, as if checking off items in a kid’s I-Spy book. Wailing Sounds. Flashing Lights, Smoke and Fire.

Sutch also ‘wrote’ the blatant Kinks-steal of Cause I Love You and the thunderous Sweet Little Sixteen-rip of Union Jack Car, delivering all of it not so much in his trademark scream, but a sort of atonal sandpaper bark. The sound lurches from brilliantly shambolic to just plain sloppy. Sutch didn’t care. To listen to Heavy Friends is to listen to one man who’s having the time of his life and thinks it’s all brilliant, backed by other, more famous men who you can hear going through an emotional curve of finding it all quite a laugh, followed by embarassment, unease, and a claustrophobic urge to mount an immediate escape from the studio.

The rear sleeve pictures on Heavy Friends bear this out. The best comparison would be a 60s heavy rock version of the pictures from Black Tie gatherings in those strange society magazines that pop up in hairdressers and doctor’s waiting rooms. Lord Sutch with a smirking Jeff Beck! Lord Sutch with a very stoned-looking Noel Redding! Lord Sutch stood next to Jimmy Page, looking like he would rather be anywhere else! Sutch is generally pulling his Jack The Ripper ‘arrrrrgh’ face. The only person who looks pleased to be there is Nicky Hopkins, and even he has the slight look of a man eyeing up exits.

Sutch would briefly surf a new wave of notoriety off the back of Heavy Friends, but Page’s public disowning of the album both damaged Sutch’s rep and made it a true cult album. Sutch would continue to sporadically record and perform until he took his life in 1999, his legacy as a true British eccentric, pioneer of shock rock and as an early cross-platform media figure.

Were Sutch still around today, he’d likely be a mainstay of talking head TV shows and have been on Celebrity Big Brother at least once, not to mention wackily contesting the odd election. Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends was named in a 1998 BBC poll as the ‘worst album ever’. It isn’t, but it sort of is at the same time. It’s camp, it’s borderline unlistenable in places, but it’s also both quite endearing and a genuine garage rock curio. It’s an example of the 60s ‘Anything can happen’ ethos writ large, in this case, sloppily graffitied on the side of a huge Zeppelin. Lord Sutch, a man seemingly completely unaware that he wasn’t Elvis or Screaming Jay Hawkins should be spoken of, not quite in the same breath as Captain Beefheart, but definitely as that of true outsider artists like Tiny Tim, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, or R. Stevie Moore. As long as people were talking about him, he’d be ok with that.


❉ Martin Ruddock has written for ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, the ‘You And Who’ series, and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He lives in Bournemouth with a beautiful, very patient woman and teetering piles of records and nerd stuff. He loves writing, and may write something for you if you ask nicely.

❉ Martin Ruddock was recently a guest on Tim Worthington‘s podcast Looks Unfamiliar. You can find the episode here.

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