Obituary: Screaming Lord Sutch

Pierre Perrone
Saturday 19 June 1999 00:02 BST

THE BRITISH Isles have always been a breeding ground for eccentrics and Screaming Lord Sutch was perhaps the ultimate. The leader and founder of the Monster Raving Loony Party stood for so many elections (39) that he earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

A colourful character with his trademark lame top hat and leopardskin jacket festooned with rosettes and badges, Sutch remained a thorn in the side of the Establishment for over 35 years, even though some of the policies he advocated in the mid-Sixties (the right to vote at 18, the launch of local and commercial radio, all-day pub opening, passports for pets, knighthoods for the Beatles) were later adopted by the mainstream parties.

In death, Sutch has been lionised by politicians left, right and centre for his off-the-wall contribution to British politics. Yet, the crucial role he played as talent-spotter in the Sixties music scene must also be acknowledged. At one time or another, his backing band the Savages featured such illustrious musicians as Jeff Beck (later of the Yardbirds), Ritchie Blackmore (who subsequently formed Deep Purple and Rainbow), Matthew Fisher (of Procol Harum), the pianist Nicky Hopkins, Carlo Little (the drummer who famously turned down the Rolling Stones gig to stay with Sutch), Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding (who both went on to the Jimi Hendrix Experience), the actor Paul Nicholas and the comedian Freddie Starr.

Born plain David Edward Sutch in Kilburn, London, in 1940, the singer lost his policeman father in the Blitz when he was only 10 months old. Brought up by a devoted and resourceful mother, Sutch was an admirer of the entertainer Max Miller and an eager theatre-goer. "My mother used to take me to the Metropolitan Theatre in Edgware Road to see the big illusionist acts. I was intrigued and, from then on, I was always dressing up in magicians' cloaks and top hats. She also took me to Punch and Judy shows. I was so smitten, I made my own little horror puppets," Sutch said.

Having left school at 15, the young David ran a window-cleaning business for several years before being bitten by the rock'n'roll bug in the late Fifties. At the Two I's coffee bar in Soho, Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard were offering their own take on Elvis Presley and Sutch was hooked. But the singer wanted to go further than those performers and, in 1960, he formed the Raving Savages and adopted the name Screaming Lord Sutch.

According to Carlo Little, "Sutch got his name because he used to run up and down the Underground trains screaming. When he and his mates used to go out on Saturday night in the late Fifties, he used to be the life and soul of the party, and he always had on his top hat, which made him look a bit like a lord, by a stretch of the imagination."

Sutch, too, stole most of his hollering-horror act lock, stock and barrel from Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the American creator of "I Put a Spell on You", right down to the entrance out of a coffin, though he replaced the voodoo mumbo-jumbo of Hawkins with very British Jack-the-Ripper references.

Plagiarism notwithstanding, the Savages act, complete with axes and skulls, cage and loincloth, caused a storm on the London circuit and came to the attention of the producer Joe Meek, who hooked up with Sutch and, the following year, produced " 'Til the Following Night". Released on the HMV label, and originally called "Big Black Coffin" but toned down to get airplay, the track remains one of the best rock'n'roll records ever produced in Britain (the B-side, a version of Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly" wasn't bad either).

Unfortunately, even though the Savages toured extensively in Britain and continental Europe, the music was already secondary to Sutch's stunts. During "Jack the Ripper", the singer would stab the hapless pianists Nicky Hopkins or Freddie "Fingers" Lee (dressed as a prostitute) before flinging heart and liver (bought from the butchers) into the audience. As Paul Nicholas, an early member of the group, remarked, "With David Sutch being more theatrical, I was learning another aspect of the business."

Sutch had long hair (18 inches, sometimes dyed green) before anybody else, put a whole generation of British rockers through their paces - they later repaid the favour by backing him on the Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends and Hands of Jack the Ripper albums which made the US charts in the early Seventies - and inspired a host of long-forgotten imitators such as Frankenstein and the Monsters, Ray Satan and the Devils and Count Lindsay III and the Skeletons. But, even though he also made the front pages for eloping with a 16-year-old - inspiring the original "Would You Let This Boy Marry Your Daughter?" headline three years before the Rolling Stones - he still couldn't get a hit.

Frustrated at the lack of airplay for novelty titles such as "She's Fallen in Love with a Monsterman", "Monster in Black Tights" and "Dracula's Daughter", Sutch decided to launch another attack on the media. In 1963, taking advantage of John Profumo's resignation, he stood for the National Teenage Party - advocating the right to vote for 18-year-olds - in the subsequent by- election in Stratford-upon-Avon. He only won 209 votes and lost the first of many deposits, but a pattern was set for the next 35 years as Sutch and the Monster Raving Loony Party became a feature of every British election.

Policies and slogans were mostly fanciful - "Vote for insanity, you know it makes sense" - but the pricking of pomposity was real enough as Sutch hogged the limelight away from Harold Wilson and Denis Healey or, as in 1980, resigned the leadership of his party in favour of David Owen. Sutch's father and grandfather had been soapbox orators at Speakers' Corner and their descendant's flair for publicity would not have disappointed them.

On 27 May 1964, following the lead of Radio Caroline, Radio Sutch, set up in conjunction with manager Reg Calvert, began broadcasting from Shivering Sands Fort off the Essex Coast. The venture didn't cover a huge area and the pirate station became Radio City in September that year but Sutch had made his point about freedom of the airwaves.

The singer, who had claimed to be "the sixth Earl of Harrow" on a US trip, eventually added the "Lord" by deed poll in 1977. "I didn't see anything wrong with calling myself a lord. I later tried to change my name to Margaret Thatcher but I was told it would be too confusing if I was elected a Member of Parliament," he said.

Over the years, Screaming Lord Sutch claimed to have influenced the shock- rockers Arthur Brown, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, the Tubes and Marilyn Manson as well as the psychobilly sound of the Meteors (with whom he recorded in 1981), but he remained philosophical about his contribution. "A lot of people who've had two or three big records are completely forgotten," he said, "but I've still got a cult following." In fact, Sutch played Wembley Stadium in 1972 on a bill featuring Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard and gigged regularly well into the Nineties. "I still perform `I'm a Hog for You, Baby' with a toilet- seat and a pig-mask, and I dedicate it to whoever's in power," he declared.

In 1991, with Peter Chippindale, the singer wrote Life As Sutch: autobiography of a Monster Raving Loony, and, in 1995, after avoiding bankruptcy, released a new single, "I'm Still Raving". Patriotic to the hilt - in 1970, he posed next to a Union Jack Rolls on the cover of the Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends album - Sutch drank up to 20 cups of tea a day and held victory parties and concerts the night before polling day to avoid disappointment at inevitably losing yet another deposit.

However, the death two years ago of his mother, to whom he was devoted (rather than divulge his stage antics Sutch had even kept the pretence of his window-cleaning job in the early Sixties), greatly affected him, and he is believed to have taken his own life.

British voters' apathy at last week's European elections may have had something to do with Sutch's absence from the ballot paper. "If more people don't vote, I will claim victory," he would say. He once bet pounds 5 at odds of 15 million to one that he would become Prime Minister.

Screaming Lord Sutch was fond of saying he stood "for the four Rs: reading, writing and rock'n'roll. There's always a serious message through a bit of fun!"

David Edward Sutch, singer and entertainer: born London 10 November 1940; adopted the forename Lord by deed poll 1977; (one son by Thann Quantrill); died Harrow, Middlesex 16 June 1999.

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