|John Harle & Marc Almond pose in front of the Oppenheim/Schroeter Memorial in Nunhead Cemetery|
When speaking of John Harle the composer and saxophonist it is obligatory to mention that he wrote the theme tune to ‘Silent Witness’. Marc Almond presumably needs no further introduction. Their collaboration on the song cycle of Dark London was two years in the gestation with Harle responsible for the music and Almond for the lyrics. Folk songs, nursery rhymes, jazz, modern classical, penny dreadful, pantomime villains, progressive rock, music hall, John Dee, William Blake, murder and walking spirits ....the pair throw so much into the mix that it could have been a real mess, but somehow it works. The blend of tradition and modernity, past and present, fact and fiction works for me as the musical equivalent of a Peter Ackroyd novel, the soundtrack to ‘Hawksmoor’ or “Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem”. Fresh air is breathed into many a tired old trope including the Ripper murders, Ratcliffe Highway, Spring Heeled Jack, and the Tyburn Tree. It could have one long cliché but Harle’s music is sufficiently atmospheric and Almond is on fine form doing what he always does best, going manically and magnificently over the top. They have created their own bit of alchemy turning dross into gold; this is a fine record.
The record does have its rickety moments – Almonds theatricality at times takes the whole thing dangerously close to sounding like ‘Tyburn Tree The Musical’ as performed by the cast of the London Dungeon. I can’t get on with Sarah Leonard’s painful shrieking of words by John Dee on ‘Dark Angel’ and ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ is just a bit silly with Almond’s atrocious cockney accent and Harle’s rather obvious musical punning (a selection of boings for the springs in the heels of Jack). The lyrics of ‘The Vampire of Highgate’ are trite ('Red eyes peer from the gloom/of a freshly opened tomb) but if you had to pick one track that stood any chance of making it into the charts this would probably be it; disturbingly catchy as it is. Iain Sinclair is allowed one track to solemnly recycle Yeats tag that ‘the living can assist the imagination of the dead’ and to hypnotically invoke the spectres of Hawksmoor, Chatterton and Blake but the musical accompaniment adds nothing to the poets mesmerising delivery. But the flaws are forgivable, perhaps they even add to the charm.
There are plenty of high points; the bleak opener ‘The Tyburn Tree’, ‘Black Widow’, the reprise on Tom Pickard’s and Harle’s ‘City Solstice - A Song For London Bridge’ in ‘My Fair Lady’ and perhaps best of all the final track where Blake’s brilliant lines ‘To the Jews’ from his epic poem ‘Jerusalem’ are set stirringly by Harle and belted out with great aplomb by Almond. ‘Ratcliffe Highway’, forever synonymous of course with the infamous murders of 1811, demonstrates best how Almond takes other people material and rewrites it as magnificent melodrama. The song dates from roughly the 1820’s; three London publishers issued broadsheet versions of it before 1830 with the title ‘Rolling Down Wapping’. The ballad made it into the ‘Penguin Book of English Folk Songs’ edited by Vaughn Williams and relates the story of a sailor strolling around the East End who “chanced to pop into a gin shop” where a young doxy relieves him of a guinea for a bottle of mother’s ruin. When he asks for his change he gets nothing more than a verse of her song and a telling off for his uncouth behaviour. The cheated sailor spots a chance to get even when he sees
A gold watch hung over the mantel, so the change of my guinea I take,
And it's down the old stairs I run nimbly, saying: “Darn my old boots, I'm well paid”
He escapes across the river to his ship at Deptford from where he warns “all of you bold young sailors, that ramble down Ratcliffe Highway” to beware the consequences of staying overlong in a gin shop; which despite all the fuss seem to be nothing worse than the prospect of being overcharged and short changed. In Almond’s rewritten version there is nothing so mundane as a stolen watch and a far more chilling denouement. The gin shop becomes a whore house and the cheating doxy gets much more than she bargained for:
Then I put my old knife to her white throat and for my change her life did I take
And down the stairs I run nimbly, saying "Damn my old boots I'm well paid
As does the young sailor, who finds that the killing has unleashed his murderous instinct:
And it seemed that the Devil within me had opened a dark doorway to hell
For the spirit of killing was in me and the others didn't live long to tell
The final lines of both versions are almost identical but where in the traditional version the expression ‘going to the devil’ means nothing more than the equivalent of ‘you can whistle for your money’, Almond’s version ends with a whiff of diablerie and a genuine frisson;
For the wine and the women invite you, and your heart will be all in a rage
If you give them a guinea for a tumble, you can go the Devil for your change
It may be pure melodrama but it works brilliantly well, transforming a trivial tale of petty criminality into a beggar’s opera of blood and thunder. I can't wait for 'Dark London; Volume 2.'
He steadies a second and then leaps down
To the heart of the rookery where hope is drowned
His eyes reflect the thin crescent moon like a
Candle light in a red brothel room