In the late 1980s and early 90s, a trio of musicians could be heard busking on street corners in north London and elsewhere, marked in particular by the extraordinary voice of growling falsetto accordionist Martyn Jacques, a man described the eccentric theatre performer and writer Ken Campbell as the Criminal Castrato. One reason perhaps is because many of the band’s song centre upon the macabre, immoral and violent.
With their name based on a Soho prostitute who used to wear animal print, their style is a Brechtian punk cabaret, full of lyrics that are never afraid to offend, and often related to murder. This song, from their first album of 1994 – Births, Marriages and Deaths – is typical, and describes a murderous boatman picking up bodies, presumably from the Thames in times past, and laughing. Uniquely their own style and away from any trends, the trio nevertheless found huge success in 1998 when they wrote music for and performed in the opera Shockheaded Peter, based on the fairy tale. But for, following Nick Cave’s song from The Boatman’s Call, an artist also no stranger to singing about murder and the macabre, now let’s hear the Boatman, and get a glimpse of his perspective:
The boatman he sits on his boat by the river
Another grey corpse he pulls out before dinner
Another sad life, another sad time
And he laughs …
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