Agnellus Baldacchino offers an idiosyncratic survey of today’s High Church riffers
“Who are these like stars appearing
… Who are all this glorious band?”
MEMBERS OF FiF who have ever strayed near a Greenbelt festival will be painfully aware that the Devil has cornered the market in tunes. Few will be aware that Anglo-Catholicism has, in its latest phase, possessed its own “progressive” rock band, although progressive is hardly the word for an act founded on Percy Dearmer.
In the beginning (ca 1979) was Motörverdi, the Loudest Band in Christendom, the originators of antiphonal axework, the masters at centre chancel of transept concept albums, the act that, inspired by a mistaken belief that Deep Purple were an Episcopalian combo, themselves gave birth to groups as diverse as Judas Priest, Wayne County and the Electric Pews or, in the USA, evangelical heavy metal men Stryper (so called after St Paul’s ‘Oft in stripes’). Their album releases range from their first, ‘Vespers, performed in Westminster Cathedral as part of the Promenade Concerts’ widened scope, through If it ain’t loud it ain’t Lauds to the stunning live set No kip ’til compline. Few people doubt that the re-emergence of Led Zeppelin in 1994 in their Unledded MTV set and album No Quarter simply mimic Motörverdi’s ‘Unleavened’ set and latest release No Quieter. Dire Straits’ success with Brothers in Arms was originally a Motörverdi set at a national GSS festival whilst the Motörs’ album Vacant Living speaks for the X-Generation.
A less well-known fact about the High Church riffers is their undying loyalty to the admittedly embattled inner city parish of St Euthanasia and All Souls’, from whose festivals the three-man group is rarely absent. An essentially live band, and not unlike the Dreadful Grate in that respect, they would regularly accompany High Mass or lay down an anthem at matins. So dedicated to live performance were they that following their world tour and retreat in 1992 they declared the studio anathema, so that to this day not a single note of their music is on record. What remains is in the manner of Allegri’s Miserere: transcriptions from live performance that attempt to copy lead singer’s (or cantor, as Bozo Genuflex prefers to be known) curious strangled, incantatory yet metrical vocal style. Much music has thus been lost, including the fabled Music for Cathedral Refectories that so influenced Brian Eno, with the tracks Laudamus Tea and My cup overfloweth, or the less-lamented Put more beef in your Gerhard Berger, probably intended for the K-Tel Sic Transit Meals of Steel II driving compilation.
Motörverdi have not been without their difficulties. Opponents of Ritualism brought Genuflex to trial for “illegal manual acts” during his stage performance. Founded in Prayer Book tradition (Genuflex still speaks in a sub-Cranmerian form of English, believing that “it bloweth where it listeth” refers to the Melody Maker album charts), the band split in 1992 over proposals to introduce a girl lead singer. Genuflex broke away to a solo career with Ex Cathedra whilst guitarist Lem Cotta and drummer Kaspar Krypton (“verily were we three”, explains Genuflex) struggled on: “as for our harps, we hanged them up” (Ps 137:2 – Authorised Version, of course). Only in 1995 did they re-form (a difficult spelling this, since the band always claimed to be Catholic and Reformed), announcing the event at a press conference during which sundry rock journalists were obliged to attend live Terce. “Praise Him upon the well-tuned cymbals” declared Krypton, “praise him upon the loud cymbals” (Ps 150:5). “Sing praises upon a ten-stringed lute” (Ps 144) added Cotta. “The dead praise not thee … neither all they that go down into silence” (Ps 115:17). No doubt next All Souls’ Day will still see them giving out at top volume their requiem classic cover of Dylan’s In my time of dying.
Agnellus Baldacchino, is rector of St. Decibelle, Abbey Road, in the diocese of London, and a regular contributor on rock music to ‘Faith and Heritage’ the quarterly magazine of the Prayer Book Society