Apparently, the Grunty Man, that figure of childhood nightmares, has a song. It begins:
I grunt at the sun, I grunt at the moon, my grunts do not follow a tune.
I grunt at the stars, I grunt at the sky, my grunting makes household pets die.
One day in March 1967, the Grunty Man went into a recording studio. He was accompanied by a hand-picked gaggle of musicians who later became some of the biggest names in prog rock, including future members of Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Spooky Tooth. Also present was the youthful Gordon Sumner, now known to the world as ‘Stig’ [sic], who was drafted in for his ability to whine in a high-pitched caterwaul. I say they were hand-picked, but in fact the Grunty Man arranged for each muso to be plucked from their mundane doldrums by the Claw of Gack. It was an experience none of them ever forgot.
Eschewing the use of a producer or sound engineer, the Grunty Man barred and bolted the studio doors and whirled about in a grunting frenzy until all the musicians were suitably cowed. It would be unkind to state which of the ELP trio was so frightened that he hid in a cupboard and piddled in his loon pants until coaxed out with the promise of Garibaldi biscuits.
Ten thousand years old and covered in sores, the Grunty Man had recently started to use a guide dog. This dog, Alan, was some kind of beagle, and was hopelessly inadequate for its task. It was blind itself, in one eye, suffered from muscle spasms and liver failure, and harboured a doggy desire to take part in the space programme rather than have to drag around with the Grunty Man. It spent most of the recording session curled up inside Carl Palmer’s bass drum, dreaming of the stars.
The Grunty Man decided to call his one-off band Ruddiman’s Rudiments, after the Latin primer used by generations of schoolchildren. With such a name, he thought, he would not be dismissed merely as a grotesque grunting ogre from the earth’s primeval past, but as a somewhat more sophisticated being. Having a hit record would give him even more charisma, and his long-cherished desire to win social acceptance would be fulfilled. Perhaps he wanted too much.
Certainly the auspices were not good, as the band huddled in a corner of the studio quaking with terror, Alan snoozed, and no one bothered to locate the light switches. When little Sumner whimpered that they would need at least some light to work by, the Grunty Man unleashed great bellows of his sulphurous, phosphorescent breath. The studio was lit by a dim green mist which hung in the air, and the band stumbled reluctantly to their positions.They ran through the music a few times, but never to the Grunty Man’s satisfaction.
“Less Herman’s Hermits! More Scriabin!” he shouted, and as they could not understand his grunts, he clawed the words onto the walls with his talons. But none of the band, not even the bombastically-inclined future Emerson Lake & Palmer, were familiar with the works of the Russian composer*, and they stuck to a toothsome sort of pop pap. The Grunty Man kept bellowing to maintain the phosphorescent light levels. Alan woke up briefly and savaged Carl Palmer’s piddle-stained loon pants. And then a janitor arrived.
Old Ted Cargpan’s intention was to throw the intruders out of the studio. In the event, he saved the situation. Completely calm in the face of the hideous Grunty Man, and contemptuous of the young musicians, he at once sized up the scene, set the tapes running, and put the whole lot of them through their paces. Even the Grunty Man deferred to the janitor, retreating to a spot up in the rafters and allowing the little Sumner boy to take on the lead vocal, while Alan the guide dog, refreshed after his nap, howled backing.The instrumentalists, too, seemed energised by the crusty old janitor’s presence, Greg Lake in particular demonstrating the sort of skills that would, in a few years time, make Brain Salad Surgery such a millstone. Sorry, I meant to type ‘milestone’.
The track finished, Old Ted Cargpan sent the musicians packing and brought the Grunty Man down from his perch near the ceiling to record the B-side, a duet with Alan the guide dog. The Grunty Man grunted, Alan slobbered, and the janitor moulded their din into a majestic three minute miniature rock opera, subsequently plagiarised by everybody from Ultravox to swan-eating Peter Maxwell Davies.
So whatever happened to the recordings? Some say that the adult Gordon Sumner, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice but still, as a middle-aged man, calling himself ‘Stig’, opposed any reissue of the disc and even had the master tapes destroyed. Another rumour has it that Alan the guide dog somehow managed, in 1977, to get himself blasted towards Saturn on a space rocket, and took the tapes with him. The Grunty Man himself remains silent on the subject, merely grunting horribly in his cave, or next to his pond, haunting the nightmares of tiny children, tuneless once more, and resigned to his immortal fate.
* NOTE : Much of the work of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was written for piano. This is surprising when one considers how tiny his hands were. Indeed, there were two occasions during his short, fraught life when he injured them while relentlessly practising piano pieces which called for hands larger than his own.
Tiny his hands may have been, but this puny neurasthenic Russian cultivated a pair of decisive mustachios.
Among his orchestral works, the Poem of Ecstasy, opus 54, is a supremely bonkers piece which, long before Spinal Tap, goes up to eleven. One critic imagined he was hearing a graphic portrayal of the players all having sex with each other. Another refers to the “malignant sneers from muted trombones… was music ever more evil-sounding”?
Not everyone appreciated Scriabin at the time, of course. The man who was chosen to conduct the premiere of his Second Symphony complained “After Scriabin, Wagner lisps sweetly like a suckling babe. I think that I will go mad any moment now. Where can one hide from such music? Help me!”
My favourite Scriabin piece is the Mysterium. This was designed as a total art work, involving an orchestra, dance, light, and exotic perfumes, to be performed in the Himalayas, its playing ushering in Armageddon. Mysterium would be “a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world” and the emergence of a Nietzschean Superman. Whether this Superman would have tiny little hands and decisive mustachios we do not know, for Scriabin succumbed to septicemia when the composition was barely begun. It thus has a place in the museum of lost or non-existent works of art, about which I shall write more soon.
[Previously posted in 2006.]