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Music

From Bob Dylan to Nick Cave: The five greatest songs about Jack the Ripper

@SamWKemp

For better or worse, Jack The Ripper continues to haunt our imaginations. If your visit East London today, you’ll find countless cape-clad guides offering grisly tours of the once smog-veiled streets where Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were murdered – names that are, rather shamefully, far less known than the unidentified killer.

It is precisely because he was never identified that Ripper’s name continues to cast such a shadow over London’s criminal history; well, that and the brutal nature of his crimes. The Ripper is typically associated with the murders of five female prostitutes in the Whitechapel Slums in the late 1880s.

The victims were ascribed to the same killer because they all died in the same way. After having their throats cut, their internal abdominal organs were mutilated and, in certain cases, removed. For the Victorians, this was shocking because it implied that their killer was not an impoverished slum dweller but a member of the upper classes with enough anatomical or surgical knowledge to remove his victim’s organs.

The name Jack the Ripper was first used in a letter penned by an individual claiming to be the murderer. While it is widely believed to have been a hoax written by a journalist to heighten interest in the story, the name stuck and became synonymous with the dark underbelly of British urban life. Here, we’ve put together a list of five songs about the infamous Ripper. Keep you’re gas lamps lit.

The five greatest songs about Jack the Ripper:

‘Tombstone Blues’ – Bob Dylan

Featured on his first electric album Highway 61 Revisited, ‘Tombstone Blues’ sees Bob Dylan allude to all manner of characters, from John The Baptist and Beethhovan to Ma Raney and Jack the Ripper: “A bald wig for Jack the Ripper, who sits / At the head of the Chamber of Commerce.”

In actuality, ‘Tombstone Blues’ is less a song about Jack the Ripper than a faintly surreal portrait of America during the Vietnam conflict. Here, biblical and historical figures such as the titular Ripper come to symbolise the politicians and popular personalities of the day, allowing Dylan to craft a scathing critique intricately bound to the period in which it was written.

‘Jack The Ripper’ – The Horrors

The Horrors’ reimagination of Clarence Stacy’s 1961 classic proves that the English goth rockers were well ahead of their time. With its churning bassline and half-screamed vocals, this particular offering – originally popularised by Screaming Lord Sutch in 1963 – foreshadows the accelerated post-punk sound of groups like TV Preist and IDLES.

That original Screaming Lord Sutch recording deserves an honourable mention as well. Released as a seven-inch single in the UK and Germany in 1963, it was immediately banned by the BBC on release. Seeing the Raving Loony Party founder perform the track live in 1964, it’s easy to see why. Lord Sutch, dressed in a long coat, top hat and ghoulish makeup, slinks through the cloud with his grimy teeth bared, striking fear into the swathes of teenage girls who have come to watch him in action. For 1964, it’s incredibly provocative. You could even call it visionary.

‘Killer on The Loose’ – Thin Lizzy

Written by Phil Lynott with the set intention of causing controversy, Thin Lizzy’s 1980 single ‘Killer on The Loose’ saw the group make constant reference to the infamous “lady killer” Jack the Ripper when there was a real-life serial killer on the loose.

‘Killer on The Loose’ was released on Vertigo in September 1979, shortly after the Yorkshire Ripper murdered two young women. Peter Sutcliffe’s first documented murder was of the prostitute Wilma McCann on October 30th 1975. He would murder twelve more women before he was eventually arrested by chance in January 1981 in the company of a Sheffield prostitute. It’s important to remember that, unlike Jack The Ripper, Sutcliffe did not only target sex workers. Josephine Whitaker, who was murdered in 1979, was a building society clerk, and 20-year-old Barbara Leach was a university student. It all makes you wonder if Thin Lizzy’s decision to release ‘Killer on The Loose’ was, oh, I don’t know, a little tasteless. Just wait until you see the video.

‘Unsolved Mysteries’ – Animal Collective

Something a little softer now: Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam cut ‘Unsolved Mysteries’. This track features some of the most delightfully ambiguous lyrics ever put to paper, but one possible interpretation is that the song is an exploration of the transition from youth to adulthood.

From this standpoint, Animal Collective can be seen to use the image of Jack the Ripper to highlight the gulf between those two poles of human experience. “And what a surprise,” they sing, “To look in those eyes /And find suddenly/ He is Jack the Ripper/ Too suddenly, he was Jack the Ripper.”

‘Jack The Ripper’ – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

Taken from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ 1992 album Henry’s Dream, Jack The Ripper features one of the most interesting uses of the infamous serial killer. Here, Cave paints a portrait of a couple paralysed by domesticity. Hinting toward the possibility that the speaker is in the throes of a toxic relationship, Cave sings: “She rules my house with an iron fist / She screams out Jack the Ripper / Every time I try to give that girl a kiss.”

Speaking from the perspective of this tortured character, Cave conjures up a hallucinatory world in which the speaker’s mental state rapidly declines until it seems entirely possible that he might indeed take up the grisly mantle of Jack the Ripper. And with that image, Cave – ever the artful storyteller – leaves us.