The Mark Is Upon Them! The Musical Legacy Of Witchfinder General

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Witchfinder General. But in a world still characterised by corruption and violence, did we learn nothing from its warnings? Sean McGeady traces the film’s musical legacy and asks what keeps us coming back to it.

Listen to a Witchfinder General Spotify playlist here

With law and order long gone rotten and paranoia spreading, conditions are ripe for men of power to abuse their positions and make a tidy profit. This isn’t (just) 2019 we’re talking about though, but the 17th-century Britain portrayed in cult 1968 film Witchfinder General. Based on the Ronald Bassett novel of the same name and the real-life actions of Matthew Hopkins, whose persecutions were a real and terrifying element of East Anglian witch trials of the mid-17th Century, Witchfinder General is part horror, part heritage film, part English western. Director Michael Reeves died of a drug overdose fifty years ago this week, on 11th February 1969, and it’s not just in the enduring political message that the legacy of his film continues to be felt. In the 50 years since its release, Witchfinder General has inspired anything from folk, funk and punk to doom metal, from recordings rooted in Hopkin’s home counties to those of far-flung Europe and North and South America.

The most unlikely musical interpretation of Witchfinder General was also the first. Carl Douglas achieved immortality with his 1974 chart-topper ‘Kung Fu Fighting’. But after kicking off with his ode to martial arts, the Jamaican’s debut album Kung Fu Fighting and Other Great Love Songs slips into something weirder. “Witchfinder General," belt the backing vocalists. “Ah-hah, gives everyone a fright," responds Douglas. “This man’s, hah, really outta sight." If ever there was dissonance to be found between art and its subject, this was it – the disco-strut soul of Carl Douglas couldn’t be further from the troubled soul of Michael Reeves.

Stourbridge band Witchfinder General took a more obvious route to the essence of the film. The NWOBHM act didn’t just claim the name of the contentious picture, they looked the part too. The never-more-70s cover of their 1979 debut album Death Penalty features scantily-clad centrefold Joanne Latham being molested outside a church by the band, who are sporting Cromwellian garb. If controversy was the aim, it worked: tabloids condemned the group. What would Reeves have made of such a schlocky appropriation of his anti-violence message?

Witchfinder General’s eponymous anthem is a British metal benchmark. This wasn’t lost on fans Lee Dorrian, Mark Griffiths and Garry Jennings, who recorded ‘Hopkins (The Witchfinder General)’ for Cathedral’s 1995 album The Carnival Bizarre. Stuffed with samples, it would also get a theatrical video directed by Nigel Wingrove, founder of Redemption Films, a distribution company that specialised in obscure erotica and horror, and was the first to issue Witchfinder on home video.

Dorrian’s contribution wouldn’t end here. His label Rise Above Records would later sign like-minded act Electric Wizard. Dorset’s doom-metal misanthropes released their third LP Dopethrone in 2000, featuring the song ‘I, Witchfinder’, based on the pin-wielding Albino from 1970’s Mark Of The Devil, a German derivative of Witchfinder.

The word of Reeves made it beyond Germany. Metal Killers Kollection Volume II was released in 1986 and made an impact on a few impressionable Finns. The compilation LP featured Witchfinder’s ‘Friends of Hell’, the title track from their second effort, and boasted the album’s graphic artwork in its gatefold. “There was an essence of terror and taboo for us," says Albert Witchfinder, founding member of Finnish doom group Reverend Bizarre. “We thought ‘Friends of Hell’ had something genuinely sinister to it. It was exciting." Albert Witchfinder is the moniker of Sami Hynninen, adopted in homage to the British outfit, which he discovered two years before he first read about Reeves’ film. Reverend Bizarre’s clearest connection to Witchfinder is 2007’s II: Crush the Insects, which boasts a Roundhead scene on its cover, as well as the track ‘Cromwell’. The Lord Protector of the English Commonwealth is a prominent ancillary figure in the story of Hopkins – he at the very least turned a blind eye to the sadist’s actions and possibly sanctioned them.

As the founder of English Heretic, Andy Sharp makes music that explores England’s arcane past by calling attention to its unremembered stories. The tale of Reeves, a promising film-maker buried in an unadorned Suffolk grave, was one worth telling. “It was kind of a rapport," says Sharp of the moment he learnt that Reeves’ burial plot was so close to his home. He began visiting and documenting his impressions in what he calls “creative seances". His graveside field recordings would form part of 2005’s Temple of Remembrance. The EP boasts samples from the film combined with electronic melodies and magickal spells. “It was meant to be a commemoration of Reeves, done to achieve empathy with this tragic figure," says Sharp. “The samples were there to awaken him." That same year, he released Sacred Geography Of British Cinema, an LP set to the horrifying first scene of Reeves’ final film, which sees an accused witch dragged through her village and hanged on a nearby hill. The best way to summon its spirit? To record there. The album contains field recordings from Kersey as well as music produced there – but not in a local studio. “I was literally just sat in the field playing a tambourine and a Korg synthesiser," says Sharp. “It’s the same as it was in the 1960s."

Sharp’s weird-folk soundscapes are imbued with an uncanny quality that captures the power of the landscape in Reeves’ picture. But the best encapsulation of its nihilism would come from further afield.

Detroit’s Acid Witch kick out doom-metal grooves inspired by broomsticks, Samhain and Satanism. With comical tracks such as ‘Metal Movie Marijuana Massacre Meltdown’, horror iconography is a big part of the band’s image. However, just as Reeves’ realist nightmare is an antidote to the more spectacular westerns and horror films that would follow, Acid Witch’s song on the subject hits a sobering note.

The band’s 2010 release Stoned features the track ‘Witchfynder Finder’. Told from the perspective of a Richard Marshall-type character whose betrothed is raped and tortured by Hopkins, it details the soldier’s oath to take revenge. For all their brute-metal bravado and genre-film revelry, Acid Witch get closer than most to the core of what Reeves’ moral-horror is all about. The track’s protagonist is described as “destitute and surely deranged", driven mad by vengeance. Lines such as, “I’ll bash [Hopkins’] fucking skull in and scalp him with my knife" are not subtle but capture the tragic animalism that Reeves suggests lives in us all.

Savagery features in the music of Uncle Acid too. Like Electric Wizard, the Cambridgeshire band were signed by Dorrian’s Rise Above label and delight in transgressive cinema. Their 2011 album Blood Lust is an homage to cult film, inspired by frontman Kevin Starrs’ discovery of the witch-hunter, as discussed in his Baker’s Dozen here. The album’s artwork features a cutout taken from one of the many Mark of the Devil posters. It kicks off with ‘I’ll Cut You Down’ and the lines, “I was born a bitter man, no hopes or dreams / I get my kicks from torturing and screams". Second track ‘Death’s Door’ contains the chorus, “I’ll hang you higher than before / I’ll leave you lying at death’s door".

Not long after Blood Lust’s release, nearby, another Kevin was taking stock of his surroundings. After discovering that many of Hopkins’ atrocities occurred on his doorstep in Mistley, folk-singer Kevin Pearce wrote a record loosely based on the witchfinder’s actions. Released in 2013, Matthew Hopkins and the Wormhole is a collection of contemporary folk songs set among the pastoral villages of Essex. The wormhole acts as a framing device through which Pearce compares the politics of 17th-century England to those of the present. “Hopkins used scapegoating for leverage," says Pearce. “If you took a portal from the 1600s to today, you’d see that a lot of things have changed: technology, science, etc. But where power lies, where people’s gain structures lie, they haven’t." The singer-songwriter likens the abuses of privilege during the English Civil War to those of our modern leaders. In the same way that the Church ignored Hopkins’ barbarity, Pearce thinks our rulers do the same. “You can always follow the money," he says. “The British government aren’t going to pull their arms trade with Saudi Arabia; it’s worth too much. It’s a similar thing."

It’s the most recent interpretation of Witchfinder that has the greatest contemporary resonance. Texas retro-doom outfit Witchcryer may be a 1970s throwback sonically, but they approach the film through a decidedly modern, non-male perspective. Vocalist Suzy Brazo first discovered Witchfinder (the band) when she was in her twenties and was turned off by the misogynist artwork. It would be years before she was able enjoy the riffs. Today, Witchcryer’s live performances of ‘Witchfinder General’ are a reclamation of the film for women. “A lot of bands take on these personas and I’m kind of mocking them," says Bravo. “When I’m performing this song, sometimes I’ll grab the microphone cord and act like I’m about to hang a woman in the audience. I’ll stick the stand in a guy’s face and laugh at him. They seem to enjoy it."

Witchcryer’s cover of ‘Witchfinder General’ appears on their 2017 debut. Its title, Cry Witch, suggests that if you continually shriek about witches eventually one might catch up with you, and its cheeky artwork sees a woman in black carrying a blood-slicked scythe, a witchfinder’s hat at her feet. “It’s a big ‘fuck you,’" says Bravo. “‘I’m taking this song back.’"

Like Pearce, Bravo sees the issues explored in the 1968 film, ostensibly about 1600s England, in contemporary society. “It’s obvious lately with those in power," she says. “With these witchfinders, there’s always a scapegoat. They turn people against each other and that polarisation causes hysteria and fear. It’s a never-ending story." It seems then that there will always be a place on screen and on wax for Witchfinder General – and it’s this gloom that Bravo and others look to harness through music. “Darkness is always appealing," she says. “We try to tap into a primal place inside us that, day to day, we’re not allowed to access. Metal and horror give us a chance to do that. I think it’s healthy to be able to explore that creatively. If we didn’t do that once in a while, the world would be a little too dark."

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today