Jack be nimble, Jack be quick

in Music

The best music you have never heard in your life #2. Springheeled Jack by Mighty Ballistics Hi-Power.

Jack jump over the candlestick

Poisoners, invaders, the deformed, spirits, foreigners, vampires, rippers, the other, themselves. The Victorians loved a bogeyman. Gas lighting on public streets changed what could be glimpsed in the night. Real assault and horror found imitation in the fog equivalent of faces in the fire.

Fifty years before Jack the ripper wrote his letter from Hell, another partly bore the name during a lesser reign of terror; Springheeled Jack, the leaping marauder first reported in 1837. To be visited by Springheeled Jack was a considerably less fatal prospect then what would follow later in the century. He might loom up out of the gaslight in front of you, hypnotic red eyes flashing against his pale skin, slash your clothes then effortlessly jump over the ten foot wall behind you to continue his terrible endeavours. Certain encounters appeared thrilling in the reporting. Initially operating in London, Jack’s fame took him intermittently across the entire country over the few decades, reaching Glasgow, Aberdeen, before being rendered obsolete by his bloodthirsty replacement.

The large number of competing eyewitness descriptions of the character and his possibly supernatural abilities gives Springheeled Jack a modern malleability. Light on his feet but with enough Gothic to satisfy those seeking a shortcut to dark Victoriana, his name is increasingly invoked in musical sub-genres such as psychobilly and America ska/punk. In the interests of research I listened to fair number of these so you don’t have to. This adoption is a recent development however.

In 1986 the group Mighty Ballistics Hi Power (themselves malleable in name, sometimes MB Hi Power) had a well received mini album Here Come The Blues to their credit in addition to a growing reputation as live performers of some ability when they released their second and final recording The Matchless EP. Carrying on the group trademark of biting socialist lyrics married to a mixture of traditional song melodies and light reggae, the EP more than lived up to expectations, with John Peel giving airplay to the second track, Springheeled Jack. This is where I came in.

In the Ballistic’s world, Jack is both a rapist and a stand in for reckless or absent fathers. Set within a tuneful Lover’s Rock structure the verses tightly construct a chain leading from the tawdry eighties newspapers “preaching morals with more noose than news” where “the promise of sex has a hold of the system and no one wants to think they’re a potential victim” through to the end result, showing remarkable empathy for a pop lyric via concern for those “pulling a pram up ten flights of stairs”. Jack is the linking specter highlighting the ongoing presence of Victorian poverty and sexual abuse in the Eighties and, sadly, beyond.

Never released on CD or streaming platforms, the track can only be experienced by the casual listener in the form of the music video which is preserved in two locations on You Tube. One of these users has hosted the video for more than a decade, but there is no guarantee this account will exist in perpetuity. One click and this ghost could be laid to rest. Since the music cannot be experienced independently, familiarity with the video inexorably interweaves the images with the lyric. Cleverly introducing the consulting detective of Baker Street as the nemesis of Jack, via lifted Rathbone and Bruce cinema dialogue and a wonderfully lo-fi cut out, additional text cards give no doubt as to the subject matter being pursued. The band themselves perform enthusiastically and credibly to the track in the world’s filthiest East End warehouse, interspersed with cuts to Victoria and a curiously sunny interlude, at once at odds with the mood and reinforcing that this is an everyday, anytime, any location, scenario being spoken of.

I heard this song once, courtesy of John Peel, likely around June 1986 in a miserable tenement flat bedroom decorated with artex on the walls that would cut your arm if you rolled over in your sleep. It lived with me for thirty years, gradually decaying, before the internet stepped in to preserve all ephemera. In the comments section of the hosted video there are occasionally posts by family or friends of the band. Sometimes there is what seems to be a strong hint of an announcement of a re-issue programme, and then another five years before a different voice suggests the same thing. In a way I enjoy that this track, however deserving of a wider audience, still only exists in a fragile, non corporeal form, as insubstantial as the figure leaping away through the fog.