The Jazz Butcher: The Human Jungle
‘The Human Jungle’ doesn’t in fact allude to a film, but to a British TV series from 1963-1965 based around the casebook of a fictional psychiatrist, Dr Corder, played by Herbert Lom. I’ve never seen it, but suspect that doing so wouldn’t massively change my appreciation of the song. Mark Duguid writes that the case studies were ‘convincingly rounded and often bold’: ‘including a suicidal stripper, a young couple suffocated by their families’ love, and a schoolteacher punishing herself for a long-repressed crush on a pupil’ (BFI Screenonline). Here are the opening credits.
Pat Fish’s song takes the title as its starting point:
The Human Jungle starring Herbert Lom was never this much fun
And I’m ready to swear to that
The room is swaying like a boat
But I’m still afloat and that’s a matter of fact.
— all this suggests the connection between song and TV show is that our singer’s world is populated by mad people, and reliable reference points are few and far between. Musically it’s subtle and stylish. It emerges from the same laid-back faux-jazz sound that gave us ‘Partytime’, but there’s a lot more going on. But don’t believe me: listen. And listen, in particular, to the extended version.
Musically there’s an intriguing similarity to ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, but in a way that feels like an allusion rather than a theft: it’s there in the rhythm that Owen taps out on the hi-hat, in the sliding bass line, even in the rhythm of the vocal line. There’s a feeling of familiarity about it, but nothing that should have got Lou Reed’s copyright lawyers excited. Having that allusion further populates the song’s world with Reed’s New York transvestites and transexuals, without the lyrics having the mention them.
The lyrics are more abstract than any Jazz Butcher song I’ve written about so far.
I’m a camera, I’m a clown
And every move you make, I write it down
I know all about your house, I know all about your mouth
I know when I’ve got to leave your town
No sooner has the allusion to Christopher Isherwood come out — with further suggestions of decadence, inter-war and Berlin-based this time — and the possibility that Pat’s being just a bit too literary, than it’s qualified by ‘I’m a clown’. And similarly with the stalkerish suggestions about knowing all about her (presumably) house and mouth: no sooner is that uttered than he realises he’s overstepped the mark and will have to escape.
Musically there’s a lot going on: vocals and guitars are carrying melodies, but they’re also interacting rhythmically. There are subtle things: the four note guitar phrase that comes in at about 4.24: the first three repeats are based on one rhythm, but the fourth and final one varies it subtly to avoid monotony. And in the long version, the final minute or so of playout has a really joyful exuberance to it, Felix the bassist playing high notes, other instruments risking discords. I didn’t see the band in this incarnation, but this recording gives the impression that they were tight enough and confident enough to improvise. There’s nothing quite like this on a Jazz Butcher studio recording until Condition Blue in 1992, by which time the band’s sound had changed dramatically.
There’s also a video of a live version performed on German TV, from the AlabamaHalle in Munich, in November 1985. The sound quality is excellent; the band look entirely at their ease, even if musically they don’t stray far from the studio version: