There are films that you might expect to inspire pop culture references for years to come, but Michael Reeves’ grim 1968 movie Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price, is not really one of them. Yet a surprising amount of musical turns have been inspired to sing about real life witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, all inspired by the movie.
The earliest, and without a shadow of a doubt the best, appeared as a single in 1968, and is in fact an unused theme song for the film – written by Tony Hillier (creator of Eurovision winners the Brotherhood of Man) and Jerry Langley, arranged by the mighty Cy Payne and performed with gusto by David Brooks, it makes more sense as a theme song than you might initially think, if you are prepared to see Witchfinder General as a British western. But while western themes usually sang the praises of a solid hero, here it is about a “devil man filled with hate” an who “robbed and burned”. In the end, common sense prevailed and the song was not included on the film. But it’s a cracking tune, and you won’t be able to get it out of your head for days after listening to it.
Seven years later, and Carl Douglas, having already tapped into the pop culture zeitgeist with Kung Fu Fighting, revived the spirit of Hopkins with his song Witchfinder General, a funked up retelling of the story that includes the unforgettable lyrics “he had a thing about burning witches / some of these were mighty fine bitches”. This was probably not, in retrospect, the song that would change Douglas’ one hit wonder status.
If these pop songs seem somewhat curious in subject matter, then the appeal of Hopkins to metal bands is a bit more obvious. Saxon – the second division NWOBHM band who had a long fascination with history, included the song Witchfinder General on their 2004 album Lionheart. It’s not, frankly, their best work.
The Saxon song is a somewhat restrained affair compared to Cathedral’s Hopkins (Witchfinder General), taken from their 1995 album The Carnival Bizarre. This song comes complete with a hilarious video directed by Redemption Films head and sometime Reprobate contributor Nigel Wingrove, featuring his regular muse Eileen Daly and lead singer Lee Dorrian dancing in eccentric fashion.
Finally, we can’t leave without mentioning early Eighties stoner metal band Witchfinder General, who were never very good, but did have splendidly lurid LP covers featuring a topless Joanne Latham, and not only took their name from the film, but also penned a song of the same name.
What Matthew Hopkins would make of these musical ‘tributes’ is anyone’s guess – he’d probably have everyone involved burned at the stake. But the fact remains that he is one of the more unlikely pop music icons of the 20th century.