The Hunting of the Snark
There’s a long history of art imitating art—a cycle of meta-replication. Led Zeppelin sang about hobbits and the dangers of Mordor; a series of video games have been created based upon fanciful song titles by Queen: “The March of the Black Queen” and “Let us Cling Together.” Sometimes it goes the other way around, as the Smiths-inspired novel, Girlfriend in a Coma exemplifies. There have been countless musicals based on books and comics (Spider-Man and Wicked spring to mind). The tradition is there, so why not adapt Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” and put it to music? Because Lewis Carroll was arguably a crazy person who liked to insert arguments about math into his literature? Because he himself did not understand his own poem?
After all, the original verse, written in 1874, is nonsense, loosely connected to Through the Looking Glass, and is about, well, the hunting of a snark. What is a snark? Good question. Is one of the main characters a beaver who has a grudge against a butcher? Excellent observation. What does the poem mean? No idea. How would you turn that into a musical? Well, you wouldn’t.
Psh. Mike Batt decided that the challenge was right up his alley. Back in 1986, Batt put together The Hunting of the Snark as a musical with hit makers of the time—including George Harrison, Roger Daltrey, Simon & Garfunkel, and others [and Billy Connolly! -Jon, because I have to add editorial comments in all Mike’s articles]. He’s returning to the stage in Glastonbury this year, but also re-releasing the album version of The Hunting of the Snark. Thank you, Mike Batt.
One part rock opera and one part classic musical extravaganza, with some Abbey Road and even some Vincent Price thrown in—listen to the end of “Children of the Sky”—and more guest star heavy-weights than anyone has seen in a musical adaptation since, well, forever, this is the kind of album that makes an impression on the listener. It’s a treat of a concept album. To hear one of the Beatles on the same album with The Garfunkel and one of The Who is, basically, divine.
There are some albums that simply don’t work as well when dissected and talked about individually. They contain songs that only when combined with their neighbors lock into place. Sure, you can listen to them separately and they even kind of work, but that’s not how it’s meant to happen. There’s no point in listening, in isolation, to the frenzied, nine-minute track “The Escapade,” which starts with a beautiful string number, segues into a lovely soprano aria, then becomes a triumphant horn section (that feels like a chase, even if it isn’t), and ends with a delicious recitation of the poem. Well, there is a point, because it’s a fantastic bit of entertainment, but it’s like cutting out the Sicily section of The Godfather and watching it by itself. Yeah, it works, but it’s so much better with the rest of the family.
This is a diverse album—and how can a musical depiction of Snark be anything but? There are gentle ballads with power chords in the background and operatic choirs. It’s all over the place, and not in a bad way; there’s still cohesion and a tight method to the madness. There’s a kind of lush extravagance in how the music ebbs and flows, sometimes breaking into Price-esque monologueing of the source material. None of the members of Pink Floyd participated in making this album, but some sections could be set into Dark Side of the Moon with hardly a misstep. Musical lovers will devour this album. Rock fans will consume it just as readily. Trippy concept people with a hankering for the sometimes-weird will not be disappointed. You’ll get no complaints, only a faint beating of your heart into your brain stem and a desire to see The Hunting of the Snark in 1980s opulence on stage. And maybe the desire to press play again and again and again.
You’ll most certainly want to know what a Snark is, that’s for sure.
—Michael Tager (Baltimore, MD)
[Ed: Eep! Mike became a Matt. Now he is Mike again. Our Ms. Steak.]