ONE OF the last wishes Charlie Peace made before being hanged was that his name would never be mentioned again.
It was a wish that would never be fulfilled.
Since his execution more than 133 years a go, Charlie Peace has been made into a comic strip, a documentary film, several books, novels, a Sherlock Holmes story and now – his latest incarnation – a sci-fi film score by musical psychedelic / electro duo I Monster and lyricist / writer Mick Somerset, working under the collaborative title The Charlie Peace Project.
Sheffield’s most notorious criminal must be turning in his very short grave. He was only 5ft 3 ins.
But even Peace must have known that his life had fictional allure. The son of a one-legged lion tamer, vagabond Peace was variously a watch repair man, animal trainer, cat burglar, musician, murderer, master of disguise and – for a while – England’s most wanted criminal, stopping at nothing to line his pockets.
And it was this that drew the trio to use his life as the narrative basis for an album.
Sat in Dean Honer’s Nether Edge home-cum-studio, Somerset explains what the album’s about. “At the moment we’re getting towards a film script and ideally it would be a full musical film but it appeals as an album as well.”
The plot for the I Monster album is based on a battle between children, alien Norsemen from South Yorkshire and Peace to find the treasure the notorious villain buried before being hanged.
“The treasure is a box of imagination, which is the most valuable thing in the world and it’s what Peace wants as this would give him super powers.”
To lure the children into telling him where the treasure is, Peace appears to them in their dreams as a ‘benevolent grandfather’ character.
Honer plays the track in which this scene is described. Musically it veers from creepy theatre to Sixties orange squash pop. Some parts are densely textured in instrumentation, others are eerily sparse.
Somerset narrates the twisted tale in a crisp storytelling voice – though one that’s much too sinister for Jackanory – while I Monster – Honer and Jarrod Gosling – have written a score which nods to Victorian music hall, Tom Waits and Sixties psychedelia.
And then there’s the Norsemen. “The South Yorkshire Norsemen left this planet and mutated millions of years ago and one of the songs is about them loading up the spacecraft for them to travel back to earth, to help the children. The aliens still follow Viking culture and worship all the old Gods,” says Somerset, to whom all this makes perfect sense.
At the moment the album is being finished at Honer’s Tardis-like studio, in which the I Monster and Ward have been working on another album, one of ‘cautionary tales’, which Somerset describes as ‘an album of strange tales of junior vampires, lonely tree houses and boys who turn yellow.”
And in keeping with the creepy Victorian vibe of the Peace film score, I Monster’s cautionary tales album illustrates stories with richly evocative music – a by-product of I Monster’s attention to visual detail. “I have a very visual mind,” says Gosling, “but the music is sympathetic to the stories. It’s very different from a normal pop album and would be nice if it was accompanied by a book.”
“You have to think across all media now,” he says. “Gone are the days when you can just get on Radio One, we were lucky to get on when we did but it’s even harder now.”
The cautionary-tales album is comparable to the likes of Tom Waits’ album Alice, which was made into a play.
“It’s very hard just to be a band now and put out pop albums. We’ve always just done our own thing and got on with it,” says Gosling.
And again, through a wall of speakers, wires, computer screens and buttons, Honer plays a snippet of the album.
“This track’s about a crimson kite, it was inspired by the colours I see in the sky when I’m walking my dog near Brincliffe Edge,” says Somerset.
The tale’s more sinister than that, however – it describes how a bright red kite seeks to trap and kidnap a young boy, teasing him then dragging him off the ground.
But it’s not all creepy. The Tree House is a heart-breaking tale.
Told from the tree house’s perspective, it describes how it came to life, to provide a haven for a young boy, but also how is came to be neglected during holidays and later, forever, after the boy was sent to fight in the Great War.
“We don’t really write love stories but I suppose the Tree House is a love story in a way,” says Gosling.
The album will be released this year, as will the Peace album. “We want to make that into a film as well,” says Somerset.
It’s fitting that this album and the Charles Peace score are being produced barely two miles from the site of Peace’s fateful crime.
At what is now an upmarket ceramics shop at Banner Cross, Peace murdered railway engineer Arthur Dyson, his neighbour and husband of Katherine Dyson, with whom Peace was besotted. He tried to woo her with trained parrots and pigeons but her rejection of him sent Peace into a fury.
Even now, from beyond the grave, that fury has been resurrected, amidst South Yorkshire aliens, children and a quest for imagination. If only Sheffield’s most famous cat burglar had a way of creaming off the royalties.