“Rock and roll doesn’t necessarily mean a band. It doesn’t mean a singer, and it doesn’t mean a lyric, really. It’s that question of trying to be immortal” – Malcolm Mclaren
Sadly, cryptozoological status, while it conveys a certain air of mystery that can impress the ladies, makes it exceedingly difficult to get a record contract. This is doubly true if you are a marine monster. Plus, the freaking whales have managed to corner the niche markets of New Age music and sleep aids, which mind you, are not necessarily exclusive categories. Consequently, if your life is largely spent under the sea, career options in the music industry will likely be severely limited, particularly since video killed the radio star, and thus your characteristic elusiveness will prevent you from appearances on MTV or half-time show cameos. Your record sales will undoubtedly suffer, and the label will quickly drop you. That’s showbiz. In the end, if you are both a monster and a musical artist, your only viable option is to play to your strengths. Not your ability to rend the average human limb from limb, manipulate our consciousness, or usher in Armageddon. Your other strengths. That is, a certain haunting ethereality that defines your existence and is reflected in your vocal artistry. Like Björk. You may never reach the top of the pops, but odds are you can at least bask in the accolades of your peers and achieve a measure of critical acclaim while simultaneously avoiding capture. Consider if you will, the well documented 1867 A.D. underwater cryptid jam sessions off the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua. And rock on.
If it was 1867, and you happened to moor your iron-hulled ship offshore of the Caribbean coastal village of Greytown, Nicaragua (also known as San Juan de Nicaragua), you might have been one of the lucky few to catch the impromptu cryptid concerts that erupted when the sea monsters got the band back together. The trick was that only those fortunate sailors that braved the briny on the relatively new iron steamers (the first transatlantic iron-hulled steamers were only starting to ply the trade in the 1840’s) could hear it. Iron, man. That’s so metal. The quality of the music was best described by English artillery officer and geographer Samuel Pasfield Oliver as he accompanied Captain Bedford Clapperton Trevelyan Pim’s expedition of exploration to Central America.
On embarking on board the Danube steamer, lying at anchor in the roadstead off Greytown on the 12th May, 1867, I was informed that the ship was haunted by most curious noises at night since she had arrived, and that the superstitious black sailors were much frightened at what they thought must be a ghost. The captain and officers could make nothing of it, and it afforded a great matter for discussion. On inquiry I found out that other iron ships had been similarly affected. Curiously enough this noise was only heard at night, and at certain hours. Some attributed it to fish, suckers, turtle, etc., others to the change of tide or current; but no satisfactory conclusion could be arrived at. When night came on there was no mistake about the noise; it was quite loud enough to awaken me, and could be heard distinctly all over the ship. It was not dissimilar to the high monotone of an Aeolian harp, and the noise was evidently caused by the vibration of the plates of the iron hull, which could be sensibly perceived to vibrate. What caused this peculiar vibration? Not the change of current and tide, because, if so, it would be heard by day. Like everything else that we cannot explain, I suppose we must put it down to electricity, magnetism, etc. If this should meet the eye of any of the officers of the above-mentioned steamer, or others who have noticed this phenomenon, I should be glad to hear whether this effect still continues, or if any satisfactory conclusion has yet been arrived at. I may add that from the hold of the vessel the grunts of the toad-fish could be distinctly heard (Oliver, 1881, p372-373).
To this day, no adequate explanation for the Greytown music has been settled upon. A lively discussion transpired in the journal Nature as to the influences of the cryptid band, particularly when Captain Charles Dennehy of the good ship Shannon penned a review. You always hope for the cover of Rolling Stone, but you’ve got to take press where you can get it. Unfortunately, the debate surrounding the origins of that funky Greytown sound generally revolved around what kind of mundane critter or natural phenomena was actually responsible for the righteous licks and groovy baseline. And frankly, nothing is more insulting for a musician than to be considered derivative.
In Nature, vol. ii. p. 25, Mr. Dennehy gave an interesting account of a peculiar vibration, accompanied by sound, which is perceivable at night on board all(?) iron steamers which anchor off Greytown, Central America; and in subsequent pages I have read with great interest various speculations as to its origin, which is ascribed (the probable solution: (1) to troops of Sciaenoids (with reservation) by Mr. Kingsley; (2) to musical fish or shells, by Messrs. Evans and Lindsay; and (3) to gas-escape from vegetable mud and sand, by Mr. Malet; whilst Mr. Dennehy himself suggests the possibility of some galvanic agency. I remarked upon this vibratory phenomenon in a communication published in the Field newspaper of October 26th, 1867, signed “Ubique,” after having heard it myself when on board the Royal Mail steamer Danube (Capt. Reeks) during the nights of the 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th of May, 1867; the new moon occurring on the 4th of the same month…This brief notice drew forth a rejoinder from a correspondent (November 23, 1867) who had noticed a somewhat similar sound. “The singular sound noticed by ‘Ubique,’ I have also heard without knowing its origin. One moonlight night in 1854, on board a steamer anchored near the Tavoy river (Tenasserim) we were struck by an extraordinary noise which appeared to proceed from the shore about a quarter of a mile off, or from the water in that direction. It was something like the sound of a stocking loom, but shriller, and lasted perhaps five or six seconds, producing a sensible concussion on the ear like the piercing scream of the cicada; and this gave an impression as if the vessel itself were trembling, or reverberating from the sound. One or two Burmans on board said simply, the noise was produced by ‘fishes,’ but of what kind they did not describe. It was repeated two or three times. I never heard it before or after the occasion neither referred to, nor have I ever met with any allusion to this singular phenomenon until I perused ‘Ubique’s’ communication in the Field of the 26th. The steamer in my case, I should add, was a wooden one.” Mr. Evans, in his letter, speaks of the rapid silting up of Greytown harbour this still continues, and the passage over the bar, which is continually shifting, is often a matter of great difficulty, and indeed often so dangerous that the Royal Mail Company will not undertake to allow their own boats to land, and passengers have to land in the local canoes at their own risk. The Nicaraguan Government, however, propose to carry out Mr. Shepherd’s plan of diverting the waters of the San Juan river from the Colorado mouth to the Greytown channel, hoping thereby to scour the harbour clear. Mr. F. J. Evans also refers to the vast amount of animal life, and mentions the quantities of sharks and alligators which abound in and about Greytown Harbour. I can fully corroborate this, although I believe that what Mr. Evans terms alligators are really crocodiles (Molinia Americana), I should be glad to have certain information on this point: when not actually visible, their proximity is made evident by a powerful odour of musk. The most notable, however, of the denizens of these waters, besides the turtle, is the Atlantic manatee, which Columbus mistook for a mermaid, and which Agassiz terms the modern representative of the Dinotherium. The Mosquito Indians on the Indian, Rama, and Blewfields rivers are great adepts at harpooning this paradoxical mammal, and its flesh salted is a staple article of food all along these coasts, being not unlike to ship’s pork (Oliver, 1871, p26-27).
A serious effort was made by skeptics to deny the possibility that the sweet harmonies off the coast of Greytown were produced by anything even animate. If you can read the conclusions drawn below and not think “swamp gas”, you are a better man than I, Gunga Din. It’s worse than saying that The Ramones are derivative of The Clash, rather like suggesting that they weren’t Punk Rock at all. Don’t go there. I will end you.
Perhaps your correspondent, Charles Dennehy, M.R.C.S.I., R.M.S. Shannon, may find an interpretation of the nocturnal musical phenomenon (mentioned in Nature, No. 28) experienced by iron ships when at anchor in seven or eight fathoms, with a bottom consisting of a heavy, dark sand and mud containing much vegetable matter, in the following natural system of gas-escape. In examining certain pools of water in the East, notorious for their poisonous qualities at certain seasons of the year, I was aware of intermittent risings of vast quantities of bubbles. The waters rested on vegetable deposits; if these were stirred up, large globules rose with considerable force, and I came to the conclusion that these air risings were due to the escape of gases from the decomposing vegetable matter. If any metallic body had met these bubbles as they rose, some sound would have been produced, the nature of it depending on various causes. The reason of the sound being heard on board ship between twelve and two, and not between two and four, is owing to a very simple, but beautiful rule of law: as the gases are at all times collecting, we might suppose that they would be at all times escaping, but as the surface of the bottom is of an elastic nature, the water pressure imprisons the gas as if it were within a valve; but when the force of the gas overpowers the water pressure, there is a bubbling escape till the collected gases are expended, and thus I account for the sounds continuing “about two hours, with but one or two very short intervals.” It is by no means improbable that the musical performance occurs more than once in the twenty-four hours, though the ordinary noises of shipboard prevent its being audible. I believe there is no other way of accounting for this incident; but the test I would propose is to stir up the bottom on a calm day with considerable force; if large quantities of air-bubbles arise, the sailors may rest satisfied that the concert is not given by ghost, mermaid, or siren, but simply by a continued contact of myriads of gas globules against the ship’s bottom. The stirring up will not necessarily cause the sound, as the bubbles may be diverted by undercurrents (Malet, 1870, p47).
One day, after the extraterrestrials have finally landed on the White House lawn, Nessie emerges from Loch Ness and admits she was just shy, and magic returns to this humdrum world in a form that doesn’t involve a Harry Potter ride at Universal Orlando, perhaps we will see the triumphant reunion of the much neglected cryptid jam bands. After all, many of the greats toiled away in obscurity for years before they hit it big. It’s about a love for the music, for as Cass Elliot of The Mamas and the Papas once said, “If you truly dig what you are doing, if you lay it out that way, nobody can not respond. That’s what rock and roll is; it’s relentless”. Meanwhile, try not to pirate their music. Unless they’re ghost pirates. Then it’s okay.
Oliver, S.P. “Noises at Sea Off Greytown”. Nature v.4 (Apr-Oct). [London, etc.: Macmillan Journals Ltd., etc.], 1871.
Oliver, S.P. On and Off Duty, Being Leaves from an Officers Notebook. W. H. Allen & Company, 1881.
Evans, F.J. “Strange Noises Heard Off Sea at Grey Town”. Nature v.2 (May). [London, etc.: Macmillan Journals Ltd., etc.], 1870.
Malet, H.P. “Letters to the Editor”. Nature v.2 (May). [London, etc.: Macmillan Journals Ltd., etc.], 1870.