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Music and the Occult Influence – Part1

I recently found myself attending, in the span of a week, concert performances by two classic hard rock/heavy metal bands, arguably two of the most successful and influential exemplars of the form, Black Sabbath and AC/DC. Both of these veteran groups were on what is likely the final major tour of each act’s lengthy career (the outing officially announced as “The End” for Sabbath, and dictated as such by the unfortunate inability to continue of three longtime members of the beleaguered AC/DC).

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Perhaps because of the bittersweet atmosphere of finality at both concerts, there seemed to be a stronger than usual presence of warmth and nostalgia amongst the audiences, which were composed of wide-ranging age groups, from elderly grandparents down to teens and young children.

While this family-friendly scene of generational indoctrination has been a growing trend at rock concerts for the past twenty years or so, those attending with kids in tow had still often resembled traditional, black-T-shirt-clad “rocker” types; though popular rock and metal concerts have always drawn a fair number of mainstream fans alongside the droves of long-haired true-believers, at these recent Sabbath and AC/DC shows, a sizable portion of the crowds looked positively “clean-cut,” consisting of what appeared to be traditional, even quite conservative, suburban families. Perhaps some of these people were always closet fans, perhaps some of the older ranks had cut their hair, put away their denim jackets and transitioned into lives of coaching Little League, perhaps the perceived urgency of the probable “last chance” tours inspired fans to drag the kids to see these bands for the first and only time.

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Whatever the reasons, I was deeply struck by the fact that before me were loads of beaming moms and dads with their gleeful children, all singing merrily along, word-for-word, with the lyrics of these two popular hard rock bands, both of which were once, not all that long ago, strongly associated – at least in the mainstream media, and thus in the public consciousness – with the occult, devil worship, and violent horror imagery, and roundly vilified by powerful authority figures all across America.

Popular performers touching on occult themes in their music and image is nothing new. One could look as far back as the early nineteenth century Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, the notorious violinist whose enraptured audiences whispered that the hypnotic musician must be in league with – or even possessed by – some diabolical power. The decadent Paganini did nothing to quell these rumors of a pact (or even a familial connection) with the Devil, and in fact was said to have played into this public image with his odd stage manner, all-black attire, and his dramatic arrivals to concert halls in a black carriage drawn by black steeds.

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It is the twentieth century, though, that gives us a true bounty of occult-dabbling popular musical figures, and the mass media needed to produce mass hysteria, in some cases, about these supposedly sinister artists.

The late 1920s and 1930s saw recordings released by Mississippi-based country blues singer-guitarists Tommy Johnson and (the unrelated and more famous) Robert Johnson, both of whom were widely believed at the time to have sold their souls to the Devil at a midnight crossroads. While Tommy Johnson often boasted openly of his musical pact with Satan, and Robert Johnson’s lyrics and song titles (“Hellhound on My Trail,” “Me and the Devil Blues”) did little to quash the persistent murmurings as to the infernal source of his otherworldly musical skills, similar lyrics dealing with evil spells, voodoo curses, and other occult themes were not uncommon amongst many of the early blues men of the Mississippi Delta.

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The outrageous 1950s rhythm and blues showman “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins tapped into the same blues-belter-as-hoodoo-witch-doctor vibe as some of the earlier blues conjurers, but Hawkins’ act was more theatrical and tongue-in-cheek than overtly devilish. His coffins-and-skulls props and wild-man stage antics presaged later 1960s-’70s “shock rockers” like the UK’s Screaming Lord Sutch and US superstar Alice Cooper, who were far more steeped in Universal Studios monsters and Roger Corman’s Poe-inspired Vincent Price flicks than in anything like ritual witchcraft and satanism.

It was indeed during the turbulent 1960s, however, that a real interest in the Dark Arts – dovetailing neatly with the decade’s restless spiritual seeking and “consciousness-expanding” substance experimentation – took a firm hold of popular culture, and the popular imagination. In San Francisco in 1966, Anton LaVey founded, on April 30 (Walpurgis Night, the “Witch’s Night” of Germanic folklore), the Church of Satan, attracting the interest and participation of various noted artists, journalists, and even Hollywood celebrities as unlikely as singing star Sammy Davis Jr. and actress Jayne Mansfield.

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The Beatles, unquestionably the very avatars of the decade’s youth culture, included the visage of the infamous nineteenth/early twentieth century British occultist and ritual magician Aleister Crowley (dubbed “The Great Beast 666” by the sensationalist press during his lifetime) amongst the assemblage of people the band “admired” on the iconic cover of their groundbreaking 1967 LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 1968, avant-garde filmmaker and practicing Crowley acolyte Kenneth Anger gained access to the Rolling Stones’ inner circle, exerting his occult influence and sensibilities on Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, along with singer Marianne Faithful and Richards’ witchcraft-practicing lover, actress/model Anita Pallenberg; in June of that year the Stones recorded “Sympathy for the Devil” (the same month, interestingly, that director Roman Polanski’s acclaimed Satanic chiller Rosemary’s Baby hit theatres). Even California’s lurid Manson Family murders of 1969 (one unfortunate victim of which was Sharon Tate, Polanski’s pregnant wife) involved trappings of occult ritual practice, after cult leader Charles Manson had exhorted his homicidal followers to “leave something witchy” at the scene of the brutal crimes.

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While the mainstream public remained largely oblivious to most of these diabolical cultural developments, a few of the hip counter-culture kids forming rock bands in the late ‘60s began to take notice; against this brimstone-scented backdrop, the closing years of the decade slipping into the early years of the ‘70s brought the first wave of truly occult, even openly Satanic, rock bands. The US band Coven, founded in Chicago in 1968, released their first album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, the following year (coincidently – or not – featuring a bassist named “Oz” Osbourne and an opening track titled “Black Sabbath”). While bewitching vocalist “Jinx” Dawson fronted a typically groovy psychedelic combo of the era, at least lyrically and visually, Coven was as sinfully hellish as could be.

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The blasphemous album jacket, depicting the hooded robe-clad band members with inverted crosses, before a Satanic altar, complete with singer Dawson herself reclined, fully nude, atop the pedestal, contained music featuring ritual chants, wall-to-wall occult subject matter, and closed with a thirteen-minute track entitled “Satanic Mass” which, Latin invocations and all, is a recording of just that.  Across the pond, the only slightly heavier British group Black Widow formed in 1969, releasing their debut LP Sacrifice in 1970, which likewise contained overtly occult lyrics throughout, exemplified by their best-known track, “Come to the Sabbat.” Several other, considerably lesser-known bands of the era, like Germany’s Lucifer’s Friend, England’s Comus, and Italy’s Jacula, utilized, to varying degrees, the tropes of witchcraft and black magic, either lyrically, visually, or sonically, but in early 1970, an album appeared on which all of these elements successfully coalesced like the perfect alchemical spell, and nothing would ever be the same.

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Check out Music and the Occult Influence – Part2

One comment

  1. Coven. Crazy! Great article – lots of new stuff for me to investigate…

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