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Saturday, November 05, 2005
A Brief History of Satanic Rock
The first thing you need to know is that a true Satanist will tell you that any group that puts Satanic imagery on their album covers or in the music is bogus. Every single one.
The other thing you need to know is that a true Satanist will also tell you that all music is Satanic, every single note.
Consequently, an article on Satanic rock is a tricky proposition insofar as none of it is real; explicitly Satanic rock like Venom is really no more Satanic than The Carpenters. And the Carpenters are just as Satanic as Venom.
However, there is a history to the appearance of Satanic imagery and references in rock music. So consider this an attempt to organize that history a little.
Part I: The Blues
The Blues has always been the Devil's music. Music that glorified drinking, womanizing, gambling, dope, violence, and depravity, blues was an easy target for ministers and pastors of the South, who countered with sermons forbidding the congregation to listen to it. Many god-fearing churchgoers heeded this message, establishing Gospel as the safer alternative. Even some bluesmen were convinced; legendary blues picker Gary Davis usually refused to play blues after he was ordained as a reverend in 1937. Ultimately, he relented just before his death and recorded a historic session of blues (secular and gospel) in 1971. He died soon after.
One of the most pervasive legends surrounding the blues is that of legendary delta guitarist Robert Johnson, often considered the first bluesman in the chain that ultimately pointed towards the development of rock 'n' roll. Johnson was an acoustic player of the 1930's who died under mysterious circumstances in 1938.
The legend went that Johnson, not blessed with guitar talent when he first began playing professionally, yearned for overnight success that would put him in league with the other guitarists on the circuit. One night, he heard a voice that told him to visit the crossroads by Dockery's plantation at midnight. There, he was met by a large black man who apparently was the devil in disguise. The big man took the guitar from Johnson, tuned it, and returned it to him.
Johnson's improvement on his instrument was swift and amazing (although historically, it took him about a year to become great). He earned the instant recognition of big name guitarists like Son House, who championed his cause. However, Johnson was tormented in his dreams by visions of the devil, and hellhounds on his trail. In his waking hours, Johnson played the role of bluesman hero, chasing women, drinking, behaving arrogantly. In 1938, during a show, he was poisoned (possibly by a jealous husband of a woman he had been putting moves on). The poison had him foaming at the mouth and talking babble, he died within days. His last words were "I pray that my redeemer will come and take me from my grave."
Fearing the devil, the townspeople buried him in an unmarked grave.
Johnson's recorded legacy supposedly refers to his deal with the devil in "Crossroads Blues", "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Hellhounds On My Trail".
A more likely explanation for Johnson's tremendous guitar prowess was probably a magical ritual known as "practice" as well as help from a guitar tutor, one Ike Zinneman (an unrecorded bluesman known for practicing in the local cemetery, sitting on gravestones). But the sold his soul legend persists to this day.
Part II: The Satanic 60's
When rock 'n' roll appeared in the 1950's, and its effect on teens became known, it was only natural that it would be derided as the Devil's music as well. It was also attacked as decadent, dangerous, immoral, obscene, and even part of a Communist think tank's psych-op assault on the West. Rock music was one of the first cultural movements in America that was somewhat colorblind as well; white musicians covered black songwriters, black musicians covered white ones. White kids bought records by black musicians, which alarmed fundamentalist, segregationist elements in society. Many forces aligned in the late 50's to end the menace before it could get out of hand. So Elvis was drafted, Chuck Berry arrested, Jerry Lee Lewis blackballed. Eddie Cochrane and Buddy Holly were killed in accidents, Little Richard became a preacher. By the early 60's, rock was, for all intents and purposes, dead. Gone with it were the hip shaking, dancing, shaking, and partying the Devil commanded.
It was a short-lived victory for the legions of decency. The Beatles rolled into town in 1964, and worse, so did the Rolling Stones and Animals. The British Invasion was also greeted with accusations of communist plot and devil's music, but it was too big to stop. Also too big was the demographic who listened to it, the first Baby Boomers to reach adulthood. The enormous demographic swing of the 1960's saw an unprecedented number of young people reach prime record buying age.
The 60's were a time of reckless experimentation and fads. Drugs became a significant component of white suburban life for the very first time, as youth experimented with pot and LSD. The drug experience, coupled with a new political awareness thanks largely to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, helped create a new underground youth movement, which popularly came to be known as the counterculture, egged on by the Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out and Never Trust Anyone Over Thirty philosophies of the day.
The counterculture was a polymorphus thing; it branched off into many avenues; it never was a single shared thing except as a huge demographic, but rather thousands of vaguely anti-establishment pastimes to hardcore radicalism to weird drug scenes to a proliferation of cults. Many in the counterculture were political, as the anti-war and pro-civil rights movements gathered steam. Some were holistic, or environmental, or mind-and-body related. Young people began exploring new realms of spiritualism. Some were drawn to Eastern religions like Buddhism and Krishna. Others were drawn to other disciplines like yoga. And still others developed a new-age curiousity about astrology, ESP, and ultimately, Satanism.
The time was ripe; Satanism had become cool. In 1966, one Anton LaVey established the 'official' Church of Satan, based on his book "The Satanic Bible". In the nutshell, LaVey promoted a lifestyle of self-indulgance; desires were meant to be fulfilled. He favored rituals that involved bodily fluids which were deemed sacred; as a result, some looked upon his church as some kind of sex cult. He didn't refer to the devil in the Christian sense, rather, he saw Satanism as a means of harnassing supernatural energy that circulates in the ambient universe. For a brief spell, he attracted trendy followers to his church, among them wannabee starlets and musicians and the like.
It was during the psychedelic-satanic 60's that rock music first began to explicitly reference modern Satanic imagery and references.
So in 1967, the Beatles, who were almost universally considered "good", included a picture of the British-born father of the modern Satanic movement, Aleister Crowley, among the collected faces on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, perhaps the very first nod to Satanism in rock. The same year, the Rolling Stones released Their Satanic Majesty's Request, which was delayed for release until the title was changed from Her Satanic Majesty's Request.
Also in 1967, Kenneth Anger, a former Hollywood child actor and underground filmmaker, who had involvement with the Process Church, another Satanic group that apparently included Charles Manson among its part-time members for a brief spell, filmed Lucifer Rising, a 40-minute movie with psychedelic trappings that was based on Satanic ritual, and starred a young actor and musician named Bobby Beausoleil who also recorded the score. Beausoleil, who had briefly been a member of an early lineup of the band Love, would become one of Charles Manson's first male followers; he's still serving time for the bizarre 1969 murder of Gary Hinman.
In 1968 the Mansons were living in a house they had pretty much overrun Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson out of. The Beach Boys' "Never Learn Not To Love" (from 20/20)was written by Charles Manson as "Cease to Exist", a chorus the Beach Boys changed to "cease to resist". On the Beach Boys' album Dennis Wilson gets songwriting credit, Manson sold his for cash. His own version appears on his own Lie album. The Manson Family weren't Satanists per se, but Manson, a jailbird most of his life, had explored a number of Satanic church/cults and was a jailhouse psychology expert; Tex Watson famously announced "I'm the devil, and I'm here to do the devil's work" (a quote borrowed by Rob Zombie in the film The Devil's Rejects) to his victims at the Tate house.
In 1968, The Rolling Stones continued to dabble in Satanic imagery, releasing one of their most provocative songs ever, "Sympathy for the Devil". Onstage, Jagger developed a devilish persona in his manner of dress and dance that reached full bloom during the Stones' 1969 tour. Much of their interest in Satanism came to them through Anita Pallenberg, who dated Brian Jones, then Keith Richard, and finally Mick Jagger.
Also in 1968 came the release of the Roman Polanski film Rosemary's Baby, the first explicitly Satanic mainstream film, and one in which the Satanists ultimately win. One of the eeriest and most talked about films of its day, it made the news again the following year, when Polanski's wife Sharon Tate was among the Manson family victims on their first spree killing. Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) lived and recorded in the Tate house in the 90's.
1969 was a peak year for Satanic activity in the U.S. New cults, some brutal, some benign, began appearing in mutant profusion. Jagger finally succeeded in invoking the Devil himself as he presided over the Altamont festival, which was marred by violence and a brutal killing in front of the stage as fans and bikers clashed. The experience clearly shocked Jagger, who almost immediately began retreating from his devil persona, adopting one of Village Idiot instead for the next few years.
Back in Birmingham England, a band by the name of Earth began playing a campy frightshow song of Satanic possession entitled "Black Sabbath" that caused enough of a stir that the band renamed themselves after it. Black Sabbath, their 1970 debut album is rife with ominous Satanic references, from "Black Sabbath" to "N.I.B.", songs like "The Wizard" touched on black magic. Despite accusations from fundamentalist Christians that persist to this day, Black Sabbath never really was a "Satanic" band; they never took a pro-Satanic stand in their music. With Black Sabbath, Satan was something fearsome and frightening, as were drugs, the war, and life itself.
However, in 1969, the first openly Satanic bands began making their appearance. Perhaps first and foremost were Black Widow, who sometimes shared gigs with Black Sabbath. Black Widow's 1970 debut, Sacrifice, is a pro-Satanist offering with titles like "Way To Power" "Come to the Sabbat" "Conjuration" "Sacrifice". Not a heavy metal band or even a hard rock band, Black Widow's music was creepy and, in places, corny. But it was the first attempt in rock to bring underground Satanism to the mainstream, and the first case of Satanism being the point of the music, and not just one of its devices. Onstage, they performed Satanic ritual, which included the participation of a nude woman celebrant.
It was also around this time when Jimmy Page, a known Crowley aficianado, supposedly convened Led Zeppelin for a little bit of soul-trading with the devil in an effort to assure their success, in much the same way Robert Johnson had. While the story is probably as apocryphal as Johnson's, who really knows? Page eventually bought Crowley's castle; Led Zeppelin IV (or zoso) and "Stairway to Heaven" in particular, was hailed by Kenneth Anger as one of the greatest Satanic works ever. A 1974 car accident seriously injured Robert Plant and his wife, drummer John Bonham died in 1980. Both events were speculated to be early paybacks for their deal.
As the 1960's wound down and the 1970's picked up, Satanism as a movement was on the wane. However, the success of Black Sabbath, and heavy metal's fascinations with power, death, and doom, meant that Satanism had forever found a niche in rock; as long as there were tormented teens looking for thrills, there'd be a place for evil symbology.
Part III: The 70's and 80's
So in the 1970's and 1980's there was no shortage of heavy metal and hard rock acts that used Satanism either explicitly in a pro-Satanism sense, or in an ambiguous thing-to-fear sense. A partial roster of such bands include Angel Witch, Venom, Pagan Altar, Widow, Witchfynde, Hell Satan, Cloven Hoof, Warhammer, Onslaught, Sabbat, Antichrist-Ragnarok, Cradle Of Filth, Megiddo Bal Sagoth, December Moon, Ewigkeit, Adorior, Hecate, Enthroned, Phantasia, Forefather, Meads Of Asphodel, Reign Of Erebus, Thus Defiled, Old Forest, Annal Nathrakh. Few of these bands ever sold many records, although Venom, which included blasphemous doggerel on the album covers, became a favorite of severely disaffected youth in the 80's.
Despite the fact that almost none of these bands ever sold as many records as a lukewarm Captain and Tennille album, the phenomenon was taken very seriously by the media and churches; the 1980's weren't the 1960's. The conservative 80's saw a bizarre anti-Satanic grassroots wellspring, which ultimately became one of the great witch hunts (literal) of the last couple of hundred years. Using "recovered memory therapy", stories of ritual satanic abuse and sacrifice wound up circulating on TV talk shows; if all of the accusations had been correct, satanic ritual sacrifice was the #3 killer of Americans in the US, ahead of homicide and just behind cancer and heart disease. Yet, no cadre of ritual sacrificers were found, no evidence, no bodies.
While these accusations and the methods that brought out these "memories" have since been discredited (after ruining numerous lives of the unjustly accused), they helped to illustrate what a powerful signifier satanism is in the imaginations of the simplest of people; as a result, satanic rock didn't just not go away, it once again entered the mainstream; Motley Crue had a huge seller with Shout at The Devil. Slayer incorporated a pentagram into their logo. The Christian rock act Stryper became something of the anti-Satanic metal band, tossing bibles to the audience.
The suicides of some rock listeners after listening to albums by Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne helped lend the PMRC some muscle, which played a hand in getting their rating stickers on CD's. During the witch-hunt years, back-masking, the technique of recording subliminal messages backwards on an album, gained attention. At first, it was claimed that "Stairway to Heaven" played backwards concealed Satanic exhortations. Then other songs, until, perhaps as an example of how the anti-Satanists were truly grasping at straws, it was announced that the theme to the TV series "Mr. Ed" also hid a Satanic message.
Naturally, some bands decided to try this gimmick after hearing these stories. However, psychology has never accepted backwards masking as a way of instilling a subliminal suggestion; brains don't process backwards sounds very well.
Part IV: Satanism in rock today
Today, rock audiences are a little more sophisticated than they once were, and it takes more to shock. Marilyn Manson was rumored to be a minister in the Church of Satan, and persued a shock agenda, which included his choice of stage name. Rob Zombie is another dabbler in luciferian imagery. However, after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, there seems to have been yet another waning in Satanic concerns (suggesting that Satanism may be the pastime of the idle middle-class; when survival becomes an issue, Satanism suddenly loses its allure).
Insofar as Satanic rock still survives, the place to turn is Norway, now the leading source of Black Metal and Satanic Metal and for a long time the gangsta-rap of Norway, with a number of brutal slayings in its midst and wake, some apparently ritualistic. Despite this, among its devotees, the same familiar arguments arise that one might find in a conversation about folk music. Who is authentic? Who is a poser? What is classic?
Again, a true Satanist will tell you that all of this is nonsense anyway, and that none of these musicians know what Satanism is all about, nor would a true Satanist cheapen their faith by littering an album with tacky pentagrams.
But then, that same Satanist will tell you, probably with a creepy twinkle in his eye, that all music is Satanic anyway.
Here's a good list of rock albums featuring pentagrams on their covers, compiled by Robert Burke of Rhapsody Radish You can listen to some of it here.