Devil Music: A History of the Occult in Rock & Roll
From The Beatles and the Stones to Led Zep, Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath, how the dark arts cast a spell on popular music
On June 1, 1967, the most famous musicians in the world released a new long-playing record whose jacket depicted a gallery of unconventional personalities and one individual whose unconventionality was infamous. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a widely anticipated album that confirmed the band’s status as the defining tastemakers of their time. It was the soundtrack to the blissful “Summer of Love,” it firmly established the primacy of psychedelic rock music, and it was hailed as a musical breakthrough that offered a mass audience a representation of the marijuana and LSD sensation in sound. Today Sgt. Pepper is remembered as the classic album of the classic rock era, notable for its pioneering recording techniques and enduring Beatle songs (“With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “A Day in the Life”), although the group’s earlier and later music has aged more successfully. Even the album’s cover is considered a landmark in the field of record packaging from the years when music was actually presented on physical discs in physical sleeves and millions of fans studied the jacket photo and the puzzling assembly of figures it depicted.
Photographed by Michael Cooper, the Sgt. Pepper cover shot had taken place on March 30, 1967. The Beatles, innovating with every step, decided on a layout that broke with their habit of simply posing the quartet alone in a single portrait. Designer Peter Blake, a rising star in London’s Pop Art world, later recalled conferring with the Beatles and art gallery owner Robert Fraser on a different approach to the design: “I think that that was the thing I would claim actually changed the direction of it: making a life-sized collage incorporating real people, photographs, and artwork. I kind of directed it and asked the Beatles and Robert (and maybe other people, but I think it was mainly the six of us) to make a list of characters they would like to see in a kind of magical ideal film, and what came out of this exercise was six different sets of people.”
The result was a group shot of almost seventy people, with the four costumed Beatles as the only live bodies in the picture. Among the selections picked by the Beatles, Blake and Fraser were admired contemporaries Bob Dylan and writer Terry Southern; movie stars Fred Astaire, Laurel and Hardy, Tony Curtis, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe; and a number of artistic and literary outlaws Edgar Allan Poe, William S. Burroughs, Aubrey Beardsley, Dylan Thomas, and Oscar Wilde. And in the top left corner of the collection, between the Indian yogi Sri Yukteswar Giri and the nineteen-thirties sex symbol Mae West, glared the shaven-headed visage of a man once known as “the Wickedest Man in the World.” His name was Aleister Crowley.
Most accounts name Paul McCartney as the Beatle who picked Crowley, although the foursome’s more controversial choices of Adolf Hitler, the Marquis de Sade, and Mahatma Gandhi were dropped from the collage. What McCartney knew of Crowley was probably superficial; his subsequent life and work makes no reference to Crowley whatsoever, but in 1967 the Beatle was highly attuned to the prevailing vogues of young Britain and America and the burgeoning counterculture. At the same time, Peter Blake’s specialty was in “found” pictures from decades past: the Pop sensibility of exhibiting rediscovered advertising and newspaper illustrations with a distancing layer of irony. Together the musician and the designer were sensitive to the revival of Victoriana that characterized British graphics and style in the later sixties (seen, for example, in the uniforms of the Sgt. Pepper bandsmen and the circus poster that inspired the lyrics to the album’s “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”), and Aleister Crowley, born in 1875, was part of that revival. The Crowley photo used by Blake had been photographed by Hector Murchison in 1913 and, thanks to its promotion by the Beatles, became the most recognizable image of him. Like three of the other cover subjects, the “decadent” artist Aubrey Beardsley, the proto-surrealist author Lewis Carroll, and the scandalous writer Oscar Wilde, Crowley’s reputation was gradually being rehabilitated for a more tolerant time. He was no longer an affront to Britannic majesty but a martyr to moral hypocrisy.
Born into a brewing fortune and raised in a fanatically religious household, Edward Alexander Crowley was, in some ways at least, a typical product of his class. He was wealthy enough to avoid regular employment from youth onwards; studied at Cambridge and travelled broadly (sometimes on perilous climbing expeditions in Britain, Europe, and Asia); wrote and self-published prose and poetry; adventured sexually with women and men; and freely partook of alcohol, stimulants, and opiates. Had this been all there was he might have been remembered as just another fin-de-siècle libertine, but Crowley had another pursuit that was not merely the vice of a privileged dandy but an all-consuming passion. Such was his irreverence and appetite for transgression, obvious even as a child, that his mother labeled him as “the Great Beast,” taken from the apocalyptic Book of Revelation. For the remainder of his life Crowley adopted and sought to live up to the designation, preaching and practicing his abiding tenet: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of law.”
Aleister Crowley’s earthly exploits were a story of substantial literary gifts and metaphysical scholarship in service to an arrogant and abrasive personality. He could both impress with his brilliant mind and intimidate with his vicious head-games. “I took an immediate dislike to him,” recounted the novelist Somerset Maugham of his meeting Crowley in Paris in the early 1900s, “but he interested and amused me. He was a great talker and he talked uncommonly well… He was a liar and unbecomingly boastful, but the odd thing was that he had actually done some of the things he boasted of. Crowley told fantastic stories of his experiences, but it was hard to say whether he was telling the truth or merely pulling your leg.” Maugham would go on to base the villainous title character of Oliver Haddo in his The Magician on Crowley.
Intelligent and cultured yet selfish and domineering, Crowley had joined the Order of the Golden Dawn mystical sect but fell afoul of its leadership and formed his own circle, the Order of the Silver Star; his “Great Operation” was the transcription of The Book of the Law, as dictated by the spirit Aiwass through his wife Rose in Cairo in 1904. A succession of spouses, lovers, disciples and intimates passed through his life. He exiled himself to America during World War I, formed a ragtag cult of believers at a Sicilian abbey in the early nineteen-twenties, and lost a much-publicized libel suit in 1933. At his height he was a figure of international notoriety for the diabolic excesses of his lifestyle and his gleefully blasphemous writings and art (he even signed his name with an unmistakably phallic A), but his money and press appeal gradually ran out. Crowley’s voluminous treatises on yoga, chess, poetry, Tantric sex, mountaineering and the lost arts of what he always called “magick” drew a steady audience of devotees, yet by the end of his life only a few remained committed. He died in a boarding house near Hastings, England, in 1947, addicted to heroin and largely forgotten by the countrymen he had once so shocked. To one witness, his last words were, “Sometimes I hate myself.”
But it was Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt” that the youth of 1967, both the members of the Beatles and the group’s countless listeners across the globe, most appreciated. To them, Crowley was not a wicked man but one well ahead of his time, who anticipated the later generation’s rejection of outmoded pieties of duty and restraint. What Crowley stood for, ultimately, was self-gratification: no mere aimless indulgences but the healthy and liberating pursuit of one’s deepest will and desires against the soulless and shallow expectations of authority. Crowley’s elaborate credo of Thelema (Will) gave young people’s enjoyment of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll a dimension beyond their immediate pleasures; from a Crowleyan perspective, such joys could be considered sacred.
“We suppress the individual in more and more ways,” ran Crowley’s 1938 introduction to The Book of the Law. “We think in terms of the herd. War no longer kills soldiers, it kills all indiscriminately. Every new measure of the most democratic and autocratic governments is Communistic in essence. It is always restriction. We are all treated as imbecile children.” These sentiments underlay the complaints voiced by the marchers and demonstrators of the sixties. Though Crowley is but a footnote in the Beatles’ legacy, it was inevitable that many of the buyers who scooped up Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and gazed through expanded minds at its cover would investigate his biography and apply his teachings to their own circumstances. If Aleister Crowley had incidentally also conducted animal sacrifice, vociferously denounced Christianity, and claimed to have called up demons out of the nether worlds, well, those too became part of his legend. That baleful face on the jacket of a milestone collection of popular music was to be the one which launched a million trips.
The Beatles’ nearest rivals in rock ’n’ roll were the Rolling Stones. It was the Stones who really seemed to symbolize the dangerous glamour of the genre and the time. They had no need to put Aleister Crowley on a record cover when they already seemed to live by his dicta. From their earliest successes they had been cast as a dirty, brutish counterpoint to the happy and lovable Beatles; their music was more aggressive and more obviously derived from the snarling grit of American blues. The month of Sgt. Pepper’s release, three Stones (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones) were in London courtrooms on drugs charges, and by the end of 1967 their psychedelic equivalent of the Beatle album had been released, its title a sneering parody of the royal preface on British passports: Their Satanic Majesties Request. It was only a pun, but it was the first time the Prince of Darkness had been named on a major pop record.
Over the next couple of years the Rolling Stones became more associated than any other entertainers with a personal depravity that surpassed that of just hard-partying rock stars. There had been mavericks, bad boys and tough guys in show business before, but the Stones took those prototypes to a deeper level of outrage. Much of this, certainly, was projected on them by critics and fans who wanted to ascribe to the group more significance than the members themselves wished. And some of their aura really came from their friends and hangers-on, who were already basking in the Stones’ outlaw status and adding their own personal predilections into the mix. “There were a lot of Pre-Raphaelites running around in velvet with scarves tied to their knees… looking for the Holy Grail, the Lost Court of King Arthur, UFOs and ley lines,” recalled Keith Richards in his 2010 memoir, Life. Jaded aristocrats, bored Euro-trash, and striving Americans, the guitarist recalled, all showed off “the bullshit credentials of the periodùthe patter of mysticism, the lofty talk of alchemy and the secret arts, all basically employed in the service of leg-over.” It was the famous Rolling Stones, not their lesser-known supplicants, who took the heat for this.
That said, the musicians were infected with the intellectual fashions of the counterculture, and suffused as they were in drug experimentation, they made willing ventures into some of the growing body of Occult literature then in currency: everything from the Taoist Secret of the Golden Flower (read by Mick Jagger while making Their Satanic Majesties Request) and collections of Celtic mythology, to the American Charles Fort’s compendium of reported natural aberrations The Book of the Damned (1919) and Louis Pauwels’ conspiracy-tinged The Morning of the Magicians (1960). All such work played to the prejudices of the young, the disaffected, the hip, and the stoned. They confirmed their views that the establishment was lying, middle-class morality was a sham, reality was subjective, and the world could be a magical place if you only knew where and how to look.
The Rolling Stones’ next album, Beggars’ Banquet, took the implications of Satanic Majesties even further, with its hypnotic and tribal single, “Sympathy For the Devil.” This longtime favorite, which remains a Stones anthem to this day, originated with Mick Jagger’s reading of Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov’s allegorical The Master and Margarita. The literate and sensitive Jagger was given the book (written in 1939 but not published until the mid-sixties) by his then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull. “He devoured it in one night and spit out ‘Sympathy For the Devil,’” Faithfull remembered in her own autobiography of 1994. “The book’s central character is Satan, but it has nothing to do with demonism or black magic… Mick wrote a three-minute song synthesized out of this very complex book.” Now considered one of the great Russian novels, The Master and Margarita is a wild satire of life in the darkest days of the Stalinist USSR, with echoes of the Faust legend and appearances by Pontius Pilate and St. Matthew.
With a working title of “The Devil is My Name,” “Sympathy For the Devil” was recorded by the Rolling Stones in the spring of 1968 (the sessions were filmed by Jean-Luc Goddard and incorporated into his eponymous film) and released in December. Jagger sang his classic first-person narrative of Satan’s presence at crucial points in history including the crucifixion of Christ, the Russian Revolution, the Nazi Blitzkrieg and even the assassinations of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, with the lyrics retouched to reflect the latter’s death on June 5. It was a compelling song that, in a violent and tumultuous year, further stirred up an already fraught cultural mood. Yet, as Marianne Faithfull pointed out, Jagger’s devilish act was completely affected. “The only reason that the Stones were not destroyed by the ideas they toyed with is that they never took them as seriously as their fans,” she recalled. “Mick never, for one moment, believed he was Lucifer.” No, but plenty of others were far more credulous.
The Rolling Stones’ link to the Occult did not end with “Sympathy For the Devil.” Keith Richards’ partner, Anita Pallenberg, was a wickedly beautiful German model who, herself caught up in the vortex of drugs and debauchery in the band’s orbit, was rumored to be a practitioner of the dark arts. Faithfull again: “Anita eventually took the goddess business one step further into witchcraft. There were moments, especially after Brian [Jones, original Stone] died, where she went a little mad.” It didn’t help that she was cast with Jagger in the film Performance, in which a London gangster (played by James Fox) changes identities with a decadent rock star (Jagger, naturally). Keith Richards considered the director, Donald Cammell, “a twister and a manipulator whose only real love in life was fucking other people up,” but Pallenberg appeared to enjoy her nude scenes with Jagger and another member of their threesome, Michelle Breton. It made for a twisted atmosphere of jealousy and orgiastic dissipation which, whether Pallenberg really was or thought of herself as a sorceress, definitely made the rumors plausible.
Still the Occult links deepened. The American underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger was in London and, via his connections with gallery owner and socialite Robert Fraser, approached the Rolling Stones to play in his latest project, Lucifer Rising. Anger was older than the Stones and their followers (he was born in 1927), a one-time Hollywood child actor and author of the vitriolic tell-all Hollywood Babylon, and not least of all a devout student of Aleister Crowley. His low-budget shorts Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Scorpio Rising and Fireworks were unintelligible cinematic collages of Occult motifs, sadomasochism, pop appropriations, and gay male erotica. Anger described himself as a warlock and was deadly serious about his work; he corralled Mick Jagger into doing an abstract synthesizer soundtrack for one of his efforts, Invocation of My Demon Brother. He also needed money and the attention the presence of the world-famous rock group would lend to Lucifer Rising. “All the roles were to be carefully cast,” Anger said later, “with Mick being Lucifer and Keith as Beelzebub… The Occult unit within the Stones was Keith and Anita, and Brian. You see, Brian was a witch, too. I’m convinced. He showed me his witch’s tit. He said, ‘In another time they would have burned me.’ He was very happy about that.”
But the Rolling Stones, as they did with so many, were only toying with Anger as long as he tickled their druggy fancy. Their real occupation was recording and performing their own music, and they saw earnest outsiders like Anger as disposable nuisances, trying to ride on their coattails and absorb some of their marketability. “Kenneth Anger they thought laughable,” wrote Marianne Faithfull. “Mick and Keith were utterly contemptuous of his satanic hocus-pocus.”
The quintet’s reputation grew yet blacker in 1969, when the deaths of two men were popularly attributed to them. Brian Jones was discovered drowned in his Sussex swimming pool on July 26th. Though he had founded the Rolling Stones, and chosen their name from a Muddy Waters song, Jones had never been able to cope with their fame and the consequent sexual, alcoholic, and chemical license afforded them. He was, in fact, a very vulnerable personality and suffered bouts of asthma on top of his heavy drinking and drug use; his suspiciously convenient arrests for drug possession at the hands of a head-hunting Scotland Yard did little to help his state of mind. Jones was no more involved in the Occult than anyone in the Stones or their circle (his witch’s tit notwithstanding), but now the band appeared not just dangerous but potentially lethal. The band was definitely lethal for Meredith Hunter, a San Franciscan concertgoer who was killed by Hell’s Angels at the Stones’ December 6 concert at the Altamont Speedway in California. Again, the cause of death was more banal than demonic; the weather was cold, the crowd was ugly, facilities were lacking, the show was late, the Angels were brutal and hallucinogens were everywhere. But Hunter, stabbed while the Stones played “Under My Thumb,” was another casualty for fans and foes to take in.
After the Altamont tragedy the Rolling Stones seemed to leave much of their recklessness, or in any case much of their sixties spiritual naivety, behind them. With their next public appearances in 1972, they had entered a jet-set materialism and were no longer considered by their young fans to be minstrels of an imminent revolution. Their 1973 record Goat’s Head Soup did open with the seductive riff of “Dancing With Mr. D,” which described graveyard trysts, fire and brimstone, and the whiff of voodoo, but by then such references from the Stones were not as inflammatory as they had once been. During this decade other rock ’n’ roll acts had taken to spreading the Occult message, and spreading it more widely, and more loudly, than ever.
One overlooked musician whose music made emphatic allusions to Aleister Crowley was the British rhythm ’n’ blues keyboardist and vocalist Graham Bond. Unlike Mick Jagger or Keith Richards, Bond was no dabbler in the Occult. He actually believed himself to be Crowley’s illegitimate son — Crowley’s acknowledged daughter died in childhood and he left no legal heirs — and his albums Holy Magick and We Put Our Magick On You listed songs with titles including “The Pentagram Ritual,” “The Magician,” and “The Judgement.” Though Bond never scaled the peaks of fame and wealth as many of the contemporaries he influenced (his band the Graham Bond Organization became best-known as the source of the bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker in the superstar trio of Cream), his life and works are explicitly linked with the Occult. Drug and career problems, combined with mental instability, drove Graham Bond to kill himself under the wheels of a London train in 1974.
In 1968 the former studio guitarist and member of the Yardbirds Jimmy Page formed his new quartet Led Zeppelin. Signed to the major label of Atlantic Records and abetted by the loyal and fiercely protective management of Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin quickly gathered a large following in the United Kingdom, Europe, and especially the United States, where their histrionic and very heavy brand of electric blues appealed to the restless post-Sgt. Pepper student cohort. Led Zeppelin bothered little with the typical promotional tactics of earlier rock ’n’ rollers and their record and ticket sales suffered not at all, but what emerged from Page’s infrequent interviews was his dedicated study of the Occult. “[Y]ou can’t ignore evil if you study the supernatural as I do,” he told a journalist in 1973. “I have many books on the subject and I’ve also attended a number of seances. I want to go on studying it.”
Throughout the seventies Led Zeppelin was at or near the apex of the rock world, and Page, as leader, guitarist, and producer of the group, was dominant in the band’s Occult reputation. Indeed the other players Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham had no affinity whatsoever for Page’s tastes, but each became, in varying degrees, tarnished by association. In 1970 Page, now with ample Zeppelin concert and royalty money flowing in, had moved from collecting Aleister Crowley books and other artifacts to purchasing a one-time Crowley home, the Boleskine House, on the shores of Scotland’s Loch Ness. That same year Page and engineer Terry Manning inscribed the first vinyl pressings of the album Led Zeppelin III with Crowley’s adjurations “Do what thou wilt / Shall Be the Whole of Law” on the runoff tracks, instead of the usual serial numbers.
In 1971 Led Zeppelin’s fourth album was given no formal title but an identifying quartet of runic or alchemical symbols that were later displayed by all four band members in concert; Page’s was an unreadable sigil resembling the word “ZoSo,” which was eventually traced to the Renaissance Italian astrologer and mathematician Girolamo Cardano (c. 1490–1565) and two nineteenth century texts from France, Le Triple Vocabulaire Infernal and Le Dragon Rouge. Plant’s symbol of an encircled feather stood for the purportedly lost Pacific kingdom of Mu. The gatefold of this album was illustrated with an adaptation of the Hermit card from a well-known 1910 edition of the Tarot deck.
In 1974 Page purchased a London Occult book shop called The Equinox, in addition to architect William Burges’s lavish neo-Gothic Tower House in the city’s exclusive Kensington district. When Led Zeppelin founded a boutique record label Swan Song, also in 1974, launch party invitations with the heading “Do What Thou Wilt” were distributed, and strippers dressed as nuns were part of the festivities. The company’s logo was a stylized rendering of the mythical winged Icarus or, by other interpretations, Lucifer, the fallen angel. In 1975 and 1977 Page performed concerts in a black stage costume embroidered with astrological symbols, the ZoSo sigil, and a full-length twisting dragon. In the 1976 Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same, a solitary Page was shown on the wooded grounds of his English home; as he turned to the camera, his eyes were made to glow with an otherworldly light. Before Zeppelin’s outdoor Knebworth gigs in 1979, Page investigated the Occult antiques stored at the nearby mansion once home to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Earl of Knebworth.
Trouble was brewing in the Led Zeppelin camp, however: singer Plant and his wife were seriously injured in a 1975 car accident, and Plant’s young son died of an infection in 1977, shortly after John Bonham, Peter Grant, and two other members of the group’s road crew were arrested for assault backstage at an Oakland concert. By that time Jimmy Page himself, like many rock stars of the period, was caught up in a serious cocaine and heroin habit. Page had also met Kenneth Anger at an auction of Aleister Crowley collectibles, where the rich guitar hero outbid the struggling cineaste, and Page had agreed to compose gratis a soundtrack for Anger’s ongoing Lucifer Rising project. The two fell out, however, as Anger complained about Page’s delays in delivering usable music, while Page was annoyed that Anger had set up an editing room in the basement of his Tower House and was offering visitors unauthorized tours of the premises. Anger publicly broke with Page in 1976, telling journalists of Page’s drug issues and threatening, “I’m all ready to throw a Kenneth Anger curse!” Anger finally screened Lucifer Rising in 1980, with assorted shots of himself, Page, a heavily drugged Marianne Faithfull, and Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris. The official soundtrack was credited to Bobby Beausoleil, an incarcerated murderer and member of the Charles Manson family.
Led Zeppelin formally disbanded in December 1980 after John Bonham drank himself to death in a binge at Page’s Windsor home three months earlier, a year after another young friend of the band was found dead of an accidental overdose in Page’s Sussex residence. In the band’s last years, and for well beyond them, both fans and American anti-rock religious zealots claimed to hear subliminal “messages” in Led Zeppelin’s famous “Stairway to Heaven” when the epic composition was played in reverse. Among the audible sounds therein, it was said, were the following phrases:
There is no escaping
Whose path will make me sad, whose power is Satan
He will give you 666
Here’s to my sweet Satan
By then the tabloid press in Britain and rock publications in America had begun to print stories of “the Zeppelin curse” that had wrought such misfortune on the quartet. In addition to the “backward masking” rumors that attended “Stairway to Heaven” — which reached as far as a committee of the state legislature of California in 1982 — more conjectural whispers held that Page had actually sold his, Robert Plant’s, and John Bonham’s souls to the Devil in exchange for Led Zeppelin’s enormous popularity. John Paul Jones, the low-key musician’s musician of the ensemble, refused to sign the infernal contract (so went the story) and thereby avoided the deaths and afflictions that struck the others. These tales reflected Led Zeppelin’s enigmatic album covers, their loud, dramatic records and shows, Plant’s mystical lyrics, and the players’ notoriously profligate personal lives and violence-prone security backup, but they originated with Jimmy Page’s admitted interest in the Occult.
Yet as early as 1976 Page was backing away from the most speculative reports. “I do not worship the Devil,” he asserted in a Rolling Stone interview that year. “But magic does intrigue me. Magic of all kinds.” He went on to tell his interviewer, journalist Cameron Crowe, “I’m not about to deny any of the stories… I’m no fool. I know how much the mystique matters. Why should I blow it now?” After the death of Plant’s child and the “curse” myth that sprang up, Page was more adamant: “The whole concept of the band is entertainment,” he told the U.K. music paper Melody Maker. “I don’t see any link between that and ‘karma,’ and yet I’ve seen it written a few times about us, like ‘Yet another incident in Zeppelin’s karma’… It’s a horrible, tasteless thing to say.”
Page has never denied his interest in Aleister Crowley and is believed to be a practicing Thelemite and still affiliated with Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Temple of the East), but he told Guitar World magazine in 2003, “It’s unfortunate that my studies of mysticism and Eastern and Western traditions of magic and tantricism have all come under the umbrella of Crowley. Yeah, sure, I read a lot of Crowley and was fascinated by his techniques and ideas. But I was reading across the board… It wasn’t unusual [in the sixties] to be interested in comparative religions and magic.” Long after Led Zeppelin’s demise and entering retirement, Page has had to dispel the scurrilous curse and backward masking libels that arose during the seventies. “I don’t want to get into too many backlashes from Christian fundamentalist groups,” he was quoted in 1995. “I’ve given those people too much mileage already.” In 2000 he took legal action against a London magazine that published a story suggesting he had cast Satanic spells over John Bonham as the drummer died; the story was retracted and Page was paid damages, which the millionaire musician and Occultist donated to charity.
Allegations around Led Zeppelin came gradually during the group’s life and into its formidable posthumous influence. But in 1969 the up-and-coming Zeppelin had shared bills in Los Angeles with another act that caused a much greater, if briefer, scandal with a flurry of controversial records and sensational concerts in the early years of the next decade: Alice Cooper. Initially a collective promoted by the master rock satirist Frank Zappa, the Alice Cooper band fused the raucous teenage energy of electric boogie music — simpler and less expertly played than Led Zeppelin’s — with a ghoulish theatricality that was eventually labeled “shock rock.” The singer was a young Vincent Furnier, a willing participant in the ploy, who soon became identified as Alice himself; the name, he maintained, was taken from a Ouija board session where he learned he was in fact the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century witch of that appellation.
Cooper wore makeup and women’s clothes on stage, performed with a live boa constrictor, destroyed baby dolls before audiences, appeared to hang and/or decapitate himself in climactic noose and/or guillotine rituals, sang songs titled “Dead Babies,” “Halo of Flies,” “Under My Wheels,” “Only Women Bleed,” “I Love the Dead,” “Black Widow,” “Is It My Body,” and the necrophiliac “Cold Ethyl,” and put out albums called Love It to Death, Killer, Welcome to My Nightmare, and Alice Cooper Goes to Hell. A persistent folk tale held that Cooper had won an onstage “gross-out” contest with Frank Zappa, which (depending on the storyteller) involved the public production and ingestion of bodily wastes. Parental groups and mainstream commentators were outraged, while the press lapped it up.
In 1971 Albert Goldman, music critic for Life magazine, wrote that “The advance publicity for Alice Cooper almost turned my stomach… It’s a frightening embarrassment… What gets everybody uptight is the sacrifice he makes of shame.” For a few short years, Alice Cooper was the ne plus ultra of rock ’n’ roll ugliness: “We are the group that drove a stake through the heart of the love generation,” he told eager reporters.
Before long, though, Alice Cooper (the individual) began to downplay the shock rock label. He didn’t disown his music or his stage routine, but he made it pretty clear that what he was doing was no more than a gimmick that had caught on with America’s frustrated teenagers and their worried moms and dads. Cooper hobnobbed with old-time show business figures Groucho Marx and Bob Hope, and was seen competing in very non-shocking celebrity golf tournaments. Behind the scenes, he was not a Satan-crazed drug addict but a minister’s son from Phoenix, Arizona and functioning alcoholic. Casual observers naturally linked him to the cresting Occult wave, given his garish spectacle and horrific lyrical themes, but insiders knew better. Journalist Bob Greene followed the Cooper band on an American tour and noted how unmoved the vocalist was by his own hype. “He was aware that much of America took his sick, blood-soaked image very seriously indeed, which made him all the more willing to laugh at himself,” Greene wrote in his 1974 chronicle, Billion Dollar Baby. “Alice was proud of his intelligence and his sense of irony, and in the studio he did all he could to show that the job of playing the Alice Cooper role was just that, a job...[H]e was always eager to demonstrate once again that he was not mistaking himself for the dangerous wretch named Alice Cooper that was being sold to the public.”
During his reign as the king of shock rock, one of Alice Cooper’s opening acts was the east coast American band Blue Öyster Cult. Unlike the headliner, the Cult did not go for blatant scenes of transvestitism or public execution; they had a similar heavy rock sound but with subtler material that retained some air of mystery. The group’s lyrical themes were often tongue-in-cheek, as was the slightly ridiculous group name, but they were delivered with an intensity (laser beams and exploding flash pots were onstage staples) that made them a popular draw in the mid-seventies. Much of this was down to their producer, manager, and co-songwriter Sandy Pearlman, a university graduate and occasional music critic who has been credited as the first to use the term “heavy metal” in describing aggressive guitar-based rock music. Keyboardist Allen Lanier himself formed a curious link between the crunching stadium rock of Blue Öyster Cult’s genre and the cerebral bohemianism of his one-time partner, punk singer Patti Smith.
Following the Led Zeppelin model, BÖC devised a series of unfathomable album covers that implied Occult significance, with the M.C. Escher-esque graphics of their self-titled 1972 debut and the next year’s Tyranny and Mutation, followed by the Luftwaffe jet fighter on 1974’s Secret Treaties, while 1975’s On Your Feet or On Your Knees pictured a sinister black limousine in front of an old church set against a storm-tossed sky. Each of these tableaux featured a cryptic logo said to stand for the scythe of Cronus, leader of the Titans of Greek mythology, as well as being the alchemical symbol for the heaviest of metals, lead. Like Jimmy Page’s ZoSo, the BÖC design virtually became an Occult trademark which millions of fans adopted onto their own clothes and other accessories. Use of the umlaut in “Öyster,” pointless though it was, began a long trend of employing the intimidating Germanic accent in other heavy metal group names: Mötley Crüe, Motörhead, and so on. The band’s songs further suggested a vaguely science-fiction or transgressive aesthetic, including favorite numbers like “Dominance and Submission,” “Subhuman,” “Tattoo Vampire,” “Career of Evil,” “Astronomy,” “I Love the Night,” “Nosferatu,” “Flaming Telepaths,” “ETI [Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence],” and the Tokyo-destroying monster riff of “Godzilla.”
Blue Öyster Cult’s biggest hit record became one of the best-known rock singles of its day, and one of the spookiest. Composed by guitarist Donald Roeser under his far cooler pseudonym Buck Dharma, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was a ghostly minor-key ballad of a lovers’ suicide pact that hinted at the lurking presence of Death himself just outside the curtained window and the candlelit room. The morbid verses fit perfectly with the whispery arpeggios and remains, like Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” an anthem of shadowed passions and Gothic power. It was quoted in a variety of later cinematic and literary works, including Stephen King’s end-of-the world epic The Stand and a televised version of Norman Mailer’s nonfiction book about murderer Gary Gilmore, The Executioner’s Song. The album it highlighted, 1976’s Agents of Fortune, again featured the Cronus logo and the arcane imagery of Tarot cards (as well as lyrics contributed by Patti Smith). For the legions of young rock ’n’ rollers who learned the tunes on their guitars or who played the tracks on their bedroom stereos, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” and other BÖC works were entries to the world of the Occult: accessible yet indecipherable, catchy yet confounding.
Hard rock and heavy metal bands of the late sixties and throughout the seventies commonly referenced the Occult, either directly in their music or as part of their general demeanor. A little-known British progressive rock group, Black Widow, made songs titled “Attack of the Demon,” “The Conjuration” and “Come to the Sabbat,” while enacting sacrifices of nude females on stage. In 1969 the Chicago-based psychedelic folk act Coven made their own paeans to witchcraft and the black arts; through either a weird coincidence or the intervention of dark forces, their bassist was one Oz Osborne. Black Widow and Coven were perhaps too committed to their ideals to capture a wide audience, but later outfits appropriated Occult trappings for fun and profit.
Gender-bending glam star David Bowie went through an Aleister Crowley fascination, aggravated by the extreme quantities of cocaine he consumed, and mentioned the Occultist and the Golden Dawn in his 1971 song “Quicksand.” The costumed quartet Kiss appeared in bizarre makeup as an ensemble of mysterious identities; bassist and vocalist Gene Simmons came as “The Demon” and revived classic theatrical trickery to breathe fire and spit fake blood in concert. Simmons also claimed to have invented the two-fingered heavy metal salute, which zealots detected as the sign of the devil but which the Demon explained was his way of waving back at his audiences while still gripping his bass guitar pick. In 1977 the savvy marketers in Kiss lent their names and likenesses to a Marvel comic series which was advertised as being printed in the real blood of the group’s personnel. Australian rockers AC/DC scored a major hit with their 1979 album Highway to Hell, the cover of which portrayed guitarist Angus Young with horns and a devil’s tail, and singer Bon Scott with the Occult symbol of a pentagram dangling from his necklace.
These small, offhand gestures of busy and ambitious working musicians, some of them chronically intoxicated, were all it took to inspire fans’ excitement. Such was the size of the rock market in these years that audiences devised their own scary urban legends around players who neither needed much good publicity nor bothered to deny bad. The name Kiss, disclosed the hardcore, was a secret acronym for the group’s role as Knights In Satan’s Service, while AC/DC stood for Anti-Christ, Down with Christ. The Demon and his fellow knights laughed all the way to the bank. “Complete and utter bullshit,” Kiss guitarist Ace “Spaceman” Frehley wrote of the Satanic allegations in a 2012 memoir, No Regrets. “I remember some on some of our early tours, there were religious fanatics outside the shows burning our records, saying we were devil worshippers. Give me a fuckin’ break!” Meanwhile, AC/DC’s Angus Young shrugged, “Just because you call an album ‘Highway to Hell,’ you get all kinds of grief. All we’d done was describe what it’s like to be on the road for four years. When you’re sleeping with the lead singer’s socks three inches from your nose, believe me, that’s pretty close to hell.”
But one rock act of the seventies was more identified with the Occult than any other, and indeed became the prototype for hundreds of Occult-alluding bands that have formed ever since. The English quartet Black Sabbath codified the sound, look, and philosophy of an entire subgenre that could only have arisen during the decade. It was Black Sabbath that most explicitly introduced topics of mysticism, drug use, and despair into rock ’n’ roll, and it was Black Sabbath who spread the unholy gospel of demonology through the whole pop music scene. In terms of sheer records and tickets sold, Sabbath were hardly the most successful group of the time, and by the end of the seventies the original lineup had disintegrated in personal acrimony, legal and financial woes, and the inevitable substance issues; they are an obvious target being parodied in the hilarious “mockumentary” This Is Spinal Tap. But their influence on their own and later generations of rock listeners is unmatched. Neither the Beatles, nor the Rolling Stones, nor Led Zeppelin, nor Alice Cooper, nor Blue Öyster Cult popularized the Occult as much as Black Sabbath.
Sabbath were formed in the decaying English industrial city of Birmingham in 1969. The members — singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Terry “Geezer” Butler and drummer Bill Ward — were all barely out of their teens. Like thousands of artists scuffling around the local club circuits of provincial Britain, they were hopeful semi-professional players of no blinding talent or originality, who needed a career break more than a creative epiphany. By an amazing chance, they got both at once. Playing and rehearsing fairly derivative electric blues under the name Earth, Iommi brought to the band’s practice session a simple three-note sequence based not on the standard I-IV-V sequence of blues progressions (the chords G, C, and D, for example) but on a dissonant, “wrong” pattern that incorporated a flattened fifth note of the major scale, in this case, G, an octave G, and the errant C-sharp. In other styles of songwriting, such an interval would have sounded merely off, but the heavily distorted and rhythmic rumble of rock played by Earth (in emulation of prominent bands Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Led Zeppelin) made the tonal shift highly effective. It was compounded in weight by the manner in which Iommi detuned his electric guitar, slackening the strings to accommodate his fretting fingers, the tips of two having been severed in an accident at a sheet metal factory where he had worked. Before any words were put on the music, the fundamental sound of Black Sabbath had been established.
“He came to rehearsal one day,” Ozzy Osbourne remembered of Iommi’s innovation in 2001, “and said, ‘Isn’t it funny how people pay money to watch horror films; why don’t we start playing scary music?’ And then he came up with that ‘Black Sabbath’ riff, which was the scariest riff I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Much has been made of Black Sabbath’s standard device (some called it a formula) of using the flattened fifth note or chord in so many of their songs: the liturgical composers of medieval Europe warned of including this in choral or instrumental works, naming it Diabolus in Musica or the Devil in Music. The term seems to have had more of a technical rather than religious meaning — a reminder to singers and players that some intervals on the scale produced discord rather than harmony — but in the case of Sabbath the grating tones of their guitar progressions were perfectly suited to the lyrics sung over them.
According to one legend, the film that prompted Iommi’s suggestion to play “scary music” was the 1964 Boris Karloff movie Black Sabbath, an Italian-produced anthology of three tales where the aging Frankenstein actor was the chief attraction. But the movie itself was closer to the campy Hammer output of the fifties and sixties than the intensely realistic horror cinema that appeared in the next few years. The real origins of Sabbath’s Occult leanings lay with Geezer Butler. Butler had received what he later called a “severe Catholic” upbringing and as a young man became interested in sorcery and witchcraft, which he read up on in the British magazine Man, Myth, and Magic, books by Aleister Crowley, and the penny-dreadful novels of British writer Dennis Wheatley, among them The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter. Highly imaginative and suggestible, he worked elements of each into the verses he provided for the band.
“I was seeing all kinds of things at the time, and not through drugs,” he explained. “I’d moved into this flat that I’d painted black with inverted crosses everywhere. Ozzy gave me this sixteenth century book about magic that he’d stolen from somewhere. I put it in the cupboard because I wasn’t sure about it. Later that night I woke up and saw this black shadow at the end of the bed… I ran to the airing cupboard to throw the book out, but the book had disappeared… It scared me shitless.”
Between 1970’s debut Black Sabbath and the final collection by the original configuration, 1978’s Never Say Die, Sabbath’s music and public image offered a portrayal of demonism and the supernatural unparalleled in their medium. Not all their songs were about the Occult; they also addressed drug abuse, paranoia, loneliness, space travel, and even the rock ’n’ roll staple of young lust. But a significant portion of Black Sabbath material was openly concerned with cosmic evil that intervened in the affairs of men: terrifying tracks including “Black Sabbath,” “The Wizard,” “NIB,” and “Warning”; the pacifist classics “War Pigs” and “Electric Funeral”; the surprisingly pro-Christian “After Forever”; “Children of the Grave,” the haunting ballad “Changes,” and the humanist “Under the Sun”; “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” “Supertzar,” and “Gypsy.” Later incarnations of the band comprised a parade of different vocalists, keyboardists, and drummers, but they still released “Heaven and Hell,” “Lady Evil,” and “Die Young.” “It’s a Satanic world,” Geezer Butler was quoted in a dubious Rolling Stone article in 1971. “The devil’s more in control now. People can’t come together, there’s no equality.”
Visually, the band looked like they meant what they played. Their album covers showed a greenish cloaked woman near an English watermill at dusk (Black Sabbath), a sleeper with dreams infested by demons (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath), and a surreal non-reflective mirror (Sabotage). The inner sleeve of Black Sabbath presented an inverted cross. A winged devil served as the Black Sabbath corporate signature. Their 1976 compilation album featured only red and white lettering against a black background: We Sold Our Souls For Rock ’n’ Roll. All four original members were photographed together wearing crucifix necklaces, and Iommi customized the usual fretboard dots of his guitars with tiny crosses. An early TV clip saw them playing their immortal “Paranoid” superimposed against a nightmarish backdrop of an androgynous kohl-eyed face. Promotional pictures showed four unsmiling young men peering out from behind imposing masses of hair.
Critics of the time hated Black Sabbath. Influential American reviewer Lester Bangs wrote them off as a “sub-Zeppelin kozmik behemoth,” the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau called their first album “the worst of the counterculture on a plastic platter,” while Parke Puterbaugh declared that “To attend one of their concerts was about as pleasurable an experience as a Gestapo interrogation.” Black Sabbath, the cognoscenti said, purveyed cheap “doom rock” to drug-addled teenagers already tripped out on the Occult: very loud, very pretentious, and very dumb. Others reacted with alarm to Sabbath’s overt emphasis on the devil and all his works.
“The church went against us in a big way,” recalled Tony Iommi in 1992. But the band’s admirers may have been more problematic, the guitarist said. “One night, after finishing a show, we returned to the hotel and found the corridor leading to our rooms completely filled with people wearing black cloaks, sitting on the floor with candles in their hands, chanting, ‘Ahhhhh.’ So we climbed over them to get to our rooms, but we could still hear them chanting… So we synchronized our watches, opened our doors at the same time, blew out the candles and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to them. Pissed ’em off. You wouldn’t believe some of the letters we’ve received, and some of the people that have turned up.”
On the receiving end of all the condemnation were four working-class Britons whose formal educations had ended well before they became full-time rock musicians in their early twenties. They had found a winning approach that took them to fame and fortune in Britain, Europe, and North America, but they were not out to convert anybody to Satanism; they had not even converted themselves. Like Alice Cooper with his stage bloodbaths and Kiss with their makeup and platform boots, the allegedly devilish Sabbath players all but conceded that they were only plying a pitch that paid off. “I’ve done interviews with Christian papers where, if I’m talking about how much I respect Jesus, they’ll say, ‘But you can’t possibly respect Jesus! You wouldn’t be in a rock band if you did!’” Geezer Butler has remembered. “I mean, yes, we liked the idea of what’s beyond, but as an interest,” Iommi clarified. “Certainly in no way as the practice of such. And that’s as far as it went, really.” For millions of Sabbath listeners, however, whether or not the group’s members practiced what they seemed to preach was irrelevant. They made the Occult an immediate presence in their headphones, on their t-shirts, and at their concert halls. There was no doubting Black Sabbath.
Occult-oriented acts and music, of course, were not the only trend in the rock ’n’ roll of the sixties and seventies. There were folk and fusion, punk and reggae, the easy listening of Linda Ronstadt and the sexy soul of Donna Summer. But the Rolling Stones’ peak period was roughly between 1968 and 1973, the years of Their Satanic Majesties Request, “Sympathy For the Devil,” and “Dancing With Mr. D.” Led Zeppelin have sold nearly 300 million records since 1969, and “Stairway to Heaven,” forward or backward, is considered their masterpiece. From 1972 to 1975 Alice Cooper was an inescapable media presence; ditto Kiss from 1975 to 1979. Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was a Top Ten U.S. hit in 1976. AC/DC’s Highway to Hell was the long-lived quintet’s first million-selling album. Over 20 million copies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band have been purchased around the planet since 1967, representing 20 million thumbnail advertisements for Aleister Crowley received the world over. Black Sabbath were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. The group has sold 75 million albums worldwide. Their 2013 album 13 led off with the single “God Is Dead.”
For the vast Baby Boom demographic aged from their early teens to their late twenties, the Occult had been brought to them in their lingua franca of rock music. Much of its conveyance — by performers themselves young and questing erratically for personal or philosophical answers — had been expedient or accidental. But its reception —by people to whom rock spoke deep truths their elders had long withheld — transformed the spiritual outlook of a generation. And when that generation turned at last down their radios and put their records back in their sleeves, they found that the Occult was not only available to them through pop songs, and that their elders too were undergoing a spiritual transformation of their own.
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Excerpted from Here’s to My Sweet Satan: How the Occult Haunted Music, Movies and Pop Culture 1966–1980 by George Case, Quill Driver Books, March 2016. Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other fine retailers.