But as older generations began to embrace rock music, so did the music begin to embrace its Satanic origins. The pioneering Rock 'n' Roll of Bill Haley and Little Richard sounds positively cutesy compared to the Rock that developed during the late '60s and early '70s. With British bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, the guitars became dirtier and the beat more aggressive. Now it was the artists along with the music that were deemed Satanic.
This unprecedented horror trope gave the media cause for concern, not to mention the apocalyptic lyrics of "Satan smiling" and "coming round the bend," and the ghoulish album cover, with the inverted cross in the gatefold. According to Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, the album cover and gatefold were chosen by the record company, and the group were not best pleased, despite their dabblings in occultism.
The Satanic connotations are, however, more subtle than you might think, and grounded in music theory. The main riff, as with many subsequent Sabbath songs, employs a diminished fifth in the movement from G to C#. This tritone has been known since the early 18th century as "diabolus in musica" (the devil in music). With the lyrical focus on Satan, the words are married to the dissonant music in much the same way that Leonard Cohen actively describes the musical progression in his song "Hallelujah." This device has been used by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in his "Dante Sonata" and by George Harrison in several of his Beatles compositions; for Iommi, however, the device and its devilish connotations were entirely subconscious. "That was just something I liked. I never even thought about. I never even knew about it... when I first did it. And then later on: 'oh, you shouldn't be playing those notes.' Why? I mean I didn't understand all that." (Hardtalk, 2013).
Another curious case of unconscious devil worship supposedly occurs in Led Zeppelin's magnum opus "Stairway to Heaven." According to a 1982 program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network investigating alleged Satanic backmasking in popular songs, the cryptic, Tolkien-inspired lyrics are apparently less confusing when reversed. Reversing the verse following the introduction of John Bonham's drums (that begins "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow...") apparently reveals Satanic messages:
Oh, here's to my sweet Satan,
The one whose little path made me sad,
Whose power is Satan. He'll give those with him 666.
There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer,
Deflecting the allegations wasn't exactly easy considering co-writer Jimmy Page's apparent obsession with British occultist Aleister Crowley. Page was something of a Crowley scholar, owning manuscripts, artwork and even buying Boleskin house, where Crowley lived for 14 years. Pressings of Led Zeppelin's third album are inscribed with the phrase "Do what thou wilt," a tenet of Thelema, a religion Crowley developed.
Though not a confirmed Satanist, Page never really denied it either. He told Rolling Stone: "I don't really want to go on about my personal beliefs or my involvement in magic. I'm not interested in turning anybody on to anybody that I'm turned on to. If people want to find things, they find them themselves."
Arguably, Stairway-gate is the consequence of unfortunate phonetics, though there are instances where bands have admitted to Satanic backmasking. British metal band Cradle of Filth included a backwards recording of The Lord's Prayer on "Dinner at the Deviant's Palace." A backwards reading of the Lord Prayer is a significant moment in Black Mass, a parody of Catholic Mass, as a means by which to reverse the effects of Christian indoctrination. The band's Satanic imagery is largely attributed to shock tactics rather than genuine beliefs; in 1998, the band were arrested during a photo shoot in Rome whilst wearing dog collars and "I love Satan" T-shirts.
Indeed, Satanism does appear to be a profitable marketing tool. The American rock band KISS became well known for their elaborate stage shows featuring fire breathing, elevating drums, and, of course, bassist Gene Simmons' famous blood spitting routine. Former lead guitarist and founder Ace Frehley explained: "What do kids love more than anything else? To see good horror films. Religious fanatics, when they see the show or they see pictures, equate us with the Devil. Which is ridiculous. That's like saying Frankenstein or old horror movies are sinful. It's ridiculous."
In his autobiography Kiss and Make-Up, Simmons reveals a lot about the band's flippant attitude to the media's moral panic: "misinformation about the band began to spread in the southern Bible Belt states, including a rumor that the name KISS stood for Knights in Satan's Service, and that the four of us were devil worshipers. Ironically, this rumor started as a result of an interview I gave in Circus magazine after our first album; in response to a question, I said that I sometimes wondered what human flesh tastes like. I never wanted to really find out, but I was curious intellectually. Later on, this comment seemed to ignite the whole idea that in some way KISS was aligned with devil worship. When I was asked whether I worshipped the Devil, I simply refused to answer for a number of reasons: the first reason, of course, was that it was good press. Let people wonder. The other reason was my complete disregard for the people who were asking."
Of course, Satanist imagery can be for more noble, aesthetic reasons than sheer marketing. In 1979, Black Sabbath replaced Ozzy Osbourne with former Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Ozzy famously used the peace sign at concerts, and Dio eagerly sought a hand gesture to get the crowd on his side. He chose a gesture taught to him by his Italian grandmother that in her culture was used to ward off bad luck. The sign of the horns became a heavy metal hallmark, but its Satanic associations are not what Dio intended: "It was a symbol that I thought was reflective of what that band was supposed to be all about. It's NOT the Devil's sign like we're here with the Devil. It's an Italian thing I got from my Grandmother called the Malocchio. It's to ward off the Evil Eye or to give the Evil Eye, depending on which way you do it. It's just a symbol but it had magical incantations and attitudes to it and I felt it worked very well with Sabbath." (Metal-Rules.com, 2001).
Dio's association with Satanic imagery is not an accident, as his classic song "Holy Diver" will demonstrate, but in the case of AC/DC they embraced (to a point) the media's interpretation of Satanism in their sound. Asked about the album cover for Highway to Hell, which features lead guitarist Angus Young wearing devil horns, he said: "That was a result of being asked what we'd call one of our tours, and I replied 'a highway to hell!' It was a joke again! When we arrived in America, I didn't know what a fundamentalist was, and I didn't really care. All that Satanic stuff is more groups pretending because it goes with their image." (Auckland Star, 1990).
Indeed, AC/DC went on to pretend with "Hell's Bells," the opening track from their hugely successful album Back in Black. Like "Black Sabbath," the song opens with an ominous bell toll, but rather than an ambiguous reference to Satan, the lyric seems to take on the voice of Antichrist:
If you're into evil, you're a friend of mine
See the white light flashing as I split the night
Cos if good's on the left then I'm sticking to the right.
There are times, however, when a band's commitment to Satanist imagery starts to raise eyebrows. Norwegian Black Metal band Gorgoroth has yet to release an album without an anti-religious or Satanic title (consider their debut Pentagram, the follow-up Anti-Christ, or their more nuanced 2003 effort Twilight of the Idols). Surprisingly, their former bassist worked as a primary school teacher during his time with the band, but their media image was far less wholesome.
In the 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, Gorgoroth's former lead singer Gaahl made slightly controversial comments about church burning: "Church burnings and all these things are, of course, things that I support 100% and it should have been done much more and will be done much more in the future. We have to remove every trace from what Christianity and the Semitic roots have to offer this world. Satanism is freedom for the individual to grow and to become Superman. Every man who is born to be king becomes king. Every man who is born to be a slave doesn't know Satan."
The Dark Side seems to be working well for Gaahl, but not every Devil-worshiping rocker emerges unscathed. In his Songfacts interview, Bobby Liebling of the band Pentagram earnestly explained: "I was real deep into Satanism, which is the wrong way to go." Liebling's deal with the Devil left him destitute and depressive; Robert Johnson at least got The Blues for his soul.
Clearly, Satanism in Rock is a broad spectrum; the irony is, however, that whilst Rock artists increasingly embrace Satanic imagery, the media has become increasingly indifferent to the effects of the "Devil's Music." As The Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger noted in an interview with Creem magazine, when they were perceived as devil worshippers, he thought it odd. "It was only one song, after all," he said. "It wasn't like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back. People seemed to embrace the image so readily. It has carried all the way over into heavy metal bands today."
True enough, even when Jagger introduced himself as the Devil, it was more the media who cast him in that mould, suspecting the band of indulging in the occult. Today, Kanye West can rap about a "Devil in a New Dress" without being accused of promoting Satanism. Beth Orton can sing "Devil Song" and there is zero controversy. It took a long time, but the media finally accepted that rock will always have some sympathy for the Devil.
July 31, 2013
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