The Sounds of Samhain: A Brief History of Occultism within Rock and Heavy Metal
Drugs, sex, rebellious music; a definitive cocktail we all know as being the lifeblood of rock ‘n roll, or perhaps, a devilish triad in which leads partakers down the same path as the man himself. The Devil, in his many forms, has been a concrete figure looming over society from the very earliest religions, standing as the spiritual embodiment of sin, or the entity that meets you at your fatal end after you’ve strayed from the path of moral righteousness. A figure greatly feared, or perhaps feared as symbolising that of the unknown, but be that as it may, has resulted in numerous corresponding themes of mysticism within much of the music we know and love today. As we enter the darkest quarter of the year, I thought it would be a great time to explore the role of the “devil’s music”, how it came about, and why so many artists lean on the occult as a source of creative inspiration.
From its very earliest moments, Rock and Metal music has been the flagship genre for all things “Satanic”, using not only a bounty of dark and supernatural-themed lyrical content, but also exhibiting Occult symbolism and imagery through their artwork and stage-dress. This association has met vast public outcry from as little as dismissive finger-wagging to full-blown lawsuits and cultural hysteria. Blues being its primitive form met the same retaliation; anything that wasn’t music of the church, or in the boundary of societal norms was abruptly dubbed as “evil” or as a form of Satanic worship (and of course, Blues was of Black origin so its disapproval was largely caused by the effects of racism).
Accusations of Satanism within music had even been noted from as far back as the Middle Ages, and was supposedly connoted through the diminished fifth or tritone chord, otherwise known as “The Devil’s Chord’ and soon banned by the Roman Catholic Church. Although many renowned composers of the later periods had been known to wield this chord, the music was never greatly viewed as Satanic. Rather, this guise of hysteria and superstition hadn’t properly begun to make its way into the forefront of society until the 1900’s.
I think a good way to understand this phenomena is to delve into where it all began. As previously mentioned, Blues was the bedrock of where Rock and Metal music was bred. The genre of Blues at its earliest was said to have sprouted from the days of slavery. Black communities would use it as a way of expressing their oppression through their lyrical vocabulary, concealing topics relating to the abuse they endured. As time went on, Blues had continued to evolve, and was popularised through its display at house parties and other more public venues. This increase in popularity meant it became high competition to the gospel music of the day, which resulted in many Churches becoming more enraged at this so-called “devil’s music”. On top of its racial discrimination as being of largely African-American origin, numerous Blues artists would sing about Haitian Vodou. White conservatives would see this spiritual practice as being that of the “devil’s work”, further ostracising the genre from the realms of mere creative expression. To make matters worse, these religious conservative groups would connect the Vodou figure of Papa Legba, who is known as being a spirit, or a loa, who stands as an intermediary gatekeeper between the physical and spirit world, with that of being a devilish figure. Blues musicians came to terms with this seemingly un-changeable narrative, and saw it as an opportunity to use it to their advantage through playing up to its image. This would be a trick many Rock and Metal artists would soon embrace themselves. Numerous myths had been derived from this devilish association, such as legendary Blues musician Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the devil, or Papa Legba, to gain his success. Many of Rock’s famous players such as Phil Campbell of Motörhead, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page were inspired by his guitar style. Perhaps it could be noted as being Jimi Hendrix who served as one of the most obvious links, using some of Blue’s most stereotyped themes; ‘Lord knows I’m a Voodoo chile...’. Led Zeppelin’s frontman, Robert Plant, even allegedly travelled through Mississippi in hope of sourcing a living acquaintance of Robert Johnson, and even owns a jar of dirt from the crossroads where Johnson made his pact.
It seems selling one’s soul to the devil has become somewhat a classic trope within the Rock and Metal sphere, even the legendary Jimmy Page, who bought a mansion once owned by famous occultist Aleister Crowley, reportedly had too made this supernatural transaction. Most interestingly, if you play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ backwards, you’ll supposedly hear the words “Oh here’s to my sweet Satan. The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan. He will give those with him 666. There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan”. Led Zeppelin declined all Satanic ties to the song, and rebutted this accusation. More instances of backmasking subliminal messages within Rock and Metal tracks has been one component in which has amped up social hysteria, but many artists have either rejected this notion, or have admitted to using it as being part of their image. One example can be found in Slayer’s ‘Hell Awaits’, where if played backwards, the words “Join us” can be heard being softly chanted 45 times. Although deliberate, lead singer Tom Araya claimed that the band were simply playing up to their hellish image, and that the song is no way, or should in any way be used for satanic rituals of any kind. I think it’s certainly important to uncover why exactly artists such as this purposely implement artistic choices that will guarantee public backlash.
A good case study for this is of course Black Sabbath, fronted by none other than the self-proclaimed Prince of Darkness. At first glance, through their Occult semiology, stage dress and lyrical content, listeners might automatically assume that this is the work of Satanists, or something of the kind. Sabbath were probably one of the first bands to adopt such explicit gothic subject matter, and resultantly caused quite a stir within the world around them from both occultists and conservative parties. An early press release, after the band changed their name from Earth to their known title today, stated that Sabbath were in fact becoming more in tune with the dark arts, and even proclaimed that bassist Geezer Butler had perfected the technique of summoning demons. As stated, Sabbath’s success led to a lot of public attention, both welcomed and unwanted. Not only were they continually invited to play at graveyards and black masses, they were stalked by witches in the halls at their hotels. They were also invited to perform at a ritualistic concert at Stonehenge named the ‘Night of Satan’, to which they refused, and were shortly hexed by a man known as the King of the Witches. This led them to wearing one of their most iconic symbols, the crucifix, as a form of protection. If they were as openly afraid of the dark subject matter as they proclaimed to be (the group stated themselves to be terrified of anything actually “evil”), why would they continually rely on it as a source of creative inspiration, to the point where critics would condemn their music as being “black magic for the sick masses''? One reason for this is due to the record labels they were under suggesting that this method of Occult-inspired branding would lead to high publicity and attention. The most viable however, was that Sabbath grew from the counterculture movement of the 60’s / 70’s. Whilst the world around them were adopting the hippie aesthetic of peace and love, guitarist Tony Iommi believed that this ideology was not representative of the working class, for their struggles were continually prevalent within their own lives and couldn’t be solved by demonstrating such an all-loving philosophy. In the music documentary Heavy Metal Britannia, Iommi states that during that period “nobody was talking about the evil in the world”, and therefore felt that probably one of the best metaphors for this inescapable truth, was to represent the world’s harsh realities within Sabbath’s writing. ‘War Pigs’ is probably one of the greatest examples of this, through using lines such as “Generals gathered in their masses / Just like witches at black masses” there is a stark connection between the darkness of the political world, and with what many people perceive as evil, being witches. Geezer Butler has even described war itself as being “the Big Satan”. In this way, bands like Black Sabbath are “using evil to fight evil” as described in the music documentary Such Hawks, Such Hounds. From their very first songs, Sabbath played with themes of horror to depict the monstrosities of the real world, and gained a sea of mesmerised fans within their wake.
Since the formative years of Sabbath, who arguably invented the musical template for much of today’s Rock and Metal artists, there have been countless other acts that have incorporated this aptitude for using Occult imagery and dark subject matter. From earlier artists such as Pentagram and Witchfinder General to later acts like Electric Wizard, Sleep, Church of Misery and Behemoth, to name a few; “devil music” is still very much at play. Whether it’s for simple creative expression, revolt against authority and establishment, or to honour their lifestyle as true occultists; for example, Behemoth’s lead singer ‘Nergal’ is openly a Satanist, however describes Satanism as purely being the act of “being intelligent and thinking for yourself” (as would be seconded by The Church of Satan), this wicked attachment to the occult has been prevalent for as long as time itself, and has brought us some of music’s greatest. After all, what better time is there to pay respects to music that celebrates the occult, during the one day of the year where the barrier to the spiritual realm is supposedly at its thinnest? For me, I’ll be listening to this blog’s accompanying playlist and carving pumpkins with friends - leaving the door to that of the unknown slightly ajar.
Thanks once again to Elizabeth for sharing this article with us! Check out this playlist to listen to alongside / after the article, and be sure to check out Elizabeth on social media @elizabethscarlettmusic.