It was popularly believed in the 1930s that the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, who inspired Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical gifts. It was believed Johnson had the ‘Evil Eye’ and was murdered because of his alleged power over women. He seduced the wife of a beer hall owner who in revenge laced the musician’s whisky with arsenic. Many moralists saw his fate as a punishment for dealing with the powers of darkness.
Johnson is said to have sold his soul to Old Nick during a midnight ceremony at a crossroads. However, that story did not originate with him. In the 1920s and 1930s there are numerous tales of black musicians and gamblers signing a pact with a mysterious ‘man in black’ at the crossroads. Famous examples are the black singer Clara Smith and Robert Johnson’s namesake Tommy Johnston, a decade before him. The dark stranger has been identified by some writers as either the Christian Devil or the West African trickster god Eshu, worshipped in voodoo and taken to the southern states of America by black slaves.
While there is little evidence of modern pop and rock musicians actually ‘selling their souls’ to the ‘Devil’, the link between popular music and the occult is a strong one. Christian fundamentalists have predictably seen the widespread use of magical and occult symbols in rock music as evidence it is the work of Satan, but the truth is far stranger than their religious fantasies.
Sometimes the alleged connections of famous rock musicians with occultism surfaced in apocryphal showbiz gossip or rumour. For example, everyone knows that ill-fated glam rock star Marc Bolan studied as a sorcerer’s apprentice with a magician in a French chateau (in fact he actually admitted it), that the late pop diva Dusty Springfield allegedly belonged to a satanic group called the Temple of the Prince in Manchester, and that Jim Morrison of The Doors married a Wiccan high priestess (which was true).
Then there was the 1970s British musician Graham Bond, accused by his fellow R & B artist Long John Baldry of sacrificing his pet cat in a magical ritual. Bond told his groupies he was one of the illegitimate sons of the infamous ‘black magician’ Aleister Crowley, and that his musical output was designed to contact “higher forces.” Bond also believed he had been cursed by a fellow occultist. When in 1974 the musician fell in front of a train on the London Underground in mysterious circumstances, many thought the curse had worked.
The Beatles & the Rolling Stones
The Beatles are well known for flirting with Eastern mysticism and transcendental meditation during their psychedelic hippy stage in the late 1960s. They may also have had darker interests. For instance, the Great Beast 666, Aleister Crowley, is featured (top left corner above) in the photomontage of “people we most admire” on the cover of the Fab Four’s famous album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Antiquarian bookseller and Crowley bibliographer Timothy D’Arch Smith relates how the Beatles attended an exhibition of rare books on witchcraft and the occult he held in Swinging London. Jane Asher, Paul McCartney’s then girlfriend, had suggested the visit to him and, according to D’Arch Smith, encouraged him to buy rare books as an investment.
If the Beatles were mildly interested in the occult, then their main rivals for the pocket money and affection of teenage girls, the Rolling Stones, were definitely involved in a more dramatic way. Despite their respectable middle-class backgrounds, in the Sixties the Stones were deliberately promoted as the ‘bad boys of pop’. It now seems this was a marketing ploy by their then manager Andrew Oldham, and is summed up in the famous newspaper headline, ‘Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?’ If the parents of Middle England had known about their dabbling in the occult, the answer may have been in the negative.
The so-called ‘satanic’ influence on the Stones was through the avant-garde filmmaker, Luciferian and Tinseltown gossip-queen Kenneth Anger. He had become interested in the band’s career and particularly in guitarist Brian Jones and his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, a German film actress and model. Jones had some unusual interests, and both he and the pop singer Robert Palmer were fascinated by the master musicians of Joujouka in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco in North Africa. These musicians claimed to be still practising the ancient rites of the goat-footed god Pan. Jones went so far as to travel to North Africa to record an album of the tribal music performed by this pre-Islamic cult.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine Robert Palmer described how he had witnessed one of these rites to Pan. He said the dancing tribesmen appeared to be in an ecstatic trance with their eyes rolled back in their heads. Palmer said that when “the power came down” the dancer was suddenly “not there.” In fact “something else” was looking out of his eyes, which began to “glow like ruby lasers” (Rolling Stone, 23 March 1989).
Kenneth Anger believed that Anita Pallenberg and Brian Jones, who was to drown in mysterious circumstances in the swimming pool of his Sussex mansion, were witches. Allegedly, Jones showed the filmmaker an extra nipple he had on his inner thigh and told him: “In another time they would have burned me [as a witch].” Extra nipples were regarded by witch-hunters as a sign of the Devil’s Mark. A friend of Anita Pallenberg, Tony Sanchez, believed she kept her drug stash hidden in an old carved wooden chest in her flat. One day he looked inside. Instead of drugs he found it contained bones and pieces of fur and skin from “strange animals.” Mick Jagger’s one time girlfriend Marianne Faithfull described how she and Pallenberg used to sit for hours reading aloud passages from Robert Graves’ book The White Goddess and studying the ancient Celtic tree alphabet.
In her autobiography Marianne Faithfull claims the gay Anger had a crush on the bisexual Stones’ singer which was not reciprocated. When the filmmaker’s sexual overtures were rejected he became a bit of a nuisance. One day he turned up at the couple’s house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea and bizarrely threw several books by the 18th century poet and mystic William Blake through the window. Jagger responded in disgust at this stunt by burning all the copies of the occult works that Anger had given him by Crowley and the French occultist Eliphas Levi.
Despite this, Marianne Faithfull got involved in Anger’s experimental movie Lucifer Rising, allegedly financially sponsored by Anita Pallenberg, and with a score originally to be composed by Mick Jagger. Initially the Stones’ singer was to play the leading role in the film, but he got cold feet and backed out of the project altogether. In the first version, made in 1967, the lead was taken by his brother Chris Jagger. Marianne Faithfull became involved in the second version filmed in 1972 and she agreed to take the part of the demon-goddess Lilith.
Faithfull described the baby-slaying Lilith as one of the classic female archetypes and compared her with pagan goddesses such as Diana, Astarte, Ishtar, Aphrodite and Demeter. However, she added: “From the view of patriarchy, of course, she was the pure incarnation of evil” (Faithfull by Marianne Faithfull with David Datton, 224). Interestingly, the part of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris in the film was played by Donald Cammell, son of Charles Cammell, a friend and biographer of Crowley. The younger Cammell made his own films including the controversial Performance in co-operation with Nic Roeg. It starred Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg and the archetypal English actor Edward Fox. Donald Cammell committed suicide in the 1990s.
The shooting of Lucifer Rising took place in Egypt and Faithfull claims that as soon as the crew and cast arrived in the country it was obvious Anger did not know what he was doing as either a film director or a magician. At that stage in her life Faithfull was seriously addicted to heroin and admits she did not know what she was doing on the set either. The whole thing was a recipe for disaster. The last sequence of the film was a winter solstice rite shot at a Neolithic site in Germany. During it, Faithfull managed to fall off a mountain. She somersaulted and landed on her feet without sustaining any injury. This convinced her that her magic was stronger than Anger’s. In her autobiography she dismissed him as a “kitsch occultist” and “a witch out of a Hollywood tabloid.”
Marianne Faithfull claims that both Mick Jagger and the Stones’ lead guitarist Keith Richards were also sceptical about Anger’s “satanic hocus-pocus” and did not take any of it seriously. However, after an incident involving the magician at the house in London now shared by Richards and Anita Pallenberg, Faithfull became seriously spooked out. As a result, she believed she was under psychic attack. Allegedly, she wore a clove of garlic around her neck and slept in a circle of lit candles for protection. Whether this paranoid behaviour was connected to her heroin addiction is not known.
One of Marianne Faithfull’s tracks on her comeback album Broken English is called ‘Witches Song’. She dedicates it as “my ode to the wild pagan woman I know and have always around me.” Faithfull says she got the idea for the song after she and Mick Jagger visited an exhibition in Madrid of paintings on the theme of the Witches Sabbath by the Spanish artist Goya. Her autobiography also describes an incident when she and Jagger took LSD before visiting Primrose Hill in North London “where the ancient ley lines are supposed to run” and where modern neo-druids hold their seasonal ceremonies. Under the influence of the acid the couple saw “a great face in the sky” they were convinced was the head of the Celtic giant god Bran. This seems to fit with Faithfull’s professed pagan beliefs. In her autobiography she says she believes not in God the Father, but in the Great Goddess and her consort Pan.
Jimmy Page & Aleister Crowley
In 1969 the satanic aura around the rock mega-group Led Zeppelin reached such a pitch that, in echoes of Robert Johnson, rumours circulated in the Los Angeles music scene that its members had signed a pact in their own blood with the Devil to gain fame.
James Patrick ‘Jimmy’ Page’s well-known interest in the occult fuelled these rumours of the group’s alleged satanic activities. Described by the magazine AllMusic as “one of the all-time most influential, important and versatile [rock] guitarist and songwriters,” Page had been interested in alternative religions since childhood. While a member of the Yardbirds, he had hung out with Brian Jones and Anita Pallenberg at their studio flat in South Kensington. Page has never hidden his interest in Aleister Crowley, and Led Zeppelin’s famous album Rune has a photograph of the Great Beast on its cover. In an interview with Sounds magazine in 1976 Page is quoted as saying that Crowley was “a misunderstood genius of the twentieth-century.”
Jimmy Page purchased as many artefacts and first edition books belonging to Crowley that he could find. In 1969, Kenneth Anger rented Crowley’s old (seriously haunted) house Boleskine on the shores of Loch Ness where he lived in the 1900s for a few months. When it came on the market for sale, Anger suggested to Page he should buy it. This he did and hired an occult artist called Charles Pace to paint suitable atmospheric magical murals in each room. The Led Zeppelin guitarist could be seen driving around the area like a Scottish laird in a Land Rover with a stack of stag’s antlers on the bonnet. Page also visited Sicily and contemplated buying the old villa where Crowley established his ‘Abbey of Thelema’ in the 1920s.
In the early 1970s Page opened an occult bookshop in Kensington called The Equinox. It was done out in a futuristic style with glass bookshelves and display cabinets and chrome steel pillars. Under its auspices, Page published a facsimile of Crowley’s 1904 edition of the medieval grimoire Goetia.
Kenneth Anger approached Jimmy Page and asked him to provide a soundtrack for his ongoing film project Lucifer Rising. Unfortunately, the two men fell out when Page only managed to produce 23 minutes of music and Anger wanted 28 minutes. The filmmaker accused Page of being a mere dabbler in the occult and a drug addict so out of his mind he could not finish the film score. However, in 1976 Page lent Anger the basement of his London house for film editing purposes. Again, the two men did not see eye to eye and Page allegedly cursed the filmmaker. Page later branded the incident as “silly and pathetic” and said he still respected Anger as an occultist.
There has been a lot of debate about whether Jimmy Page ever belonged to one of the modern versions of Crowley’s magical group the OTO (Ordo Templis Orientis or Order of the Eastern Temple). In fact, the jury seems to be out on whether Page is an actual magical practitioner at all. In this respect New Musical Express journalist Nick Kent dismisses rumours the guitarist spends his time with “his head in a cowl ritually slaughtering various species of livestock.” Kent instead says from his experience Page is “just another seeker after esoteric knowledge, a collector of dusty old books, and committed student of the ‘magical’ information that was supposedly contained in their yellowed pages.”
Although Jimmy Page’s interest in Crowley and the occult is well known, his Led Zeppelin colleague Robert Plant also has esoteric interests. These manifest in a study of folklore, Norse and Germanic mythology, and reading ‘sword and sorcery’ novels. Plant spent most of his life living on the Welsh Border and in an interview with the rock music magazine Kerrang! he said he often visited the Black Mountains in South Wales. There he rediscovered his roots in the local Celtic culture. Using an ordnance survey map, he wandered the hills visiting Bronze Age sites and places where the Welsh had battled with the Saxons.
Another famous rock star who openly admits an interest in the occult, magic and Crowley is David Bowie (born David Robert Jones). In the 1970s he says he studied the Kabbalah and “Crowleyism” and more recently became interested in Gnosticism. On a practical level the singer used Tarot cards and a crystal ball for divination, an ouija board to contact spirits, and performed magical rituals for exorcism and psychic protection. His early album Hunky-Dory features a song called ‘Quicksand’ that references both Crowley and the Victorian magical group Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
According to David Bowie’s wife Angie in her autobiography, her husband’s interest in the occult was due to his desire to outdo Jimmy Page. Allegedly, he saw the Led Zeppelin guitarist as a magical rival. Bowie eventually decided, possibly because of Page’s interest in him, that Crowley and his works were “small shit.” For that reason he began studying Tibetan magic which he claimed was far more powerful than anything the Great Beast or Page had ever done.
In an interview with New Musical Express (February 1997) David Bowie admits he had been into “old fashioned magic” in the 1970s, and said he always believed Crowley was a charlatan. He reveals that Arthur Edward Waite, a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, and the Welsh-born occultist Dion Fortune, author of Psychic Self-Defence, have been important to him. In fact, Bowie used Fortune’s book extensively when he believed he was under psychic attack. Talking of a house he rented in Los Angeles in 1975, Bowie said he decorated it with ancient Egyptian artefacts. This was because, “I had this more than passing interest in Egyptian mysticism and the Kabbalah…” (Stage Fascination: David Bowie the Definite Story by David Buckley, 235).
Angie Bowie says the musician was heavily involved with occult activities in 1975-76. This coincides with a period when he used cocaine and she believed this made him paranoid. Apparently, Bowie stored bottles of his own urine in the fridge and carefully disposed of his nail and hair clippings. This was in case magical practitioners obtained these personal items in order to cast spells on him. He also set up an altar in his sitting room with black candles on it, painted occult symbols on the walls, and performed magical banishing rituals for protection. Angie Bowie once witnessed him exorcise a swimming pool he believed was haunted.
When the couple were viewing properties to rent or buy in Hollywood they came across an old house with a pentagram of five-pointed star painted on the floor. Bowie freaked out and said he could not live there as the building had been used for black magic rites. One day he phoned his wife and told her witches were trying to steal his semen. Allegedly they wanted to create a test-tube baby and then sacrifice it in a satanic rite. It turned out the ‘witches’ were just some innocent groupies he met in a bar.
At this difficult point in his life Bowie also flirted with neo-Nazism. He explained in an interview with the British rock music journalist Tony Parsons in 1993 that this was only because he was fascinated by the use of occult symbols like the swastika by the original Nazi Party in Germany. He was interested in their quest for the Holy Grail because he was also searching for its meaning (Stage Fascination: David Bowie the Definite Story by David Buckley, 235-236). Bowie once said that it might be a good idea to have a fascist dictatorship in Britain, although he later denied he was serious and claimed it was a joke.
Black Sabbath & Heavy Metal
Partly as a reaction to the hippy ‘flower power’ and ‘peace and love’ movement of the late Sixties, heavy metal bands began to appear using violent satanic imagery and playing loud over-amplified rock music. Groups such as Warlock, Saxon, Venom, Motley Crue, W.A.S.P., Slayer, Iron Maiden, Incubus and Bathory put out albums with covers decorated with human skulls, pentagrams, hooded figures, gravestones, goat-headed demons and vampires. One of the most famous and pioneering heavy metal bands Black Sabbath came out of Birmingham in the industrial Midlands of England in 1969. They combined heavy guitar riffs with satanic inspired lyrics and an obsession with the gothic dark side that soon gave them a dedicated, if rather odd, fan base.
The band’s distinctive name was taken from an old horror movie starring English actor Boris Karloff, famous for his movie interpretation of Dr. Frankenstien’s monster. Originally, Black Sabbath started out as a jazz-blues band until they became influenced by the ‘black magic’ novels of the thriller writer Dennis Wheatley and books by Aleister Crowley. Their leader ‘Geezer’ Butler was lent a 16th century grimoire or book of magic. Its contents so freaked him out that he locked it in a cupboard before going to bed. During the night he had a spectral visitation from a dark shadowy figure who stood at the end of his bed. In the morning when Butler opened the cupboard the grimoire had vanished and it was never seen again.
Butler claims the band was invited to play a gig at a Witches Sabbath at Stonehenge, which sounds like something out of a Dennis Wheatley novel. When the boys refused the chief “warlock” of the coven ritually cursed the band. Geezer says he consulted a “white witch” to get the curse lifted and was told the band had to wear crosses to ward off the evil forces directed at them. Apparently, lead singer Ozzy Osbourne’s father, who was a bit of a handyman, made the crosses for each of the band members to wear.
Ozzy Osbourne always denies he was seriously into the occult, although he did have his Tarot cards read – twice. Famously he said the only evil spirits that interest him are whisky, gin and vodka! He describes the strange people attracted to the band, who habitually wear white face make-up and black hooded robes, as “freaks.” Ozzy says the only good thing about all the satanic stuff is it gave the band free publicity increasing their record sales and bank accounts.
Some of the heavy metal bands took their interest in witchcraft and magic more seriously. One of these, for a while, was Black Widow who played a mixture of progressive rock and folk music and used demonic imagery in their act based on serious research. In 1968 the group’s manager approached Maxine and Alex Sanders, the so-called ‘King and Queen of the Witches’. He wanted to know if the couple could recommend a nubile young witch with dancing skills to take part in their new stage act. This featured a magician played by one of the band’s members conjuring up a demon who was once an ancient goddess called Ashtaroth.
Several professional dancers auditioned for the part of the demon-goddess. Each one suffered fainting fits during rehearsals and felt they were being possessed by an evil spirit. In desperation the band wanted to hire a real witch who would not be fazed by the magical goings-on. Black Widow’s manager said the Sanders were happy to help and he described them as “clever business people” only interested in making money in any way they could.
A member of the Sanders’ coven volunteered for the role and the rehearsals were successful. Unfortunately, on the day of the first performance at the Lyceum Theatre in London, she fell ill. Alex Sanders volunteered his wife and the high priestess of the coven Maxine as a suitable stand-in. When the lead singer of Black Widow playing the sorcerer invoked the demon-goddess and accidentally stepped out of the protective magical circle, she was supposed to attack him. In her autobiography Maxine Sanders says the singer complained afterwards about the bruises he suffered from the physical assault by the ‘Queen of the Witches’.
Another more contemporary band called Tool and its lead singer Danny Carey are well known for their interest in all things magical. Carey collects rare limited edition publications by such modern occult practitioners as Crowley, Kenneth Grant, Austin Osman Spare and Andrew D. Chumbley. During their recordings of albums, Tool use magical banishing rituals to get rid of unwelcome influences left in the studio by previous performers. They have also been known to employ talismans and occult sigils used by the Elizabethan magician and astrologer Dr. John Dee in their gigs. During a South American tour, local Christian workers refused to handle the band’s equipment because it was “satanic.”
The 1990s saw a sinister link established between rock music and Satanism with the rise of the so-called ‘black metal’ or ‘death metal’ groups. These new bands were committed to an anti-Christian philosophy of anarchism, nihilism, violence and an obsession with death that made Black Sabbath stage appearances look like a vicar’s tea party. Possibly the most dramatic and violent manifestation of this new trend was in Scandinavia. A new cultural trend united satanic beliefs with atavistic forms of neo-paganism and extreme nationalist right-wing politics promoting racism and white supremacy. This deadly combination was to lead to arson and murder.
In 1992 an ancient wooden stave church was burnt down in a firebomb attack. Rumours began circulating that hard-core black metal fans were responsible for the outrage. It was alleged they were pagan Viking revivalists who expressed neo-Nazi views. Further church burnings and graveyard desecrations took place followed by murders involving rival groups of black metal fans and biker gangs. Media reports said that self-styled teenage satanists saw neo-Nazism and rock music as cultural stepping stones to a revival of Aryan-based paganism. Because the historic Christian churches were built on the site of pagan temples, they had to be destroyed before the heathen ‘old religion’ could be established again.
Today the number of rock bands using satanic and occult imagery is increasing. The new ‘high priest’ of the Church of Satan in the USA, Boyd Rice, is himself a musician. Critics have dubbed his musical output as “sonic terrorism as an art form.” Strangely enough, his satanic master, Anton LaVey, who found the Church of Satan in the 1960s, preferred Gershwin and Cole Porter with his bedtime cocoa.
It seems certain that in the future wherever and however rock music is played, there will always be those who claim, quite literally, the Devil has the best tunes.
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Bowie: Loving the Alien by Christopher Sandford, Little, Brown and Company, 1996
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MICHAEL HOWARD became interested in the connections between rock music and the occult while working for a major record company in London in the 1970s. He is the author of Secret Societies (Destiny Books, 2009) and Modern Wicca: from Gerald Gardner to the Present (Llewellyn, USA 2010). He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 121 (July-August 2010)..