This Halloween, let your playlist reflect the fact that rock & roll has always been permeated with occult archetypes, and its dark subject matter has inspired many a song from the ridiculous to the sublime. The truth is, from the beginning, it has always been home to the creepy, the kooky, the mysterious and spooky, as well as those who take the dark side extremely seriously. Catherine de Leon puts it all in context, with a little help from Daniel Ash of Bauhaus.
From its inception, rock & roll music has belonged to The Outsiders; the ones who are most comfortable at night and possess a superhuman capacity to simultaneously attract and repel. They scoff at society’s rules, never age, and dress to kill. The best rock frontmen/women are Nosferatu, on purpose, or not. They emerge from the shadows and connect to the darkness that lurks inside all of us, providing the soundtrack for a dance with death and a lyrical landscape conjuring images of dying in the arms of a pale, doomed lover…in a black leather jacket… or not.
Before some British music journalist came up with the term “Goth Rock”, there never seemed to be a need to classify dark, brooding atmospheric music with fatalistic overtones in some obtuse category. But what is Goth anyway, and how useful is the label? I remember back in the hazy Eighties, some guy who was looking for a reason to speak to me said, “I guess you’re a Goth, huh?” I said, “What’s Goth?” and he just looked me up and down and said, “You.” I replied, “Gee, I always thought I was a beatnik.” I wore black, my skin was powdered pale, my eyes lined with kohl, and my lips a deep retro red. I thought my look was more a nod to an existentialist coffee house from 1959 than to The Batcave. But still, I did love Bauhaus (the band). Was there something to this observation?
Twenty years later, I sought validation straight from the source, when I had an opportunity to hang out with and interview Daniel Ash (Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, Love and Rockets, Poptone). Amidst our mutual confusion, I think we agreed that the “Goth” label was no label at all. Daniel classified the faux classification by pointing out that the meaning of the meaningless is different in the UK than in America: “Well, you see there’s a big difference I think, in America and England, and what that means, because in England that was a phrase that the press started. And what it means is, somebody told me this three days ago, and I thought that it was the perfect way of describing Goth music, which we are NOT part of… although in some circles that would sound ridiculous, like denying the color of your skin. It was this young guy who was taking us around who said, “Well I was too young to know about Goth, but Goth to me from what I’ve heard, is like bad poetry and black lipstick.” And I thought, yeah, that’s it! That’s IT! So, you know, Goth in England is like, no talent, lots of makeup, big hair, but no talent, no songs… It means something different in England. It means basically that you really suck.”
Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus:
Because Halloween is upon us, expect to be inundated with too many lists of the “Top 10 Scariest Songs” or “Darkest Goth Bands Ever,” and opinion pieces arguing the validity of KISS or the place of Ozzy Osborne in any list ever. In 1999 or thereabouts, a British guitar magazine had done a poll listing the top five Goth guitarists of all time. This list was brought to my attention by The Mission UK frontman Wayne Hussey, who knew that Daniel Ash was my favorite guitarist. He called me to gloat that he, himself had made number one, and I shared this with Daniel. The conversation went like this:
C: So, there was a poll that a British guitar magazine had done on the top five Goth guitar players, and he (Wayne Hussey) got number one…
D: Oh, did he?
C: And you were number four…
D: Oh, damn! Number four?!? I thought you were gonna tell me I was number one! Not number fucking four… that’s no good, is it?
C: Well this is what was funny… number one was him, number two was Robert Smith…
D: Well there you go, he’s not Goth anyway… it’s like we were saying before… it’s got nothing to do with it…
C: Right, and number three was Billy Duffy…
D: Oh, right, well they’re not Goth either. The Cult are a rock band. Full on. Who was number five? Hendrix?
Certainly, Bauhaus, post-punk with Art School cred, kicked off a journalism frenzy that sought to name something they thought was new and different but had always existed, thereby wiping out the memory of the Shadow Dwellers who had come before and never really left the rock landscape. The obvious resides in novelty acts like Bobby “Boris” Pickett, and the splatter platters of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, conjuring visions of decapitated teenaged lovers in angora sweaters bleeding all over some lost highway after post-prom tragic car and motorcycle crashes. From the purveyors of the novelty song to the ‘I was there when’ greying Goths, everyone has an idea of what should flood our ear buds at this time of year. Too many make the mistake of focusing on a specific so-called subgenre rather than plumbing the depths of Rock music overall to capture the dark jewel that lies just beneath the surface.
The Cure – Just Like Heaven (Live 1990):
Fascination with the Occult has always been with us. It had its place predominantly in literature and film, but with the advent of Rock and Roll in the ‘50s, the image or suggestion of it infiltrated teen pop culture, helped along by the popularity of comic books, and Creature Double Features, all introducing old archetypes to a new audience. But, the artist drawn to this rebellious form of music will be the Dark Outsider at heart and have more in common with The Faustian imagery of selling one’s soul at the crossroads than to a fascination with Hollywood kitsch.
The late ‘50s/early ‘60s showed two sides; the undeniable kitsch of the aforementioned splatter platter contrasted with serious art, in the form of the atmospheric, reverb-washed sparse environment evoked by instrumentals like “Sleepwalk,” and the heavy echo of rockabilly guitar solos that would later find a place most notably with the Damned, Dave Vanian and the Phantom Chords, and Chris Isaak, to name a few.
From the mid-‘60s onward, rock & roll‘s roots are in the American blues and the myths of Devils and voodoo queens. The Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds were clearly influenced by the original blues masters. Jimmy Page, with the Yardbirds and with Led Zeppelin, borrowed heavily from Robert Johnson who as myth would have it, sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads.
[Editor’s note: Some have said that Jimmy Page did more than just “borrow”.]
Howlin’Wolf, an idol of the Rolling Stones’ co-founder Brian Jones, gave the band their name and their early blues band identity. Both Page and Jones had a strong interest, if not actually dabbled in the Occult. Jones’ pilgrimage to Morocco to record Jajouka: Pipes of Pan and Page’s fascination with The Most Wicked Man In The World, Aleister Crowley, has created its own mythology. Jones’ spiral into self-destruction was fuelled by the demons he saw while dabbling in LSD and alcohol-infused mystical rites, while Page slowly lost his mind when he lived in Crowley’s old home, and slept in his ceremonial robes, inspiring him to cast black magic spells over all his enemies.
Mick Jagger’s lyrics give the Devil a comfortable home, and have caused speculation and created myth about the longevity and wealth of the now septuagenarian. Jim Morrison of the Doors, was the epitome of the modern Luciferian…the Serpent king, bare chested, clad in leather pants, his pale, brooding, visage crowned in spiralling curls, hypnotising virgins and lulling them over to the dark side to gaze into a pool of existential dread to a Blues backbeat….”Let it roll, baby roll, all night long…”
Rock in the 1970s sought to erase Hippie culture but never broke its deal with the devil, from its most obvious like Alice Cooper and the characters of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, to the pagan-laden mystical lyrics of Marc Bolan and the constant resurrection of David Bowie in different guises looking like he time-hopped over centuries and worlds, cloaked in pale alter egos and eternal youth, his most vampiric character, the Thin White Duke, had translucent skin and was dressed to kill. Even in the earliest punk years, The Damned, whose iconic first bars of New Rose launched a generation, featured lead singer Dave Vanian, incongruously pale and dapper, obviously Nosferatu, cavorting with Captain Sensible and the rest of the more motley, mortal crew. Vanian would later form a side project called the Phantom Chords which would mix the subject matter of early ‘60s splatter platters with reverb-soaked guitars. You can just see the motorcycle cutting through the fog-draped deserted highway, on its way to Hell.
THE DAMNED – New Rose (1977):
The witch has also had her place. The rock & roll songstress is synonymous with the sorceress, the siren, the femme fatale. The obvious like Cher in her Vamp phase, warbling about Dark Lady, and Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves, while Stevie Nicks seeks validation through an alliance with Wicca, and showing her superhuman ability to endlessly twirl without getting dizzy, definitely send shivers up my spine. Dangerous bad girls like the Ronettes, and strong females who challenged “what a woman should be” like Julie Driscoll, Grace Slick, Joan Jett, Lene Lovich, Nina Hagen, and Siouxie Sioux, all cast a spell and strike fear into the heart of men while inspiring young girls with brains to pick up a guitar and kick out the Jams.
Real sorcery has a rich playground in rock & roll. From the time Screamin’ Jay Hawkins first “Put A Spell On You” to the present, magicians, both real and imagined are prevalent in rock & roll myth. There are those who borrow their image from dark conjurers and necromancers, to the real deal like Carl McCoy from Fields of the Nephilim whose occult vocabulary and personal grimoire send even the most learned witch to pore over an occult dictionary and double check the Necronomicon. Rumours and myths surrounding the late Genesis P. Orridge and his love affair with Crowley were obvious from the early days of Psychic TV and there are some who say that Karma caught up with him in the form of the notorious fire which swept producer Rick Rubin’s studio in April of 1995. It nearly killed Orridge, and destroyed most, if not all of Love and Rockets’ instruments, as they had been recording their album “Sweet F.A.” there. I had asked Daniel Ash if he still played the legendary telecaster from Bauhaus days, and he told me that it had burnt in the fire and remembered it like this:
C: What about the silver Telecaster. Don’t you still have that?
D: No, no. It got burned in the fire.
C: In that studio fire at Rick Rubin’s?
D: Yeah. Everything went. The saxophone, the guitar, everything.
C: That was actually something I was working my way up to asking you about… what did you think about that fire? Genesis P. Orridge was there, wasn’t he? That leads me to think its cause was occult… do you think it was really bad juju?
D: Yeah, the whammy happened to him, yeah, big time. Somebody stuffed a fire doll down his pants at the gig the night before and the whole place went up and he was the one who got really damaged.
C: Oh, I didn’t know that he was the intended target. I just heard he was there.
D: Oh, yeah. He did. He fell and broke his arm in nine places and he nearly died because he has a blood disorder anyway. I don’t really know the details about that, but yeah, somebody definitely did a whammy on him, you know, some voodoo stuff.
C: Well, he puts that energy out there, though, doesn’t he? I mean Psychic TV is all that, isn’t it, and it’s just not good stuff.
D: No, no, I really keep away from that guy. Yeah, it wasn’t me that was involved … yeah, not good stuff.
The workings of magick in rock & roll have a dark side to counter the light. From inspiration and enlightenment to being enslaved by the abyss. “As Above so Below” is an apt maxim that colors the musical mythology from the crossroads of the South to the mansions of the Hollywood Hills. Charlie Manson wanted to rock & roll. He was the real Psycho Killer.
Just as archetype and subject matter plumbed from films infused rock & roll from the ‘50s to the ‘70s, the ‘80s saw rock & roll culture bleed all over the horror movie. From The Lost Boys to Warlock to the Hellraiser franchise, it is clear that vampires and demons can counter any attack of crucifix and holy water with a heavy, echo-laden minor chord from a vintage Gretsch or Gibson. Even the post-apocalyptic masterpiece Bladerunner pulls a distinct rock aesthetic. Rutger Hauer and Daryll Hannah could easily front any German cyberpunk band. From the late ‘80s until today, the darker side of rock has been lost to the faux subgenre of Goth and has crept into the fluorescent light of pop culture in the form of mall rats dressed in Hot Topic gear listening Marilyn Manson while eating a vegan Big Mac. The final nail in the coffin is pounded, and Screamin’ J, Robert Johnson, and Howlin’ Wolf are banished to the crossroads of one generation’s distant memory.
So, this Halloween, let your playlist reflect the fact that rock & roll has always been permeated with occult archetypes, and its dark subject matter has inspired many a song from the ridiculous to the sublime. The truth is, from the beginning, it has always been home to the creepy, the kooky, the mysterious and spooky, as well as those who take the dark side extremely seriously. The trick is, to activate the eternal memory by lighting a candle in your Jack o’Lantern and sprinkling some graveyard dust to conjure up the archetypes that preceded The Goth and gave fanged teeth to the idea that rock & roll music is the home of the outsider, that place on the other side of the tracks where even the undead can feel accepted.
Treat yourself to some dark music from a time before Goth was Goth. Do it today. Do it every day. In Memento Mori.
“I Put A Spell On You” – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, chillingly, hauntingly performing live on the Merv Griffin Show, 1966: