Devil Music: A History of the Occult in Rock and RollPosted by Lou on January 8, 2016
From The Beatles and the Stones to Led Zep, Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath, how the dark arts cast a spell on popular music
Source: Devil Music: A History of the Occult in Rock & Roll — Cuepoint — Medium
George A T Case
Jan 6, 2016
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.
The original Aleister Crowley shot used for the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club
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.”
Aleister Crowley’s The Book of the Law
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.
The Stones’ LP Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967) and the single “Sympathy For The Devil” (1969)
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 at an outdoor concert in Paris, 1967 | photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone
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.
Devil Music: A History of the Occult in Rock & Roll — Cuepoint — Medium
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