Horror fiction and heavy metal go together like a fist fuck and five star lube. Many horror fans have a weakness for doom laden power chords and a dark driving beat, and who can blame them given the things they read and watch. Everyone knows that the Dark Lord’s had all the heaviest tunes since the dawn of time, and occult subjects slip as easily into death metal lyrics as a priest into a choirboy’s cassock.
In fact, the long association between horror, metal and the satanic arts goes right back to first painful contractions of metal’s birth. In the late 60s and the early 70s the so called ‘Age of Aquarius’ developed a noted dark side. The Stones gig at Altamont had driven a stake through the heart of Woodstock’s dreams of love and peace and the permissive society began to embrace Crowley’s dictum that ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.’ Along with his dictum (stop sniggering), many were also embracing Crowley’s magickal practices. The popular bookshelves were dominated by Dennis Wheatley and his authorial acolytes, cinema screens were infested with a slew of satanic movies including The Devil Rides Out and exploitation classics like Legend of the Witches and the tabloids were stuffed with tales of swinging suburbanites who’d shifted from wife swapping to full on satanic orgies.
Rock music was in a strange hinterland at the end of the 60s, psychedelia was busy spinning off into a variety of nascent genres including heavy rock and prog. With all the black magic in the air at the time, it stood to reason that sooner or later various brave and thrill seeking musicians were going to fall under its beckoning spell. The little scene that sprung up around this music has been fascinating me of late, so I’m going to devote the majority of this month’s column to it. I know this is technically supposed to be a column about horror comics but I long ago abandoned any illusions of keeping to just that subject, so you’ll have to bear with your Uncle Jasp as we descend into the swinging and subterranean scene known briefly as Occult Rock.
The first stop on our dire descent is a group known as Black Widow, who very nearly had Black Sabbath’s career (more on that later). Hailing from Leicester they began life as a rather mediocre blues and soul outfit with the teeth-gnashingly perky name of ‘Pesky Gee!’ Even though their name sounded like the sort of catchphrase used by a faded comedian who would later be indicted for crimes against nature, they actually managed to get a record deal and put out an instantly forgettable album called ‘Exclamation Mark’. According to their flautist Clive Jones the name of album was an accident that came about when their manager phoned the record company to complain they kept forgetting to spell their name with the ‘exclamation mark’, sadly that’s the only interesting thing that can be said about the album.
When the album failed to set the charts alight, the band changed their name to Black Widow and began to hang around with Alex Sanders, Britain’s self proclaimed ‘King of the Witches’. Mostly forgotten today, Alex Sanders was a household name in the 60s and 70s, appearing often in the papers and on the television to pontificate on all manner of occult subjects from the right time of the month to slit the throat of your goat through to the correct temperature at which to serve human blood to your coven, he even released his own album, A Witch Is Born.
Under Sanders’ tutelage the band began building real occult secrets into their music and lyrics. They also developed a stage show steeped in ritual, that culminated in the mock sacrifice of a naked virgin. Little England was horrified, bishops were wheeled out to fulminate and warn the young of the dangers of black magic, and the queues formed around the block for Black Widow’s shows. Their single ‘Come to the Sabbat’ was tipped for the number one spot but was subsequently banned by the BBC and their psychedelic/proto-prog album Sacrifice peaked at number 34 in the charts, but continued to sell well for a long time afterwards.
They were singled out for even bigger things in the States, but their tour coincided with the Manson family furore and their satanic reputation led to a countrywide ban. To fill all the dates that had been booked, their management were forced to turn to the only other band on their books, the aforementioned Black Sabbath. The rest, for Sabbath, was history. Black Widow subsequently dropped all the occult paraphernalia but their career slowly dwindled; they recorded four more album to decreasing sales and split up at the beginning of the 70s only to reform briefly in 2007.
Here’s a film of them in their heyday, that was shot for a German TV station. I can only imagine how that was announced to the viewers at the time: “Coming up we have the weather and then a delicious Wiener Schnitzel recipe from Frau Helga, but first some crazy British rockers sacrificing a virgin …”
While Black Widow dabbled and flirted with the occult, the American band Coven lived, breathed, ate and even shat their satanic beliefs. They are also the band responsible for introducing the Sign of the Horns to rock music, which, if nothing else, should guarantee them a place in metal history. Their highly charismatic singer Jinx Dawson was a twin whose sister died in the womb. She was raised in her parent’s secret society to study opera and the occult, but rebelled against them and formed a rock group in the late sixties with guitarists Chris Neilsen and Rick Durret, drummer Steve Ross and bassist Oz Osbourne (no relation, but coincidentally they did also release a song call ‘Black Sabbath’ and Black Sabbath were dubbed “something like England’s answer to Coven” by Lester Bangs when they first toured the States. Later, enraged at Sabbath stealing their image, Coven daubed inverted crosses in human blood on Sabbath’s dressing room doors in Memphis).
Coven had a lot of success on the touring circuit, playing with bands like Alice Cooper, Vanilla Fudge and Jimmy Page’s Yardbirds. Given Page’s later interest in Crowley and the supernatural, it’s interesting to speculate whether his occult leanings began in his months on the road with Jinx and company, who would hold black masses backstage before every performance. Their stage show was said to be jaw dropping, its high point being the crucifixion of a Jesus-look-a-like roadie and then the inversion of the self same giant cross to which they’d nailed him; no wonder the Alice Cooper band were purportedly scared to death of them.
In 1969 they signed with Mercury Records and released ‘Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls’ which is actually a pretty good gothic psych/proto metal album. It culminates with the 13 minute track ‘Satanic Mass’ which is a full and authentic depiction of a black mass, complete with chanting, incantations, bells, chimes and other sound effects. I wonder how many hippies dropped acid and put it on the turntable, only to find the Goat of Mendes’ blistering hoof coming down hard on their trip. Here’s the radio spot they put out to promote it:
The album did really well initially but fell foul of an article in Esquire magazine entitled ‘Evil Lurks in California’ that linked Coven and their music with (yep you guessed it) the Manson Family slayings yet again. The unwanted publicity caused Mercury to pull the record and cancel upcoming tours. Coven rallied though, when two years later director, actor and activist Tom Laughlin asked them to record the track One Tin Soldier for his indie movie Billy Jack. The film was a huge hit and the single topped the charts in 1971 AND 1973.
The renewed interest led them to release two more albums, the eponymous ‘Coven’ and the excellent ‘Blood on the Snow’, neither of which achieved any chart success. Jinx apparently carried on a slew of torrid affairs with everyone from Jim Morrison (was there any female in the 60s he didn’t bed?), Queen’s Roger Taylor and even Charlie Chaplin (no really). Coven’s many other near brushes with renewed success included turning down producer Neil Bogart’s offer to become a “made up costume band called ‘Kiss” (Gene Simmons and co. bit his hand off instead) and starring in an unreleased horror film called Heaven Can Help in 1990 for which Jinx and drummer Ross also wrote the score. Coven’s cult status slowly grew over the decades and in 2008 they released a new album ‘Metal Goth Queen-Out of the Vault’ which included a number of rock dignitaries from bands such as Deep Purple, Steppenwolf and Jethro Tull.
One last claim to fame of which Coven can boast is very probably shooting the first ever music video. This little devilish gem was shot by Disney Studios, of all people, in 1974 to promote ‘Blood On The Snow’:
There were other notable bands of this time who chipped away at this same satanic seam for inspiration, Italy’s Jacula and Antonius Rex for instance, Germany’s Zior and Britain’s acid folk maestro’s Comus. However, I’ve already gone on at length, so I’ll maybe save them for another column on the same subject, if you’re interested leave me a comment below.
Although I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t going to write about horror comics for this column I fear I may have spoken too soon, because your dear old Uncle Jasp has a new graphic novel out. It’s a horror/crime mash up called Bloodfellas that’s a homage to the pre-code crime and horror comics of the 1950s such as Tales from the Crypt and Crime Doesn’t Pay. TIH’s own Bob Pastorella described it, on this very site, as “epic in both scope and design … definitely one for your collection!” Set in 1930s prohibition-era America, the elevator pitch for Bloodfellas would be “The Walking Dead meets Boardwalk Empire.” I know you’ve heard this a million times before but this really IS a reinvention of the zombie genre, this is the undead as you have never seen them before.
So don’t delay, click on this link right now!!! If you’re not 100% thrilled with your purchase I will personally come round to your house and perform a Death Metal Black Mass stark-bollock naked by way of recompense.
Trust your Uncle Jasp on this, you know it makes sense.