While Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips and blues-inspired rock & roll sorcery infuriated adults and excited teenagers throughout the 1950’s (modern-day witches might look at the erotic frenzy Presley’s presence threw audiences into as the result of an in-born sex magick charisma), other artists of the decade were more overt in their utilization of taboo themes and outrageous occult imagery. “Let that white boy keep his blue suede shoes,” screamed every inch of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ onstage persona. “I’m gonna give ’em black capes and fiery skulls.”
Following the recording of what would become his biggest hit, the wickedly raucous, hootin’ ‘n’ hollerin’ shamanistic extravaganza “I Put A Spell On You,” Hawkins re-shaped his public face to mirror the appearance of a stereotypical bone-through-the-nose witch-doctor. While critics cried out against the explicit moans and groans of the practically pornographic (for its time) paean to perversity (both carnal and charnel) that was “I Put A Spell On You,” Hawkins just laughed and egged ’em on with a lurid stage show that saw him rise from a coffin, armed with voodoo talismans and a whole zoo full of rubber snakes and spiders.
Considered one of the very first “shock rock” pioneers, a precursor to similar-styled artists a la’ Alice Cooper and Gwar, Hawkins has been called “the black Vincent Price,” though his hits were much less in number (though certainly not in terms of staying power) than those of the much-loved star of such films as Witchfinder General, The Masque Of The Red Death, and The Abominable Dr. Phibes (it’s worth noting, by the way, that good ol’ Vinnie Price would, years later, go onto stake some land in the world of horror-centric music himself, with his campy spoken word segment in Michael Jackson’s monster hit “Thriller”).
As rock & roll evolved, so too did its depictions of the dark and macabre. When The Rolling Stones took to the stage in the 1960’s, they did so with an arrogant, animalistic swagger. Perfect accompaniment to their (literally) devil-may-care attitude were tunes like the gloomy, misery-minded “Paint It Black” and the infernal “Sympathy For The Devil,” an alternative view of human history told from the first-person P.O.V. of you-know-who. The fact that the band dubbed their 1967 album “Their Satanic Majesties Request” makes no bones about how far the group was willing to go to liven things up with a bit of that ol’ devil’s food flavor.
The 60’s, of course, were heady times for experimentation, in terms of everything from recreational sex and drug-use to religion and reality itself. Few decades were more defined by rock music and, accordingly, few decades were as concerned with transgression. One of the most brazen, fearless, and unfairly unsung soldiers of occult psychedelia from the 1960’s remains the Chicago, Illinois-based outfit Coven.
Virtually unknown today, except as an overlooked oddity of style-over-substance decadence (occasionally cited by heavy metal historians as a precursor to Black Sabbath, an observation made more noteworthy by virtue of the quirky coincidence that Coven’s bassist was named Oz Osbourne, despite the fact that he bears no relation to metal god Ozzy), Coven was, at the time of their debut, an ominous presence indeed. While Hawkins took his cues from Vincent Price and the Stones contented themselves with mere dabbling and flirtation in the realms of the arcane, Coven dived headlong into a sea of blood and pitch-black candle wax, coming up for air long enough only to spit out blasphemies and rattle off hellish litanies of demonic hierarchies.
With the haunting beauty of frontwoman Jinx Dawson leading the dirge, Coven were a devil-worshipping funeral procession carrying the corpse of flowerchild peace-and-love hippie-rock to a hungry graveyard. Charles Manson in California and the Hell’s Angels at Altamont would ultimately close the casket and toss in the last shovelful of soil, but it was Coven that got the ball rolling with their unrepentant alignment with all things occult.
Songs like “Dignitaries Of Hell” and “Pact Of Lucifer” stood eyeball-deep in the flames of hell while “White Witch Of Rose Hall” and “Choke, Thirst, Die” wove tapestries of terror with a storyteller’s brio. Especially worthy of mention are the tracks “Black Sabbath” (another quirky coincidence tying Coven to the soon-to-be godfathers of heavy metal) and “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” the latter of which is a surprisingly risqué and telling testament to the hangman-style sense of humor at work beneath the not-so-serious satanic excesses of the band’s style.
Standing out most significantly of all the tracks on Coven’s landmark “Witchcraft: Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls” record was “Satanic Mass.” Not really a song, “Satanic Mass” was rather a spoken word recreation of a fictionalized version of the titular event. The bleak Luciferian atmosphere and over-the-top pagan pageantry sounded like something straight out of a Hammer Studios adaptation of a Dennis Wheatly tale. Exactly what you’d expect from a sacrilegious devil-worship ceremony full of hooded cultists presiding over a black chapel full of inverted crosses and naked virgin sacrifices.
As wretchedly revolutionary as the visuals and thematic content of “Witchcraft: Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls” was, however, Coven’s music remained heavily indebted to the oovy-groovy stoner rock of the 1960’s, albeit with the psychedelic vortexes of kaleidoscopic color replaced by a swirling abyss of black, blacker, and blackest. It would take a British band, born in the industrial post-war wasteland of Birmingham, to inject molten iron into the ethereal sonic mix, and imbue occult rock with a dense, dark weight that would change the face (and sound) of the devil in music forever.
Said British band would be named, just like track #1 of Coven’s “Witchcraft” album, after a classic Boris Karloff picture.
…to be continued…