Voodoo in My Basement

The Sixties, Spirituality, & Satanism

by Alex Pompilli

Esquire Magazine​ released their March 1970 issue with the jarring headline, “EVIL LURKS IN CALIFORNIA” on the cover. Accompanying the article was a photograph of Charles Manson holding a copy of the little-known band Coven’s debut album, ​Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls.​ Only a few months earlier, the Manson Family carried out the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders which left nine (including Sharon Tate’s unborn son, Paul Richard Polanski) dead. This headline and photograph successfully killed Coven’s career (although they had some success in 1971 with their cover of “One Tin Soldier”), which was already littered with a string of controversies. The aforementioned album had featured a thirteen-minute track entitled “Black Mass'' which captured a real-life Satanic ritual and Satanic chants. In addition, front woman Jinx Dawson ended each show with the now infamous ‘devil’s horns’ gesture, beginning as early as 1967.

Although audiences were shocked and appalled by Coven’s interest in Satanism, it is really no surprise that in 1969, of all years, an album of this nature was released in the mainstream. Popular British and American musicians had been drawing inspiration from paganism since the mid-’60s, in songs such as such as “Voodoo in My Basement” (The Lovin’ Spoonful, 1966), “Season of the Witch” (Donovan, 1966), “Strange Brew” (Cream, 1967), and “Wicked Annabella” (The Kinks, 1968). Increasing references to the occult in popular music intersected with sonic and thematic experimentation during this time period. Artists such as The Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa released records that contained explicit, shocking lyrics and obscure, ‘exotic’ instruments such as electric violas and unusual guitar arrangements, resulting in an otherworldly and surrealist sound.

The “occult chic” vibe that ​Esquire​ points fingers at throughout their 1970 article is actually partially to blame on the two most popular bands of the decade: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The Beatles’ release of ​Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band​ in 1967 had (whether intentionally or not) pushed occultism further into popular culture with the inclusion of occultist and spiritual mystic Aleister Crowley on the cover. As a response to ​Sgt Pepper​’s success, The Rolling Stones released their album, ​Their Satanic Majesties’ Request​, in December of the same year. For the record’s cover, the band is dressed in Renaissance robes with a trippy, surrealist background. Significantly, both bands released some of their most experimental songs on these albums such as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”, “In Another Land”, and “She’s a Rainbow.”

The link between experimental music and occultism is perfectly encapsulated by none other than The Incredible String Band. An inspiration to both the Beatles and the Stones in the late ‘60s, the band achieved moderate fame after performing at Woodstock in 1969, although they had been making albums since 1966. Their blend of mysticism, folklore, and dreamlike musical arrangements is apparent in songs such as “Witches’ Hat”, “Waltz of the New Moon”, and “A Very Cellular Song” off their 1968 album ​The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter​. The group’s heavy devotion to Scientology became such a core foundation to their creative process that member Rose Simpson quit in 1971, citing it as a cult.

Whether one could really blame Manson’s horrendous acts or the decline of the ‘60s’ ‘peace and love’ era on the rising influence of psychedelics and Satanism is unknown. While Manson had close ties to the music industry and was a musician himself during the 1960s, it is far-fetched to blame his actions on up-and-coming artists such as Coven. Although we cannot blame a small-scale band for a large-scale murder that forever changed history, the lasting impact of this short, experimental period certainly still shapes the music industry to this day. Prominent artists such as Nirvana, Alice Cooper, and Black Sabbath have cited Coven as an influence. While we don’t often consider the ‘60s as dynamic or explicit as its successors metal and shock-rock in its depiction of occultism, the decade questioned the constraints of what spiritually truly means, and what it ​could ​mean in a musical context. ■

Video by Gabriela Maria Palomo, Collage by Daniel Lewycky