For children of the new millennium, in which music videos resemble soft porn movies and horror films forego suggestion and suspense for explicit gore, it might be hard to comprehend how dangerous music seemed to the establishment in the latter half of the 20th century. In the early 80s even the milquetoast pop of Olivia Newton John could be banned from the airwaves if the lyrics got a little suggestive, which makes it only slightly less surreal to remember government committees playing rock music backwards to try and identify the hidden Satanic messages that were leading the youth of America to the Dark Side (of the Moon and elsewhere).
This seductive lure of the unknown and the dangerous, of hidden forces that could be harnessed and etched into the grooves of a record and transmitted into the minds of a new generation, is the subject of Peter Bebergal’s new book Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK). It’s a topic I’ve written about myself (in much shorter form), but Bebergal’s effort is more detailed, and far smarter.
A key part of the fascinating nature of the book is that Bebergal isn’t dealing simply in goats and pentagrams; gods are invoked from multiple pantheons, from the African Eshu to the Greek and Roman deities Pan and Dionysius, and ‘the occult’ describes everything from voodoo to Eastern mysticism. And it’s not simply a book about tips of the hat to the occult in music, but about the shifts in culture and mindset that guided and influenced the musicians. Take, for instance, Bebergal’s discussion of the momentous turning point for rock music in the 60s:
The 1960s counterculture revived the Romantic belief that reason and the age of industry were anathema to the natural world and the spirit of myth and poetry. This is the experience of many young seekers in the 1960s were looking for, a direct immediate communion with nature and by extension the universe. Art and music were the vessels for both the Romantics and the hippies. The piper at the gates of dawn was playing his panpipes for those who needed to hear. And the youth of the 1960s were pulled toward it like a siren song. There was no turning back. Rock culture was now inhabited by a Romantic soul that looked to the gods of the past. And like the Romantic poets who were their forebears, rock musicians crafted music that did more than tug the heartstrings of teenagers. It was music that urged them toward transcendence, toward creating their own inner landscapes and exploring the antipodes of their minds.
Most of the usual suspects (see my article) get a mention: Robert Johnson, Led Zeppelin, Bowie, and so on. But Season of the Witch also treads some fascinating lesser known paths, such as the reinvented shamanic performances of Arthur Brown, and the seminal work of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge with Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. Similarly, the book doesn’t just stick to pointing out occult-influenced albums, but also a number of the physical conduits for the ‘current’, such as The UFO Club and the invention of the Moog synthesizer.
On the downside, it was at times difficult to get a feel for the flow of the book, which seems to be based neither on time or theme - for instance, the chapter on 1980s bands like Throbbing Gristle and Killing Joke is followed by a chapter that starts with the band Hawkwind in the 70s. And apart from some discussion of Jay-Z’s illuminati branding and Madonna’s Kabbalah infatuation, there is very little post-80s content. The omission of a band like Tool in particular seems strange (especially with time given to Jay-Z and Madonna), considering not only the overt occult symbolism on their albums, but also the fascinating lyrics and philosophy that the author could have mined from their work.
I did also have a slight misgiving about Bebergal’s approach to the topic being so lucid and objective - what has made the occult such a powerful force in concert with modern music is the way in which they can act together to seduce and entrance the listener, breaking the shackles of mainstream expectation and rational thought, transporting music fans to entirely new islands of perception and consciousness. At times the tone of the book felt a little too much like the mainstream that rock and roll has always strived to upset.
But overall Season of the Witch is a fun and educational read on a fascinating topic. Bebergal’s prose is wonderful, and his depth of scholarship on the topic is impressive - the book disappears far too quickly as you eagerly move from chapter to chapter (or is that ‘station to station’?) It will no doubt have many music fans dusting off old classic albums and giving them a spin, listening almost ‘for the first time’ to some of the most influential rock tracks of our time.