In 1945, in advance of the first test of an atomic bomb, scientists feared that as each atom split it might split another creating a chain reaction that could ignite the atmosphere and destroy planet Earth. But they went ahead anyway.
A decade later Elvis Presley started another fission-like explosion with his ’56 performance on the Ed Sullivan show, witnessed by a record-breaking 60 million viewers. He had performed before, and parents and network execs feared he would destroy America, but Sullivan dropped the bomb anyway. By ’64 we had Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ and yes indeedy they were. Rock and Roll exploded, a fissionable material that split into dozens of genres and sub-genres. We had the Beetles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Rush, and a thousand others, Acid Rock, Punk, Prog Rock, Heavy Metal, and the list goes on. Everywhere you looked, kids were hanging out, listening to Rock that was meaty, dense, deep, and potentially transformative.
But, as it turned out, just as the first atomic bomb had not started the never-ending explosion some scientists feared, the bomb that was Rock and Roll began to fizzle. By 1984, completely without irony, Eddie Van Halen was performing with the Jacksons, Ray Parker’s Ghostbusters was a hit, and cats were sleeping with dogs. Fission had been replaced by Fashion. The streams had crossed but it was another kind of destruction. We had gone from American Woman and L.A. Woman to Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Like a Virgin. Sure, there were pops and bangs, explosions of light, albums like Dreamtime, Too Tough to Die, Stop Making Sense, and many others. But ’84 saw a lot more albums like Van Halen’s 1984 than it did albums like the Eurythmics’ 1984. The explosion was fading like ripples in a pond.
By 1984, the kids who sprawled on the bedroom floor listening to the same album fives times in a row while handing the liner notes back and forth had been replaced by kids plugged into their Sony Walkmans. The conversations were gone. The cassettes had no liner notes, not like the albums did anyway. By the time Judas Priest came to trial in 1990, the idea that playing rock backwards could reveal dangerous and radical messages was on the decline. The science just didn’t support the idea that the messages had any impact on the listener, and according to many scientists and even the artists themselves, the ‘messages’ were only random phonemes. The threat just wasn’t there — even it you played it frontwards. By 1990, the idea that Rock could inform, inspire and teach the mainstream was dead. If you wanted to be challenged by your Rock you had to go digging.
As Angus Young of AD/DC famously said, “We never hid the messages. We called the album Highway to Hell. It was right there in front of them.” But Angus and boys didn’t really have a message that was all that deep. Occult means hidden, not right out front, and hedonism is not occultism or even radicalism. AC/DC is not a radical band or an occult band, and Angus missed the point.
The biggest occult bands, in terms or records sold at least, are/were probably Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Doors, and Blue Öyster Cult. All four of these bands come at youth with messages overt and covert, lessons exoteric and esoteric. Square parents who wanted their kids to conform didn’t have to work very hard to hear the danger in songs like Black Dog, War Pigs, Sweet Leaf, and Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll. But if John and Jane Parent wanted to hear something dangerous in what their kids were listening to they might have to work a little harder if they wanted to find offense in Break on Through, Stairway to Heaven or Lips in the Hills. These bands made albums that you could listen to over and over again, dozens of times, finding something new with each and every play — a reference to something obscure that could lead you to another album, to the library, to the picket line, or simply into a thousand conversations, inspirations, and lines of inquiry.
The only one of the big ones you can still see live is Blue Öyster Cult. For me they are the best of the occult rock bands, with messages either in your face (as in The Red and the Black about a sadistic Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman) or hidden (not by backmasking but by vocabulary, metaphor, and double entendre, as in Mistress of the Salmon Salt, probably the darkest, most unsettling, and subtlest occult rock song ever written). They are still on tour forever, playing newer tunes like See You in Black from ’98 and older songs like E.T.I. from back in ’76 (you could write a book about the occult references in that one). Sadly, the newer stuff doesn’t contain the occult influences they once flaunted. Perhaps those influences withered when Sandy Pearlman stopped actively associating with them.
Sandy Pearlman is still around and still relevant. In addition to his extensive work as a lyricist and producer for BÖC, he was the producer behind some great records by the likes of The Clash, The Dictators, Pavlov’s Dog, and Dream Syndicate. Currently he’s the Schulich Distinguished Professor Chair at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal.
If you want to hear some really intense occult revelations, check out a couple of his recent offerings at Huffpo. In his Patti Smith obit he talks about her as an incarnation of Athena, discusses the British Invasion as the new death of the Goddess cult, and much more. You might also like this article on the death of Ellie Greenwich, wherein he reveals the secrets behind her largely forgotten place as perhaps the greatest songwriter of all time.
Sandy is still the same I guess. He reveals a little here and there, stepping out into the light to reveal just enough to pique your interest, and then stepping back into the shadows. In your face just enough to get your attention, holding back enough to keep you interested. A few people that is.
There was a time when bands like Blue Öyster Cult could fill stadiums, night after night, across a worldwide tour. And while there have been and always will be bright lights in the constellation of Rock — Rage Against the Machine for example, but sure not the only one — the days when almost every kid in the world spend entire afternoons and evenings thinking, comparing, criticizing, commenting, getting inspired by their Rock, are gone. Looks like the one-two punch of Walkman-iPod stopped the conversation dead in its tracks.
Compare the old material — albums based around the occult origins of World War I, the literal and metaphorical importance of the alien abduction phenomenon, the nature of free will, and on and on and on — to the kind of material that packs stadiums today: songs about sex, violence, materialism, or simply nothing.
Tell me John and Jane Parent, which is the most subversive and dangerous: the old music or the new? If I were you, instead of an iTunes card I’d hand my kid a $50 bill and send her down to the new corner vinyl store that probably cropped up recently. My guess is that there are some very deep conversations taking place over there, and that those kids and those stores promise hope for our future.