Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll

Season of the Witch

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.

News Briefs 14-11-2014

"If you're there before it's over..."

Quote of the Day:

“...You're on time.”

James J. Walker

News Briefs 13-11-2014

...That awkward moment when "Ima take me a quick power nap before writing the news briefs" turns into "oh crap it's already 7?!"

Thanks to Coop, Murph and the Nolan brothers.

Quote of the Day:

"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

˜Dylan Thomas Rodney Dangerfield

News Briefs 12-11-2014

The eerie sound of Rosetta's comet (with a touch of reverb maybe?)

Quote of the Day:

Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me

Sigmund Freud

Song of the Sea Trailer

2009 saw the release of big-budget animated films like Monsters vs Aliens, Up, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and Coraline, in which the Hollywood studios spent millions of dollars because they know parents taking the kiddies to watch these films in the summer would ensure a return of their investment many times over --Pixar's Up for example earned a total lifetime gross of almost three quarters of a billion dollars worldwide.

Yet in that year, with only a small fraction of what the major studios spent, the fairly obscure Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon released the movie The Secret of Kells, directed by (then) 32-year-old Tomm Moore, which turned to be a revelation on several grounds: Firstly because in an era dominated by CGI and impressive visual effects, the decidedly 'flat' style and gorgeous designs of Kells --inspired by the movie The Thief and the Cobbler-- showed you CAN captivate an audience without 3-d animation and expensive gimmicks. Secondly, because Moore's choice to base his 1st major motion picture in an important piece of Ireland's heirloom--the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript from the early Medieval period-- instead of a more 'profitable' idea like a popular novel, a toy, or the remake of a remake, proved there's plenty of untapped potential to tell a compelling story in ancient folklore.

Alas, The Secret of Kells was not a financial success --perhaps because it was only released one week in the US-- but it gained a lot of critical acclaim and was even nominated for an Academy award in 2010.

Now Tomm Moore's newest film Song of the Sea is about to be released in North America. Judging by the trailer below, it looks like once again there'll be plenty of magic, ancient sites and supernatural creatures inspired by the old Irish legends of Fey folk and selkies:

Song of the Sea opens on December 19 in New York city and Toronto, followed by an expansion to Los Angeles and other U.S. and Canadian cities throughout the holidays. Here's hoping it has a better success than its predecessor, so I can get to see it in a proper movie theater instead of the screen of my laptop. And also because 5 years is too long a wait to be illuminated by Moore's talent.

[H/T Cartoon Brew]

The Stone Town of Kuklica and its Permanent Residents

Stone dolls image

Macedonia is a place with a complicated history.  Like many countries in that region of Europe, it has been settled, invaded, conquered, and fought over for thousands of years.  It has been a subject of Greece, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire and a sovereign state known as the Republic of Macedonia.  It has been part of the Kingdom of Serbia (also the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), then it became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.  And then the Nazis happened, and then the Communists, and then independence.  There’s hardly been a time when the region wasn’t undergoing change, politically.

Its tumultuous history notwithstanding, Macedonia is a gem bordered by Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania.  Today it boasts picturesque and sleepy little mountain towns, world class Slavic architecture, and living museums, like the city of Kratovo which finds itself situated inside the crater of an extinct volcano.

Very near Kratovo in the north east of Macedonia, there’s a small town called Kuklica, and that town has a story to tell.

Kuklica is a small town, housing no more than about 100 inhabitants.  At least, 100 living inhabitants.  For you see, according to some, Kuklica is the unchanging resting place of either a man who tried to marry two women on the same day, or many fallen soldiers; all of whom turned to stone.

Most famously, locals tell of a man who fell in love with two different women and was faced with the difficult choice of deciding which to marry.  According to the legend, he was unable to make the choice and instead decided to marry both women…on the same day.  He planned the wedding ceremonies in a beautiful meadow, one to occur in the morning, the other in the afternoon.  Unfortunately for all involved, during the first wedding, his second bride-to-be happened upon the first ceremony and, as would be expected, she objected to that particular union most adamantly.  Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, however, and in her rage she cursed everyone in attendance, casting them all into stone.

The other legend, somewhat less grandiose, suggests that the war-ravaged area, turned to wasteland, was prone to extreme cold, whereupon any and all soldiers travelling across the wastes were frozen and became of stone.

Stone dolls image

All of these formations or pillars – which number somewhere around 120 distinct examples, some of which bear an uncanny resemblance to the human form – are on average the size of an adult human, some are pillar shaped (hence the notion that they’re people turned to stone) but many are simple near-pyramid shaped mounds.

You may choose to believe whichever one of those explanations as you want, and there are apparently other local legends to consider as well, but there are explanations that don’t invoke people turning to stone.

The stone dolls of Kuklica, as they’re often called, are known in geological circles as earth pyramids, or earth pillars (you’ll note the conspicuous absence of any reference to human origins).  It is largely believed by experts that they are the product of natural erosion – and the more conspiratorial among us roll our eyes on cue.

As mentioned above, Kratovo, the nearest city of any size, is built on top of a long-dead volcano.  In fact, the entire region was at one time part of a large volcanic system.  Most of the rock in the area is tuff (solidified ash) and volcanic rock, both of which are relatively soft.  But there are deposits of harder, older rock, such as andesite, and therein lays the explanation for the stone dolls.

Stone dolls image

According to Dr. Ivica Milevski, Associate Professor at the Institute of Geology, Faculty of Natural Science and Mathematics at the University "St. Cyril and Methodius" in Skopje, Macedonia, the earth pyramids are the result of a combination of wind and water erosion over thousands of years.[1]  He claims that the soft volcanic tuff is washed away at a much faster rate than the harder andesite underneath it, resulting in periodic mounds and pillars of harder rock remaining while the sediment is washed away.

It’s thought that this same process is responsible for the Manpupuner Rock formation in the Russian Urals (also known as the Seven Strong Men of Russia), though on a larger scale.

Of course, the scientific explanation, as always, is much more mundane than the colourful legends of old, but there’s no harm in imagining that the groom’s wedding guests are wishing they’d declined the invitation.


[1] Milevski I. (2000): Earth pyramids in Kuklica-near Kratovo. Geographical review No. 35, Skopje pp. 177-182 (in Macedonian),first


News Briefs 11-11-2014

Lest we forget

Quote of the Day:

Think for yourself. Question authority.

Timothy Leary

Space Station Astronauts Play with Water in Zero Gravity

Posted for no other reason than to giggle at the absurdity of water in space. Though it does also provide some understanding of the technical (and biological) challenges of space travel...

News Briefs 10-11-2014

Ca va?

Quote of the Day:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas … If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you … On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones.

Carl Sagan