Elvis wiggled his hips immorally, Chuck Berry sang about his `ding-a-ling', Jerry Lee Lewis married
his underage cousin and 'Screaming' Jay Hawkins dressed up as voodoo priest. It seems as though
from the very beginning Rock n' Roll has gone out of it's way to ignore society's rules and provoke a
reaction from our moral guardians. Even the name, Rock n' Roll was condemned for its sexual
connotations. An art form that was denounced as evil from the outset will probably never become
respectable, so what's the point in trying?
The majority of rock bands over the years haven't bothered trying. In fact, controversy and
condemnation has just added to their rebellious charm and popularity. Towards the end of the sixties
and the beginning of the seventies, many bands used or were accused of using satanic imagery in their
music. The Stones wanted "Sympathy for the Devil". The Beatles' "White Album" and Led Zeppelin's
"Stairway to Heaven" allegedly contained evil messages if you played them backwards. A man called
Vincent Furnier created a violent necrophiliac, the mock-sexist demon called Alice Cooper who was
executed at the end of every show. Black Sabbath went even further, basing their name and music on
the horror novels of Dennis Wheatley, producing songs about black Masses, drug use and 'Paradise
Lost'-style battles between good and evil. Many of these bands were labelled satanic and faced strong
censorship, with records and tours banned.
In Black Sabbath's wake came heavy metal which was widely condemned as being purely a satanic
form of music. Sabbath's ex-vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest are just two of the acts who
faced legal charges of inciting suicide and worshipping Satan. The bands Venom and Bathory took the
symbolism of Black Sabbath further, creating the music styles of Death and Black metal, Bathory's
name came from the Countess Bathory, the murderous source of many vampire myths.
Many of their successors, like Cradle of Filth, Deicide and Slayer, used overt satanic imagery. In
Norway bands such as Darkthrone and Burzum went even further, burning churches and culminating in
the imprisonment of Count Grishnacht of Burzum for murder. More recently, a Cradle of Filth fan
was arrested, kept in jail overnight and fined for wearing one of the band's T-shirts. The shirt,
featuring a picture of a nun masturbating with a crucifix, was deemed blasphemous and obscene. The
court invoked an archaic law in the findings of the case.
Punk rock in the late seventies lent a more political slant to music. All elements of the establishment
were targets, including religion. Punk lyrics involving religion were largely aimed at offending, the
Sex Pistols "Anarchy in the UK" with the line "I am an antichrist" epitomised this trend. The
development of Goth rock from punk things had a more more serious mission. Bands took on
religious sounding names, like the Sisters of Mercy, the Mission and Creaming Jesus. The Sisters'
last album, "Vision Thing", targeted the hypocrisy of American style TV evangelism.
Ireland's own Virgin Prunes combined religious and androgynous sexual imagery, drawing strong
criticism from the Catholic Church and the Irish establishment. Their stage show, a mix of Dadaist art
and gothic shock effects, often featured cross-dressing, nudity and a pig's head.
Another less well-known Irish band who caused controversy were Bouquet of Blue Roses. An
appearance on RTE's youth programme "Anything Goes" in 1985 proved that not everything goes. The
band's lead singer, Mary Magdelene, produced a large crucifix in the middle of their
performance. They were almost banned from RTE and were threatened with not being paid. Things
didn't quite go that far, but they were not exactly the most popular band in RTE at the time.
The most controversial band of this era were Christian Death. From the very beginning their name and
symbolism drew criticism. The band adopted a stance against organised religion under current vocalist
Valor, stating that the hold of the main religions, Christianity in particular, were at the roots of
society's problems. In comparison to the satanic metal bands, the Christian Death stance was pro-
Christian, saying that the organised Christian churches had betrayed the message of Christ.
The controversy surrounding the band reached its peak with the release of the album "Sex, Drugs and
Jesus Christ". The name, the sleeve art work of a Jesus-figure shooting up heroin and pictures inside
juxtaposing religious imagery with kinky underwear and male genitals caused uproar. Ads for the
album were censored in magazines like NME and Sounds. Tours were cancelled and the album was
widely banned. The band were labelled blasphemous, despite the fact that the theme of the album
emphasised their pro-Christ, anti-religious stance. Despite, or perhaps because of, the adverse
publicity, the album sold thousands of copies and was rereleased two years ago.
Current industrial has drawn heavily on Goth rock imagery and sounds. Many of the band's names
have the same religious element as Goth did, such as Ministry, Godflesh and the Young Gods. Many
of the bands have been predictably classed as 'satanic' metal bands, despite the fact that most of their
material is more intelligent and socially relevant than the music of the 'real' satanist bands. Much of
the songs are ironic, a fact that is usually missed by society's moral guardians. Nine Inch Nails'
"Heresy", featuring the Nietzschean line "God is Dead" and Tool's "Opiate", based on the Marxist idea of
religion as "the opiate of the people" fall into this category. The reaction many of them have received
has been extreme to say the least. White Zombie needed FBI protection during their last US tour
when their cartoon B-movie horror image was dubbed 'satanic' and they received bomb threats.
Marilyn Manson have, in their short career, created more controversy than many of these other bands
put together. Their first album, a vicious-attack on American society, passed largely unnoticed due to
the fact it was not a great success. However, the success of the single "Sweet Dreams" and the fact
that their second album reached the top spot in the US Billboard charts made them very hard to ignore.
The name, "Antichrist Superstar", and the theme of the album, an attack on what they regard as the
oppressive nature of organised religion meant that controversy was assured. Reaction followed a
predictable pattern - they were dubbed `satanist', their records were widely banned, gigs were
cancelled, and like White Zombie, they received bomb threats. One element of their stage show
particularly incensed their critics. It features Marilyn 'preaching' from an altar to a 'congregation'
dressed in Nazi stormtrooper uniforms. The band have revelled in the controversy and have stood by
their anti-religious stance. Controversy has in no way lessened their popularity, on the contrary,
their music is featured on the soundtracks of two new US films - "Lost Highways" and "Howard Stern,
If the current trend in popular music for increasingly extreme bands - Nirvana to Nine Inch Nails to
Marilyn Manson - continues, one band who could easily hit the big time with their next album are the
Genitorturers. Their connection to NIN member and Marilyn producer, Dave 'the Rave' Ogilvy (he
produced their "120 Days of Genitorture" album) makes their success a good bet. The band take the
self-destructive influences of rock music to a violent new level, their stage show features bondage,
S&M, nudity and live body piercing. The band's philosophy blames society's ills specifically on the
religious oppression of sexuality. Theirs is an extreme reaction to that oppression. Genitorturers
have, so far, avoided censorship and controversy, mainly due to the fact that they are still very much
underground and have not attracted much attention. That situation will definitely change if their soon
to be released second album is a success.
It is unsettling to think where this trend may go if it continues. Will we see full sex stage shows or
live amputations or even snuff gigs in the next millennium? Will the prophecies of David Bowie's "1.
Outside" become a reality? The one thread that ties these bands together is their reaction to what
they see as the destructive influence of religious oppression. Part of the reason why the trend for
increasingly extreme music is becoming more popular is the attempts by groups like the American
censorship pressure group the PMRC to get rid of it. People don't like being told what they can or
can't listen to and it is usually the reaction to that kind of pressure is to seek out something even more
extreme. Elvis Presley, the Beatles, even Black Sabbath, may once have been highly controversial, but
now they are part of music orthodoxy. They are the bands today's teenagers parents listened to, so
teenage rebellion will see them listening to something 'worse'.
The reason the reaction to this music is generally so severe is based on fear. Fear that these bands
will corrupt their young, impressionable young fans, fear that they will influence their fans to commit
suicide as was alleged against Ozzy, Judas Priest and more recently, Silverchair.
But, perhaps the fear goes deeper: fear that there is an element of truth in what a wide variety of bands
have said, fear that they may force their fans to think or question or even rebel in a more extreme
fashion than ever before. Rock n' Roll has always been about rebellion. These bands have just gone
beyond the typical rebellion of fast cars, loose chicks, easy drugs and smashed hotel rooms. They
have aimed a stake at one of the things at the heart of society, religion. And perhaps, with enough
support, they will push it deep enough to kill.
Would that be a good thing? It depends on your opinion, so make up your own mind.
by Donnacha DeLong