Tag Archive: Satan


Bang Your Head

There was a guy in college (I don’t remember his name ‘cause we weren’t friends) that I was in a conversation with once. It was at one of those freshman mixers at the beginning of the year. There was a group of us, and he posed a question to the group.

“What is the biggest, heaviest, most monster, melt-your-face-off riff in all of rock and roll, EVER? Don’t answer; just think of it in your head. You got it?”

We said “yeah,” or nodded, or murmured assent.

“Wrong. It’s ‘Back In Black.’”

I piped up in a testy voice. “Isn’t that an impossible question to answer, since music is inherently subjective?”

“No. It’s ‘Back In Black.’”

We all just rolled our eyes and wandered off. Not because “Back In Black” isn’t the most melt-your-face-off riff in all of rock and roll ever (a thing which is impossible to determine), but because none of us liked being told by a relative stranger that we were definitively wrong about something, and in such a brusque tone. And you know what I thought? “’Back In Black’ can go suck my balls. Jerk.”

Quite obviously, this was before my fandom of AC/DC started, which is logical considering this is freshman year of college and my musical world is very small, swirlingly absorbed by Smashing Pumpkins and Genesis. Still, that’s little excuse. While it’s impossible to put guitar riffs on a scale of “this one is so-much-point-so-much better than that one,” “Back In Black” really IS monstrous – head-banging, devil-horning, balls-to-the-wall monstrous.

Every rock fan on the planet, the tall and the small, knows that riff. Every rock guitarist knows how to play that riff. Why? ‘Cause it’s a really easy riff; seriously, it takes a few times through to get the basics down. The only tricky part is the descending note pattern at the end of the 2nd measure. And for whatever reason, it’s one of the riffs that young guitarist learn first.

“Back In Black” is AC/DC’s tribute to their fallen singer, Bon Scott, written by their new singer, Brian Johnson, a man who had never actually met Bon. Admittedly, Brian was just writing what sounded good, going off of what he had heard ad infinitum from his other AC/DC-ers. Angus told him that the lyric needed to not be sad or morbid, but instead to be a celebration. And when Brian wrote the line “I got nine lives, cat’s eyes / Abusing every one of them and running wild,” it fit so perfectly with the man Brian had never met. And now it’s taken on a life of its own, being covered by so many rock bands it’s uncountable.

Lyrically, “Back In Black” is a first-person narrative from a guy who truly believes he is invincible. He’s fully aware of the risks he’s taking and the gorge right below his high wire, but he behaves as if he’s never going to die. Sound familiar? And while this all seems like it’s setting us up for a delicious blow of irony on paper, the music is just as disrespectful to the concept of danger as the song’s protagonist. It’s driving, joyful and full of larger-than-life energy. “Back In Black,” being the tribute song that it is, gives no indication of the tragic fall or hopeless ending that Bon’s life turned out to have. It leaves all of that to “Hells Bells,” the album’s opening song.

“Hells Bells” fulfills what buying a CD or vinyl copy of Back In Black means for the listener. You find it in the record store and it’s all black; the words on the cover are barely readable. From the album’s physicality alone, you get a small sense of doom and dread, not knowing what awaits you when you drop the needle or press play, but fearing that it will be dark and a little disturbing. “Hells Bells” doesn’t disappoint. It opens the album with the lonely and mournful sound of a single church bell, rung several times before an electric guitar plays an equally mournful minor key riff. The absolute weight of the music falls on you as the rest of the band joins in, and you know that this is a different AC/DC than you knew.

Then there’s “Hells Bells” subject matter and main character: Satan himself. In this song, he’s a roaring lion, a savage devourer, and a remorseless consumer of every soul he comes across. The Satan that AC/DC portrays, like that of Black Sabbath and the plethora of bands they inspired, is the simplest and most obvious form of evil. How can anyone look at this evil and want any part of it? How can anyone listen to a song like “Hells Bells” and not see incredibly clearly that, contrary to what Bon previously affirmed, Hell is a VERY BAD place to be?

AC/DC, I think, understands this. They know that there exists a schism between two eternal destinies and that it’s drawn upon moral lines. They realize that there IS good, there IS evil, and that human beings exist somewhere in between, tipping at different times towards one or the other. And I truly believe that AC/DC want to tip towards the good, on the whole. It may not show in much of their music, but it doesn’t have to in order to be true. AC/DC, at their scar tissue-covered heart, are searching for salvation.

I spent the first 10 to 15 years of my life with a pretty black and white idea of Christianity and the world in which it exists. Christianity was completely true and all other religions, paths, practices and philosophies were completely false. In high school, I started to perceive a few shades of grey; my mind started wandering into things that ended in question marks and ellipses rather than periods. That made me curious but uncomfortable, so I confined my search for answers to my own internal logic, what I could figure out on my own. It was a bad move.

When I got to college, the number of my questions just exploded. Uncertainties were coming at me from all sides and I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. My only recourse was to dispense with the uncomfortable feeling and barrel on ahead. It got to the point where I was questioning just about everything. When I was young, all things were certain; now, very few things were.

A couple of things stayed true: God was real, love was real, and God loved me. I’ve always been certain of that. But every other thing was up in the air, and they’ve slowly been coming down to a more graspable height ever since college. They still fly away sometimes, but I know I’ve got a firm hold on the really important stuff.

The most important thing I’ve learned since high school is that there’s not a lot of difference between Christians and non-Christians. I used to think there was this thick black line dividing them, and that line ran along who treated you well and who didn’t. What, little Ben cut in front of me in the line for the drinking fountain? He must be going to hell! But who treats you well has to do with their own battle with their sin nature, not whether or not they carry the label “Christian.” Christians can be just as vile as other people, and they even have a corner on the market of certain types of vileness. And quite often some deep truths about God, love and the nature of both come from seemingly “heathen” sources.

Since their first record and for about 10 years after, Black Sabbath had been fighting against insinuations and outright statements that they were Satanists. Every time the question came up in an interview, they flatly denied it. Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler made no secret of the fact that they were brought up Catholic. The image was brought on by their dark, doomy music and references to Satan in their lyrics, but the public took it several steps further. Sabbath eventually learned to live with it, and then to use it to their own advantage, but it had to be frustrating. And around the time of their third album, they decided to fire back.

Master of Reality contains some pretty bold statements about the goodness of God, the evils of Satan, and some unabashed references to love. The songs “After Forever” and “Lord of This World” lay the groundwork for Christian metal, even if no Christian artist under the sun will admit that it’s true. “After Forever” takes an incredibly direct approach to God and the question of his existence, even having the narrator (which would most likely be Geezer himself) say “I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways.” Furthermore, he warns the person he’s addressing against denying God in front of their friends, and  says “God is the only way to love.” Gospel message? Maybe. Something a Satanist would say? Definitely not.

“Lord of This World” takes the opposite tack, being a letter from Satan to a hapless victim whom he deceived. But rather than laughing in victory, Satan seems a little sad, like taking the person’s soul was a little too easy. There’s no longer any need for deception on Satan’s part, so he just lays it bare. His victim chose “evil ways instead of love” and made him the “master of the world where [he] exist[s].” Satan might as well be saying, “Why did you follow me instead of God? I’m freakin’ evil, dude! Get a clue!” Christian ministers who preach hellfire and damnation can’t even do it as effectively as this.

At the cap there’s “Into the Void,” a futuristic account of the few people who know the truth leaving the earth in spaceships forever because it’s too corrupt, and searching the galaxy for a place to start anew. The earth is filled with hatred, evil, misery and death, and it’s all Satan’s fault. I have a feeling those who left the planet did so because they were looking for heaven, and Earth too closely resembled hell.

There is a very important distinction to draw here, one that could make or break your decision on Black Sabbath, if you haven’t already made up your mind. Sabbath’s message on Master of Reality is pro-God and pro-love, but not necessarily pro-Christianity. Jesus is never mentioned explicitly, though God is. The principles Sabbath presents here are found in an undiluted form in Christianity, but they’re careful to avoid throwing their hat in with the Christian crowd (or any crowd).

And I can’t talk about Master of Reality and its Christian themes without also talking about a track from their very next album Vol. 4, called “Under the Sun.” It’s a cover, but it captures BS’s spirit very well. It’s a call to not let anyone’s philosophy intrude on your own, to make your own path. This is stupid, of course; everyone’s philosophy is a collection of things they’ve heard and have chosen to hang onto. The reason I mention it is that they make a reference to “Jesus freaks” in the first line, where the narrator is laying out all the people groups he doesn’t want telling him what to believe. That list also includes “black magicians,” but the slap in the face to Christians remains. “Under the Sun” basically says the singer already has it all figured out, and doesn’t want anybody telling him what’s what; a revelation of arrogance, naivety, and plain old stupidity.

Black Sabbath eventually came to accept their slightly demonic image, and in 1980 they started fostering it. Ozzy had been fired, and an essential part of Black Sabbath’s image was gone. Nature abhors a vacuum, but rather than replace Ozzy, they shifted their image and musical direction, hiring Ronnie James Dio as the new lead belter. With the addition of Dio, they started leaning into the suggestions of Satanism, or at least started embracing the devilish side of their public face.

Ronnie James Dio

The Dio Sabbath always made me uncomfortable. With Ozzy, the suggestions of Satanism were a hysterical joke, made tragic by that some people took the joke seriously. With Dio, though, they seemed somehow authentic. I fear they started dabbling with things they shouldn’t. All in all, Black Sabbath’s Lucifer influences are a lot of bluster without any substance, but they came dangerously close to making them real in the early 80s. For that reason, I’ve always preferred the Ozzy years to Dio. After Dio… well, it’s not worth mentioning.

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath – 2/13/1970

The evil mojo needs to be taken out of Black Sabbath; after doing that, you discover that they didn’t really have any to begin with. They started out the same exact way that countless other bands did. There was no demonic ritual that they used to bless their origin; the four members were not birthed from the mouth of hell. In fact, they weren’t even called Black Sabbath at their genesis.

Tony Iommi was a teenager had dreams of getting out of economically depressed Birmingham, England and starting a band. He recruited several other musicians to play with him, and it’s really that simple. The lynchpin came when they were auditioning lead singers and Ozzy Osbourne showed up with his own PA system, something the band needed. From there, they were off and running, complete with the name Polka Tulk. They must have realized that name was just bloody awful, so they redubbed themselves Earth. They soon discovered that there was another band with the same name, and they had to make a change. They went with Black Sabbath, the name of a famous Boris Karloff horror film from 1963. The name was a suggestion from their bass player, Geezer Butler.

Geezer can lay claim to Black Sabbath’s long association with darkness and Lucifer and all that foolishness; he wrote most of the band’s lyrics throughout most of their career.  He was very Catholic, so he identified with all that gothic, religious iconography, as well as Satan being a powerful, epic being. His conception of Satan was probably a little skewed, as everyone’s is. And like a lot of teenagers who are denied something, he got curious.

In truth, Geezer’s – and consequentially the band’s – early preoccupation with the devil loomed large on their first album, the eponymous Black Sabbath. Their understanding of the Prince of the Power of the Air, however, was childish and immature. This isn’t really a bad thing, ‘cause it worked for them and created groovy music. But I can’t help but give just a little chuckle when they mention Satan because they’re just so earnest about it. They’re like 6-year-olds dressing up in their dad’s clothes with his briefcase and trench coat, saying things like “I’m off to work, dear!” As upset as they would be about me thinking this, it’s just so cute.

Black Sabbath begins on an ominous and doom-heavy note, with just the sound of falling rain. A church bell chimes somewhere off in the distance. And then, heaviness beyond heaviness with the first track, which is also called “Black Sabbath.” The opening strains are tonic, then octave, then diminished fifth. Diabolus in musica. It’s also slow, deep, loud, and accompanied by frenzied drumming.

The lyrics are about a true life experience Geezer had. Ozzy had given him a book about witchcraft as a gift, and one night he awoke from a nightmare to see a dark figure whose face was obscured sitting in the chair across from his bed. The figure vanished soon after, and when he got up the next morning, the book Ozzy gave him was gone from the table in his bedroom where he had left it. Embellishment was multiplied a hundred times, ending with a song.

If you ask me, it was probably something as stupid as another band member stealing the book while Geezer was sleeping and never telling anyone. And after the song was recorded and they had become famous, they simply couldn’t let the myth die.

There is one other song on the album dealing specifically with Satan, “N.I.B.” The origin of the name is kind of silly: Geezer thought drummer Bill Ward’s goatee (now called a soulpatch) resembled a pen nib. He took a song he had already written that didn’t have a title and called it “Nib.” To add some ambiguity to the name (since it had nothing to do with the lyrics), he changed it to “N.I.B.” to make it look like initials. As soon as some dumb kid got his hands on the suggestion that Black Sabbath were into devil worship and anti-Christianity, it was over. That kid suggested that “N.I.B.” might stand for “nativity in black,” and because of the image Black Sabbath had created for themselves, they weren’t in a position to argue. Their fans wouldn’t have listened anyway, since they were so obsessed with the band being “evil.” After they became legends, Black Sabbath’s two tribute albums, contributed to by some big names in heavy metal, were both titled Nativity In Black.

As for the lyrics, they’re a first-person account of Lucifer (called by name) declaring his love for a human. It’s generally thought to be Lucifer using his deceptive, lying ways to seduce a young girl into Satan worship. Geezer tells a different story, and says it’s about Lucifer having genuine love for this girl, casting off his devilish ways, and becoming a “good person.” I think Lucifer (the real Lucifer) might have seduced Geezer into writing this song about him with those intentions. If that’s the case, though, everyone saw right through it; Geezer botched the job.

Friday: did Tony Iommi chop off his first two fingers in a Satanic rite? You be the judge… 😉

Diabolus in Musica

I graduated from college with a BA in English, and knew I was going to be an English major ever since I was 14. Another type of no-brainer was selecting a music minor; it was a no brainer not because it was really easy and I didn’t have to even think about it, but because if I had actually used my brain, I would have said “not on your life.”

Nevertheless, I was technically a music minor for the entirety of my freshman year; I dropped it when I had my fall sophomore conference with my academic advisor. During that freshman year, I took Music Theory I and II. It was stimulating, if you can call taking an electric drill to your own forehead “stimulating.” But despite the mechanizing of something I found to be completely organic, Music Theory taught me a great deal about the craft and science of music. I learned about the diatonic scale, counterpoint, the different modes (Ionian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, etc.), and the I IV V (one, four, five)pattern.

One of the things that stuck in my mind was the interval (the amount of distance between two consecutive notes) called a diminished fifth. Now, the technical definition of that interval involves a lot of math and calculations and other things I don’t find at all interesting (and you probably won’t either).  But like music itself, it has an aspect that transcends the menial, ordinary mathematics of it.

The diminished fifth is a rather infamous interval in the music theory world. Its nickname is diabolus in musica, which is Latin for “the Devil in music.” Different from every other interval, its inherent dissonance strikes the listener as unsettling at best, terror-inducing at worst. It’s reserved for when the composer wants to portray a sense of dread and danger in his music. The Austrian composer Johann Joseph Fux thought it smacked of evil, something that could only come from Satan himself.

The most famous use of diabolus in musica in popular music comes from none other than Satan’s most loyal servants, the pinnacle purveyors of all things evil and malignant, Black Sabbath.

Sense the sarcasm, people.

The name Black Sabbath indicates all sorts of evil, unsettling things in a very cliché, stereotypical way. As a young Christian boy, I was warned about Satan and his wicked influence in the world so vehemently that he turned into a caricature, and I became skeptical that he even existed at all. In particular, I was warned about the rock and roll music I was becoming interesting in. Some even said there was a one-to-one connection between rock and roll and the worship of Satan; one inevitably lead to the other in a short period of time.

Poppycock and foolishness, all of it. Music can’t make you worship Satan any more than watching Bob Newhart on TV can make you go bald. The idea that millions of kids everywhere are falling into the “trap” of rock music is one of the more insulting things I’ve heard – not just to rock musicians, but to kids.

For the record, I do think Satan exists. In my opinion, he’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz; behind the smoke, lights and big scary machine, there’s a small, scared, pitiful person operating that machine. The difference is that while the Wizard of Oz constructed it himself, Satan’s frightening guise is our making. He only has as much power in your individual life as you yourself give him. In truth, you have power over him.

As for rock and roll, Satan finds it to be a rather useful tool; but so does God. Rock music has been used by humans to promote some pretty awful things, both obvious and subtle, but it has also been used to save kids’ lives, lead people to God, and generally uplift humanity. Rock and roll (and all music) is one of the most striking places we can see God.

Happy Easter!

Who better to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with than the Prince of the Power of the Air? 😀 Mick jitters and jumps like he’s possessed by the guy he’s singing about in this clip from Rock and Roll Circus. And who’s that temp-tattooed on his chest? Why, it’s Lucifer himself. How droll. The Stones called allegations that they were Satan worshipers “ridiculous,” and then they go and do a thing like this… sigh…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6H3QcpvcIrY

Happy Easter, everybody! He is risen indeed!

On Monday, it’s the Rolling Stones vs. the Beatles (and whether or not anybody cared), and then I dissect “Sympathy For the Devil” on Tuesday.