The Devil Has All The Best Tunes: How Musicians Discovered Their Dark Side

The subject of Satan and evil will always remain one of interest to songwriters, no matter how controversial and unsettling.

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Ronnie James Dio - Devil Music
Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns

More than a century ago, Jelly Roll Morton was thrown out of the house by his grandmother for playing “the Devil’s music”. But Jazz was by no means the last form of popular music to be labeled as being in league with Satan – a charge that was later leveled at blues, rock’n’roll, heavy metal, and hip-hop, and at artists as diverse as Eagles and The Rolling Stones.

While you’re reading, listen to our Devilish Tunes playlist here.

In 20s America jazz was seen as dangerous, the music of the brothel or the drinking den. As Morton recalled: “When my grandmother found out that I was playing jazz in one of the sporting houses, she told me that I had disgraced the family and forbade me to live at the house… She told me that Devil music would surely bring about my downfall, but I just couldn’t put it behind me.”

The Devil has the best tunes

Even with big-band music in concert halls, there were anxieties. Saxophones were viewed with suspicion (the “scandalous” instrument had been banned by Pope Pius X in 1903) and when they were used to belt out jazz that aroused lewd dancing, it provoked alarm and moral outrage. The Devil knew how to tempt, after all, whether with an apple or a sexy rhythm. For a time in the 20s, jazz was banned in hundreds of public dance halls.

It wasn’t just syncopated rhythms that caused trouble. No one knows for sure which 18th-century cleric said that “the Devil has the best tunes” (some of which you will find in our playlist) but long before Jelly Roll Morton had recorded a Devil-related song called “Boogaboo,” classical music had aroused consternation over “dance macabres” and immoral symphonies.

Venetian composer Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) said he was inspired to write the “Sonata In G Minor,” the so-called “Devil’s Trill,” after Satan, playing a violin, appeared to him in a dream. Satan was something of a multi-instrumentalist himself, because as well as playing the fiddle, Ezekiel 28:13 states that he had his own instruments (tabrets – small drums – and pipes) built into his very being.

Tartini was one of a number of composers who used tritones, a musical interval that goes across three entire tones, and which was branded “Diabolus in Musica” or “The Devil’s Interval.” These dissonant chords reappear in heavy metal music by bands such as Slayer and Black Sabbath, and even in the edgy theme tune to The Simpsons. In the documentary film Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, producer Bob Ezrin, who has worked with Alice Cooper, KISS, and Deep Purple, said: “There is something very sexual about the tritone. It apparently was the sound used to call up the beast.”

Selling your soul to the Devil

So even though the Devil is an archetypal character who has shown up as a key player in popular music ever since the dawn of the recording era, what really cemented a potent, pseudo-romantic link between music and the occult was the belief that musicians could sell their soul to him in a Faustian exchange for musical greatness.

Hell Hound On My Trail (DAL.394-2)

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The legend found its apotheosis in Robert Johnson, a Mississippi-born musician who supposedly sold his soul to Satan himself, at midnight, near the very Dockery plantation where blues singer Charlie Patton was raised. According to the myth, Johnson was transformed from an average itinerant musician into one of the greatest guitarists of all time after his pact with Beelzebub (maybe the Devil has almost as many names as Lady Gaga has outfits). And the legend of the man who composed “Hell Hound On My Trail” was only strengthened by his mysterious death (possibly a murder) at the age of 27.

The legend of how “The King Of The Delta Blues” earned his powers has remained potent, inspiring Walter Hill’s 1986 film Crossroads, which has an original score by Ry Cooder and also features legendary bluesman Sonny Terry on harmonica. The plotline of a blues guitarist selling his soul is also part of the Coen Brothers’ wonderful movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and it provided the inspiration for the 1979 hit song “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by The Charlie Daniels Band.

It has since proved attractive for musicians to claim (with varying degrees of seriousness) that they also made their own deal with the Devil. John Lennon told a press conference that the reason The Beatles were so successful was that he had sold his soul, and Katy Perry and Eazy-E are among those to have made the claim in recent times. Bon Jovi even told teen pop magazine Smash Hits that “I’d kill my mother for rock’n’roll. I would sell my soul.”

In his autobiography, The Doggfather, Snoop Dogg claimed that the Devil agreed to make the rapper rich and famous in exchange for his soul, a theme he explored in the song “Murder Was The Case.” But using the mystique of the dark side to your career advantage is nothing new. Peetie Wheatstraw, an influential blues musician in the 30s, re-branded himself as “The High Sheriff From Hell” and “The Devil’s Son-In-Law.”

The Old Cross Roads

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For some musicians brought up in the church and with a tradition of gospel singing, the links between the blues and the Devil were troubling, and many failed to see the romance in the Robert Johnson legend. Bluegrass maestro Bill Monroe recorded a cautionary song, “The Old Cross Roads,” which contained the warning: “Don’t let Ol’ Satan take your hand/You’ll be lost in sin forever.”

Many blues musicians simply used Satanic words and supernatural images to help make their music more powerful, as in Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman.” For some, the subject provided a rich vein of creativity, as with Howlin’ Wolf’s interesting meditations on the problem of evil.

As rock’n’roll emerged from the blues, it was easy to see how young, sexy, gyrating singers such as Elvis Presley fueled the idea that there was a new musical Lucifer in town – especially when rocker Little Richard declared his career was “directed and commanded by the power of darkness”.

The Beatles and The Rolling Stones

However, not all rock’n’roll stars were alarming. It would have been hard to see Bill Haley and his middle-aged band as part of the Devil’s covert army, but as music changed and darkened in the 60s, and bands became more raw and edgy, the link between music and Satanism reached a new height. Gone were the days of West Side Story singalongs (“Maria, I just met a beast named Maria”); the world was entering the volatile era of Charles Manson and his communes. And Manson, incidentally, released his own bizarre records.

John Lennon and his fellow Beatles were still at primary school when notorious occult figure Aleister Crowley died in Hastings, in 1947, but the so-called “wickedest man on the planet” cast a shadow long after his death. Crowley appeared as one of the faces on Peter Blake’s iconic cover for The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was in that same year that The Rolling Stones released an album called Their Satanic Majesties Request, the first time the Prince Of Darkness had been summoned in the title of a major rock release.

It was predominantly Mick Jagger, who had dabbled in reading about the occult in books such as Taoist Secret Of The Golden Flower, and Keith Richards who created a defining moment in music’s relationship with the Devil with the 1969 cut “Sympathy For The Devil.” In the song, which originally had the less memorable working title of “The Devil Is My Name,” the Stones imagine Satan’s appearances at crucial moments in history.

The Rolling Stones - Sympathy For The Devil (Live) - OFFICIAL

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Playing up the Satanic image, Jagger performed the song on the concert film The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus while shirtless and covered in fake devil tattoos. There were also claims that the Church Of Satan used the song (which has been covered by artists as diverse as Sandie Shaw, Bryan Ferry, Motörhead and Guns N’ Roses), as an anthem but Jagger’s girlfriend at the time, the singer Marianne Faithfull, said that many people missed the complexity and irony in the lyrics, including the salient point that “Mick never, for one moment, believed he was Lucifer.”

Whether they wanted to or not, Jagger and his band had created a massively influential song. Jagger said: “I thought it was a really odd thing, because it was only one song, after all. It wasn’t like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back. People seemed to embrace the image so readily, [and] it carried all the way over into heavy metal bands.”

David Bowie, Jimmy Page, and Ozzy Osbourne

Crowley had a major influence on David Bowie, a musician who had been interested in the occult since he was a young teenager playing with Tarot cards and performing exorcism rituals. Bowie paid tribute to Crowley in his 1971 song “Quicksand,” while in 1976 he admitted to Rolling Stone, “Rock has always been the Devil’s music…I believe rock’n’roll is dangerous. I feel we’re only heralding something even darker than ourselves.” Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character is perhaps popular music’s most potent embodiment of the archetype of the “dying god,” and the musician continued his interest in mysticism right up to his death in 2016.

But Bowie’s fascination with what he called “the dark never-world” almost pales with that of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, who reportedly attended séances, collected occult artifacts, and even (in the year that Bowie released “Quicksand”) purchased Boleskine House, Crowley’s former home, on the shores of Loch Ness, in Scotland. Page’s interest in the occult led to accusations that that Led Zeppelin was a “Satanic band,” while songs such as “Houses Of The Holy” addressed the subject of the Devil directly. Page once said that mixing in Satanic influences was like an “alchemical process,” but in 2007, the songwriter and guitarist, then 63, told Guitar World that he didn’t like to speak about the occult anymore “because the more you discuss it, the more eccentric you appear to be.”

The links between music and the Devil got even more extreme as the 70s wore on and heavy metal bands began to gain a mass following. When he put an inverted cross on the inside gatefold of Black Sabbath’s debut album and made references to black magic in the lyrics, singer Ozzy Osbourne may simply have been looking to outdo the diabolical flirtations of other musicians. Osbourne, who was not alone among musicians of that genre in battling drug and alcohol addictions, talked publicly about his “devil-worshipping” songs and even referred to himself as “The Prince Of Darkness.” He said: “I was convinced I truly was possessed by the Devil. I remember sitting through The Exorcist a dozen times, saying to myself, ‘Yeah, I can relate to that.’”

BLACK SABBATH - "Paranoid" from The End (Live Video)

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Metal and Satan

Metal, as it became known, accrued its own peculiar iconography, behavioral codes and, indeed, theology. The Devil became central to the music’s lore and numerous successors followed suit, from Judas Priest and Metallica (who, in their song “The Prince,” told young people to sell their souls and jump into Hell) to Megadeth promoting themselves as “The Devil’s Advocate.” Iron Maiden leaned into all of this with an album called The Number of the Beast. The antics of some heavy metal bands did, however, produce a backlash, ranging from Christian fundamentalists burning “Satanic albums,” to the rise of Christian rock bands singing what were deemed more wholesome lyrics.

In the 90s, some metal bands went even further in their desire and ability to shock. Black metal, an extreme subgenre of heavy metal (named after the second album from British band Venom) is commonly associated with the Devil, thanks to its use of Satanist symbols, such as the pentagram and inverted cross. Across the Atlantic, Californian quartet Slayer coined the loudest sound up to that point and described themselves as “warriors from the gates of Hell.” In Norway, a small network of bands plunged headlong into Satanism, and burned several churches around Oslo.

Slayer - Angel Of Death (Live At The Augusta Civic Center, Maine/2004)

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Heavy metal bands also embraced the use of stage paraphernalia. Again, this was nothing new in music. Vaudeville stars used stage props, while musicians who drew on voodoo imagery often brought outlandishness into their shows (think of Dr. John and the skull on his piano, or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins rising out of a coffin on stage). One musician who knew how to make the most of these was Alice Cooper, who also had the clever idea of getting veteran horror actor Vincent Price (who once said that the Devil was a great character to play) to record the mid-song narration to the song “Devil’s Food.”

Satanic messages in music

Of course, with something as emotive as possible Devil-worship, musicians have been open to conspiracy theories. One persistent claim is that bands have put hidden Satanic messages in their music, to be revealed only when the disc is played backwards. This charge has been aimed at ELO, Slayer, Judas Priest, The Beatles, and The Eagles, the latter of whom was also subject to the rumor that their hit ‘Hotel California’ refers to the actual headquarters of the Church Of Satan.

AC/DC’s album cover for Highway To Hell portrayed guitarist Angus Young with horns and a devil’s tail, but singer-songwriter Brian Johnson, who has been with the band since 1971, laughed off rumors about hidden messages in their records, saying: “They’d say, ‘If you play the record backwards, you can hear evil things like ‘Grrrr!’ And I would think, ‘Geez, I didn’t know the devil sounded like that. I thought he was coherent like the rest of us.’”

Invoking the devil in songwriting

Not every musical invocation of the Devil has to be sinister, though. Old Lucifer is often summoned in folklore or storytelling songs (as in “Whiskey In The Jar,” including the famous version by Thin Lizzy); or used in a metaphor (as with Billie Holiday’s 1944 song “That Ole Devil Called Love”); or because his name is part of a neat turn of phrase (as in “Handsome Devil” by The Smiths), or a saying (“Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea,” recorded so splendidly by both Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra).

Whiskey In The Jar

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Not all music about the Devil is as hardcore as the 2001 rap song “Dance With The Devil” by Immortal Technique, and even mainstream musicians such as Cliff Richard and Chris De Burgh have sung about him. Some Devil-inspired ruminations can even be witty and sophisticated.

Randy Newman, who sings the part of the Devil in his ambitious rock opera Faust (on whose recording Don Henley, Elton John, and Bonnie Raitt also feature, while James Taylor sings the parts of the Lord), said of his concept album and show: “I just wanted to make people laugh.” But Newman, who has also played the part on stage in New York, was being deadpan as ever. The lyrics are full of sardonic and challenging observations, as when Newman’s Devil sings, “I don’t have much to do. Humans think of things to do to each other that even I find offensive. To tell you the truth, I’m bored.”

Perhaps Newman would have appreciated the humor of Dave Gahan, singer for Depeche Mode, who used to sign in with a fake name when he wanted to go unnoticed by fans. “My hotel check-in name used to be Mr. BL Zebub. In America, staff was, like: ‘Good morning, Mr. Zebub,’” Gahan revealed.

Depeche Mode’s erstwhile frontman isn’t the only British post-punk icon to be drawn to the dark side. Former Generation X singer turned solo star Billy Idol turned his fascination with the devil and horror films to his advantage when he created two of his biggest 1980s hits. Idol’s first Billboard Top 10 success, “Eyes Without A Face,” was largely based upon French director Georges Franju’s controversial 1960 film Les Yeux Sans Visage, while his evergreen hit, “White Wedding,” was promoted by a memorable, David Mallet-directed video, long on demonic Gothic imagery. “We were thinking about how to create a nightmare wedding between a Goth and a straight girl,” Idol recalled in Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story Of The Music Video Revolution. “[I wanted] crosses, nails being hammered into a coffin and me as a vampire.”

Billy Idol - White Wedding (Part 1)

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Tom Waits (whose 1993 album, The Black Rider, is full of songs about the Devil, composed for a play co-written with author William S. Burroughs) has frequently returned to the theme of Satan and evil. One of his most memorable songs about temptation is “Down In The Hole” (theme tune for HBO’s The Wire), and it’s no surprise that Terry Gilliam turned to Waits to portray the Devil in his film The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus.

Waits is one of a number of musicians who have espoused the creative value of exploring the darker side of human nature – and the dangers of ignoring that inspiration. “If I exorcise my devils, well, my angels may leave too,” Waits sang in his 1974 song “The Heart Of Saturday Night.” The view that the dark side offers creative power was echoed by Grammy-winning guitarist Carlos Santana, who said in an interview, “The energy of devils and angels is the same energy; it’’ how you use it. It’s fuel.”

Tom Waits - "Way Down In The Hole"

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The continuing appeal of Satan in music

Satan as a musical inspiration crosses music boundaries (there are numerous traditional folk songs about the Devil, reggae songs such as Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Chase The Devil,” and even disco outings), but as music evolves, the basic creative tools remain the same. So it’s little surprise that some rap and hip-hop artists have also summoned the Devil in both their music and stage shows. Some hip-hop acts have deliberately used occult symbolism (such as the Eye Of Providence) in shows, while others have become embroiled in controversy over the exact meaning of their hand gestures on stage, something that happened to LL Cool J.

Rapper Big L had had a 1993 hit with his sacrilegious tale “Devil’s Son,” while rapper Tyler, The Creator has boasted that he makes music that “the devil plays before he goes to sleep”. Some rap bands even allegedly have Satanic connotations in their names, such as Three 6 Mafia.

One thing is for sure: mentioning the Devil ensures notoriety. The clip of Red Hot Chili Peppers accepting a trophy at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards with the words, “First of all, we want to thank Satan…” has been watched hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube.

As well as a natural curiosity about the occult, or a desire to shock or find creative inspirations, musicians – like writers and artists and filmmakers – know there can be financial rewards if you produce material about the Devil. Jack Black, the film star who played a musician in School Of Rock, once said bluntly: “Satan sells tickets.” This is backed up by a tale from Ozzy Osbourne, who recalled a significant moment in the Black Sabbath’s history when guitarist Tony Iommi “… came to rehearsal and said, ‘Isn’t it funny how people pay money to watch horror films; why don’t we start playing scary music?’ And then he came up with that ‘Black Sabbath’ riff, which was the scariest riff I’ve heard in my life.”

Lately, Satan has even had a comeback with the arrival of Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me by Your Name).” The “Old Town Road” star embraced Satanic imagery in his provocative music video for the track, in which – among other things – he rode down a Stripper pole to hell in order to give Satan himself a lap dance. The campaign for the song came complete with so-called “Satan Shoes,” created in conjunction with the creative agency MSCHF. Each pair was allegedly sold with a drop of human blood. (Nike ended up suing the creative agency.) It was a perfect storm of controversy combining a fear of Satan, a fear of sexuality, and a dose of homophobia, helped along by a tweet or two on social media.

But whatever direction music continues to go in the 21st Century, the subject of evil and the Devil will remain one of interest to songwriters, no matter how controversial and unsettling it may be. But you only have to listen to the haunting brilliance of Robert Johnson, some eight decades after his pact at a crossroads, to know that the Devil does indeed get some of the best songs.

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