From the Dionysian rituals through to military chants; from gospel choirs to protest marches; from out the lips of the beautiful, the bad and the ugly-minded – we have continually used music as a medium through which we seek to alter our conscious state and to impress meaning upon the hearts and minds of those around us. There are few among us who do not know that immense and ineffable feeling that rises within from a particularly affecting piece of music, a possession of the senses by sound. As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once opined, it is “the universal language of mankind.” Like language, there is no moral purpose to music – art is not morally bound – and its service has not always been to the pure benefit of mankind. It has been used to sell ideas, weapons and cars. It’s powers of penetration are more immediately felt than many other artistic mediums and it’s ability to create a powerful group cohesion can be witnessed at any music festival around the world.
It should come as no surprise that a cult – that is to say a group of people brought together for the sole purpose of the veneration of a single person or object – would find its voice in music. Since the first human looked up from the earth and thanked the sun in song, we have been using sound to worship. From the ululations at the feet of the stag-headed priest in a flowering grove to the recordings of the People’s Temple Choir singing triumphantly into their fruit-flavoured deaths we have sung hymns to gods and demons in their many different masks. Just as the advertiser understands the parasitic power of a jingle, prophets, predators and the plain mad have recognized the might of a good tune.
American Pop music had its first major brush with the world of the cult in the sixties after a frustrated musician named Charles Manson commanded his followers to carry out two random acts of grisly violence on locations associated with a music producer who had rebuffed him. A motive was put forth in the subsequent trial that these murders were carried out in expedition of a race war that was the central conflict to a half-cocked millenarian theology which saw the White Album by the Beatles as the central eschatological text. Another musician with delusions of grandeur was songwriter and central figure of both the Branch Davidian movement and the horrific siege and massacre carried out by U.S. government agents at a compound in Waco, Texas, David Koresh. L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, wrote jazz music as well as science-fiction novels to help build his religion from public experiment to the terrifying heights the capitalist-cult has now reached.
There have also been those on perhaps the more musically interesting (though, as will be seen, L. Ron Hubbard’s surreal space-jazz odysseys are definitely worth a listen) and less destructive end of the spectrum as well. Father Yod, the founder and central figure of the supposedly wellness-based, utopian Source Family, also acted as central figure in the family’s psychedelic rock band Ya Ho Wha 13. Though not strictly a cult, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth is a fellowship of magically-inclined musicians and artists very much inspired by cults with an, at least initial, interest in both emulating and satirizing the connection between ritual, idolatry and and popular rock music. Something evident in any given live appearance of Led Zeppelin at their peak.
In this four-part series we will examine a few of the many ways that cults have used music, and music has used cults, to gain ground among the minds of the unwitting.