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Looking back at a time where major labels were releasing witchcraft rituals
10-08-2019, 10:08 PM
Post: #1
Looking back at a time where major labels were releasing witchcraft rituals
During the 1960s, Capitol Records, A&M, and Warner Bros capitalised on the witchcraft phenomenon with spoken-word albums of occult incantations

From the late 1960s to the mid-70s, occult and witchcraft records became an unlikely phenomenon in the UK and USA. These spoken word LPs included narrations of rituals and spells by witches and covens, usually accompanied by bizarre, early electronic esoteric music. Some were relatively obscure private press releases – just look at The Art of Witchcraft by Babetta, AKA ‘Babetta the Sexy Witch’, and Ian Richardson and Barbara Holdridge’s Malleus Maleficarum, which were both released in 1974 and which today fetch hundreds of pounds online – but what’s odder is that major labels were often the ones putting these records out. It wasn’t unusual to find albums like Alex and Maxine Sanders’ A Witch is Born or Louise Huebner’s Seduction Through Witchcraft arriving through Capitol Records, A&M, or Warner Bros – but why did these occult oddities exist in the first place?

Until 1951, England had laws strictly prohibiting the practice of witchcraft, but just over a decade later, an interest in witchcraft and the occult spread throughout the counterculture. The 60s were a decade of social and cultural upheaval, where people were breaking out of the status quo and looking for alternative pathways. A number of young people were rejecting established social, political, and religious institutions, and an interest in esoteric ideas, including Eastern religions, witchcraft, and the occult, was spreading. The witch came to be a symbol of resistance, embodying an anti-establishment image of female empowerment and sexual liberation – all of which were important factors of the countercultural movement of the late 60s. The rise of second-wave feminism and women’s liberation also included the notorious feminist-witch fringe movement, the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H.), which formed in 1968 and acted as forerunners of various forms of feminist-oriented Paganism, like Dianic Wicca.

Of course, witchcraft and the occult had always had a presence in the underground. Gerald Gardner, the eccentric Lancashirian anthropologist and ‘father of Wicca’, had a prolific influence, and led the way in Wicca from the 40s onwards, while the influence of occultist Aleister Crowley in underground film and music, from Kenneth Anger to Led Zeppelin, has been well documented. However, in that post-flower power period between the late 60s and early 70s, the occult was merging with popular culture like never before. In cinema, you had The Witches, Rosemary’s Baby, Witchfinder General, and The Blood on Satan’s Claw. In popular music, there was Donovan’s “Season of the Witch”, Jethro Tull’s “The Witch’s Promise”, Carolanne Pegg’s “A Witch’s Guide to the Underground”, and Mark Fry’s acid-folk classic “The Witch”, among other examples. Then there was the Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey in 1968, which attracted celebrities like Jane Mansfield and Sammy Davis Jr, and also led to an album release with The Satanic Mass, recorded live at the Church of Satan in San Francisco.

Given this cultural climate, it made sense for witches and their covens to export their knowledge onto a format accessible to everyone – the vinyl record. Major labels saw this interest spreading and recognised a potential market for the records – a move perhaps not too similar to big brands hopping on trends today, like when Sephora caused controversy with their ‘Starter Witch Kit’ last year.


OCCULT ALBUMS COME TO THE UK
In 1969, Capitol Records released Witchcraft – Magic: An Adventure in Demonology. The album came narrated by the Witchfinder General himself, Vincent Price. Although Price was not a practicing witch himself, he did have a keen interest in the history of the craft and demonology, and was an icon of horror cinema at the time (as he’s still considered today). The informative spoken word LP guides the audience through important events and histories in witchcraft, from the burning of witches in the Middle Ages to the raising of the Cone of Power in the New Forest to stop Hitler coming to England during World War II. The album also features Vincent Price discussing “How to Invoke Spirits, Demons, Unseen Forces" and “How to Communicate with Spirits”, among other themes. The original pressing included a small booklet that gave instructions on the creation of a Hand of Glory, a magical item of great power made from the severed left hand of a hanged man.

A year later, in 1979, Alex and Maxine Sanders’ A&M-released A Witch is Born became another early example of a major label dalliance with witchcraft. Alex and Maxine were undoubtedly some of the most recognisable faces in Wicca at the time: Alex was declared the ‘King of the Witches’ by his loyal followers, which inspired the title of his 1969 biography, June Johns’ King of the Witches, and the 1970 film Legend of the Witches, while glamorous Maxine the ‘witch queen’ had been initiated into a coven in the small and bucolic village of Alderley Edge, Cheshire, aged just 15. They were the new faces of witchcraft, young and publicly open about their craft, appearing in magazines, national newspapers, and on television shows. Maxine performed rites with 70s occult rockers Black Widow on-stage in 1970, and their Notting Hill Gate coven attracted a wide array of people and celebrities at the time, including T.Rex’s Marc Bolan.

A Witch is Born was advertised in Rolling Stone magazine with an image showing Alex and Maxine initiating Janet Owen (later Farrar) into their coven, this vital rite of passage involved the consecration of the circle and then the binding of the wrists of the initiate, naked, and blindfolded. It was a solid visual depiction of the album’s contents. In the liner notes for the album, Stewart Farrar wrote that “Alex Sanders is the most powerful witch in Britain. Here, for the first time, he presents a full recording of the solemn initiation of a new member into the ancient Craft.” On record, Alex Sanders’ softly-spoken Merseyside accent can be heard instructing the coven during the initiation as Wagner’s Tannhäuser opera. An occult oddity and a peep into life in the Sanders’ infamous coven, where witchcraft initiations and rites were previously privately held behind closed doors and relatively unheard of, Sanders was putting it out there for the world to listen to and learn about. According to occult filmmaker Gary Parsons, the album was rumoured to have been banned shortly after its release for having a ‘satanic’ element to it. “That's how come copies were so hard to find,” he explains. “In fact, the album sold poorly and had been remaindered, and in some cases found in bargain bins, so there was never a second pressing of it, and some copies got returned to distributors and the label.”

The Church of Satan's Satanic Mass album cover
Front cover of The Satanic Temple’s live album The Satanic Mass
AMERICAN WITCHES GET SEXY
While the UK may have set a more serious and educational tone to witchcraft and occult records, with a realistic documentary-style look into life as a practicing witch, across the waters in the USA, the majority of witchcraft and occult LPs were very different. American popular culture was somewhat more colourful, fun, and sexual in nature than the grey skies of gloomy England. They'd invented Hollywood, pop art, and rock ‘n’ roll, and weren’t as shy as the Brits about using sex to sell. Quite a few raunchy witchcraft LPs by ‘sexy witches’ were released, perhaps the most well known being by Louise Huebner, the ‘official witch of LA’. Her record Seduction Through Witchcraft, released on Warner Bros in 1969, is a wonderfully odd, quirky album that may have played into the ‘witchsploitation’ trend of the early 70s, but also features some seriously psychedelic early experimental electronic music, while Huebner’s raspy heavily reverberated voice makes for a deliciously spooky-kitsch trip. With track names such as “The Coleopterous Charm For Romantic Adventure”, “The Earthquake Spell For Unwanted Lovers”, and “Turkish Bean Spell For Tender Love”, it’s hard not to be seduced by Huebner’s charms.

In a similar vein to Huebner was Barbara, The Gray Witch, a 1970 album by – you guessed it – Barbara the Gray Witch. Unfortunately, the album is incredibly rare today – there are no audio uploads of it online, and it’s selling for nearly £150, but the cover alone is spectacular. “Barbara the Gray Witch tells you the truth about modern witchcraft,” reads its back cover. “In this album she gives you a series of tests to determine if you were born a witch or a warlock. And what you can expect to gain from witchcraft. Barbara gives you the authentic chants and rituals used to gain prosperity, call forth spirits, beckon and pay homage to Satan, and exorcise evil spirits...” According to one online source, the record is “information about witchcraft, by a witch, for future witches”, and the spoken word parts are “accompanied by experimental electronica or musique concrète, which makes it even more fascinating”. To this day, Barbara is a practicing psychic and astrologer who works in South Bend, Indiana.

And not shying away from American witchcraft sexiness in the slightest was the privately pressed 1974 LP The Art of Witchcraft by Babetta the Sexy Witch, a Los Angeles witch who designed spells specifically in the areas of love, wealth, and success. She still continues her craft, and according to her website, remains a leader of witches throughout the area.

Taking a different and possibly slightly more educational tone to the raunchy US witchcraft LPs of the time – but not lacking in esoteric electronic music – was Gundella, a Detroit-born descendent of the green witches of Scotland. Although she usually wrote books, as well as a newspaper column helping solve everyday problems from a Wiccan perspective, in 1971 Gundella teamed up with her musician son James to create The Hour of the Witch. According to its blurb, “Gundella helps you test your psychic powers, make ritualistic candles, and mold wax dolls. She’ll define witchcraft & magic and teach you how to cast your own spells!” The album was reissued in 2017 by Modern Harmonic (fittingly, it was pressed on green vinyl), with liner notes by Gundella’s daughter, Madilynne.


A GRADUAL DECLINE
By the mid-70s, these albums were fast in decline. The hippie dream had faded, along with an interest in mysticism and the occult that was so closely linked with it. In England, the 70s were famously grim, politically and economically. While ten years prior, teenagers may have gone to a freak-out and joined a coven, that was now considered too airy-fairy for the disaffected youth in the midst of the oil crisis, continued violence in Northern Ireland, strikes, and political hardship. “They wanted Slade and The Sweet rather than Satan as the political and social climate got harder,” says Gary Parsons. “The disaffected voices became louder, and it was felt that the older countercultural values had let them down. Like all things, it had its moment in the sun where it was embraced by the media to sell books and films, but began to look dated, culturally, as perceptions shifted.”

Subcultures that would later emerge, like punk, were arguably more ‘real’, and spoke to that generation more clearly. Nevertheless, there was an occult revival in the post-punk musical underground of the early 80s with acts like Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth and Current 93. Parsons explains they “took the mantle of occult music but opted in to a post-punk fashion to spread the word of the early 70s”, but unlike the decade before, these didn’t make much of a dent in the mainstream media. American essayist and music journalist Robert Christgau wrote that “the 80s were above all a time of international corporatisation”. With stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna reigning supreme, major labels were seeing bigger profits from pop records than ever before – they were never going to be interested in strange witchcraft or occult records. Adding to this, moral panic spread across Raegan’s USA during the 80s as allegations of Satanic ritual abuse extended across the states. In this culture of fear and suspicion, it may have been much harder to produce occult records without some serious criticism and finger-pointing.

In recent years, though, there’s been a resurgent interest in witchcraft and the occult. From 1990 to 2008, Trinity College in Connecticut ran three religious surveys that showed that Wicca grew tremendously over this period, with an estimated 8,000 Wiccans in 1990, rising to 340,000 in 2008. It’s also still very much a youth movement – it’s not unusual to see headlines like “Why millennials are ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology” and “Season of the witch: why young women are flocking to the ancient craft” in newspapers and on newsfeeds, and with 2.7 million posts on the #witchesofinstagram hashtag, the internet and social media has played a momentous role in the spread of witchcraft today. Even if the era of major label occult albums is over, the sort of content you’d hear on those discs can still be found in the thriving online wiccan and occult communities of Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr.



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