The “Christmas single” phenomenon is unknown in the U.S., unless you’ve ever watched Love, Actually.
It’s sort of the “Black Friday” of the British music industry. Since so much music is sold (or, at least, used to be) during the holiday season, having the #1 song on the charts during that time gives one lucky record company a financial boost.
After Slade took the top spot in 1973 with their “Merry Xmas Everybody” — beating out “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard — “an emotional attachment to the Christmas countdown has developed, and for many [in the United Kingdom], it is part of the fabric of their childhood.”
So I doubt many American readers care that there’s a campaign to get Iron Maiden’s old chestnut “The Number of the Beast” to the top of the charts in time for Christmas, “for a laugh.”
What’s really funny (sort of) is that, during the early 1970s, such a campaign would have been denounced on the front page of every British tabloid, and remarked upon within American newspapers’ “entertainment” sections, at the very least.
Because culture-watchers would see it as yet another sign of the satanic takeover of the culture, and the world — the one I wrote about last week.
As I said before, one of the year’s most talked about books is shaping up to be Peter Bebergal’s Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll.
Bebergal believes two things:
That the “Satanic revival” that swept Western culture during the late 1960s and early 1970s invigorated popular music:
…the occult imagination saved rock and roll from sugary teenybopper purgatory and urged musicians, engineers, and producers to look beyond the conventional toward the possibility of raising the collective spiritual consciousness into the astral planes. (…)
Magic and mysticism gave rock its sure footing even as it took the greatest leap of faith and plunged into the abyss. It could have gone another way and become merely a fusion of American blues and folk without its own real identity. Instead, the biggest names in popular music willingly participated in this spiritual rebellion and in so doing crafted rock’s mythic soul. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Yes, and even the Rolling Stones, among many others, not only transformed rock with their musical innovations, but saved rock from becoming a series of radio-friendly 45s spinning out endless redundant chords.
He also says that “we’re currently experiencing an Occult Revival in rock music and popular culture.”
He’s wrong on both counts.
In the first place, that “sugary teenybopper purgatory” known as bubblegum music gets a bad rap.
That far more viable thesis is laid out in Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth: The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop, from the Banana Splits to Britney Spears, by Kim Cooper and David Smay.
Many “bubblegum” hits are fairly dripping with sexual innuendo.
Furthermore, much of this music is almost indistinguishable from its hipster-cool contemporary counterparts, garage rock and psychedelia:
“Green Tambourine” and “Jelly Jungle (Of Orange Marmalade)” are brilliant psychedelia for people who haven’t used drugs yet, and “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “1,2,3 Red Light” are either brilliant or perverse (or a bit of both) in their erotic metaphors and irresistible prefabricated production.
Why one genre is slagged off by the likes of Bebergal while the others are celebrated by rock critics isn’t clear.
I’m the first to admit that I could use a few lessons in music theory, but isn’t the difference between the “bubblegum” standard, above — “Quick Joey Small” — and this song somewhat academic?
Or this one:
And if rock and roll is all about transgressive trouble-making (when it isn’t about sex and drugs), then the song above counts as rock, too, right?
(Hey, it’s a “true story,” even. Can you imagine these guys behind bars, though?)
Too many rock critics, like Bebergal, seem to base their judgments on cosmetic appearances, peer pressure and tedious notions of ideological purity.
If you’re going to argue that bubblegum music was “pre-fab,” that bands like The Monkees were “manufactured,” then where does that leave, say, The Byrds, whose music was performed by the Wrecking Crew because “the band’s members, with the exception of Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, didn’t have a clue as to how to actually play the instruments”?
I’ve covered the issue of rock “authenticity” before and will likely do so again.
All that to say that Bebergal’s valorization of “occult” progressive/hard rock over bubblegum is shallow and dated.
If rock ever needed “saving,” it was from that faux mystical, self-indulgent progressive/hard rock nonsense he champions.
That’s where punk came in (and not a moment to soon).
Season of the Witch is, admittedly, an entertaining if slightly overwrought read — a fine primer on Baby Boomer music if you still need one after all this time.
But Bebergal’s thesis is shaky.
For one thing, his definition of “occult” — the concept around which the book revolves — isn’t entirely clear.
The trouble is that, in Bebergal’s book as in the music in question, the word “occult” came to comprise pretty much anything “weird”: Dungeons & Dragons, space travel, Universal monster movies, LSD, ESP and on and on.
And Bebergal’s choice of musicians to focus on is equally arbitrary.
A book about the occult and rock that doesn’t even mention Screaming Jay Hawkins, and waves off The Doors in one paragraph?
What about the music he does hold up as exceptional?
Needless to say, Led Zeppelin take up page after page. (No pun intended.)
Now, even I can admit that that band consists of some of the most gifted musicians in rock history.
But that’s actually what makes Led Zeppelin so infuriating:
Why did they waste their prodigious talents creating stirring yet ultimately pointless songs about fairies and elves and Vikings and Stonehenge and whatever the hell else they were on about?
At this point, can anyone over the age of 18 (and sober) really listen to those galloping opening bars of “Immigrant Song” without giggling, or at least feeling somewhat embarrassed for the band, and themselves?
And when we move into the realm of real life, what then?
I notice that Bebergal says nothing about how Jimmy Page’s adoption of Crowley’s motto — “Do What Thou Wilt” — might have figured in his decision to kidnap an underage girl.
And however did all his occult “explorations” help poor Syd Barrett?
Yes, it’s effortlessly fascinating that Charles Manson confrere (and convicted murderer) Bobby Beausoleil scored Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising. But how, pray tell, did that “save rock and roll”?
What about the ingrown, gnostic exegesis that this music inspired and demanded, beginning with obsessive “readings” of the Sgt. Pepper’s… album?
I came away from reading Season of the Witch with renewed appreciation and gratitude for Spinal Tap, who were surely the solitary positive accidental by-product of all this nonsense.
Although I must say, while I hate that era’s works and pomps with all my soul, I do think Wizzard was robbed: