A Brief Timeline of Magic in Music
From Welsh witches to ambient incantations via David Bowie's goblin leggings.
This post was originally published on Noisey UK.
For some people, witchcraft represents nothing more than fashioning a pointy hat out of toilet rolls and defacing the household broom for a Halloween costume. But for teenage social outsiders like myself, it was a guiding light through many a troubled time—I have very fond memories of finding a new set of pals down atthe local spiritualist church and feeling like I'd discovered my life philosophy after reading Brian Bates' The Way of Wyrd. Even my VHS equivalent of of Netflix and chill era was less awkward thanks to The Craft playing in the background.
Much like literature and cinema, music too has been a longtime vessel for the wisdom of witchcraft and magic. In the Western forms of genres such as folk and rock, lyrics referring to witchcraft often commemorated specific historical events and figures, like the Salem witch trials (Rob Zombie's "American Witch", Marilyn Manson's "Cupid Carries a Gun") or ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley (David Bowie's "Quicksand", Iron Maiden's "Moonchild"). Others have inadvertently captured the mood of a generation—for instance, Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson has claimed never to have touched recreational drugs, but it's hard to see the nonsensical narrative structure and allusions to chasing the high on "The Witch's Promise" as anything but an expression of that era's widespread LSD use.
Several male artists, from Carlos Santana ("Black Magic Woman", first recorded by Fleetwood Mac) to Cliff Richard ("Devil Woman") used the figure of the witch to allude to female sexuality, while for female musicians such as Marianne Faithfull ("Witches' Song") and Kate Bush ("Waking the Witch") witchcraft has been a way to channel meditations on love, loss and misogyny. In later decades, artists have manifested their enthusiasm for the occult through an all-pervading atmosphere that cuts across their oeuvre: Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia's dark tribal trance, Xosar's occult-inspired techno or the ambient sounds of The Haxan Cloak come to mind, while genres such as witch house and hauntology have emerged as fully-formed musical disciples of the dark arts.
More recently, it's the aesthetic of witchcraft and spirit of esoteric practices that have found their way into electronic music in particular. Detroit jack-of-all-trades Jimmy Edgar explained his label's name Ultramajic as owing to its focus on "futuristic music, digital shamanism and virtual altars," while Glasgow-based producer Nightwave named her 2013 release "Magic Carpet" because of the track's use of samples reminiscent of "old Aladdin-type movies and Prince of Persia games" while calling her label Heka Trax because of her love for Ancient Egyptian magic.
Throughout the decades, some music about witchcraft has undoubtedly been a bit on the daft side (cue the "walla walla bing bang" chorus from David Seville's 1958 hit "Witch Doctor"). However the songs below demonstrate that witchcraft's characters, stories and mood have more often proven to be one of music's great sources of inspiration, and continue to do so for new artists, who draw on them in increasingly nuanced ways.
The Sonics – "The Witch" (1965)
"Well, you'd better be careful / before it's too late / She gonna make you itch / 'cause she's the witch," sounds a bit like an STI prevention warning because it's kinda meant to—the song's lyrics were changed from celebrating a local dance craze to thinly veiled woman-hating instead. Nevertheless, the track's heavy guitar riff, stop-start melody and Gerrie Roslie's memorable gruff voice make it stand out as one of the best examples of psychedelic rock, which thanks to coinciding with the golden era of acid, managed to produce so many witchy numbers.
Yoko Ono – "Yes, I'm a Witch" (1974)
Musician, performance artist, and peace activist Yoko Ono wrote this 1974 song on a 'lost weekend' recording session while on a break from partner John Lennon. With angsty lyrics such as "Yes, I'm a witch, I'm a bitch, I don't care what you say / My voice is real, my voice is truth" she not only created the perfect anti-gaslighting anthem but also a feminist manifesto with impressive longevity—the song was reimagined by The Brother Brothers on her 2007 remix album bearing the same name.
Fleetwood Mac – "Rhiannon" (1975)
Stevie Nicks' early performances of a song that rightfully became a Fleetwood Mac stadium stalwart were likened to an exorcism by bandmate Mick Fleetwood, and she often precedes its rendition by ominously announcing "this is a song about an old Welsh witch." Inspired to write it after reading a novel about a woman possessed by another woman, Nicks wrote the seductive lyrics in just ten minutes, later learning that the book's character was named after a goddess at the heart of medieval Welsh prose stories the Mabinogion.
Ozzy Osbourne – "Mr Crowley" (1980)
One of two singles released from the Black Sabbath frontman's first solo album Blizzard of Ozz, the gothic synths characterising "Mr Crowley" pay homage to the real British occultist Aleister Crowley, cited as inspiring Ozzy Osbourne's faux-evil image. Brandished "the wickedest man on earth", Crowley earned such as a nickname thanks to his enthusiasm for black magic, opium and sex. Following his death in 1945, he also became a cult figure among musicians such The Beatles and David Bowie, featuring in cover artwork and lyrics respectively. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page even bought Crowley's apparently haunted Loch Ness home Boleskine House.
David Bowie – "Magic Dance" (1986)
"Slap that baby make him free," might be the oddest line ever written, but David Bowie's "Magic Dance," from the soundtrack to Jim Henson's 1986 dark fantasy film Labyrinth is really a traditional coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl taking ownership of her familial responsibilities. Despite all the puppets, David Bowie's Goblin King steals the show in the accompanying video, with costuming that underlines in no uncertain terms the relationship between sorcery and sexuality. And while many of the film's songs are some of Bowie's finest, the upbeat "Magic Dance", with its borderline ridiculous opening rap and the gospel choir-like chorus is perhaps the most joyous song about magic, ever.
Shakespeare's Sister – "Stay" (1992)
Before British icon Cher Lloyd came along, "Stay" was a global hit for pop duo Shakespeare's Sister. A nod to William Shakespeare's witches in Macbeth, the 1992 track earned several accolades including a Brit Award for Best Video, with director Sophie Muller basing it on 1953 feminist sci-fi film Cat-Women of the Moon. The track's dramatic turns make it so memorable though, with Marcella Detroit's ear-piercingly high-pitched verse and Siobhán Fahey's pleading chorus demonstrating that the only downside of channelling the vocal register of a drowning witch is that the spell is broken when Simon Cowell comes a-calling.
Hole – "Season of the Witch" (1995)
Countless artists have covered Donovan back-catalogue anomaly "Season of the Witch", but when Hole performed the track during their 1995 MTV Unplugged session they arguably blew all the others out of the (bog) water. This is because wherever Courtney Love goes she brings all her musical baggage along too, with her distinctively emotive vocal adding a whole new layer of unease to this early psychedelic rock hit.
Princess Nokia – "Brujas" (2017)
While the beat is a nod to jungle, the lyrics and video of "Brujas" celebrate Bronx rapper Princess Nokia's Afro-Latina heritage on this Blanco and DJ Bass Bear-produced track from her homage to 90s hip-hop 1992. References to the Caribbean-originating Santería and West African Yoruba religions are deployed to celebrate the strength, power and solidarity of the women who birthed that part of the African diaspora.
Thomas Ragsdale – "Credo" (2017)
Let's get literal. "O thou who standest on the threshold between the pleasant world of men and the dread domains of the lords of the outer spaces, hast thou the courage to make the assay," whispers a layered, hypnotizing voice during this spell initiating a new witch courtesy of HyperNormalisation soundtrack artist Thomas Ragsdale. Beyond sounding great, it demonstrates that music can incorporate witchcraft quite bluntly. Released this past Cassette Store Day, the eerie ambient "Credo" is a standout on a 19-track Burning Witch Records compilation honoring all things spooky.
IAMDDB – "Conjuring" (2017)
An excellent example of how the associations of witchcraft have ameliorated over the years, the Manchester artist's opening track from her recently released Hoodrich Vol, 3 EP conveys with its title alone that casting spells means something very different today. Meanwhile the song's opening thunderstorm and no-fucks given attitude signal that witchcraft need not be served meekly à la Little Mix for the mainstream to accept it as a desirable communicator of female self-empowerment.
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