This Day in Metal’s CJ Lines takes a look back.
In 2022, watching Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground, Geraldo Rivera’s 1988 NBC special, feels almost surreal. It’s a muckraking exposé of so-called Satanism that finds Geraldo wiggling his moustache at various guests, while badgering them into admitting that heavy metal leads to ritual murder. He luridly reels off a series of horrendous crimes and, through the vague connective tissue of Satanism, claims that the reason they were committed is essentially because there aren’t enough warnings on heavy metal records.
It’s a documentary that uses textbook disinformation tactics to draw links where none exist. By showing us (and even interviewing) the perpetrators of unimaginably violent murders, Geraldo shocks viewers into feeling anger, compassion and fear. He then exploits those feelings by immediately following up the facts with complete fiction. He’ll be careful to prefix his judgements with things like “not ALL heavy metal fans commit ritual murders…” but the implication of his message is clear and intentional: kids who listen to heavy metal are more likely to murder their parents and classmates than kids who aren’t. Most comically, he interviews Ozzy Osbourne (via satellite link-up to London) and the singer, watching along and commenting on the events being shown to him, is clearly baffled. He has no idea why he, as an entertainer, is being taken to task on gruesome murders he had nothing to do with.
This kind of hysteria on such a grand level seems unthinkable but Devil Worship was NBC’s highest-rating special ever at the time, even though they allegedly lost $500k in advertising because no one wanted their product associated with the Satanic material. However, put into the perspective of the times, it’s easy to see how things got to this stage… and it may not even be as far removed from the present day as it first seems.
Music has always connected with young people and, as such, has caused concern and fear among older generations who just don’t get it. Things really ramp up at the dawn of rock’n’roll music in the 1950s, when music became far more attainable to the average teenager thanks to record players and home televisions. Plus, music also started to really, well, rock… From the shocking gyrations of Elvis’s pelvis on The Ed Sullivan Show to the cheeky innuendos of Chuck Berry, rock’n’roll had parents clutching their pearls and shielding their children from this musical menace that threatened to tear apart the very veneer of American family values.
In fairness, if you don’t understand it and you’re not part of it, there is something perhaps a little frightening about a huge youth movement that’s rooted in intensity, and rock’n’roll sure was intense compared with anything that came before it. Naturally, each subsequent generation’s music would build on that intensity because that’s what youth has always craved. Something new, something exciting, something to burn off all that excess juvenile energy, to rip up the complacency of dull suburban existence, and make life feel more colourful. So the 60s brought us psychedelic rock, the 70s hard rock and the 80s gave us metal. By then, the generation who grew up on Elvis were no longer the transgressive ones – instead, their music was tame old hat and what their kids were listening to was downright terrifying to them. Artists like W.A.S.P., Twisted Sister, Venom, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne and Megadeth were the new threat to society’s moral fabric. Come back Elvis, all is forgiven.
By the mid-80s, moral panic over music was an agenda being pushed at the highest levels of American society. The wives of high-profile Washington businessmen and congressmen founded the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC) in 1985, and ushered in a new age of censorship and debate over (mostly) heavy music. The PMRC actually held a senate hearing in which “expert witnesses” – music professors, psychologists and PTA members(!) – were called in to explain why heavy music was harmful to its listeners and should be, in some way, banned or restricted. There’s great video footage online of Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider returning fire and testifying before the Senate that his music wasn’t pornographic.
Back then, getting a record banned or its sale restricted would seriously limit its chances of reaching a decent size audience. Additionally, album sleeves would often be “cleaned up” before reaching the shelves, further reducing their sales potential. Something as tame as Poison’s Open Up And Say AAAHH!, for example, was deemed too extreme for public consumption purely for the length of the cover model’s tongue, so the artwork was blacked out for general release. You could now only see her eyes!
Of course, the PMRC’s great victory was the introduction of parental advisory stickers to put on the front of problematic albums. This may not seem like such a big deal – after all, there’s an argument to be made for some kind of age rating music aimed at adults – but there was a tangible downside to the stickers. Stores, from major supermarket chains to mom’n’pop shops, now had an excuse to refuse to stock records with the dreaded advisory stickers on them on the grounds that it meant the records were somehow filthy and/or evil.
Of course, this all linked in to another moral outcry of the age – Satanic Panic – which had been bubbling up for a while, pushed into public consciousness by a 1980 book called Michelle Remembers. This is the book in which Lawrence Pazder, a Canadian psychiatrist, investigates claims from his wife and patient Michelle Smith that she had been ritually abused by Satanists as a child. The book, while later debunked as a blatant hoax, sparked a slew of “remembered ritual abuse” cases in which people suddenly recalled being victimised by Satanists as children. It may seem ridiculous – especially if you read the book, which is far-fetched and sensationalist – but it led to a lot of serious court cases and lives being ruined. The McMartin Preschool Trial is one of the most shocking, in that it saw innocent people convicted not just of crimes they didn’t commit, but crimes that never even existed (only to be exonerated and released many years later).
Famously, metal legends Judas Priest found themselves put on trial in the midst of all this. Two young Americans shot themselves in the head after allegedly playing Stained Class backwards and receiving occult messages and Priest were held accountable. The trial was farcical at times – with the prosecution trying to argue that the message in question was “do it, do it, do it” (to which the band retorted “do what? mow the lawn?”) – and ultimately the verdict was that Judas Priest had nothing to do with the suicides, but it’s a tragic and sobering story nevertheless. Much like the McMartin Preschool Trial (whose comic absurdity reached a pitch when a child identified a photo of Chuck Norris as a Satanic abuser!), lives were ruined and justice was exploited. As Rob Halford would later comment on the trial, the parents who lost their children weren’t the ones to blame for what was happening in court. In their grief, they were being manipulated by right-wing Christian groups who were footing the bill and encouraging the prosecution. These groups wanted to see metal brought down and stopped because of the threat they believed it posed to young people.
Of course, the threat is real but not in the way they tried to claim it was. More often than not, metal doesn’t corrupt young people and make them hurt themselves and others. However, it can arguably open their eyes to the hypocrisy of a society that’s supposed to protect them but, more often than not, fails them. Heavy metal is a genre that’s linked to rebellion and what better way to rebel – in a predominantly Christian society – than by using “Satanic” imagery? King Diamond explained it when asked by Kerrang! Magazine about why his band Mercyful Fate put such shocking imagery on the cover of their Nuns Have No Fun EP in 1982 (a crude charcoal illustration of a topless nun being crucified by demonic hooded figures).
“It’s a drawing, man. The church did this for real,” Diamond argued, referring to the Inquisition, and this is the crux of metal’s rebellion. It’s music that appeals to people who’ve realised that the values forced into them as kids aren’t actually as ‘good’ and ‘healthy’ as they appear. Metal often uses the imagery of polite society’s demons to reflect said society’s hypocrisy, corruption and abuse. Obviously, that’s something that large and corrupt organisations – from the church to the government – would want to avoid. Metal exposes them for what, in part, they are and they hate it for that.
Of course, on a personal level, metal can also be a balm for the soul, a way for its fans to safely explore dark feelings we all have – depression, anxiety, anger – that otherwise have no outlet. The fact that it has such a devoted, reverent following isn’t because metal singers are somehow cult leaders, trying to corrupt minds and steal souls. It’s because the raw, sometimes fantastical, imagery of metal, it offers a safe haven from all the real horror of the world. From the stark anti-Christian fury of Norwegian black metal to even the glam metal bands of the 80s – the Motley Crues and Poisons, all of whom suffered at the hands of the PMRC and Satanic Panic – they all offer it. An escape from reality. Something better, more honest, more safe and something that you can scream to the skies and release all the pain to. The gore-soaked ghouls on the album covers are just drawings. People like Geraldo Rivera – exploiting tragedy for ratings – are the real ghouls here.
While Geraldo’s special would almost certainly never air on a mainstream channel nowadays, its spirit does sadly live on. Metal is, of course, infinitely more extreme now than it was in 1988 and still attracts a similarly devoted fanbase but it isn’t such a significant youth movement as it was so, for the most part, is left alone now. Certainly, the most recent offerings from Six Feet Under, Cannibal Corpse or 200 Stab Wounds would shock even fans of 80s metal, but they are unlikely to make the headlines. Whether they like it or not, the older generations now at least ‘understand’ metal because they grew up with it.
All these years later, Satanic imagery has continued to penetrate pop culture. A band like the Foo Fighters, who are about as far from edgy and dangerous as modern rock music gets, are releasing a movie imminently called Studio 666. In tribute to the glory days of Satanic Panic, the plot finds Dave Grohl – as himself – discovering a lost tape by a thrash band called Dream Widow in the basement of a spooky old house. This leads to demonic possession and a Satanic killing spree, almost EXACTLY what the “experts” in Geraldo’s documentary warned us about all those years ago! However, rather than being broadcast on primetime as being a legitimate threat to society, it’s now very much played for laughs in a mainstream splatter-comedy film (which, incidentally, looks absolutely hilarious). Grohl and co even recorded a whole thrash album under the Dream Widow name, also out next month.
That said, while Studio 666 is unlikely to ruffle many feathers, perhaps the focus of the moral majority has shifted to the new abnormal; the stuff that’s selling the most records to kids now and what will therefore get the most attention. Hip-hop/trap is what tops today’s American charts, rules popular culture and alienates parents, so that’s where the moral panic is. From Cardi B’s WAP (whose sexually explicit lyrics admittedly make Motley Crue sound like Matt Monro) to Lil Nas X’s Montero, with its gay Satanic lapdance video, there’s still a moral uproar to be found if you look for it.
Perhaps one of the key differences now is that the detractors far have less power. Whereas in the 1980s, you could get a record banned and hurt an artist’s career, or you could literally put someone on trial for a record you disagreed with, the outcry over Lil Nas X (who, arguably, was channelling the Satanic Panic of the 80s directly in his video) did little to damage his song’s success. The primary way to watch it was always on the internet, which is hard to regulate (despite best efforts). If anything, the outcry just gave the track more publicity and the video now has nearly 500 million views on YouTube. The internet is a great leveler for art, in its way. It means music can be heard in places where it might previously have been censored, it can reach anyone anywhere and it’s a lot harder to have something removed from of public consciousness, which has to be progress of sorts.
Ultimately, no matter how many people have tried to snatch them from his hooves, the Devil still has – and is intending to keep – all the best tunes.
YESTERDAY, TODAY, EVERYDAY HEAVY METAL!! 🤘🏻👍👊
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