Cult Classics (Part One)

In The Book of Rites, Confucius says, "Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without," so it shouldn't surprise anyone that some religions have banned music, while other start-ups pick it up as a recruiting tool. Though there are many who believe popular music is an evil unleashed upon mankind thanks to the efforts of the Illuminati, the truth is that most tunes simply stem from a personal relationship with a muse, be it religious or not. Still, that hasn't stopped quite a few from exploiting or manipulating that idea to their benefit. Notably, cults are often the greatest offender there.

Newly formed religious sects have always used the power of music to persuade or entrance—from small Christian church gospels to Krishnas chanting at airports. While much of the music composed by these strange groups goes unrecorded, there have been a number of cases where a few faiths, or just their leaders, took the time to go into a studio and lay down the grooves God had graced upon them.

Back in 1978, the world was made vividly aware of one of the worst examples in the dangers of placing your life in the hands of a charismatic guru. Reverend Jim Jones began his life as a preacher selling—get this—monkeys for the Lord. In 1956, he started his People's Temple Christian Church Full Gospel, in Indianapolis, which later became known as the People's Temple. Always on the move, Jones found himself in California, where he stayed throughout the '60s and early-'70s, though the church made San Francisco their headquarters.

After a bit of bad press and foul words from ex-members, Jones moved his 1,000 followers to a small village in Guyana, a country in South America. They called their new home Jonestown. After more nasty gossip, Congressman Leo Ryan visited to see if all was well. On November 18, 1978, Jimmy sent a crew to assassinate Ryan, and then led 918 of his devotees to commit suicide by drinking a cyanide-laced sugar drink. The images seen the next day still defy logic.

Five years before the horror, the Temple was doing well, and even released an LP on their own Brotherhood Records. Titled He's Able, the 12-track 1973 12" is a collection of traditionals and originals, floating fearlessly between funk and your typical Christian gospel.

One of the songs, "Black Baby," became an underground staple as "Little Black Angel" after Death in June transformed four of the Temple's numbers on their But, What Ends When the Symbols Shatter? album, and later had that version covered by synth-pop outfit Ladytron.

Scientology is probably the world's largest cult. They're so big, they once bought the Cult Awareness Network, just to get themselves off of C.A.N.'s list of cults. Scientology stemmed from the bizarre physio-psychological practices and beliefs found in sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard's 1952 self-help tome Dianetics. After the failure of his wannabe psychotherapy center (the Dianetics Foundation) he turned his knowledge of psychological tricks and mental gymnastics—stolen from the O.T.O.—into his own religion.

Sometime in the 1970s, while floating about the ocean to escape tax evasion charges, the ex-Navy troublemaker got the idea that music might be a good way to spread his religious message. Handpicking members of his Sea Org's flagship, Apollo, the outfit was named The Apollo Stars. After recording their 1974 vinyl album, Power of Source, the psyched-out funk-jazz act was supposed to play every stop the trio of ships docked, in hopes of enticing some new recruits.

After a bad reception in Spain and Portugal, where there happened to be a coup, Lafayette decided the band was a bad idea, and scrapped the whole thing. It didn't deter him from still getting involved with music, as L. Ron began to pen lyrics—or sometimes just music—which he often handed to some of his most famous musician followers, like Edgar Winter...

...and Chick Corea...

...but also issued a few tracks on releases made strictly for Scientologist ears, and only available via the church's mailorder.

The Process Church of the Final Judgment is probably the one sect that has, without knowing it, inspired more music than any other outside mainstream Christianity. From bands like Throbbing Gristle to Integrity, Skinny Puppy, and Funkadelic; all have released songs—or entire albums—dedicated to or motivated by this enigmatic cult.

Formed by two ex-Scientologists who Hubbard denounced in 1965, Mary Ann MacLean and Robert Moor—later changing their surname to the more effective "de Grimston"—the church believed Christ and Satan had shaken hands and become buddies, set to bring upon the apocalypse. Some members worshiped Jehovah or Christ and became known as sexless prudes, and others hailed Satan or Lucifer and were classified as drug-addled sex fiends. They were said to have inspired the work of the Son of Sam serial killings—plus other well-known murders—though no real evidence has surfaced.

The only attempt the cult made at music was a band formed by one of the cult's high-ranking members, Timothy Wyllie. They recorded a demo tape, but Mary Ann, known as "The Oracle," was disinterested in her and Robert's words being spread by rock 'n' roll, so she told them to disband. The demo tapes disappeared, and this author has even contacted Mr. Wyllie to see if any copy of it exists today. Sadly, nothing could be dug up. Still, there are a few acts that sort of have a "Process stamp of approval," such as the folk band Changes, who played The Process' Chicago coffee house due to their close philosophic associations, and recorded tracks in the early-'70s which became known as the Fire of Life demos...

...as well as modern takes on The Process with Sabbath Assembly, who in 2010 released Restored to One, an LP of Process original hymns.

Another who many have said was inspired by The Process was No Name Maddox—you may know him as Charles Manson. Collecting the throwaway children of the hippie era, Charlie (after years of incarceration) had a following of lovely ladies who coined themselves "The Family." Though The Family and The Process lived blocks away from one another for a time, a Manson article appeared in a Process magazine, and Manson has even admitted knowing of their views in early interviews, he currently claims to not have even known of The Church of the Final Judgment.

Anyhow, we now know Charles had dreams of stardom, and his gaggle of girls was mostly an attempt at pimping his way into the music business. Only after one of his underlings killed a music teacher over a bad drug deal did Manson's race war fantasy of Helter Skelter have to go into effect, leading to the Tate-Labianca slayings.

Just before his murderous maidens' mayhem, Chuck was brought into the studio by The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. The tracks would be released by producer Phil Kaufman after Manson's sentencing as the Lie: The Love and Terror Cult LP. One of the songs, "Cease to Exist," was purchased by The Beach Boys and reworked as "Never Learn Not to Love," which Manson never forgave the Wilsons for. Since, Manson's music has been covered by The Brian Jonestown Massacre , Redd Kross, GG Allin, Guns N' Roses, The Lemonheads, and even actor Crispin Glover.

As Manson and a few of his Family members sat in prison, many of them on the outside were singing the praises of Charlie, literally. Recording twice, a handful of the Manson clan laid down a few of his classics, as well as new ones he had penned from his cell. Those 1970 recordings became known as the Family Jams double-CD in 1997.

The previously mentioned underling was one Bobby Beausoleil, who was a musician himself. While in prison for the supposed Manson-ordered killing of Gary Hinman, Robert scored the original version of Kenneth Anger's occult short film, Lucifer Rising, and is still releasing albums today.

Lastly within the reach of the Manson camp is "the other Family," known as the Fort Hill Community, or The Lyman Family. In the early-'60s, Mel Lyman was a harmonica player in a well-known jug band (at least by the standards of the jug band scene). Filmmaker Jonas Mekas funded the publishing of Lyman's two books, Autobiography of A World Savior and Mirror at the End of the Road, leading to Lyman amassing a group of followers. Soon he began to publish Avatar Magazine, which became your average local newspaper, but slowly changed into Lyman's philosophical pulpit. While he made the cover of Rolling Stone in 1971, there had always been a rumor that Manson and Lyman members visited one another's camps to see what each guru was up to, but this has never been proven. However, in 1973, some of the Lyman Family staged a bank robbery where one cult member was killed in a shootout with police. Strangely, this did nothing to the Fort Hill Community, and it remained practicing in quiet, even past Mel's death in 1978.

From 1964 until 1971, Lyman played on almost a dozen albums, and was posthumously recognized by a release of his solo work and Family recordings in 2002's retrospective LP, Birth.

Sure, some messianic groups are left alone to do their religious handiwork, but others are shredded by those who fear their growing power. One such case is that of David Koresh and his faith of Branch Davidians. Koresh, born Vernon Wayne Howell, was a Seventh-Day Adventist who joined a splinter group started by George Roden. Over several years, Koresh took over Roden's group, forming his Branch Davidian cult. After tips of child abuse and gun-running, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raided the Davidian compound. The sweep broke into an all-out gun battle killing several agents, as well as church members. Though there was a 51-day standoff, this all was the precursor to the now infamously televised murder of 80 cult members, including David Koresh, by the U.S. government.

In 1989, Koresh thought soft rock would help spread his sermons, self-releasing the cassette LP, The Music and the Message. The tape made him very few fans, until after the raid, where it became heavily bootlegged and found a larger audience as the 1994 Voice of Fire CD.

Anton LaVey is someone who has, according to many a conspiracy theorist, had a hand in all of the above cults, but the fact is the man was just an ex-carnival organist who started an occult study group in 1966 that later became The Church of Satan. Yes, a Manson Family member was a stripper in an early LaVey nudie show, but there are no other connections between any of the previously mentioned cliques (besides the Beausoleil/Anger film score).

While Anton LaVey released a 12" LP of The Satanic Mass in 1968, it wasn't until Amarillo Records released his 1994 10" EP, titled Strange Music, that the world got to hear the sweet calliope music of Satan's Black Pope.

With such a wonderful array of examples, I'll be splitting this piece into two parts, so I'd like to tell you about a little-known odd one last, and it's the story of Synanon. Originally founded in 1958 as a California drug rehabilitation center by Charles E. Dederich, Sr., Synanon turned into a real horror show by the '70s. Chuck loved going to A.A. meetings, but thought to include all drugs in his version. His program grew to be successful, soon generating $10 million in profits per year.

Though some of their models have been used as the foundation for certain behavioral modification theories, many of the Synanon techniques were thought to be cruel and unusual. By 1970, the group was focused more on spiritual matters, and became the Church of Synanon, but by the late-'70s were implicated in all sorts of thefts, murders, and acts of terrorism (perpetrated by an interior collective within the church called the "Imperial Marines"). The group was finally dissolved in 1991 after the Internal Revenue Service sued them for $17 million in back taxes.

Syanon had a big part in a few jazz musicians' lives, as saxophonist Art Pepper wrote about his stay in his autobiography, Straight Life, and there's the work of Joe Pass. Considered one of the greatest jazz guitarists of the 20th century, Pass joined a handful of other musicians living at Synanon for an album in 1962, Sounds of Synanon, on Pacific Jazz Records.

This list is by no means complete, only covering some of the better-known cults that found their way into musical history. Join me for Part Two, as I delve into another batch of tunes in the weird world of religious fervor and devotional piety. There will be no spiritual surrender...

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