Way back in our very first Dystopian Halloween Party, we put together a playlist of songs about Satan. This year, we’re focusing on the foot soldiers of the occult: the dreaded witches and warlocks whose Satanic pacts and nude forest revels have been the stuff of feverish fantasy for centuries. Of course, any practicing Wiccan (or Harry Potter devotee) would tell you that witchcraft and wizardry actually have very little to do with the Devil. But much of the appeal of magic, dark or otherwise, lies in its countercultural cachet: witches are cool because they live on the fringes of respectable society and subvert the codes of acceptable behavior, particularly where gender and sexuality are concerned. Sure, these transgressions have a nasty tendency of getting them burned at the stake, but come on; would you rather spend your sabbath in solemn prayer, or partying naked in the woods with a giant bipedal goat? I know what my answer would be. So as All Hallow’s Eve approaches, prepare your sacrificial lambs, dust off your broom, and don’t forget to water your phallus tree: here are 16 songs to soundtrack your next Black Mass.
1. The Sonics: “The Witch”
(from Here Are the Sonics!!!, 1965)
Fear of witchcraft has been rooted in misogyny since at least the late 15th century, when Heinrich Krämer’s notorious inquisitor’s manual Malleus Maleficarum invested the term “witch” with a more explicitly gendered–and malicious–meaning. These days, a “witch” is primarily what you call a rude or unruly woman in situations where its rhyming “B-word” is considered too uncouth. But there’s also an undeniable fascination underlying male contempt for witches: we hate them because they make us want them, through their womanly wiles if not through actual sorcery. And that’s pretty transparently what this vicious slice of proto-punk from Seattle garage-rockers the Sonics is about; frontman Gerry Roslie howls his frustration over a nocturnal temptress whose very presence in town is a threat to the local men: “She got long black hair / And a big black car / I know what you’re thinking / But you won’t get far / She gonna make you itch / ‘Cause she’s the witch.” But considering the Sonics were making this unholy racket way back in 1964, I’m more inclined to think they were the ones in league with darker forces.
2. Rush: “Witch Hunt”
(from Moving Pictures, 1981)
Between the years 1450 and 1750, an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 people were executed in Europe and North America under suspicions of witchcraft; more recently, the term “witch hunt” has entered the vernacular to refer to any irrational, paranoid effort by a society to root out perceived enemies in their midst. I’m not sure which meaning, exactly, was intended for this track by Canadian prog-rock power trio Rush–though, knowing their drummer and principal lyricist Neil Peart, it’s probably whichever one Ayn Rand would have approved. But the song paints a suitably chilling, grotesque picture of mob mentality regardless: “Features distorted in the flickering light / Faces are twisted and grotesque / Silent and stern in the sweltering night / The mob moves like demons possessed / Quiet in conscience, calm in their right / Confident their ways are best.” Whether in medieval Europe, colonial Salem, or the present day, that kind of moral certitude is far scarier than any cackling crone.
3. Prince: “Shockadelica”
(1987 B-side, available on The Hits/The B-Sides)
Sometime in 1986, Prince experimented with raising the pitch on his vocals in the studio, creating an oddly androgynous, helium-like effect; he obviously liked the way it sounded, as he built a whole alternate persona around the voice, which he dubbed “Camille.” Like most things Prince, a lot of the Camille project–originally intended as an album of its own, later distributed among a handful of albums and B-sides–is shrouded in mystery. But one of the most fascinating things about the “character” was its subtext of the occult: revealed most explicitly in the 1987 B-side “Shockadelica,” where Camille is described as a “witch” who’s “got U tied with a golden rope” and “never wears a stitch / So U can’t take her home.” Was it discomfort with these vaguely magickal undertones–also present in the Black Album cut “Superfunkycalifragisexy”–that caused Prince to abandon Camille as abruptly as he created her? Probably not; but the fact remains that “Shockadelica” is mid-’80s Prince at his darkest and freakiest.
4. Black Sabbath: “The Wizard”
(from Black Sabbath, 1970)
But hey, you might be asking: with all this talk about witches, what about wizards? Well, I’m glad you asked, because I’ll take any excuse to listen to Black Sabbath‘s surprisingly bluesy ode to Gandalf the Grey from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I have to say, though, it’s interesting how the prospect of a male sorcerer is never considered as frightening as the female equivalent. Hell, this song makes them sound downright jolly: “Evil power disappears / Demons worry when the wizard is near / He turns tears into joy / Everyone’s happy when the wizard walks by.” Why the double standard?
5. Wicked Lester: “She”
(1971 recording, available on KISS: The Box Set)
Slightly more progressive, here’s a song by KISS prototype Wicked Lester–later re-recorded to heavier effect on 1975’s Dressed to Kill–that treats witchy imagery as a metaphor for the power of women’s sexuality: “The powers are within her / As she takes off her clothes.” Of course, the progressiveness is dulled somewhat by the fact that it’s coming from Gene Simmons, one of the most prolific womanizers in pop music history; but at least this early version takes some of the edge off his leering delivery. Plus, dig that rock flute!
6. Jethro Tull: “Witch’s Promise”
(1969 single, available on Benefit)
And speaking of rock flutes, here are the trailblazers themselves: that living, breathing Renaissance Festival known as Jethro Tull. True to form, Tull’s 1969 non-LP single “Witch’s Promise” sounds just as easily like it could have come from 1569, with Ian Anderson‘s quasi-Elizabethan melody and lyrics about the hazards of being “kissed by a witch one night in the wood.” It’s both haunting and appropriate background music for your next LARP session.
7. Cream: “Strange Brew”
(from Disraeli Gears, 1967)
Another song comparing female sexuality to sorcery–it is, as you can tell, a popular theme–this 1967 single by British blues-rockers Cream is at least specific enough to work in a reference to that old standby of witchy imagery, the cauldron of ominously-bubbling brew. Maybe not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear Eric Clapton‘s pop-Albert King guitar licks, but it works.
8. Earl King: “Trick Bag”
(1962 single, available on Lost & Found Rarities from the 60’s Volume 2)
A “trick bag” is an amulet, also known as a mojo, used in African American folk magic and frequently referenced in blues music; while that may not be clear from the lyrics of Earl King’s 1962 single of the same name, it’s a cultural reference that would have been very familiar to contemporary listeners–particularly in King’s hometown, the hoodoo hot spot that is New Orleans. And while knowledge of that reference isn’t necessary to enjoy the song, it does make the paranoia and casual violence of the lyrics all the more menacing: King’s narrator thinks his wife has “put him in a trick bag” allowing her to cheat on him with impunity, which prompts him to beat her. Which, now that I think about it, sounds more than a little like a microcosm of the misogynistic persecution of “witches” in general.
9. Dr. John the Night Tripper: “I Walk on Guilded Splinters”
(from Gris-Gris, 1968)
Much more explicit in its treatment of hoodoo imagery is this early hit by another New Orleans native: Mac Rebannack, better known as Dr. John. These days, of course, an act like that of Rebennack’s early “Night Tripper” incarnation would likely be accused–with some justification–of cultural appropriation. But 1968’s “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” [sic] is such an intoxicating walk on the dark side (no pun intended) of blues and R&B that I, for one, can’t really be mad at him. Go ahead, Dr. John; you can wear all the headdresses and feathered top hats you want, just don’t put the gris-gris on me.
10. Coven: “Coven in Charing Cross”
(from Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls, 1969)
Speaking of cultural appropriation, here’s Coven: the Chicago-based psych-folkers who were among the first to jump on the short-lived witchsploitation train of the late 1960s. Their 1969 debut album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls, was purported (falsely) to be the first-ever recorded Black Mass, and was ultimately pulled from the shelves after the media linked the Manson Family murders with countercultural interest in the occult. All of which probably sounds hella creepy on paper, until you listen to them and realize they were basically just a third-rate Jefferson Airplane that had spent way too much time reading Aleister Crowley. It’s all good fun, but one sincerely doubts that any real witches or wizards would come near it.
11. Marc Bolan: “The Wizard”
(1965 single, available on The Collection)
Speaking of real witches and wizards, here’s by far the oddest piece of self-mythologizing from a master of the art: Marc Bolan of T. Rex. Sometime in the mid-1960s, Bolan claimed, he had met and spent time with a wizard in Paris, who shared “secret knowledge” with him that may or may not have included the power to levitate. It is, of course, impossible to say with any certainty whether this story was pure put-on, a veiled homoerotic experience, or something else; but it conveniently provided the narrative for Bolan’s Donovanesque 1965 debut single–not to mention his whole Tolkien-influenced persona during the Tyrannosaurus Rex era. Hell, who knows, maybe Bolan really was a wizard–he certainly had the right hat for it.
12. Passalacqua: “Sirens”
(from Zebehazy Summer, 2012)
Yeah, we know, the mythological siren isn’t technically a witch; but what else are you supposed to call a supernatural female figure that exists to tempt hapless men to their fates? And that’s pretty much what this track from Detroit underground hip-hop duo Passalacqua is about–give or take the “supernatural” part. Look, there just isn’t much rap music about witches, okay? Give us a break here.
13. †‡†: “Ghetto Ass Witch”
(from Ghetto Ass Witch EP, 2011)
It probably shouldn’t be surprising in a 21st-century musical landscape where the slightest variation of style and theme can spawn a whole subgenre (remember moombahton?), but “witch-house” is an actual genre, with artists and labels and everything. And one of the more on-the-nose of those artists is Mexico City’s †‡† (pronounced “Ritualz,” I guess?), whose 2011 track “Ghetto Ass Witch” puts an occult spin on its hybrid of house and trap music. I’mma be honest, I’m too damn old to be writing about witch-house; but I’m at least bemused that it exists, and I guess that’s enough.
14. Deep Purple: “Mandrake Root”
(from Shades of Deep Purple, 1968)
Now pay attention, because I’m about to tell you the dopest thing about witches I know. As discussed in a popular story from The Atlantic a few years back, many of the plants commonly associated with witchcraft–such as deadly nightshade, henbane, and mandrake–contained hallucinogenic chemicals; hence why the latter root became the subject of this thinly-veiled LSD metaphor by a fledgling Deep Purple. But stay with me, because it gets better: these hallucinogens were poisonous when consumed orally, so users had to come up with different ways to ingest the chemicals, one of the most effective of which was to absorb them through the mucus membranes of the genitals. And of course, for women in the 16th century, arguably the handiest way to reach those mucus membranes was with the handle of a household broom. Which means two things: 1. when we say witches ride broomsticks, we literally mean they ride broomsticks; and 2. they’re also tripping balls while they’re doing it. If you ever wanted proof that fear of women’s sexuality was at the heart of the Reformation-era witch crusades, well, here you go. And if you ever wanted an excuse to use your broom as a sex toy and/or piece of drug paraphernalia, then I guess here you go, too.
15. Azealia Banks: “Yung Rapunxel”
(from Broke with Expensive Taste, 2014)
It can be tough to remember between all of the one-sided social media beefs, skin-bleaching controversies, and physical altercations with Russell Crowe, but singer-rapper Azealia Banks also claims to be a practicing witch and once made minor Internet waves for threatening to hex Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (you can’t make this shit up). And while her 2013 single “Yung Rapunxel” contains only a few offhanded references to herself as a “witch,” it definitely sounds like the kind of thing a modern-day bruja would listen to, with a “witch-hop”-influenced beat (there’s that word again) and lyrics that find Banks manifesting herself as an avenging spirit of sexually voracious badassery. Banks might be tough to defend these days, but at the peak of her powers, one gets the sense that she doesn’t need our help. And if Russell Crowe turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, we know whose alibi to check first.
16. Focus: “Hocus Pocus”
(from Focus II/Moving Waves, 1971)
In the end, though, witchcraft is really about just one thing: magic. And yodeling, which seems like something witches might do, right? And of course bitchin’ ’70s rock guitar solos. Also there was that movie Hocus Pocus; it was cute and about witches. Millennials love it! All right, let me be honest: I’ll just take any excuse to put “Hocus Pocus” by Focus on a Dystopian Dance Mix. Does it have anything to do with witches? Who cares, just shut the fuck up and listen to it. Because if anything can cast a powerful spell, it’s six and a half minutes of blistering Dutch instrumental prog-rock. Who needs flying broomsticks when you’ve got Hocus Fucking Pocus?