Everyone knows that rock and roll–and, before it, jazz and blues–is the “Devil’s Music”; and, indeed, the great deceiver has provided plenty of fodder over the last hundred years or so for popular musicians with a hankering to flirt with the dark side. So what better time than Halloween–and what better installment of Dystopian Dance Mix than the sixth, a number laden with occult significance by numerologists, fringe televangelists, Aleister Crowley, and your weird uncle who sends out Jesus-y chain emails–to trawl through the shadowy corners of pop music history for songs about the Prince of Darkness? Look, I know that my grand-ish plans for Dystopian Halloween Party ended up being comically unfulfilled, but I still have faith that this playlist will give October the sinister sendoff it deserves. So get your virgin and/or goat ready (on second thought, please just make it a goat), light some black candles, and enjoy this musical tribute to the Beast himself. Hail Satan, etc.
1. The Rolling Stones: “Dancing with Mr. D”
(from Goats Head Soup, 1973)
Yes, there are much more famous–and, let’s face it, better–fruits of the Rolling Stones’ years-long dalliance with “that demon life” in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But if you have any kind of weakness for Gothic-style pulp, this lesser-known song from 1973’s just-about-accurately-rated Goats Head Soup is irresistible. Steeped in New Orleans vodou (by way of E.C. comics) imagery, “Dancing with Mr. D” is high camp and it knows it; unlike that other song, nobody will ever accuse it of inspiring a Hells Angels murder. But Mick Jagger sings his purple-prose lyrics with an obvious and infectious relish: especially the final verse, which imagines him “dancin’ with a lady in black / Wearin’ black silk gloves and a black silk hat / She looked at me longin’ with black velvet eyes / She gazed at me strange, all cunning and wise / Then I saw the flesh just fall off her bones / The eyes in her skull was burning like coals / Lord, have mercy, fire and brimstone / I was dancin’ with Mrs. D.” It’s cheesy bonfire scary storytelling at its finest–and, paired with that swampy Keith Richards guitar riff, it’s arguably the Stones’ single most Halloween-friendly song.
2. Rick Ross featuring Jay-Z: “The Devil is a Lie”
(from Mastermind, 2014)
Perhaps the most productive field of innovation in mainstream hip-hop is the ever-escalating race to see who can be the most ludicrously self-aggrandizing. Kanye West, predictably, seemed to take the prize in 2013, when he both anointed himself “Yeezus” and declared himself a vengeful, French-ass-pastry-demanding deity; but Rick Ross is no slouch either, as he demonstrates with this late 2013/early 2014 single about how his “big guns and big whips” stand as indisputable proof that there is no Satan. The real reason why it’s on this list, though, is the guest verse by Jay-Z, which directly addresses those persistent (and monumentally, mind-numbingly stupid) conspiracy theories that he is somehow connected to the vaguely occult, Enlightenment-era secret fraternity the Illuminati: “Am I down with the Devil ’cause my roof come up missing?” he mocks. “Is that Lucifer juice in that two cup he sipping? / That’s D’usse, baby, welcome to the dark side.” The kid gloves come off by the end of the verse, however, when Hova turns the devil-worship accusations against his critics: “Devil want these niggas hate they own kind,” he raps, “Gotta be the Illuminati if a nigga shine / Oh, we can’t be a nigga if a nigga rich? / We gotta be the devil? That’s some nigger shit.” It’s a harsh retort, but arguably a necessary one–though if social media is any indication, the Illuminati accusations aren’t going anywhere soon. I guess Jay can always just console himself by swimming Scrooge McDuck-style in his ridiculous, absurd amounts of money?
3. Van Halen: “Runnin’ with the Devil”
(from Van Halen, 1979)
Of course, there was a time when musicians didn’t deny accusations of Satanic fealty, but actively courted them for their promise of disaffected-suburban-teen cred. Such is the stuff of “Runnin’ with the Devil,” the opening track from the legendary eponymous debut by party-rockers Van Halen, which makes swearing allegiance to the dark one sound like as much fun as drinking Jack out of the bottle, snorting rails off groupies’ buttcracks, and doing sweet kicks from the tops of Marshall stacks. Plus, if David Lee Roth’s astonishing Spandex-enhanced flexibility isn’t proof enough of a Faustian pact, just listen to him speaking in tongues on the isolated vocal track. But strip away Roth’s unabashed silliness, and “Runnin’ with the Devil” also works surprisingly well as a document of the ravages of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, “living at a pace that kills”–a darker note that comes to the fore in the gospel-flavored 2004 cover by Detroit alt-country band Blanche.
4. Peter Brown: “Do You Wanna Get Funky with Me”
(from A Fantasy Love Affair, 1978)
At first glance, this slice of slinky late-’70s post-disco funk doesn’t seem like the likeliest candidate for a Satanic playlist. But as Peter Brown relates his story about being propositioned by a foxy lady, things start to get hot in the Dantean sense: “when I looked into her eyes / The fire they held made me realize / That they were burning just for me.” Pretty soon, Brown starts to feel “the heat within / The lust of love and the urge to sin / I felt her reaching for my soul / And then I knew I had no choice / But to heed the command of the Devil’s voice / ‘Do you wanna get funky with me?'” Meanwhile, the seducer herself is cackling over the extended vamp, “I wanna set you on fire / ‘Cause it’s hot.” So basically it’s like Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, except it has a good beat and it’s easy to dance to.
5. Iron Maiden: “The Number of the Beast”
(from The Number of the Beast, 1982)
One of the many great metal songs about Satan, “The Number of the Beast” stirred up considerable controversy among evangelical Christians, who organized record burnings and protests during Iron Maiden’s 1982 U.S. tour. But there are a number of things about the song that put a damper on its scary reputation. First, the melody is an obvious interpolation of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” arguably the least menacing song ever. Second, the lyrics were apparently inspired by a nightmare singer Bruce Dickinson had after watching The Omen II, which is almost cute. Third, and my personal favorite, that ominous narration from the Book of Revelations at the beginning of the track is performed by actor Barry Clayton, whose other best-known credit is the late ’80s/early ’90s cartoon series Count Duckula–and who was only hired because Vincent Price reportedly charged too much money. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song; but if Iron Maiden are servants of the ultimate evil, quite frankly, I’ll take my chances.
6. Elvis Presley: “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise”
(1963 single; available on 30 #1 Hits)
On its own, this 1963 single is fairly benign stuff: just post-Army Elvis crooning the shopworn old story of a duplicitous woman who “looks like an angel” but is actually–wait for it–“the Devil in Disguise.” But the song gets a much-appreciated charge of occultism (not to mention homoeroticism) from its inclusion in avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger‘s queer Nazi biker phantasy Scorpio Rising, which Anger described as “a death mirror held up to American culture… Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans.” None of which has anything to do with Satan, necessarily, but hey, I’ll take any excuse to write about Scorpio Rising. Or “bursting jeans,” for that matter.
7. INXS: “Devil Inside”
(from Kick, 1987)
The Book of Ephesians calls Satan “the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience”; such is also the vision of the Devil depicted by Australian dance-rockers INXS on this standout track from their mid-’80s smash Kick. Over a characteristically irresistible groove, frontman Michael Hutchence sings about the worldly desires that Christianity has codified into the more literal embodiment of evil we know and love: with all the wickedness already here in the physical world, Hutchence suggests, it’s “hard to believe we need a place called Hell.” Rarely has a moral lecture on the nature of sin been delivered in such a gleefully sexy package.
8. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown: “Fire”
(from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, 1968)
Taking a similarly sermonic approach, here’s psychedelic showman Arthur Brown as “the god of hellfire”–but come on, we all know who that’s supposed to be. Despite the sprightly Hammond organ and brass arrangement, “Fire” has to be one of the most dour songs ever to hit the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic: Brown uses his operatic set of pipes to castigate the listener like a revival preacher, crowing, “You fought hard and you saved and learned / But all of it’s going to burn”… Summer of Love, my ass. Still, you’ve got to admire the guy’s dedication: he would perform the song wearing an actual flaming helmet comprised of an uninsulated leather skullcap and a metal dish full of lighter fluid, which was exactly as comfortable as it sounds. It takes a special kind of pyromaniac to get booted from a tour with noted fire enthusiast Jimi Hendrix; Brown, if nothing else, certainly has that claim to fame.
9. Jay-Z: “Lucifer”
(from The Black Album, 2003)
Yeah, it’s Jay-Z again, but we just couldn’t resist. This Kanye West-produced cut from 2003’s landmark Black Album is notable for its hook–a vocal sample from reggae singer Max Romeo’s “Chase the Devil“–and for its lyrics, which find Jay in classic form both vowing to “get these devils out my life” and identifying with the fallen angel himself: “Lord forgive him, he got them dark forces in him / But he also got a righteous cause for sinning.” The outlaw rapper as Miltonian antihero is a symbolic field rife for harvesting, especially by a lyricist as dexterous as Jay–though I can’t imagine “Lucifer” helped him evade those aforementioned Illuminati rumors.
10. The Flying Burrito Brothers: “Christine’s Tune (Devil in Disguise)”
(from The Gilded Palace of Sin, 1969)
Another song about those serpent-tongued demons we politely call women, “Christine’s Tune” kicks off the Flying Burrito Brothers’ debut album with a healthy dose of venom and electrified pedal steel. Like the other “Devil in Disguise” on the list, the lyrics–inspired by David Crosby’s girlfriend, Laurel Canyon scenester Christine Hinton–are pretty typical mean-woman complaints, though in this case we at least get to know some specifics about the subject’s devilishness: as Gram Parsons sings on the penultimate verse, “Unhappiness has been her close companion / Her world is full of jealousy and doubt / It gets her off to see a person crying / She’s just the kind that you can do without.” Incidentally, the real Christine would die later that year in a freak car accident, after her cat wedged itself between the floorboard and the brake pedal. This is neither here nor there, though it is further evidence that cats are in fact servants of Satan.
11. Beck: “Devils Haircut”
(from Odelay, 1996)
Like most Beck songs, “Devils Haircut” isn’t “about” anything in particular, so much as it is a lyrical grab bag of surreal imagery: “Heads are hanging from the garbageman trees / Mouthwash, jukebox, gasoline” (sing along, kids!). Or maybe it’s about exactly what it says it’s about: Beck himself once described the song as “a really simplistic metaphor for a devil’s haircut”–though that may just be his trademark Hipster Irony™. Whatever the literal meaning, the song does beg the question of what, exactly, is a devil’s haircut. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say a widow’s peak is probably involved.
12. Mötley Crüe: “Shout at the Devil”
(from Shout at the Devil, 1983)
Well, it’s been a whole seven tracks since Iron Maiden, which means it’s long past time that we got another metal song on the playlist. Like “The Number of the Beast,” Mötley Crüe’s “Shout at the Devil” attracted the ire of Christian groups who were convinced their children were being indoctrinated into Satan worship–though if the parent album cover is any indication, the only idols these guys were bowing to were the Gods of Aqua Net. Still, I’m not ruling out the possibility that the Crüe actually shouted at the Devil at some point: take one look at them now and it’s pretty obvious that they sold, if not their souls, then at least their ability to resemble human beings, in exchange for a superhuman resistance to drug overdoses.
13. Venom: “In League with Satan”
(from Welcome to Hell, 1981)
Staying on the metal tip, it wouldn’t be a Devil’s Music playlist without proto-thrash pioneers Venom, whose “In League with Satan” is about as blunt a pledge of Satanic allegiance as you can hope to see. Hell, it’s one of the few early ’80s metal songs I can think of that actually uses backmasking: that scourge of the evangelical movement that was supposedly sending subliminal Satanic messages on every vaguely heavy rock album of the time. Off stage, of course, even Venom weren’t really serious about Satanic worship; but “In League with Satan” is a lasting contribution to that most valuable genre, Music to Frighten Old People By.
14. Skip James: “Devil Got My Woman”
(1931 recording; available on “I’m So Glad”: The Complete 1931 Paramount Recordings)
But leave it to Delta bluesman Skip James to preemptively make even the darkest heavy metal act look like so much amateur Halloween posturing. The Devil in James’ “Devil Got My Woman” isn’t the pulp-magazine Satan to whom Venom and Crüe feigned their allegiance, but the endemically human temptations to which we can all fall prey; and what makes the song so haunting is that it isn’t about scares so much as regret, mourning the loss of a lover to a life of sin. “I’d rather be the devil, to be that woman man,” James moans, and his voice cuts through eighty years of history to send chills down the spine. Now that is spooky.
15. Eagles of Death Metal: “Chase the Devil”
(from Death by Sexy, 2006)
Moving from the sublime back to the ridiculous, here’s Palm Desert rockers the Eagles of Death Metal doing their best psychobilly pastiche. Frontman Jesse “Boots Electric” Hughes’ frantic, hiccuping vocal performance is a dead ringer for Cramps singer Lux Interior, and his desire to “browse for a woman who can help me chase the Devil” is basically rock and roll in a nutshell.
16. Frank Zappa: “Titties & Beer”
(from Zappa in New York, 1978)
Also pretty rock and roll–though presented as always with tongue firmly planted in cheek–is the protagonist of Frank Zappa’s late-’70s mock-funk epic “Titties & Beer”: a simple-minded biker who is able to outwit the Devil himself due to the sheer monomania of his lust for the titular items. When confronted with the Devil’s traditional contract, Zappa’s character doesn’t even miss a beat: “Gimme that paper, bet yer ass I’ll sign / ‘Cause I need a beer, ‘n it’s titty-squeezin’ time.” I don’t know what it says about me, necessarily, but the lengthy dialogue between Zappa and drummer Terry Bozzio’s Satan never ceases to amuse me: especially the bit about the Devil being a chronic masturbator because “ever since that guy told you that he contained more fluid than Jeff Beck, you’ve been trying to outdo him.” I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I’m a simple man, and I’m only interested in two things…see if you can guess what they are.
17. Black Sabbath: “Voodoo”
(from Mob Rules, 1981)
Unlike Zappa, however, Black Sabbath has always had a healthy respect for the Lord of This World; and “Voodoo,” written and recorded with latter-day frontman Ronnie James Dio, is an underrated example. Like most of Sabbath’s “Satanic” songs, it’s not a celebration of the Devil, but a warning against him: “Say you don’t know me, you’ll burn,” Dio proclaims, “You can refuse, but you’ll lose, it’s by me.” It’s basically Christian rock, in other words–but if all Christian rock had Tony Iommi riffs like this one, I’d probably be in church as we speak.
18. Tom Waits: “Way Down in the Hole”
(from Franks Wild Years, 1987)
Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” is such a convincing stab at African American gospel, it received a cover by none other than the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, made famous as the opening theme for the first season of HBO’s The Wire. I remain partial to Waits’ original, though, both for his trademark whiskey-soaked bellow and for the sparse, jazzy arrangement that sounds like it was played in the studio by Disney’s dancing skeletons. But my favorite thing about Waits’ song is how it slyly critiques the very genre it pastiches. The lyrics are so simple and elemental, they come across as a parody of conventional Gospel sentiments, and the glibness with which platitudes are offered in the face of the eternal struggle against human evil: “When you walk through the garden / You gotta watch your back / Well I beg your pardon / Walk the straight and narrow path / If you walk with Jesus, he’s gonna save your soul / You gotta keep that devil way down in the hole.” Easier said than done, friend.
19. The Louvin Brothers: “Satan is Real”
(from Satan is Real, 1959)
If Tom Waits seems ultimately skeptical of the gospel he preaches, then the Louvin Brothers are fully convinced–despite their best efforts to keep us from taking them seriously. Satan is Real gets a lot more attention these days for its ludicrous cover, depicting Ira and Charlie Loudermilk cowering at the feet of a crude plywood devil, than it does for its music. Which is a shame, because the title track included here is a great, and harrowing, example of fire-and-brimstone revival-style country gospel. The Louvins may not ever be able to convince me that “Satan is Real”–at least not with that monstrosity on the cover as their visual aid. But their chilling admonitions about the evils of the world ring true even to a confirmed non-believer. Sorry, Satan, looks like you lose this one.