Why the Devil Has the Best Tunes: Rock Music, Satanism, and Religious Fear

They say I worship the Devil / They must be stupid or blind / I’m just a rock ‘n’ roll rebel.
~ Ozzy Osbourne [1]

In the summer of 1990, heavy rock music went on trial for murder.

Five years before, two young adults named James Vance and Raymond Belknap of the small town of Sparks, Nevada spent a winter evening in December drinking, smoking marijuana, and listening to the album Stained Class by the English heavy metal band Judas Priest. According to the story later told at the trial, something in the music prompted the two young men to make a suicide pact. Armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, Vance and Belknap headed over to a church playground. Belknap, age 18, was the first to follow through with the pact, dying instantly after placing the shotgun under his chin and pulling the trigger. Twenty year-old Vance was not so lucky. He sustained severe facial injuries from his self-inflicted shot but survived, his face permanently deformed for the next three years before finally dying of medication complications in 1988.

The parents of the two young men, with the help of personal-injury attorney Kenneth McKenna, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in 1990 against the members of Judas Priest, charging the band with being responsible for the deaths. [2] Summoned to a Nevada courthouse in July, the members of Judas Priest found themselves in the midst of a bizarre interrogation in which they were forced to defend themselves against charges of nothing less than supernatural mind control coupled with cult conspiracy. The plaintiffs’ lawyers asserted that the young adults’ suicide attempt had been triggered by the phrase “Do It,” a command they believed to be subliminally embedded in the Judas Priest song “Better by You, Better than Me,” the band’s cover of a number originally performed by Spooky Tooth.

“In a case like this . . . it’s always difficult because you’ve got the image of heavy metal against you, and it’s had a lot of bad things thrown at it in the last few years,” Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton said in an interview for the documentary film Dream Deceivers, which chronicled the trial. “I know one thing I’ve learned from this court case: I’d hate to go into court with something to hide. I’d be scared to death.” [3]

In the end, reason prevailed over superstition. Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead ruled in the metal band’s favor. “The scientific research presented,” Whitehead stated in his decision, “does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude.” The court further concluded, “There exist other factors which explain the conduct of the deceased independent of the subliminal stimuli.” [4]

Judas Priest came out of the Reno trial unscathed by the metaphorical fires of the modern-day inquisition. But thousands of rock record albums did not escape the literal flames of zealous religious conservatives in the bonfires held at many fundamentalist churches across America. During the decade prior to the Judas Priest trial, many fundamentalist Christians and other conservative religious believers had made a cottage industry of spreading dire warnings about the evils of rock music. The heavy metal genre was an especially favorite scapegoat of these fundamentalist crusaders, but their polemics were not limited to that easy of a target. Within the emerging youth countercultures of the 1960s, interest in Eastern philosophy and religion invaded Western popular culture, influencing musicians and artists experimenting with avant-garde styles and forms of expression. This wave of interest in Eastern mysticism and the expansive concepts of universalism and inclusiveness that lyricists and album cover artists played with outraged the ultra-orthodox and conservative sectors of Protestant Christianity in America and instigated much of the panic that arose within the fundamentalist ranks about rock music.

This fear was exacerbated by the founding in the late 1960s of the Church of Satan by a carnival musician named Anton LaVey. And while the Beatles were promoting Eastern philosophy and mysticism, The Rolling Stones were coming out with album titles like 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request and 1973’s Goats Head Soup, and singing songs expressing “Sympathy for the Devil.” It was enough to make the fundamentalists’ proverbial heads explode. The anti-rock crusaders were fond of pointing out that the Stones performed the latter song at the Altamont Speedway Free Concert in December 1969, a notoriously violent event in which four people died and dozens more were injured. Footage of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” piece at this concert, culled from the 1970 documentary film Gimme Shelter, featured in the presentations of several anti-rock lecturers who attempted to make a connection between Satanism and violence. They saw great significance in Mick Jagger’s offhand comment, spoken to the Altamont Speedway crowd in an attempt to lighten the growing unease and tension, that, “Something very funny happens when we start that number.” [5]

LaVey’s Satanism did not believe in or worship a literal Prince of Darkness, but rather revered Satan as a libertarian symbol of freedom from the herd mentality. They also denounced murder and senseless violence, and LaVey’s Satanic Bible contains an explicit condemnation of literal human sacrifices. [6] But this did not stop the Christian fundamentalists from convincing themselves that LaVey and his followers were taking guidance and direction from a very real Satan who was out to destroy the human race. They saw the world in black and white; instead of recognizing and acknowledging the variety and complexity of the melting-pot of religious and spiritual beliefs that had invaded American culture, everything was to them divided into one of only two camps: Christ and Satan. In their imagination, the Eastern mysticism that became popular in the 1960s counterculture movement was a front for Satan’s grand conspiracy for world domination. This view did not diminish in intensity in the ensuing decades. In 1991, fundamentalist preacher Joe Schimmel told an audience at Tetelestai Church in Torrance, California that “Krishna is basically, I believe, just another term for Satan.” [7]

During the 1970s, the fundamentalists’ written and spoken attacks against rock music had very little impact on the wider culture, being heeded for the most part only by the already-converted. The 1980s, however, suddenly saw a sharp and dramatic increase in anti-rock literature, lectures, and media presentations that affected the wider culture in profound ways. Mark Sullivan, writing for the journal Popular Music, suggests that the new political environment was primarily responsible for this dramatic increase. “The incoming Reagan administration signalled an atmosphere conducive to numerous conservative causes, including Christian fundamentalism . . . various right-wing organisations seized the opportunity, tapping what they, at least, saw as a new market.” [8] The same black-and-white “us versus them” mentality was stronger than ever, as fundamentalists continued to see Satan in every kind of secular music. For example, in his 1989 documentary film Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘n’ Roll, evangelist Eric Holmberg laments the popularity of new and alternative forms of musical expression that emerged on the scene in the 1980s, epitomized by such artists as The Cure, Nick Cave, Diamanda Galás, and Lords of the New Church:

Like other artists within this genre, and unlike the jackbooted flagrancy of heavy metal, the message is married to the most dangerous catalyst for satanic insurrection: a sense of religious and poetic transcendence. In this, the Devil may lose an occasional human sacrifice, but he gains something that, from his perspective, is of much greater value. [9]

The concern felt by Holmberg and other fundamentalists was borne of a fear of losing their imagined monopoly on transcendent truth. Like the Priests of Syrinx in Rush’s 2112 rock suite, the anti-rock preachers feel threatened by all forms of artistic expression that strayed from what their ideology dictate because they know they cannot exercise the control over human creativity that they crave.

The new anti-rock market reached a frenzied peak in the early-to mid ‘90s as moral denouncements of rock spread beyond the fundamentalist religious sector and affected the beliefs and attitudes of secular legislators and activists, who began to take notice of all the connections being made by the fundamentalists between social taboos and rock music. Fundamentalist preacher Fletcher Brothers, for example, concluded his 1987 book The Rock Report with the following bit of pious arithmetic:

Sex and drugs equals rock and roll. Rebellion, Satan equals rock and roll. Homosexuality, incest equals rock and roll. Sado-masochism, mutilation equals rock and roll. Suicide, alcohol equals rock and roll. Hopelessness, anti-godliness equals rock and roll. Murder, occultism equals rock and roll. The list goes on and on. [10]

It is little wonder then that Brothers declares at the outset of his book, “I make no apology when I say that I believe that rock music . . . is public enemy number one of our young people today.” He goes on to complain, “I can’t think of one good thing to come out of the recent trend in rock music other than the revenue it provides to our free enterprise system.” [11] For Brothers, the capitalistic benefit is not enough to counteract the harmful effects he perceives rock music to be wreaking upon society. He openly and explicitly advocates censorship in The Rock Report, a book he intended to serve as a “quick, ready reference guide” for knowing which music parents and activist organizations should work toward banning.” Religious conservative David Noebel flatly states, “Rock music is evil because it is to music what Dada and surrealism are to art – atheistic, chaotic, nihilistic.” [12] And in 1989, a 400-page anti-rock polemic written by evangelist John Muncy was published with the title, The Role of Rock: Harmless Entertainment or Destructive Influence? Muncy, founder and president of Jesus Cares Ministries, maintains that the latter is true of his subject. He charges rock music of being primarily responsible for an increase in society of rebellion, sexual promiscuity and deviance, alcohol abuse, drug use, “false religions,” violence, suicide and Satanism. [13]

The last item in that list is by far the most common bogeyman of Christians who rail against rock music. In the documentary Hell’s Bells, Eric Holmberg has this to say about the ties between occultism and rock music:

Like an invisible cancer that inevitably leads to death, so the satanic seed in rock and roll has culminated in a blatant obsession with the occult. Cryptic allusions to the Devil in the music of Blues artist Robert Johnson a generation ago have given place to an open worship of Satan and hell that comes complete with the symbols, liturgies, rituals, and messianic personalities that attend any religious order. No longer the stuff of small underground cults, millions of young people have been caught in its evil sway.

Spoken over footage of Ronnie James Dio performing his metaphor-heavy song “Heaven and Hell” in a 1984 concert at The Spectrum arena in Philadelphia, this statement by Holmberg is a consequence of taking artistic expression in popular culture far too literally. It also constitutes a classic case of projection. Conservative anti-rock alarmists who complain about the lyrics and imagery in rock music being replete with bloody violence and supernaturally-oppressive themes never apply these same criticisms to several of the most well-known hymns of the Christian faith. For example, any objective assessment of the lyrics contained in the famous hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood?” will not fail to call to one’s mind a mental image of people bathing themselves in human blood. Using the metaphor of a lamb sacrifice, the hymn makes reference to Christianity’s literal doctrine of a human sacrifice. Similarly, the hymn “There is Power in the Blood” contains a clear reference to a flow of literal blood which possesses occultic power to erase “sin stains.” Coming just short of raising images of gushing blood, the hymn speaks of blood that was shed on a crucifix from a literal human sacrifice. Again, the well-known and much-beloved hymn “Nothing but the Blood” makes reference to a “fount” of human blood that flows from Jesus’ body. Fanny Crosby’s hymn “Saved by the Blood” tells us “We’re saved by the blood that was drawn from the side of Jesus our Lord, when He languished and died.” Here too, Crosby’s hymn describes that blood as a fountain, “where the vilest may go and wash their souls.” All this bloody and occult imagery in Christian hymns, which actually are sung as liturgy in the context of the Christian ritual of communion, would fit right in with the motifs of any black- death- or heavy-metal rock band.

Themes of the occult and of Satanism in rock music, especially heavy metal and associated subgenres, are almost always nothing more than a theatrical act as a money-making gimmick or simply a case of the rock artists being poetic. Only fundamentalist Christians and “cult cops” tend to take the imagery and lyrics in metal music seriously. One reason they do so is because they feel a psychological need to imbue everything, secular or not, with the same religious significance they afford to their own religious rituals. Their interpretations of secular rock music are filtered through a specific religious orientation with the result that the original intent of the artists is distorted and taken out of context. Vance Ferrell’s book Inside Rock Music claims, “The rock group, Black Sabbath, has been known to make altar calls to Lucifer in some of their concerts.” [14] But it is highly doubtful that Ferrell has been “inside” rock music sufficiently enough to actually attend a Black Sabbath concert to confirm his unfounded suspicions. Besides, Ferrell seems to forget that freedom of religious expression is constitutionally protected in the United States, so even if it were true that the band members in Black Sabbath were bona fide Satanists, they have a constitutional right to make altar calls to Lucifer.

But of course, the band members in Black Sabbath are not and never have been Satanists. “Satanism as practiced by most heavy metallers had very little to do with black candles and incantations,” writes heavy metal historian Ian Christe. “In fact, their beliefs were astoundingly in tune with red-blooded American values – only their voices were more self-aware and honest.” [15] When rock and heavy metal artists sing about sex, drugs, rebellion, violence, and hopelessness, they are merely being more forthright in confronting the issues and concerns of postmodern society in the throes of disillusion about the upheaval of an evolving culture. And when these same artists incorporate images and references to Satan, they are merely putting a face to all these cultural and social fears.

Thus, when Ozzy Osbourne performed the song “Suicide Solution” on his Blizzard of Ozz album, he was neither encouraging nor glorifying the act of suicide, as many conservatives believe. The perceptive listener, as well as anyone who takes the small effort to actually read Bob Daisley’s lyrics, will find that the song’s title actually refers to alcohol as a liquid solution that leads to self-destruction when addiction to the bottle sets in.


Wine is fine but whiskey’s quicker
Suicide is slow with liquor.
Take a bottle, drown your sorrows
Then it floods away tomorrows. 


The fact that the song clearly has nothing to do with suicide itself did not stop the parents of John McCollum from filing a lawsuit against Osbourne in 1986, alleging that their 19 year-old son was listening to the song “Suicide Solution” when he shot and killed himself. [17] The parents were legally represented by Kenneth “Do It” McKenna when the case went to court two years later.

Pop and rock music of all kinds has always prided itself in pushing socially-tolerated boundaries by being provocative and often euphemistically, if not overtly, sexual. This has been the case since the inception of “rock and roll” music, and little has changed in this regard. In an earlier generation, sexually repressed conservatives denounced musicians like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley as an evil influence on the youth. When Elvis performed for his third and final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on January 6, 1957, television producers were pressured into avoiding showing any footage of him below the waist. His gyrations were that offensive to the millions of concerned and repressed conservatives in the viewing audience. Back in the 1930s, English clergyman Montague Summers, who professed belief in witches, vampires and werewolves, noted that “some acute observers have shrewdly scented the devil’s own orchestra” in jazz music. [18]

If the moral crusaders of bygone generations looked askance at unconventional forms of musical expression because of cultural and ethnic prejudices, the offense felt by modern moral crusaders went far beyond mere prudishness. They showed their disapproval of the rock culture by painting it as being even more radically “other” – they convinced themselves that rock music originated in a supernatural realm of spiritual darkness. For example, Pastor Schimmel warned his Tetelestai audience about the satanic influence of Elvis: “You would have never heard of Elvis Presley as a rock star if he was not demon possessed. I believe that one hundred percent. People that are being moved by Elvis are not being moved by the man Elvis.”

In one sense, this tinfoil-hat assertion is a testament to the artistic talent of Elvis and all the other singers and musicians who have been accused of being possessed by a supernatural entity. Fundamentalists like Schimmel are apparently so impressed and awestruck by the performances of rock and roll artists that they feel compelled to attribute their talent to a force more powerful than the artists themselves, namely Satan himself. In his Hell’s Bells documentary, Holmberg states that “both the Scriptures and church traditions suggest that music comes quite naturally to Satan, that very possibly before his fall, he was in charge of music in heaven.” [19] Pastor Jacob Aranza, one of the most vocal anti-rock evangelists of the 1980s, went even further and asserted that rock music was specifically invented by the angel Lucifer at the time of his rebellion against God in heaven, presumably before the earth was created. “Lucifer is the only angelic being mentioned in the Bible to possess a musical ministry,” he writes. “At one point in time, he used his musical abilities for God’s purposes, but now he uses them to exalt evil and draw men away from God. Having been created with musical abilities, it is not hard to believe that Satan indeed influences music today . . . Party music goes back a long way! Ever since Lucifer’s fall, music that incites the flesh to fulfill its lusts, and encourages mankind to sin has always been played.” [20] Aranza even cites the account of the Israelites singing to and worshiping the golden calf in the absence of their desert-wandering leader Moses (as told in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus) as one of the very first rock concerts in human history! [21]

Pastor Fletcher Brothers agrees with this highly-imaginative interpretation. He notes that in Exodus 32:17, Moses is said to have heard the Israelites shouting as he descended the mountain on which he had sojourned alone with the desert god Yahweh. The verse also speaks of the “noise of war in the camp.” Brothers wonders to what this passage could possibly be referring, since there were no guns or bombs at that time in history. He proceeds to speculate that the verse referred to the beating of drums, such as those used in war. He notes the references to “dancing” in verse 19 and to “singing” in verse 18. He also highlights the passages that speak of the mischief and corruption of the Israelites and concludes,

Could this have been the first recorded “rock concert?” Who knows? But we do know it was music or singing. We do know that the people had “corrupted themselves.” They were naked, and . . . leave the rest to your imagination. We know the “singing” sounded more like “screaming” and “screeching.” Whatever was going on was “bad news”, because as you read on you will find that many people lost their lives. [22]

One wonders if Aranza and Brothers had spent a bit too much time listening to the thrash metal band Exodus while high on the drug of religious fundamentalism (I am sure metal lovers would love to see a music video in which the bloody massacre of the calf-worshiping heretics at the hands of Moses’ soldiers is set to Exodus’s song “Bonded by Blood” – I know I would). The “first recorded rock concert” interpretation of the 32nd chapter of Exodus is a prime example of an all-too-common practice among biblical inerrantists and literalists, that of superimposing ancient biblical narratives onto modern-day issues and interpreting said issues accordingly.


Holmberg, Aranza, Brothers and company are of course wrong about music’s origin. Music is a human invention, the product of creativity and emotions stemming from experiences that ultimately have physiological bases, however transcendent they may subjectively feel. The devoutly fundamentalist believer cannot bring himself to acknowledge this, because to deny the emotional high he feels from worshiping his personal deity in sacred song would be highly problematic to say the least. He finds it unpalatable and distasteful to think that he and his fellow humans are nothing more than “bags of matter creating musical art,” to quote the caricature employed by one evolution-denying fundamentalist on YouTube. [23] So these believers convince themselves that the emotions felt while worshiping in music are transcendent and supernatural. And when they encounter raucous and provocative rock music, their natural inclination is first to recoil in horror and then to denounce such music as the work of Satan himself. To these believers, rock and heavy-metal music cannot simply be the harmless product of human imagination. It must be transcendentally evil and a danger to the eternal souls of the youth whose attention they feel they are competing with secular forces to capture. Thus, the anti-rock crusaders try to find ways to connect social ills such as teen suicide, murder, or substance abuse to the music they fear.

But the imagined connections are almost always dubious or nonexistent, and otherworldly influences are a poor substitute for human responsibility. No supernatural force, good or evil, was subliminally whispering the words, “Do It” in the ears of overzealous parents, teachers and pastors who brought hundreds of rock albums to their churches, threw them together in large piles, and burned them in collective fits of righteous indignation. The directive to toss music records into the flames was a product of the religious torch-wielders’ own irrational fears. Perhaps they were ultimately afraid of perceiving a distorted but nevertheless distinct image of themselves in the lyrical imaginations of rock artists. At one point in his Hell’s Bells documentary, where he brings up the specter of the pagan god Pan and what he sees as its connection to rock music, Eric Holmberg was in one sense unwittingly talking about himself when he said,

Half-human and half-goat, Pan remains one of the most enduring and compelling symbols for the Antichrist. . . . It’s worth noting that possession by Pan, from which we get the word “panic,” often results in an obsession with sex and a need for immediate gratification.

Throughout the three-hour Hell’s Bells presentation, it is Holmberg who exhibits panic about his subject. He is just as obsessed with sex, if not more so, than the rock artists he spends a considerable time denouncing as sexually perverse and promiscuous. And while Holmberg explicitly states that he does not condone record burning, his own need for “immediate gratification” is reflected in the numerous impatient and unreflective leaps of logic and in the sloppy research he presents in his narration.

Recall Ian Christe’s point about heavy metal musicians being more self–aware and honest in their voices than the fundamentalists who denounced them. The bands who made use of satanic imagery in their lyrics and performances understood that they were simply being theatrical. Meanwhile, fundamentalist Christians sang hymns about the literal blood of Jesus being used in a rite of human sacrifice. They also partook of bread and wine that symbolize cannibalistically consuming the flesh and blood of their scapegoat messiah. But they were unwilling to admit that what they were doing was just as theatrical as using satanic imagery and symbolism for dramatic effect.

And this is why the devil has always had the best tunes.



[1] Ozzy Osbourne, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Rebel,” on Bark at the Moon (Epic Records, 1983).

[2] Ian Christe, Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal (New York: HarperEntertainment, 2003), pp. 296-97.

[3] David Van Taylor, Dream Deceivers: The Story behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest (First Run Features/Tapestry Intl., 1992).

[4] Vance v. Judas Priest WL 130920, 2nd Nevada District Court, 1990. Quoted in Anthony R. Pratkanis, “The Cargo-Cult Science of Subliminal Persuasion,” Skeptical Inquirer 16, no. 3 (Spring 1992): 260-72.

[5] David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter (Maysles Films, Inc., 1970).

[6] “Under NO circumstances would a Satanist sacrifice any animal or baby! . . . There are sound and logical reasons why the Satanists could not perform such sacrifices. Man, the animal, is the godhead to the Satanist. The purest form of carnal existence reposes in the bodies of animals and human children who have not grown old enough to deny themselves their natural desires.” Anton Szandor LaVey, The Satanic Bible (New York: Avon Books, 1969), p. 89.

[7] Joe Schimmel, Rock ‘n’ Roll Sorcerers of the New Age Revolution (Fight the Good Fight Ministries, 1993).

[8] Mark Sullivan, “’More Popular than Jesus’: The Beatles and the Religious Far Right,” Popular Music 6, no. 3 (October 1987): 319.

[9] Eric Holmberg, Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reel to Real Ministries, 1989). Gratifyingly enough, and against the intentions of Holmberg’s ministry, this documentary has become something of a cult classic among rock music enthusiasts.

[10] Fletcher A. Brothers, The Rock Report (Lancaster, PA: Starburst Publishers, 1987), p. 141.

[11] Ibid, p. 13.

[12] David A. Noebel, The Legacy of John Lennon: Charming or Harming a Generation? (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982), p. 42.

[13] John Muncy, The Role of Rock: Harmless Entertainment or Destructive Influence? (Canton, OH: Daring Books, 1989).

[14] Vance Ferrell, Inside Rock Music (Altamont, TN: Evolution Facts, Inc., 2006), p. 85.

[15] Christe, Sound of the Beast, p. 244.

[16] Ozzy Osbourne, “Suicide Solution,” on Blizzard of Ozz (Epic Records, 1980).

[17] McCollum v. CBS, Inc., California Court of Appeals, 2nd District, 3rd Division, 1988.

[18] Montague Summers, A Popular History of Witchcraft (London: Kegan Paul, 1937), p. 153.

[19] Actually, nothing in either the Jewish or Christian Scriptures even hints that a being called Satan was once an angel who rebelled or that he invented music.

[20] Jacob Aranza, More Rock, Country and Backward Masking Unmasked (Shreveport, LA: Huntington House Inc., 1985), pp. 18-19, 20.

[21] Ibid, p. 20

[22] Brothers, The Rock Report, p. 140.

[23] NephilimFree, “Bags of Matter Creating Musical Art” (video), YouTube, October 10, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMegqJseoKw (accessed October 16, 2016). The creationist fundamentalist in this video encourages his viewers to watch a video of Simon and Garfunkel performing their song “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” in a 1969 concert. He calls this performance “astonishing” and states, “I believe even every atheist in this world, if they were to watch this video, and see the creativity and thoughtfulness of these two human beings performing this song, they would feel ashamed, whether they would admit it or not . . . they will feel shame for telling people and wanting us to teach our children that we’re merely soulless bags of matter that arose from pond scum.”

This statement essentially denies that humans are by themselves capable of doing “astonishing” things and thus betrays a very low regard for human potential that is more demeaning to human worth than anything any atheist evolutionist has said. As an atheist myself, I felt quite the opposite of shame when I watched this performance. The realization that through the entirely unguided and eons-long natural process of evolution, we as a species have developed the cognitive tools necessary to undergo cultural evolution in addition to biological change and thus to manipulate abstract concepts into works of art is far more awe-inspiring than the small-minded belief that such ability was merely programmed into us by a supernatural designer. At best, the latter scenario reduces our creative talent to mere robotic mimicry. Arising from pond scum (which does not accurately represent what any evolutionary scientist thinks about our origins) is by far a more dignified origin than that.

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