Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Musical Happenings of Anton LaVey

It seems fitting that music was one of the few constants in LaVey’s life. As a child, playing the piano or organ was something that, although his parents supported, they had no need to encourage. Way before the birth of rock n roll, the music he played would most likely have been classical music and that which would have been heard at public dances. In fact, his tastes only ever extended to an appreciation of sixties girl vocal groups in terms of what could be termed “popular music” – his passion was for atmosphere and mood, though both were influenced by both his choice of instrument and the peculiar life Anton chose to lead.

By the time LaVey had left home to join the circus, he had settled on the pipe organ and calliope as his instruments of choice (suggestions that he played oboe in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra are baffling myth – odd to think his life needed any extra dressing up). The latter proved particularly alluring. The steam-driven sounds produced from the pipes have a wheezing, almost subhuman quality, counterbalanced by completely synthetic sounds.

The calliope itself would be raised on a platform and bedecked with lurid colours and images, the player almost symbiotically cranking at it with their limbs. It can have been a strangely empowering position playing as part of a circus parade, appearing last in line, the sound building to a crescendo as he slowly appeared. It is also worth noting that the surroundings in which he was providing the soundtrack can have been more than a little Bruegel-like  – the freaks; the cons; the thieves; the barkers; the impressionable. It was a taste of power; of control; of subliminally easing himself into all parts of his surroundings without being conspicuous.

His musical career led from the circus to burlesque and strip clubs. Playing organ whilst surrounded by “sin” helped him to ramp up the grand theatre of his performances, the sleazy grinding of the organ stimulating…well…the sleazy grinding of the organs. If LaVey’s brand of Satanism could be accused of being outlandish style over substance, there is little doubt that he revelled in being the controlling force, the background conductor with his subjects literally dancing to his tune. The unfashionable music he played married well with the crowds he attracted in his 60s pomp – the fading glamour stars; the misfit musicians; the out-there camp. As with much telling art, it was out of fashion when he started, so it sounds no less nor more strange now.

In truth, the absolute facts of the matter could be all of these tales or none of them. So many of LaVey’s stories at all stages of his life were not even vaguely true in basis – it’s become something of an art untangling truth from fiction, to the extent that in some instances, it seems he had even managed to convince himself.  His first wife, Carole, confirmed he was employed as Wurlitzer player at San Francisco’s Lost Weekend nightclub around 1966, whilst reports that he was regularly seen to perform at official state and council gatherings in San Francisco have no element of truth in them.  What is certain is the music LaVey played which was recorded for posterity.

Satan Takes a Holiday, the go-to collection of LaVey’s recorded musical work is both exasperating and enchanting. LaVey’s tracks are performed on synthesiser, indeed, although his favoured musical style harked back to sounds which are most associated with the early part of the twentieth century, he quickly adopted new technology. He is said to have been one of the first owners of both Prophet-5 and Juno-60 keyboards, the sounds of which were heard in many a dry-iced Top of the Pops studio, as well as being used by Goblin, John Carpenter and early industrial artists, the strange, wheezing polyphonic sound of the instruments being a perfectly unearthly medium for his chosen tunes.

Frustratingly, only one of the pieces on the album is a LaVey original – closing track, Satanis Theme, a rather juvenile mixture of glissandi and trills which does little to portray him as a musician of any great artistry or flair. In fact, the froth and nonsense of the track is entirely in keeping with his smoke and mirrors life, a great deal of style over substance, all of which collapses horribly under any degree of scrutiny. The track was written as the theme for Ray Laurent’s 1970 documentary, Satanis: The Devil’s Mass, a curio in exactly the same way as this collection.

The title track is by far the one most associated with Anton, musically – so much so that it appears twice, once as an instrumental, once with vocals. Written by band leader, Larry Clinton, it was already a well-utilised piece of music before it was appropriated by LaVey, being first recorded by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra. A jaunty number from around the birth of jazz, it has a surprisingly full sound, with a particular emphasis on clarinet and trumpet. Though there is a huge amount of character to the song, the feeling of dread is along the lines of the kind found in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, not a gothic mansion holding clandestine rituals.

The version of the track with lyrics is something of an abomination, trying the good will of even the sternest supporter with lines like:

He’s really rather goofy/tryin’ to be spooky

The singer, somehow, manages to make even the lyrics second place to her voice as the worst aspect of the song. The guilty party is Blanche Barton, now Magistra Barton, chairperson of the Church of Satan. There is simply no way this would be listened to with any interest or affection without the knowledge that the pair of them feature on the track – it’s not even of the standard you’d expect a sherry-soaked uncle to wheel off at the end of a Christmas do.

Far more fun is Answer Me (previously best known by Nat King Cole’s interpretation), the slightly horrid, squelchy synth bolstered by LaVey’s deep voice speaking the lyrics rather than singing, almost certainly for the greater good. You could make a reasonable comparison with William S. Burroughs’ reading of A Thanksgiving Prayer, though with the degree of gravitas replaced with a light strangeness.

Indeed, Answer Me was considered to be a strong enough track to be the A-side of Anton’s only single release, backed with another track from the album, Honolulu Baby, first made famous by Laurel and Hardy in Sons of the Desert. It’s gloriously daft, Anton’s own synth programming delivering an especially un-exotic sound and his vocal delivery being a pale, half-arsed imitation of, say, Robert Mitchum’s own journeys into Tiki territory. The single, like the album, was released by Amarillo Records in a limited edition of 1000 translucent blue vinyl copies in a picture sleeve cover.

Skipping past the instrumental Whirling Dervish, of far more interest is Chloe (or Song of the Swamp), one of the best examples of Anton’s keyboard work, marrying burlesque type razzamatazz with sympathetic atmospherics. Also remarkable are the guest vocals supplied by Nick Bougas, a baritone of surprising effectiveness from a man best known for his off-camera work. Bougas first worked with LaVey on Death Scenes, one of an almost endless stream of Faces of Death rip-offs (it spawned its own two sequels for good measure).

With Bougas as director and LaVey as narrator, a friendship was formed, which also saw the documentary Speak of the Devil produced, another scrapbook-style collection of house tours, musical interludes and archival clips. Away from working with Anton, Bougas is also known for his eye-popping documentary The Goddess Bunny, as well as curating the sweary celeb bootlegs, Celebrities… At Their Worst! and working with Jim Goad, as an illustrator on the none-more influential zine, Answer Me! Bougas goes on to appear on no fewer than four further tracks. Of particular note is the gloomy, Here Lies Love, Anton wheeling out hid Theremin to add to the suicidal theme of the track.

For all Bougas’ much needed added oomph, there is still time for Blanche Barton to reappear, this time on Blue Prelude, a track on which it’s difficult to tell if anyone is in tune – a shame, as the bleak majesty of the track would have been perfect as a solo LaVey venture. There are perhaps two tracks featuring LaVey which hint at a maestro of some kind hidden beneath the cape: Variations on the Mooche, a Duke Ellington piece which sees him delivering seedy blasts of burlesque backing, not only competently played but imaginatively arranged. Equally impressive is Hello Central, Give Me No Man’s Land, an affecting Tom Waits-ian soliloquy from the perspective of a small boy who tries to contact his dead father in the war.

Though this compilation will quench most thirsts for LaVey’s music, there are further releases for those of an even more curious bent. Released in 1993, also on Amarillo Records, a 10” mini-album titled Strange Music was released. With only 7 tracks, it is more successful as a primer (or perhaps warning) than the more expansive compilation, primarily as it concentrates far more on LaVey’s skill as a pianist and arranger. As with the vast majority of his work, his synth tracks and vocals are recorded on single track, showcasing not only his ability to recreate mood and nostalgia through his instrument but also imbuing his work with a dizzying otherworldliness and peculiar age – standards like Thanks for the Memory and the title track feel as though they have sprung from tattered manuscripts.

Less successful, it goes without saying, is the re-appearance of Blanche Barton on Start the Day Right, a disgraceful performance summed up perhaps too kindly on the sleeve notes which describe it as “distressingly optimistic”. An appropriately boozy One for my Baby (And One More for the Road) and the much-covered Gloomy Sunday are far more keeping tonally with the release, the latter (also sometimes referred to as Hungarian Suicide Song) featuring Blanche once more, though her fractured notes for once feel apt. LaVey’s clanging keyboard is in full dirge mode and is one of the few tracks available which try far less to balance darkness with his odd sense of humour.

Two further releases under Anton LaVey’s name exist: firstly, The Devil Speaks (and Plays) a good introduction to Anton’s music (all tracks previously released) combined with a recording of a Black Mass conducted by him in 1968 (taking up the whole of the B-side). Released on black vinyl in a limited edition of only 300 on Aberrant Records in 2017, it is un-numbered, so it is possible larger quantities are available.

More perplexing is a 2002 CD release, Stereo Fantasy on the Mighty Wurlitzer. A recording, as one might expect, of Wurlitzer-based carousel-type waltz and polka tunes, alongside excerpts from suites such as Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, it’s a far more polished released than LaVey’s other work – intricate, fast and densely layered. Why? Well, it isn’t Anton LaVey. As proved at length by Blanche Barton (though anyone with ears would struggle to believe it’s LaVey), the playing is now attributed to Georges Montalba…except this too is misleading.

Georges Montalba was a pseudonym adopted by Robert Hunter, a prolific organ player under his own name, though always somewhat in the shadows. When the opportunity arose for him to adopt a fake name and play around the world as a whirling dervish of a virtuoso, he took it, meaning that at the end of his life he had succeeded in a career which took in all elements of his craft in entirely different guises. To complicate matters, LaVey’s daughter, Zeena, supported her father’s claim that the musician is indeed her LaVey, a truly unholy combination of Anton’s fondness for fabrication and self-aggrandizement and  a case of sour grapes arising from her failing to hold on to the Church of Satan, as well as an attempt to rescue any potential royalties.

Burton, to her credit, does accept that at least some of the playing on the release is Anton, but this simply does not make any sense. Bickering between two individuals whose track record of exactness and transparency does little to persuade the casual listener either way, and exactly what could be gained from any of it being true is questionable. The tracks in their entirety are now on CD, bringing two of Montalba’s albums together:  Fantasy in Pipe Organ and Percussion from 1958 and Pipe Organ Favorites from 1957. The punch line is that they aren’t enjoyable in any way other than as a kitsch novelty.

LaVey was fond of associating with musicians, especially towards the latter part of his life. His involvement with The Eagles’ Hotel California is the stuff of legend and is, as is par for the course, humdrum and flim-flam of the highest order. Is that LaVey leaning over the balcony of the hotel on the album’s sleeve? Though it doesn’t look unlike him (in as much as a smudged figure could look like him), there is nothing tangible to suggest that he had so little to do that he took to appearing in the background of cover shoots in a Beverley Hills hotel. To cap this folly off in somewhat slapstick style, popular opinion today is that the figure is actually that of a woman. Oh, the indignity.

LaVey’s interest in music extended to a curiosity about musicians in bands. Audiences were granted for the likes of King Diamond’s Kim Peterson and Marilyn Manson, though the edgy danger this was perhaps intended to portray had already been much diluted by truly devilish behaviour by Black Metal bands in Scandinavia. The 1968 Murgenstrumm Records recording of LaVey conducting a Black Mass is as silly as you might expect, pantomime played with a straight face amidst baritone groaning and organ stingers. Numerous reissues, on cassette, picture disc and CD go as far as to add extra tracks. His musical legacy is entirely keeping with the rest of his life – a muddle of lies and half-truths, none of which amounted to very much either way.

Daz Lawrence 


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