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The Devil has all the Best Tunes – The History of Coven: Part One, Their Discovery and their First Album

November 9, 2013

Faced with the long and lurching title above, I’m sure people will be forced to ask – who the hell’s Coven? Well, wouldn’t you like to know? In this three-part essay, I aim to answer that hypothetical question, to reveal the secret history of Coven, to prove that the use of ‘hell’ in the question above is entirely le mot juste.

First, some background details.Coven was (or were), a rock ‘n’ roll band, founded in Chicago in the mid-1960’s. They were first discovered by record producer and local impresario Bill Traut (owner of the small independent record label Dunwich Records), and later signed to major label Mercury Records. By 1967, Coven served as the opening act for major psychedelic bands such as The Yardbirds and Vanilla Fudge; and Coven themselves had their defining moment in 1969. This sounds, of course, like it could be the history of any ‘60’s rock ‘n’ roll band. But Coven was more than a generic ‘60’s band. To explain what Coven was really like is to uncover the maze of oddities – good fortune, bad luck, maddened moviemakers, hysterical journalists, peculiar names, weird ironies bizarre coincidences – that are the reasons why hardly anyone remembers them today.

The one thing that set Coven apart from other U.S rock bands in the late 1960’s – the big shtick they held over their audience (terrible pun alert!) – was that they definitely weren’t hippies. They didn’t wear flowers in their hair, they didn’t sing about peace and love, and they went out of their way not to be sentimental. What they were instead, or what they tried to be, anyway, was diabolical. Literally – Coven was one of the first rock bands to incorporate images of black magic and devil-worship into their music and stage act, to attempt to prove that the Devil really did have all the best tunes. They were uniquely equipped to do this, too – because their lead singer’s name was Jinx. To be fair, Jinx was only her middle name; her full name was Esther Jinx Dawson. But she went by Jinx all her life, and her mother had actually written J-I-N-X on her birth certificate (apparently to honor the doctor who had assisted the birth, whose surname was spelt J-I-N-K-S.) It is my personal belief that with a name like Jinx, you’re destined not to lead a normal life, let alone lead a normal rock band, so it could be said she was on the road to infamy from the day she was born. Of course, the word Jinx literally means ‘a person, thing or influence supposed to bring bad luck’; and as we shall see, few rock bands of the ‘60’s had worse luck than Coven. Therefore, for me, anyway, the history of Coven really starts with Jinx’s name, the first peculiar name in this saga. The second peculiar name in this saga is that of the bass player that Jinx met up with, once she moved to Chicago from her hometown of Greendale, to study music. The bass player’s name was Oz Osborne; by the early 1970’s, he was doomed to have to tell everyone who met him not to confuse him with Ozzy Osbourne, of Black Sabbath. (This, of course, is the first bizarre coincidence in this saga.)

Anyway, Jinx and Oz (I’ll have to say ‘Dawson and Osborne’ from now on, now that I’ve told you their crazy first names) got together with the more averagely-named drummer Steve Ross, and formed a band, with Dawson serving as the lead vocalist. All three of them were fascinated by Satanism and the occult; they poured over books by leading occult writers like Anton LaVey and Aleister Crowley. It was from these books that they got the idea of making satanic rock ‘n’ roll. They set themselves hard against the prevailing hippie Utopianism of the most popular rock acts of the day; unlike The Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, or CSNY, they weren’t interested in changing the world. They got their band name, ‘Coven’, from the old-fashioned term for a gathering of witches. And they were all interested in witches, and demons, and the Devil himself. Above all, the members of Coven were interested in scaring squares – in thrilling and fascinating bored middle-class kids who were looking for a taste of the dark side, and making their boring uptight parents cringe in horror. Scaring squares, of course, has been the great prerogative of rock ‘n’ rollers since rock was invented, and Coven pursued this prerogative with great panache. Their early live shows put less emphasis on music than on the acting out of elaborate pseudo-Satanic rites, and when they signed their first contract with Mercury Records, in 1969, they signed it in their own blood. But once the contract was signed – once they’d proven they could be sinister in concert, and gross out whomever it was who had to file away their contract once they’d signed it – they had to prove they could be sinister on record, too. This they proceeded to do on their debut album, a slab of lurid melodrama with the suitably hysterical title Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls.

Before we can begin listening to this album, we must examine the album cover, and its wealth of spooky symbolism.The front cover simply depicts the members of the band together, with the name of the group surrounded by flames, and with Jinx holding a skull. It’s the gatefold sleeve that’s truly fascinating, offering a mixture of kitsch horror and genuine titillation. Here, Oz Osborne and Steve Ross (alongside guitarists Jim Donlinger and Chris Neilsen, and keyboardist Rick Durret, who joined the group shortly after they signed with Mercury) are clustered around an altar, all of them wearing black robes adorned with inverted crosses, and one of them wearing a genuinely creepy masks. Laid out on the altar like a potential human sacrifice is Jinx Dawson herself, with a chalice perched between her breasts and another human skull covering her vulva. The guys in the group, leering down at her, are all making the devil-horns hand gesture. This may seem like an insignificant detail, so common has the devil-horns gesture become. But it must be mentioned, because the members of Coven were the first rock performers to popularize this gesture that has now become known to all. Even before the release of their album, Dawson would make the devil-horns sign at the end of every show that Coven played. With the sleazy spookiness of the infamous back cover out of the way, we can finally to the music on the album, and answer the question of – how do they sound under all that hype? You might be surprised by the answer.

From all I’ve said about them – their devil-worshiping image, their lurid album cover, their blood-stained contract – you’d have every right to expect their first album to be proto-heavy-metal. For better or worse, though, it really isn’t. Musically, it’s psychedelic pop, slightly darker and heavier than most examples of the genre. There’s a lot of piano on this album, and organ, and weirdly tropical-sounding drums, and guitars that never bludgeon or rage the way you think they would. In short, it seems to serve as proof that, all their protestations to the contrary, Coven actually had a lot in common with the hippie groups they claimed to despise. This impression is borne out by the vocals as well as the instrumentation – Jinx Dawson, her voice alternating between warble and wail, sounds like no one so much as Grace Slick, lead singer of that ultimate hippie band Jefferson Airplane (and before that, the Great Society.)

This may sound like so many strikes against Coven – but I don’t mean them to be. Personally, I really do not think music has to be loud in order to be sinister – surely the devil and his minions can whisper evil thoughts in our ears as well as bay for our blood. The piano and organ on songs like ‘White Witch of Rose Hall’ (which references a real historical witch) and ‘Dignitaries of Hell’ are often thrillingly spooky. I have to say, the music on Witchcraft (I can’t afford to keep spelling out the full title now that I’ve spelt it out once) enriches the lyrics, not vice versa. The lyrics to most of the songs on this album were written not by Dawson, but by guitarist Jim Donlinger. Donlinger was no poet, and with their mixture of gory subject matter and clunky flow, the songs on Witchcraft… often occupy a weird tonal space somewhere between icky and hokey.  ‘Coven in Charing Cross’ is particularly egregious. Its first verse begins: ‘Thirteen cultists held a secret meeting/bringing powers of the darkness upon those who opposed them./The chief of the circle, known as Malchius, drank the blood of a young baby/Offered unto him./They danced ecstatically, they orgied frantically/’till the demon had arisen from the circle on the floor…’ Not only is this monstrously stilted for rock ‘n’ roll, it doesn’t rhyme (until the internal near-rhyme of ‘ecstatically/frantically’ in the fifth line), and someone really should have told Jim Donlinger that ‘orgy’ isn’t a verb.

But I’m quibbling needlessly here. I know you shouldn’t go looking for poetry on an album like this, and the weird pleasure of Witchcraft… isn’t unduly diminished by its occasionally clumsy lyrics. ‘White Witch of Rose Hall’ is the catchiest song on the album, ‘Dignitaries of Hell’ the loudest, and ‘Portrait’ the most sinister. As a singer, Jinx Dawson has the peculiar ability (shared with Grace Slick) of making stridency sound appealing. All in all, Witchcraft succeeds as rock ‘n’ roll fun, with an edge, which is all Coven wanted it to be. It’s just a pity nobody else saw it the same way…

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