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The History Of Coven Part II: Disaster Strikes

January 2, 2014

Here stands part two of the mad, mystical saga of the benighted band known as Coven. When we last left our heroes, Jinx Dawson, Oz Osborne and Co., they had gone from a struggling Chicago band to potential antiheroes of rock ‘n’ roll. They’d just released their debut album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, and, like all up-and-coming bands, they wanted it to take over the world.  But it didn’t, as anyone who’s read Part One of this saga knows.  But, after having read Part One of this saga –  having read how much good, dark fun Coven’s first album was, readers can be forgiven for asking: If their album was so great, why have I never heard it? Here’s where I’ll give you the answer – and here’s where the hysterical journalists mentioned in Part One come into the story, too.  I expect that everyone who reads this part of the saga will think, Ah, the dawn of the ‘70’s, when people cared enough about rock ‘n’ roll to get offended by it, and took Esquire magazine seriously.

When Witchcraft… was released, in July of 1969, everyone – record managers, promoters, and of course, the band themselves – had high hopes for it. Here, surely, was the album that would cut through the ooze of hippie sentiment and bring blood and thunder back to rock ‘n’ roll. No one, least of all the members of Coven themselves, could have imagined what would happen one month after the album’s release. August of 1969 (as anyone who’s read anything about the 1960’s will know) was the season of the Manson murders. The demented followers of Charles Manson, a psychopathic cult-leader who sometimes styled himself as a devil-worshipper, viciously murdered seven people, actress Sharon Tate amongst them. This case is considered by many to be the crime of the twentieth century; at the time, it was all anyone could talk about. It was a crime with reverberations; it made people think twice about the cultish and the occult. Suddenly faced with terrible crime – a gush of real blood and thunder, from someone who actually claimed to worship Satan – the American public decided that the last thing it wanted was fake blood and thunder on record, certainly not from a band that decked themselves out in skulls and pentagrams for kicks. In March of 1970, when Witchcraft… had only been on record-store shelves for a few months, the thoroughly square men’s  magazine Esquire published a hysterical article attempting to examine the roots of Charles Manson’s cult. (I would tell you who wrote it, but unfortunately, in my research, I was unable to find a full copy of it, just a synopsis, and I couldn’t find the author’s name, either.) Entitled ‘Evil Lurks in California’, the fear-mongering article described California, and Los Angeles in particular, as hotbeds of occultism and devil-worship, swarming with the sort of disaffected drugged-out kids who could turn into Manson-imitators at any minute. At some point, the writer of the article found time to mention Coven, and their album Witchcraft…, and to imply that theirs was the sort of music that could drive people to commit murder. This, of course, was complete audience-baiting yellow-journalism – but readers took the bait. People who hadn’t taken any notice of Coven or their album before were now howling that Coven’s music incited people to murder and madness. Some people even demanded that Mercury Records remove the album from circulation.

All this was enough to leave Jinx Dawson and Co. completely gobsmacked. As mentioned above, they had never expected anything like this to happen; naturally they had no idea to deal with it. All they’d wanted to do was have a little disreputable fun, record a few dumb rock ‘n’ roll songs with a gimmick, and scare a few squares. Having succeeded in this last aim beyond their wildest dreams (or nightmares), they were forced to ask themselves whether scaring squares on purpose was really a good idea. Faced with such bad publicity, there were a couple of things they could have said and done in their own defense. Since most of the people calling for their album to be banned hadn’t actually listened to it in the first place, Dawson and Co. could have argued that their songs were actually anti-occult. After all, the album’s full title was Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls – not Witchcraft is the Thing to Do, or anything like that. But to be fair, this argument would almost certainly have collapsed as soon as anyone actually did bother to listen to the lyrics on the album, which positively revel in images of black magic. Failing that, Dawson and Co. could have fallen back on that line that every artist accused of offending public morality seems to fall back on on (though it seems to be much more common nowadays than it was in the ’60’s). This line goes: We didn’t It mean it! We were just playing around with bad ideas for the sake of playing around with bad ideas! It was all a joke! But they didn’t – they didn’t make any disingenuous claims about their album’s real meaning, and they didn’t even claim that it didn’t mean anything at all. The just stood by and watched, as their dreams of shock-rock superstardom unravelled. Shortly after the publication of the ridiculous Esquire article, management at Mercury Records bowed to the pressures from the scared squares of America, and pulled Witchcraft from record-store shelves. By the end of 1970, having reaped the bad luck inherent in their lead singer’s name, Coven had disbanded. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that the saga of Coven would be over at this point. But they would be wrong…

TO BE CONTINUED (Next time with more links and songs).

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