From the dawn of its creation in the mid-1950’s, rock n’ roll has always seemed to be in direct conflict with the Christian church. From criticizing Elvis’ gyrating, to burning Beatles albums, to the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s, to blaming suicides on heavy metal and school shooting on Marilyn Manson, preachers and social critics have pointed to rock music as being “the devil’s music” and warning parents about the dangers of rock n’ roll. As a reaction to this, many bands have flirted with the devil, inviting the themes of witchcraft, demonology and dark magik into their music.
But while it’s often credited to the British heavy metal industry of the 1970’s as first combining occultism and rock music, in reality the first band to introduce these themes into their music was an American band from the 1960’s which were doing far more than just flirting with the devil. They were the real deal. Chicago based group Coven, led by the beautiful and enigmatic singer Jinx Dawson, was combining horror and music as early as 1966. The true pioneers of occult rock, their 1969 album “Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls” was where it all began. From the first use of the “devil sign,” to the symbol of the inverted cross on the front cover, to the first time the phrase “Hail Satan” was pressed on vinyl, Coven started it all. But, like most artists who do it first, Coven still struggles to gain mass recognition for their strange contribution to the world of rock.
Original copies of “Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls” are duifficult to find, but luckily for record collectors it has recently been rereleased in a new 180 gram pressing. I am truly lucky to own an original copy, which has a bit of its own unique history. My copy of the album was gifted to me my friend Jeff Taylor who was the lead singer for a popular regional Wisconsin group called Michael and the Messengers, as well as the lead singer for The Hardy Boys – a bubblegum group that was tied into a Filmation cartoon series based on the classic juvenile detective book series, In 1969, when The Hardy Boys were recording their album at Chicago’s Dunwich Studios, Coven were also there recording “Witchcraft.” Jeff knew the members of Coven, and bought the album off of them directly, and decades later gifted it to me. As he explained it to me, he knew his daughter wouldn’t want it and it had a better home in my collection. I’m happy he thought of me. It is one of the prized discs in my collection and a cherished gift I’ll never part with.
Coven formed in 1966, a year before the summer of love, and there is no denying they were distinctly different than anything seen or heard in before. At the time of their formation, Chicago had it’s own unique scene, including groups like The Buckinghams, The New Colony Six, The Crying Shames and The American Breed. That was the year that The Beatles released “Revolver,” and the kids on Bandstand were dancing to Tommy James’ “Hanky Panky.” But a dark moon was rising over Chicago, and America probably wasn’t quite ready yet for the coming of Coven.
Jinx Dawson met guitarist Oz Osbourne (no – not Ozzy Osbourne…. another guy) playing in a band called Him, Her and Them, and when they met drummer Steve Rossi, they came together to create their own brand of music. You see, what made Jinx unique from a lot of other artists at the time, and then thereafter, is that she was an actual practicing witch whose family went back generations in the tradition of spiritualism, witchcraft and occultism. As explained by Jinx, she wasn’t a Satanist, but not like the group that was gaining headlines in San Francisco under the tutorage of Anton LaVey. Sge was from a tradition that was much older and much darker. So, when later heavy metal artists sang about the occult to shock sensors and critics, Jinx was living the life for real.
Jinx, Osbourne and Rossi put together an immersive live performance that combined rock n’ roll music with the classic midnight horror show. On top of a series of well written songs which read as their own individual horror stories, Jinx would emerge from a coffin, a Christ figure would be crucified on an upside down cross and Latin chanting would be spoken between songs. Never before had rock gotten this dark. What Coven was doing was opening a doorway for future shock rockers such as Alice Cooper, KISS, Iron Maiden, Marilyn Manson and Gwar. As a result, audiences were fascinated, but the church and local authorities feared it. Local opposition to Coven began to grow, but the notoriety of the band began to grow as well.
Ironically, their sound was not heavy metal per se, because as a genre it hadn’t even been established yet. They sounded much closer to The Jefferson Airplane, albeit a lot heavier, and instead of songs about revolution and white rabbits, they sang about satanic orgies, human sacrifice, magik incantations and pacts with the devil. It could be a little over the top at times, but Coven’s songs were well written, and Jinx Dawson had a powerful and unique voice.
Soon Coven began opening for The Yardbirds and The Vanilla Fudge and eventually caught the attention of producer Bill Traut who brought them into Dunwich Studios in 1969 to lay down the tracks to their debut album. A number of years ago I had an opportunity to talk to Bill Traut, who died in 2014, and in particularly, I asked about “Witchcraft.” Very proud of that album, Traut told me that he wanted to bring together music and horror after he and business partner Jim Golden had seen a massive line up at a movie theatre for the film “Rosemary’s Baby.” He said that seeing the way that an audience would line up around the block for that film made him believe that they would do the same if the horror was in the record.
The first side of “Witchcraft” is full of the original songs written by the band. The album leads off with an epic description of a Satanic mass, leading listeners into the world of Coven, in a song called “Black Sabbath” (no…. not the Black Savvath song called “Black Sabbath” …..another one). Other strong selections include “Coven at Charing Cross,” “The White Witch of Rose Hall,” “Dignitaries of Hell” and “Wicked Woman,” which was released as the album’s single. But the problem with the majority of the material on the album was that despite it being excellent rock music, pretty much nothing on the album was radio friendly! Coven’s material was just too dark for AM/FM radio.
Then we come to the infamous B side of the album. There is no music and, instead, Bill Traut performs a “black mass” which he wrote and recites. You see, Traut was also interested in the occult, but in all honesty, this massive track has not aged well. It’s like a sad parody of an Anton LaVey service by a guy who had never attended one. The track is laughable by today’s standards, and a waste of a side of vinyl which could have featured more material by Coven.
So, if “Witchcraft” was such a good album, and obviously so trendsetting, what happened to it? Why isn’t it a staple of collections everywhere? Well, Coven was dealt a bad hand when an article in Esquire Magazine, reporting on the Charles Manson murders, mentioned Coven and “Witchcraft” despite the two having no connection to the Manson Family whatsoever. Mercury Records, who distributed the album, got nervous and pulled it out of circulation months after it made its debut. As a result, the album never reached its full potential. However, it stayed in the hearts of minds of the listeners who knew what it was.
Of course, a year later British band Black Sabbath, with lead singer Ozzy Osbourne hit the scene and stole Coven and Jinx Dawson’s thunder, and the legacy that should have been theirs. Did Black Sabbath know about Coven’s existence? Members of the band claim they did not, but the coincidences are too glaring. In 2015 I had the privilege to do an “email interview” with Jinx Dawson who outlined the close links and cross overs between the record label that pulled “Witchcraft” out of record stores, and pushed Black Sabbath to the forefront. The connections are to glaring to ignore. Jinx wrote:
“Imitation is the highest form of flattery. But it is disappointing that they go out of their way to not admit to the imitation…The record company offered much of our content to them and they accepted in order to turn their local band Earth into a recording band called Black Sabbath. Fontana/Vertigo Records signed them in 1970, just after we broke from our label Mercury. Vertigo/Fontana was a subsidiary of our label Mercury. And they also had a song called Black Sabbath on that ’70′s release as we did on our 1969 release. Sabbath also did a cover of a song on our publishing company, Yuggoth Music. A song called Evil Woman by Crow who were managed by our Chicago management company, Arkham Artists. All in the same office. I think they did not imagine the future would bring an ‘internet’. Before that, all publicity and stories on these bands came from labels and the bands. Secrets were easily kept. I was told several years ago by a former Mercury executive that after we left the label, they looked for a band to replace us. He also said they wanted to tone down the heavy Occult references and thought an all male band would be more acceptable to the public.”
Jinx Dawson still tours (she is the one musician still performing I’d love to see in conert the most), and somehow has maintained her youthful appearance for over six decades. Is she bathing in blood Elizabeth Bathory style? And when it comes to maintaining her artistic legacy, she is no pushover. In 2017 when KISS front man Gene Simmons idiotically attempted to trademark the “sign of the devil,” claiming he made it up, Jinx Dawson successfully campaigned against him proving she did it first on the cover of “Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls.” Leave it to a powerful witch to defeat the arrogant Demon.
For Sam Tweddle’s full 2015 interview with Coven’s Jinx Dawson, visit “Wicked Woman: A Conversation with Jinx Dawson” and samtweedle.com.