Monday, March 31, 2014

Hell's Bells: The Dangers of Rock and Roll: A Movie That Takes on the Devil's Music

Eric Holmberg
Sometime in 1989, I sat with a friend of mine watching late night Christian T.V., a pastime I still indulge in albeit rarely. I remember being bored mindless until being prodded to almost sit up at the sight of the cover of Channel 3's Fear of Life. This was about seven years that I'd owned that album, though by that time I never listened to it anymore. But it was a relatively obscure enough punk reference that I thought maybe we should watch whatever this is. But we didn't.

Well, I now can finish watching that very program, I think. By chance, I've discovered its title to be Hell's Bells: The Dangers of Rock and Roll. Seemingly stitched together in a public access studio in 1989 by Reel to Real Ministries and its mulleted and mustachioed screen spokesman, Eric Holmberg, Hell's Bells does not disappoint with many more somewhat esoteric punk reference points, mixed in, of course, with AC/DC (from whose Back in Black album the title derives) and a host of other acts I'll tackle in the next few paragraphs. If you want a quick tour through 80s musical culture from the dissident scenes to the mainstream, this movie delivers.

It is very long, however, and I confess I have not finished watching it. In fact, I've so far watched only four out of 18 segments, running about ten and a half minutes each on YouTube. Does that mean this flick is three hours long? Yes, it does. It's quite a slog, though often I found the narration by Holmberg to be somewhat mesmerizing in its relentless warnings that everything from Mercyful Fate to INXS will invite demons into your heart.

In fact, the film equates Mick Fleetwood dancing around on stage with his tambourine and gawking eyes with Judas Priest, Christian Death, Ozzy Osbourne, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (they got the wrong decade here and there), Crass, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and MDC (in their Millions of Damn Christians phase). There's a featured reference to Diamanda Galas's (you know it!) The Litanies of Satan. One on-screen text roll just lists songs with the word "hell" in them, all from metal acts except "Aloha From Hell" by The Cramps.

Lux Interior from Urgh! A Music War as used in Hell's Bells.

The film has a short segment on the 1978 onstage arrest of The Huns' lead singer Phil Tolstead in Austin on obscenity charges. He had a mock life-size crucifix onstage with him, and he apparently was not very reverent. But do not fear, the film assures us 11 years after the incident. Phil is saved:


To his credit, Holmberg repeats that his goal is not censorship or even labels on records (i.e., he's more liberal than Tipper Gore), but just to get the truth of Christ out there. You have to hand it to him for "resisting the temptation" to call for banning devilish music.

Here's Part 1 of Hell's Bells. (Please forgive the YouTube uploader for his or her damn misplaced apostrophe. That drives me nuts, I tell you.) Good luck!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Greek Odyssey: From "666" to "Chariots of Fire"

The reboot of Cosmos is under way, and it's actually great. Really great. I am such a fan of the original that I had no loftily high expectations for Neil deGrasse Tyson, which works in his favor. That's not to detract from his intrinsic merits, because like Carl Sagan, DeGrasse Tyson speaks with sincere wonder at the majesty not only of the Universe, the Cosmos itself, but also of humans' astounding ability to start piecing it together, i.e., science. DeGrasse Tyson's no Carl Sagan, but neither is he trying to be.

I realize when I re-watch the original Cosmos that one reason I love it so is the plaintive and sparse music of Vangelis that enhanced Sagan's wonderment and the visuals of distant spiral galaxies and nebulae. The Universe, from outer space to the subatomic realm, is filled, so to speak, with a mysterious emptiness. The music hits that note. When most folks hear the name Vangelis, they immediately think of the iconic soundtrack to Chariots of Fire, and with good reason. Along with Cosmos and Blade Runner, it is evidence of Vangelis's ability to capture moods with his synths.

Few people, myself included, would immediately associate him with psychedelic music. But in the late 60s to early 70s, contemporaneous with early Hawkwind and Gong, Vangelis played the keys in the Greek rock outfit Aphrodite's Child. Their hits, like "End of the World," come through in a kind of slow-tempo, Scott-Walkerish, torch-song mode, with raspy-voiced lead singer and bassist Demi Roussos delivering lines in meandering melodies with a sometimes overwrought melodrama. It all works for me.

Vangelis, however, wanted to move into a more grandiose prog direction than the pop-loving Demi. In 1970 and 1971 the band recorded Vangelis's brainchild, the album 666. Based on (you guessed it!) the Book of Revelations, this ambitious album opens with a repetitive militaristic chant like something out of Laibach circa 1985: "We've got the system/to fuck the system." The album that follows is a mixture of quick-clip folk-rock ("Babylon"), catchy ethereal anthems ("The Four Horsemen"), eery soundscapes ("The Marching Beast"), strangely moving choral arrangements ("Loud, Loud, Loud"), and completely off-putting orgasmic freak-outs ("Infinity Symbol"). Apparently, this hour-and-twenty-minute-long concept piece broke the band up, and the rest is cultural history (see above and below).

Demi Roussos went on to become a caftan-draped pop idol in his native Greece and Europe. I came across him, in fact, while researching Greek folksinger Nana Mouskouri, with whom Roussos sang more than one duet.

Aphrodite's Child "End of the World"

Aphrodite's Child "The Four Horsemen"

Demi Roussos & Nana Mouskouri

Cosmos (orig.)

Updated 3/17/14.