In 1992 White Zombie released their breakthrough album entitled La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1. Truth be told, that title would have been far more suitable for another album… an album of demos recorded in 1967-1968 by none other than cult leader Charles Manson. Manson would become a household name a year later after he led his cult members into a gruesome killing spree but in 1967-1968, he was primarily concerned with becoming a rock star. We can get into Manson’s friendship with Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys at another time. We can discuss Manson’s musical aspirations later. For this post, I want to concentrate on only one thing: the album itself.
Lie: The Love and Terror Cult by Charles Manson was released in 1970 by Awareness Records shortly after Manson was apprehended. The album title and artwork was a play on the LIFE Magazine issue featuring Manson on the cover. The music itself seems to be a cross between Robert Johnson, Donovan, Jose Feliciano, Captain Kangaroo, and Satan. To be honest, much of the album isn’t bad at all – one may even say it’s quite good – while other parts are simply horrid. But what is most striking upon listening is the eerie introduction that these songs provide to the madness within the cult leader’s mind… and the clear premonition of the terror that would soon come.
I’ve read many articles over the years on “the darkest albums ever composed.” Some albums gain that dark reputation either for the image the band uses to sell their songs, for the lyrical content, or for the minor keys and heavy riffs used in the songwriting. Black Sabbath comes to mind, along with Type O Negative. Other dark works are dark because of something a little more atypical in the recording that is often hard to describe (think of Big Star’s Third) or perhaps even a glimpse into someone’s spiraling mental state of mind (think of the Syd Barrett recordings). But what separates Lie: The Love and Terror Cult from other dark albums is that now we know, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.” That fact alone might be enough to rank this album as the darkest of all time.
You can’t escape feeling like these songs serve as an invitation to the Manson Family. Parts of the album sound like religious chanting. At times, the tribal beats on the tympani are hypnotic. But these are not the percussive talents of a skilled African drummer, they are the frantic beatings from a madman. Manson himself played percussion on this album. He also sang and played rhythm guitar.
Some of his ramblings when he talks rather than sings sound like soundbites from his parole hearings. Perhaps harder to digest, however, are the voices of his female devotees heard throughout the recordings – including Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who would later attempt to assassinate President Ford in 1975.
Many people have written about the charisma of Charles Manson; and while he certainly sounds like a man possessed on this album, you get a sense of what that infamous charisma was all about.
The opening song, “Look at Your Game Girl,” seems at first like typical folk song from the late 1960s until you dig into the lyrics and realize that he’s singing about an insane woman searching for love, unable to find it, and left with the implication that leaving that “game” behind and following Manson, instead, would lead to her ultimate fulfillment and liberation.
Track two, “Ego,” begins with Manson’s ramblings about Freud and the Ego set to violin music. Hearing him lecture us about Sigmund Freud is unnerving to say the least – but then it hits you that a greater musician and singer such as Donovan could have really turned this into a great tune. The track ends with an Eastern instrumental jam that is more haunting than horrible. And that’s what grips the listener about this album. There is potential. Especially in the psychedelic 1960s, this album showcases that Manson indeed could have become, with proper coaching and production, a minor folk rock star. One must stop and wonder if the killing spree would have ever taken place if only he had been signed to a recording contract and achieved a degree of success. Moreover, can you imagine history remembering the name Charles Manson not as a cult leader, but a folk icon?
It is the third track, “Mechanical Man,” where the listener begins to understand that this recording is truly the work of a madman. There is chanting and singing and tribal beating, all accompanied by violins and rather arcane lyrics… lyrics that pose the question we all ponder: “I wonder how a brown cow could say moo?” The female devotees are heard throughout the song providing the creepiest element to this nonsense. As a side note, this track (for what will be obvious reasons) reminds the listener of the Metallica and Lou Reed collaboration, Lulu.
Then we get to something very revealing. The fourth track, “People Say I’m No Good,” is perhaps the most autobiographical song on the album. Charles Manson contrasts himself to what the world considers normal and decent… and he suggests that perhaps the people casting judgement upon him are the ones truly insane. Hearing the voice of Charles Manson sing the words “People say I’m no good” is without a doubt the hardest lyric on the album to hear. It’s almost as bizarre as hearing him sing, a few songs later on the record, “Don’t do anything illegal.”
The original version of this album contains 14 songs. There is a later CD release from ESP-Disk which includes an additional 12 songs. Whether you’re listening for curiosity’s sake, as a historical lesson, for psychological insight, or even for the music itself – I do feel this album is worth your attention.