The 90-Minute Guide: The Devil

Treble staff
Baphomet is ready to rock

Ever since Satan grabbed hold of Robert Johnson’s guitar at the Crossroads, gave it a tune and handed it back to him, the devil has had his hands all over popular music. You can barely throw a stone without it skipping across the edge of the River Styx or hitting a cloven hoof. We exaggerate, perhaps, but only a little. The devil is a ubiquitous theme in pop music, and with Halloween coming up, we’re giving Lucifer his platform for just this week. We assembled a mix of songs about, celebrating, damning and referencing the devil in some way, shape or form, and across a variety of genres. Blues, rock, soul — it’s all covered. We could have made an all-metal 90 minute mix of devil songs easily, but the Prince of Darkness is equal opportunity. So turn it up and get evil with us.

Side One

Curtis Mayfield – “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go” [7:51] from Curtis (1970; Curtom)

Curtis Mayfield dabbled in gospel in the ’60s with the Impressions, but he expressed a pretty dark turnaround on the opening track of his 1970 album Curtis. In essence, he’s suggests that nobody on earth is blameless, and that if anyone’s going to Hell, we’re all in it together. And that Hell may very well exist on earth. Mayfield saw a troubling world around him, and he could scarcely be blamed, what with racial injustice, rapidly increasing drug abuse and Vietnam hanging heavy over the United States at the time. “Nixon say `Don’t worry’,” Mayfield sings over ominous apocalypse funk, but it’s clear Tricky Dick’s message didn’t take. If there’s one message to take from this track, it’s that you should definitely be worried. – Jeff Terich

Van Halen – “Runnin’ With the Devil” [3:36] from Van Halen (1978; Warner Bros.)

Diamond Dave and the rest of Van Halen weren’t foreigners to a hedonistic lifestyle (just ask the makers of KY Jelly), so it’s fitting that they’d start off their first album with a song dedicated to it. In his gloriously testosterone-fueled bravado, Roth tells the tale of life without attachment to anything but pleasure, “living at a pace that kills.” There’s a certain pride taken in this pleasure-driven pursuit, relying on one’s own wiles and wit and eschewing with family, work, and really any commitment whatsoever. Similarly to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” the song seems to revel in hedonism. But there really aren’t many other ways a young, relentlessly touring band can go, are there? – Nick Ulbrickson

D’Angelo – “Devil’s Pie” [5:22] from Voodoo (2000; Virgin)

Whether or not one believes in the idea of Original Sin, it’s pretty hard to deny that human nature is to give into temptation, and our worst instincts sometimes tend to get the better of us. Reassure yourself or rationalize it if you must, but there’s a good possibility you’ve committed all seven deadly sins in one day. And if you say that isn’t true, you’re lying. D’Angelo knows what’s up — “Who am I to justify/ all the evil in our eye” he chants. But over a funky J Dilla beat, the R&B legend finds himself doing his damnedest to turn away that slice of the devil’s pie, no matter how tasty it looks. Those secret ingredients come at a price, you know. – Jeff Terich

Tom Waits – “Everything Goes to Hell” [3:46] from Blood Money (2002; Anti-)

It’s not uncommon for Tom Waits to focus on the darker side of humanity, which he usually serves shaken, and garnished with a wedge of humor. And while “Everything Goes to Hell” from 2002’s Blood Money is part of a larger narrative, its message is pretty simple: “Why be sweet, why be careful, why be kind?/ A man has only one thing on his mind/ Why ask politely, why go lightly, why say please?/ They only want to see you on your knees.” Of course, he’s not so much commenting on the mythological representation of Hell so much as the idea that everything will inevitably turn sour or go wrong. It’s a dark way to look at it, but Waits, in a way that only he is capable, makes hopelessness into a charmingly intoxicating wreck. – Jeff Terich

Robert Johnson – “Hellhound On My Trail” [2:34] (1937)

I’d be willing to wager that every music fan knows the tale of Robert Johnson’s Faustian deal at the Crossroads, and the myth grows deeper thanks to songs such as this one. While I can’t say that the legend is true, I can say that this song is as good as any at showcasing Johnson’s fluid guitar-work and tortured, otherworldly voice. It depicts a ramblin’ man with, apparently, a hellhound in pursuit, as indicated by strange weather phenomenon. He salts his doors (“hot foot powder” to drive away unwanted entities) and yearns for his woman to occupy his time. If not for the torment of the vocal, I’d call this the strangest pick-up line ever. While I can’t say that the legend is true, the mystery surrounding Johnson’s death does make me wonder… – Nick Ulbrickson

Gil Scott-Heron – “Me and the Devil” [3:34] from I’m New Here (2010; XL)

Blues music is littered with references to the devil, right down to the infamous legend about Robert Johnson selling his soul at the Crossroads. And Johnson, himself, wrote and performed at least three or four songs about the devil (or Hellhound, if you want to split hairs). “Me and the Devil Blues,” adapted by Gil Scott-Heron on his album I’m New Here, becomes even more chilling and evil, where an encounter with a demon grows all the more ominous through eerie synthesizers and an overall claustrophobic atmosphere. And in his lifetime, Scott-Heron certainly had his share of personal demons, but in this tale of being haunted by one’s own worst tendencies, they walk side-by-side with him. – Jeff Terich

Louvin Brothers – “Satan Is Real” [3:01] from Satan Is Real (1959; Capitol)

Country/gospel duo the Louvin Brothers spent much of their career singing on matters of faith and, alternately, the evil that men do (see: “Knoxville Girl”). But this hymn warning of the unseemly deeds of the Dark Lord doesn’t so much put a literal spin on the idea of the horned demon with a pitchfork, but rather the temptations and poor judgment he can lead a man into. It’s half sermon, and extremely preachy, but then again, the Louvin Brothers’ harmonies are so sweet, it’s easy to overlook the overbearing themes when they croon, “He can tempt you, and lead you astray.” – Jeff Terich

Madness – “I Chase The Devil aka Ironshirt” [3:20] from The Dangermen Sessions Vol. 1 (2005; V2)

Two-tone ska revivalists Madness played dress up in 2005 under the veil of the Dangermen, a mythological reggae band from the late ’60s. The covers album that was born of this masquerade included the wily stalker “Ironshirt,” originally done by Max Romeo. Vocalist Suggs goes toe to toe with ole Lucifer himself, proclaiming he’s going to “send him into outer space to find another race,” as his band mates plod around sneaky basslines and bloozy brass. The beat is bound to possess you. The devil went down to Kingston with the Dangermen and produced this holy-rollin’ hit. – Melissa Bobbitt

Swervedriver – “Last Train to Satansville (Satansville revisited?)” [6:45] from Mezcal Head (1993; A&M)

Shoegazer music is often the realm of the dreamlike or otherworldly, but in Swervedriver’s “Last Train to Satansville,” Adam Franklin very literally recounts the details of a dream that’s been haunting him. It starts with young love and ends with murder, with the troubled narrator rotting away in isolation. Exactly how this involves Satan, or a destination in Satansville, is purely metaphorical. Franklin here is describing his own personal Hell, but he rides it out on an epic, hard rocking melody with layers upon layers of guitars with riffs that, despite the song’s title, feel like they’re ascending to heaven. – Jeff Terich

Side Two

Iron Maiden – “Number of the Beast” [4:51] from Number of the Beast (1982; EMI)

Heavy metal and the devil go way back. Wayyyy back. In fact, they’re practically synonymous to a certain degree, though the quintessential metal devil song dates back to 1982, with Bruce Dickinson’s first album in Iron Maiden, Number of the Beast. The title track isn’t about celebrating the evil one, however, it’s a confession to being haunted by the specter of Satan around every turn. Dickinson wails, “‘Cause in my dreams/ it’s always there/ the evil face that twists my mind and brings me to despair.” So if this song is the exorcism of that demon, then it’s a hell (cough) of a way to be cast out. All aboard Ed Force One, Flight 666. – Jeff Terich

Rolling Stones – “Sympathy for the Devil” [6:18] from Beggars Banquet (1968; ATCO)

The Rolling Stones’ take on the devil is a little bit different than everyone else’s here, in that he’s a sophisticated gentleman with a job to do. He’s amoral and thrives on chaos, but he’s a necessary component to the universe as we see it. A soulful gospel groove lays the groundwork for Mick Jagger’s history lesson, in which this nameless figure appears at Christ’s crucifixion, world wars and other various atrocities, before taunting his guest, “Pleased to meet you/ won’t you guess my name?” Therein lies the rub, as Jagger builds up this mysterious and all-seeing, all-powerful figure, only to reveal the truth nobody wants to hear: “I shouted out, `Who killed the Kennedys?’/ When after all, it was you and me.” – Jeff Terich

Black Sabbath – “Black Sabbath” [6:22] from Black Sabbath (1970; Warner Bros.)

If you really want to find the genesis of heavy metal’s obsession with Satan, start here. The first song on the first recognized metal album in history is, in fact, about Satan! Ozzy Osbourne’s narration describes a Hellish scenario: “What is this that stands before me?/ Figure in black who points at me“, “Big black shape with eyes of fire/ Telling people their desire.” It’s a little intimidating to be staring Satan straight in the eyes, and even more so when the encounter is soundtracked by such chilling doom riffs. And to think, this was just the beginning of metal’s most unholy marriage. – Jeff Terich

Flying Burrito Brothers – “Christine’s Tune (Devil In Disguise)” [3:06] from Gilded Palace of Sin (1969; A&M)

The idea of a sweet woman who’s nothing but trouble is a recurring theme that shows up throughout the history of popular music, and while this Flying Burrito Brothers classic is 43 years old, it’s far from the first time it shows up. A sprightly country-rock tune with both lap steel and fiery electric lead guitar, “Christine’s Tune” tells the tale of an actual woman that Gram Parsons knew, with a reputation that preceded her: “It gets her off to see a person crying/ She’s just the kind that you can do without.” An actual devil? Maybe not, but just like the Lord, he works in mysterious ways. – Jeff Terich

Kanye West – “Devil In a New Dress” [5:52] from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010; Def Jam)

See above. Only with Rick Ross, and the general suspicion that the bad behavior is mutual. – Jeff Terich

Skip James – “Devil Got My Woman” [3:01] (1931)

Featured prominently in the indie flick Ghost World, this song is more rueful that supernatural. James tells the story of woman he loves being stolen from him by his best friend, who James happened to steal her from. While the quality of the recording, and James’ accent, make discerning the lyrics somewhat difficult, it appears that he’s so tortured by the loss of the woman he loves that he’d “rather be the devil” because “nothin’ but the devil [can] change [his] baby’s mind.” He refers to a sleepless night of wild rumination, which is ominous of his fruition into a devil (through, presumably, murder). While not exactly ghosts and goblins oriented, this song shows that the everyday depravity of humanity is often scarier than any monster on paper or film. – Nick Ulbrickson

Beck – “Satan Gave Me a Taco” [3:56] from Stereopathetic Soul Manure (1994; Flipside)

Beck has a cautionary tale for anyone out there who might be tempted to eat a taco served up by the Prince of Darkness: don’t do it. This folky hoedown from early on in Beck’s career is a strange slippery slope of a thread, that starts with some gross, rancid Mexican food, which leads to a shower mishap, some public assault, a horrifying courtroom scene that somehow turns into a rock video, stardom, heroin addiction and an eventual craving for another taco. It’s not worth it dude, maybe pizza tonight instead? – Jeff Terich

Ghost – “Stand By Him” [3:56] from Opus Eponymous (2010; Metal Blade)

All of Ghost’s songs are about Satan — that’s sort of their shtick. But this one goes above and beyond by pairing Satan with witches! The Nameless Ghoul’s message is pretty simple here, and a hearty guffaw at all the puritans of Salem caught up in witch hysteria: with Satan on their side, those witches will have the last laugh. It’s a little over the top, which is hard not to do when speaking of the devil, and witches, and carnal lust and vengeance and all that fun stuff that gets blown out of proportion by religious fanatics, but the song is so catchy, you almost don’t even notice the blasphemous endorsement. Really, is there any catchier metal chorus in recent history than “It’s the night of the witch/ It’s the night of the witch, toniiiiiight.” – Jeff Terich

British Sea Power – “No Lucifer” [3:28] from Do You Like Rock Music? (2008; Rough Trade)

Suppose you want to get the devil off your back, though? Try bicycles and wrestling chants. It seems to work for the British Sea Power. In reality, however, “No Lucifer” isn’t really about any metaphysical Satanic presence as it is a nostalgic, escapist childhood fantasy about the feeling of being invincible and playing games of good versus evil. There’s something very innocent about it, and very endearing. But the sheer anthemic power of the song is the quality that makes it seem so possible to fight off Lucifer himself. – Jeff Terich

AC/DC – “Highway To Hell” [3:29] from Highway to Hell (1979; ATCO)

Almost every Bon Scott-era AC/DC song (and really every Brian Johnson-era AC/DC song for that matter) is about being a hard-living badass who’ll fuck you up and steal your woman. But “Highway to Hell” is the one song in which Scott very literally heads down to the underworld to knock back pints with Satan himself. That’s what you get for payin’ dues in a rockin’ band. – Jeff Terich

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