The Dark Lord’s Rise and Fall in 1980s Heavy Metal

Janice Headley

It’s that time of year again, when the front yard of your neighbor’s house looks like the artwork of a heavy metal album. 

(Can you guess which one is really a Home Depot ad?)


But it got me wondering, why do heavy metal album covers mostly share this aesthetic? Why are so many of them obsessed with Satan? Turns out, the genesis of the genre was an organic response to the times, but then so was the period known as the “Satanic Panic” that followed in the 1980s...

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The Prince of Darkness has long been a shadowy presence in the music world. In the 1920s, the blues was regarded as “the devil’s music” with the talents of now-legendary guitarist Robert Johnson attributed to a pact with Satan. (The myth later inspired the 1979 hit “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by The Charlie Daniels Band, giving Lucifer another moment on the charts.) Parents accused Elvis Presley of being possessed by dark forces back in the ‘50s with those sinister swiveling hips (I mean, the guy’s first name literally spells out “EVILS.”) In the ‘60s, the Rolling Stones released the single "Sympathy for the Devil" and then the album Their Satanic Majesties Request. The Beatles put occultist Aleister Crowley in the crowd on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Crowley, apparently, did not consider himself a Satanist, but he did refer to himself as “the Beast 666," so you can draw your own conclusions.)

Speaking of those lovable mop-tops, in the late ‘60s, California cult leader Charles Manson claimed The Beatles’ White Album held “subliminal messages” encouraging him to incite a race war. In the horrific Tate-LaBianca murders in August 1969, his followers wrote variations of song titles on the walls in their victims’ blood. (Later in 1984-85, there was serial killer Richard Ramirez who left behind an AC/DC baseball cap at one of the crime scenes, which led to sensational headlines like "AC/DC Music Made Me Kill at 16, Night Stalker Admits" and accusations that their band name stood for "Anti-Christ/Devil's Child.")

Things really escalated in 1970 when Black Sabbath released their self-titled debut album, pioneering the “heavy metal” genre, some say. The album artwork looks like one of those aforementioned Halloween lawn decorations. Press play and track one launches with the ominous sound of rain and church bells, calling to mind the soundtracks to blockbuster films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). The opening track (also titled “Black Sabbath,” putting these guys in the same camp as Wang Chung, Talk Talk, and Big Country), finds frontman Ozzy Osbourne wailing:

Big black shape with eyes of fire
Telling people their desire
Satan sitting there he's smiling
Watches those flames get higher and higher
Oh, no, no, please God help me

More bands emerged, inspired: Led Zeppelin (whose guitarist Jimmy Page bought a house formerly owned by aforementioned occultist Crowley), KISS (whose band name was rumored to stand for “Knights in Satan's Service”), Judas Priest (who had to go to court to defend themselves from accusations of subliminal Satanic messages on their albums), and many others. 

Oh, and all the while this music was being created, a dark presence was, indeed, looming in the background… the Vietnam War. Images of death and blood were on the evening news every day. Many men were recruited and sent overseas where they witnessed (or even committed) the carnage firsthand. 

“We arrived at the height of the Vietnam War and on the other side of the hippie era, so there was a mood of doom and aggression,” guitarist Tony Iommi explained.  

Vocalist Ozzy Osbourne confirmed in a 2000 interview with Mojo Magazine. “It was the end of the 60s, it was all ‘If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair.’ What a load of old fucking happy hippie crap that is. Here’s us living 99 million miles away in Aston, Birmingham, an industrial city, and the world wasn’t happy. We used to rehearse across the road from a movie theatre, and Iommi said to us, ‘Isn’t it weird how people like to go to the movies and get scared? Why don’t we start making music that scares people?’ And he came up with the heaviest fucking riffs of all time.” (The band even took their name from the 1963 horror movie starring Boris Karloff.)

Isn’t it weird how people like to go to the movies and get scared? Why don’t we start making music that scares people?
— Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath

King Diamond of Mercyful Fate agreed, saying in a 1987 interview, "I know people like to be scared just a little bit and they like that because they go watching all the horror movies. People don't like our lyrics because it says Satan on it, but they go and watch Halloween, so why don't they just accept our lyrics?… Just take it as horror stories, that's all." 

It’s not surprising that concurrent to the rise of heavy metal on the Billboard charts in the ‘80s, the “slasher” film genre began to explode. Acclaimed horror movie special effects artist Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, Creepshow) served as a combat photographer during the Vietnam War and said in a 2009 interview with Empire Magazine, “I incorporated the feeling of the stuff I saw in Vietnam into my work.”

The popularity of the genre was rising, creating the perfect conditions for the “Satanic Panic” coming up in the following decade. 

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Heavy metal had a heyday in the ‘80s with bands like Mötley Crüe, Guns n’ Roses, Quiet Riot, and Def Leppard dominating the Billboard Top Ten charts. Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer were racking up the Grammy Award nominations. The loud guitars and screaming vocals were a catharsis during a time of social, economic, and political conservatism. 

America was still clinging to traditional ideals set forth in the ‘50s and rattled in the radical ‘60s and ‘70s. The Christian Right (a political faction that maintained a strong relationship with then-President Ronald Reagan) were at the height of their powers. Televangelists dominated TV. Women began to enter the workforce in larger numbers, resulting in “latchkey kids,” or unsupervised “children between the ages of five and thirteen who care for themselves after the school day until their parents or guardians return home.” Meanwhile, the launch of MTV in 1981 introduced imagery of bands in corpse make-up performing against hellish flames nationwide. Nightmarish album artwork was on display in the windows of record stores everywhere, exposing youth to images of blood, bones, and violence. It was the perfect breeding ground for the witch hunt to follow.

There are many facets of the Satanic Panic: daycare allegations of sexual abuse, Dungeons & Dragons, the best-selling book Michelle Remembers, and what was later coined as “false memory syndrome.” Over in the music world, heavy metal was targeted as a “recruitment tool” for the “Satanists” to lure innocent youth into their “coven.” (Sorry for all the quotes, but I can’t emphasize enough how ludicrous the accusations were.)

Bands were accused of backmasking, which is the practice of hiding subliminal messages in their music that can only be heard when you play the song backwards. The concept dates back to The Beatles’ White Album with claims that if you play "Revolution 9" backwards, you hear the message “turn me on, dead man.”

In 1981, Battle Creek, MI-based minister Michael Mills accused the band Led Zeppelin of burying Satanic messages in their 1971 single “Stairway to Heaven,” like “master Satan,” “serve me,” and “there’s no escaping it.” (Our friends at fellow listener-powered radio station WFMU have uploaded Mills’ declaration here.) 

Not to be outdone, the following year, evangelist Paul Crouch took to the airwaves of the Trinity Broadcasting Network to claim to hear “Here’s to my sweet Satan” and “I sing because I live with Satan” in the same song, too. (Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant dismissed them both, saying to Rolling Stone, “Who on Earth would have ever thought of doing that? You’ve got to have a lot of time on your hands to even consider that people would do that.”)

Churches across the nation hosted record burning parties. At a Huntersville, NC gathering in 1982, a former rocker-turned-pastor said he believed that Satan was “possessing the singers and manipulating their voices so that subliminally implanted backward messages could be placed on the record to destroy the youth of America." 

And then in 1985, a committee of concerned women formed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) to “protect” children from music with themes of violence, drug/alcohol usage, sexual themes, or the occult. They compiled a list of particularly offensive songs they called the “Filthy Fifteen” which called out mostly heavy metal bands like W.A.S.P., Venom, Mercyful Fate, and good ‘ol Black Sabbath, to name a few. 

(NOTE: NINE of the songs listed are by heavy metal artists)


Last month marked the 35th anniversary of the PMRC hearings. (If you’re wondering how the government got involved, it’s worth noting that the PMRC was founded by Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore, alongside the wives of ten Senators, six Representatives, and a Cabinet Secretary. Insert eyeroll here.) Musicians Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, Frank Zappa, and John Denver testified in court against the proposed censorship. (And, yes, one of those panelists is not like the others, but don’t laugh; Denver was eloquent AF.) 

Unfortunately, before the trial even ended, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) voluntarily agreed to start putting "Parental Advisory" stickers on albums deemed explicit. Three-and-a-half decades later, and the now-iconic black-and-white text continues to appear on covers, even on the JPGs of album artwork included with digital releases. 

Was that the end of “filthy” music? Hardly. Many record labels reported they think the warning helped album sales. Besides that little sticker, something else helped album sales… or someone. Satan, apparently, sells. (So says the book Satan on Satan: Satan SELLS! series by S.Lucifer, available now for the low, low price of $6.66.) Many of the metal bands targeted by the PMRC have even thanked the “Washington Wives” (as the coalition was nicknamed by the press) for the extra publicity.  

In an interview with Rolling Stone, King Diamond noted, “How they saw those songs said more about them than it did about us — they had some really perverted minds. It was funny, ridiculous, surprising. Thanks for the promotion, Tipper!”

English metal band Venom agreed, with frontman Conrad "Cronos" Lant adding, ‘"[The PMRC] wasted their time when they could have been doing something more constructive with their lives, and for me, well, that album wasn't doing too well when it was first released, actually, but after their fantastic marketing scheme, it picked up and started selling very well, so thanks for that, PMRC. All they achieved was advertising hardcore underground music."

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originally published March 18, 1992


But were these bands really Satanists? The answer is mostly* No.

(Note: I say "mostly" because I haven't even mentioned the Norwegian black metal scene, oof. Maybe I'll save it for another Halloween.)

Mötley Crüe’s 1983 album Shout at the Devil may have featured a giant pentagram on the original album artwork, but frontman Vince Neil confirmed to Loudwire in 2010, “Some people said we were Satanic and angry. We always thought that was funny, but we were like, ‘Hey, if it gets us attention let’s go with that.’ We were so starved for stardom that we were willing to do whatever it took. But there was no anger at all. We were just having fun.”

Despite rumors that their band name stands for “Satan Laughs As You Eternally Rot,” Tom Araya of Slayer (whose parents were both born-again Catholic ministers) confirms that the “Satanist” thing was just an act. “When we started the band, it was something that people were afraid of. We were carving an ugly, scary image for ourselves and people freak out on shit like that. Then slowly but surely I realised that we could still do this, but take it from another angle. That's when I started writing more about the evils of now."

His bandmate Kerry King concurs, adding to Louder Sound, “I’m not a Satanist, I’m an atheist, but I write the best Satanic lyrics on the fucking planet. And it’s great entertainment. And religion is the funnest thing to make fun of.”

“I’m not a Satanist, I’m an atheist, but I write the best Satanic lyrics on the fucking planet.”
 — Kerry King, Slayer

And while heavy metal music may not be climbing the charts the way it used to in the ‘80s, Satan himself is still sticking around. He’s crossed genres to hip-hop. Tyler, the Creator declared himself “Satan’s son” in his 2009 track “Bastard.” I suppose that makes him brothers with Harlem-based hip-hop artist Big L who released his single "Devil's Son" in 1993. Kendrick Lamar revived backmasking with his 2017 album Damn, which became the first non-classical and non-jazz album to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

The sub-genre of Horrorcore was lurking in the underground in the ‘80s, clearly happy to let Heavy Metal and all those Top 40 bands take the heat from the PMRC. But they rose strong in the decades to follow, spawning bands like Three 6 Mafia, Mars (who performs in a Hannibal Lecter-style mask), Gravediggaz, and Sub Pop group clipping. who just released the concept album Visions of Bodies Being Burned, a follow-up to last year’s LP There Existed an Addiction to Blood

Quite simply, times have changed. The Christian Right just doesn’t have the same pull it did in the ‘80s, and nowadays, it seems like anything goes in music and the arts. (15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch: "Hold my drink.") With the onset of the Internet, it’s harder to shock people the way you could back in the olden days, no matter how tall the skeletons get at Home Depot. And to that we say, Hail Satan