Skip to content


Crowley’s Children

turnoff_yourmindA couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog-post analysing the video for Blondie’s Rapture, and pointing out the voodoo, occult and mystic symbolism in it. I wondered if Blondie were into that sort of thing, or perhaps I was seeing things. It turned out they were, and one of them – the bassist Gary Lachman – had even become a historian of the occult. He was kind enough to give me his time for an interview.

I met up with Gary in the British Library, to ask him about the influence of occult ideas on rock and roll – and particularly the ideas of Aleister Crowley. I’m interested in this because I’m interested in ecstatic states and how we reach them in modernity. Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and magic are part of that story.  It’s not always a very nice story, as Gary’s book ably chronicles.

He first encountered the occult in 1975, when he was playing bass in Blondie, and sharing an apartment with fellow band-members Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. ‘They had a fun, kitschy aesthetic appreciation of the occult, little voodoo dolls, pentagrams, a model of a nun with an upside-down cross painted onto her forehead.’

He was introduced to the writings of Aleister Crowley through Tommy Ramone, who leant him a couple of books. After he’d left the band, Gary became more and more interested in Crowley’s ideas and rituals. One day in LA, he signed up to join the Ordo Templi Orientis, a secret cult dedicated to following Crowley’s religion of ‘Thelema’. For a while he got very into Crowleian magic – he got himself a robe, did every ritual in Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice, tried out sex magick with his girlfriend, even consumed a wafer containing menstrual blood as part of a ‘gnostic mass’.

Gary made the transition from punk-rocker to secret magus and writer on all things occult. But eventually his love-affair with Crowley waned as he decided his ‘religion’ was one long ego-trip. His new book, Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World, explores Crowley’s flawed personality and its influence on pop culture.

His influence is huge. It turns out all those nutty Christian evangelists who warned that rock and roll is demonic were right. The wafer of pop music is soaked in the occult, particularly in Aleister Crowley’s highly egotistical version of it.

So, a quick magickal mystery tour:

Crowley appears on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. John Lennon once said ‘The whole Beatles thing was do what you want, you know?’


A statue of him also appears on the cover of the Doors’ album, Doors 13. The Doors admired Crowley as someone who’d ‘broken through to the other side’, and who was a master of anarchic showmanship. Jim Morrison once said, in very Crowley-ite words: ‘I’m interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that appears to have no meaning.’


Jimmy Page was a huge Crowley fan, and bought his house next to Loch Ness. Crowley’s famous motto, ‘Do What Thou Wilt’, was embossed on the vinyl of Led Zeppelin III.

The Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithfull were into Crowleian magic through the film-maker Kenneth Anger – hence their album His Satanic Majesties and their song Sympathy for the Devil. Jagger also made the soundtrack to Anger’s film, Invocation to my Demon Brother, while Marianne Faithful appeared in Anger’s Lucifer Rising, which starred a future member of the Manson Family.

David Bowie was also a big fan of Crowley – he mentions him in the song ‘Quicksand’, and was very influenced by Crowley’s magic techniques, symbolism, and superman philosophy. Bowie was deep into the occult in the 1970s, particularly during the making of ‘Station to Station’ when he feared he’d invoked an evil demon, and that witches were trying to steal his semen to make a Satanic love-child (no, really).

Both Crowley (left) and Bowie liked the fancy dress of magic

In the 1980s, of course, various metal bands were explicitly into Crowley, from Black Sabbath to Iron Maiden. More recently, and perhaps more surprisingly, Crowley’s ideas are apparently an influence on rap stars like Jay-Z, Kanye West, and that ardent practitioner of sex magick, Ciara.

Jay-Z wearing a Crowley top. Like Bowie, he seems to buy into the idea of being among a tiny superhuman elite who…er…’run this town’.
Kanye West in full demi-god mode for the video of 'Power'. He used to be such a nice boy....
Kanye West in full demi-god mode for the video of ‘Power’, including wearing an occult Horus necklace. And he used to be such a nice boy….
Crowley has got Ciara's back
Crowley has got Ciara’s back

More broadly, as we’ll examine, pop culture helped to make Crowley’s philosophy of unfettered egotism – do what thou wilt – the ruling philosophy of western society. We are all Crowley’s children.

Who was Crowley?

Crowley’s parents were Plymouth Brethren – a rigidly puritanical Christian sect. They were also quite well-off, and Crowley inherited a decent fortune. This combination of a sense of entitlement with a need to rebel against the puritanism of his parents seems to have been fatal for Crowley. He never grew out of the need to shock, to rebel, to provoke, and to get others to notice him.

As a teenager, he got into ‘Satanizing’, which initially meant being deliberately bad in the decadent style of Baudelaire or Huysmans. By his 20s, he was dabbling in the Occult, and fascinated by the idea of a ‘Hidden Church’ made up of magicians with secret powers.

He eagerly joined the Golden Dawn in London, a magical order whose members included the poet WB Yeats. However, he quickly fell out with them all, despising Yeats when he failed to appreciate Crowley’s attempts at poetry, and annoying the Golden Dawn elders with his desire to ascend rapidly up the ‘magical scale’ to become a top-level magus, even using black magic to do so.

Aleister_Crowley,_MagusHe claimed to have achieved top-level magus status by 1904, when he says he made contact with a demi-god called Aiwass in Egypt (in the Great Pyramid of Giza, to be precise), who dictated a book to him called the Book of the Law. Aiwass was an emissary of the Egyptian bird-god Horus, and he came to Crowley to declare a new age, the aeon of the ‘Crowned and Conquering Child’.

This new aeon would be, writes Lachman, ‘a time of unconstrained personal freedom’, in which a handful of supermen (led by Crowley) would perfect their wills and become gods. ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ for the supermen. They will delight in ‘wines and strange drugs’ which ‘shall not harm ye at all’, as well as every kind of sexual excess. Meanwhile, the rest of humanity, ‘the slaves’, shall be made to serve the supermen. ‘Compassion is the vice of kings’, Aiwass told Crowley. ‘Stamp down the wretched and the weak.’

Crowley was excited, though perhaps not surprised, to discover he was the Messiah of the New Age. He tried to usher in the New Age with magic rituals, both private ones (long orgies of sex, drugs and magic) and public ones – most famously, a ‘Rite of Eleusis’ which he organized in London in 1910, where participants took peyote, danced to bongoes and listened to Crowley declaiming his magickal poetry. This was, I think, the first hallucinogenic rave of the modern age.

Other people were disposable ingredients for his operational magic. A succession of mentally unstable women were cast in his magickal S&M orgies as ‘the Scarlet Woman’. The women usually ended badly, in alcoholism, drug addiction, madness or suicide. The debris included his first wife, Rose, who he abandoned along with his daughter, the unfortunately named ‘Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith’ , who died of typhus in Rangoon. He didn’t much care. ‘‘Morally and mentally, women were for me beneath contempt’, he wrote. ‘Intellectually of course, they did not exist.’

He was equally cruel to any man foolish enough to follow him. This included an acolyte called Neuberg, who signed up to be his student. Crowley subjected him to years of sadistic humiliation at his hut in Scotland, including making him cut his arms and sleep naked on a gorse bush for ten days. Crowley also tortured cats, crucified a frog, and was an enthusiastic big-game hunter.

A keen mountaineer, he fell out with a team he was leading in the Himalayas, after they complained about his fondness for beating the sherpas to assert his racial superiority. He flounced off, and then failed to come to the team’s aid when it was hit by an avalanche, despite their cries for help. Several of them died.

His desire for ‘blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything good or bad, but strong’ led him to consider the idea of human ritual sacrifices as the ultimate magickal taboo. Lachman tells me he ‘would tease his readers with remarks about human sacrifice in his book, Magick in Theory and Practice’. There’s no evidence he actually did kill anyone, though he gleefully claimed his spells had driven one lady to suicide, and his ideas about human sacrifices inspired later psychopaths like Charles Manson.

Was Crowley a black magician? He certainly wanted to be, recklessly invoking evil demons, and trying to harm his many enemies with spells. But if he did sell his soul to a devil, he didn’t get much in return. His poetry and writing are rubbish, he never made much money, he never had much power, although he did apparently have a great deal of sex. He died poor, friendless, unread, addicted to heroin, the same gargantuan egotist he’d been as a teenager. His last words were ‘I am perplexed.’ He used many pseudonyms –  Master Therion, Baphomet, the Great Beast, Nemo, Perdurabo – but the most accurate word for him is probably a ****

The age of the crowned and conquering child

So how did this idiot become such a huge influence on 1960s culture? Partly, because his ideas were embraced as part of the 60s counter-cultural philosophy of what Robert Bellah called ‘expressive individualism’, or what Gary Lachman calls ‘liberationism’.

Timothy Leary, who at one point thought he was chanelling or reincarnating Crowley
Timothy Leary, who at one point thought he was chanelling or reincarnating Crowley

Lachman says: ‘It’s the idea of breaking the rules, getting rid of repression and going beyond all convention. Liberationism goes back through George Bataille, Nietzsche and his idea of the Dionysiac, all the way to the Marquis de Sade. And Crowley was a poster-boy for liberationist philosophy. It makes perfect sense that he would be picked up by rock and roll and later forms of pop music, because in many ways it’s tailor-made to the adolescent sensibility. Think of Jim Morrison’s ‘we want the world and we want it now’, or Iggy Pop: ‘I need more than I’ve ever done before.’ When you’re young you want to throw away all constraints on you. Crowley did that his whole life. His whole thing was excess in all directions.’

Liberationists want to liberate themselves from any social hang-ups, which means liberating themselves from traditional morality and even from reason itself. ‘Turn off your mind and float downstream’, as Timothy Leary said and John Lennon later quoted. Leary and other key figures in the 60s saw in Crowley a genius explorer of altered states of consciousness accessed through drugs, music, poetry and sex – just as they were trying to do. His Rite of Eleusis was a blueprint for the acid tests of the 1960s, and the raves of today – which also aim to bypass rational thought and get the audience into trances.

60s adolescents had also fallen rapidly in love with the occult, via books like Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians, and through superhero comics like The X-Men, which popularized the idea of the evolution of a new mutation of superhumans with paranormal powers. Baby-boomer flower children liked to imagine they were this new mutation, evolving through the magic potion of LSD.

Crowley particularly appealed to musicians like Jimmy Page or David Bowie because he promised them power. Musicians are like magicians – insecure, impoverished, desperately searching for the magic formula which will bring them sex, money and power.  Many pop-stars shared Crowley’s taste for alter-egos as a way of exploring different aspects of their psyche, and also for using costume, light, sound, symbols and transgressive actions to ‘get the people going’.

Lachman says: ‘Magic and the music industry make use of much of the same materials – imagery, special effects (light shows), illusion, trance – and both reach down below the conscious mind to the deeper, older, more visceral levels of ourselves. Both also cater to that adolescent appetite to be someone ‘special’, to stand out, to be noticed, to belong to the elite and to have an effect on the people around you.’

Above all, Crowley appealed to the pop-star’s desire to become a star, a god, an Illuminatus, one of the superhuman elite – while weak humanity bows down and worships them. You see this Crowley-ite idea in Bowie (see the lyrics for Oh You Pretty Things for example), and also in Jay-Z and Kanye West. Check out the slavish humans worshipping the god:

Lachman says: ‘The idea they’re selling is ‘we’re the special ones, and we’re going to be in charge of this new world order. And when you join the elite, you’re beyond good and evil, you get a lot of power, a lot of sex and fun.’  That’s the philosophy Kanye West and Jay-Z are selling – it’s Berlusconi with a drum beat.

Alas, Crowley’s ‘Do What You Wilt’ philosophy has become one of the ruling philosophies of our time – our culture is now one of ‘occult consumerism’, as Lachman puts it, in which adverts use symbols and incantations to urge us to ‘Just Do It’ – to follow every impulse, to feed every alter-ego, to yield to every temptation, and above all, to spend. Lachman writes: ‘Crowley was a kind of pre-echo of our own moral and spiritual vacuum. For better or worse, we do find ourselves in an antinomian world, beyond good and evil, in which practically anything goes.’

Be afraid of that trapdoor!

I have a very simple model of the human mind, similar to the one described by Coleridge in Kubla Khan. I’ve spared no expense with the graphics here:

Model of the mind.001At the top you have conscious processes, like a weak and flickering flame. Then you have less conscious or unconscious processes, like a mine of coal beneath that flame. Connecting the two is the Imagination, which runs like a mineshaft between the conscious and unconscious levels. Within the mine of the unconscious are treasures – insight, healing, wisdom, knowledge and power. However there are some monsters down there too.

You remember the cartoon show The Trap Door, from the 1980s? Well, the unconscious is a bit like that. As William James suggested, it may be a door not just to our archaic impulses, but also to the spirit world, to both good and bad spirits. So you need to be careful what you let through the trapdoor.

The arts, sex, drugs, magic and religion are all ways of ‘turning off the mind’, going beyond rational consciousness, opening the trapdoor and following the Imagination down into the dark, to try and find the treasure. But I think, in that perilous descent, it’s absolutely crucial what motive you have, and your moral ability to handle what you encounter without losing your shit.

Many artists and magicians make that descent for selfish motives – for money, sex and power. That’s very risky – it’s like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark trying to use the Ark for selfish reasons. You end up with a melted face.

mt-doom-2-frodo-2525951-400-300I’d say Tolkien had the best idea about how to mine the Imagination without awakening too many Balrogs. You need to go in with a small ego, like a hobbit, with a fellowship of people around you to guide you when you feel lost. And you need to be prepared to give away whatever treasure you find, rather than trying to hang on to it for your own power.

That’s the way to create great art, and it’s the way to live a meaningful life. Crowley’s ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ doesn’t end in happiness or power. It ends in emptiness, addiction, madness and self-destruction. It’s a lie – perhaps the oldest lie of all.

Roger Scruton: can high culture be a substitute for religion?

Last month I interviewed the philosopher Roger Scruton – the interview is on YouTube, above. If you want to download it as an MP3 just copy the URL and take it here.

The interview was inspired by this interesting article which Roger wrote for Aeon Magazine, in which he warned that modern culture was being submerged under a sea of fake emotions, fake culture and fake intellectuals. I read his book Modern Culture, and became interested in his idea of how high culture took the place of Christianity in the last two hundred years as an ethical guide and educator of our emotions.

Scruton suggests that, during the Enlightenment, as religion started to lose its central place in our society, art and literature took its place. They ‘ceased to be recreations, and became studies, devoted, as divinity had been devoted, to the nurturing and refining of the soul’. High culture gives us objects of beauty, the sublime contemplation of which lifts our souls from the transient and gives us intimations of the eternal. It gives our lives a sense of meaning (even if that meaning is tragic): ‘Our lives are transfigured in art, and redeemed of their arbitrariness, their contingency and littleness’. High culture transforms our raw emotions, particularly our feelings about love and death, giving what could be savage and destructive emotions a shape, a meaning, and a place in communal life.

Scruton also believes that high culture acts as a sort of cult. He follows Nietzsche in suggesting the root of culture is in cult, not just etymologically but psychologically. It provides an alternative sort of community for a society that has “out-lived its gods”. He writes:

A high culture is a tradition, in which objects made for aesthetic contemplation renew through their allusive power the experience of membership. Religion may wither and festivals decline without destroying high culture, which creates its own ‘imagined community’, and which offers, through the aesthetic experience, a ‘rite of passage’.

I wish someone had told me, as I sat in an Oxford tutorial picking over Virginia Woolf, that I was going through a cultic rite of passage. I would have felt a lot more heroic.

Barbarians at the gate
The problem, as Scruton and other cultural conservatives like Allan Bloom see it, is that at some point – probably around the 1960s – high culture lost its cultural authority, and instead our societies became submerged in a sea of crude barbarism (rock and roll, TV, Hollywood etc) which totally lacked the ability to educate our emotions and shape them to their highest form. Instead, the rise of popular culture has meant a 60-year rush to the lowest common denominator of emotion, intelligence and even audio frequency, culminating in the zombie sub-woofer of Skrillex or the face-stomping brutality of David Guetta (Scruton doesn’t exactly put it like that, but that’s pretty much what he means).

When we try to face the serious things in life (love, death), we either do so through a sort of violent fantasy that is really a form of wish fulfillment, in porn or war-porn, in which there is little education of the emotions. Or we create highly sentimental or kitsch art in which the higher emotions are ‘faked’.

Meanwhile, a generation of ‘fake intellectuals’ have undone high culture from the inside, by subverting traditional ideas of beauty, truth and justice and putting in their place a sort of irresponsible and ultimately meaningless wordplay that appeals to a certain sort of pretentious undergraduate (Scruton is no fan of post-1968 French intellectuals like Deleuze, Lacan and Derrida, as we discuss).

I suggest to him in our interview that things aren’t perhaps as bad as all that – the most popular commercial radio station in the UK is not Technobadger FM (despite my constant promotion of it) but Classics FM. And the modernist literature once confined to a small elite is now widely read at schools and universities. High culture has, if anything, become the province of the masses. But I just want, quickly, to explore his idea that high culture could be some kind of replacement for Christianity.

Why high culture is no substitute for religion

There are several problems with this idea, as I put to him in the interview. Firstly, it’s elitist. The best religions, including Christianity, work partly because they are inclusive both to the intellectuals and to the masses. They have esoteric philosophical ideas for the chin-strokers, and rousingly emotive hymns, rituals and festivals for the masses. The reason Stoicism or Neo-Platonism never took off in the Roman Empire was because they only offered theories for the elite, and nothing meatier and more emotional for the masses. So high culture fails to include the poorly educated, while Jesus was sublimely inclusive, hanging out with fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, shepherds and other social outcasts. What would Jesus make of Glyndebourne?

Secondly, as Scruton himself notes, in aesthetics, the focus is on the signifer (the work of art) rather than the signified (God, nature, the cosmos etc). So when Oscar Wilde says he admires the ritual of Catholicism, what he really means is he digs the incense, the costumes, the chanting, the candles. Religion becomes reduced to an aesthetic display, a show, a spectacle.

Thirdly, related to the last point, in high culture, the priest or prophet figure becomes replaced by the artist. We start to see, from the Enlightenment on, a profane veneration of the artist as sacred prophet – we start to get scenes of German women kneeling at the feet of The Master, Friedrich Wagner. The problem with this is your average artist is a very different kettle of fish to a priest. Artists may be inspired geniuses, but they are also often very bad human beings, who exploit everyone around them for the sake of their art. So it’s a pretty poor exchange to swap priests for artists. You end up with the worship of rock stars and thousands of groupies offering their bodies up for a night with their God. Priests may not be as glamorous or as good at publicity as rock stars, but the best of them are quietly devoted to the service of others rather than the glorification of self.

Fourthly, in high culture there is no necessary connection to good works, to charity, to washing the feet of your fellow humans. Instead, the goal is the aesthete’s delicious enjoyment of their own sentiments. It’s ultimately a rather subjective and selfish form of self-gratification, compared to the selfless humanitarian work that religion seems to inspire in some people (though clearly good works without a bit of selfish culture can be quite philistine – as Mathew Arnold argued in Culture and Anarchy. There’s a delicate balance between devotion to others and the cultivation of the self).

All alone

Finally, I don’t think the ‘imagined community’ of high culture is any substitute for the actual community of a church, an umaah or sangha. When you read, you read alone. When you go to a concert, you go alone or with a friend, you sit next to strangers, and you leave as strangers. Only in an ecstasy-fueled rave is there any sort of community to rival the close and loving community of genuine religious communities (and that only lasts three hours or so, while you’re up. Then you come down and creep into bed for two days and never see your new best mates again).

The lessons of Christianity for the Skeptic / atheist movement

I think it’s useful to think of these things with respect to atheism / skepticism too, particularly as atheists set up churches and imagine themselves as secular religions. I’m all for creating closer ethical communities, with or without God. But the fledgling ‘church of atheism’ has a long way to go. Firstly, we’ve noted that religion acts as an educator of the emotions. This is not the case with Skepticism. While Skeptics may pride themselves on being a ‘cognitive elite’, they often seem quite an emotionally-challenged community. This is particularly obvious in the Skeptic movement’s favourite art. Skeptics adore superhero, sci-fi and fantasy works, which typically glorify power and technical prowess, without any deep understanding of love, tragedy or mortality. That’s not always true (Lord of the Rings has a decent sense of tragedy) but it’s mainly true. Skeptic science may be rich, but the artistic culture beloved of Skepticism is emotionally flat and adolescent.

The fantasy culture beloved of many Skeptics is emotionally challenged

Secondly, Skeptic or atheist culture does not seem to me to be that inclusive. The tribe defines itself as the ‘cognitive elite’, as a tribe of ‘Brights’ or ‘geeks’. It is mainly a tribe of university-educated middle-class white males. One of the things that Christianity has which atheism has yet to have is, as Rowan Williams put it eloquently in his debate with Richard Dawkins last month, a “refusal to ignore those who are at the edge of their society”. Christianity, inspired by the example of the outcast Jesus and his outcast tribe, has a strong sense of mission to help the marginalised, the weak and the vulnerable. Of course one doesn’t have to be a Christian to have such a mission (think of George Orwell). But it seems to help. The Skeptic / atheist movement by contrast seems often to be a celebration of the congregation’s smartness compared to the ignorant masses.

A love for the weak and the marginalised may be the key to Christianity’s emotional education. I’m not sure that atheist / Skeptic communities allow people to share their own weakness and vulnerability, in a way that the best religious communities do, from Alpha to L’Arche to Alcoholics Anonymous. Religions ‘educate our emotions’ partly by allowing us to open up to one another and admit our shameful sense of weakness and vulnerability. Skeptics, by contrast, often seem to be in rigid suits of protective emotional armour, and to be far more comfortable with impersonal subjects like astronomy or IT. If they do express emotions, it’s either a geeky love of sci-fi / fantasy or highly vindictive attacks on their enemies.

This lack of emotional availability and vulnerability extends to the leaders of the Skeptic / atheist movement. Two comedians have set up an ‘atheist church’ in Islington. Well and good. But are they available to their congregation throughout the week, night and day, to offer them support? Alain de Botton says he wants to start up a Religion for Atheists. Fine and dandy. But I’ve given several classes at the School of Life, and I’ve never once seen him there. By contrast, Nicky Gumbel – who set up the Alpha Course – is at his church leading the course every single Wednesday, and serves his church every other day of the week too. He devotes the same amount of relentless energy serving his church as Alain de Botton does to pursuing book sales. I’m not criticising Alain for that – I am the same, only lazier and less successful. I’m just saying, that’s the difference between a writer and a priest, and between culture and religion.


In other news this week:

Here is a wonderful essay from Aeon by the philosopher Stephen Asma, on our emotional similarity with other mammals.

How to get more girls into science subjects at university? Perhaps by taking Psychology A-Level more seriously – girls make up 70% of the students for that subject, and typically get twice as good results as boys.

The LSE in London has a new exhibition looking at the relationship between fiction and philosophy.

A shocking piece in the New York Times on young people getting addicted to Adderall through ADHD prescriptions.

A piece from the BPS Digest warning that CBT self-help books might do more harm than good for some depressed people prone to rumination, if they just encourage more rumination.

Birkbeck is home to a wonderful interdisciplinary project on dreams and dreaming. Listen to the talks at a recent seminar here, including Robin Carhart-Harris (yes, the Imperial investigator into magic mushrooms and ecstasy, also known as The Man With The Best Job In London) talking about the neuroscience of dreaming.

And finally, this coming Tuesday I’m leading another evening session in the Philosophy For Life course at Queen Mary, in the Lock-Keeper’s Cottage from 6pm. This Tuesday we’re discussing the Stoics. It’s going to be great – come along.It’s free and open to everyone. Here is a photo from this Tuesday’s session.

See you next week,