Charles Manson's Cultural Capital

The controversy surrounding Charles Manson is just as great - if not more - than when the crimes were committed fifty years ago. There’s an appeal for the so-called bad guys and true crime stories, and there’s always been the allure of facing the epitome of fear and evil. Then there’s the question: How was Manson able to convince others to commit one of the most heinous crimes in American history?

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We all know the story because it’s been a part of pop culture for so long - documentaries, fiction and nonfiction books, podcasts, made for TV movies, and even the new Quentin Tarantino movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood pulls from the Manson saga. As an aspiring songwriter and someone who dreamed of stardom, Manson assembled a group of drug-fueled followers called the “Manson Family” who brutally murdered the actress Sharon Tate - who was pregnant at the time - and eight others in 1969. Those murders brought an end to the peace and love of the Sixties and, instead, instilled fear in Los Angeles. Since the killing spree, Manson got what he wanted: fame and recognition.

With his face on the cover of Rolling Stone, Manson securely locked his place within rock and roll. According to prosecuting attorney on the Manson Murder trials, Vincent Bugliosi claims Manson believed that pop music sent him messages about the upcoming race war and The Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter” was the name of the war (the misspelled word was scrawled on the wall in the Tate household). Even before the wars, Manson was staying with Dennis Wilson, the drummer of The Beach Boys, as an attempt to break through the music business. Neil Young was also a supporter of Manson’s work, as was John Lennon.

Manson released two albums while incarcerated called “LIE” and “Live at San Quentin”, and whose songs have been covered by The Beach Boys, Guns N’ Roses, GG Allin, and Marilyn Manson, to name a few. Marilyn Manson, most notably, took his name from Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson, citing that it was a combination of both good and evil. His friend Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails took his obsession even further by purchasing the Manson Family murder home on 10050 Cielo Drive (which is now back up for sale) and turned it into a recording studio named Le Pig. Even after Reznor moved out, he took the door of the house to his new studio in New Orleans - the door which had famously had the word “PIG” scrawled across it in blood after the massacre.

But even before the 90s shock rockers, there was an interest in the cult of Manson. Throbbing Gristle was especially interested in the cultish aspect and the idea of Manson’s power over others. Genesis’ Psychic TV found their first hit from the song “Roman P” from 1994, about the director Roman Polanski who was Sharon Tate’s husband. It speaks about Polanski’s pedophilia charges and also about Tate: “Sharon walks alone as your wife / Sharon gives her life for a knife.”

Other artists that were inspired by Manson include the Ramones in their song “Glad to See You Go” from 1977: “Gonna smile, I’m gonna laugh I’m gonna give you a blood bath / And in a moment of passion get the glory like Charles Manson.” Ozzy Osbourne in 1988 wrote the song “Bloodbath in Paradise” with the lyrics: “The sweetest dreams are all in your mind / But no one sleeps when Charlie creeps behind.”

Industrial artists found Manson’s quotes as fodder for sampling and it’s no surprise that he is one of the highest sampled subjects in the history of the genre. Most famously, Skinny Puppy’s dance floor hit “Worlock” from 1990 used Manson singing “Helter Skelter” alongside the riff to the famous Beatles song. The music video for “Worlock” compiles some of the most terrifying scenes from horror movies, adding to the element of gruesome death.

But perhaps the very first industrial artist to sample Manson was the Coil side project Zos Kia with “Truth” in 1984. Cabaret Voltaire was also one of the first in their 1985 album The Covenant, The Sword, and The Arm of the Lord that used his speeches in between songs. Spahn Ranch - who took their band name from the primary residence of the Manson Family - also sampled Manson, as did Ministry, Front Line Assembly, Pigface, and Psychic TV.

Now, fifty years later, the Manson Family murders show no sign of losing its wonder and fascination with American (and worldwide) culture. This weekend Lethal Amounts presents “Charles Manson Exhibit - Once Upon a Time in ‘69” that showcases artifacts from the era as well as Manson ephemera.


By Andi Harriman

Additional resources:
https://theacidawakening.wordpress.com/tag/throbbing-gristle-and-charles-manson/
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/20/arts/charles-manson-pop-culture.html
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/nov/20/charles-manson-pop-culture-dark-obsession-guns-n-roses-mad-men