A guide to Charles Manson-related music ahead of ‘Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood’ opening
Charles Manson was a failed songwriter who, like thousands of other would-be rock stars of the era, moved west to chase his dream of becoming a successful musician. Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way.
That wasn’t for lack of effort. As he and his murderous followers tore through California from 1967 to ’69, the cult leader was not only working to foment an LSD-inspired race war but playing in bands, making demos and ingratiating himself with Los Angeles-based musicians, including the Beach Boys’ Dennis and Brian Wilson.
In Quentin Tarantino’s new film, “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” characters bump up against the Manson “family” of Charles and his followers and their legend. The film’s release is keenly timed to the 50th anniversary of the five-week series of murders that stunned Los Angeles.
After Manson’s arrest and conviction, his sinister charisma became synonymous with evil, and a generation of taboo-busting punk bands — and then rappers — drew meaning from his words, music and myth. Below, a semi-chronological annotated playlist of Manson-related music.
Grateful Dead, “Viola Lee Blues”
“The night I dropped my first tab, the Grateful Dead was playing at the Avalon Ballroom,” Manson recalled, referring to the San Francisco venue, in “Manson in His Own Words,” a book that compiled his jailhouse interviews.
He added of the 1967 concert: “Even without the acid, the performance would have blown my mind. All the strobe lights blinking and flashing in a variety of colors.” Manson remembered the music creating “a frenzy in the listeners and dancers. Before I actually realized what I was doing I was out there on the floor innovating to the beat of the Grateful Dead.”
Which song was Manson “innovating” to? He doesn’t say, but if he stayed for the whole set, he likely danced to “Viola Lee Blues,” a staple of their live shows of the time.
Charles Manson, “Cease to Exist”
After busking in San Francisco during the Summer of Love and settling in Los Angeles at the end of the season, Manson hit up a music business contact he’d gotten from a former prison inmate. Soon Manson was recording demos around Hollywood during three different sessions across the fall of 1967 and into ’68. The recordings didn’t see release until after he and his followers were arrested.
“Cease to Exist” is a love song about submission written as only a narcissist could. Taken from the 1970 album “Lie: The Love and Terror Cult,” the song, like most of the album’s 13 other works, was recorded at the former Gold Star Studios near the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vine Street — where artists including Bob Dylan, the Go-Go’s and Chet Baker recorded and where Phil Spector crafted his so-called Wall of Sound. Manson traded the rights to the song to Dennis Wilson for a motorcycle and some cash. The Beach Boys recorded a renamed version of it in 1968.
Longtime public relations executive and author Gary Stromberg recorded one of the sessions. Then working for Universal, Stromberg said that Manson auditioned for the in-house Uni label’s then-head, Russ Regan, who financed a demo. Recalls Stromberg, “We went to Gold Star Studios and recorded ‘Garbage Dump,’ ‘Sick City’ and ‘Look at Your Game, Girl’ during a drug-filled session with Charlie and his girls.”
Though the best known of his musical work, “Lie ...” is hardly Manson’s only album. After his conviction, the killer issued a number of jailhouse recordings, many released in limited editions. In the mid-1980s, former Black Flag singer Henry Rollins produced an entire album in collaboration with Manson. Slated to be released by SST Records, the record was shelved and has never come out. According to Rollins, only five copies were pressed.
Beatles, “Piggies” and “Helter Skelter”
When it was released in 1968, the Beatles’ wild two-LP “White Album” stumped a lot of people. Not Manson, though. On the contrary, its meaning was crystal clear: The Beatles were communicating to him and laying out the blueprint for his violent initiative.
He called the pending actions “Helter Skelter” after the Beatles song and had his minions write the phrase in blood at a crime scene. Ditto the George Harrison-penned “Piggies.” At the location of music teacher Gary Hinman’s death, the murderer painted “political piggy” in blood on a wall, according to the book “The Family,” in an apparent reference to the Beatles song.
Dennis Wilson, “Album Tag Song”
One day in the spring of 1968, Dennis Wilson picked up two women hitchhiking on Sunset Boulevard. That was his first mistake. Patricia Krenwinkel and Ella Bailey were members of the Manson family. Soon they were partying at Wilson’s house on Sunset in Pacific Palisades.
Mistake No. 2 occurred after Wilson left the two at his house while he went to a studio session. Upon return, nearly two dozen Manson family members, mostly women, greeted him. Manson was there too. He and the family would end up leeching off the Beach Boy for many months, costing Wilson thousands of dollars and irreparably damaging his reputation. Wilson, who struggled with alcoholism and addiction until his death in 1983, survived long enough to release one classic, if lesser-known, solo album, “Pacific Ocean Blue.”
Paul Revere & the Raiders, “Good Thing”
One of the music producers who took an interest in Manson’s music was Terry Melcher, who helped define the California sound of 1960s through his production on the Byrds’ first two albums. He was also Doris Day’s son.
Melcher met Manson at Dennis Wilson’s house, and Manson spent much energy trying to convince the producer, who’d also earned success with Paul Revere & the Raiders, to back his musical ambitions. Melcher declined and Manson was livid. Less than a year later, members of the Manson family killed Sharon Tate and three others at a Benedict Canyon residence formerly occupied by Melcher.
“Good Thing,” co-written and produced by Melcher, is one of a number of Paul Revere tracks on the “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” soundtrack.
Beach Boys, “Never Learn Not to Love (Cease to Exist)”
Manson’s biggest run at success came when the Beach Boys released “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” as a 45 rpm single. For the B side, the band recorded (and renamed) Manson’s “Cease to Exist.” The cult leader had managed to get the once family-friendly surf group to sing the lyrics “cease to resist” and “submission is a gift, give it to your lover.” The Beach Boys’ label, Brother Records, nearly signed Manson to a recording contract — but Brian Wilson vetoed the deal.
The Mamas and the Papas, “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)”
One song that will likely earn a boost from its use in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” is this John Phillips-penned ode to the westward migration of hippies. Within a year of its release, Manson would be hanging with the Hollywood Hills hippies, attending parties with the Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips and Cass Elliot, and spending time with Neil Young.
In his autobiography, Phillips claimed to have escaped death on the night of the Tate murders; he’d been invited to the Benedict Canyon house but never made it over. Before Manson’s arrest, Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, at one point even accused Phillips of being behind the murders.
The Fugs,"Carpe Diem”
After Manson and family were arrested in mid-October, the story became national news, and over the next few years the killers became household names. Writer Ed Sanders was among the many to chronicle the trial and back story. Best known as the co-founder of New York proto-punk band the Fugs, the respected poet penned a thick tome called “The Family.”
With a writing voice that expressed a combination of shock, just-the-facts reportage and humor — including recurrent use of the phrase “oo-ee-oo” to express the story’s crazed weirdness — Sanders’ book became a bestseller. The Fugs’ “Carpe Diem” was written before the murders but captures the essence of those dark times.
Manson Family Singers, “Look at Your Love”
Just because Manson and some of his followers were convicted doesn’t mean the dozens of other family members toned it down. Those not involved in the deaths stuck together on the outside, and in the early ‘70s eight of them combined in the studio to record as the Manson Family Singers.
Consisting of Manson-penned songs including “Love’s Death,” “I’ll Never Say Never to Always” and “I’m Scratchin’ Peace Symbols on Your Tombstone,” the super-creepy record stars Manson minions including Steve Grogan, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Sandra Good and Ruth Ann Moorehouse.
Redd Kross, “Cease to Exist”
The first Los Angeles punk band to touch on Manson was formed by two teenage brothers. At the time called Red Cross, Jeff and Steven McDonald’s band covered “Cease to Exist” on its 1982 debut album, “Born Innocent.” A pop culture-obsessed work that referenced actresses Linda Blair and Tatum O’Neil, rocker Lita Ford and the B-movie classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” it features a distorted take on Manson’s unsettling song.
Jeff told MTV in 2012: “We used to just tell our parents we were into Charles Manson just to drive them crazy. Then we’d have to say we were joking. They were furious we were on the cover of Flipside magazine in our garage and we were holding this picture of Charles Manson with the word ‘Lie’ on it. We were laughing. They were not happy.” He added that the band dropped it from their set lists, “but we’re associated with it, which is kind of a bummer.”
Sonic Youth, “Death Valley ’69"
The New York noise-rock band’s 1985 LP “Bad Moon Rising” is a kinda-sorta concept album about Manson, and “Death Valley ’69" homes in on the months the Manson family spent in a remote part of California between Bakersfield and Las Vegas. Lyrically, the song nods to a killing involving Susan “Sadie” Atkins, who was among those convicted in the Tate murders. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon became so obsessed with the Manson clan that they named their household pets after Manson family members. Oo-ee-oo.
Guns N’ Roses, “Look at Your Game, Girl”
At the peak of their fame, Guns N’ Roses sneaked Manson’s musical critique of a girl’s shortcomings onto 1993 all-covers album “The Spaghetti Incident?” Alongside songs by the Misfits, the Damned, the Stooges and more, “Look at Your Game, Girl” appeared as an unlisted bonus track. A controversial move at the time, its appearance on the multiplatinum album did have an upside: After successfully suing Manson, the son of victim Voytek Frykowski was awarded publishing royalties for Manson’s musical work. Within a few years he’d earned $75,000 from the Guns N’ Roses version. (The song starts at 2:21 of the clip above.)
N.W.A, “Straight Outta Compton”
Founding N.W.A member Ice Cube was born the summer of the Manson family killings. By the time he was a teen, the crimes had seeped into the city’s subconscious. The title track to the Compton quartet’s 1988 album opens with Ice Cube describing himself as “a crazy ...” who would have liked nothing more than to kill his enemies and “mix them and cook them in a pot like gumbo.” One measure of his danger? “A crime record like Charles Manson.”
Across the decades, dozens of lyricists have used Manson as a metaphor for menace. Eminem describes himself as “part Manson, part Hannibal, part mechanical shark” in a freestyle verse, one of a number of Eminem’s uses of the cult leader’s character. On “Trap House,” Lil Wayne boasts of having “bitches that’ll kill for me — Charles Manson.” Last year the rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again opened the first verse of his track “Diamond Teeth Samurai” by depicting "[a] whole lotta killing, Helter Skelter like I’m Charles Manson.”
Marilyn Manson, “Kill for Me”
When the artist born Brian Warner decided his given name wasn’t shocking enough, he opted to create the persona Marilyn Manson as, in his words, “a commentary on the creation of celebrity.” He added that American culture “put[s] them on the same level: Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Life magazine, Charles Manson on the cover of Life magazine.”
10:35 AM, Jul. 25, 2019: This story was updated to add a new quote from Gary Stromberg, who produced some Charles Manson recordings prior to Manson’s 1969 arrest.
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