New York City’s Cults drop their eponymous debut this week, but satanic worship and devious brainwashing are probably the last things you associate with saccharine indie-pop duo. Yet rock music’s had a history of inspiring theories around cultish behavior. Here’s five songs that have been dogged by nagging cult theories, but like Cults themselves, are pretty harmless.
1. The Beatles - “Helter Skelter” (1968)
One of the most raucous Beatles song recorded was actually inspired by an amusement park ride, but that didn’t stop cult leader Charles Manson from interpreting the song as a coded message about an upcoming race war. It was hardly the first Beatles song Manson had misconstrued to fit his worldview, but it tragically led to the brutal murders of Sharon Tate and others a year later.
2. Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven” (1971)
Zep was one of the earliest victims of the backmasking controversy that accused a slew of rock bands of inserting subliminal satanic messages into their songs. According to the Christian Assemblies International, playing parts of “Stairway” backwards yields, “I have got to live for Satan. Yes, to the Devil, don’t be afraid of the Devil, don’t be an idiot. I want the Lord to fall on his knees before the Devil.” If they are, in fact, correct, we’d be more bummed at Page and Plant’s inability to come up with anything better than “don’t be an idiot” than any raising of an underground netherworld army.
3. Blue Öyster Cult – “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” (1976)
While BOC guitarist and “Reaper” songwriter Donald Roeser has repeatedly said the iconic classic rock song is about eternal love, many have interpreted the song’s line “Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity” as a call for murder and suicide. Bottom line: If you have “cult” in your name and you write a song with “reaper” in the title, get the defense ready.
4. The Eagles – “Hotel California” (1976)
Somehow the Eagles became the Kings of Satan with this song about life in Los Angeles during the 1970s. Devil theorists suggest that the song pays homage to where the Satanic Bible was written or the Church of Satan is registered in California under the name “Hotel California.” Some music fans would probably argue the Eagles may be proof that Satan exists, but that’s got nothing to do with this song.
5. Slayer – “Hell Awaits” (1985)
Should you play the opening song of Slayer’s 1985 album backwards, the phrase “join us” repeats over and over for a full minute, leading thrash metal fans to believe there’s some specific directions on how to get a good cult going. But vocalist Tom Araya swears their hidden message was purely for effect and not an actual call for demonization.