The Manson cuts: tracing the infamous cult leader's rock star ambitions

At the time of the Manson Family murders, Charles Manson, who thought of himself as 'the fifth Beatle', was on the fringes of the Hollywood music scene hoping to make it big

04 August 2019 - 00:06 By Andrew Donaldson
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Manson's first album, 'Lie: The Love and Terror Cult' was released after his arrest in March 1970.
Manson's first album, 'Lie: The Love and Terror Cult' was released after his arrest in March 1970.
Image: Supplied

The new Quentin Tarantino movie Once Upon a Time...  in Hollywood, releasing in SA at the end of the month, is of particular interest to the film studies set.

It's said that it's another offering from a director whose work is driven by cultural nostalgia; the film clearly draws a line regarding an end of a "golden age" of film making.

Set in the summer of 1969, when the large studios were threatened by financial crises, its plot revolves around the grisly event often cited as the end of that era - the Manson Family killings of Sharon Tate and four others at the Los Angeles house at Benedict Canyon, north of Beverly Hills, that she shared with her film director husband Roman Polanski.

At the time of the killings, however, Charles Manson was a powerful and enigmatic cultural presence on the fringe of the Hollywood entertainment scene, not so much in the world of cinema, but in popular music. Charlie wanted to be a rock star.

The arrests of Manson and several Family members for the wave of murders in Los Angeles county prompted the rush-release, in March 1970, of Manson's first album, Lie: The Love and Terror Cult (Awareness Records).

The sleeve's artwork was crudely fashioned by removing the "F" from a December 1969 Life magazine cover story on Manson and his co-accused. (This was not the first time this had happened; in the late '60s, many of Life's cover stories on the war in Vietnam had been "effed out" in agit-prop graphic art.)

It's argued that Manson was a product of the US penal system - he'd been in and out of correctional institutions since he was a teenager - and much of Lie can be regarded as a response to a lifetime of alienation and ostracism.

Its songs, mostly mash-ups of slogans and ideas from an emerging counter-cultural iconoclasm, were bashed out on a guitar in a single day in September 1967 and the recordings promptly shelved.

A year later and, influenced by the Beatles' White Album, Manson returned to the project and overdubbed some female backing vocals, courtesy of various Family members, along with droning sitar.

He had always regarded himself as a "fifth Beatle" and, it was later claimed, would boast that the supposedly apocalyptic "messages" in the group's classic 1968 double album - the track Helter Skelter in particular - were addressed directly to him.

LISTEN | Charles Manson's track 'Look At Your Game, Girl'

Most of Lie is rubbish. The playing is appalling and the "songs" garbled, stream-of-consciousness ravings. Of the 2,000 copies printed, only 300 were initially sold.

That should have been the end of it but, with Manson sent down for life, the album picked up an odd half-life of its own and would be re-issued several times in the decades to come.

With their leader and several fellow members behind bars, the remnants of the Family also gathered to cut their own record, The Manson Family Sings the Songs of Charles Manson, which was self-produced and released as a bootleg in 1970.

In 1993, Lie and The Manson Family Sings the Songs of Charles Manson were re-issued as a double CD, Charles Manson (Grey Matter), in packaging that tastelessly copied the artwork of The Beatles.

Interest in the killings would later inspire a 1990 classical work, The Manson Family: An Opera, by the avant garde composer John Moran.

A devotee of Philip Glass, Moran argued they represented a cultural turning point.

"Until the murders," he claimed, "psychedelia had been associated with the idea of love. After Manson, and because of the way the media portrayed him, psychedelia became associated with flipping out and violence and fear."

Cults like Manson's, he added, were no mere fringe groups. "America is a cult," Moran said at the time of his opera's debut.

In 1993, Guns N' Roses controversially included a cover version of Lie's opening number, Look At Your Game Girl, as an untitled "hidden" track on their album The Spaghetti Incident?, a lame collection of cover versions of punk rock standards. At the time, Guns N' Roses were the biggest rock act in the world and their decision to cover the song was not a popular one.

One other "significant" album would be released in Manson's lifetime: Live at San Quentin (Grey Matter), a collection of songs and "improvisations" recorded in his prison cell on a cassette tape in 1983. It was released in 1993 and then re-issued, with a different sleeve, in 1996.

Both covers were a pastiche of the Beach Boys' 1966 classic Pet Sounds (Capitol), arguably the greatest pop album ever made. Live at San Quentin's artwork also featured a sickening montage of crime scene photographs and an old studio portrait of Sharon Tate.

The reference to the Beach Boys is noteworthy. It was the group's drummer and co-founder Dennis Wilson who first introduced Manson to LA's rock music community. He had picked up two of the Manson Family women who were hitchhiking and, through them, met Manson himself.

Both covers of 'Live at San Quentin' were a pastiche of the Beach Boys' 1966 classic 'Pet Sounds'.
Both covers of 'Live at San Quentin' were a pastiche of the Beach Boys' 1966 classic 'Pet Sounds'.
Image: Supplied
The album 'Live at San Quentin' was recorded in Charles Manson's prison cell on a cassette tape in 1983.
The album 'Live at San Quentin' was recorded in Charles Manson's prison cell on a cassette tape in 1983.
Image: Supplied

Wilson was initially fascinated by the cult leader, who he referred to as "the Wizard", and the two struck up a friendship as Manson and his following moved into Wilson's home, where they ran up considerable expenses on cars, clothes, food, and penicillin shots for their persistent gonorrhoea.

Wilson was impressed by Manson's musical ideas. "We're writing together now," the Beach Boy told Record Mirror in 1968.

"He's dumb, in some ways, but I accept his approach and have [learnt] from him." Manson, meanwhile, recorded a number of songs in Beach Boy Brian Wilson's studio. These remain unheard by the public.

The Beach Boys also recorded a Manson song, reworking his Cease to Exist, retitling it Never Learn Not To Love and using it on the B-side of their 1968 single Bluebirds Over the Mountain (Capitol).

LISTEN | The Beach Boy's 'Never Learn Not To Love'

LISTEN | Charles Manson's track 'Ceast to Exist'

The song was credited solely to Dennis Wilson, and an enraged Manson threatened to murder the Beach Boy. Wilson later claimed that Manson didn't want the credit but money instead, and he reportedly gave him "about a hundred thousand dollars' worth of stuff" in lieu of cash.

The friendship ended abruptly after that. Manson continued to call on Wilson, who refused to see him. Wilson did see Manson one last time, in August 1969, hours after the killings.

He dropped by Wilson's home to tell him he'd "just been to the moon". He demanded money, which Wilson gave him. He was arrested that November.

According to his biographer Mark Dillon, Wilson's subsequent spiral of self-destructive behaviour, particularly his prodigious drug intake, has been attributed to a fear of reprisal from members of Manson's Family and the guilt he felt for having introduced Manson to the Hollywood scene.

After an all-day drinking bender on December 28 1983, Wilson drowned after diving into the sea at Marina del Rey.

One other notable "Manson moment" on vinyl comes courtesy of Neil Young, one of the musicians Manson met through Wilson.

Revolution Blues, off Young's harrowing, sparsely produced 1974 album, On The Beach (Reprise), is a savage, nightmarish take on the Manson Family lifestyle and its mission.

"I see bloody fountains," Young sings, "and 10-million dune buggies comin' down the mountains. Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, but I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars ."

It is the 50th anniversary of the Manson murders on August 8 and 9 2019

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