Look At Your Game, Girl: The Musical Legacy Of Charles Manson

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Charles Manson – Madman, Messiah or Murderer? We can debate the truth behind the Manson mythos forever, but one ‘M’ can be definitively attached to his name – musician. Manson was a singer-songwriter who, in different circumstances, might have been mildly successful at the end of the 1960s – his songs are not terrible, at least in comparison with other folky hippy artists of the time, and his voice is pretty solid – listen to the famous recordings of Manson and the Family on the Lie LP and you might be surprised at just how good they are considering the poor quality of the recordings. Of course, things didn’t work out for Charlie as a recording artist, and it’s entirely possible that his resentment at this was one of the factors that sent him over the edge. And music was – if you believe the claims – fully integrated into Manson’s belief system via the Beatles’ White Album, which he allegedly interpreted as featuring hidden codes.

The aforementioned Lie – The Love and Terror Cult is the best known recording of Manson’s music. Originally released in 1970, it has been subsequently issued in versions of variable legal status – I guess it was hard for anyone to legitimately claim copyright on the material. With a cover and title lifted from the famous copy of Life magazine that featured Manson, the recordings were mostly from 1968, with a few tracks dated from the year before – Look at Your Game, Girl and Eyes of a Dreamer were taken from a privately pressed 45 that had been released under the name Silverhawk (and both are head and shoulders above the rest of tracks in terms of recording quality). The music is rather variable – the best tracks, like Look at Your Game, Girl, are rather excellent and oddly catchy, but others are more experimental and the recordings seem pretty chaotic – some tracks seem to cut out before the song has finished. It’s all interesting, and the weirder songs are arguable more evocative than the bluesy folk ballads.

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Released by Phil Kaufman under the Awareness Records imprint (unsurprisingly, no established record labels were going to touch this) in a 2000 run the came with a free poster, the album sold just 300 copies – in part because it struggled to get into shops and was initially distributed by bootleg label Trademark of Quality. But the album has had a long life, being reissued in 1987 officially and widely bootlegged before making it to CD in various versions, some of which include material from The Manson Family Sings the Songs of Charles Manson, a 1970 recording featuring the members of the Family still at liberty performing songs credited to Manson – these recordings were first made for the documentary film Manson, and then issued on LP. This record slipped into obscurity after the initial release, but in recent years a few different versions (including remastered and retitled versions) have been made available in Germany.

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You might have thought that Manson’s musical career would have been cut short by imprisonment, but that’s far from true. There are a whole bunch of Charles Manson albums that have been released, some featuring recordings from 1967 – when Manson’s musical ambitions were at their height, perhaps – and others showcasing newer material recorded, perhaps clandestinely,  in prison. The nature of the beast dictates that several recordings with different titles contain the same material, making Manson collecting a potential minefield of repetition.

I only have one of these albums – Son of Man appeared in the mail, unannounced, one day in 1992 with a note from ‘Warloch’ of Dearborn, Michigan asking for ad rates for my magazine Divinity – sadly, the note was so carefully packed within the sleeve, I didn’t actually see it for several years, and at the time the LP seemed to have come with no information whatsoever. Number 335 of 1000 (which then seemed a small run, but now seems massively ambitious), the album came with minimal information – no label name or other identifying materials were on the sleeve or labels, and Manson wasn’t even mentioned by name. There are two inserts featuring Manson poetry from 1979. The record itself features 19 minutes of poorly recorded music – you can hear the noise of the prison in the background throughout. Manson’s tunes are unidentified, and it all rolls into one long, rambling blues piece that is not unpleasant, if a little unfocused – it’s essentially someone jamming on songs for their own pleasure. The second side of the disc has Manson artwork etched into the blank vinyl. It’s a pretty impressive affair, all told and if Warloch reads this, I’m genuinely sorry that I didn’t get back in touch. I would’ve been interested in seeing what else he was coming up with.

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For those of you interested in exploring Manson’s recordings further, there’s a fairly thorough discography on his official website.

Manson’s music will now forever be shrouded in controversy, and inevitably, that’s going to attract other artists who have an interest in the dark side and social taboos – or who just want to shock. Covering a Manson song will always get you a reaction.

Of course, it might be a bit of a stretch to suggest that the Beach Boys had sensationalism in mind when they recorded one of Charlie’s songs – after all, he wasn’t notorious at the time. Manson and his followers hung around on the fringes of Los Angeles celebrity at a time when hippy cults – and, more specifically, the sexually available young women and the drugs that came with them – were welcome additions to the entourages of rock stars, and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys struck up a curious, if brief, friendship with Manson. Wilson was genuinely impressed by Manson’s raw musical talent, and arranged a recording session for him at Brian Wilson’s studio – these songs have never been released. The Beach Boys also took Manson’s song Cease to Exist and reworked it radically into Never Learn Not to Love, with the songwriting credited to Wilson alone after Manson was paid off with a motorcycle and a chunk of cash. Manson was not happy with the musical and lyrical changes, and frankly I can’t blame him – the song is pretty bad compared with Manson’s original.

Manson’s songs have been recorded by The Lemonheads, Rob Zombie, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, GG Allin, Red Kross, Sonic Boom and Devendra Banhart among others, often with little or no controversy – possibly because those recordings were under the radar of the perpetually offended or because, in the case of artists like Allin, were among the least offensive things that they have done. But a few versions have resulted in outrage.

Guns ‘N’ Roses were responsible for the most controversial cover, a respectful version of Look at Your Game, Girl, which appeared on their covers album The Spaghetti Incident?. Unfortunately for them, the approval of Manson fans was not the issue – as a major band on a major label, still at the height of their success, for them to record a Manson song was seen as outrageous. Axl Rose had previously worn Manson T-shirts on stage, and victim advocates, law enforcement officers and critics lined up to condemn their glamourisation of a murderer. This is despite the song being a hidden track on the album. Rose and guitarist Slash immediately back-peddled, instead of defending their freedom to record (and, indeed, admire) whoever the hell they wanted, and promised that future pressings of the album would have the track removed (either they lied, or they forgot – the song remains on all copies).

Marilyn Manson was a different kettle of fish entirely. he had, after all, taken his name from Manson (while his band all sported similar pop culture meets serial killer stage names) and was no stranger to controversy. Still, his acoustic cover of Sick City, recorded during the Holy Wood sessions, remains officially unreleased on record – it appeared instead on a Valentine’s Day 2000 podcast on Manson’s website. He did perform the song live at least once, the day after Charlie’s death. He also tweeted a link to his cover around the same time, prompting Kiss frontman Paul Stanley to respond “pathetic when somebody who’s (sic) career never really took off is desperate enough to try for publicity by connecting himself to the news of a murdering scumbag’s death”. Leaving aside the curious idea that Marilyn Manson’s career was a crashing failure, one has to wonder if Stanley had ever made the name connection between Charlie and Marilyn. Probably not.

Crispin Glover is also no stranger to controversy, and his version of Manson’s I’ll Never Say Never to Always – actually performed by the Manson girls both on the Lie album and in the courthouse while they were on trial – is suitably esoteric, provocative and unsettling. Oddly, despite being (in theory, at least) part of the Hollywood machine that Manson had so traumatised, his musical tribute came and went without anyone even noticing.

In 1993, Helter Skelter Records (of course) of Rome issued Comin’ Down Fast – A Gathering of Garbage, Lies and Reflections on Charles Manson as a ten inch picture disc that has the feel of a luxurious package – the disc features artwork by Raymond Petition, and comes with a twelve-page booklet that has interesting notes by Guido Cheese and incoherent ramblings by Mister Bizarro (published in both English and Italian). It’s a pretty cool looking item.

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Musically, it’s a very mixed affair – David Peel and the Lower East Side’s Hemp Hop Smoker is a rehash (with the emphasis on the hash) of the Beatles’ Helter Skelter, with new lyrics about smoking dope, and at 98 seconds it’s far too long. Motorpsycho rework the Grateful Dead’s Mason’s Children with the addition of an extra ‘n’ in the title, in the best song on side one. Meathead’s You Owe Me overstays its welcome while Jesus Fuck and Da Murderers get two tracks – one a disposable bit of punk, the other a Manson cover, Sick City, which is rendered worthless here – only a Pink Flamingos soundbite makes it of any value whatsoever. Starfuckers at least make a decent fist of Manson’s Mechanical Man, while flipping the disc over, Eugene Chadbourne’s How Can You Kill Me I’m Already Dead takes Manson’s court testimony and adds it to a suitably discordant slice of experimental noise. The two longest tracks are by Controlled Bleeding – a six minute piece of moodiness called Bound in Stone – and Skullflower, who offer up Spiderdrift as a nine minute instrumental that perhaps captures the delirium of the whole Manson saga more effectively than anything else on this record. These last two tracks salvage the project musically, though the chances are that you’d be buying this as much for the concept and the packaging as the sounds. At least, I was.

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Finally, we come to The Manson Family – An Opera, a project that originated in 1990 from composer John Moran, commissioned by the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, who possibly didn’t quite know what they were letting themselves in for. Unstaged at the time, the opera was eventually recorded and released on CD, produced by Phillip Glass and with Iggy Pop amongst the cast (not, it should be said, playing Manson). It met with the approval of Charlie, but few other people agreed. A terrified record label allegedly pulled it from sale, though copies are not that hard to find, and the live show has been staged in 2006 and 2014. As a record, it’s a curio more than anything – telling a free-form version of the Manson story that listeners would probably need to be familiar with to follow (it might work better on stage), it nevertheless has some interesting moments, including a solid recreation of Charlie’s courthouse testimony and a few impressively unsettling musical moments. I’m not a connoisseur of modern opera (or opera full stop, for that matter), so I’m probably not the person to comment on how effective it is as a piece of theatre, especially based solely on the recording – but it is a fascinating slice of Manson media.

Given the sensitive times we live in, where even a Jack the Ripper Museum can be attacked for not being respectful to the memory of victims, it’s unlikely that we’ll see anyone covering Manson or recording tribute albums anytime soon – if Ed Sheeran wants to prove us wrong though, go ahead (no, on second thoughts, don’t – nothing Charlie has done deserves that) – modern rock stars are too eager to express their Woke credentials and attack toxic masculinity to probe society’s taboos. More’s the pity – we really need someone to shake things up – to be the Devil, come to play the Devil’s music…

DAVID FLINT