The Jonestown Recordings


The revolutionary and nightmarish audio recordings of the fanatical religious / political cult leader.

If you’ve watched the new BBC documentary Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle, you will have no doubt been intrigued by the relentless broadcasting by the megalomaniac religious leader Jim Jones as he issued instructions and increasingly mad slices of his Christian Socialist philosophy across his camp of effectively captive followers, pretty much all of which were captured on tape and included in small snippets throughout the two-part film, ending with the notorious ‘death tape’, the final recording as Jones encouraged his followers to kill their children and then themselves by cyanide poisoning – or by lethal injection at gunpoint for those who were understandably reluctant to take that final step as an act of ‘revolutionary suicide’ after the murder of US congressman Leo Ryan and several others.

The Jonestown recordings have inevitably been reused and sampled by filmmakers and bands over the years – less often the ‘death tape’ and more often the paranoid revolutionary rant:

“Love is the only weapon.” Shit! Bullshit! Martin Luther King died with love! Kennedy died talking about something he couldn’t even understand, some kind of generalized love, and he never even backed it up. He was shot down. Bullshit! “Love is the only weapon with which I’ve got to fight.” I’ve got a hell of a lot of weapons to fight! I’ve got my claws. I’ve got cutlasses. I’ve got guns. I’ve got dynamite. I’ve got a hell of a lot to fight! I’ll fight! I’ll fight!

The ‘death tape’ has proven too much for all but the most nihilistic of artists – Psychic TV used it as part of their First Transmission videotape, where it was almost light relief compared to some of the other content. It’s understandable that most would baulk at the idea of using it as entertainment in any way, but as a historical document, the recording is unquestionably significant. The clips in the documentary barely give a flavour of the horror involved – for that, you need to listen to the full 45-minute recording. It’s gruelling listening, and I’d advise even the most hardened of you to approach with caution – but as a study in collective insanity, manipulation and the dangers of unquestioning faith, it’s important and sobering.

These two recordings are the most infamous of the Jonestown recordings, but the FBI recovered almost one thousand tapes from 1978, leading up to the mass suicide / murder. They range from incoherent ramblings to mundane instructions to mad paranoia to musical performances. You can find them here, and if you have the stamina to wade through them – I haven’t – then you’ll probably get a flavour of what day-to-day life was like in that jungle settlement, though I doubt they’ll capture the sheer misery of living in a mud-soaked collective farm in the middle of nowhere.

There are additional curios to add to the Jonestown audio recordings. The Zoviet * France:track Collusion / Ram opens with an extract from a sermon by evangelist RW Schambach, in which – in true fire and brimstone preaching style – he talks of meeting Jim Jones’ attorney and how most of the Jonestown residents were “injected with a poison”. It’s fairly powerful stuff, and in the clip below is accompanied by challenging footage from the obscure experimental film Beauty.

There’s also the remarkable footage – which again, you’ll have seen snippets of – shot in the People’s Temple in Los Angeles on some unspecified date, which first emerged in the psychic phenomena documentary Unknown Powers. The footage – which has little to do with the main subject of the documentary – was clearly tacked on to the end of the film in order to cash in on the Jonestown headlines, but it’s pretty extraordinary, if only to show the remarkable charisma that Jones possessed – at least in the early 1970s – and the frightening way in which faith healing Christians operate. For all the condemnation of the way Jones manipulated his followers, the truth is that this footage is not that different from some of the hysteria, speaking in tongues and other supernatural mania that you’ll find in many an evangelical meeting even now.

We like to think that Jim Jones and the People’s Temple were at the fringes of religion, but the truth is that they were closer to the mainstream than we’d like to believe. Leaving aside the persuasive and genocidal leaders of religious extremist factions who can persuade entire armies of people to do the most unspeakable things, we also have our new secular cult icons who are treated with the sort of blind devotion once restricted to religious figures. Jim Jones was not exceptional, and his powers of persuasion and control were not that unusual. From Heaven’s Gate to Aum Shinrikyo to Islamic State to political movements on both sides of the divide, the actions of Jim Jones – who, lest we forget, was for a long time a respected progressive political activist just like some of those most adored and unquestioned today – seem less unthinkable and more comparatively small scale by the day.


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