Best Of '99: From Beatles To Manson, Rock Blamed For Society's Ills

Long before Colorado high-school massacre, musicians have been linked to murders and suicides.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Monday, May 17.]

(Editor's Note: Click here

for a chronology of rock's history of blame.)

Throughout history, some have viewed rock as an evil that pervades society or a potentially dangerous enemy that needs censorship.

Others say it has become a scapegoat — a simple way to explain human events so horrible they cannot easily be comprehended.

From Charles Manson's blaming the Beatles' music for his horrific murder spree to today's politicians' finger-pointing at shock rocker Marilyn Manson in the wake of a high-school massacre, rock has a long history of alleged links to suicides and murders.

For as long as rock has existed as the music of youthful rebellion, it has stirred a measure of fear and controversy in society.

"Every instance [of rock's being blamed as a catalyst for ill] has been

an inability of adults to deal with adolescence," Nina Crowley, director

of the anti-censorship organization Mass Mic, said. "The impetus for

this has been to protect the children ... Right along, it's been this

fear of the power of the adolescent."

In 1969, infamous serial killer Charles Manson ordered the murders of seven people, including actress Sharon Tate. When asked to explain himself, he cited, among other things, the Beatles song "Helter Skelter"

(RealAudio

excerpt), which, Manson said, prophesied a coming race war.

In 1985, 18-year-old Raymond Belknap of Reno, Nev., killed himself in a church playground. Why? Because, his parents claimed, the heavy-metal band Judas Priest said "do it" in the song "Better by You, Better Than Me."

A month ago, two teenagers who reportedly were fans of Marilyn Manson, KMFDM and Rammstein allegedly stormed their high school in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 classmates, a teacher and themselves.

Once again, rock music is shouldering at least some of the blame. And politicians and social critics are squaring off against musicians and record companies in a battle that dates back to the 1950s.

"Those f---ing kids did what they wanted to do," said rapper Snoop Dogg (born Calvin Broadus), whose album Doggystyle was excoriated by the likes of pop singer Dionne Warwick and activist C. Delores Tucker during 1994 Congressional hearings on the messages in gangsta rap. "It didn't have nothing to do with no motherf---in' music. Music didn't pick up no gun. It didn't load the guns up. You can't fault the music for that."

But politicians and history tell a different story.

Since the Columbine High School case, rock and other forms of entertainment have been targeted by President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Dan Quayle and 10 U.S. Senators who wrote to Edgar Bronfman Jr., the chief executive officer of Seagrams, which distributes Marilyn Manson's music. In the letter, they argued that Manson was a potentially dangerous influence.

"As you may know," said the letter, initiated by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., "several news reports have indicated that the young killers often quoted and mimicked one of your artists, Marilyn Manson — as did the young murderers in several other student rampages that occurred last year."

It was far from the first time an argument like that has been made against a rock artist.

From Elvis Presley's gyrating hips — which famed TV personality Ed Sullivan refused to show on the tube in 1956 — to the Rolling Stones' swaggering personas and the dark lyrics of Ozzy Osbourne and Tupac Shakur, pop musicians have riled polite society. Every so often, society tries to fight back.

The family of suicide victim Belknap sued Judas Priest over the alleged inclusion of the subliminal message "do it" in the 1978 song "Better by You, Better Than Me," which the family said inspired the teen to kill himself. A judge ruled in Judas Priest's favor in 1990, but Kenneth McKenna, the family's lawyer, said the case changed the way people in the U.S. think about music.

"There seems to be a lot more credence or willingness now to accept the idea that violence's portrayal in media has a positive connection to acting out," McKenna said.

But anti-censorship activist Crowley contended that little has changed besides the amount of media attention such cases are getting.

The family of another suicide victim — 19-year-old John McCollum, who took his life on Oct. 27, 1984 — sued another prominent heavy metaller. McCollum was found in his bedroom with a pair of headphones on his head and Ozzy Osbourne's

"Suicide Solution" (RealAudio

excerpt) playing on a turntable.

Lawyer Thomas Anderson, who pursued the family's suit against Osbourne, said he ordered an analysis of the song and found the words "Get the gun/ Get the gun/ Shoot/ Shoot/ Shoot/ Shoot/ Shoot/ Get the gun" hidden within the driving beat.

"It's a felony to assist another person in committing suicide," Anderson said, reflecting on the case. "I admit my young man had psychological problems, but [there's a] sense in me that says this music contributed in sowing the seeds of tragedy."

The lawyer claimed the parents of 16 other people who had committed suicide told him their children, too, had listened to "Suicide Solution" before killing themselves. Osbourne contended the song was a tribute to the late AC/DC singer Bon Scott. But Anderson responded, "Bon Scott's name was never mentioned [in the song]."

The case was thrown out in 1986. A judge ruled that even if the tune contained subliminal messages, it was constitutionally protected free speech because Osbourne did not personally incite McCollum to pull the trigger.

The music of the '60s pop legends the Beatles and late rapper Tupac Shakur has been blamed in notorious murder cases.

"Pig" and "Helter Skelter" were among the messages Charles Manson's followers scrawled in blood at two scenes where they brutally murdered seven people. The words were allegedly derived from songs on The Beatles (better known as The White Album), a record that Manson said was an inspiration for the killings, according to famed prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's account in his 1974 book "Helter Skelter."

Nearly a quarter-century later, in 1992, Ronald Ray Howard shot and killed Texas state trooper David Patterson in the town of Corpus Christi, Texas. Howard's defense lawyers said he was at least partly driven to it by "Trapped," a song from Shakur's 2Pacalypse Now, which he was listening to moments before the murder; Vice President Quayle publicly condemned Shakur's music. Howard was convicted and sentenced to death.

After last month's high-school shootings, both the House and Senate held hearings on violence in music, movies and other media, and the president held a summit meeting on the subject.

Politicians have staged similar hearings throughout rock history.

"I think [the controversy] helped me sell records; I want to thank them for that," rapper Snoop Dogg said.

"I really want to thank them for keeping my name in the public and constantly talking about me and making me look good, because I'm not what you portray me," Snoop said. Witnesses at the congressional hearings testified that gangsta rap promoted violence and misogyny.

Inquiries into musicians' lyrics haven't been so beneficial to all the targeted artists.

"Basically, to this day, I'm not able to play in major venues, to do concerts where most rap artists or any artists, period, that have established pretty much what I established to this point [can play]," said Luther Campbell, the ex-leader of 2 Live Crew, who were arrested on obscenity charges for performing such songs as

"Me So Horny" (RealAudio

excerpt) during a club show in Broward County (Fla.) in 1990.

"We haven't been able to receive our just due as ... individuals that pretty much stood up for our rights," said Campbell, whose band was cleared of the charges.

The Parents' Music Resource Center, co-founded by Tipper Gore, wife of current Vice President Al Gore, played a major role in the 1985 Senate hearings on obscenity in music. Barbara Wyatt, now the organization's president, said record labels still have not absorbed the point of the hearings.

"When you see the proliferation of the Marilyn Mansons out there ... it

doesn't surprise me at all," Wyatt said. "Rock 'n' roll executives speak

of rebellion. But there's a limit to where you can go."

In one of the recent governmental sessions on the topic, a May 4 Senate hearing, former Secretary of Education William Bennett called for a "public shaming" of entertainment executives and declared, "We've had enough."

Some musicians said they've had enough, too — of being blamed.

Not least among them is one of today's most controversial performers, shock rocker Marilyn Manson.

"The media has unfairly scapegoated the music industry and so-called goth kids and has speculated — with no basis in truth — that artists like myself are in some way to blame," Manson said in a statement on his website after the Colorado incident. "This tragedy was a product of ignorance, hatred and an access to guns."