CHARLIE DON’T SURF…
Alright, alright. Fair warning: if you’re here for a run down of why Pet Sounds is a near-perfect slice of orchestral, experimental pop that changed the course of music, then you’re in the wrong place. Sorry about that.
Instead, I’m going to talk about one of the most infamous serial killers the world has ever known.
Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood is the latest film by Quentin Tarantino. If you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t spoil anything central to the plot, other than details already revealed in trailers. Or rather, just one detail: though ostensibly focusing on aging proto-action hero Rick Dalton and stuntman Cliff Booth, the film is haunted by the lurking spectre of the Manson family murders.
I saw the film with my partner, Nicki, and when we got out, she had some questions. Once Upon a Time… doesn’t spend much time lingering on explanations or context, assuming that you already know the grizzly facts at hand. And that’s fine if you’re a miserable ghoul like me, who likes their stories dark, their music sad, and their crime… er… true. But if you’re a significantly better person and you’d rather spend your time thinking about nice things, you may not know the fate of Sharon Tate and Charles Manson’s cult.
So when Manson shows up at the house on Cielo Drive roughly half-way through the film, he’s not even named. In a throwaway line, he states his reason for being there as looking for the previous residents of the house: producer and mogul Terry Melcher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson.
It’s easily missed, but that’s a central biographical fact in the story of Charles Manson, even attributed by some as a trigger for his slide into murderous insanity. Before crowning himself leader of the Manson Family cult, he was a mediocre musician trying to make it in showbusiness. His greatest success was selling a song he had written, Cease To Exist, to one of the biggest bands around.
You guessed it: The Beach Boys.
In a chance encounter which has echoes in Tarantino’s film, Dennis Wilson picked up two hitchhikers on his way home from a recording session. They turned out to be members of the now infamous Manson Family, and Charles Manson showed up at Wilson’s door the next day. They struck up an unsavoury friendship, with Manson bringing the young women of his cult to live at Wilson’s house in exchange for money. Dennis Wilson became convinced of Manson’s musical promise, paying for studio time and presenting Cease To Exist to his bandmates.
Brian Wilson re-composed Manson’s song, changing the title to Never Learn Not to Love. Manson did not get a writing credit on the album 20/20 where it appeared, and, when it was released as the B-side to Bluebirds Over the Mountain in December 1968, the single flopped, only reaching #61 on the US Billboard singles chart.
Tarantino loves to revise history in his films, presenting a kind of alternate timeline (cf. Inglorious Basterds), so it’s interesting to take a Tarantino-meets-Alan-Bennett-esque “subjunctive history” angle and wonder if, had the song been a hit, Manson could have joined the Beach Boys? Well, in real-life, that’s not how things played out. According to Ed Sanders’ book The Family, Manson was incensed when he learned that the lyrics had been changed, threatening Brian Wilson by handing him a bullet and saying “Every time you look at it, I want you to think how nice it is your kids are still safe.” Dennis Wilson sided with his brother, and his relationship with Manson quickly fell apart.
Just a year later, Charles Manson found the fame he had always sought. But not as a musician.
Or at least, not mainly.
It’s a macabre fact that infamy is big business.
When I was first thinking about writing this piece, I searched for Manson’s music on Spotify. The platform has made a pretty big song and dance recently about removing music by problematic figures like R Kelly from its official playlists, but has stopped short of actually removing their music altogether. So, more out of curiosity than anything else, I typed Charles Manson in the search bar: no results for artists. Well, good.
But that relief didn’t last long: under playlists, the top result: Charles Manson Discography. And there it all was. Hours and hours of recordings. I clicked through to his artist page.
52,607 monthly listeners.
Look, I’m not squeamish. I don’t necessarily believe there’s any topic which is off-limits to be explored in art. Murder ballads stretch back as far as our collective musical memory to ancient folk songs. Victorian poet Robert Browning wrote a whole compilation from the perspectives of various killers. Even the Bible depicts Cain slaying Abel, billed as the first ever murder.
And there’s a whole industry that sprang up around Manson, fuelled by his apparent charisma, the cultural backdrop of 60’s hippie Hollywood (including the exploitation of scantily clad young women, no doubt), and the high-profile nature of his crimes and victims. Countless books have been written, and a handful of films made, most of them much more exploitative than Once Upon A Time in… Hollywood. Thousands of newspaper and magazine column inches. TV interviews and shows like Netflix’s Mindhunter. And someone makes money from it all.
But there is a distinction that should be drawn between art about Manson, and his own attempts at art. And this is precisely because music played such a central role in his brainwashing of the young cult members who would later go out and kill on his instruction. He convinced them that the Beatles’ White Album was a direct appeal to him, and that the song Helter Skelter was a cryptic instruction to begin a race war. His own music was one of the tools he used to indoctrinate them, and some of the members of the Manson family appear as backing vocalists on these tracks. Later in his life, he had a swastika tattooed on his forehead.
So what’s the purpose of making this music available? Sure, it’s a historical artifact, but Spotify isn’t a library or museum. There’s no information to contextualise the music – it’s listed like any other artist’s album: save for the half-hearted lack of promotion, It could be a Taylor Swift record.
And, it should be stated again: the music isn’t good. 52,000 people aren’t tuning in every month because they want to tap their toes along to the catchy melodies. There’s no real merit to any of it, other than morbid fascination.
Lie: The Love and Terror Cult was released by Phil Kaufman in 1970, after Manson’s arrest and incarceration. According to this recent Stereogum piece, he refuses to respond when asked why he chose to commercialise the record.
On Spotify, the record is listed as being licensed by ESP Disk in 1973. Having investigated the label’s extensive catalogue, it appears they focus on obscure records from mainly underground artists. They’ve put out lesser known recordings by jazz greats like Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and Billie Holiday, so it’s a real label, putting out real music.
According to their website: “Because his songs were considered musically and historically significant, this record was released briefly by ESP in 1974. For many years, all royalties were paid to the son of one of the victims to fulfill a judgment against Manson.”
Hmm, OK. But the phrase “for many years” is doing quite a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. There are multiple different format options for buying the record from them. I sent them an email asking whether they make any money from streams of Charles Manson’s music on digital platforms, but haven’t yet had a response. I don’t really expect one, either.
So what’s my point? I don’t really know. The whole thing just feels very distasteful. Manson’s dead, but by all accounts he would have been delighted that his music was listened to by so many. So, even if you’re interested: don’t go seeking out Manson’s music. Listen to the Beach Boys instead. Or, if you want something a little darker, there’s a playlist here full of songs about murderers by people who haven’t inspired any death cults.
Murder music, with some Beach Boys interspersed to lighten the mood.