Coven, blood oaths and the real story of how heavy metal was born

Demonic associations black-dogged rock’n’roll even before its inception; in the late 1920s, Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the mastery of blues guitar. The Rolling Stones turned up the heat with Their Satanic Majesties Request and Sympathy For The Devil in the late 60s, when occult-inspired entertainment was enjoying a boom in the permissive cultural atmosphere of the ‘Age of Aquarius’. 

It all culminated in the debut album by Chicago psych cult Coven, Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls. A thrillingly full-blooded watershed artefact, it was recorded between winter 1968 and spring 1969 at Illinois’ Universal Recording Corporation, where Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and many more blues and jazz legends cut some of their best work. It’s the first time we see devil horns and inverted crosses and hear the words ‘Hail Satan!’ in a rock context, the final track is a bizarre recording of an ‘actual’ black mass, plus the first song is titled Black Sabbath. Even spookier, the bassist’s name is Oz Osborne... 

Unlike Black Sabbath’s dense rumblings, Coven’s theatrical psychedelic rock was scarcely any kind of metal, but it flowed with a similar dark magnetism. Yet Coven’s occult leanings were not just shock gimmickry from the perspective of the curious outsider. The band’s extraordinary frontwoman, Jinx Dawson – only 18 years old when Coven entered the studio – has a Left Hand Path pedigree that’s second to none. 

“I had always been involved in the family Magick since I was a child, and it had always stormed around me like a warm friend,” says Jinx today. “I grew up quickly around the Olde Ones – my two great aunts who were Left Hand Path adepts. I stayed and learned at their mansion as much as I was allowed. I soaked it all up and it became a passion. Their Magick was infectious and powerful.” 

Asked if she can remember Coven’s first-ever song taking shape, Jinx’s reply reveals not just the keenness of her memory, but the sincerity of her occult commitments. “It was written during a ritual and manifestation that was performed after I decided to name the band Coven in 1966,” she explains. “There had to be a consummation of a blood oath that we took to release certain esoteric information through musick. That song was Wicked Woman.” 

One of the sharpest, catchiest songs on the debut – still a centrepiece of the revived Coven’s enthralling live show – Jinx’s Wicked Woman was followed by a clutch of astounding, feverish songs with the darkest and scariest titles yet conceived: Dignitaries Of Hell; Pact With Lucifer; Choke, Thirst, Die, to say nothing of Satanic Mass. “There was indeed an additional feeling of purpose and fate that circled the musick as it was written and played”, comments Jinx of the songwriting process. “The songs came so effortlessly.” 

Aside from West Coast psychedelia, it’s hard to imagine what other artists provided inspiration for Coven’s debut. “No one else was doing rock musick quite as we were,” Jinx reasons. “I was really more from an opera background, and studied classical piano. I was fairly unfamiliar with all the rock bands at that time, but became bewitched with the idea of performing an occult hard rock opera when I started Coven.”

In the occult-inspired LP credits, producer Bill Traut is dubbed ‘Ipsissimus’. It’s the highest mode of attainment in the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn – best known for its roster of society luminaries including poet W.B. Yeats and, most infamously of all, Aleister Crowley. Jinx credits Bill with playing a crucial part in Coven’s rise. “We probably never would have been allowed to make such an album in 1968 and ’69 without him,” she says. 

The pair had met when Jinx sang on a couple of local radio commercials he recorded. Coven themselves had spent the first two years of their career playing live, trying unsuccessfully to get a record deal. More than one label had shown interest, only to back away when the band’s lyrical themes became clear. 

“Though they always commented that the band was musically great, they lamented that we were ruining our music career by playing songs of such disgusting and unwanted subject matter”, says Jinx. “All the companies and even our musician friends said we would never get signed if we didn’t drop the witchcraft. But I refused.” 

Their break came when Bill asked Jinx to front a pop group he was producing. She told him she wasn’t interested – she was focused on her own band, Coven. “He nearly fell out of his chair at hearing that over the phone,” she says. 

Unknown to Jinx, Bill also shared an interest in the occult. “He never mentioned that he was into it, nor did I,” she says. “It was something a true practitioner did not talk about back then.” 

Not everyone was so comfortable with the band’s passionate convictions. Bill had added guitarist Jim Donlinger to the line-up shortly before work began on Witchcraft Destroys Minds.... The new recruit brought in some of the album’s darkest compositions, but he turned out to be fearful of committing to such a venture and
left the band before the album was even pressed. 

“He wanted his photograph removed from the cover of Witchcraft... and left the group just before the album printing,” notes Jinx. “So we obliged him, though he is still pictured on the gatefold inside. He was wary of the album content and was not a practising LHP as the three of us were, so only three remained on the cover.” 

The band may have made it into the studio against the odds, but there were still battles to be fought. As an 18-year-old woman, Jinx frequently found herself going toe-to-toe with male studio staff who were still locked into a different era. She still recalls her desire for a harder sound, and frustration with volume levels at the venerable old studio. 

“The engineers would never allow the board meters to spike into the red, which was a constant battle,” she says. “I even had to manually splice tape myself. They were not yet suited for rock’n’roll. I was the leader, though a young female leader, and I did not get my way on the mix. Our live concerts were much louder and more raucous. And we had spent much more than the recording budget so we were never allowed to put the guitar solo on White Witch Of Rose Hall.” 

Despite her reservations, Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls caused a minor impact when it was released in 1969 via Mercury Records, attracting the attention of those interested in exploring the furthest fringes of the late-60s counter-culture. Coven themselves would notch up a minor US hit in 1971 with the single One Tin Soldier, but it was their debut album that still exerted a powerful, if under-acknowledged influence on thousands of occult-fixated bands who followed them. 

“I realised what I had done around 1970 when the first wave came in over our footprints,” she says. “I knew that it would not stop. Now the occult is everywhere – in music, in fashion, on television, in movies, in art... deep in the culture. Now that it seems to have become a popular ‘thing’, I find it all very strange from my vantage point, as maybe it was meant to be all along. So mote it be...” 

For more information, visit Jinx's Facebook page.

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.