Mark Pilkington (photograph by Etienne Gilfillan)

The inaugural event at the four-day Transmissions VI festival in Ravenna was a talk by Strange Attractor Press’ publisher, writer and editor Mark Pilkington entitled ‘From The Akashic Jukebox: A Pop History of British Magick: 1888 – 1980’.

The esoteric, historic theme of this address was fully in keeping with the Strange Attractor philosophy of seeking out neglected cultural and anthropological trends from the past and connecting them to the modern world.

The little I have read about Aleister Crowley, which I admit is not much, has led me to conclude that he was a bit of a dickhead. Pilkington did nothing to dispel this assumption, describing him as being more famous as a hell-raiser than as a thinker and saying that he was like the evil twin of his contemporary Robert Baden-Powell.

While Baden-Powell was promoting the wholesome, though borderline fascist, boy scout movement, Crowley dabbled in the black arts to the point that his own mother nicknamed him The Great Beast. He founded his Thelema ‘religion’ based on the (un)ethical code ‘Do what thy wilt’, an invitation to excessive self-indulgence if ever there was one.

The ‘K’ was used to signify that his brand of ‘magic’ had nothing in common with the Hogwarts variety. Pilkington observed that the K also stood for Kteis, the Greek word for vagina, which says a lot about what track Crowley’s mind was on.

Pilkington briefly outlined the lives of other British occultists like Gerald Gardner, the father of Wicca or modern Witchcraft, and the neglected artist Austin Osman Spare. His talk was delivered with the following soundtrack:

  • Alesiter Crowley recorded at HMV Oxford Street 1942 (From an album called The Great Beast Speaks).
  • Chakra – ‘Scarlet Woman’ 1976 – an obscure,and rather wonderful, 7″ single of  early psych-folk.
  • Graham Bond – Holy Magick 1970 – Pilkington described Bond somewhat generously as “the British Godfather of British R’n’B”.
  • Bulldog Breed – Austin Osman Spare 1969  – psychedelic ode to the artist.
  • Comus – Diana 1970  – dark beastly folk.
  • Alex Sanders – A Witch Is Born 1970  – a recording of an initiation rite into Wicca featuring the voice of the initiate herself, Janet Owen.
  • Black Widow – Sacrifice 1970  – a heavy metal band from Leicester who could have been as big as Black Sabbath but weren’t.
  • Throbbing Gristle – United 1978  – the least obscure of all the tracks and a more recent taste of England’s hidden reverse.

The fascination for Magick and the influence cults like The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had on British music is definitely a story worth telling. This influence  wasn’t confined to underground artists as illustrated by the fact that Crowley was one of the heads on The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album cover and a source for Jimmy Page’s occultist leanings.

Pilkington’s talk would, I feel, work better as an article than as a presentation due to his use such literary style references as “the thorny thicket of British magick”.

He could also have made the talk more entertaining by exposing the more farcical and eccentric aspects of the witchcraft movement as exemplified in the poster to the ‘shock horror’ documentary film Witchcraft ’70.

I was a little irritated by the fact that he kept speaking of the ‘progressive’ minds behind these ritualistic practices without qualifying the word. I personally don’t see anything progressive about Crowley and the cults he spawned.

The privileged and dysfunctional individuals were obviously drawn into this decadent world more by the promise of sex and drugs than because of any enlightened spirituality.

The fact that rock and roll was added to this unholy trilogy doesn’t add any credence to the perverted causes they espoused.