Kenneth Anger: No rest for the wicked

Kenneth Anger, underground film-maker, occult devotee and all-round evangelist of the weird, has been a key countercultural figure since the 1960s. Now, says Phil Johnson, UK bands are paying tribute to his influence
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The Independent Culture

When they come to write the great scholarly history of the pop video, a sizeable early chapter should by rights be devoted to the influence of Kenneth Anger, the American underground film-maker, author of Hollywood Babylon, and magician. In Anger's pioneering work, especially the celebrated Scorpio Rising of 1963, one finds an aesthetic for cutting images in sync to pop music that, with relatively little amendment, has since become the template for countless MTV promos. As Anger's art is linked to that of Jean Cocteau, and through Cocteau to the whole Romantic tradition of European thought, you'd think MTV would be flattered to acknowledge its illustrious forebear, or at least bung him the budget for a new short.

But Anger hasn't completed a film for 30 years, and while this may be due to a variety of reasons, lack of money is the most obvious. Now, however, pop culture – if not MTV itself – is coming to the rescue. A series of tribute gigs that is set to run throughout 2002 begins in Bristol next Thursday night, when Lupine Howl (a group comprising the famously sacked band-members of Spiritualized) headline "The Gnostic Bash: A Tribute to Kenneth Anger". Proceeds will go towards the costs of two projects: Anger's long- cherished ambition to make a film of Aleister Crowley's Gnostic Mass, and documentary film-maker Jon Ausbrooks' work in progress about Anger, Inside the Eye of Scorpio Rising. Lupine Howl are also in negotiation with Anger about the possibility of him directing a pop video of one of their songs.

The tribute programme actually started on Hallowe'en this year, when Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle was shown at Anthology Film Archives in New York, to the accompaniment of live music from John Zorn and others. Thursday's Bristol event is more ambitious: a partial recreation of Anger's own Equinox of the Gods, held at the Straight Theatre in San Francisco on the autumn equinox of 1967, when Bobby Beausoleil (who was later imprisoned for life for the Manson Family-related murder of Gary Hinman) led a band called The Magick Powerhouse of Oz. That Beausoleil had previously been a guitarist in Love, the Los Angeles psychedelic-era group, is just one of many Anger-intersections with the world of rock'n'roll.

Most celebrated is Anger's involvement with the Rolling Stones, whom he met while in "exile" in London shortly after the Equinox of the Gods event, when 1,500 feet of Lucifer Rising – his work in progress of the time – was stolen, leading to an emotional crisis that culminated in Anger announcing his own death in the pages of the Village Voice before fleeing to the UK. Shortly afterwards, Mick Jagger (whose song "Sympathy for the Devil" Anger at least partly inspired), created a soundtrack of Moog synthesiser pulses forAnger's Invocation of My Demon Brother. It is thought that Jagger obtained a prototype of the Moog, which had not yet been launched, from the music producer Jack Nitzsche, who was working on Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's film Performance (1970), in which Jagger starred.

Donald Cammell had his own Aleister Crowley connection, as his father had written a book about the magus's poetry. The making of Performance thus represents the high watermark of satanic influence in English pop culture. Jagger's consort Marianne Faithfull also co-starred in a re-working of Lucifer Rising (Cammell was cast as Osiris), which was being filmed at the same time as Performance. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin – another Crowley devotee, whom Anger met at an auction of Crowley's books, when Page outbid him – was commissioned to write the soundtrack, but he proved so tardy that Anger returned to Bobby Beausoleil, who produced (from prison) the version now in circulation.

All this material is the stuff of hoary rock legend, and its perennial appeal is primarily to do with the addition of transgressive magic (or magick), and perhaps what Susan Sontag called "fascinating fascism", to the reliable recipe of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. But to go back to Scorpio Rising, which has more than its fair share of swastikas, what Anger did with the pulp fiction of popular songs remains a quite remarkable tribute to the potency of cheap music (there's even a theory that Noël Coward was a Crowley devotee, but let's not go into that here).

More than half of Anger's budget for Scorpio Rising went on purchasing the rights to the songs, performed by Ricky Nelson, Little Peggy March, The Angels, Bobby Vinton, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, The Crystals, The Ron-Dells, Kris Jensen, Claudine Clark, Gene McDaniels and The Surfaris. The liberties he took with them are still shocking today, including inter-cutting the often bland teeny-bopper fluff with blasphemous or sexually charged images. What Anger did with Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet" would make even David Lynch blush.

Ironically, Anger – who's now 71 years old – doesn't really like pop music, especially the noisy variety. His early films all used classical sources, including works by Scriabin, Respighi and Vivaldi, and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome of 1954 was originally meant to have a soundtrack by the eccentric avant-garde composer Harry Partch, who then withdrew the permission to use it. "It's true that Anger doesn't like noisy pop music", says Jon Ausbrooks, who is helping to organise the tribute events. "He has quite a classical sensibility, not only in terms of classical music, but also because he feels that much contemporary music is derivative. But when he's exposed to something he likes, he'll say 'Mmmm'".

Ausbrooks is hoping to attract funding for a British tour next year, and has a wish-list of artists he would like to have involved. "There's Radiohead, as I believe Thom Yorke has an interest in Gnosticism, and Björk", he says. "Kenneth has given his blessing to musicians working with his films, and we hope to have him attend future events. In times past he's been loathe to be recognised as the godfather of music video, partly because he's never been given the credit he deserves within American cinema, apart from by Martin Scorsese and David Lynch. MTV has also been unwilling to acknowledge his influence. But he's got to a point in his life where he wants every opportunity to do new work, and one of the ways would be an acknowledgement of his influence on pop culture. There are also proposals for directing music videos, provided that he likes the music".

"We met Anger in New York a few weeks ago and went out to dinner together," says Lupine Howl's Sean Cook. "We had a good meeting, but to be honest I sensed he wasn't exactly au fait with modern music. He's guided by his manager, who is keen to make his work more accessible to a younger generation. Anger may be interested in working with us, but his main preoccupation of the moment is to get his Gnostic Mass film made. We'll just have to see what happens." If anything does, MTV might suddenly become a lot more interesting.

'The Gnostic Bash: A Tribute to Kenneth Anger', with Lupine Howl, The Heads and Square Peg and Her Suns of Witches, is at the Thekla, Bristol on 6 Dec. Tickets from 0117-904 1133. Excerpts from 'Inside the Eye of Scorpio Rising' can be viewed on