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Hellhound On My Trail: Rock Music's Most Notorious Occult Urban Legends 

Cults and groupies sure sound like the same thing…

Person in a hood holding up devil hand at a concert.
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  • Photo Credit: William Krause / Unsplash

Has there ever been a more iconic musical duo than rock’n’roll and the occult? From the moment the first distorted guitar chords crackled out of an amp, legends have sprung up about the genre’s supposedly diabolical provenance.

Some artists eschew occultism while others happily exploit it, but few famous musicians have made it through their careers without inspiring a Luciferian urban legend or two.  

Today, even artists working in other genres aren’t immune to accusations of dabbling in dark forces: “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess” purrs Beyoncé on her 2016 album Lemonade, deftly deflating persistent rumors that she and Jay-Z offered a blood sacrifice to join a secret cabal that supposedly controls the world.

In 2021, Lil Nas X gained notoriety with his “Satan Shoes” — sneakers adorned with Satanic symbolism, each pair boasting “1 drop of human blood.” The limited run—of 666, natch!—sold out immediately, making clear that the connection between the occult and popular music is as robust as ever.  

For those music fans who love their catchy riffs served with a side of creepy rumors, here are some of the most enduring occult urban legends in the history of rock music. 

Robert Johnson’s Deal with the Devil

Robert Johnson holding his guitar.
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  • Blues legend Robert Johnson.

    Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

Robert Johnson was one of the most influential progenitors of rock’n’roll, despite the fact that his brief career preceded the genre’s heyday by decades.

With songs like “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Me and the Devil Blues,” Johnson certainly seemed to encourage the notion that he was teetering on the precipice of eternal damnation, but it was his song “Cross Road Blues” that really cemented his dark legacy. 

Rumors abounded that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in exchange for his preternatural abilities on the guitar. Sadly, he died under extremely mysterious circumstances at the age of 27—making him perhaps the first-ever member of the “27 Club," and giving rise to yet another ubiquitous rock’n’roll urban legend in the process. 

Buddy Holly’s Cursed Airplane

Images from Buddy Holly's plane crash.
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  • Images from the plane crash that Killed Buddy Holly.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Rock lore is rife with curses, from those that seem to plague specific bands to the misfortune that is said to befall any musician who dares to use a white Bic lighter, but the dark fate of Buddy Holly is undoubtedly one of the first.

In February 1959, Holly was one of the biggest stars in the burgeoning genre of rock’n’roll, touring the Midwest on a bill stacked with several of the most popular bands of the day. 

When the tour reached Iowa, Holly made an announcement: He’d chartered a small plane to take him to the next tour stop in order to avoid spending another night on the cold, cramped bus.

Fellow rockers Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper volunteered to join Holly for the flight, which meant Holly’s bass player—future country legend Waylon Jennings—had to forfeit his seat. 

As the three boarded the plane, legend has it that Jennings jokingly said, “I hope your plane crashes!”

Sadly, Jennings’ accidental curse came true: Soon after takeoff the plane crashed in a field, killing everyone on board—a tragic event that came to be known as “the Day the Music Died. 

The Beatles’ Clandestine Decoy

Abbey Road Beatles cover.
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  • The Abbey Road cover with a shoe-less Paul.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In 1966, there was no bigger band than the Beatles, four shaggy-haired English boys whose songs and style melded to propel them to a level of unprecedented fame.

If something terrible had happened to any member of the Fab Four at the height of their popularity, it would have caused an absolute frenzy of despair…unless, of course, there was an intricate conspiracy to cover up the catastrophe. 

So goes the thinking of those Beatles obsessives who determined, via an obscure mix of visual symbolism and lyrical clues woven into the band’s discography, that the “original” Paul McCartney was killed in a car accident in 1966 and replaced with a decoy. This became known as the “Paul is dead” conspiracy, and proponents found evidence of his untimely passing everywhere, from the covers of Abbey Road (Why is Paul the only one barefoot?!) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band to hidden messages that could only be heard when certain portions of songs were played backward (Is that John moaning, “I buried Paul” when “Strawberry Fields Forever” is spun in reverse?!). 

While McCartney remains alive and well, rumors of musicians faking their own deaths—Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, and Tupac Shakur spring to mind—or being replaced by decoys (hello, Avril Lavigne and Britney Spears!) still run rampant to this day. 

Led Zeppelin’s Black Magic

The four members of Led Zeppelin.
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  • The four members of Led Zeppelin in a promotional image, 1971.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The 1970’s were a golden age for the occult in rock music, and Led Zeppelin certainly courted more than their share of Satanic rumors, due largely to the esoteric interests of guitarist Jimmy Page.

Page never claimed to worship the Devil, but he did profess a fascination with notorious English occultist Aleister Crowley, even going so far as to purchase Boleskine House, a Scottish estate once owned by Crowley. 

For a band that cribbed so much of their music from the blues legends of the American South, it was fitting that they were dogged by a Robert Johnson-esque soul-selling legend of their very own: Allegedly, Led Zeppelin became the biggest band in the world not through hard work, charisma, or their copious lyrical references to Lord of the Rings, but because three of the band’s four members took part in a black magic ritual in which they bartered with Beelzebub in exchange for rock stardom.

Indeed, the band was eventually inundated with tragedy, from the sudden passing of singer Robert Plant’s young son to the death of drummer John Bonham, which brought the band to an abrupt end. 

As for Page, Boleskine House was ravaged by fire not once, but twice.

Only Zeppelin’s presumably Satan-hatin’ bass player John Paul Jones—the one member said to have refused to take part in the supposed ritual—emerged from his stint as a rock god unscathed, proving that even the Devil himself respects a well-written contract.