Scientology has long been regarded as ‘a Hollywood thing’, but as Isaac Hayes cooks up a storm and quits his role as South Park’s Chef, Jonathan Leggett reveals other musical followers
Earlier this year, the Guardian attempted to track down the 40-odd musicians who have played in the Fall. Unsurprisingly, after their brush with rock’n’roll, most had since gravitated towards respectable professions. But what was a revelation was that none of the band members had anything bad to say about band leader Mark E Smith, and this despite his Brian Clough-style bullying and crackpot musings. Overwhelmingly, they still believed he was a visionary genius.
As well as prompting a nostalgic blast of Live At The Witch Trials, the piece brought to mind a documentary about the Heaven’s Gate religious cult. In the programme, ex-members testified that despite having escaped just before the group’s mass suicide in California, they were still convinced leader Marshall Applewhite and his followers had advanced to a level “beyond human”. And though one would hesitate to compare a spiky Manchester band with the deeply tragic events of the Heaven’s Gate cabal, their uncritical analysis of their former keepers after moving on was undeniably similar. With the Fall’s mass membership and their charismatic singer’s brainwashing methodology, they always seemed more like a cult than a pop group. And that’s not all. In Smith’s habit of romancing the young female members of the band, one spies many cult leaders’ belief that the path to enlightenment necessitates sex with hot chicks.
But the professionally dour Smith – whose titanic ego and punk-derived DIY spirit led him to found his own sect-like enterprise – isn’t the only one. There are several other bands who’ve shaped themselves on the cult model. Dexy’s leader Kevin Rowland famously made his mob forswear drugs and drink in favour of sport. They were even forced to go running in the snow when they hit No 1 with Come On Eileen. Meanwhile, the Polyphonic Spree, with their Jesus robes and paeans to the sun, have clearly been taking notes from the commune collectives. Their joyous live shows, however, mark them out as the kind of cult you’d like to be in.
For some pop stars, the more established quasi-religious movements such as Scientology fit the bill. And it’s not hard to see the appeal. Just as John Travolta was drawn to the movement as a salvation from the vicissitudes of his Hollywood career, L Ron Hubbard‘s teachings seem to offer musicians an insurance policy against the ignominy of declining chart positions and a life on the chicken in a basket gig circuit.
Just as depressing as the news that Bart Simpson is a Scientologist, or more accurately Nancy Cartwright who voices him, is that some of the group’s more unlikely acolytes are much-respected musicians. Advocates of the creed include the until now impenetrably cool Beck, funk pioneer Isaac Hayes and, at one stage, lovers’ favourite Van Morrison, who devoted an album to founder L Ron Hubbard in the 1980s. Hip-hop pioneer Doug E Fresh, Chaka Khan and Courtney Love, who thanked the church in the sleevenotes of her America’s Sweetheart album, are also followers. Even Leonard Cohen flirted with the alien creed when he was feeling even less sunny than usual in the 1990s.
Unlike Beck, who has always been cagey about his involvement, Hayes is a more public devotee. After a recent episode of South Park in which Stan got involved with Scientology and which ridiculed their beliefs, Hayes resigned from his role as Chef. Though he claimed his resignation was not specifically linked to the creed spawned from a terrifically bad novel (and which spawned an even more unforgivable movie), one wonders if the two weren’t connected. “Religious beliefs are sacred to people, and at all times should be respected and honoured,” he said. “I cannot support a show that disrespects those beliefs and practices.” And given the series’ previous merciless skits on Christianity and Islam, it does seem as if Hayes only took exception when his own beliefs got the frat-boy fun treatment.
But for Hayes, leaving the environs of South Park might prove a blessing in disguise. Freed from the obligation of entertaining ladies as the priapic Chef, he’ll now be free to concentrate on recording the devotional music he’s favoured since his conversion. In 2001 he recorded an album with Doug E Fresh called The Joy Of Creating – The Golden Era Musicians And Friends Play L Ron Hubbard. Over what sounds like the kind of watered down hip-hop backing that served between scenes in the Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Doug E freestyles in his inimitable style. To his credit, he starts well enough: “Hey! Can someone tell me where the party’s at? I see a bassline!” But it’s not long before he slips into a melange of self-help speak, laying some grimy scientology learnin’ on us. “Let me tell you something. Wax enthusiastic and you’ll feel so. A being causes his own feelings. It’s the Joy Of Creating. Uh!” Quite.
Fresh and Hayes aren’t the only ones to have contributed to Scientology’s musical canon. Using vocals that Hubbard recorded prior to his death, with contributions from John Travolta, jazz musician Chick Corea (best known for playing on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew) recorded the 1986 album The Road To Freedom. As with Joy Of Creating, the lyrics are rotten. At one stage Travolta croons: “Reality is me. Reality is you. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” But this time it’s the musical backing that really nails it. Although praised on websites as “a musical masterpiece” it actually sounds like the kind of jazz noodle that they used to demonstrate CD players in Dixons in the 1980s.
Significantly, on both albums there is scant reference to Scientology’s more bizarre tenets – for example, that humans are Thetans who have lived through many past lives. And even less visible is the story told to advanced members about a galactic tyrant called Xenu, who dropped us off on Earth way back when in spaceships. It almost seems as if musicians are trying to play down some of the teachings. So while recording or sampling a Charlie Manson track – stand up Guns N’ Roses, Boards Of Canada and the Beach Boys – makes for shock rock kudos aplenty, a devotion to Hubbard is kryptonite for credibility.
When Beck came clean about his beliefs last year, the disappointed response from fans was palpable. But there are some who emerge from a brush with Hubbard with their musical integrity intact. In the 1960s, Funkadelic’s George Clinton promulgated for the kookier end of Scientology, specifically its British offshoot The Process Church Of Final Judgement. The Process Church, who worshipped both God and Satan and believed in imminent Armageddon, were enlisted by Clinton to pen the sleevenotes to his Maggot Brain album.
For sure, their musings, such as “Fear, deep within the core of every human being, lurks like a monster,” strike a genuinely apocalyptic note. However, because Clinton’s shtick and on stage props such as a huge mothership were so brilliantly absurd, the sleevenotes add to his act’s appeal. You’d be disappointed if Clinton didn’t believe in extraterrestrials. And besides, how could you slate him for following the alien outreach programme when the same album features the lyrics “What is soul? I don’t know! Huh! Uh! Soul is a joint rolled in toilet paper.”
Clinton now seems to have moved on to other sects and conspiracy theories, but it surely can’t be long before the Hubbard fundraising initiative produces a Scientology supergroup. Given the pedigree of the musicians who’ve given their hearts to Hubbard’s starship troopers, it might be a pretty good album. Certainly it’ll be the oddest record since the the Carpenters’ Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft, which the sugary duo laid down for World Contact Day.