The supreme pop culture manifestation of magic-making for many, the Harry Potter phenomenon reaches its cinematic conclusion this month with the release of The Deathly Hallows, Part 2. Although the pop culture juggernaut certainly has served as a source of inspiration for those in the musical milieu in recent years (look no further than the emergence of J.K. Rowling-quoting “wizard rock” acts like Harry and the Potters), both the light and dark arts have infused certain pop music lyrics for decades. There were magic-referencing tunes to be found here and there going back to the birth of rock and earlier (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ signature tune “I Put a Spell on You”, for instance), but wizardry truly found a home in music during the late ‘60s hippie heyday, when mind-expanding experimentalism and generational struggles resulted in a widespread of popularization of mysticism (be it Eastern, Celtic, or an indiscriminate hodgepodge of various sources) and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien among young people. Psychedelic rockers happily embraced magical concerns, and following in their footsteps their offspring in the heavy metal and progressive rock genres devoted themselves to otherworldly explorations of ancient powers and pagan tales on a fairly regular basis, up to and including referencing their favorite fantasy novels in their verses and on record sleeve artwork.
So with all that in mind, here’s five recommended tunes about virtuous spellcasters and evil conjurors, ranging from the 1960s to the 21st century. I have elected to skip over anything that’s directly informed by the Tolkien bibliography, for material available on that topic from the 1960s alone could spawn its own list (why director Peter Jackson never put any Led Zeppelin songs in his Lord of the Rings films, I’ll never understand). No, wizardry in general is the focus here, and whether it’s viewed as manifestation of light or a tool of wickedness, it’s bound to inspire recordings to try an capture a little of that sorcerous essence.
Out of the interests of diversity, I will refrain from populating this list exclusively with heavy metal songs (something that can be accomplished quite easily given the genre’s lyrical preoccupation with Dark Things). The cartoon narrative of metal’s development these days holds that Black Sabbath emerged fully-formed, divesting itself of blues-derived tics typical of loud rockers of the day in favor of forging a potent new sound all on its own. “The Wizard”, from Sabbath’s self-titled 1970 debut album, illustrates how ill-informed that view is, with its Delta groove and judicious use of harmonica. The upbeat number is a logical extension of both bluesman swagger and hippie mysticism, combining the two into a surprisingly cheery tale of a journeying mystic who banishes evil from wherever he goes. In spite of their Satanic reputation, the Sabs were always on the side of good.
The Sonics first unleashed this primal rave-up back in 1964, but I have to give the nod to the superior cover version by ‘80s garage rock revivalists the Fuzztones. Although the rather loutish original is clearly more concerned with warning listeners about the sexy new temptress in town than any kind of proper black magic, the Fuzztones amp up the sinister undercurrent of the song to ensure you can’t associated that killer main guitar riff with anything else but B-grade horror movie chills and thrills. Bonus points go to the band’s constant reuse of clips from frightfest classics in its music video for the track.
This brief cut from Liars’ witchcraft-themed second album They Were Wrong, So We Drowned (2004) has a cheeky title is so good you’d think Mogwai came up with it first. Despite the jokey Potter-ribbing name, the insistent, fractured song is an appropriately creepy, building up to the edge of a climax before subsiding without fully pulling the trigger.
OK, one more metal song. But I promise folks, this is a good one. With “The Alchemist” and its 2010 parent album The Final Frontier, Iron Maiden proved once again that, like Bob Dylan and Neil Young before it, middle-age can still be a ripe creative period for rockers in what is too often considered to be a young person’s game. The musical attack of “The Alchemist” is high adventure of the finest caliber, all heroically soaring guitar lines and bounding rhythm section, and singer Bruce Dickinson’s name-checks of storied magic weavers Simon Magus and John Dee make you wish it was him teaching your high school history courses.
Magic isn’t exclusively about Dread Secrets Men Are Not Meant to Know. As the bespectacled inspiration for this list can attest, it’s also captivating to people as a source of awe-inspiring wonder and fun-filled possibilities. With that in mind, the oh-so-British sense of whimsy that pervades the Beatles’ psychedelic cornerstone is the perfect accompaniment to the kickoff of any young wizard’s joyous adventure. Heed the call, grab your bags, and get on board for a delightful trip away from the humdrum everyday.