Sexy Sadie


A lot of people died because of this song. Literally. The Beatles’ White Album has a unique status among rock albums: it has the Bible-like legacy of having been used as a justification for bloodshed. The record has a complicated legacy even without that baggage. Musically there is plenty to unpack. There was the rivalry and infighting that took place during the writing and recording, the personal struggles that the band dealt with outside of the studio, the growing differences between them that are starkly evident in the music. However, it will always be linked, at least in some people’s minds, to a string of grisly murders. Through no fault of anyone involved, the record came to be tainted by association with the chaos and instability of the wider world, becoming a symbol of a wider cultural fracture that was taking place. That’s thanks to the escapades of Charles Manson, who came to fame the following year for masterminding a series of horrific murders that captivated the world and still do so. The Manson killings, and the subsequent trial and media frenzy, were, besides their sheer brutality, perfectly planned and engineered for maximum imaginative impact. They combined so many elements designed to fascinate the public, and not by coincidence. They confirmed what people had already suspected about the hippie counter-culture: that it was cultish, seedy, sex- and drug- crazed, bent on overthrowing polite society, brainwashing impressionable young people with half-baked spirituality, fully capable of turning perfectly normal kids into homicidal maniacs. There was the class and race baiting, the messianic posturing, the vague political agenda. There was the irresistible celebrity factor: one of the victims was a well-connected movie star. It was the pop-cultural aspect that really made Manson and his Family into pop culture icons in their own right. Manson thought he was a messiah, but he didn’t bother too much with the biblical. He knew that stuff was boring and passe. His acolytes were with him because they’d already rejected Christian dogma. Instead, he used pop culture as his gospel, and he was particularly taken with the Beatles. They were, after all, bigger than Jesus. The inferences Charles Manson made about the White Album were, of course, dead wrong, but they were canny. The Beatles weren’t sending messages about inciting a race war or exterminating the upper classes – not even hypothetically were they thinking about those things. But the messages that Manson thought they were sending him about those things were convincing enough to get people to actually go out and try to do those things. When Manson told a girl he’d nicknamed Sadie Mae that the Beatles had personally earmarked her via song, that it meant she was to carry out Manson’s apocalyptic vision, she obediently went out and killed. (And spent the rest of her life in prison for her trouble.) It was the darkest possible example of rock music’s growing ability to influence real life, and of the potential way that art can escape the artist’s control. It was John Lennon’s innocent ‘bigger than Jesus’ comment come back to show just how dangerous and volatile that amount of fame can turn out to be. There wasn’t any bad intention behind the music. There didn’t have to be. All it needed was bad intention on the part of the listener to turn it into a manifesto of mayhem.

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