by Jon Hunt
It is 1980.
I am in my bedroom, on my knees on the thick blue shag carpet that only existed in the decade previous. In my hands is a copy of KISS’ Destroyer album. Around me, on the floor, are other KISS records. They have been snapped cleanly in half.
In my stomach is a feeling somewhere between nausea and excitement. I interpret this feeling as “being filled with the Holy Spirit.” It is not. It is hysteria. I feel like I want to puke. And the problem is that I can’t bring myself to snap Destroyer in half, like the others.
I had no problem with Love Gun. No problem with Dynasty*. I struggled a little bit with Hotter Than Hell, but come on, that title – clearly “of the devil.” The self-titled album gave me a little bit of pause (because I loved “Firehouse” so much). But Destroyer was rough. I loved Destroyer. I spent countless hours in my bedroom singing along with Destroyer using my mom’s hairbrush as a microphone and pretending I was Ace Frehley. How could I break Destroyer?
Nausea. Butterflies. Shaking.
I broke all my KISS records. For Jesus.
A little bit of context:
The late ’70s saw the rise of the Evangelical movement in Christianity, brought on, at least in part, by the increasing influence of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” Falwell preached a simple, black-and-white morality borne of a Southern Baptist tradition: everything in the Bible was good, everything not in the Bible was “of the devil.” This included, in no particular order: homosexuals, uppity women, hippies, yippies, Democrats, drug addicts, drunks, television, pornography, dancing, fun and – particularly – rock and roll music. Basically, everything that happened a lot in the ’70s and made that decade cool was going to send you to hell**.
My dad, a misanthrope at the best of times, found solace in the Evangelical church. It preached a simple formula – become “born again” by “accepting Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior” (you do not know how many times I heard that exact line, spoken in a kind of zombie cadence, growing up) and all that bad shit you did in the ’70s would be wiped clean and you could live a new life as a follower of Christ. Unwritten in this contract was the ability to then be able to judge everybody else who was not “born again.” I’ve often thought that it was that which attracted my dad, at least as he existed in the ’70s – he already loved judging people, and this (finally!) gave him license to do it acceptably, in front of other people***.
The church we attended during the Evangelical era was called Crystal Evangelical Free Church. Compared to all the other churches in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, it was enormous – a vast, modernist warehouse of evangelism with a cross atop. The minister was a charismatic televangelist-type in a three-piece suit named Pastor Olson. He had that generic, electric sort of attractiveness (complete with “bear-claw” haircut) that made the women in the congregation swoon (in an acceptable, born again way, you understand). The church was attended by 14 billion people. We attended service three times a week – Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. If that sounds like a lot, keep in mind that on Tuesdays I had “Boys Brigade” (a kind of Christian Boy Scouts – yes, even more homophobic and creepy) and Thursdays I had choir practice. Meaning I spent all but Friday and Saturday evening at church.
What I remember most about Crystal Free was all the creepy shit I had to endure on a regular basis. I remember a film called “He Restoreth My Soul,” which was about a man named Merrill Womack who went through a terrible plane crash that immolated his entire body and came out the other end singing for Christ. I’m still disturbed by the photo of the crispy, hairless Womack being dragged from the plane wreckage – I wake up at night sometimes with his blackened lump of a face still in my head****. I remember a film called A Distant Thunder, set in the post-Rapture times, which featured the main character being guillotined for being a Christian. I remember anti-Catholic tracts being distributed in Church, telling of hidden passageways between convents and monestaries containing piles of dead, aborted babies. This shit was in a comic book for kids. I kid you not.
So when I tell you that my brain was twisted by a combination of modern brainwashing techniques, A Clockwork Orange-esque imagery and a deep, abiding fear of being guillotined, you will understand why I was so open to the message of the Peters Brothers.
My dad had already been conducting a one-man crusade against the rock and roll music that I loved, which went like this: “Son, Kiss is bad news.” I’m not sure he knew how else to put it. He saw the semi-naked women on the Kiss records I absolutely begged him for and something in his brain said this is not the kind of stuff a nine-year-old Christian kid should be listening to. But he was unable to articulate it in any kind of meaningful way other than bad news. And anyway, I already knew Kiss were bad news. Truth be told, that was why I liked them so much. Something inside me already instinctively knew that stuff that was naughty was cool. I knew it was super wrong to think that, too, and in this era, the little angel over my right shoulder won out. I was already awash with internal conflict, even before the Peters Brothers, but I was winning. Winning.
We went to the Peters Brothers on a Sunday night in spring of 1980. My dad wouldn’t tell me where we were going, exactly. He did that a lot – that was how he tricked me into watching all that disturbing stuff. If I had known what I was getting into (like films about immolated gospel singers – gahhh!) I would have at least kicked up a wicked fuss. He only told me that it was a “presentation” about “rock music.” I don’t know what I expected, exactly. I think I half-thought it was going to be a lecture on some other great rock and roll records to buy besides KISS, which would have come in handy. Someone needed to tell me about E.L.O., who had all those cool album covers with UFOs on them.
Ah, but no – the Peters Brothers, a trio of actual brothers from St. Paul, were national crusaders against the scourge of rock and roll music. They became convinced (after hearing a Beach Boys record, of all things, believe it or not!) that rock and roll music was Satanic. Further, they became convinced that musicians were embedding secret messages in their records. If you played these records backwards, you would get messages about sex, drugs and rock and roll that were being subliminally implanted into the minds of American youth. “She’s buying a stairway to heaven” became “here’s to my sweet Satan.” A stream of gibberish in a Black Oak Arkansas song became “Satan, Satan, Satan, he is god, he is god.”
I remember this first Peters Brothers lecture as a series of flashes of disturbing, demonic imagery (and to be fair, there was plenty of that in ’70s rock music, and when you’re nine, it looks like a fucking Heironymous Bosch painting) and the pure fear I felt in the pit of my gut at the realization that I was being brainwashed by Satan himself. I still remember the specifics. When you play “Another One Bites The Dust” backward, it becomes “decide to smoke marijuana.” The Beatles were satanic wizards because they invented this so-called “backmasking” on “Revolution 9” (“Turn me on, dead man,” an ode to necrophilia, a technique practiced by the blackest of black magicians). Bands I hadn’t even heard of at this point, with terrifying, demonic-sounding names – Black Sabbath! Styx! Black Oak Arkansas! The Grateful Dead! – were battling with God himself to destroy my young, impressionable mind.
And the worst of all of these bands, according to the Peters Brothers, was KISS.
Folks, did you know that KISS is actually an acronym that stood for “Knights In Satan’s Service?” It’s true. Do you know what a “love gun” actually is, folks? It’s a penis. And look at their demonic, disturbing make-up – how could this be Godly? Can you imagine the pastor of your church wearing that makeup? No, you can not. Their songs, ladies and gentlemen, are about sex and perversions! Sex and perversions!! And their television show – did you guys see that, Phantom of the Park? – shows them with magical powers. How did they get those powers? By worshipping Satan. Satan himself.
Fortunately, the Peters Brothers had a solution: burn your rock and roll records. Unaware (or perhaps completely fucking aware*****) of the Hitler-esque imagery they were invoking, the Peters Brothers were conducting record burnings all across America. Kids, terrified by the threat of demons pressed into the grooves of the records they had, up ’till this point, been innocently enjoying, threw their records onto these pyres, pledging their lives again to Christ and being born again (sometimes for the third or fourth time – it was amazing how often you’d have to re-enter that contract with God. Every time you “backslid,” apparently, which for late-’70s teens was pretty damn often******).
I remember being completely silent on the drive home from the Peters Brothers seminar. I was literally crippled by fear. Echoes of creepy backwards voices and flashes of Black Sabbath album covers echoed around in my impressionable young mind. I had been literally this close to hell itself! The Devil himself had possibly been in my room, completely unbeknownst to me. When we finally got home, I threw my KISS records violently under my bed. I was angry at the members of KISS. How could they have fooled me? How could I have been so gullible?
It was the very next night that I found myself in my room, surrounded by the broken shards of the Kiss records I had so loved. I couldn’t bring myself to destroy my Monkees records (and anyway, had the Peters Brothers even mentioned the Monkees? I didn’t think so) and I still wasn’t totally convinced that the Beatles were really black wizards like they claimed. That couldn’t possibly be right. But c’mon – even KISS probably thought KISS were satanic. It was so obvious.
I remember going into the living room with all my broken records, that “holy spirit” feeling still in the pit of my stomach, feeling exactly like one of the just-saved kids in the Chick tracts I’d been handed at Church the weekend before.
Me: “Dad? Mom? I broke all my KISS records.”
My dad: “Good job, son. Those guys are bad news.”
I did have a second run-in with the Peters Brothers, a few years later. It went a little differently.
For junior high, my parents sent me to Faith Academy, a very, very conservative, fundamentalist Christian school in far-off Fridley, MN. How fundamentalist, you ask? Well, my history teacher told us (quite seriously) that the Earth was only 4,000 years old and that dinosaur bones had been put deep in the strata by God to “test us.” We had an hour long “prayer class” every single day during which you were supposed to be “touched by the holy spirit” (and if you weren’t, you were definitely suspect). I had classmates who went to churches where people “spoke in tongues” – i.e., spoke, during the service, in a kind of hysterical babbling that they claimed was the “language of Angels.” Homosexuality was viewed as the worst scourge on humanity since the dark ages, or since Sodom and Gomorah, and the world was about to be destroyed in Judgment Day at any time, because Democrats were (probably) the Antichrist.
Naturally, being a teenager, and having developed things like “free will” and “critical thinking,” I was starting to rebel against the stream of fundamentalist bullshit. I had begun listening to WLOL, which was the better of two local pop radio stations, as an act of pure defiance (I was still scared to venture over to KQRS, the domain of Satanic “hard rock,” but it was a significant baby step for someone as sucked into the world of Evangelical Christianity as me). I knew that pop music was probably “of the devil,” or at least “worldly-wise,” but I honestly, at some point, stopped caring. I think it was literally the very moment I heard the “Unta, gleeben, glauten, globen” that lived at the top of Def Leppard’s “Rock Of Ages,” which sounded like something the Peters Brothers would have called out as an ancient Satanic spell, but which I thought was completely awesome because it stirred something in me that the stream of godawful religious music my peers were listening to did not.******* It probably had something to do with the hormones that were also stirring in me at the same time. The entire early ’80s is a blur of naughty, Valley girl sex thoughts and the thump of rock and roll’s backbeat.
So it was with a different mindset that I approached the announcement that the Peters Brothers would be speaking at a school assembly. I still had, at the back of my mind, the notion that some music might, in fact, be Satanic. I still hadn’t purchased a Black Sabbath record or anything, and I still stayed away from Black Oak Arkansas, the worst of the Peters Brothers’ offenders. But my mind was slightly, ahhh, open, if you will, to the notion that maybe rock music was a little bit okay. Sometimes.
I remember there being a huge, dramatic kerfuffle in the back of the room when the Peters Brothers started speaking. Some kids from Totino Grace, the Catholic School across the street – some punk rock kids, went the rumor – had tried to bum-rush the seminar with chantings about how the Peters Brothers were bullshit********. They were thrown out. Cool, I remember thinking. Wow, that’s a rebellious thought, I remember also thinking, you’d better watch it.
This time, the Peters Brothers’ litany of terrible satanic imagery and the terrible threat of the presence of Satan in your very bedroom had a different effect on me. Two different effects, in fact.
One, I realized that at least half of what they were saying was complete B.S. When I was ten, I hadn’t heard of some of the Peters Brothers’ “worst offenders” list, like E.L.O. and Styx, and it all sounded scary and cryptic and daemonic. But now, at age 13 or 14, I owned a copy of Kilroy Was Here and the hilariously-titled Secret Messages and I knew wholeheartedly that neither group was remotely Satanic. Queen might be a little odd – I mean, who wears a full-body leotard, really – but the Lutheran minister down the block used to sing their songs while he was working around the house, so they were certainly not Satanic, nor pushing dope-smoking on you. The Beatles were certainly not Satanic wizards of the highest order – could a Satanic wizard have written “Silly Love Songs” or “Press” or “Ebony and Ivory?”
And two, the Satanic imagery they were pushing – as the very epitome of Satan’s war against God – now looked super goddamn cool.
Have you seen Beavis and Butt-head? You know teenagers, right? Teenagers draw dragons in their notebooks and think stupid fantasy crap is the most awesome shit ever. They like boobies and butts and think farts are funny. And they sure as fuck think stuff like the cover of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is the coolest looking thing in the entire history of mankind. It’s like this – I bet if you studied drug use amongst teens before and after they watched the Desperate Lives after-school special, you’d find that it went way the hell up. Because teenagers think dangerous, dark, ominous, crazy shit is super god-damn cool, and there’s just no fighting that teenage mindset.
So the end result of this Peters Brothers seminar was not me running home and snapping all my remaining records (well, cassettes, now) with a sick, terrified feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was, instead, to suddenly develop a serious jones for heavy metal music. I now wanted to listen to Van Halen and Def Leppard and Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep’s Abominog all the freaking time. KISS wasn’t even Satanic enough for me. I wanted to buy Their Satanic Majesties Request and “Sympathy for the Devil” and Dio records and goth music and stuff being listened to by people dressed entirely in black who might be carrying out Satanic rituals in the park at night (but probably not).
And at some point I bought every single KISS record ever released, again, as a kind of mental apology for breaking my first copies in half as a young, stupid, impressionable, terrified youth.
So I have to say two things:
Thank you, Peters Brothers, for the lifelong love of creepy, dark, Satanic rock music you gave me. I know that’s not what you were intending, but seriously – thanks.
And fuck you for making me smash my KISS records.
NOTE: If you want to experience the joy of a Peters Brothers lecture yourself –it works great as a kind of MST3K evening, do it with friends! — there’s a documentary about them on YouTube, courtesy of The Five Count: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIRZ97wqOZ4
*If I had to do it now, I think Dynasty would give me the most pause. The ensuing years have been kind to Dynasty, KISS’ slickly-produced disco attempt, and I think it’s become my second-favorite KISS record, after Unmasked, their power-pop try. Destroyer is only number three – I’d probably snap it quicker.
**I seriously think of the ’70s – and indeed, the latter-half of the 20th century – as pre-Moral Majority and post-Moral Majority. The “pre” era, if you look back, was a lot cooler – sex in the movies, crazy clothes, crazy music, crazy cars. After was the ’80s – Reagan, conservatism, yuppies, stodginess. I blame Falwell for all of that.
***I make him sound like a jerk. He wasn’t at all. He was just one of those people –‘ like myself, now! –‘ who kind of hated humanity as a whole, and needed to find a way to channel that hatred. For him, it was just long rants about “those people” (insert group here) and how “they” were wrecking Minneapolis. For me, it’s writing about rock music. To each their own.
****NO SHIT. I am not lying. I still dream about this. I sometimes think if I could get ahold of a copy of “He Restoreth My Soul” I could face my fear and sleep soundly again. Alas, it has been out of print for the last 30-plus years.
*****Supposedly, the Peters Brothers’ mother is quoted as saying that “Hitler had good techniques, but turned away from Christianity too soon.”
******Eight times for me. I counted this morning. I remember each time, because each time was filled with the trauma and terror of realizing that I was doomed to hell – or guillotining – for not being a good enough Christian.
*******I remember wanting to get my piano-playing best friend a copy of the “Rock of Ages” sheet music for his birthday. My mom – bless her heart – tried to convince me to get the ACTUAL “Rock of Ages” (“Rock of ages, cleft for me”) sheet music instead.
******** This was, I found out years later, Minneapolis rock impressario Chris Strouth.