From The Beatles to The Beach Boys, Nine Inch Nails & More: Charles Manson's Ties to Music

Charles Manson
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Charles Manson

Sadistic cult leader and murderer Charles Manson died on Sunday at the age of 83, leaving behind a legacy of manipulation, conspiracy theorizing and ruthless killing. Yet before he was sentenced to life behind bars, Manson aspired to be a professional musician. He and his "Family" spent time with some of the most significant artists of the late 1960s, though his own debut studio album was an abysmal commercial failure. He grossly misinterpreted several Beatles songs as a motive for his murders and esteemed rock stars subsequently invoked his image and likeness to court their own controversy. 

Here is a brief synopsis of Charles Manson's ties to the music industry:

Manson traced his motive for killing back to The Beatles' White Album

On Aug. 9, 1969, Manson ordered members of his Family to kill a house full of people including actress Sharon Tate and Folgers coffee heiress Abigail Folger. The following night, five Family members stabbed grocery store owner Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, to death inside their home. At both locations, the murderers scrawled the words “rise,” “piggies” and “helter skelter” across the walls and doors in their victims’ blood. 

Manson misread several songs on The Beatles’ White Album, released in November of 1968, as foreshadowing a gruesome, apocalyptic race war. According to Paul McCartney, Manson thought “Helter Skelter” referenced the four horsemen of the Apocalypse as presented in the Book of Revelation. Manson told Rolling Stone in 1970 that “Revolution 9” and “Piggies” “predicted the violent overthrow of the white man.” Meanwhile, he cited lyrics from “Rocky Raccoon” -- "Gideon checked out and he left it no doubt/ to help with good Rocky's revival” -- as evidence that “the black man is going to come back into power again.” 

Manson released one unsuccessful studio album in 1970 

Manson met record producer and tour manager Phil Kaufman while they both served time in the Los Angeles County Jail. Kaufman moved in with the Family in 1968 and urged Manson to record some of his songs, which culminated in his debut studio album, Lie: The Love and Terror Cult. The album cover virtually recreates the Dec. 19, 1969 cover of Life magazine, which featured Manson; only the "F" in "LIFE" and the line "The dark edge of hippie life" were removed. 

Released on March 6, 1970, while Manson was held on charges for the Tate-LaBianca murders, Lie: The Love and Terror Cult failed miserably in a commercial sense. The record only sold 300 of the 2,000 copies Kaufman originally pressed with his own money after failing to secure major label support. Still, the album remains a popular cult collectible among those who are interested in the Manson murders. 

He lived with Dennis Wilson and co-wrote a Beach Boys song

In the summer of 1968, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson picked up two hitchhikers who belonged to the Manson Family. According to Family member Dianne Lake, Wilson dropped the women off at their home and went inside to meet Manson. The two became fast friends, bonding over music and marijuana. 

The Family quickly moved in with Wilson, who provided everything they needed, including an exorbitant medical bill when gonorrhea spread through the house. Manson and Co. basked in their newfound life of luxury, while Wilson, caught in the throes of a nasty divorce from his first wife, Carol Freedman, relished the opportunity to live freely and adventurously. 

Wilson later invited Manson to record some of his songs in his studio, an exciting prospect that quickly turned sour. Manson didn’t appreciate Wilson’s producers tampering with his music and eventually pulled a knife during the sessions. 

The Family moved out shortly thereafter; their brief sojourn ultimately cost Wilson more than $100,000 in medical bills, damaged property and stolen personal items. But the drummer got his vindication in the end. In September 1968, The Beach Boys reworked Manson’s “Cease to Exist,” altering some of the lyrics and rechristening it “Never Learn Not to Love.” It appeared on their 20/20 album the following year with Wilson credited as the only songwriter. 

Wilson later found a bullet on his bed, for which Manson took credit. “I gave him a bullet,” the spurned musician said, “because he changed the words to my song.”

Rock musicians have controversially covered his songs throughout the decades

Several artists have covered Manson’s songs over the years, from The Lemonheads’ ominous rendition of “Your Home Is Where You’re Happy” on their sophomore album, Creator, to Guns N’ Roses’ sprightly “Look at Your Game Girl,” a hidden bonus track at the end of their covers album, The Spaghetti Incident? GN’R frontman Axl Rose also donned a “Charlie Don’t Surf” shirt with Manson's face on it onstage during the Use Your Illusion Tour, earning no goodwill from the band’s detractors. 

Most famously, however, shock-rock provocateur Marilyn Manson created his stage moniker by juxtaposing Manson’s name with that of beloved American actress Marilyn Monroe. (Similarly, keyboardist Stephen Gregory Bier Jr. adopted the moniker Madonna Wayne Gacy.) Manson the rock star covered Manson the murderer’s “Sick City” in 2000; he tweeted the link on Monday morning in response to Manson’s death.


One of Manson’s murder scenes served as a recording studio for several artists in the early '90s

Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor started renting the property at 10500 Cielo Drive -- the house where Sharon Tate was murdered -- in 1992 to record the band’s EP, Broken, and sophomore album, The Downward Spiral. The house served as an appropriate setting for the their nihilistic ruminations on the downfall of society via sex, drugs, violence, disease and self-harm.

Demonstrating his macabre sense of humor, Reznor rechristened the studio “Pig,” a nod to the writing Manson Family left on the walls in Tate’s blood. He also filmed the frenetic, claustrophobic video for “Gave Up,” which featured a cameo by his protege, Marilyn Manson (who recorded his debut album, Portrait of an American Family, at the same location in 1993).

Reznor didn’t understand the gravity of his actions until he met Tate’s sister, Patricia, while recording. He recalled the encounter in a 1997 Rolling Stone interview:

She [Patricia] said: "Are you exploiting my sister's death by living in her house?" For the first time the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face. I said, "No, it's just sort of my own interest in American folklore. I'm in this place where a weird part of history occurred." I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don't want to support. When she was talking to me, I realized for the first time, "What if it was my sister?" I thought, "Fuck Charlie Manson." I don't want to be looked at as a guy who supports serial-killer bullshit.

I went home and cried that night. It made me see there's another side to things, you know? It's one thing to go around with your dick swinging in the wind, acting like it doesn't matter. But when you understand the repercussions that are felt ... that's what sobered me up: realizing that what balances out the appeal of the lawlessness and the lack of morality and that whole thing is the other end of it, the victims who don't deserve that.

The Tate house was demolished in 1994.