Things are looking up for witchcraft in pop now that Katy B’s thrown her hat into the hexagram. But it’s been a long hard journey to get here.
CLIFF RICHARD — DEVIL WOMAN
In 1975 Cliff denounced his own song Honky-Tonk Angel in a Christian fury after someone told him it sounded like he was singing about a prostitute. Fortunately Devil Woman has a much more positive Christian message.
Kindly, tennis-loving Cliff has a terrible run-in with a gypsy lady who leaves him on the floor after slipping him a potion. He keeps on about how evil she is, but assuming that the potion was nothing more than a Babycham on an empty stomach, her only misdeeds are trying to win him “with her feminine ways” and get him “from behind”.
It’s a pretty good capsule summary of the Church’s relationship with witches over the years: Man is scared of own sexuality and of not being in charge, man decides woman is in league with the Devil. In fact the story goes that Cliff only agreed to sing the song after making the lyrics more aggressive towards the ‘devil woman’, and has since regaled fans at concerts with the inspirational tale of how the song saved one woman from turning to the occult. Congratulations, Cliff.
What does it sound like? It sounds silly.
Which witch? I like to imagine Cliff seeing a paperback copy of How To Become A Sensuous Witch on a bookstall and torturing himself with thoughts of the startling lady on the cover. (Image found on this amazing blog.)
KATE BUSH — WAKING THE WITCH
Here’s an unsettling song. Kate’s having some sort of time-travelling out-of-body experience and endures a medieval witch trial on a ducking stool. If you’re listening in the context of her Hounds of Love album you’ll gather it’s all going on while she’s trying to stay alive in icy water in the present day.
What does it sound like? Trippy piano and half-heard voices give way to manic chopped up beats, church bells and the terrifying voice of the inquisitor. Scary.
Which witch? Before Kate came along I think this was pop culture’s best-known indictment of witch trials. “What else floats in water?” “Gravy!” Logic at its best.
NATACHA ATLAS — I PUT A SPELL ON YOU
What does it sound like? There are so many covers of this great song. I love Natacha’s best because the clattering percussion and woozy strings in her “hello I’m Arabic you know” version properly capture the mad intensity of falling hard and helplessly for someone. It’s as dizzy and intoxicating as you hope being actually bewitched would be.
Which witch? There’s precious little to learn about the nature and practice of witchcraft here. It’s presented as a means to an end to get people into bed with you. (I really wouldn’t want to have to admit that Cliff was right.) But Natacha is as camp and commanding as Faye Dunaway playing Selena in the 80s Supergirl film.
LADYTRON — SOFT POWER
The idea of Soft Power dates back to Lao Tzu, who said that what is fluid and yielding will always overcome what’s rigid and inflexible. “Water always wins,” as Doctor Who put it. Ladytron’s lyrics are as impenetrable as you like, but they conflate Soft Power with the Witching Hour of their album title so let’s read it as a celebration of witchery’s subtletly and cleverness. Call it a set of typically feminine qualities, if you must — I’m aware that I’ve ended up writing exclusively about female witches, after all. My one attempt to include a male witch got no further than the line “Do what u like shall be the whole of the law” (Take That featuring Aleister Crowley).
What does it sound like? Hypnotic and beautiful, with menacing synths turning in an endless chord sequence underneath a gorgeous vocal that hovers delicately between emotion and self-control.
Which witch? So very mysterious, so very reliant on what isn’t said or seen, Ladytron in this song (as interpreted through the medium of dance here) are the Blair Witch.
KATY B — WITCHES’ BREW
Finally here’s Katy. If the black goo coming out of the drain behind her head and her psychokinetic frenzy in the video make you think it’s all gone a bit Silent Hill, don’t be alarmed. For all the talk of dusty spellbooks and rosemary potions in the lyrics, Katy’s a very modern witch with a nice Nokia touchscreen and, clearly, some terrific haircare products.
What does it sound like? Like the sweetest amusement arcade you ever visited. I love the alarming drop-down into the middle 8 and its dangerous, random-sounding chord sequence — sorcerous.
Which witch? Never mind that the songs I’ve looked at so far have treated witchcraft as evil, perilous, intense or mysterious. Katy doesn’t care about any of that! She generally sings about having a bit of fun and meeting some boys, and that’s not about to change just because of a sudden onset of occult powers. So I’ve cast her as Sabrina The Teenage Witch and let’s hear no more about it. What we really need to be worrying about is the conjuring that led to this song acquiring an apostrophe between the album release earlier this year and the single this month. Now that’s magic.