The Devil’s Interval by Chris Green
I have not always been a killer. I blame my descent into malevolence and murder on Holst and Wagner. Oh! And Black Sabbath. Mostly Black Sabbath, in fact. Perhaps I had better explain.
It all began when in February 1970, I was listening to a Dutch radio station late at night with my friend, Ray. We were both eighteen. We had just moved into our first flat. We had come back from The Cellar Bar and had just finished a big fat spliff. It was a stormy night with the wind rattling the shutters. On the stroke of midnight out of the static of the night-time radio, soared an apocalyptic new track. It was like nothing I had heard before. It was hypnotic, sinister, demonic. Four stinging chords on the guitar repeated over and over with a screaming vocal. But what chords they were! This was music from the very depths of Hell. We caught on straight away that something was happening, but to paraphrase Bob Dylan, we did not know what it was.
‘Far out,’ Ray said. ‘It’s badass. ……… But at the same time, I’m a little scared.’
‘I know what you mean,’ I said. ‘It’s like a thundercloud blotting out the sun. It’s really cool, but you know that something real bad is going to happen.’
What was happening was, in fact, the birth of heavy metal music. It all started here at this very moment. At the tail end of the sixties, music had been heading in this direction with The Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin, but their music was tame, legitimate by comparison. This was the real deal. The Dutch station we were listening to played the music with no DJ’s babble, but I managed to find out somehow that this was the title track from Black Sabbath’s eponymous album.
Much later I was to discover that the secret behind the track lay is something known as the diabolus in musica or The Devil’s Interval. The diabolus in musica was considered so ominous in the Middle Ages that it was banned by clerics for fear it would raise Lucifer himself. It consists of a tritone (augmented fourth or diminished fifth) and spanning as it does three tones, the interval violates a musical convention and sounds dissonant, producing an unsettling feeling in the listener. Playing the note of C followed by F sharp somehow encapsulates the essence of evil. Black Sabbath may have stumbled on this accidentally, but they were not the first in the modern era to use it. Wagner used it in Götterdämmerung and Holst used it in Mars – The Bringer of War.
The difference perhaps is that these two classical greats were fully aware of what they were doing. Dissonance was precisely the effect they were after. There were, of course, no stoned freaks listening to late night Dutch radio stations in their day whose lives might be driven off course by The Devil’s Interval. Wagner and Holst had only the hoi-polloi as an audience and many of these were beyond redemption anyway, involved as they were in either military manoeuvres and empire building.
I bought the album, Black Sabbath and over the next few weeks Ray and I played it over and over at deafening volume. Ray had just bought a powerful NAD amplifier and some Wharfedale speakers and this punched the satanic sound around the small front room of the basement flat, through the whole house, up the street and possibly the next town. Dozens of stoned freaks dropped by to listen and went off to buy the album. In no time at all Black Sabbath was the one of the three albums they carried around with them and rolled their joints on.
I can’t say for certain whether the tritone repeated over and over was a factor in the landlord’s suicide. We were so taken over by the music that we did not realise that he had gone. We just thought it odd that he hadn’t been round to collect the rent. I cannot claim therefore that this was the beginning of my killing spree. This did not really take off until years later.
If you’ve ever been to a Black Sabbath concert you will know what I’m talking about when I say that it can instigate feelings of violence. I felt rancour and malevolence to the very core of my being when I saw them play live at Malvern Winter Gardens. It was lucky I didn’t get arrested for flattening the bouncer. The Devil’s Interval resounded in my head for hours after the show. I was wired. I could not get rid of the feeling. On the way home, I punched the taxi driver. After this, Ray insisted that we give Black Sabbath a break for a while.
I met Linda, and she carefully monitored of my heavy metal music listening, and for years, I managed to keep a lid on my violent tendencies. Linda was a nurse and knew people who might be able to help me.
‘You’re doing very well, Martin,’ my anger management counsellor, Hortense would say. ‘It’s been months since you hit anyone.’
I got married and did the things you do when that happens, bought a house, went to dinner parties, had children, slept with my wife’s best friend and got divorced. Ray met Mary and did the same, in fact, most of my friends did the same. It was never going to work, was it? It was a generational thing. I’m sure Linda and Mary slept with our best friends too but didn’t tell us. This was what happened back then.
‘At least you’ve got that out of your system, Martin,’ Hortense would say. ‘Now you need to get on with your life.’
It was now the late-seventies. Freed from responsibility, I felt the need for some more heavy metal music. Although punk had taken over mainstream rock music, fortunately, there was also a burgeoning choice of very loud heavy metal bands to listen to. If anything the volume had been turned up. These bands needed LGVs to carry their kit around. Many of them had also discovered the potency of The Devil’s Interval. I went to see Judas Priest play at Cheltenham Town Hall. They used the devastating tritone over and over in their set. I began to feel the violent impulses again. After the concert, I went on the rampage. I set about a complete stranger and impaled him on the trident in Neptune’s Fountain. While I was only charged with manslaughter, custody threatened to put a halt to my appreciation of heavy metal.
Thanks to a glowing report from Hortense I got off with a ten-year stretch and was out again in five. There were now so many metal bands that I didn’t know where to start, ACDC, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Slayer, Megadeth, Def Leppard to name but a few. And amazingly Black Sabbath were still going. Hortense recommended that if I did listen to them, I should do so with the volume down and under no circumstances should I go to a gig. She lent me some Al Stewart cassettes to listen to. I was not impressed. He sounded too posh to make meaningful music. Next, she tried me on Billy Joel. He was even worse, a real pussy. I was pleased when my machine chewed up the tape.
It is never easy for ex-prisoners to find work, so I was overjoyed when after a few weeks of twiddling my thumbs and feeling depressed I managed to get a job in a musical instrument repair workshop. The manager of Black Keys, Matt Black gave me a chance. I think he sympathised with my plight because his son, Jett had himself been in trouble.
Matt Black explained the rudiments of music to me. He taught me about scales, chromatics and dissonance. It was Matt who told me about the Devil’s Interval. It was just my bad luck that he continued to demonstrate it. The Planets apparently was his favourite piece of music and Mars was his favourite section of it. He played it on repeat in the workshop. At least this is how it appeared. Perhaps I had developed earworm, but as I rubbed the glue into the crack on the cello neck, the dissonance of Holst’s diabolus in musica echoed endlessly in my head. The frightening crescendo kept building until I could take no more. I brought the instrument down on Matt’s skull.
My barrister, Miles Wimpler buckled when he found out who was presiding over the case. Judge Bearcroft was notorious for his no-nonsense stance. The old curmudgeon was variously rumoured to have jailed people for loitering, for not wearing a seat belt and for stealing pencils from the office. He described me as a ferocious animal that needed to be caged. Hortense’s mitigation regarding the diabolus in musica fell flat. Judge Bearcroft had a low tolerance for musical mumbo-jumbo, and he gave me a twenty.
I was out in ten, just in time for the Black Sabbath Reunion Tour. The publicity promised that they were going to play louder than ever. They did. Much louder. And Black Sabbath the key number in their set was deafening. The tritone echoed around the auditorium like a battle raging. I know I shouldn’t have gone. And I know I shouldn’t have killed Hortense. And it would be foolish to deny the connection. My rage was clearly a result of those demonic chords rattling round in my head. It was the Devil’s work all right. With no-one to mitigate my plea, this time, I got life.
I am a few years into my sentence. I was in Wandsworth at first, which was tough, but as prisoner numbers rose I got moved to Belmarsh, which is not quite so bad. I share my cell with Denzel, another lifer. Denzel was a big name in gangland in the early eighties. One of the characters in the film, The Long Good Friday was based on him. Denzel has been in here a while. It shows in his demeanour. He is massively overweight. We chat about Staffordshire bull terriers and Millwall FC.
I have got what others might consider a cushy job working in the prison library. The problem I have is that the library is right next to the Prison Governor’s office and Governor Kraut keeps playing Wagner, more specifically Götterdämmerung. Why is he doing it? Doesn’t he know about The Devil’s Interval? Isn’t he aware of my history, or is the bastard just trying to wind me up? I nearly killed Nolan Rocco yesterday in the canteen. I had my hands around his throat. What stopped me? It certainly wasn’t Floyd Edmondson. Big Floyd was egging me on. What stopped me was the thought that maybe one day I might be able to get out of here, but I know I won’t. Judge Block told me that life would mean life. And with the diabolus in musica pulsing round in my head, it is surely only a matter of time before I kill someone else.
© Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved