Did Blackie Lawless Of W.A.S.P. Throw Down Devil Horns Before Ronnie James Dio?
Heavy metal's universal hand gesture, the devil horns, or "evil eye" has a fascinating, often contested history. In June of 2017 everybody's favorite loudmouth, Gene Simmons, made a gross power grab when he filed a claim with the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) regarding the gesture saying he was the first to use it while KISS was on tour in 1974.
Dio's widow Wendy responded to Gene's claims saying the symbol belonged to "everyone" and as it is public domain, should not be "trademarked." However, there is no other heavy metal musician more closely aligned with this heavy metal hand gesture than the late Ronnie James Dio–this is a fact. Another fact in this long-debated topic is who did it first? Because I hate to break it to you, it wasn't Ronnie, and I look forward to your hate mail.
Since I threw down the gauntlet in the title of this post, let's start with the notion Blackie Lawless was an early user of the hand gesture in the mid-70s after arriving in Los Angeles. His first LA band, Sister (pictured above), was among the first, if not the first to incorporate occult symbolism as a part of their stage show and promotional images of the band pictured their name encased inside of a pentagram. Nikki Sixx was briefly a part of Sister, as was future W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes. Holmes became a part of Sister after Lawless saw Holmes, posing in the nude for a regular feature in Hustler called "Beaver Hunt," noting in his Hustler bio that he also played guitar. Sister's existence was short-lived, but as early as 1977 according to rock historian Brian Boone, Blackie was throwing devil horns on stage during the scant-few Sister shows, before the band became Circus Circus. This would pre-date Dio's devil horns by about two years. But, ya' know, since we're on the topic, Lawless' use of the devil horns was, without question, not the first time a band deliberately and with meaning used the gesture to define what they stood for.
That band would be Coven and the year would be 1967.
When mean Uncle Gene tried to co-opt the devil horns, members of Coven, spearheaded by vocalist Jinx Dawson came hard for Simmons and threatened to sue him for filing the patent. Here's Jinx schooling Gene on the heavy metal origins of the Sign of the Horns:
"I did the Sign of the Horns when Coven started in late 1967. Again this sign was pictured on our 1st album released in 1969, and on our 1971, 1974, 2013 albums. This information is in more than 25 books. I never trademarked MY sign because it was meant for all to do, tho it is legally 'grandfathered in' to me for use in music by all the history. Gene does not even DO the sign properly. He is doing the deaf sign for 'love.'"
After getting owned by Jinx and becoming public enemy number one for the millionth time, Simmons walked away from his attempt to patent the gesture. The only thing left to mention on the topic concerns Beatle John Lennon who once appeared to be using the hand gesture a year earlier than Coven.
On the cover of the 1966 single "Yellow Submarine" and its B-side "Elenor Rigby" Lennon is pictured on the bottom right of the album cover using what appears to be the gesture, though his thumb seems to be indicating his hand isn't really going for a proper devil horn thrown down. At any rate, Coven wins this overall debate, because of course, they do. However, respect must be given to Lawless for his use of occult imagery, his influence on Mötley Crüe (once Sister was done, Blackie allegedly gave all of his evil stage stuff to Nikki Sixx), and for his pioneering work in codpiece design. A few images and a jam or two from Sister follow.
The Sister track "Don't Know What I Am" which would later end up on W.A.S.P's 1992 album Crimson Idol as "Titanic Overture."