The Damned Crew, the Bugle Boys, the Mohocks, the Hell-Fire Club, the Beggar’s Benison and the Society of Dilettanti. These are just a few of the innumerable secret and not so secret societies that haunted Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The names are revealing: they speak of violence and evil. These were scandalous societies. Their aim was to break with conformity and shock the civilised world, while having as good a time as humanly possible (Lord 2008). A journalistic account from 1720 thus claimed that the Bold Bucks was a club of men who attempted sex with all women – even their own sisters – and that the Hell-Fires were into “transcendent Malignity: deriding the Forms of Religion as a Trifle. By a natural Progression they turn to Substance; with Lucifer they fly at Divinity” (Mist’s Weekly Journal quoted in Lord 2008: 52).
Scandalous societies are not merely a thing of the past. There are still plenty such societies out there, possibly more of them now than ever, and they continue to wreak havoc and generate rumours. However, the many articles and books that have been produced on the subject are often written in a sensationalist vein that does more to obscure than clarify the inner workings of such societies. This essay takes a few steps towards illuminating the lived reality of scandalous societies by examining one such society from Denmark, called Gold ‘n Metal. This is a case study, in other words, which only probes one single group, but hopefully the thoughts presented here will nonetheless have a wider relevance to the study of similar groups from other countries and historical periods. The essay is based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork among Danish youth, including observations of and interviews with members of Gold ‘n Metal, and informed by an examination of Gold ‘n Metal’s website as well as the websites of other comparable organisations in present day Denmark.[i]
Scandalous societies first caught my interest back in 2002, as I was doing research on young people’s use of alcohol and drugs in a small provincial town in Denmark. I was in a bar and fell into conversation with two men, the 17-year-old Peter and the 19-year-old Lars. They told over a beer that they had formed a club which was focused on the heavy intake of Gold Beer and listening to heavy metal music – hence the name, Gold ‘n Metal. The club consisted of seven male members. In order to become a member, it was required to be a heterosexual man, obtain the approval of all the constituted members, and to undergo an initiation ritual that involved drinking a beer (with an alcohol content of 10.5 percent) from a beer bong (a device that allows you to guzzle large amounts of alcohol very quickly). The members took turns to host club meetings and, importantly, to carefully write about and take photos of all significant incidents happening during meetings. The written reports and photos were subsequently uploaded to the club’s website.
Peter and Lars explained that the club was based on a set of regulations which, among other things, prohibited mainstream phenomena such as pop music. Harsh punishment befell those not obeying the regulations. For example, one member was forced to drain two strong beers with the beer bong because he had put on a Duke Ellington song during a meeting; and two other members were expelled from the club because they had played gentle music on an acoustic guitar and remained calm for an entire meeting. The expulsion was mentioned on the website: “Jon and Kvist have been expulsed due to lack of interest in Metal – the club is not simply a social club.” In Gold ‘n Metal, there was zero tolerance for civil behaviour. It was obligatory to be depraved and wild. The club cultivated rule-bound unruliness, ordered disorderliness, systemised immorality.
The official report of the fourth club meeting gives a good idea of what the club is all about. Take, for example, the following extract:
“At 20:30 we start the meeting with our new opening ritual: track number 1 on Dödheimsgaard’s “Satanic Art” – the one with the piano. It’s really cool and we all roar in a really evil manner […] After the meeting we drink a little and then it’s time for Jens to take the bong. He takes it in a very beautiful and abstract manner, right down the throat, and then afterwards he even continues drinking right away. A big congratu-evil to Jens from all of Gold ’n Metal – he is now a fully-fledged member of Gold ’n Metal! 21:15 we prepare for the drinking song by Pantera. And then! Surprisingly as always the drinking sound roars out and we all drink as if our lives depended on it […] Soon after Jens falls over – oddly enough – and pours out beer on the entire city. 21:55 We go totally amok to Illdisposed, we jump around and head bang. It’s mega evil […] 23:45 “Cradle of Filth” is put on and Kaj makes the most sick act ever in his life – he is totally crazy”.
Later that night, the one writing the report lost track of time and had problems remembering details. However, he noted that the members went to a playground where they smoked cannabis in a tepee. They became calm and yet “very weird”, but then:
“Jolle disappears out of the tepee and Loos also runs away […] We cry out for Jolle; Loos can’t find him. Suddenly we hear puking sounds – Jolle has thrown up! A big congratulation from all of Gold ‘n Metal. After this, a scary tag game takes place, and Kræweren gets paranoia! Peter, for no clear reasons, runs all the way back to Loos’ place. Later Jolle and Kræweren hide under the table because they think that Peter will beat them. Loos is lying down, idle – we like sativa [cannabis] […] Peter takes a beer bong and pukes.”
It is worth noting that, in daily life, the members of Gold ‘n Metal looked pretty much like any other Danish teenager. There was nothing strange about them. However, when they met in Gold ‘n Metal, they changed into amoral and self-destructive versions of themselves. This metamorphosis can be described as a downward movement: the members degraded in communion and explored dark aspects of existence (Bakhtin 1984).
The degradation was reflected in the choice of music at the meetings. The music had titles such as: “Walk the Path of Sorrow”, “Sons of Northern Darkness”, “Decomposure”, “People = Shit”, “Dying to Live”, and “Lord of Terror”. The lyrics in these songs deal with destruction and cruelty, and the songs feature lead vocalists who ”growl”, which means singing in a low, guttural tone. Such sombre songs were always played at meetings, and the club members would sometimes head-bang to the music and join in the growling. This dancing and music is “mega evil”, as one member put it; it represents the turbulent forces that lie outside the light of civilization, outside the reign of rigid rules, fixed identities and predictable patterns of behaviour (Jackson 1998: 61-62). These forces are inimical to the established social system, and yet we humans cannot live without them (Jackson 2011: 44, 95-96).
This brings to mind a manifesto written by Georges Bataille – himself a founding member of a scandalous society called Acéphale: “What we are starting is a war. It is time to abandon the world of the civilized and its light. It is too late to be reasonable and educated — which has led to a life without appeal. Secretly or not, it is necessary to become completely different, or to cease being […] Life has always taken place in a tumult without apparent cohesion, but it only finds its grandeur and its reality in ecstasy and ecstatic love. He who tries to ignore or misunderstand ecstasy is an incomplete being whose thought is reduced to analysis” (Bataille 1985: 179). Indeed, there is nothing new in Gold ‘n Metal’s systematic assaults on conformity (see also Maffesoli 1985).
Common to what I refer to here as scandalous societies is their aspiration to collectively escape and renounce the established order and experiment with new forms of sociality and consciousness. Some scandalous societies proceed by acts of severe crime. The Mohocks, for example, was a gang of young gentlemen who swaggered around drunk in the streets of London, insulting and beating up random passers-by (Lord 2008). Other scandalous societies, such as Gold ‘n Metal, are largely law-abiding and direct their destruction inward, at their own bodies, rather than outwards, at other people.
Mind altering substances obviously played a key role at the meetings of Gold ‘n Metal. The members purposively intoxicated themselves to the point of losing control. They often crashed into things, fell to the ground, destroyed objects, threw up, lost memory and passed out. All this was subsequently put on public display on the club’s website through the aforementioned reports and pictures. The website also included various eerie statements, such as the following line from a song by Slipknot: “I wanna slit your throat open and fuck the wound”. Gold ‘n Metal wanted to be different, anything but normal, and they constructed themselves accordingly as depraved outcasts. Their aim was to momentarily leave the ordinary world and reach a place of their own making; a place where they could set the rules, make the decisions and thereby affirm their own existence as autonomous beings.
While acts of degradation can seem morbid and nihilistic, Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) reminds us that there is an intimate connection between destruction and construction: decay and negation are necessary steps on the path towards something new and better; death and birth are two sides of the same coin. From this perspective, Gold ‘n Metal’s valorisation of the lower body, death, destruction and so on had an affirmative side to it. Through their acts of degradation, the club members send out a roaring “YES” to life in all its plenitude. They entered into relationship with aspects of existence that many of us normally try to hide or forget about.
There are also undertones of rebellion when people degrade. To smoke and drink oneself into a stupor, to commit violence against one’s own body, to celebrate faeces etc. are attacks on the norms prevailing in everyday life. It is a challenge to the established, a defamation of some of society’s most cherished values. However, these attacks on the established do not necessarily mean that Gold ‘n Metal wanted to change society or that their deeds posed a threat to the existing order of things. Their attacks may even be viewed as mechanisms that uphold the social status quo. This is an argument that has been put forward by Max Gluckman, who observes that certain rituals make up chaotic and absurd scenarios that illustrate the necessity for order in normal life (1982: 116).
Gold ‘n Metal was a sort of social laboratory where the members conducted experiments with morality, out of curiosity and perhaps also in order to tap into, domesticate and gain a sense of control over the dark forces in life. The members replaced the morality of the day with an immorality of the night (Maffesoli 1985). This immorality defined wildness, wickedness, destructivity, immoderation, and deviance as ethically tenable, whereas self-control, righteousness, constructiveness, moderation and normality were defined as ethically untenable. It was appreciated, for instance, when club members roared like animals, drank excessively, vomited, fell and acted crazy; and it was disapproved of when members stayed sober, went home from meetings early in the evening and put on mainstream pop music.
Chris Jenks writes that boundaries and transgressions are mutually constitutive (2003). To set boundaries presupposes an awareness of the possibility of transgression, and acts of transgression can only take place if a boundary exists. Boundaries provoke us; they call for transgressions. And transgressions highlight the existence and scope of boundaries. The systematic transgression of moral boundaries that took place at the meetings of Gold ‘n Metal can be interpreted as a study and evaluation of the morality that dominates in normal life. The validity of rules is, after all, tested in acts of transgression, and the contours of the morally good are drawn out in the practice of evil. The transgressions are, in other words, deeply reflexive acts that assert and deny, bury and revive the morality by which we live (see also Tutenges and Rod 2009).
Theimmorality celebrated in Gold ‘n Metal was not meant as a serious alternative to the dominating morality. The members were basically opposed to everything serious. They practised a rigid form immorality to demonstrate the absurdity of narrow-minded seriousness, dogmatic ways of living and unbending normativity. Their attitude was essentially carnivalesque in that they parodied received wisdoms, mocked “limited seriousness and all pretence of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity” (Bakhtin 1984: 49), and tried to “look at the world with different eyes, not dimmed by ‘normal’, that is by commonplace ideas and judgements” (1984: 39). The club members flirted with Satanism, sadism and male chauvinism, but they were not adherents to any of these “isms”. Rather, they played around with different value systems using them as disposable devices to momentarily escape dominant ways of living and have fun.
Bakhtin, M. (1984). Rabelais and his world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Bataille, G. (1985). “The Sacred Conspiracy”, in Allan Stoekl (ed.) Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927–1939. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gluckman, M. (1982). Custom and Conflict in Africa. Oxford: Blackwell.
Jackson, M. (1998). Minima Ethnographica. Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Jackson, M. (2011). Life Within Limits. Well-being in a World of Want. Durham: Duke University Press.
Jenks, C. (2003). Transgression. London: Routledge.
Lord, E. (2008). The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism And Secret Societies. New Haven: Yale University Press
Maffesoli, M. (1985). L’Ombre de Dionysos. Contribution à une sociologie de l’orgie. Paris: Le Livre de Poche.
Tutenges, S. (2005). “Gold ’n Metal”, Nordisk Alkohol- og narkotikatidsskrift, 22 (6): 429-446.
Tutenges, S. and Rod, M.H. (2009). “”We got incredibly drunk … It was damned fun” Drinking stories among Danish youth”, Journal of Youth Studies, 12(4): 355 – 370.
[i] Gold n’ Metal has ceased to exist and the club’s website has been closed down. For a more detailed analysis of the use of alcohol and drugs in Gold ‘n Metal, see Tutenges 2005.