King Diamond: the confessions of Satan’s little helper
He inspired Metallica, annoyed Gene Simmons and took rock for a walk on the dark side. These are the devilish life and diabolical times of King Diamond
February 1984. It’s a freezing night in Copenhagen, Denmark. Under heavy snow, the streets are silent. In a rooftop apartment, something weird is going down.
King Diamond, the singer with Danish heavy metal band Mercyful Fate, is entertaining four guests: Timi Hansen, the band’s bassist, and his girlfriend, and Metallica's Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, who are in Copenhagen to record their group’s second album, Ride The Lightning. It’s been a long night, and all of them are drunk. For hours they’ve been sitting in the living room, talking and soaking up the heavy vibes from old records by Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult. In one corner of the room is an altar: a table draped in a black cloth, lit by tall candles and decorated with a figurine of the pagan idol Baphomet and occult books The Satanic Bible and The Necronomicon, the centerpiece a human skull.
King Diamond is an avowed Satanist. His obsession with the dark arts is expressed in Mercyful Fate’s songs and in his theatrical image: his face painted white and black, like Kiss, but with an inverted cross between his eyes. This occult shtick is of no interest to Hetfield and Ulrich, they just like the guy and love his band. But what is about to happens on this night at King’s place scares the shit out of Hansen and his girlfriend.
“I remember it clearly,” King Diamond says now, 32 years on. “At one point we left Timi and the girl alone in the living room, to have some fun. Lars and James and I went to my bedroom to play a game of table football. And then we heard a gigantic bang. I rushed back into the living room and both Timi and the girl were sitting there with faces white as sheets. Everything from my altar was spread across the floor. Timi said he’d felt himself being lifted up and thrown back down.
“I said: ‘It’s them. Don’t worry.’ I put the things back, and it was fine. But then the girl went off to the bathroom. After a while we could hear her crying in there. And then she screamed out: ‘Something’s growling at me! I can’t get out – the door’s locked!’ I took the handle and opened the door. She was sitting there in tears, dumbstruck.”
As King remembers it, Lars and James were too drunk to really absorb what had happened. But he was certain. “It was a visitation,” he says. “You could hear how they left – out through the bathroom window.” And he claims it was one of many such occurrences. “There were other experiences I had in that place. I remember once I felt a touch on my cheek… That place was haunted. So many people experienced stuff in there, not just me.
“In my life I’ve seen a lot of things,” he says. “Supernatural things. I’ve seen the place between heaven and hell.”
In his long career, both with Mercyful Fate and as leader of the band in his own name, King Diamond has remained a divisive figure. To some he’s a cult hero, a master of theatrical heavy metal, innovative and influential. To others he’s no more than a clown, a Halloween bogeyman with a singing voice like Rob Halford being boiled alive. What is certain is that he is a survivor. Not only a survivor of more than 30 years in the music business, but also a survivor of multiple heart attacks that almost killed him six years ago.
At the time when Mercyful Fate rose to prominence in the mid-80s there were many heavy metal acts with an over-the-top image. There was Venom, the original, devil-worshipping black metal band; Manowar, muscle-bound warriors from New York declaring ‘Death to false metal’; Thor, a former bodybuilding champion from Canada, whose stage act included breaking concrete blocks on his chest.
King Diamond appeared as much a caricature as any of them. With his masked face and satanic songs rendered in that mock-operatic shriek, he was frequently ridiculed in the music press. And yet there was something that set him and Mercyful Fate apart from bands such as Venom and Slayer, who posed as Satanists purely for shock value. King Diamond was entirely serious about this stuff. He was a scholar in the dark arts, and a member of the Church Of Satan, the organisation led by Anton Szandor LaVey, author of The Satanic Bible. And in Mercyful Fate’s music there was a depth and power that went far beyond the primitive bludgeoning of Venom and early Slayer. The band’s style of complex, heavy riffing was an inspiration to James Hetfield, who has stated that “Mercyful Fate was a huge influence on Metallica”.
Over the years there have been hard times for King Diamond. In 1984, in an interview with Kerrang!, he was branded a hokey Satanist, a fraud. Later came rumours that he was going to be sued by Kiss for infringement of their image rights. For long periods his brand of music was out of sync with the changing times, but through it all he has retained a loyal cult following and has continued to tour and make albums both with his own band and in a number of reunions with Mercyful Fate. This summer, in addition to making some high-profile European festival appearances, King Diamond plays a one-off UK gig at the Forum in London where he will be performing his landmark 1987 album Abigail.
When he speaks to Classic Rock at his home in Texas he is in buoyant mood. “Right now things are good for me,” he says. The years he has spent living in America have softened his Danish accent. In talking about his life and career, our conversation extends to more than two hours. And he begins at the point of transformation – the moment when a bright working-class boy called Kim Bendix Petersen was set on the path to becoming spooky satanic rock screamer King Diamond.