"For some, like Kiss, it is pure spectacle. Alice Cooper varies between psychodrama and pure theater. Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson said he feels their performance is close to pantomime. Talking Heads did surreal theater. Lady Gaga does surreal shock. The Rolling Stones opted for large circus-like productions." Arthur Brown
For hundreds of years, people have never failed to be entertained and seduced by three simple things: music, theater, and the shocking and/or horrifying.
Over time, musicians have incorporated all three to create multimillion-dollar stage shows, like Roger Waters' The Wall Live tour from 2010 to 2013, which cost an estimated $60 million to stage.
However, no genre has combined these elements better than hard rock and heavy metal. From Kiss to Cannibal Corpse, lyrical subject matter alone often pushes the envelope, but when bands add elements of anti-authoritarianism and eroticism to their killer guitar solos, it's hard for fans to look away.
Influenced by everything from the supernatural and horror to Coney Island sideshows and opera, the current rock 'n' roll stage show draws on centuries of history. Tracing the roots of stage shows reveals not only how we arrived at the current state of heavier music, but also predicts where we're going.
Frightening theatrics and face paint started enchanting audiences in the late 1700s with violinist Niccolo Paganini. He had a rumored deal with the devil and the ability to bend his wrist joints in unusual ways (actually due to bone disease), which caused him to play abnormally fast pieces that reportedly drove listeners into a sexual frenzy. In the 1800s and 1900s, variety shows that incorporated music and sideshow fire-breathers and snake charmers were all the rage. Rock 'n' roll has long been a freak show of sorts, hailing figures that reject what might be called normal. Granted, musical talent and shocking appearances is usually more tattooed guitar virtuoso than tattooed sword swallower, but the desire to make onlookers gasp is all the same.
In the 1950s, Screamin' Jay Hawkins' operatic vocals and macabre props made him an early pioneer of shock rock, but it was the '60s when stage shows really took a turn, with perhaps one of the most influential figures in the evolution of the live show: English rocker Arthur Brown. In 1965, he wanted to open a multimedia club, inspired by his time in Paris and Spain. But he couldn't afford it, so he put all of his ideas into a psychedelic rock band: The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
Brown's work was influenced by the circus, anthropology TV shows featuring African villages with their masks and dances, Japanese Noh theater, James Brown and Elvis, Shakespeare, and occult mythology, to name a few. According to Brown, he wanted to "shock audiences out of their usual states of mind."
His songs offered a journey through his mind, but since the audience of the time wasn't used to such imagery, he began to use robes, masks, and the fire helmets, slowly incorporating experimental lighting and strobes to create necessary moods. His goal? To make the idea of rock as a theatrical spectacle catch on.
"Light shows, dancers, poets, nudity, revolutionary politics, social experiment, theater, sonic innovation, and an audience that, by being open, invited artists to go beyond any recognized limits," Brown says about his stage show. "And I began to wear stage makeup in Paris when a young mother brought her child to the dressing room, who suggested blacking out my teeth."
When Deep Purple began utilizing pyrotechnics and emphasizing the importance of theatrics, it was 1968. Kiss stepped up that mentality several levels, especially on its Destroyer Tour in '76. The band's live show already featured blood-spitting and fire-breathing, but other elements were added, including an 80-foot set that mirrored the album artwork. This tour also prompted several bands to switch to wireless systems after guitarist Ace Frehley was zapped and knocked unconscious, inspiring the popular Kiss song "Shock Me."
Ozzy Osbourne's 1981 Diary of a Madman Tour featured a medieval set, and Osbourne hopped around on a 10-foot mechanized hand that shot fire and raw meat into the crowd. At one point, Ozzy had to receive rabies shots after biting a bat; the tour was hailed as one of the greatest shows in metal history.
Then of course, there's the Godfather of Shock Rock, Alice Cooper, who drew enormous influence from Arthur Brown and even invited him to do a live show with him in 2011.
When Cooper decided that rock 'n' roll needed a villain, he looked to horror and Vaudeville, wrote rebellious tunes against hippie culture, and developed a show full of gothic torture devices, electrical chairs, fake blood, boa constrictors, and glam rock costumes.
"When musicians play with me, they are not just a guitar or bass player. They are actors," Cooper has said.
Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies Tour in 1973 was deemed one of the most detailed live endeavors in all of rock history, a twisted Broadway-style production seen through the eyes of a Jekyll/Hyde persona.
As Dee Snider aptly said in the 2014 rock opera doc Super Duper Alice Cooper: "Alice Cooper ejaculated -- and glam metal was born," with like Mötley Crüe at the forefront.
Through the '80s, the Crüe shows included elaborate lighting, pyrotechnics, revolving drum platforms, high-heeled boots, Spandex, and big hair. Pretty much whatever Mötley Crüe did pushed the envelope. They were constantly in the limelight due to a hedonistic lifestyle and backstage antics (coupled with a love of whiskey and strip clubs) that led to prison time, alcoholism, drug addictions, endless sexual escapades, and a collection of tattoos that could cover a parlor wall. They are one of the bands that established the cliché image of a rock star, living and breathing the lifestyle. They were also all for investing in theatrics, like the time Nikki Sixx lit himself on fire. Influenced greatly by such acts as David Bowie and Kiss, the band's motto was "$10 a ticket, give them a $100 show."
There are too many to name, but some of the other evolved stage shows nowadays includes Gwar's vulgar costumed, space-oriented, blood-drenching fiascos; Metallica's towering Lady Justice statue that crumbles on the band; Rammstein's pyrotechnic frenzies; Rob Zombie's blend of vintage horror movie clips, mechanical robots, and gigantic orbs that fall on audiences; and Marilyn Manson's creepy onstage persona.
And many artists that established legendary stage shows decades ago are still touring, elaborating on or just plain doubling the efforts of their live shows.
And those who live in the Valley have the chance to catch one this weekend, even though it's based on the concept that all good things must come to an end.
After more than three decades, Crüe is calling it quits, signing a Cessation of Touring Agreement that prohibits any unauthorized future performances and denies members the right to tour under the band name. They are coming through town for a final embrace, officially the end of a balls-out, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll era. And they are bringing one of their biggest influences, Alice Cooper, out with them. The theme of freakish theatrics and heavy music has only continued to evolve in the music industry, and will undoubtedly be taken to an even higher level of spectacle with emerging technology.
"We now incorporate technology and try to push the boundaries that way," said Nikki Sixx in a February 2014 Time magazine interview. "Sometimes we go back and look at shit from the old days. We're looking at stuff from the '70s and '80s and mixing things to create a new breed of stuff. Because this is it."
Arthur Brown said it best during our interview: "Whether it's Elvis being sex god, Jim Morrison being the Lizard King, or Elton John doing glam . . . or Slipknot, Rammstein, or Tool, rock is actually at its best pure theater." The world's a stage, and the evolution that happens upon it is inevitable.
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