Day 772: Shock & Roll

originally published February 10, 2014

These days it seems that if a musical artist wishes to ‘shock’ their audience they either have to piss in a hotel mop bucket or declare themselves to be a genius whilst naming their offspring after a compass direction. Where are the ornithological decapitations? The pseudo-sanguine fluid cascading from a bass player’s chin stubble? How can it be that today’s demographic of millennial youth have tamer, less interesting incarnations of shock within their musical landscape? I know, on the fringes of fame that gaggle of Juggalos continues to stoke the presupposition that clowns are inherently scary. And misogyny is alive and well in what’s left of the world of gangsta rap. 

But so what? My generation sang of big butts and their prodigious appreciators. Color Me Badd wanted to sex us up. And our rock stars didn’t put on makeup and dress like some clown school dropout who has made some bad choices. No, they went and got intimate with the ugly end of a shotgun. The makeup thing had already been done to death by the time I was a teenager. 

Ever since the birth of rock there has been shock. Parents have turned a furrowed scowl at their children’s godless music, and enterprising musicians have sought to ingratiate themselves to the masses of youth by offering more godlessness and weirdness, even if it was just for show. 

Godlessness sells, baby. 

That scary guy with the skull is the great Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. In the 1950’s, when the older generation was still scared of the seductive power of rock ‘n roll (and let’s face it, they were still scared of black people), Screamin’ Jay was the show kids probably shouldn’t have gone to with their parents. After his manically glorious 1956 song “I Put A Spell On You” became a hit, disc jockey Alan Freed paid Jay three hundred bucks to pop out of a coffin onstage. This gave Screamin’ Jay the inspiration to take it even further. 

The song itself was a spectacular piece of voodoo-rock, and Jay took his entire act in this direction, incorporating animal-skin costumes, a smoking skull he named Henry, and rubber snakes. The whole thing was over the top and gratuitously theatric (have a look!), but that was the point. Elvis was causing an outrage by gyrating his hips on TV, so a guy (and again, a black guy, which was a significant distinction in this era) digging into the dark arts as part of his schtick was bound to enrage some grown-ups. This was the dawn of shock rock. 

Scary magic wasn’t enough to shock audiences by the time the 1960’s hit the halfway point and started to get really interesting. Violence came next. Guitar-smashing had actually been around since a 1956 episode of The Lawrence Welk Show, when a guy named Rockin’ Rocky Rockwell broke an acoustic guitar over his knee after a sardonic performance of “Hound Dog”. That was an act of satire though – it doesn’t count as shock rock. However when Jerry Lee Lewis set fire to his piano using a Coke bottle filled with gasoline, that turned a few heads. It’s alleged that this was part of Jerry Lee’s act, though it can only be substantiated on one occasion. Still, pretty hardcore for the sock-hop era. 

Pete Townsend of The Who started smashing his guitars onstage as early as September of 1964. This was not simply an effort to shock kids into buying Who records to piss off their parents; Pete was an admirer of the German auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger, and he saw the “deconstruction” of his instrument as an artistic act in itself. The rest of the band joined in, including drummer Keith Moon who stuffed his bass drum full of explosives for the band’s American television debut on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. The blast at the end of “My Generation” made Bette Davis faint, sliced Keith’s arm open, lit Pete’s hair on fire and led to Pete’s partial deafness. That’s some real-ass shock right there. 

In a smooth melding of Screamin’ Jay’s voodoo theatrics and Pete’s destruction-as-art, Jimi Hendrix lit his axe ablaze at the Monterey Pop Festival, coaxing the flames upward amid the wretched screech of feedback. This was a time when the KKK were threatening unknown horrors at Beatles concerts because John Lennon had (accurately) pointed out that kids worshiped his band more than Jesus Christ, and when lengthy drug-heavy raves were beginning to seep into the urban music scene. 

In 1966 British band The Move was swinging an axe (not a guitar – a literal axe) at TV sets, Cadillacs and busts of Hitler onstage. Arthur Brown wore wild makeup, a flaming headpiece, and viciously declared himself to be “the god of hellfire” in the opening moments of his hit record, “Fire”. Jim Morrison was arrested for public drunkenness and again a year later for showing his schlong to a Miami audience. 

Sorry kids – your generation’s Black-Eyed Peas sang a song about “lady lumps”? Oooh, shocking. 

Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a damn bat onstage. This isn’t some urban legend – he had a bunch of rubber bats lying around the stage, and when someone threw an actual bat up there, Ozzy thought it was another fake. That’s the one he opted to bite into. Don’t worry, animal lovers – the bat was already deceased. The same can’t be said for the live dove that his wife Sharon brought into a meeting when they signed the deal for the Blizzard of Oz album. Even she didn’t know Ozzy would bite its head off. 

Shock rock reached its high point in the 1970’s. Between Ozzy’s madness, Iggy Pop’s violent thrashing about onstage (which was known to occasionally injure his band members), Gene Simmons’ blood-spitting and Alice Cooper’s faux-decapitations, gore pushed records more than it ever had or ever would. It was a great time to be a fan of the weird. 

In the 1980’s, shock rock took a strange turn. As a kid I thought Dee Snyder’s heavy makeup and wild curls made Twisted Sister hilarious, especially as they defiantly showed that square guy from Animal House just how badly they wanted to rock. Gwar was a Richmond, Virginia collective that dressed in ridiculous outfits and played metal as heavily as they could, all while pretending to murder one another onstage as part of the theatrical demonstration of “extreme”. Then along came Marilyn Manson, who tore pages out of the bible in concert, took androgyny to new heights and generally defined shock rock for the 90’s.  

In Marilyn’s case his shock was not due to a chemical imbalance in his brain, nor was it a ploy for kids to rebel to the tune of $14.99 per CD. No, Marilyn was smart enough to know that 1990’s parents had already been through blood and madness as part of the music scene. He shocked by attacking values, norms and stereotypes. He incorporated atonal ‘noise’, distortion and cacophony in his music but with a purpose. I was never a big Marilyn Manson fan, but I was also never shocked or put off by his persona – the guy was (and is) a genuine artist. 

There doesn’t seem to be any way left to shock our desensitized culture. We have seen it all, and statements like Lady Gaga’s pro-gay agenda is accepted by most in the mainstream as positive and righteous. ‘Shock’ in music is only aimed at those whose morality appears to be stalled in antiquated rhetoric; it’s about the exposure of truth, not inducing the gasp of our elders. 

In short, we aren’t shocked by your music kids. We aren’t disgusted by it, and we don’t find it offensive. Except for the fact that some of it – much of it (and here I’ll actually mention Mr. Bieber by name) simply isn’t very good. 

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