Horror Show: The Evolution of the Metal Stage Show and the End of Mötley Crüe
"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."