Sunday, February 22, 2009

All Hail Shock Rock!

With horror punk icon Lux Interior of The Cramps passing away earlier this month, I felt compelled to write an article about macabre themes in music. Some of my favorite artists have had either very overt occult, horror, or death themes in their lyrics and or music. At the very least, they had a very dark sensibility about them. In this article I will try to document some of my favorite "scary" music. Beware though, this may be a two, or even three part post, depending upon how extensive my recollections end up being.

It would be impossible for me to include every band in these genres (especially when we get to metal and goth, those could be large book projects for each genre) but I am interested in being as fair and complete as I possibly can. I will also attempt to work in chronological order as best as I can, but if any of my dates or times are off, please feel free to correct me. With that said, any other suggestions on how to improve this article would be appreciated in the event that I miss any artist(s) who may have been crucial to the formation and development of macabre themes in music. Keep in mind that I am listing my own personal favorites here, so this is hardly a true academic study. So without further adieu, please read on.

The undisputed progenitor of shock rock is the legendary Screamin Jay Hawkins, real name Jalacy Hawkins. Hawkins was a WW2 vet and accomplished boxer who grew up in Cleveland OH. His most successful song "I Put A Spell On You" was released in 1956, shortly after he had broken out as a solo artist. Hawkins had intended this song to be an elegant ballad, but due to the massive intoxication that took place between himself and his band mates in the studio, he had apparently blacked out with no recollection of ever recording the song. Rather than a smoothed out and romantic blues epic, Screamin ended up with an almost surreal invocation of guttural screaming, grunting and screeching. Hawkins and the band would later on have to go back and re- learn the song from their recording, being that their drinking had gotten so out of hand while it was being recorded.

"I Put A Spell On You" became a huge commercial success, selling well over a million copies. It was not without controversy though, as many radio stations refused to play it due to its overt sexuality. After radio host Alan Freed offered Hawkins $300 to emerge from a coffin onstage, Hawkins started to incorporate a whole slew of voodoo and horror props into his act such as rubber snakes, torches, skulls, a fake bone through his nose, and his trademark smoking skull cane named Henry. Although he never really achieved much more than a cult following in the US, his popularity in Europe was huge. Hawkins died in 2000 shortly following surgery for a brain aneurysm and was rumored to have fathered upwards of 75 children worldwide.

Following Screamin Jay's lead was a flamboyant psychedelic rocker from the UK named Arthur Brown. With a backbone of R&B and soul, Brown released his debut album The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown in 1968. This album actually included a cover of I Put A Spell On You, with the album's biggest hit being the song "Fire". Fire starts out with Brown's ominously shouted intro "I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you..... Fire!" This song is an intense, twisting journey through Brown's dementia, complete with a very trippy sounding, psychedelic organ.

The accompanying stage show to his performances was no less impressive. With his copper face mask and flaming crown, Arthur would gyrate and spasm around the stage with reckless abandon. He was also known for his eccentric yet poignant social commentary in interviews. Brown's mission as he stated was to get a reaction from the audience. Many church groups at the time burned his records and protested his live performances, but Brown has always maintained a very secular position in his interviews. This is a position that many more shock rockers would take in later years.

What is most notable about Brown's career is that he more or less pioneered the "official" image of many future shock rockers. That image is defined by the face paint Brown wore, which later come to be known as "corpse paint". Corpse Paint is essentially painting ones face white while accenting the mouth and eyes in black. Ragged and pointed shapes are often drawn around the mouth and eyes as well. This is the same style of face paint that would later be seen on Alice Cooper, Kiss, King Diamond and the majority of the first wave of Norwegian black metal.

Speaking of Alice Cooper, he deserves mention for possibly being the grandmaster of rock n roll macabre. Cooper's first album was released in 1969 and titled Pretties For You. The album didn't receive much critical acclaim, but by his third album Love It To Death he had released quite a few hits, most notably "I'm Eighteen" and "School's Out". Cooper actually pioneered the term "shock rock" as well as taking the rock n roll stage show to never before seen extremes. Cooper's stage show soon included play acting on mock medieval torture devices and decapitations from a working guillotine. Like his predecessors he was often met with disapproval from the mainstream rock n roll press and church groups, although these efforts only ended up bolstering Cooper's burgeoning popularity.

What is most notable about Cooper's music is that not all of his songs were horror themed. Most were simple, straight ahead, catchy and well executed rock anthems. It was clear that the band was very competent musically, and their initial thoughts of needing a gimmick to succeed might not have been necessary after all. In fact, their grueling stage show actually ended up really taking a toll on Cooper and his bandmates, leading him to have no recollection of some of his early 80's output due to alcoholic amnesia. Alice has since become sober and continued to put out music, although his contemporary hits seem quite contrived compared to his early work. He's also quite obnoxiously bitter and whiny in interviews, claiming that everyone from KISS to Marilyn Manson has ripped him off. The irony is, that without Arthur Brown and Screamin Jay, Alice might not have "invented" a lot of the the stage show and lyrical themes he claims he has.

Shortly after Alice had attained international recognition, a quartet from New York City emerged known as KISS. I shouldn't even have to write much about this band as they will forever be cemented as one of rock n roll's finest and most outrageous achievements. They are, in my humble opinion, the greatest rock n roll band of all time, bar none. Like Alice Cooper, KISS didn't really have many horror themed songs. In fact, their songs were mostly good time- themed hard rockers, dealing with the usual love, sex, betrayal themes that were standard for the time. The songwriting that KISS employed was nothing short of excellent, as their catchy riffs, flashy guitar work and group choruses were a surefire key to success. Although the critics generally disliked them, by 1980 they were worldwide superstars and have to date sold almost 1 billion records.

Although KISS relied solely on standard hard rock songwriting, their stage show and costumes have remained un topped to this day. Each member had their own face paint, reflecting a different personality. For example, guitarist Ace Frehley was from space, singer Paul Stanley was the "star child", drummer Peter Criss was a cat and bassist Gene Simmons was "the beast." The entire band was known for wearing huge platform boots and flashy jumpsuits. The stage show itself was always incredible, featuring quite a bit of pyrotechnics and an amazing light show. KISS were truly part circus, part carnival and ALL rock n roll!

OK, that will conclude part one. Next edition will have Samhain, The Misfits, heavy metal and many more knowns, slightly knowns, and almost unknowns. Stay tuned....

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