Saturday, January 19, 2013

Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends

When rock and roll first emerged in the mid-1950's, the excitement it engendered among its teenage fans created mass panic among older people.  It was loud, it was boisterous, it was fun, it got people dancing.  A rock and roll concert was a time out and away from the rules and omnipresent conformity of the surrounding society; a bunch of white kids could celebrate the joyous music of African-American musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, giving themselves permission, for half an hour or forty-five minutes (the shows were a lot shorter back then), to set aside their inhibitions.  The power of the music, all facets of it - including  the extra-musical dimensions of race and age - was enough to turn many rock and roll shows in to what appeared to untrained eyes to be mini-riots.

When The Beatles first toured America, and the music was drowned out by the screaming of the fans, many thought there had to be something wrong, perhaps even sinister, about something as silly as electrified and sped-up twelve-bar blues songs played by four well-dressed, polite young Englishmen.  It was only when the floodgates opened and other British bands emerged that the relative tameness of The Beatles concert presence was appreciated.  The Rolling Stones, mimicking their blues heroes, strutted and postured on stage.  The Animals would wail and screech, the rolling organ, particularly in their cover of "House Of The Rising Sun", sounding a bit too much like the music of the brothel the band was singing about.  Finally, The Who arrived, and when they premiered on American TV, they ended their performance by destroying not only their instruments, but their equipment as well.

Clearly, something was happening.

Theatricality was hardly something new to pop music.  The whole minstrel tradition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was constructed around it.  Jazz and pop performers were adept not just at playing music, but putting on a show.  In chicken shacks and honkey-tonks across much of rural America, black and white audiences were treated to a variety of performers who added a kind of panache to their performances by dressing in odd costumes, adopting strange stage personas, adding props to their stage sets so the show became just that.

In the 1950's, the blues singer/guitarist Howlin' Wolf would sometimes begin his shows by emerging from a coffin.  When Elvis Presley swung his hips on national television, he may not have noticed the sexuality inherent in what he was doing, but millions of parents did, and they didn't like it one bit.

All performers struggle not just to play their music well, presenting it to listeners with integrity as music.  When performing, they can lose themselves in a performance, expressing the emotional content of the song through facial features, movements about the stage, and interaction with other band members as well as members of the audience.  The rigid, polite-looking way the Beatles performed may have warmed the hearts of parents across America; it was a far cry from Chuck Berry duck-walking across the stage as he played his Gibson, sometimes slinging it between his legs, pointing it at the audience in a gesture that no one would misunderstand.

By the late 1960's, the desire to present not just a musical concert, but a whole experience, goaded many performers to new heights.  In 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival, Jimi Hendrix famously lit his guitar on fire and continued to play it, making Pete Townshend - who sat in the audience and fumed as he watched Hendrix not just steal The Who's act, but show how it could be done better - wish he had lost a toss of the dice, letting Hendrix go first.  The Grateful Dead employed a light show that created a visual representation of the combination of effects of the psychedelics they were taking and the music they were performing.

In 1968, a British band named The Crazy World of Arthur Brown enjoyed a brief moment of success with a psychedelically-tinged song called "Fire" (the band's drummer was a young British student of the American jazz drummer Gene Krupa; his name was Carl Palmer).  When they appeared on Top of the Pops, they showed the world what theatricality in pop music might look like:
Not just sets, but make-up, a whole stage-persona that reflected the music!  Was it possible that musicians could do this?  Was it possible to present music not just as music, but to entertain an audience by making the music an integral part of a much more lavish production?

Why, sure.

In the first half of the next decade, this trend toward theatricality spanned musical styles.  Concerts became more than just concerts.  They became events.  Whether it was Peter Gabriel of Genesis dressing up in costumes and shaving his head in a reverse-Mohawk:
Or funk master George Clinton building a space ship, landing P-Funk in cities across America and tearing it up each and every night:
The idea that a concert was more than about music gripped all sorts of musicians, bands, and performers.  There was David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust
Or the absurd extreme of KISS, for whom the concert experience became the sine qua non of the bands existence.
Finally, there was Alice Cooper.  Cooper put on a show that left nothing untried.  He hung himself.  he electrocuted himself.  He had himself guillotined.  He wore odd makeup.  There were non-musical extras, sometimes scantily-clad women.  For his performance of "I Love The Dead", he would sometimes use a blow-up doll as a prop.

As the money poured in and the good times rolled through the early and mid-1970's, the idea that a band or individual performing on stage didn't have to just stand in front of a microphone and sing, but create something larger, a whole experience that would leave the fans with the sense they were part of something larger than life, took hold.  The music was louder now; sometimes, like with the prog bands, it was intricate, which didn't prevent, for example, Emerson, Lake, & Palmer going out on tour with a stage catapult that launched a grand piano to its destruction.  Other times, if the music was simple, clear, and filled with fun, the huge performance - complete with smoke machines, flame pots, and tons of lights - made it seem more than it really was.  Not only were musicians experimenting with the music; they were experimenting with performance as well, creating a whole microcosm for the concertgoer, a tiny space-and-time away that wasn't just about the music, but the entire experience.

Even as the punk revolt in Britain seemed to put an end to the pretensions of some musicians to do anything other than stand on stage and play music, some bands held on to the idea that rock performance could be about more than just the sounds, all the while leaving the integrity of the music itself as music untouched.  Precisely because the music these underground musicians, particularly in Britain outside the London punk scene, was louder, brasher, more outrageous than anything the punks were doing (except perhaps killing people or themselves), there was this urge, this desire to make the concert experience reflect the weight of the music they were playing.

As the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was being born, it already had all sorts of touchstones from the recent past from which to derive ideas about performing.  Integrity and authenticity weren't just about the music, it seemed; integrity and authenticity could also be layered beneath all sorts of props, the adoption of stage personas, communicating with the growing number of fans the reality that the music and the musicians understood each other well enough.

Virtual Tin Cup

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