Earlier this week, one of the most prolific shock rockers Arthur Brown turned 72. His iconic persona and unique style cemented him as a legend and one of the early innovators of what could be shocking as well as entertaining on stage. Here we look back at where it all came from and what controversial heights it eventually went to.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Shock rock’s pioneer, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was one of the world’s most extraordinary performers. He tended to arrive onstage in a coffin and would emerge from it with two horns poking out of his nostrils. Meanwhile, he considered a skull called Henry – which he would regularly set fire to – one of his best friends. A boxer, prone to beating up rival musicians, he was best known for grunting, howling, drunken I Put A Spell On You, though the Constipation Blues – a song he wrote about “real pain” – was sadly underrated.
The original god of hellfire, before The Prodigy borrowed his line, Arthur Brown and his crazy world were a defining influence on shock rock to come. Operatic, theatrical and prone to arriving on stage in a flaming helmet, voodoo makeup and cape, his acid-inspired, pyromaniac world was one of manic psychedelia. Produced by The Who’s Pete Townshend, Fire remains his lasting legacy.
What is often lost amid the notorious Alice Cooper stage antics is quite how brilliant his songs are. Set against a brilliant vaudeville stage show featuring guillotines, fake blood and heavy make-up, his ballsy, brilliant rock ‘n’ roll was overshadowed. Still, it made Cooper – or Vincent Furnier, to give him his real name – such a king of shock rock that no-one has yet knocked him from his throne.
With a stage act heavily inspired by Alice Cooper, W.A.S.P.’s frontman Blackie Lawless would frequently walk out onto the stage and hurl meat at the band’s crowd. The crowd, however, rarely minded given that they tended to be distracted by the half naked woman tied to a rack onstage. In case anyone hadn’t got the message that the band were out to shock, their debut EP was called Animal (Fuck Like A Beast) and featured a cover with a man in a tiger-print cod-piece adorned with a buzz saw.
Dealing with sensitive subjects with a delicate hand was not GG Allin’s modus operandi. He tackled songs about paedophilia, racism and wife-beating with all the tact you might expect from a man whose stage act largely consisted of him emptying his bowels and smearing the results over himself. Almost always off his head on booze or drugs, he spent long spells of his life in prison. Perhaps fortunately.
Deliberately sexist, Seattle’s The Mentors played what they disgracefully termed ‘rape rock’ – basically garage punk metal about degrading women. Fronted by Sickie Wifebeater, songs like ‘Donkey Dick’, ‘On the Rag’, ‘Golden Shower’, and ‘Sandwich of Love’ would probably have remained in obscurity until they were targeted by mid-‘80s pressure groups demanding censorship in music – something which also helped make The Mentors famous. As a side note, two days before he died, drummer El Duce claimed Courtney Love offered him money to kill Kurt Cobain though it is impossible to believe him.
Buoyed by a reputation for wildly unpredictable stage shows, which often featured sex, blood and furious fist-fighting, Dwarves’s garage punk was a chaotic, pugilistic mess. Guitarist HeWhoCannotBeNamed would perform in jockstrap and wrestling mask and, after the band issued a press release claiming he was dead as a publicity stunt, they were swiftly dropped by furious label Sub Pop.
To describe Rammstein as shock rock is to do down their brilliance. Even without the gimmicks, they would be a great – with them, however, they’re a force to be reckoned with. Singer Till Lindemann shoots balls of fire from a crossbow, swallows fire, wears angel wings that blast fire from their tips, and sets a mock stage invader on fire. And that’s the tame stuff in their set. Keyboardist Flake Lorenz is boiled alive in a flaming cauldron, while at other points Lindemann sits on a pink cannon and ejaculates foam over the crowd. To cap it off, they once released a boxset that featured dildos in the shape of all the members’ manhoods.
Grindcore, noisecore, hardcore, noisegrind: Anal Cunt have been categorised as many things but, frankly, if that’s what you’re calling your band, you’re only really out to do one thing: shock. Not always a big live draw, as the above video shows…
The one performer to challenge Alice Cooper’s title as king of shock rock, though he would no doubt sniff at the term. Marilyn Manson’s use of shock and gore, however, always felt more pointed and politicised than anyone else’s. In stage acts that have touched upon Nazism, transgenderism and simulated sex, among much else, he has made starkly satirical points about society – much to the irritation of the right wing, just as Manson fully intended.