When it comes to OTT theatricality, rock and metal have got it covered. A gig’s not a gig without several tonnes of pyro, onstage guillotines or gigantic alien power station towers that can be seen for miles around. These are 10 retina-searing stage sets that have taken the art of the rock show to another level.
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Kiss: Destroyer Tour
There were to be many great Kiss stage sets, but this one broke new ground and set the bar high, crammed with details and innovations, providing a physical showcase for each bandmate’s personality and looking more like a wartorn alien planet than a performance space. On an early elevating drum riser Peter Criss was flanked by cat statues, Gene Simmons got a chunk of ruined castle and a dead black tree to stalk (with a bloody stake emerging from a trapdoor), Ace Frehley got a lunar mountain, all flanked by electrical towers, crumbling brick walls and black clouds; early dates even featured a giant Tesla coil used in Universal’s classic 1931 movie Frankenstein.
Alice Cooper: Welcome To My Nightmare
Already established as rock’s most visual artist by 1975, Alice Cooper was looking to achieve the apotheosis of the live rock stage show, to bring to life his new concept album about nightmares. This “rocktheatrical extravaganza” (as the New York Times called it) featured giant spiders, dancing skeletons, narrative film footage and Alice being chased by a nine-foot furry cyclops (no wonder he fell offstage in Vancouver). The imaginative set and staging costing over half a million dollars to mount, and the show’s producer and choreographer, David Winters, was a frequent collaborator with Elvis Presley.
ZZ Top: Worldwide Texas Tour
‘That little ol’ band from Texas’ were thinking big in 1976. After seven years of stripped-down live presentation, ZZ Top upon the wild idea of carting a chunk of rural Texas around the world’s biggest venues. Against a 180-foot 3D canyon backdrop, the bandmates shared the 35-ton, Texas-shaped stage with a dazzling array of rustic distractions, including an actual longhorn steer, black buffalo, vultures, rattlesnakes, wagon wheels, cacti and yucca plants. Plans to take the show abroad were scuppered by buffalo quarantine restrictions (that old chestnut), so the ‘Worldwide’ tour stayed firmly on US soil.
Iron Maiden: World Slavery Tour
Breathtaking from every angle, Iron Maiden set the bar for stage design celestially high with this glittering recreation of a pharoah’s tomb, a perfect 3D representation of the Powerslave cover. A 30-foot mummified Eddie shoots flames from his eyes, surrounded by Egyptian relics, sarcophagi and hieroglyphics strewn about the place, while the full beauty of the stage floor’s Eye of Horus design was only revealed when the Live After Death video came out. Maiden have amazed crowds with bigger, more elaborate sets over the years, but this immersive tableau remains the favourite of both fans and band, Bruce admiringly noting that for all its majesty, the set was “all boxes and ropes and two blokes pulling levers”.
Dio: Sacred Heart Tour
The mid-80s was a peak era for riotous excess, and Ronnie James Dio didn’t let it pass him by. The stage set on the tour for his third album brought to life the epic diorama inside Ronnie’s mind, perhaps the ultimate scenario in trad metal stagecraft: ruined medieval castle, stone caverns, Gothic archways, demonic statues, and Ronnie using a flashing light-sabre to slay an animatronic fire-breathing dragon (the band called him Dean, but the UK rock media rechristened him Denzil). The dragon’s head - “constructed in metal and painted fibreglass with backlit red eyes and hydraulic articulated jaws”, according to Julien’s Auctions - sold for $18,750 in 2018.
Def Leppard: Hysteria Tour
Def Leppard’s tour in support of 1987’s Hysteria album was notable for its novel in-the-round staging. The idea was half-inched from Frank Sinatra, but this was the first time a rock band had toured with the stage in the middle of the venue, guaranteeing four front rows. On his first tour since losing an arm, Rick Allen’s revolving riser ensured his new drumming technique could be seen from every angle, while spinning mirrored laser projections helped make the set feel like the futuristic cutting edge of stagecraft.
Metallica: Damaged Justice Tour
The first thrash band to embark on a full arena tour, Metallica struck the perfect balance between their dark, austere, outsider rebelliousness and the venue-filling entertainment spectacle of a big stage show. With the dirty marble and fallen pillars reflecting the judicial corruption theme of …And Justice For All, the stage show’s aesthetic high point was the vast rope-bound statue of the LP’s cover star, Lady Justice (aka Doris), collapsing at the end of the title track. They went even bigger in subsequent years – Snake Pits, entire stages that deliberately fell apart, etc – but none of it had the impact of this first time.
Motley Crue: Final Tour
Mötley Crüe knew they had to outdo themselves for stage show excitement on their ‘Final Tour’. The big pyro, fireworks and dancing girls were all fine, but no other band had ever sent their drummer flying around arena ceilings on a specially-built rollercoaster. Tommy Lee told Live Nation his first reaction when he finally saw the finished construction, arbitrarily dubbed the ‘Crüecifly’: “I literally had poo-poo in my pants”. Luckily for Tommy the machine moved slower than your granny’s Stannah stairlift, although this didn’t stop it getting stuck several times, leaving the drummer dangling upside down over the crowd mid-drum solo.
King Diamond: Abigail In Concert
Laid low for seven years by back problems and heart operations, King Diamond vowed that on his return to the stage, the show was going to get bigger and better than ever before. Touring 1987’s Abigail album in its entirety throughout 2015, fans finally got a chance to savour the King’s flamboyant occult melodrama in the most breathtaking setting that it always deserved. On a multi-level gothic haunted house set, decked with grand staircases, columns, gargoyles and huge inverted crosses, King wheels out Grandma in her wheelchair for a night of macabre theatrical magic in the most perfect setting.
Rammstein: Stadium Tour
In early 2020, Rammstein uploaded time lapse footage of their Stadium Tour stage construction - 61 hours of painstaking, heavy work, from a green sports pitch to what looks like a power station on an alien planet. The German band’s sets have always been monstrous, multi-level affairs belching fire from every available crevice, but the sheer heat and scale of their latest events could induce pyrophobic vertigo even through a YouTube clip. Production designer Florian Wieder told Metal1 that Fritz Lang’s 1920 film Metropolis was his initial inspiration for the set, adding “We have pretty much taken every imaginable size to the max”.