It's Guy Fawkes Night here in the UK where we celebrate the plot to blow up parliament by setting alight to rockets and going "Oooooooooo". But as these bands will confirm, there's so much more fun to be had with fire, flames and explosions.
The literal big bang of rock pyro occurred in 1967 on an American TV variety show after The Who performed their hit My Generation, during the instrument-smashing climax, when drummer Keith Moon packed his bass drum with three times the usual amount of explosives and detonated a blast so massive it singed Pete Townshend’s hair and propelled a shard of shattered cymbal into Moon’s arm.
The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown
The spooky brass-and-organ-driven psych of UK number one single Fire – sampled by Marilyn Manson and The Prodigy, covered by Ozzy Osbourne, The Who, Cathedral, Cirith Ungol, Die Krupps and God Dethroned – was never exactly metal, but appearing on Top Of The Pops in 1968 in an occult flaming helmet (a bowl of petrol welded to a cap) proclaiming himself “the God of Hellfire”, Arthur Brown set light to the pyromaniacal imaginations of a generation.
With Gene Simmons breathing fire (and setting his hair on fire a few times) and Ace Frehley shooting fireworks out the end of his guitar, Kiss did more than any band to cement the importance of big pyro at a rock concert. It didn’t get much bigger than Bremen, Germany in 1999. The local council wouldn’t let Kiss use their pyro, so the band complied until the end of final song Black Diamond, when the whole lot went up in 30 seconds, earning them a lifetime ban from Bremen.
The Geordie proto-thrashers refused to play live until they could mount a show with sufficiently spectacular pyros; when they finally headlined Hammersmith Odeon in 1984, they let off so much they were banned from the venue by Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council. “All these other artists would spend any money they got from gigs on beer,” says Cronos. “We spent it on bigger and better pyros.”
After 2010’s Final Frontier Tour was largely pyro-free (“We like to alternate it every other year,” explained Bruce, “because if you get the reputation that you’ve got to go and see a band because of the pyro and then you don’t do the pyro, people think, ‘Oh, I won’t bother then’”) the boys brought back the fire in magnificent style for 2012’s Maiden England tour, with flames belching out of Eddie’s ‘ead and the firecrackers in time to the keyboard stabs in Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son sending pulses even higher than the bursting pillars of flame.
Few musicians have suffered for their pyrotechnic art quite as much as James Hetfield, who suffered second and third degree burns down the left side of his body when he stepped into an explosion during Fade To Black in 1992. The Four Horsemen clearly saw the dramatic potential in a big onstage accident; in later years they would stage a fake pyro disaster, setting a roadie on fire before scaffolding and lights tumble to the ground.
Often to be found playing burning instruments, in burning clothes, wearing flamethrower gauntlets, firing sparks out of boots, drumsticks and codpieces, shooting fireworks into the air with a bow, belching flames and chucking bangers in the air, Rammstein are surely rock’s most obsessive and flamboyant pyromaniacs – fearless frontman Till Lindermann, a licensed pyrotechnical, has suffered multiple burns over a 20-year career, but you get the feeling he loves it.
The theatrical Finns are so mad for pyro that band mastermind Tuomas Holopainen wrote the song FantasMic as a homage to the fireworks display of the same name at Disneyland, while the keyboard maestro was asked by the band’s own fire suppliers Pyroman Ltd to supply a custom-made edit of the Imaginaerum score for the 2012 Finnish Fireworks Championships (they came second).
A band firmly rooted in the tradition of ambitious metal pyrotechnics, the best place to see the Swedish War Machine blow major fuck out of shit is at their hometown festival Sabaton Open Air, where roasting jets of fire, explosions and flying sparks punctuate rhythms and lyrical themes with spectacular, artistic efficiency.
As described on the Projection, Lights And Staging News website, special effects firm Pyrotek designed a fiery Death Bat for A7X’s 2011 Uproar Festival headline show involving “eight Gatling Guns added to the upper deck of the set to shoot flames horizontally behind each ‘claw’ of the skull wings… Flame units were also placed in the skull’s eyes.” As set designer Jordan Coopersmith commented, “The amount of flame on this thing is ridiculous.”