December 26, 2019

Did You See What They Did On Stage?

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From the very beginning of the Rock era there has been a great deal of flair, outrageous behavior and gimmicks that have been a major factor in the presentation of the music. Some of it was by nature, but most of it by design. Some of it was original; much of it was copied.

At the outset it was the Elvis Presley wiggle that caused to him to be censored on TV. His act was mild compared to what followed. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins belted out his classic “I Put a Spell on You” while coming out of a coffin. Little Richard wore makeup while pounding the keys.

No one was more fun to watch than the first original “Crazy Man” of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Jerry Lee Lewis. When he appeared on the Steve Allen TV show, there was a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on. Jerry would come on stage with every hair in place. He placed a candelabra on the piano. He started out playing the piano real slow. Then suddenly he stood up and kicked the piano stool off the stage. Once he started pumping away on his piano, he would smash the candles off the piano. Then, as if to be in a state of frenzy, he would shake his head until his long hair (by that day’s standard) would be flying all over his head to the point where his eyes couldn’t be seen any longer. Steve Allen was stunned and amazed. I am sure his audience was as well. It would be a long time before anyone else who had a variety show would have a rocker on.

The teens, on the other hand, loved it. It had a lot of older folks talking about “Devil’s music”. Many wanted rock shows banned. And soon after it did look like rock ’n’ roll was dead. Chuck Berry and his duck walk on stage were sent off to prison. Elvis went into the Army and had his hair cut odd. Little Richard tamed down and became a preacher.

Then came the 60’s. It brought with it a new wave of rockers. First it was The Beatles. Thanks to the efforts of Brian Epstein who took them out of the leather jackets, etc. and made them clean up and wear suits, their cuteness was their gimmick. The Rolling Stones countered by being the opposite of The Beatles. They became the “bad boys” of Rock. Then after that, it seemed like all you had to do was to be from England to get attention.

Before too long just playing music on stage wasn’t enough. You had to do more to get attention. The Who were the first to destroy a guitar on stage. Jimi Hendrix went a step further. He burned his guitar on stage. Jimi wasn’t extremely flashy on stage, but he had an aura about him. He also did things for show. For example, he would have a huge wall of amps on stage. People assumed he was using all of them. He didn’t.

Speaking of fire, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown used fire on stage while singing his big hit song called “Fire”. Brown had a special helmet made that allowed him to have the illusion of fire coming out of his head. It worked well until one day there was a malfunction that almost burned Arthur and the entire venue.

Things got even more elaborate when David Bowie took on the persona of Ziggy Stardust. Not only were his clothes outrageous, but he wore makeup and would make grand entrances Things like using a wire to fly onto the stage. The use of makeup was nothing new in Rock music. Besides Little Richard there was a group called the Hello People and Leo Sayer also did it, but Bowie put it together with the whole Ziggy thing and the great music.

Kiss would use fire, makeup and flashing lights to get the attention of the audience. Their makeup was part of their on-stage persona. They were never seen without their makeup which added to the mystic.

Alice Cooper created a live show that caused a huge buzz. It didn’t matter if you liked his music or not, the stage show was a must see. It was filled with all kinds of attention getters from a boa constrictor to a beheading.

When it came to flashy, not one outdid Elton John. He would wear huge sunglasses, glitter, high heel boots and crazy hats as part of the show. In the early days he could be as wild on the piano as Jerry Lee Lewis.

Probably the most remarkable start to a concert that I ever saw was done by The Electric Light Orchestra. At their show that they did in Cleveland’s huge Municipal Stadium, their entrance was nothing short of spectacular. My description cannot give you the full impact, but I will try.

When fans arrived at the stadium, one end of the field was totally covered from top to bottom. Then when the concert was about to begin all the lights went down. The sounds of an incoming spaceship drowned out the audience. Then slowly you could see the image of a spaceship (as seen on many of the album covers that ELO put out) slowly starting to descend onto the stage. When it finally got to the stage there was a cloud of smoke. Then the members of the band came bouncing out of a saucer that was hidden on stage, giving the illusion that they just landed.

The Blues Brothers used their name as comics for their attention getter. They were on a mission from God. Their stage shows and movies were amusing. That was no surprise. What was surprising is how well they pulled off the musical part of the act. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were made even more credible by using the same backup musicians as the original artists that they were trying to mimic.

Humor was very much a part of a band that was huge in England, but never made an impact on the States. The Bonzo Dog Band were so popular in the UK that they had their own TV show. Among their many fans was Paul McCartney. Paul went so far as to produce the only song that even came close to becoming a hit for them. “I’m an Urban Spaceman” failed despite the efforts of McCartney.

It is very hard to describe what they did on stage. They used costumes, robots, and all kinds of silly hats while performing some very silly songs. Perhaps their British humor (described by many as Monty Python set to music) was too much for the American audience. The fact remains that they were not only funny, but very good musicians.

It is hard to be funny and have your music taken seriously by the masses. Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart are two great examples. Both performers were extremely creative and funny. They were two of the most interesting people (not just musicians) that I have ever met.

Zappa went out of his way to offend many people. Hence the shout that he often heard- “Just shut up and play”. For many people his playing was far superior than his antics on stage. Often lost was the fact that he created some very complex and interesting music. He is in both the Jazz and Rock ‘n’ Roll Halls of Fame as a result. He attracted some of the very best musicians and their music showed it.

Beefheart also attracted some great players. His Magic Band was asked to perform some of the most difficult music ever. His stage performances were usually a real sight to see. The night that he played with John Sebastian at Philadelphia/s Spectrum was especially entertaining. The band was dressed in everything from bathrobes to dinner jackets (complete with a monocle and cigarette holder). The Captain himself wore a top hat with a birdie attached at the top. The drum kit included trash can lids. The audience who came to see John Sebastian were totally stunned.

Don’t let their attire fool you. These guys could really play. They were known to have practiced for as many as 16 hours a day for months on end. After the show, when I spent time with the good Captain in his dressing room, a local musician worked his way to him to ask Beefheart where he got his ideas for his amazing arrangements. His answer was “Coke: I drink lots of Coke”. It was actually a lot of hard work.

These are just some of the most interesting ways that Rock artists have tried to get your attention. Certainly, the list is not complete. If you have some that you’d like to add to the list, please let me know.

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