Shockin’ Through the Decades
“Shock rock” is sort of a redundant term. Rock and roll has always been about pushing the envelope since…well, since whenever it began, an unanswerable question that is the subject of a particularly detailed and fascinating Wikipedia article.
Since the world has become comfortable with the idea of rock music, it’s taken a little more to qualify as what anyone would call shocking. Really, is anything shocking anymore? I don’t mean this as a joke. Even if you have never heard of nor wish to seek out the band Fartbarf, the album Carnivorous Erection or the song “Fecal Smothered Dildo Punishment,” I’d imagine it doesn’t truly startle you to know they exist. Feel free to Google them if you don’t believe me.
When a shocking band is out of sight and out of mind for all but the tiniest sliver of society, they haven’t really succeeded in shocking. So what of those musicians who are known to relatively many but still retain the reputation for shock? They tend to be iconoclastic, ego-driven individualists; they tend to have a keen sense of what kinds of shock appeal to mass audiences (themes of death and horror, for the most part) and they tend to have at least a tiny smidgen of actual talent (though not always).
These qualities make up a sector of popular music that has developed less as the domain of true shock and more into a semi-defined, not-always-shocking genre called shock rock. In honor of this, scariest month, I present this rundown of shock rockers throughout history.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (first record: 1956)
Most musical genres can’t trace their origins to a single individual (though some can). But the history of shock rock makes it seem reasonably clear that it began with one specific song: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” Like most defining songs of original rock and roll, it straddles the border with rhythm & blues, and has been covered over and over by obvious antecedents and others as well.
The song was originally meant to be a straightforward ballad. It only ended up in the grunting, shrieking, animalistic way it did because both Hawkins and his band recorded the final take in a drunken stupor that he didn’t remember the next day. It was only then that Jay Hawkins became Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the world was left to wonder once again whether the course of history would have been different had a small group of people not gotten wasted at the precise time they did.
Hawkins also originated a key component of shock rock by opening his act by coming out of coffins, wearing a cape and carrying around a skull-on-a-stick sidekick named “Henry.” Hawkins never came close to replicating the success of “I Put a Spell on You,” but because of that one song and the decades-long career it afforded him, everyone on this list owes him a debt of gratitude.
Screaming Lord Sutch (first record: 1961)
The parallels between Hawkins and Sutch don’t end with having names implying an inclination to utter loud piercing cries. Both were, in their own unusual ways, on the cusp of a significant movement in the development of rock and roll—Hawkins with the gradual breaking-off from African American rhythm & blues, Sutch with the British Invasion—and both were famous primarily for one, oft-covered song.
For Sutch, that song was “Jack the Ripper,” and the song’s subject matter (not to mention Sutch’s caped, top hatted image) established the Victorian motif that would inform much future shock rock. This live performance from 1964 is incredibly surreal to me. The screams of British teenage girls are a familiar emblem of the black-and-white rockin’ ’60s, but how often do we see them elicited not by happiness but by something resembling actual revulsion?
Sutch might be the campiest figure on this list, and he has a few other good songs that stray far into Bobby “Boris” Pickett territory. It’s difficult to find and kind of truly dark undertone to his songs, which is sadly ironic considering he hung himself at age 58.
Arthur Brown (first record: 1968)
Another shock rock progenitor, another one-hit wonder. For Arthur Brown and his band, the quaintly named Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the song was “Fire,” which was a #1 hit in the U.K. in 1968. Someone might prove me wrong, but as far as I can tell, Brown was the first musician to wear bright white-and-black “corpsepaint”-style makeup, which is really pretty significant, when you consider the wide spectrum of later artists who wore it.
I also get the feeling that Brown was the first shock rocker to introduce a level of true menace to his delivery. Hawkins and Sutch were more in your face, but I get more of a sense of creeping dread from Brown. He conducted himself not like a deranged, creepy outsider, but more like a supernatural presence—the “God of Hellfire” as he put it—which is another hallmark of future shock rock.
The alarmingly D.I.Y.-looking pyrotechnic device attached to Brown’s head in the video led to some extremely predictable incidents. For instance, at one show, the inflammable fluid spilled onto his head as he was being lifted to the stage by a crane, and his hair was, as the song puts it, taken to burn. The situation was dealt with in a very rock-and-roll manner when a quick thinking-fan doused the flames with a pint of beer. Not sure if the ordeal took Brown to learn (not to do that anymore). I can’t decide if this is hilarious or an indication of him having been really kind of crazy, but one way or another Brown definitely pushed the genre further.
Alice Cooper (first record: 1969)
We’re now moving away from progenitors and toward some people who should and actually finally might get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Alice Cooper is one of those celebrities who seems to weirdly get more prominent as he gets older, but he wasn’t always the Wayne-and-Garth educating, golf-obsessed, evangelical conservative Republican he became. Come to think of it, he probably was, but the world just didn’t know it.
What it did know at Alice’s inception was that Alice Cooper was a band, not an individual. When the erstwhile Vince Furnier assumed the Alice moniker for himself (apparently a ouija board told him he was the incarnation of a 17th century witch by that name) and wrestled the copyright for it away from his bandmates, he established two shock rock precedents with one fell swoop: a combination of mild transvestism with hyper-machismo, and an ego too large to accept peers.
(His former bandmates have gone on to other things, and I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention drummer Neal Smith, whose website describes him as a “Rock N Realtor” and has an intro stating, “Over 25,000,000 albums: SOLD. Over $25,000,000 in real estate: SOLD.” Check it out yourself.)
Cooper’s catalog contains some bona-fide non-shocking classics and a bevy of very good ones that tend to combine horror (at varying levels of camp) with intense libidinousness. As he has gotten older and become a sort of scary-music mascot, one might expect his music to have mellowed, but on the contrary, his lyrics seem to have gotten somehow more controversial as he blows past 50 and 60.
I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’d like to give him credit for trying to stay bold and commenting on current events (that song was written in response to the Columbine shootings). But the lyrics are so atrocious that I can’t, and furthermore, the contrast with his new-found family friendly image makes songs like that seem incredibly fake, too. There’s no denying, however, that Alice Cooper was the first shock rock superstar, and I’ll always appreciate him for that, even if he puts out a promotional single about drinking donkey blood with all proceeds going to the Tea Party Express.
Ozzy Osbourne (first record: 1970)
What’s the opposite of a soft spot in your heart? Whatever it is, I have it for Ozzy. I feel weird admitting that since he was the original frontman for one of the most skull-meltingly awesome and influential bands in the history of heavy metal, Black Sabbath, where his singing was acceptable enough to not get in the way of Tony Iommi and company. But I often have wondered—and I hope I don’t get death threats for saying this—how good the band would have been had a singer of the quality of the late, far-beyond-great Ronnie James Dio been with them from the beginning.
Ozzy didn’t really become a shock rocker until he became a solo act. As you can see, this is something of a pattern. Most of the incidents he’s most notorious for—biting the head off a dove, drunkenly urinating on the Alamo memorial in Texas, biting off the head off a bat (that he once claimed he thought was rubber, and that he claimed another time bit him, necessitating rabies shots)—happened after he left Sabbath.
I’ve just never gotten much out of Ozzy other than a party animal with an exceedingly average voice who sometimes likes to wear heavy eyeliner. I see “Crazy Train” as a great 30 second intro that is ideal for a baseball player’s walk-up song followed by four minutes of total stock. I see “Mr. Crowley” (and most of Ozzy’s attempts to delve into the occult) as corniness that wouldn’t sound terribly out of place on a Spinal Tap album.
I actually think one of Ozzy’s best solo songs is “Suicide Solution,” which is a legitimately nuanced and interesting take on alcoholism. The song is a warning that regularly drinking to excess is a form of slow, torturous suicide. But of course, this is the song that more than one dead teenager’s parents have sued him over. Ozzy knew his song wasn’t really at all about suggesting kids kill themselves. But when he titled it as he did, did he have this ensuing controversy in the back of his mind? Knowing his penchant for shock without the substance to back it up, it wouldn’t surprise me.
Kiss (First Record: 1973)
I was planning to only include individuals on this list, since the ego-driven solo artist seems to be the shock rock archetype. But I realized there was no way I could exclude the band that began when an art major named Stanley Eisen met an Israeli-born elementary school teacher named Chaim Witz in Queens.
From a commercial standpoint, Kiss is the perfect shock rock band. They wear strange makeup, they spit blood and fire and play a bass shaped like an axe. But they combine all this with a catalog of songs that is almost painfully inoffensive. Their most famous song‘s lyrics could have been sung by Bill Haley. Yes, there was a brief rumor when they came out that KISS stood for “Knights in Satan’s Service,” but there’s no way in hell (pun definitely intended) that anyone could think that today.
What this sterilized version of shock rock has produced is a repugnant merchandising empire that has weirdly overshadowed the band’s music. But when it comes down to it, while they don’t have a deep collection of hits, they have a few that are pretty damn great. Vacuous and musically simpler than most punk songs, but great. I’m happy to take a visualless Kiss mp3 now and again, but personally I’ll let them keep the condom, the coffeehouse, the licensed professional wrestler and the casket. Sorry, “kasket.”
Grace Jones (first record: 1976)
You can’t really call Grace Jones a shock “rocker.” But her brand of shock pop/disco/new wave introduced the important concept that mainstream shock didn’t have to come from themes of horror or death. Take for example the cover of her second-highest charting album, which features a title that would shock Al Sharpton, a flattop that would shock Kenny Walker and a mouth that would shock the ice cream truck guy in “Legion.”
As you can tell in this video when she wears an enormous Keith Haring dress or Andy Warhol declares that “Grace is perfect,” Jones enmeshed herself into the ’80s avant garde like few other musical artists. She appeared on talk shows wearing enormous orange turbans and gold masks. But at the same time, she appeared in “Conan the Destroyer” and played a salacious, steroidal henchwoman in the James Bond film “A View to a Kill.” She wasn’t tied to any cultural movement as much as she was committed to subverting cultural norms, which was a brilliant calculation for someone who came along right as the world was becoming a bit more shockproof.
In my opinion Jones’ musical output, which is heavy on covers, is a bit inconsistent—I think her version of “Warm Leatherette,” for instance, pales compared to the original, while others are outstanding. But her achievement was not in music or film but in image. She ushered in a new kind of art-and-fashion based shock that reflects in pop to this day and has scarcely ever needed to employ a drop of fake blood. (Well, almost.)
GG Allin (first record: 1977)
GG Allin has the unique distinction of being the only person on this list whose birth name was weirder than their stage name: His name at birth was Jesus Christ Allin. He was born and raised in a no-electricity, no-running water New Hampshire log cabin with a sociopathic religious maniac father who regularly abused his wife and children. And this incredibly sad and evil upbringing produced a person who was, unfortunately, plenty evil in his own right.
Grace Jones’ revelation was that you could attain shock value by subverting cultural norms rather than literally shocking people. Allin was the opposite. There were no homages to old horror movies at his shows. There was literal horror. A typical GG Allin show would feature him stripping naked, committing self-harm, producing every kind of human waste (sometimes, proceeding to consume it) and engaging in violent physical or sexual acts with audience members.
Allin repeatedly promised to top all these by eventually committing suicide onstage, but he died of a drug overdose before he could. I have to admit that his funeral was twistedly poetic: As he lay in repose, his friends plastered stickers on his casket, jammed drugs and whiskey down his lifeless throat, took pictures of themselves touching his penis, and generally treated his bloated, fetid corpse with the same disrespect he treated everyone in life. The consensus was that that was how he would have wanted it.
There are those who hold Allin up as a paragon of individualist punk ethos. But by the end of his career, it seems obvious to me that what he really was was an extreme narcissist who was quite deluded about both the extent of his influence and the consistency of his philosophy. It was his need for attention that led him to take shock rock to its logical extreme. He recorded a few songs, but I’m sure even he knew he was never going to be remembered for his musical talent. For better or for worse, he proved that one can be remembered for shock alone.
Rob Zombie (first record: 1987)
I think it’s possible that Rob Zombie does not get as much respect as he deserves. Paying homage to horror films of the past, campy or otherwise, is a tradition as old as Bauhaus and the Misfits. But I think it was with Zombie, with his band White Zombie and in his later solo career, that it really reached its apogee.
Take, for instance, “Dragula” (named after the Munsters’ car), which I think, in contrast to some of the hard rock my peers and I liked in the late ’90s, holds up exceedingly well today. I feel like this song and video are masterpieces of cinematic schlock-homage. I especially appreciate the fact that Zombie doesn’t seem too self-serious about it, if his “Night at the Roxbury”-style head pump while cruising in the dragula is any indication.
His horror fixation extends beyond exploitation movies; one of my favorite music videos of all time is his one that emulates a silent film. And his old band White Zombie had some pretty bangin’ hits of their own (although I have always thought that the lyric I originally thought it was—”more human, that’s what you’ve been”—would have been cooler).
I think Rob Zombie is the first artist on this list I’d think of as a shock rocker more as a genre label than for someone who generated any actual shock in their time, which is reflected in how the public views the types of films he derives his image from. He’s also more of a multimedia magnate than anyone on this list, as he has branched out to become an in-demand (if not particularly good) film director. (In that vein, there’s also an odd spinoff-like element at work in the fact that what he is to horror, his younger, less-popular brother tries to be to sci-fi.) Zombie might not be high on shock, but ironically, he seems more enmeshed than anyone in the culture and history of what shocks people.
Kembra Pfahler (first record: 1990)
Kembra Pfahler is probably the least well known artist on this list, but I really wanted to bring her up for two reasons. One, I think the picture at left is the most shocking one I saw in my research for this post. And two, she seems to me to be a remarkable synthesis of different shock rock elements. She combines Zombie’s midnight movie motif with Jones’ avant garde artistry with Allin’s transgressiveness with a mastery of makeup and presentation that outstrips almost anyone.
Most of Pfahler’s music has been recorded with her band, the marvelously named Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black (named for the cult icon), who have an array of camp horror-inspired songs with titles like “Chopsley: Rabid Bikini Model” and “Do You Miss My Head” as well as some quite transformative covers. And her music, image and overall presentation is accepted as avant garde art in a way that few musical artists are; she was featured, for instance, during the 2008 Whitney Biennial.
Most (though not all) of Pfahler’s music actually tends to be pretty straightforward and inoffensive relative to her image, but she more than makes up for it with some of her transgressive performance art pieces that would probably have given pause even to GG Allin (who she recorded with, by the way). She’s known, for instance, for cracking eggs on her vulva. Which really only sounds intense if you don’t know that she once literally sewed her vagina shut. (It would seem clear that this was some sort of protest against objectification, yet she also posed for Penthouse in this condition, so count me as confused.)
Finally, it’s also worth nothing that Pfahler is something of a cosmetological celebrity, having appeared at several makeup-industry events. And I think you get a good sense of the concept of shock rock in general when you see a crowd of calm fashion types watch her sing about “suck[ing] the shit out of your ass” while completely naked and covered in red paint (all of those things are in this video, if you care to witness them). I love the idea of someone like her being a cosmetics spokeswoman, even though you’d figure nearly every potential consumer is not looking to get as extreme as her. Sort of like SUV commercials highlighting towing capacity when most suburban buyers will never know the difference. The bottom line is, when it comes down to it, who is makeup more crucial to than shock rockers?
Marilyn Manson (first record: 1994)
If such things could be quantified, I think Marilyn Manson would have had one of the highest name recognition-to-knowledge of his music ratios in music history. It’s hard to imagine any American who was alive in the ’90s not recognizing his name, and his reputation for evil, for being the “Antichrist Superstar” as he himself put it. In an amazing feat of vocabularic gymnastics, Joe Lieberman managed to convey, at the same time, both the horror that conservative parents had for him and the enthusiasm his youthful fanbase had for him when he declared the band to be “the sickest group ever promoted by a mainstream record company.”
Yet, I sense his music remained invisible to most. I blame Manson himself completely for this, as his bible-ripping antics and album covers depicting himself as a hermaphroditic nude extraterrestrial were part of an overwhelming strategy of shock. But what separated him from older shock rockers, who some jaded music fans said he was simply a rehash of? For me one answer is a sense of humor. Manson had none of Ozzy’s partying spirit or Alice’s joie de mourir. Manson presented himself as a truly grim figure, and with his rod-straight hair, pasty makeup and everpresent weird contact lens, he looked considerably more alien. I only know of one press photo-type picture of him smiling, and it’s not exactly what you’d call humanizing.
In recent years Manson has become more accessible (sometimes in rather inexplicable ways). But I think it’s too bad that his extreme image turned off so many from his music, which is in some instances quite interesting in my opinion, and also can be quite different from what most people think of when they think of him. The album that launched him to stardom, Antichrist Superstar, is full of the goth-ish, pseudo-sacrilegious stuff everyone remembers like the still-powerful song whose title references the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man”. But I think his next album Mechanical Animals, a glam, Warholian meditation on fame and popular culture, is masterful, and I still listen to songs on it like “The Speed of Pain” and the title track.
Until not too recently I used to wonder if, given how severe his look was, Manson could possibly age gracefully. Then one day I looked up and realize I’m already sort of getting an answer. As his look wears off and his days as conservative America’s worst nightmare recede ever farther into the past, I’m sure Manson the public figure will fade more and more into obscurity, which I’m perfectly fine with. But I think his work deserves to be remembered.
Lady Gaga (first record: 2008)
What past musical artist is Lady Gaga most like? Lots of people have opinions. Madonna? Seems obvious enough. Bowie? It’s written right on her face. And the name “Lady Gaga” is a reference to a Queen song.
Of course, all of these are right. But I also want to suggest that, much like dinosaurs evolving into birds, she is the seemingly incongruous descendant of everyone on this list. The most clear precedent is Grace Jones, and Jones herself certainly agrees. But she also maintains the pointless religious iconography, the obsession with celebrity and the practice of looking bizarre in public that many shock rockers, and I’d say in particular Manson, share.
She’s actually already done a forced-sounding remix with him (I’d love to know what a real song by the two of them would sound like). And just like Manson graduated from subverting norms to grand, conceptual shock weirdness, Gaga seems to have definitely done the same.
Manson flamed out quickly, and that makes me wonder if Gaga will too. My feeling is that her brand of non-horrific shock will work for a lot longer. And even though it has seemed for decades that the genre is close to the end, I sense that somehow or other shock rock will work for a lot longer too.