Part of being a successful artist or band is having lively stage presence. You can write the greatest songs ever recorded but being a bore onstage will hurt your credibility. A lot of pop artists will cover up a lack of musical talent with an insane live performance but it’s the people who put the best of both worlds together to create a lasting legacy that are still remembered after decades in the industry. Some were smart about it, some not so much. Why don’t see we take a glance?
One of the very few living legends in rock n roll, David Bowie showed just how to market an image properly. Sure, the David Bowie of the last few decades have been the man himself performing with no elaborate get-up whatsoever but there was a time in his career where his stage act greatly influenced the likes of Lady Gaga. The year was 1972 and Bowie created the character of Ziggy Stardust, a man/alien hybrid who parades as a rockstar delivering messages of hope, love, peace for extraterrestrials. Dressed from head to toe with bright, red hair, minor face paint, and a full body suit, Bowie’s new image turned heads with fellow musicians and audiences everywhere and helped elevate Bowie into the public eye.
The experiment resulted in a concept album, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars” later that year. The album is absolutely fantastic and one of my all-time favorites. Critics and records sales agree with my stance. Two of my favorite hit tracks from the LP were “Starman” and “Suffragette City”. The former was briefly parodied in the 2007 John C. Reilly spoof film, “Walk Hard” while the latter was covered faithfully by Seattle rockers Alice In Chains.
Bowie knew how to create a larger than life alter ego but still keep the music as the forefront as a musician first and actor second. Instead of using his image to push more records and let his appearance become more remembered than his songs, he created a timeless classic in time that music lovers everywhere still remember and for the right reasons.
The Godfathers of the stage show, KISS pretty much set the bar for what bands had to do to send their audience home with a lifetime of memories. Formed by Jewish immigrant Chaim Witz (later renamed Gene Simmons) in New York City in the early 1970’s, KISS recorded many a catchy tune but what most people remember about them is their appearance. The foursome were decked out in black and white face paint, high heel boots, and sparkling spandex. In addition to their look, they would give fans their money’s worth by spitting fire, displaying extensive pyro, drinking a blood-like substance, and blinding lighting. These stunts quickly earned KISS the reputation of being the best live show on earth. These claims would be backed up when footage of these performances aired on television and VHS tapes. KISS would then go on to release their highly acclaimed live album, “Alive!” in 1975. Even in audio form, their live show left an impression on listeners everywhere. Despite their antics, the band had their fair share of critics and music fans who quickly dismissed them as being nothing more than a gimmick.
I personally think KISS gets a bit of a bad rep. Are their outfits stupid? Sure. Did the band attempt to jump on every musical trend throughout their history? Guilty. Are they money-grubbing whores who will slap their name on everything? Yeah. I’ll be damned though if they didn’t write some fucking awesome tracks. “Goin’ Blind”, “I Stole Your Love”, “War Machine”, and even “Hard Luck Woman” are all awesome KISS songs. They definitely have some clunkers in their discography but they bring it for the most part through the speakers. Ace Frehley’s great guitar playing combined with Paul Stanley’s above average vocals and Gene Simmon’s creative vision made KISS a huge influence on music and live concerts.
Formed in the early 80’s, the brainchild of musician Dave Brockie, GWAR, were a thrash metal band with a very elaborate stage act. Combining heavy metal with cheesy sci-fi/horror films, Brockie and co. set out to make an impact in music and entertainment. GWAR wore bulky costumes resembling what can best be described as “viking space aliens”, performing under aliases, and even acting under a fictitious backstory. The gimmick didn’t end at their appearance though, but in their overall stage performance. GWAR is considered one of the most fun shows anyone could ever attend and with good reason. Dousing the crowd in red, green, and blue “blood” (food coloring) is just one of the tricks the band has in store for their audience. In addition to performing songs, the band conducts skits in between hits. They have animatronic replicas of popular figures such as Justin Bieber, the Pope, and George W. Bush, destroyed during their set and lead singer Oderus Urungus slays “demons” with a huge broadsword. I experienced my first GWAR concert recently and I have to agree with the sentiments that it was an surreal, outrageous experience. Unlike any band I’ve seen live.
The premiere showman himself, Alice Cooper has been around since the 1960’s, even pre-dating KISS. Starting out fronting a straight-up rock band with no glitz or glamor, Cooper soon re-christened his band’s look and performance. Cooper ditched his old threads for eyeliner and leather. The Alice Cooper stage show contains live snakes, nudity, electric chairs, and guillotines just to name a few. The band’s performances have no doubt led to harsh controversy with critics and political pundits but that has not stopped the fun-loving maniac from giving it his all with his incredible shows from his twisted mind. Cooper’s theatrics have earned his music the title of “shock rock” which has greatly influenced such artists as Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson.
“Billion Dollar Babies” is an excellent album and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is probably one of my favorite songs ever. I think, as a songwriter, Cooper is pretty underrated with his spooky but intelligence lyrics. Hell, I even liked Cooper’s late 80’s comeback record, “Trash”. C’mon, who doesn’t like “Bed of Nails”?
Heavy metal underwent a resurgence in mainstream rock in the late 90’s but in a much less creative and dumbed down fashion. In what was dubbed “nu metal”, bands all sported spiked hair, baggy jeans, and piercings while their music consisted of simplistic, detuned riffs, and rapping vocals. One of the biggest bands from this era was Slipknot. Fronted by Corey Taylor, the band’s was able to stand out for two distinct reasons 1.) The group had a total of NINE members. Not the standard four or five members that most bands contain. Nine. Why exactly are there nine members when the excess of musicians don’t enhance their sound at all? 2.) Their looks. The band’s mode of dress consisted of coveralls and a distinct mask differentiating each member. The unit’s 1999 self-titled record brought them to the heavy metal spotlight as their image was something that hadn’t been seen in rock & roll in ages but it was their 2001 release, “Iowa”, that told audiences that they weren’t going anywhere any time soon. Some of the members have gone on to do side-projects, the most famous being Taylor’s band Stone Sour, and without their trademarks costumes. The band still reunites every few years for a new album and touring. Slipknot probably wouldn’t be as relevant as they are today without their costumes or the attention to Corey Taylor’s career outside the group but the “aggression” in their music still speaks to teenagers and young adults all over the globe.
I don’t want you to think that I hate Slipknot because I don’t. I was a GIGANTIC Slipknot fan when I was a teenager. Wore a Slipknot t-shirt all through 9th and 10th grade, blasted their music through my discman, the whole nine. When I started listening to more respectable artists though, I realized how mediocre their sound really was and how formulaic it is. There are still a few Knot tracks that I still dig to this day though and you simply cannot deny the sheer talent of their drummer Joey Jordison. There are worse bands out there like that time…
In the 80’s, thanks in part to KISS and the New York Dolls, hard rock music started to exhibit more style over substance. The record companies spotted this trend and thus an entire genre spawned in “hair metal”. In the holy grail of musical gimmicks, gone was the badass, no bullshit attitude that heavy metal became known for and more and more bands started popping out with a reliance on power ballads and an unhealthy attention to their appearances. Big hair, skin tight clothing, and women’s make-up were a uniform for bands such as Poison, Cinderella, Twisted Sister, Ratt, and Warrant. The genre, for the most part, was looked upon as a joke (especially today) as most of these bands you couldn’t take seriously because they looked so ridiculous. I’m a firm believer in not letting someone’s image cloud their actual musical talent but c’mon, can you honestly justify THIS?
Didn’t think so. Now admittedly, not ALL hair metal was terrible in my opinion. I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t enjoy the music of Motley Crue, Scorpions, Guns N’ Roses, and Skid Row, the latter two of which are always debated as whether or not they were apart of the genre (I never considered either band to be hair metal to be honest as their music was much more than that). The difference between those bands and the rest of hair metal was that those guys had the musical chops to make you forget about their look. Scorpions’ “The Zoo” packs more punch than pretty much any Poison track and it was an insult for 90% of these guys to be grouped with bands who encompassed what metal was all about. To be honest, most hair metal groups weren’t even metal really to begin with. It was just disposable pop music with above average songwriting and musicianship. Listen to Slayer then listen to Kix. The differences are uncanny:
Eventually, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing the latest power ballad or turn on the TV and see the latest cheesy hair metal video usually consisting of the band playing their instruments while decked out in something your sister would wear.
It just got to be too much and people eventually saw right through it. The 90’s came along and the grunge movement effectively killed the genre for good.
Sadly, some of these bands are still around today trying to claim one last shot of glory. You can usually see hair metal bands playing at a mid-sized pub or at huge festivals where they show up, play their hits to old soccer moms and divorcees on a bill with other washed up has-beens. Some bands today, today even try to revitalize and pay tribute to this genre of music, the most notable example being Steel Panther.