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Shock Tactics

On October 8, 1996, Marilyn Manson released the album Antichrist Superstar. In 2004, Classic Rock put his reputation into perspective in relation to other shock rockers

Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Sometimes it’s the old clichés that are the best. What purpose did that all encompassing sentence serve in shocking the parental generation who were looking for action themselves in the 1950s and 60s? The kids were rebelling, they were finding their own voice, and in doing so they were listening to ‘inappropriate’ music. Music that was a rallying call to party, to have a good time, to get the girls. And, hell, sometimes the people making this corrupting cacophony had (shock horror!) long hair – you know, just like The Beatles did in 1964.

But these were innocent times, when the establishment could easily be riled, and turning up the volume on guitars was enough to incite a riot, or seeing a glimpse of Elvis’s gyrating pelvis would send our ‘moral guardians’ into paroxysms of outrage. Even through the 60s – the acknowledged era of free love – Mick Jagger wasn’t permitted to sing the innocent lyrics to The Rolling Stones’ _L__et's __Spend The Night Together_ on national television, he had to change the offending phrase in the lyric to: ‘_Let’s spend some time together…’_.

As the Summer of Love drew to its psychedelic close, it was no longer enough for some performers to make their statement via their recorded material. Rock’n’roll no longer had the power to shock by simply using words and music alone. There was no discernible sense of outrage any more. Things had become safe again.

At that point, boundaries were still in place and taboos were there to be broken. There appeared to be one particularly great way to accomplish this – and the concept of shock rock was born.

Mention that notion shock rock to anyone (even those who are not ardent rock fans), and chances are the first name that will spring to mind is Alice Cooper. Daubing his face with freak-show make-up – the blacked-out eyes, the skewed lines around his mouth – Alice Cooper welcomed us to his nightmare. And what a nightmare it was. At various times his stage show included dismembered babies, executioners, knives, boa constrictors, straitjackets, and at the end of all the orchestrated chaos the hapless protagonist got his final comeuppance by means of guillotine or a hangman’s noose.

“We brought theatrics to rock’n’roll. We did it before Bowie, we did it before Kiss and beforeanybody,” Alice has admitted in recent times.“There was no showbiz in rock’n’roll before AliceCooper,” he added. “It was taboo and really lookeddown upon to call yourself showbiz. So when wecame along we went as far out on a limb as we could.We did everything we could to annoy every parent inAmerica, then backed it up with anthems that gotplayed. We had twenty-five gold albums and sold 50 million records. It was no fluke.”

Proof, if you ever needed it, that to shock is to see success. And this is nothing new – especially not these days. Why is it that some of the biggest grossing Hollywood movies are those which repulse us – ones that we sometimes want to watch through our fingers as we can’t quite bear, or even believe, what is happening on the screen? Imagery from horror films has been appropriated into rock’n’roll and back again a million times over.

Take any new horror film of the last and you’ll find that nine times out of 10 the artists involved on the soundtrack are rock bands. Rock and horror movies feed off each other. The soundtrack gets slapped with a parental advisory sticker, thus making it a coveted item, if only for its shock value. In this respect it can be said that the great outrage of stickering popular music albums with profane content has backfired.

As the Summer of Love drew to its psychedelic close, it was no longer enough for some performers to make their statement via their recorded material. Rock’n’roll no longer had the power to shock by simply using words and music alone. There was no discernible sense of outrage any more. Things had become safe again.

At that point, boundaries were still in place and taboos were there to be broken. There appeared to be one particularly great way to accomplish this – and the concept of shock rock was born.

Mention that notion shock rock to anyone (even those who are not ardent rock fans), and chances are the first name that will spring to mind is Alice Cooper. Daubing his face with freak-show make-up – the blacked-out eyes, the skewed lines around his mouth – Alice Cooper welcomed us to his nightmare. And what a nightmare it was. At various times his stage show included dismembered babies, executioners, knives, boa constrictors, straitjackets, and at the end of all the orchestrated chaos the hapless protagonist got his final comeuppance by means of guillotine or a hangman’s noose.

“We brought theatrics to rock’n’roll. We did it before Bowie, we did it before Kiss and beforeanybody,” Alice has admitted in recent times.“There was no showbiz in rock’n’roll before AliceCooper,” he added. “It was taboo and really lookeddown upon to call yourself showbiz. So when wecame along we went as far out on a limb as we could.We did everything we could to annoy every parent inAmerica, then backed it up with anthems that gotplayed. We had twenty-five gold albums and sold 50 million records. It was no fluke.”

Proof, if you ever needed it, that to shock is to see success. And this is nothing new – especially not these days. Why is it that some of the biggest grossing Hollywood movies are those which repulse us – ones that we sometimes want to watch through our fingers as we can’t quite bear, or even believe, what is happening on the screen? Imagery from horror films has been appropriated into rock’n’roll and back again a million times over.

Take any new horror film of the last and you’ll find that nine times out of 10 the artists involved on the soundtrack are rock bands. Rock and horror movies feed off each other. The soundtrack gets slapped with a parental advisory sticker, thus making it a coveted item, if only for its shock value. In this respect it can be said that the great outrage of stickering popular music albums with profane content has backfired.

The prominent placing of the black-and-white warning label was instigated in 1985 by the American PMRC(Parents’ Music Resource Center) According the official doctrine, this meant stickering any record whose content included ‘themes or imagery that relate to sexuality,violence, drug or alcohol use, suicide or the “occult”’. 

The fervour became so immense in conservative America that prosecutions of record companies became commonplace. If you released an album containing controversial material then you were a prime target. Even shopkeepers were not immune – simply stocking offending (or should that be offensive?) albums could get them into all sorts of trouble.

Staunch PMRC activist Tipper Gore set her sights on Blackie Lawless and W.A.S.P. when she perceived the extent to which children were being corrupted by Lawless’s outrageous ‘poetry’. The following is taken from the now infamous _Animal __(Fuck Like A Beast)_ single: _‘I’m on the prowl and I __watch you closely/I lie waiting for you/I’m the wolf with the sheepskin’s clothing/I lick my chops and you’re tasting good/I do whatever I want to, to ya/I’ll nail your ass to the the sweat starts to sting ya/I fuck __like a beast’_. While it’s hardly Shakespeare, in today’s climate, the outrage it provoked seems as laughable as Jagger having to change the lyrics to a Stones song.

Ironically, it was the media furore that surrounded the banning of that W.A.S.P. song that made it all the more successful. Had Gore not brought the song’s attention to the masses via a huge publicity campaign and political agenda, the offending article would have been heard and bought only by hard-core W.A.S.P. fans and probably not many more people. As it was, the fact it was supposed to be so shocking made the public curious, and consequently Animal (Fuck Like A Beast) ended up being the most successful – and certainly most cited and remembered – of all of W.A.S.P.’s songs to the masses.

If anything, the advent of the ‘Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics’ sticker served only as a device to bring ‘shocking’ material to the forefront, pointing out to the record-buying masses that there might be something illicit, deviant or antisocial within the package – which of course makes it all the more desirable.

All the attention took its toll on purveyors of such affronting material, though. As Lawless recalls: “When we were going through all of that it was literally life-altering. We were going through hundreds of death threats, bomb scares… it was terrorism, and there’s no two ways around it. And even though you think you’re a hard-ass and can handle it all, you can’t, and it does eventually creep into your psyche over a period of time.”

Odd, really, that some people who were ostensibly claiming to protect the delicate moral fibre of the young chose to go about it by issuing death threats and bomb scares to a rock’n’roll band – now that’s shocking!

Even Blackie himself seems shocked by how modern-day society has changed and become anaesthetised to outrage and violence.

‘You’ve got kids that are taking guns to school, or making bombs in their basements,” he says. “God knows we’ve seen too many examples of that in the last few years. That’s something that didn’t happen when I was going to school. Somebody got mad, you had a fist-fight, and that was pretty much it. But no, they’re playing for keeps.”

The shock of today’s reality of high-school massacres and global terrorism is in a different league to Blackie being reviled for having outlandish make-up and wearing a cod-piece that came alternately equipped with a rotary saw blade or a flame-thrower.

Even W.A.S.P.’s stage shows – which involved the simulated slaughter of a pig, the rape of a nun or the throwing of fresh raw meat into the baying crowd – seem somewhat tame by comparison. Essentially, like those who had gone before him and would come after, part of Blackie’s appeal was that it was pure theatre. Which was something that Alice Cooper and Kiss’s Gene Simmons understood implicitly: for all their shock value, they were ultimately there to entertain. Masks have long been a staple of performance, and Kiss’s black-and-white make-up was merely an extension.

As Simmons relates in his autobiography, trying to convince a promoter in the early days that Kiss – for all their outrageous image – took their job, and art, very seriously was difficult: “It took us a while to explain that we were completely serious. It’s easy to see why he was confused – up until that point, you didn’t have popular bands coming out with make-up on. Alice Cooper was a frontman in make-up, and obscure bands like Roy Wood’s Wizzard and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown wore make-up. But to have a real rock band with four guys, all of them in make-up, was unprecedented. It didn’t have as much in common with rock’n’roll as it did with the movies or Las Vegas.”

Of course, the make-up and masks alone were not enough to particularly scare the masses (or outrage the establishment). But Kiss’s over-the-top stage show, with Simmons blowing fire from his mouth, and the huge pyrotechnics, were anothermatter altogether. Not to mention the blood.

“Throwing up blood seemed to incite fundamentalist Christians. They actually believed I was a Devil worshipper, or perhaps even the Devil,” Gene ‘The Demon’ Simmons laughs. “The combination of the make-up, my tongue and the blood meant something to them. I always found it curious when they said: ‘You look just like the Devil’. When was the last time they had seen the Devil? How do they know what he looks like?”

And, twisted though it might be, there’s definitely some logic in Simmons’s words.

One performer who did endeavour to portray the Devil incarnate in a more serious way was King Diamond, the singer with proto black metal band Mercyful Fate. His face paint was a quirky reimagining of the bastard son of Gene Simmons and Alice Cooper (so much so that under threat of litigation Diamond had to alter his make-up  style because it was too close to Simmons’s for the latter’s comfort).

Diamond’s stage show included coffins and demonic imagery, the lyrical content of his records was questionable, and he even guested on a talk show in the early 90s when his records were being damned for containing ‘hidden messages’.

All this was going on at the same time as Judas Priest were being dragged through the US courts on a ludicrous trumped-up charge that a song (which they didn’t even write – Spooky Tooth’s B__etter By You Better Than Me) on their Stained Class album had caused two troubled teenagers to commit suicide.

There’s no doubt that the old school of shock rock has morphed into little more than a theatrical experience. But, as time has proved, theatre has staying power. And thus so do the rockers who have made it their own. Alice Cooper makes no secret of the fact that he assumes his persona for a show. Blackie Lawless and W.A.S.P. gave up their costumes and stage show for one album and tour, only for the band to reinstate it for their last jaunt when they realised exactly what it was that audiences wanted from them. In much the same way, Kiss just weren’t the same after we saw their faces on the _Lick It Up _album. 

We want the masks, we want the show. We’re not as shocked as we have been in the past – perhaps it’s the everyday violence that has put paid to that – but that doesn’t mean to say we don’t want to be entertained.

One person who is still, arguably, attempting to challenge values and assault our senses is Marilyn Manson – the original, self-confessed Antichrist Superstar. Many critics have either lauded him or written him off as an Alice Cooper of his time, although Manson does appear to take things far more seriously than any of his predecessors.

“When people sometimes misconceive us as being like Kiss or like Alice Cooper, or being a persona, I don’t think they understand how deeply Marilyn Manson goes into my existence.” Manson has said.

But despite his protestations there can be no denying that Manson is a persona. He has often spoken about the myth as a construct, and he also talks about Manson inthe third person.

“There are two things that Marilyn Manson has been designed to do,” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s been designed to speak to the people who understand it and to scare the people who don’t. A lot of what I say to our fans is: ‘Stop worrying about trying to fit into the status quo of what is beautiful and what is politically correct. Believe in yourself and stick to what’s right. If you wanna be like me, then be like yourself'.

“It’s the whole Nietzsche philosophy of you are your own god. That’s why I debase myself in the concerts and tell people to spit on me. I’m saying to them: ‘You are no different to me'."

The only difference he perceives is that he takes his show out on the road to preach to the disaffected and alienated youth. His stage show is specifically designed to shock and offend. So much so that when Manson joined the bill for Ozzfest in 2002 it was his performance that caused the most outrage – even before the show went on the road.

“People do acknowledge and recognise me as truly dangerous,” Manson said in response to his being refused a permit to play at several venues along the Ozzfest trail.

“I refuse to say that what I do is show business. Only Marilyn Manson, out of Korn, Disturbed and all these other bands, has been considered inappropriate. That’s the inability to reconcile art and entertainment.”

Where shopkeepers were under attack in the 80s for stocking inappropriate albums, US department stores went a step further in 2000 to try to prevent the corruption of their youth by Marilyn Manson. It was the cover art for Manson’s _Holy Wood (In The Shadow Of __The Valley_ _Of Death)_ that caused the most controversy, prompting many chains not to stock it at all.

Bowing to pressure from both sides (kids who wanted the album, parents who objected to the artwork), many retailers stocked the album with different cover art or a plain sleeve. The original artwork depicted Manson being crucified, part of his jaw missing and his black eyes rolled back in their sockets. This censorship pleased the singer.

“The irony is that my point of the photo on the album was to show people that the crucifixion of Christ is, indeed, a violent image,” he posted at his website at the time, echoing similar sentiments to those expressed by staunch Catholic actor/director Mel Gibson towards those critics who have lambasted Gibson’s recent extremely violent Passion Of The Christ movie.

Manson added: “In fact the picture itself is composed of a statue of Jesus taken from a place of worship. My jaw is missing as a symbol of this very kind of censorship. This doesn’t piss me off as much as it pleases me, because those offended by my album cover have successfully proven my point.”

Following the high-school shootings in Columbine, Colorado, in 1999, rock got another bad rap. And Manson emerged as the scapegoat, because the perpetrators of the hideous massacre were acknowledged fans of his. But what shocked the general public about Manson’s reaction was the eloquent, intelligent, reasoned and insightful editorial he wrote for Rolling Stone magazine to explain the situation. Which was not what was expected from the man who was being blamed as the corrupter of all youth.

Perhaps most telling is a statistic that comes from data recently collected from a survey of rock radio listeners: of the 13,700 participants, only 11 per cent are offended more than ‘rarely’.

Ultimately, as Jane’s Addiction asserted, it appears that in 2004 nothing’s shocking. But that doesn’t stop the carnivals and freak shows rolling on.

This was published in Classic Rock issue 67

Read a review of Manson's Born Villain album

And here's an assessment of his Holy Wood album           

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