Shock Rock

By Mick Houghton

Radio One Story of Pop, #16 1973

Alice is such an American name, and if you didn't know better you could well be excused for thinking that Alice Cooper was a '50s-style crooner or perhaps a long blonde-haired folk singer. But Alice Cooper is certainly neither. This is how he described his music in Hooka, a Texas underground magazine: 'It's third generation rock theatre-shock rock, which is very valid. 16, 17 and 18-year-old kids don't want to hear jazz . . . they want to hear rock. And they want a sex image – an antiheroic image'. There you have Alice.

That's what Alice represents, although there's nothing new about the anti-heroic sex image whose tradition in rock goes back to Presley, through the best of his British imitators like Billy Fury, to other anti-establishment figures like Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison. But 'shock rock', if it is to mean anything, implies more than just a youthful or sexy challenge to the social structure and to authority, otherwise almost all rock music comes within its bounds.

'Shock rock' is the use of theatrics to directly involve the audience. This seemed a natural progression to produce a new sort of reaction, since as rock & roll became more complex, it was no longer merely something to dance to. Consequently, performances were expanded by the use of light shows, films, visual efects and props, and this new dimension gradually developed during the '60s: Jimi Hendrix, with his cli mactic guitarburning ritual, the Who's guitar-smashing extravaganzas, and Arthur Brown's flaming headgear have all been examples of this phenomenon in operation. Alice Cooper, the Stooges, with the irepressible Iggy Pop, or even David Bowie have pushed this theatricality to further limits. But some of the forerunners deserve closer attention.

The major assault in the '60s came from two quite distinct American groups: the Mothers of Invention, from LA, and the Fugs from New York's lower East Side. Frank Zappa, the moving spirit and guiding light of the Mothers, had got his first band together whilst still at high school in Lancaster and one variation of this band, the Omens, even included Don Van Vliet, or Captain Beefheart as he came to be known. After the Omens, Frank Zappa found himself with a new group of musicians who, like himself, were bored with playing 'Louie Louie' every night. They became the Mothers – in preference to Captain Glasspack and His Magic Mufflers, which they were at one time going to call the group.

'Teenage Stardom'

The group then proceeded to get themselves hired and fired throughout LA's bars and clubs until Herb Cohen, then managing comedian and satirist Lenny Bruce, took them under his wing. He got them into the hipper LA clubs like the Trip and the Whiskey, where someone from MGM saw the group's obvious commercial potential (?), and signed them up. Since then, as Zappa himself puts it, "it was upward and onward to teenage stardom."

At this early stage in the group's career they had not yet developed the use of theatrical effects, or 'atrocities' as they came to be known, but musically at least their first album was something of a breakthrough. It's arguably the first concept album, at least a year before 'Sgt. Pepper', and containing all Zappa's trademarks. It's a typical collage of sound, comprising nostalgia for *50s rock & roll, beautiful orchestral passages which suddenly break into avant-garde jazz in completely undanceable tempos, speeded up vocal tapes, and imaginative use of percussion.

This and the subsequent albums are like chapters in a book; a master-work conceived by Frank Zappa. The chapters are not just musical statements, but also his own observations on society. His main targets are middle-class plasticity and hypocrisy, attacked through his favourite themes – high school, sexual values and conformity. He was also quick to recognise the conformity of the hippies and flower power generation, whom he took to task in the group's third album 'We're Only In It For The Money', the cover of which is such a brilliant parody of the Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper'. His next two projects were diversions from the theme of the previous albums. The ballet, 'Lumpy Gravy', and his afectionate satire of '50s vocal groups, 'Cruisin With Reuben And The Jets'. These two albums were released during the Mothers' extended stay in New York, staying in Greenwich Village and performing a sort of revue called Absolutely Free, also the title of their second albu m. It was here that the group's atrocities were developed, almost by accident. Zappa had always believed that the group's image and presentation should reflect the content of the songs, but the reaction by a group of US Marines who were invited up on stage to demonstrate their treatment of a Vietnamese baby, in the form of a large doll, made Zappa realise the enormous potential of visual aids. The Marines tore the doll to pieces, and thereafter the Mothers employed a number of such aids – a favourite one being a huge stuffed girafe with a hose running between its rear legs. When Ray Collins, the vocalist with the group, massaged its tail it would stifen and shoot out whipped cream all over the front rows of the audience.

This particular prop recalls the Bonzo Dog Band, who made use of a number of contraptions designed and built by one of their members, Roger Ruskin Spear (who later created the Giant Kinetic Wardrobe, a team of trained robots). With a series of explosions and flashes these various props would shoot foam, bubbles and feathers over the stage and audience. The Bonzos were the nearest equivalent in Britain to the Mothers, combining nostalgia for rock & roll with comedy and satire that had its serious aspects as well – when they managed to take themselves seriously for long enough.

Zappa, however, on his return from New York, released perhaps the group's major work, and certainly his most significant work as a composer, the double album, 'Uncle Meat'. This was originally to be titled 'No Commercial Potential', but became the soundtrack to Uncle Meat – an unfinished film. Its theme was pretty shocking too, one of Reuben and the Jets versus a collection of mutants, whose brains extended down through their noses. These superbrains were forever set on dastardly deeds like stealing hub caps from Chevys, and other exploits aimed at world domination. The music itself is brilliantly constructed, the usual collage with plenty of deja vu from his previous work and 20th Century music generally.

Guiding Light

The group's subsequent work has never seemed to reach these same heights, and the stage presentation has since become far less theatrical and with less emphasis on social/political observations. Since 'Uncle Meat', Zappa's main preoccupations have appeared to be with that favourite taboo subject – sex, and with the trials and tribulations of life on the road. The culmination of this was in the film and soundtrack 200 Motels. It cannot be denied that Frank Zappa, both musician and performer, has guided pop music in style and technique in a way that few others can claim to have done. Of all these facets 'shock rock' is but one – but one that, in the glittering, camp rock scene of the '70s, has gone a long way to determining where the money lies, if not the originality.

It's far more dificult to assess the importance of the Fugs. The group went to far greater extremes to violate what was socially acceptable in American society, and in doing so set themselves out on a limb in a way that the Mothers never did. The Fugs' approach was so direct, and they said and did things in the early '60s that most other groups, even in the '70s, would only hint at. Theirs was such an honest and as such 'clean' approach, that it almost seemed as if they were purging themselves for society's perversions. The core of the group were Ed Sanders, Ken Weaver and Tuli Kupferberg, Sanders and Kupferberg being poets and in fact survivors of the Beat Era.

The Fugs weren't musicians or singers in the usual sense of the word, but they got together over the years with an assortment of musicians like Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber of the Holy Modal Rounders, guitarists Ken Pine and Vinny Leary, as well as other poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. The Rounders themselves might even be described as dabbling in 'shock rock' during one phase of their career, which produced the album 'The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders'. Elektra Records' President Jac Holzman likened this to the theatre of the absurd of Samuel Beckett – a form of aural theatre. The Rounders, like the Fugs, were part of the Greenwich Village scene, the Fugs living almost permanently on MacDougal Street.

Their shock treatment was never really through props and effects, although their act was ilustrated by routines, movements and gestures best left undescribed: it was, however, their pacifism and their explicit treatment of subjects like sex and drugs that gained them their notoriety. Titles like 'New Amphetamine Shriek', 'I Couldn't Get High', 'Coca Cola Douche', 'Group Grope' and 'Kill For Peace' speak for themselves. This attitude, combined with their frequent use of obscenity both on stage and on record (only Country Joe's 'Fish Cheer' has achieved any comparable reaction), has caused them to be likened to Lenny Bruce or novelist Henry Miller, and when it became fashionable to be seen as weird and freaky a few years later they were rightly seen as mentors.

There is little doubt that if 'shock 'rock' is an acceptable term then it is applicable to the Fugs; but it's also useful to look at an artist who doesn't really fall into this category, although one might at first think so. He is Captain Beefheart. Certainly a fairly stunning, and to some even 'shocking' personality, the Captain is also regarded as a genius by many others.

His first album, 'Safe As Milk', was first-rate R&B/Blues styled music, but sparking with originality in songs like 'Electricity' and 'Drop Out Boogie', and embellished by the Captain's remarkable vocal range, to make it the rock classic that it has since become. His second album, 'Strictly Personal', was a natural development of the first, but producer Bob Krasnow got hold of the tapes, added phasing and other acid rock efects to put it into a more contemporary perspective, and thereby detracted from Beefheart's concept.

Then, of course, the cover of the album – with references to '500mgs', unearthly photographs of the group on the inner spread, and tracks like 'Ah Feel Like Ahcid' – also lead most people to the inevitable assu mption that here was an acid rock albu m. But in a nu mber of interviews the Captain has denied taking acid, or has not denied it by evading the question (which he's very good at doing), but he's never admitted to it.

Most of those who are outraged by Captain Beefheart, or indeed those who claim he's a genius, make their judgement from the next two albums which he unleashed on the world. 'Trout Mask Replica' and 'Lick My Decals Off, Baby'. With these he joined Frank Zappa's roster of freaks on his Straight label – along with other such notables as Wild Man Fischer, the GTO's (Girls Together Outrageously – who include in their ranks the infamous Cynthia Plaster Caster), and even those boys in make-up, Alice Cooper.

Sell Out Tours

The music on 'Trout Mask Replica' and 'Decals' was unusual, full of avant-garde jazz licks and complicated timings and demanding much of the listener, while Beefheart's free verse lyrics were even more fluent though some say obscene. The Captain's group, his Magic Band, are as weird a bunch of inspired musicians as rock has produced; and with names like Ed Marimba, Zoot Horn Rollo, Winged Eel Fingerling and Antennae Jimmy Semens, they were inevitably dismissed as a bunch of freaks by those who didn't find their music immediately pleasurable. Since these two albums, however the Captain has moved back towards more blues-based music on the less freaky and commercially successful albums 'Spotlight Kid' and 'Clear Spot'. Not surprisingly perhaps, this shift coincides with the Captain going back on the road, to sell-out European tours in 1972 and '73.

But the road is where shock rock was created, for the road is a battle for the audience's attention – especially if a band is bottom of the bill and the audience is more concerned with chatting to friends and getting ready for the star attraction than listening to unknowns. In this situation how does an averagely competent rock band mark itself out from all the others? Alice Cooper had played for seven years without breaking through, and it was mostly the change to a shocking theatrical act that cut them out from the herd, and gave the music press something diferent to write about. The appeal of shock rock to the mass media is all important – Iggy Pop would never rate whole page articles in the pop press on the strength of his music alone. Of course, many musicians genuinely believe that their shock tactics and massive theatrical efects open their audience's minds to new and important ideas. But how many groups have shocked only in order to make money, or to cover up a dearth of talent?

Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart used shock tactics to make audiences sit up and notice the very real contributions they had to make. But when the law of diminishing returns leaves us with virtually unshockable audiences, only those musicians with something original and substantial to say will be able to produce the real shock in rock – that shock of direct emotional communication, which can send tingles down your spine or change your whole view of life.