Raider of the Lost Arts

Danger

It’s 1976, and you are at one of rock ‘n’ roll’s premier pilgrimage sites: Detroit’s Cobo Hall. The rest of the headlining band has left the stage to the bass player for a short solo segment between bludgeoning heavy metal epics. This guy is absolutely terrifying, like something out of a bad-acid kabuki nightmare, wearing platform shoes that are red-eyed demons, their dagger-like teeth comprising the seven-inch soles, spiked steel body armor over onyx spandex, and frightening black-on-white face paint. To make it worse, he’s grimacing menacingly, grinning devilishly, and occasionally flicking his preternaturally long tongue out in a horrific display of unleashed evil from within. He starts slowly growling out ominous, distorted blasts of sonic hellfire on his battle-axe bass (it’s literally shaped like an axe), progressively accelerating as you suddenly notice he’s holding something in his mouth. The 50–500 Hertz maelstrom works its way to an overwhelming denouement as the devil leers diabolically at the audience, opens his hellhole, and blood begins to ooze and spurt out, down his chin and onto the bass-axe and floor. The rest of the band rejoins him onstage and then he starts the next number with a churning ostinato that puts the perfect straw into the subsequent shock-rock cocktail.

A little later, at the end of a song with “Fire” in the title, and with a bullhorn’s alarm cycling through its shrill klaxon, heaven’s outcast comes back from just offstage with a lit torch and proceeds to breathe big bursts of fire from his oral orifice, throwing the fiery stick down on the smoky stage as the song ends.

If you didn’t know any better, if you hadn’t already debunked Santa Claus and the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny, you would really and truly accept it if someone told you this guy had come from the lowest level of Hades.

The band you’re watching is, of course, KISS, the bass player being Gene “The Demon” Simmons, the paragon of a band that once brought the danger with the best of them.

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There’s a long tradition of our heretofore less-inured imaginations, perceiving performing musicians as being possessed of something unnatural and unholy, an inhuman power of dubious origin that can’t possibly be contained, inspiring fear not necessarily for one’s life, but certainly the kind that has us making a nervous note of the exits.

Niccolo Paganini (1782–1840) was certainly one of—if not the first—examples of this archetype of myth building around a virtuoso. His own music was unduly overshadowed during his lifetime by his astounding technique and preternatural panache, which led witnesses to speculate that he was possessed by the devil, as no one’s fingers could possibly move so quickly and accurately unaided by a higher (or lower) power. Watching Paganini perform was apparently like sitting through a net-free tightrope act, or riding a brimstone roller coaster, with the recital-goers occasionally deluding themselves into believing they saw Satan’s puppet strings attached to his hands, and no doubt his career and reputation were greatly enhanced by such outrageous rumors, if not his renown as a composer.

Richard Wagner (1813–1883) and his often terrifyingly grandiose music was all the rage in 19th century Germany. His output generally contained bombastically antagonistic elements that, for better and worse, would wend their way well into the future, with Flight of the Valkyries providing the soundtrack for the incoming-Huey-wrought devastation of Apocalypse Now, the Lord-of-the-Rings-presaging Der Ring des Nibelungen tetralogy of operas, and not so thinly veiled anti-Semitic sentiments, which would be dusted off and polished up for use by the Nazi party.

Robert Johnson (1911–1938), king of the Delta blues, could truly have had “Danger” be his middle name. As the inaugural member of the 27 Club (musical celebrities like Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Cobain, and Winehouse, who died at age 27, often under questionable, drug-, alcohol-, or otherwise mostly self-inflicted circumstances, if you’ve been living under a rock), having supposedly been fatally poisoned by the last in a long line of cuckolded husbands, and possessed of a theretofore unprecedented polyphonic virtuosity on the guitar and a crisp, loud voice that easily cut through the noise of crowded juke joints, Johnson’s life was the stuff of legend. In fact, the suburban myth of the Crossroads, wherein a toxically ambitious musician meets the Devil at a rural intersection and sells his soul in exchange for fame- money-, and sex-garnering talent, came into being at least partially because of Johnson. His influence on music and musicians’ often hard-living, drama-rife lifestyle choices on the endless touring road has run so far and wide that many consider him the topmost leaf on the rock ‘n’ roll family tree.

Frank Sinatra was more threatening than he let on through his public image, with his boozy, womanizing ways and clandestine connections to the mob underworld which, if you were in the know, lent him a bad-boy air. But it wasn’t until Elvis Presley hit the scene with his suggestively swinging hips, seductive smile, and appropriated R&B sounds that the 20th century really started to cook, especially with the newly emergent postwar archetype of the teenager craving raunchier, more rebellious entertainments. There were also the many African American artists to whom Elvis owes major credit, like Little Richard, who would have ironically been more dangerous—or perhaps in more danger—had his actual sexual preference been common knowledge during his ’50s heyday.

Andrew Oldham, in a premeditated reaction to the clean-cut Beatles in the early ’60s, encouraged his Rolling Stones to cultivate more of a bad-boy image to set them apart. The role wasn’t that much of a stretch; Brian Jones had already fathered at least five illegitimate children by as many women, Bill Wyman had a thing for teenagers, the late Charlie Watts had resting scowl face, Mick Jagger was openly androgynous, and Keith Richards was, well, Keith Richards (the swarthy image he presented in the Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End puts no strain on one’s belief suspension). Though songs like “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man,” and “Paint It Black” sealed the deal, the Stones’ public embracing of hedonism dovetailed with the’60s generation’s romanticizing of sexually and chemically induced self-exploration and liberation. In other words, and to the sheer delight of their young fans, they scared the hell out of concerned parents everywhere.

Led Zeppelin’s image and exploits put them in a category all their own. With a dark-magicking hermit-wizard cum statutory rapist on guitar, a barely clothed golden sex god on vocals, and an alcoholic maniac on drums (not to mention a 300+ pound, former pro-wrestler as a manager, and battle-hardened roadie pirates), it’s no wonder they were the principal locus for the destructive ’60s hangover energy that bled profusely into the ’70s, why so much prosecutable yet mostly scot free violence and abuse followed them on their tours.

With sheer volume, heaviness, dire good-versus-evil creepiness, and occult-laced horror, Black Sabbath cut a fearful new swath through our cultures’ hearts and minds, threatening not physical but spiritual harm to the unheeding. John “Ozzy” Osbourne’s booming howl was the perfect conduit through which to channel Geezer Butler’s lyrical caveats, whether it was decrying the too-high cost of a glory-mongering command chain’s military conflicts in something like “War Pigs” or fighting for peace and hope under the Cold-War shadow of the A-bomb in “Children of the Grave.” And “Iron Man” could have provided a pre-Marvel template for a Shelley-esque horror-movie take on the like-named franchise.

Ozzy would later emulate original solo shock rocker Alice Cooper upon being sacked by the rest of Black Sabbath in 1979, even in his offstage life (does his oral decapitation of a bat in a record company office even require mentioning?).

Alice Cooper came to parent-alarming prominence during the early ’70s, scaring concert goers witless with his crypt-keeper gauntness, black leather and face paint, stage props (he often came out with a boa constrictor draped over his shoulders, and at one point during the show he would simulate having his head chopped off by a guillotine), and heavy music.

The first wave of punk rock in the mid-’70s brought a tangible threat of physical danger into play. With shocking new hairstyles and colors, alarming Nazi regalia, tattered clothes barely held together by misnamed safety pins, and piercings in previously unthought-of places, amphetamine-hyped punters would spit on bands as they pogoed and stirred up chaotic mosh pits while the bands themselves spat in the face of the draconian ways of their out-of-touch, oppressive elders (this incendiary live TV show appearance on the Grundy show by the Sex Pistols in early ’76 sums it all up perfectly:

 

The second wave of punk emerging in 1980 would spawn bands like the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and the Misfits, and from that ghoulish outfit would emerge Samhain and Glenn Danzig. The Alice Cooper-influenced, self- and audience-mutilating G.G. Allin, who often defecated onstage and repeatedly promised to kill himself during a show (he eventually perished from an accidental drug overdose), also emerged around this time.

In the late ’70s / early ’80s, the new wave of British heavy metal was unleashed. Bands like Iron Maiden combined some of the by then de rigueur traditions of macabre theatricality with punk’s faster tempos to create new mythological dimensions in shock and awe. Judas Priest and others followed suit with their own combinations of intimidating music and iconography.

This in turn influenced speed metal and thrash in the States, with bands like Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and numerous others making aurally punishing contributions.

Alongside thrash and hair metal, and having since earned the nickname “the most dangerous band in the world,” Guns n’ Roses combined the two sounds into a new alloy that catapulted their debut album—1987’s Appetite for Destruction, which originally featured a visually disturbing, highly controversial painting of the same name by artist Robert Williams—into multiplatinum sales (it’s still the greatest-selling debut album of all time) and mammoth tours rife with drunken debauchery and self-sabotaging expressions of Axl Rose’s overblown ego (Rose brought the physical danger directly to the crowd on more than one occasion).

Meanwhile, looking like an adjunct contingent of the murderous, petrol-mongering gang from The Road Warrior in makeup, and with their second, 1983 album having been titled Shout at the Devil, Mötley Crüe frightened everyone with the associated Satanic imagery, onstage theatrics, and offstage exploits. There weren’t too many junior high and high school binders of the time that didn’t have the pentagram and band name logo—complete with umlauts—drawn thereon.

Twisted Sister were a similarly dressed quintet out of New York, but with singer Dee Snyder—who appeared on their Stay Hungry album cover clutching a still viscera-caked animal bone with a horrific facial expression—distinguishing himself by going head to head with the newly formed PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), the lily-livered collective of overprotective parents (including future second lady Tipper Gore) engaging in dubious censorship with mandated advisory stickers on any new releases that even remotely fit the criteria (the resulting irony being that the stickers often drastically boosted sales of those albums).

Right around the same time, the newly emerging hip hop genre was attracting scads of unnerved acolytes—many of them young, affluent white suburbanites—with a new kind of danger: ghetto reality. Groups like N.W.A. and Ice T’s Body Count were telling it like it is, with autobiographical tales of gangland violence, arrogant misogyny, and drug trade surreptitiousness and collateral damage that would eventually attract the attention of both the PMRC and FBI (the former’s “Fuk Da Police” and the latter’s “Cop Killer” earned significant scrutiny from both agencies).

Public Enemy essentially announced the next chapter of the Black Panther party with albums that openly attacked the Caucasian patriarchy from the inside with confrontational lyrics that were onomatopoetically abetted by a cavalcade of grating noise loops over killer beats and Chuck D.’s and Flavor Flav’s in-your-face delivery.

In the mid-’90s, the suspicious, still unsolved murders of Chris “Biggie Smalls” Wallace and Tupac Shakur brought the dangerously escalated, all-too-real East/West Coast rap feud to a deadly conclusion as the rest of us looked on in dumbfounded horror, wondering who might be next.

Aside from Slipknot, the ’90s saw visually disturbing elements recede in favor of aural ones, with the rise of sonically bludgeoning alternative bands like Helmet, Soundgarden, Tad, Tool, Deftones, and many more. But there was one singular artist who managed to repurpose Alice Cooper’s shock-rock legacy into a grunge-era context.

With his underworldly appearance (stringy long dark hair, single striking contact in one eye, and body-wide pallor), and in collusion with MTV as a then still prominent visual medium for commercial music, Marilyn Manson was probably the first—and last—since Dee Snyder to incite uproar and controversy on such a wide scale. Whether it was being embroiled in Columbine’s aftermath (the two teenage murderers had cited him as an influence, and Manson found himself the sole scapegoat), his publicly announced subscription to Satanism and the hedonistic philosophies of 20th century English occultist Aleister Crowley (also name-checked by the aforementioned Ozzy Osbourne and Jimmy Page), or the latest scandal having come to light surrounding the domestic abuse of ex-wife Evan Rachel Wood, the former Brian Warner continues to make headlines.

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By now, Gene Simmons––who was almost prematurely outed as the Israel-born Chaim Witz on the Mike Douglas Show in 1974:

has long been debunked, having begun to lose his edge the moment KISS started to exchange the intimidatingly theatrical hard rock that made them famous for kid-friendly merchandising and comic-book disco in the late ’70s. Dispensing with the makeup and costumes in the ’80s in an attempt to lean solely on their not-quite-up-to-the-task music sealed the band’s nostalgia-act fate and continued the myth-busting process for Simmons. It’s also difficult to sustain a dangerous aura when the man under the now familiar get-up has obviously entered his geriatric years and is currently poised to retire on yet another farewell tour.

Add inuring desensitization to the mix (at this point, thanks in no small part to the internet, we’ve seen it all), the present stranger-than-fiction reality of our daily lives (too many thrills already, thanks), and the drastic decrease in popular prominence of guitar-based rock and concomitant iconography, and it’s no wonder there’s a dearth of current music that could put the fear of untimely death, hell, and damnation into us now. In order to be scared, we must have at least a modicum of innocence left, some gullibility to aid in the suspension of our disbelief, in order to form a foundation for frightening, and we’ve lost it. Perhaps once we come through this current crisis era, somewhere on the other side when everything feels new again, there will be enough cultural quietude and serenity, and thus enough new zeitgeist wall to sully, to gruesomely smear and mar it with fake but still convincing blood.

 

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