Tuesday, April 21, 2015

When Rock Became Theatre

A largely overlooked aspect of the counterculture of the 1960s, was its adoption of androgyny in clothing- and hair-styles. Thus, hippie men grew their hair long, in contrast to the prevailing masculine style, while women took to wearing the denim slacks characteristic previously of males. The men, too, started wearing colourful, flowery and flowing clothes, again previously reserved for women. 

Staunch Republican.  True Story.
The androgynous trend became all the more pronounced with the advent of “glam” or “glitter” rock during the early 1970s. Rock music was the soundtrack of the counterculture, but glam-rock is somehow seen as a refutation of the flower-power vibe. 

It is interesting, however, that two of the biggest stars of early ‘70s glitter-rock, David Bowie and Marc Bolan, started their careers as hippie-trippy folk-rock singers. Bowie came to prominence originally with Space Oddity, while Bolan, as the leader of Tyrannosaurus Rex, put out albums with titles such as My People Were Fair and Had the Stars in Their Hair…. Within a couple of years though, Bolan went totally glam, shortening the band name to T. Rex and releasing his biggest North American hit, Get It On (Bang a Gong) in 1971. Bowie, meanwhile, transformed himself into Ziggy Stardust, the leader of the Spiders From Mars. 

Glam in fact emerged as a result of the massive popularity of rock music in the early 1970s. After Woodstock, rock acts had graduated from concert halls, auditoria and other smaller venues with just a few hundred or several thousand seats, to sports arenas and stadia with capacities of tens of thousands of people (in seating, and in “general attendance”, the standing-room only areas located directly in front of the stage, on the fields or surfaces usually reserved for pro-sports play). 

Ian Anderson, leader of Jethro Tull, was interviewed for Tony Palmer’s All You Need is Love documentary in 1977. He explained the need for theatricality in rock performance, as a result of transfer of rock performance from actual theatres and ballrooms, to these giant venues: 

The audiences have come to expect a better standard of performance, a better quality of lighting, sound and staging. They’ve come to expect a show. Musical content alone isn’t enough. For most people who have been to ten or twenty rock concerts, they necessarily get a little bit bored of seeing tiny figures on the stage, just wearing blue denim gear they bought yesterday from a supermarket. ... The fact is, if you’re going to be play for people a quarter of a mile away at some big gig they can’t see me if I’m dressed like this [in slacks and leather jacket]. I’d just look like a coal-miner or something. You tend to wear clothes which sort of accentuate... I mean I’m involved in physically expressing the music. I wear the clothes that go with that job. (Episode 16: Whatever Gets You Through The Night: Glitter Rock) 

This fusion of rock and theatre to create glam or glitter, was derided as superficial by many at the time (including the late Creem magazine editor and all-around curmudgeon Lester Bangs, who is interviewed at length in the final two episodes of All You Need Is Love). 

Just Like a Woman.

But this projection of the self as a means of communication to masses of people, is very ancient, going back to the classical development of rhetorical techniques, and to the enormous masks worn by actors in the Greek theatre. In the case of glitter-rock, performers compensated, sartorially, for the literal amplification of the music into a mass artform (through the development of sound systems which permitted live music to be heard from afar, with much improved fidelity from what was the case just a few years before). 

The engineered projection of certain human faculties (that is, the voice and hands), required the “glittering” projection of the rest of the body, through exaggerated and even luminescent outfits. In a different sense, too, rock performers had to become actors in their own right. Elvis Presley, long parodied for his white, diamond-encrusted jumpsuits, was unfortunate to have died so early, and in 1977 as well. 

His stage-attire, so typical for its time, thereby remains for most the last memory of him as a performer — becoming comically outdated just a few years later. Almost all bands, whether rock or not, adopted this flashy style, as well as increased choreography and stage-effects generally — alongside lighting effects, there came lasers, pyrotechnics and machinery, too: Yes, touring in 1979, performed on a revolving stage. Led Zeppelin, casually dressed in beads, pullovers and associated hippie styles in their early years, embarked on their 1973 (when the concert-film the Song Remains the Same was filmed) tour with custom-made flashy duds. 

Bowie’s Ziggy persona was succeeded by others — as “David Bowie” was himself a role performed by plain young David Jones. Another Briton who cut his teeth in the London music scene in the late 1960s, Reginald Dwight, also reached widespread fame in the U.S. in 1972 under an assumed name. Dwight took as his stage-surname the first name of his former bandleader, Long John Baldry, while the first name came from Elton Dean, saxophonist for Baldry’s group. 

Not inhabiting personae with the earnestness or consistency of David Bowie, Elton John was in his distinct way just as flashy and theatrical. In a parody of his own image, John appeared as the Pinball Wizard in the 1975 film adaptation of the Who’s “rock opera” Tommy (directed by Ken Russell, it remains the most blatant attempt at portraying glam in the cinema), with platform heels several feet high. 

In 1973, Michael Walker writes, John appeared at the Hollywood Bowl, a concert “introduced by Linda Lovelace of Deep Throat fame, in which the lids of four grand pianos are opened to disgorge flocks of homing pigeons as John walks onstage wearing giant spectacles that spell out his name in lights...” (Michael Walker, What You Want Is In the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and the Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born, Spiegel and Grau, 2013, p. 186) 

The Alice Cooper tours of ‘72 and the next year, were wildly successful but marked the end the original band of that name. In 1973, the group and its management pulled out all the stops, and created a grand stage that cost several hundred thousand dollars: “the Warner Bros. prop department contributed a convincing gallows for the show’s climax.” A band member dressed in priestly attire, read last rites to Alice Cooper, while the guitarist “marched Alice up the stairs, looped a noose around his neck) and pulled a lever. Piano wires attached to Alice’s costume broke his fall) but the effect was convincing enough...” (What You Want Is In the Limo, p. 84) 

Walker quotes Vincent Furnier, the singer who became Alice Cooper: “We were writing to a character that we had invented, almost like writing a play. There was a master plan with [record producer] Bob Ezrin, Shep [Gordon, Alice’s manager] and I about who Alice was, what he would and wouldn't say. And then I was gonna play that guy.” (What You Want Is In the Limo, p. 85) 

It was not only rock critics such as Bangs were derided the “decadence” of glamour-rock. The Rolling Stones’ It’s Only Rock'n'Roll (title-track to their 1974 LP) lampooned the whole trend. In the song, Mick Jagger asks the audience “If I could stick a knife in my heart/Suicide right on stage…”. 

No Stagecraft Here.

According to the lyrics, he and the Stones’ music is “only rock'n'roll”, but obviously that isn't true either. Jagger was and remains the consummate showman. Far from lacking stage-effects, the Rolling Stones’ stadium concerts were full of theatrical bombast. On the 1989 Steal Wheelchairs tour – years after the glitter-rock trend came to its supposed end – the song Honky Tonk Women, was climaxed by the sudden appearance of an inflatable
doll in the shape of semi-nude flouncy women. 

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