Nothing goes better with a horror film than some marrow-rattling rock ‘n roll. Nothing could make a rock show better than some eye candy of the macabre variety. It’s the best of both worlds- hard rock or heavy metal music fused with a vibrant live theatrical performance. Beheadings, demon babies, towering evil robots. Contorted bodies, fake blood, startling physical appearances. When shock rock is done right, it’s as good as any horror film you’ll see. Often imitated but never duplicated, there are a few founding fathers of shock rock that deserve a nod this Halloween season.
It started in 1956, when a twenty-seven year old from Cleveland raised eyebrows across the country. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins whooped and hollered his way to iconic status with the timeless hit ‘I Put a Spell on You’. To push the envelope even further, Hawkins began emerging from a coffin during live shows and howling into a skull-shaped microphone. The song that made him a fan favorite was actually recorded in a drunken haze, with Hawkins having to relearn the song in order to perform it live. The studio recording is a raw, deep growl that is widely considered one of the most important recordings in rock history. Radio DJ Alan Freed is responsible for suggesting Hawkins begin incorporating a coffin on his stage act, and soon leopard-skin costumes, voodoo memorabilia and a skull on a stick that Hawkins affectionately named ‘Henry’ followed. It didn’t take long for Hawkins to be compared to Vincent Price as the leading man when it came to macabre entertainment.
The UK had their counterpart in Screaming Lord Sutch, who captivated our neighbors across the pond and played a key role in inspiring future shock rockers. While not much of a singer, Sutch played the part and played it well- he and his band, The Savages (which included Deep Purple founding father Ritchie Blackmore early on), performed fan favorites like ‘Jack the Ripper’. Sutch would take the stage dressed as England’s most notorious serial killer, complete with knives and disembodied limbs. In a delightful twist of rock ‘n roll fate, Sutch went on to found the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in 1983. The political party goes out of its way to poke fun at the British government. Sticking it to the man – it doesn’t get any more rock ‘n roll than that.
Around 1967, a young man was riling up audiences across the Midwest. He strutted across the stage, often bare-chested, and made the stage dive famous. As if that weren’t enough, he also was known to roll across the stage in broken glass and even expose himself to the crowd from time to time. Iggy Pop attributes his lust for life and the music he has made to witnessing The Doors’ Jim Morrison “out of his head on acid, dressed in leather with his hair all oiled and curled” during two shows at the University of Michigan in the mid-60’s. Pop took his on-stage persona a bit further than his predecessors, frequently vomiting on audience members and incorporating self-mutilation into the mix. Iggy has contributed to a number of charities over the years, including auctioning off sixty-four feet of excess skin following skin removal surgery. The proceeds went to charity.
It was around this same time that a gangly twenty-year old convinced his blossoming band that in order to succeed, they’d need a gimmick and a new name. The band’s lead singer had become inspired by English rocker Arthur Brown, who spent a lot of his time on stage naked, on fire or both. Complete with garish makeup, Brown made a significant impact on the kid. The group finally decided on a name that was ironically pure and clean, a far cry from the music and antics the band was displaying on stage. Alice Cooper would go on to become one of the biggest rock stars in the history of music. His live shows dazzle to this day as ‘The Godfather of Shock Rock’ still battles snakes, evil babies and electric chairs all in the name of rock. Cooper also is the front man for Alice Cooper’s Solid Rock, “a creative sanctuary for troubles teens” with the primary goal to “help meet spiritual, economical, physical and social needs of teenagers in our community”.
Meanwhile, in England, guitarist Geezer Butler formed his band in 1967 and appointed a shaggy-haired and soft-spoken man named Ozzy Osbourne as lead singer. Shortly thereafter, Black Sabbath was formed. The band and lead singer need no introduction these days, but their guttural and primitive hard rock shook the foundations of clean-cut England as something never witnessed before at the time. Osbourne would go on to achieve massive success as a solo artist, too, while also biting the head off of a live bat in 1982, allegedly urinating on the Alamo and snorting a line of live ants. Long live rock ‘n roll. When he isn’t barking at the moon, Osbourne and his wife Sharon run The Sharon Osbourne Colon Cancer Program. Ozzy has donated over $1 million of his personal belongings from his career to the cause along with countless other funding and fundraisers. Osbourne has been an advocate for charitable causes throughout his career.
It was these men and more who shaped the musical landscape for a kid from Massachusetts named Robert Cummings. The man would front one of the biggest hard rock bands of the ’90s and get the chance to collaborate with Cooper in 1996. The man who goes by the name Rob Zombie has enjoyed a thirty-five year career in music that has provided a gut punch to the industry every time a new album is released. His live performances are awe-inspiring, complete with pyrotechnics, elaborate set designs and towering monster costumes. For all of the madness and rage, Zombie himself is a proud supporter of PETA. Along with his wife, Sherri Moon, Zombie also supports the Puppy Rescue Mission, which provides assistance to dogs and soldiers who rescue one another during combat. For many, he is the face of shock rock and has injected his musical inspirations and talents into an equally unnerving film-making career.
In 1989, a singer and guitarist formed Marilyn Manson & the Spooky Kids in Fort Lauderdale. Within four years, the band would tear onto the scene with its debut album produced by none other than Trent Reznor. More than any other musician in this piece, Manson has seen himself and his career thrown under the microscope and blamed for everything from the Columbine shooting to the decline of religious enlightenment among teens in America. Many saw the comparisons to the likes of Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper as fair while others contested that Cooper and Zombie were innocently rocking and rolling, while Manson was playing with “genuine blasphemy”. What doesn’t get nearly enough attention is the fact that Manson has collaborated with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, contributed to support for domestic and sexual abuse victims in the Congo and has been a vocal and active supporter of Project Nightlight, a group that provides a safe place for children and teens to hopefully come to terms with their own physical and sexual abuse.
With the label “shock rock” comes the inevitable eye rolls, tongue clicking and blind censorship demands from those who either won’t give the music the time of day, aren’t willing to consider the idea that freedom of expression applies to everyone (not just like-minded folks) or both.
Every singer on this list has endured their share of criticism, censorship struggles and backlash. Some had it coming to them, others were just lumped into a group and presumed guilty by association. I won’t condone certain actions by some of the men listed in this piece but I can say the same thing for a number of R&B, country and gospel artists as well. The idea that a genre of music is plain and simply vile or of no cultural significance is a slap in the face to those who create it. It’s ironic that the musicians who shout and howl to get their point across are the same ones voluntarily ignored by so many who refuse to consider their performances as a form of art.
This piece certainly does not name every shock rocker who has had a hand in forming the very potent genre that so many love to this day. It does, however, shed light on some of the major building blocks who have shaped the genre exponentially. Whether you are waiting for the next big thing or hoping for one last hurrah from one of the pioneers of shock rock, keep those headphones blaring and the devil horns firmly raised to the sky.