A devil’s party

Sarthak Kaushik | Updated on October 30, 2020

Killing it: Alice Cooper, the ‘godfather of shock rock’   -  WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A shout-out to the noise mongers who revelled in horror, gore and carnage

* Foremost among those who embraced their darker, quirkier side and made it a badge of honour is Alice Cooper, also known as the ‘godfather of shock rock’

The spook season presents an apt opportunity to profile those who found musical inspiration in horror and shock. Foremost among those who embraced their darker, quirkier side and made it a badge of honour is Alice Cooper, also known as the ‘godfather of shock rock’. Before his claim to fame, Cooper went by the name Vincent Damon Furnier. His first tryst with the stage was in 1964 in Phoenix, Arizona, when the then 16-year-old American’s inexorable desire to be featured in the annual Cortez High School Letterman Show led him to form a band with four of his cross-country running teammates. They put on Beatles lookalike costumes and wigs and made parodies of the legendary band’s best-known songs. Few knew back then that of the four, only one — a young man called Glen Buxton — knew how to play the guitar. The rest just pretended! But their performance was so well received that they decided to formalise the band and call themselves the Earwigs. Their newly acquired popularity egged them to buy some musical instruments from a local pawn shop and actually learn how to play them.

By 1967, fresh out of school, they renamed their band Nazz, and were making regular trips for their gigs to Los Angeles. They even had a stage act in which they donned over-the-top costumes inspired by horror flicks, and played something distinctly quirky and edgy. Call it shock rock, heavy metal pseudo opera, or just plain fun for the ears, their music endured. What they needed was a new name for the band, given that the name Nazz had been taken by a more popular musician. They chose to go with Alice Cooper — a name that had an innocuous and innocent sounding ring to it, in direct contrast with their wild stage act complete with corporal punishment, mutilated dolls, fake blood and sundry liquids. The big break came in 1969 when a record label executive thought that their horror-meets-rock sound was just right for legendary American singer-songwriter Frank Zappa’s new record company.

Asked to go to Zappa’s house at 7 pm, they rang the doorbell at 7 am, waking a sleeping Zappa to a display of their commitment to play psychedelia even at unearthly hours. But the horror reputation of Alice Cooper was set by what was referred to as the “chicken incident”. In September 1969, when the band played a short set at the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival Festival, a chicken wandered onto the stage. Thinking that a chicken, having wings, would fly if he threw it into the crowd, Cooper did exactly that. The bird landed in the first few rows, where it was torn apart by frenzied fans.

The story that came out, though, was that Cooper had bitten off the chicken’s head and drunk its blood. When Zappa called Cooper to ask the veracity of the story, he was told of its exaggeration, to which Zappa reportedly said, “Well, whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you didn’t do it.”

The rest, of course, is shock rock history, with albums such as School’s out and Zipper Catches Skin and stage shows complete with decapitated dolls and the guillotine, becoming popular enough to break records set by The Rolling Stones themselves. Repeated attempts by politicians and pressure groups to get them banned only added to the myth of Alice Cooper, and the on-stage nightmarish sequences have been a dream fulfilled for a generation of fans. Cooper stays active with his long form radio showNights With Alice Cooper, and remains one of the most beloved heavy metal impresarios of all time.

The other legends of the grotesque are the guys from the American heavy metal band Gwar, formed in Virginia in 1984. Enjoying a cult-like status among those who thrive in shocking visuals, their Viking horror-inspired stage names say it all — the late legendary singer Dave Brockie was called Oderus Urungus, vocalist Joe Annaruma is Joey Slutman, current vocalist Michael Bishop is known as Blothar, and rhythm guitarist Mike Derks, Balsac The Jaws of Death. Their Viking mythology-led storylines, enhanced by dramatic costumes celebrating the grotesque and the carnal, have many takers. Their audience, loyal and, dare one say, rabid, are in it for the complete experience — including being routinely sprayed with liquids made of water and food-grade colouring, all removable and environment friendly, alongside some next-level scatological humour. Their music might just help us escape from real-life horrors in a pandemic year and lend us a ghoulish grin this Halloween.

Sarthak Kaushik   -  BUSINESS LINE


Sarthak Kaushik is an RJ at Ishq 104.8 FM, Delhi; Twitter: @radiochaos

Published on October 30, 2020

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