Shock rock

Shock rock

Shock rock is a wide umbrella term for artists who combine rock music with elements of theatrical shock value in live performances.

'Shock rock' first appeared as a loose genre term during the early 1970s, referring to glam rock era musicians. The genre's 'weapons of outrage' vary from decade to decade, but generally involve issues of sex and/or violence which are designed to push the current limits of decency.

History and roots

Screamin' Jay Hawkins was arguably the first shock rocker. After the success of his 1957 hit "I Put a Spell on You", Hawkins began a stage show where he'd emerge from a coffin, sing to a skull and set off smoke bombs, among other gimmicks. An English version of the character was Screaming Lord Sutch, who performed a similar routine during the 1960s.

The 1960s brought several proto-shock rock artists. In the UK, The Who often destroyed their instruments, The Move did the same to television sets, and Arthur Brown wore a flaming headpiece. In the US, Jimi Hendrix set his guitar alight at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, while Frank Zappa and his band the Mothers Of Invention used all manner of props and devices to inform and entertain.

The Doors used no props, but a dangerously kinetic air of unease was often produced by the unpredictable behaviour of vocalist Jim Morrison. Audiences might be greeted with any number of Morrison scenarios, including drunken and abusive idiot, shamanistic mystic, good-time rock'n'roller, political stirrer and so on.

Also in the US, Detroit musician Iggy Pop's violent, psychotic live persona needed no props (though peanut butter and raw meat were used as body-rub and audience-bound missiles at one point) to inspire awe and often real fear in live performance.

With a career spanning the mid-1960s to recent years, American band-turned-musician Alice Cooper refined and defined shock rock. In the early 1970s Cooper's unique brand of heavy metal complete with elaborate, satirical and inevitably controversial live performances were the sensation of the day and proved a powerful inspiration for many future genre artists such as KISS of the mid 1970s, King Diamond of the '80s and Marilyn Manson of the 1990s.

In the early 1970s New York musician Wayne County took the X-rated über-trash aesthetic and humour of the John Waters movies and set them to appropriately sleazy hard rock. County had come up with an act which could only be sold during Punk rock, and even then it had to be toned down.

Punk rock spawned a host of local shock rockers, all with their own foul mouthed lyrics, startling look and confrontational 'unprofessional' stage acts. The Sex Pistols fine-tuned the early New York scene's arrogance into UK 'anger', and began causing outrage with their 'shocking' manners and disregard for the approved protocol for live performance (incidentally, Sex Pistols vocalist Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) was 'auditioned' by singing along with an Alice Cooper recording, played on a jukebox) Bassist Sid Vicious was known for wearing swastika shirts and arm bands, while having no real belief in nazi culture.

Lou Reed's frequent unpleasantness and mid-1970s habit of simulating an intravenous injection whilst performing might also be considered a Shock Rock act of synergistic theatricality, especially when conducted during his song "Heroin".

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the punk-metal Plasmatics had less time for musical composition than their live extravaganzas, which featured chainsaws bisecting guitars and explosions aplenty. Entire cars were blown up in the cause of entertainment.

From the late 1970s to his death in 1993, punk rock performer GG Allin was known less for his music than for his many shock rock antics, which included performing naked, defecating on stage, eating it, and throwing it at the audience, receiving oral sex from fans, self mutilation, fights with the audience, and supposedly having sex with his bass player brother, Merle Allin.

In the 1980s in Richmond, Virginia, GWAR formed as a collaboration of artists and musicians. GWAR make their own costumes, and shows feature gallons upon gallons of fake body fluids from mock executions and battles.

During the 1990s, Marilyn Manson employed the basics of Shock Rock into an artistic and commercial success. At times strongly referencing Glam Rock forbears David Bowie and especially Alice Cooper, Manson's career was built on an Industrial metal sound, and a controversial image and reputation generated by factors such as the singer's occult affiliations.

Recently, the band Lordi has risen to international fame. Lordi's live performances, largely inspired by KISS, feature pyrotechnics and many props that assist the pyrotechnic display in some way or another.

Post shock rock

Over the late 1990s and on into the 2000s, Shock Rock's power to outrage waned considerably. It may be that many shock rock band's widespread adoption as a dominant mainstream form has taken much of the 'edge' out of it (certainly it has become difficult to differentiate between Christian and Secular punk rock and heavy metal). In turn, Shock Rock's public profile and effectiveness has similarly worn low. A few metal bands like Slipknot and Mushroomhead wear masks and costumes on stage for "shock value". Recently, bands like Mindless Self Indulgence adopted the shock rock formula, albeit in a more comedic, satirical style.

Notable acts

See also


  • Haenfler, Ross (2006). Straight Edge: Hardcore Punk, Clean-Living Youth, and Social Change (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press). ISBN 0-8135-3852-1
  • Leblanc, Lauraine (1999). Pretty in Punk: Girls' Gender Resistance in a Boys' Subculture (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press). ISBN 0-8135-2651-5
  • Lydon, John (1995). Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (New York: Picador). ISBN 0-312-11883-X
  • McNeil, Legs, and Gillian McCain (1997). Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (New York: Penguin Books). ISBN 0-14-026690-9
  • Raha, Maria (2005). Cinderella's Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground (Emeryville, Calif.: Seal). ISBN 1-58005-116-2
  • Reynolds, Simon (2005). Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978–1984 (London and New York: Faber and Faber). ISBN 0-571-21569-6
  • Robb, John (2006). Punk Rock: An Oral History (London: Elbury Press). ISBN 0-09-190511-7
  • Sabin, Roger (1999). Punk Rock, So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk (London: Routledge). ISBN 0-415-17030-3.
  • Savage, Jon (1991). England's Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (London: Faber and Faber). ISBN 0-312-28822-0
  • Simpson, Paul (2003). The Rough Guide to Cult Pop: The Songs, the Artists, the Genres, the Dubious Fashions (London: Rough Guides). ISBN 1-84353-229-8
  • Taylor, Steven (2003). False Prophet: Field Notes from the Punk Underground (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press). ISBN 0-8195-6668-3

External links

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