Rock bands have long known that audiences enjoy eye candy to go along with the music they're listening to, and almost any huge band will have an equally large stage production these days. That wasn't always the norm, though, and while a few acts, like KISS or Alice Cooper, shocked and entertained audiences with outlandish costumes and enough fire and fake blood to fuel thousands of teenage nightmares, many other bands just played their sets with little (if any) theatrics at all. However, while KISS and Cooper might be among the more famous rockers who could be counted on to deliver an exciting visual concert, plenty of other bands have also left their mark in the history books when it came to entertaining audiences with onstage theatrics.
Sometimes the results have been silly, and at other times really cool, and there are far more bands — sorry, GWAR and Rammstein, I'll get to you some other time — than I have room for here. Not everyone agrees that theatrics at rock shows are cool, but I know I'm a lot more likely to want to see a band that has a robot spider onstage. Here are a few of the more notable examples.
7. PINK FLOYD'S GIANT WALL
Within a decade of the band's formation, Pink Floyd had ditched its early Syd Barrett-era psychedelia and morphed into a prog-rock powerhouse that could pack stadiums. The band had introduced inflatable flying pigs and lasers in earlier tours, but when it came time for them to play concerts in support of 1979's phenomenally popular The Wall album, Pink Floyd upped the ante with their new stage show. An enormous wall was built across the stage for the 31 shows in the tour, and tumbled down each night.
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6. NEIL YOUNG'S REMOTE-CONTROL COCKROACHES
In the mid-'80s, Neil Young had been playing concerts for two decades, and for 1986's "In a Rusted Out Garage Tour," the veteran rocker had a stage setup that looked like an oversize garage, complete with roadies dressed in rat costumes and a couple of skateboard-size remote-control cockroaches scurrying around.
5. RICK WAKEMAN'S KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE/ICE-SKATING EPIC
Prog is one of the offshoots of rock music that really polarize people's opinions — fans of the style tend to really love it, and most other people run screaming from the indulgences of bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. In the early '70s, Rick Wakeman was riding high from being the keyboardist for Yes when he released the 1975 album The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The clumsily titled concept album based on the Arthurian legends resulted in three sold-out concerts at Wembley Stadium that had Wakeman performing with a choir, an orchestra and his rock band...all while ice skaters acted out King Arthur's myths around them. The bizarre Ice Capades-meets-prog-rock-combo must have been one of those "love it or hate it" performances, but fortunately, footage of the event has survived for us to chuckle at.
4. RONNIE JAMES DIO'S ROBOT SPIDERS AND LASERS
Yes. I did just write "Dio, Robot Spiders and Lasers" in the same sentence, and fortunately for fans of ridiculous but awesome rock stage shows, Ronnie James Dio didn't disappoint. His '80s concerts featured animatronic dragon heads, giant knights, pyramids and all sorts of other eye candy for the fantasy-nerd metal fans attending his shows. My personal favorite was a giant robot spider that descended from the ceiling before being destroyed with a laser-shooting guitar.
3. SORCERY MAKES A SACRIFICE
In 1976, a band named Sorcery was founded by Richard "Smokey" Taylor in California. Taylor envisioned the band as a live and very theatrical rock show with musicians playing hard rock as two master magicians staged a battle between good and evil. One magician played Merlin, the other Satan, both performing magical illusions as the band played on. Sorcery met with a certain amount of success and were featured in an obscure cult film named Stunt Rock, which is worth tracking down. Their best-known song is the epic "Sacrifice," and fortunately there is film of their show still available to view.
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2. SKINNY PUPPY REPEATEDLY FREAKS PEOPLE OUT
Skinny Puppy was formed in 1982 in Canada, and is widely considered to be one of the founders of the electro-industrial genre. They also employed often shocking horror theatrics during their live shows, with lead singer Nivek Ogre slashing his throat and performing other transgressive acts throughout their tours. I saw them perform last year, and a creepy postapocalyptic mutant wearing a gas mask stuck huge hypodermic needles in Ogre during the show, showing that Skinny Puppy has not exactly "mellowed with age."
1. EVERYTHING ABOUT THE VOLUPTUOUS HORROR OF KAREN BLACK
I remember hearing about TVHoKB in the early '90s; their live show was once described as Romper Room on acid. My curiosity was piqued, and I saw them the very first opportunity I had; I was not disappointed. Lead singer Kembra Pfahler is a musician/artist who has pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable in a rock stage show for decades, helped along by a revolving cast of performers. There is no "typical" TVHoKB show, but viewers will likely see nude performers covered in blue body paint with enormous black wigs, performing against a backdrop of raw punk rock. It's very strange, and very awesome if you have an open mind.