Saturday, May 14, 2005

Concept Bands

Ever since the emergence of rock 'n' roll, image has played a central role in the music. Bob Marcucci and Peter de Angelis, a team of record executives and songwriters, shaped the image of early rock performer Fabian Forte to the point of even choosing which songs he performed. Brian Epstein was responsible for shaping The Beatles' image from that of rough and ready, leather clad rockers to a more family friendly image. Andrew Oldham reshaped The Rolling Stones' image into a less family friendly one. Given the role image has played in the careers of various rock bands and artists over the years, it was perhaps inevitable that the phenomenon I call "concept bands" would emerge. A concept band is a band centred around a single image or concept or a number of related concepts.

I am not sure what would qualify as the first concept band, but I am thinking a good argument can be made for Alice Cooper. The band was led by the singer of the same name (who went on to become a very successful solo artist). It was in 1965 that Vincent Furnier, soon to become Alice Cooper, formed a band called the Earwigs with four high school classmates. The band would later be renamed the Spiders and then the Nazz. The band changed its name when they learned of the existence of Todd Rundgren's soon to be famous group. The new name, "Alice Cooper," came from working with a ouija board, which informed Vincent he was the reincarnation of a 17th century witch by that name. They released their first album Pretties for You in 1969. The album failed to chart.

Both the band and the artist Alice Cooper played a pivotal role in rock history. Even if they weren't the first concept band, they were among the first to incorporate theatrics into rock performances, not to mention that they were on the vanguard in a new subgenre of heavy metal called "shock rock." Indeed, they may have well invented shock rock! Their image (and the image Alice has retained in his solo career) was largely drawn from old horror movies, Gothic literature, and even vaudeville. In any one of Alice Cooper's stage shows from the Seventies, one might see guillotines, electric chairs, boa constrictors, and a lot of fake blood. Alice Cooper proved very successful in the Seventies, producing a number of hit albums and classic songs ("Eighteen" and "School's Out"). There is perhaps no greater measure of Alice Cooper's success than the fact that they have inspired many, many bands since their first record came out in 1969: W.A.S.P., White Zombie, Marilyn Manson, and even KISS owe a good deal to Alice Cooper.

Another early concept band, although not nearly as successful as Alice Cooper, were The Residents. While Alice Cooper drew liberally from macabre pop culture, The Residents centred on the idea of performance art. Indeed, it is difficult to say that The Residents are so much a rock group as a performance art group. They formed in the late Sixties, although they would not become The Residents until 1971. Perhaps a bit too outre for the big recording labels, they formed their own in 1972. The Residents would pretty much remain in obscurity until music video became hugely popular. Among the earliest groups to work in both film and video, The Residents' remake of "Land of 1,000 Dances" received a lot of airplay on MTV and other video venues. The video was certainly unique, with the anonymous Residents dressed in costumes made from newspapers. The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video referred to the video as "The most utterly, exuberantly original and bizarre performance video ever." Depsite some notoriety for their videos, The Residents never have achieved fame and fortune, although they continue to perform to this day.

A more successful concept band was based in part on the Alice Cooper model. In 1970 Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley formed the band Rainbow (not to be confused with Ritchie Blackmore's later band of the same name). The band would eventually become Wicked Lester and would even win a recording contract with Epic. Unfortunately, no album ever emerged. After various personnel changes (namely, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley joining the band), Wicked Lester became KISS. Initially KISS drew inspiration from the various New York city glam rock bands, such as The New York Dolls. Not particularly caring for the feminine make up that the Dolls wore, they went a different route and created their own garish, greasepaint make up style, each adopting his own identity in the process: Paul Stanley became the Star Child, Gene Simmons became the Demon, Ace Frehley became the Spaceman, and Peter Criss became the Cat. Along with the makeup came garish costumes and a stage show that included fire breathing, explosions, and, of course, fake blood.

Like Alice Cooper, Kiss drew their image largely from old horror movies. Unlike Alice Cooper, they drew more heavily from Marvel Comics (which Gene Simmons read voraciously as a child). In fact, the personas of KISS were more or less superheroes. Marvel Comics published a comic book based on the band (printed with KISS's own blood....) and there was even a TV movie portraying the band as superheroes--KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, first aired in 1978. KISS was one of the most successful rock bands of the Seventies, producing a string of hit albums and a number of classic songs ("Love Gun," "Calling Dr. Love," "Detroit Rock City..."). There can be little doubt that the concept behind Kiss added largely to their success. Everything from the make up to the KISS logo (complete with lightning bolts, it was created by Ace Frehley) seemed to be designed for mass merchandising. And KISS was heavily merchandised in the Seventies, with everything from greasepaint to action figures bearing the KISS logo.

When it comes to concept bands, perhaps there is no truer concept band than Devo. Devo was based around one, single concept--devolution (the idea that mankind is devolving to a lower state of being). Devo was formed in 1972 by two art students at Kent State, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale . Like The Residents, Devo embraced film and video whole heartedly. In 1976 they released a short film, "The Truth About De-Evolution," complete with their own spastic remake of "Satisfaction." The film won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, where it was seen by both David Bowie and Iggy Pop. On the strength of those two artists, they were able to get a recording contract with Warner Brothers. Indeed, their first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo was produced by Brian Eno. It was with their next album, Freedom of Choice, that the band would see their greatest success. The video for their single "Whip It" was played constantly on MTV, giving the strange band exposure it might not have otherwise had. Their next album, New Traditionalists, would do well, but their album sales would eventually slip until they lost their recording contract. Devo was certanly one of the strangest bands to ever appear on the rock scene. Their image was purposefully nerdy, with the band dressing in black turlenecks, plastic haridos, and flower pot hats (energy domes, supposedly). Among the various imagery used by Devo was Booji Boy, a deformed infant sybmolisng the infantile regression of mankind. Their music was largely simple, consisting of guitars and synthesisers, although their lyrics dealt with some deep concepts. Although Devo played their image for humour, they addressed such themes as consumerism, the class system, and various other serious topics.

This is only a very, very short list of concept bands. I suppose that there have been many, many more since the Seventies. Indeed, I suppose arguments could be made as to which bands actually do qualify as concept bands. For instance, I can see an argument being made for The Sex Pistols being a concept band, given their rebellion against anything and everything, including rock music itself. To a degree what qualifies as a concept band and what doesn't may largely depend on one's point of view. Certainly, KISS and Devo are clearly concept bands, but, then, what about The Sex Pistols or even a rockabilly band like The Stray Cats?

Of course, the big question may be what impact the whole concept (no pun intended) of concept bands has had on the history of rock music. Certainly some concept bands, such as Alice Cooper and KISS, have had a lasting impact in terms of music sales and even merchandising (especially in the case of KISS). That having been said, while there have been many concept bands over the years, they have never constituted the majority of rock acts. Indeed, the last new concept artist to appear on the scene that I can name was Marilyn Manson. It is possible that the concept band is simply an idea whose time has come or gone or, like various subgenres of rock music, it will come in and out of vogue. It then seems possible to me that concept bands could have another hey day like they did in the Seventies and Eighties. And I rather suspect that not all of those concept bands will draw upon Alice Cooper and KISS for inspiration.

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