Silliest Rock Gimmicks: Mimes, Chainsaws, King Arthur on Ice + More!
At its genesis, rock 'n' roll was a visceral art form; an antidote to overblown Broadway musicals of the time and the mind-numbing pop pap coming from Patti Page and the like. There were some elements to it that might be considered showman-like, such as Little Richard's piano stomping or Elvis Presley's swivel hips, but those were unconscious actions that just happened to capture the minds and imaginations of millions of kids on a very gut level.
Sometime after the Beatles dropped acid and Elvis plumped up, rock wasn't content to rely on its gruff merits alone. Bands wanted to record twenty minute long songs about sixth century leaders, use animals for lead vocalists and play chainsaws like instruments. Some say this is where the music jumped the tracks. All we know is these artists and their gimmicks have provided us with hours of entertainment and laughter. Let's take a look at some of the best moments of gimmick rock.
Performing Live on Ice
When progressive rock keyboard maestro Rick Wakeman left Yes in 1974, he did so because he felt the band was getting too self indulgent and pompous. So what does he do after quitting? He releases a concept album based on King Arthur and stages a performance where the entire album is acted out on ice! That's not pretentious now, is it? Check out the knights jousting on ice with plastic horses strapped to their stomachs!
Fat Guy Metal
When every metal band in the late '80s consisted of waifs in leotards, Britian's Mammoth came out to champion the hefty metal musician. Rumor has it you had to weigh at least 250 pounds to join the band. Now that's truly heavy!
Bodybuilders Playing 'Muscle Rock'
Thor (AKA Jon Miki Thor) was a bodybuilder in Canada when he came up with his concept of 'Muscle Rock' back in 1973. His vision for this swollen form of rock led him to Las Vegas where he was discovered by TV talk show host, Merv Griffin. Since then, he's had a nearly forty year career in music touring the world and releasing albums with such excellent titles as Beast Women from the Center of the Earth and Devastation of Musculation.
A Parrot as the Lead Singer
Many bands wish they had a vocalist who would simply sing what they tell him to sing. When Baltimore based death metal band Hatebeak formed in the early part of the 00s, they did exactly that: they got a parrot to front their band. With record titles such as Beak of Putrification and The Thing That Should Not Beak, it's obvious these dudes have a sense of humor as well as a liking for heavy metal homages.
The '70s progressive rock scene was full of pomp, but no one did it better or more ridiculously than the 'E' in ELP, Keith Emerson. Whether it was rubbing the ribbon controller of a Moog synthesizer up and down his crotch or shoving knives into the keys of his Hammond, the man knew how to put on a show. But nothing tops when he played a solo on a revolving grand piano at the California Jam festival of 1974. Maybe Tommy Lee learned a thing or two from him, eh?
Early '90s Southern hard rock act Jackyl stood out a bit on the music scene of the time. When everyone was spandex and hair spray, Jackyl were canned beer and chaw. But the one thing that really made them stick out was their vocalist Jesse James Dupree and his prowess on that most exquisite of instruments: the chainsaw. Much like Jim Dandy from Black Oak Arkansas and his washboard a decade before, Dupree was a true Southern American musical innovator.
Who knows what producer Lou Futterman was on when he birthed the concept of the Hello People, the first 'Mime Rock' group. He did go on to produce Ted Nugent, so he might possibly have some mental issues. Nonetheless, the concept wasn't lost on Todd Rundgren, who later used them as his backing band for years to come.
Pitbulls as Vocalists
Caninus was a side project for members of New York hardcore band, Most Precious Blood which had two pitbulls for vocalists, Budgie and Basil. The "group" released a full length and two split seven inch singles (one with Hatebeak, surprise, surprise) before Basil was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to be put down.
By the middle part of the '70s, many British rock groups were flirting with sights and sounds of their Medieval ancestors, but no one took it quite as far as Gryphon. One spin of their second LP, Midnight Mushrumps, is enough to have you chugging gallons of mead and chowing on mutton.
Extremely Young Musicians
Many felt punk rock was the voice of youth, but who knew it would mean something like Old Skull, a band of nine year olds from Wisconsin in the late '80s. The first line-up of the band existed until 1991, when their drummer was grounded by his parents, thus thwarting the band's career.
Tony Rettman is a freelance music journalist whose work has appeared in The Village Voice, Vice, Philadelphia Weekly, Arthur, Swindle, Signal to Noise and Mean. His 2010 book, Why Be Something That You're Not: Detroit Hardcore 1979-1985, is a must-read for any fan of heavy music and can be purchased on Amazon.