What is Shock Rock?


There have been many peculiar and obscure music genres that have been developed over the years, but none is as over-the-top and exotic as shock rock. This weird genre of music mixes punk rock or alternative rock with horror elements like blood, gore, and other elements that you would usually find as decorations for Halloween. Most of the artists that primarily play shock rock wear costumes or makeup to make them look scary or jarring to the audience’s eyes, which makes the genre somehow theatrical during concerts. How did shock rock start? And why did it become popular despite its peculiarity? Here are the origins and the most popular artists of shock rock.

Origins of Shock Rock

It is believed by many music-focused historians that American singer Jalacy Hawkins, better known may his stage name Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, was the first shock rock musician. While Hawkins did not actually start as a shock rock musician, he eventually embraced the scary or terrifying side of his music after the success of his 1956 single “I Put a Spell on You.” 

After the release of the said single, he started incorporating horror elements on the stage while playing that song live. These elements include him emerging from a coffin, singing into a microphone that is shaped like a skull, and throwing smoke bombs on the stage to add more eeriness to the performance. In the UK, there was also an artist with the stage name Screaming Lord Sutch, whose real name is David Edward Sutch, who has similar antics whenever he is singing live.

Popularization of Shock Rock

a portrait of Alice Cooper in 1977

By the 1960s, many shock rock musicians emerged due to the widespread popularity of the genre in both the US and the UK. English singer-songwriter Arthur Brown started wearing makeup and a flaming headpiece during the said era, while American singer and guitarist Jimi Hendrix is infamous for setting his guitar on fire during the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

The most prominent and arguably the one that incorporated many shock rock elements to his music and performance in the 60s is Iggy Pop of The Stooges, who would often perform without any shirt on and would move erratically on stage, which would look disturbing to many audience members. Besides not wearing a shirt, Iggy Pop has also once started wearing a dog collar and silver lamé gloves to further emphasize his weirdness live.

Alice Cooper, one of the greatest and most popular shock musicians of all time, had stated that he idolized Arthur Brown when he was a kid, which is why he was so fascinated with shock rock that he wanted to write, sing, and perform that genre as his career.

The American punk rock band called The Plasmatics are said to be the most problematic shock rock band, as they would often chainsaw guitars on stage, blow up their speakers by creating too much feedback or throwing their guitars into their amps, or by bringing a television set and destroying it with a sledgehammer while they are performing live.

Another problematic and infamous shock rock musician is GG Allin, who is particularly known for discharging feces during his performances and putting it all over his body or throwing it to the audience. Allin is also known for performing naked and mutilating himself on stage.

Shock Rock in the 80s and Beyond

During the 1980s, shock rock became much more extreme, as musicians started wearing intricate costumes that look much more terrifying than what was worn by shock rock artists in the past. The most notable extreme shock rock band is GWAR, a band founded in 1984 in Richmond, Virginia. The band members of GWAR would always wear bulky and monstrous costumes in their live performances, as these costumes would make them look like aliens from another planet, which was what GWAR intended for their audience to see. GWAR would have lineup changes over the years, but some of the fictional characters they have created within the band still remain, although they are played by different musicians.

On the other hand, Marilyn Manson is arguably the most popular shock rock artist in the 1990s up to the 2000s, and his songs and performance would often push the limits of shock rock to the point that it becomes too grotesque or offensive for some people. There have been many critics of Marilyn Manson when he had the spotlight in the industry, and these critics believe that Manson has gone too far in his antics that he has become an anti-American and anti-Christ. However, Manson argued that his music is supposed to represent the freedom of everybody to express what they want to express without anyone telling them what is right and wrong to do. In addition, many of his fans interpret Manson’s music videos and live performances as art, mainly because these acts are supposed to have meanings or symbols that are hidden from the naked eye.

While shock rock steadily declined in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the genre is still alive through independent acts around the world. With the rising popularity of horror films in today’s era, it wouldn’t be surprising that we may have another shock rock icon like Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson in the future.

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