Dressed to Kill: A hard rock retrospective part 4

The 1990’s were, obviously, a very confusing time. With Ellen making her big announcement near the start of the decade, to the revelations of the Bill and Monica scandal, the decade was over run with sexually confusing expressions dominating the news cycle. None of them were more shocking than seeing Marilyn Manson walk out on stage at the MTV music awards in his leather speedo singing about “The Beautiful People” to the bewildered youth sitting at home wondering what to make of this new “shock rocker” taking the world by storm.

Manson was not the first shock rock band, and they certainly weren’t the last. Unlike previous bands discussed, shock rockers aren’t identified by their sound, some are glam rock, others thrasher metal, while others a mix of industrial electro rock fused with 80’s dance pop. What united them was their ability to rely on stage antics, publicity stunts, and a growing anti-establishment movement that wanted to tear down the walls of Capitalism once and for all. Let’s start at the beginning.

You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog

Believe it or not, the first “shock rocker” was the King of Rock N Roll himself, Elvis Presley. Although his music and movies were very tame even by standards of the day, his stage antics lead to all sorts of controversies. All he had to do was shake his hips and stir young girls crazy. Of course the uptight mothers of those sexually aroused teen girls swooning for Mr. Presley didn’t take it laying down. They tried to have him banned from even appearing on television with the compromise being the camera had to stay above the waste.

I can’t get no satisfaction

To some the Rolling Stones are the turning point where rock n roll sheds it’s pop sound and returns to it’s urban blues roots. To others it’s just the continuation of the degradation of American culture. No matter where you stand the Stones rose to such prominence in the world of Rock music that to this day, the premiere authority on rock music is a magazine named after the band. Not quite as tame as Elvis, they certainly could fall into the camp of more shocking rock bands of the day.

School’s Out

There is no denying that shock rock as we know it today started the moment Alice Cooper stepped onto the scene. His theatrics, outrageous costumes, decidedly darker music themes, and eye shadow did more to create room for the counter-culture than any band before, or since. While their famous record, and the world-renown title track, were created by an entirely different band than who would later take on the name, the lead singer was really the star of the show anyways.

Ozzy

The Prince of darkness himself is easily one of the most recognizable early heavy metal rockers and clearly one of the pioneers of the shock rock genre. Of course he wasn’t the first to come onto the scene, he took it to dark places nobody else was willing to go. He was also well known for his theatrics, and is often mistaken for Alice Cooper, who both have similar styles in some ways. Black Sabbath and all bands inspired by are living proof that just being shock rock on the surface doesn’t mean the music itself can’t be taken seriously.

I Wanna Rock N Roll All Night

If you weren’t a member of the KISS Army you probably weren’t a hard rock fanatic in the 1970’s. It’s okay, I wasn’t even alive. What I do know about the and comes from second hand stories my mom told me, and what I learned from the classic comedy Detroit Rock City about a group of misfits on a road trip determined to see the band live in concert.

KISS is a prime example of a band whose style and image personifies the shock rock look and attitude, yet their music is so much softer and tamer than their image would have you imagine. Even in comparison to other hard rock bands of the time their music was very tame for the image they projected. Not that it was bad, they are still one of my favorite hard rock bands, but if you played a KISS song for someone and never showed them a poster or image of the band, you wouldn’t think they were shock rock at all.

They band was good at one thing even more than making music, business. They were not so much a band as they were a brand. They sold comic books, dolls, even video games, all trying to exemplify the shock rock image of children of the night. Yet somehow they managed to get away with recording a disco album and nobody even bothered to notice the irony. Hey it was a damn good song and still one of my favorites so can’t fault them for knowing how to make money.

Twisted Sister

By the time to get into the 1980’s there isn’t much left that shocks the metal world. You have already had Ozzy allegedly biting the head off a bat, or was it Alice Cooper? Yeah google how often those two get mixed up. There was the whole KISS backlash, you had Judas Priest on the scene and even a host of bands giving people reasons to label rock music as satanic or demonic. So when you see the cross-dressing Twister Sister come on the scene you think, okay, now I’ve seen it all. Now unlike KISS whose image didn’t fit their music, Twister Sister at least had a solid 80’s metal sound that blended in with the other hard rock bands of the time. The 80’s didn’t really see that many other cross dressing bands, aside from the one Boy George headlined, it still helped ease Americans into at least accepting there were people with different lifestyles, even if they didn’t accept those lifestyles quite yet.

Nine Inch Nails

To be more specific, Trent Reznor. This time he went in the opposite direction. The sound he created was infinitely harder and more shocking in many ways than the look he portrayed. On the surface he was just another heavy metal looking dude, nothing special. But his music, especially Head Like the Hole, really brought industrial music to the main stage. Maybe there are those who wouldn’t put NiN on a list of shock rockers, but he clearly paved the way for the mother of them all so he deserves a spot in this timeline.

Antichrist Superstar

Before I get too deep, Marilyn Manson is one of my favorite bands of all time. From the cover songs Sweat Dreams or Tainted Love, among many others; to their rock anthems The Beautiful People, Rock is Dead; to their darker tracks like Deformography, Worm Boy; or their WTF tracks like Kiddy Grinder, or Sh*tty Chicken Gang Bang, the band does shock rock better than any band before. Their music, style, videos, persona, and themes are a perfect storm of counter culture done right. Nothing about the band says conformity. During a time when rock bands sounded like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, or The Goo Goo Dolls, Manson was finding ways to churn the stomachs of their loyal followers, harshest critics, and even their peers, all while constantly putting out records that told stories that had to be experienced not just heard. The phrase nobody does it better always comes to mind when I think of Marilyn Manson and shock rock.

Other bands like Garbage, Godsmack, Orgy, etc., would come onto the scene and push the envelope of what was decent and acceptable with many more to follow. By the end of the 1990’s heavy metal, hard rock and rock n roll had each splintered into more than a dozen sub-genres, scenes and movements each equally important to their respective followers.

 

For those about to rock: A retrospective on the evolution of hard rock- Part 1

My first exposure to headbanging was while watching the film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. It was a comedy film about a dimwitted animal lover solving crimes. It was a Jim Carey movie, it was the 90’s, it was a comedy movie. I thought the scene where he goes into a rock club and the guy was “headbanging” to the rock music was obviously a joke, nobody actually did that, right? Little did I know it wasn’t a joke, it was a very popular thing.

Soon afterwards I would continue my exposure into the metal scene. I watched the pair of time traveling metal-heads Bill N Ted on their various quests. This was around the time I started to really question why on earth anyone would listen to this hard rock music. I wasn’t even sure what constituted hard rock to begin with. Not to mention I wasn’t even completely accurate on what people were calling rock music. My dad was an old time rock n roll fan and he would always correct me saying this band or that bands was not rock n roll, they were hard rock or heavy metal or something else. My dad wasn’t exactly an authority on rock music either, he just was sort of glued to his childhood favorites and dismissed the music of the youth. I wasn’t quite so dismissive, however I was more into dance music, electronic music, hip-Hop, disco, funk, and pop music. I was having a hard time determining not only what was hard rock, but what was the appeal.

Doing my research it appears rock n roll has it’s roots in soul music, bar music and blues. None of these were genres I was a particular fan of in my early days so I had to dig a little deeper. The earliest example I could find of a mainstream song that was the beginning of the hard rock sound was Helter Skelter by the world-renown Beatles. Having listen to this song a number of times during my research I can almost hear the start of what would become, what I considered, heavy metal, yet it still sounded really primitive to me. I didn’t spend a lot of time chasing down all of the obscure references, I stuck to the mainstream stuff like Born to Be Wild, I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, Dude Looks Like A Lady, and Smoke on the Water. None of these were too hard but they were often cited as the early examples of the scene.

As someone who has thoroughly studied the roots of techno, house and rap music, I can attest that different fans while share different tales of what lead from one sound to the next. The branching path of genres and sub-genres in rock music is just as complicated as the branching genres of the dance scene. To this day I can’t get people to tell the difference between Techno and House, whereas to me they are as different as night and day.

My earliest attempt’s at this included me creating a playlist of songs that one could follow from the old time rock n roll to modern day hard rock. Depending on what the end goal is determines which sub-genres or paths you cut off from the main path. For example, punk rock also has it’s origins in a lot of the same bands that metal does, yet punk eventually lead to alternative, grunge rock and ska, sub-genres I have more experience with than true metal. That didn’t stop me on my journey to find the path of least resistance.

I started with The Beatles.

Helter Skelter is such a different sound from anything I had heard by them up to that point. I don’t mean to sound as if I was around for it, I mean in the timeline. I do listen to Beatles but I was more into their early pop stuff not so much their later stuff.

When I originally did my digging I downloaded the various songs from iTunes and created a playlist when I did that I tried to see if the dots connected in a manner that made sense. I noticed there were a few missing links.

Admittedly I am missing a few sounds from some of the bands I know are often cited, yet I have no samples of their music to go off. Call me whatever name you wish, I have, to this day, never sat down and listened to a Led Zeppelin song, not one. If I have heard one of their songs, in passing I imagine or perhaps in a movie or TV commercial, I wouldn’t recognize it unless it was pointed out to me. So why am I writing this if I can’t call up the sounds of one of the bands often regarded as the fathers of metal? Sometimes you have to make do with what is available to you, also this is my journey so I wanted to discover this my own way. That being said, I have listened to bands that were described as inspired by or similar to Zeppelin so I can say that I am at least vague familiar with the sound they are attributed to.

Judas Priest

In my search I didn’t want to start entirely at the roots, I wanted to see how Beatles, Elvis Presley, Chuck Barry, Buddy Holly and others could morph into AC DC, Metallica, Iron Maiden, etc. I did pick up Alice Cooper’s School’s Out which I also cited as one of the bridge sounds, but Judas Priest was the first record I picked up that had a very prot-metal sound. In later years their music evolved more into the sound I always attributed as hard rock or heavy metal, depending on who you ask. I often used the term interchangeably with the understanding metal was the harder stuff. Now that I have done some more digging I discovered it’s even more complex than that. I placed Judas Priest at the earliest point of Heavy Metal on the timeline.

KISS

Specifically Destroyer and Alive but I dug through their entire catalog, first through their various compilations, beginning with Smashes, Thrashes, and Hits, and working my way back. KISS doesn’t have the hardest of sounds, they are more hard rock or even edgy rock n roll than metal, but they have the attitude and the look of what would become the signature metal theme, the dark medieval fantasy tones, some would describe as satanic but let’s not split hairs. Anyways they had the theatrics for sure but their sound was admittedly soft in comparison to what would follow. Still they are at the early point as well. They are also cited as a starting point for punk rock, but I won’t follow that path here.

Deep Purple

This is another one I place under the category of proto-metal. They have a very hard sound in some songs, but a very 70’s blue rock vibe. I did listen to more than one song, but the one that really matters is Smoke on the Water. This is another point where you can really start to hear a new sound emerging from the underbelly of American counter-culture.

Black Sabbath

Once you get into “the other Alice Cooper,” Ozzy Osborne and his ilk, things really start to get serious. By all rights you could make a case Sabbath and Ozzy are about as close to what would become Metal as it gets. If you follow them through the 70’s and into the 80’s, even after all the shake ups and restructuring, their sound is very much in line with what I would classify as heavy metal and hard rock at the very least.

Iron Maiden

This is the point where Metal begins to emerge as it’s own thing. By the time this band hits the scene it’s fully developed. It would be really hard to argue Iron Maiden isn’t heavy metal, and from what I have heard this is the goods through and through.

Now I could have spent more time on proto-metal bands like The Who, The Kinks, Zeppelin, or any number of others. As I did my digging though, I realized that while there are individual songs or even portions of entire albums that are recognized as having elements of what would become metal, they were still entirely different sounds in their own right. You could make a case that without the sounds of the Jackson 5, Hip-Hop wouldn’t be what it is today, but you could be hard pressed to make a case for Michael and the Gang being rap.

AC-DC

This is one of those transition bands you could argue is really just “hard rock” and that would be fine by me. Without getting into sub-genres I classify rock into the following top-level categories: rock n roll, rock, hard rock, metal, grunge, punk, ska, and alternative rock. For the most part there is a TON of overlap, I still try to avoid splitting hairs over what sound equals what genre. AC-DC is one of those bands I could firmly place under rock n roll, rock, or hard rock, but I would be hard pressed to call them full on metal and they certainly aren’t punk or ska. At least not as I understand them to be.

You will notice as I go through this series I don’t often stray from the general consensus, at least not up front. However as I discover more to this story I fully intend to give credit where due. As I looked into this it took on a life of it’s own. Consider this entry number one in a series where I take a deeper look at the origins of this music genre that I have found an affinity for, yet continues to boggle my mind and elude my sense of true understanding. Until next time keep on head banging friends.

 

“You are all my children now.”

In the 1980’s there was a trifecta of different styles all blending together in a perfect storm of outrageous thematic elements that would soon dominate the entire fringe culture, and even cross into mainstream. Going a decade back the roots of this movement were beginning with the rise of the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop RPG game. The theme was medieval fantasy. It had firmly taken hold of video game culture by the middle of the decade with games such as Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Ghosts N Goblins, Gauntlet, and even Castlevania taking the horror/fantasy genre to mainstream status. On the music side bands like Alice Cooper, Dio, KISS, and many others, were using D&D, horror, fantasy, and medieval art mixed with Gothic imagery. While Hollywood itself was slow to jump on the bandwagon, indie filmmakers like George Lucas, Stephan Spielberg, Jim Henson, and John Carpenter were all making variations of this theme. And best of all they blended together perfectly. Horror movies would reference D&D usually with a gamer depicted or borrow heavily from medieval mythologies, while having a strong heavy-metal soundtrack, which in turn contained lyrics that referenced D&D either directly or indirectly often as the horror movies would. So if you were a fan of medieval fantasy, Gothic imagery and music that told stories set in these thematic worlds, then the mid-to-late 80’s was your decade.

During this time nothing blended these three elements together better than Wes Craven’s Gothic horror masterpiece “A Nightmare o Elm Street.” While the first film itself doesn’t really contain too much in the way of medieval fantasy, it does have a very strong fantasy component, the music is very fitting for the mood, plus it also contains some of that D&D-esque metal rock sprinkled in to ensure it hit all of the notes. In some ways the movie is a murder mystery, you know almostĀ  detective noir-style with Nancy trying to solve the mystery of the masked villain killing her friends one-by-one. It also has a little bit of Gothic horror with Freddy acting as a zombie, a vampire, and a serial killer all while tormenting his victims not with his own dastardly schemes, but using their own fears against them. In some ways it is also a psychological thriller.

The film opens with an abstract scene in the basement of some factory or plant with an unseen man crafting a glove containing sharp razors as extensions of the fingers. Immediately the tone of the film is set, the killer is unseen, hiding in the shadows, nobody knows who, or what, he is or why he is killing these seemingly random teenagers. During the course of the film there are references to Shakespeare, including a quote from Julius Cesar about nightmares, fitting as in the play he dreamed of his demise before it happened, much like the victims in the film.

I won’t spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it. I am not under the impression that just because it is old everyone knows what takes place, I will say anyone that has any interest in mythology, fantasy, horror, vampires, zombies, the undead, D&D, or heavy metal music should check out the entire franchise. Each film has it’s own strengths and weaknesses.

The sequel, often criticized but still worth watching, goes in a different direction. Instead of a murder mystery where the kids are trying to survive by figuring out who the killer is and how to defeat him, part two, subtitled as “Freddy’s Revenge,” takes on a more haunted house, possession story line. Again it has some moments fans cringe at but it also has a few of the iconic moments that the franchise is well known for. There is even scene that takes place inside of a Gothic night club, further tying the franchise into this whole theme.

Of course if you really want proof the Nightmare films are really D&D-inspired look no further than the third entry. Regarded by many, myself included, as the best in the franchise second only to the original to some, it’s a masterpiece in many ways and proof that a sequel can outdo the original. But there are so many more D&D elements and fantasy themes in this movie. For starters the subtitle is now “The Dream Warriors.” It centers on the survivors of the previous two films, the “Last of the Elm Street teenagers.” something you just have to watch the movies to understand. It also features a kid who prominently plays D&D in the movie, even going so far as having an actual scene depicting, fairly accurately unlike most movies, a portion of game play. In the dream world however things get weirder, this character becomes a wizard with super powers and another character takes on a Gothic/Punk look even meeting Freddy face to face in an alley. There is an Alice in Wonderland feel to the third installment, a D&D type maze/dungeon at the end where they come together as a team, a cleric type, a sage type, a fighter type, and even the silent stealthy bard/thief type, who all have to face the final boss, Freddy, at the end to win the treasure, their right to live, and go back to living normal lives at the end of their mythic quest. It truly is the one film in the series the most similar to an actual game of Dungeons and Dragons, from the very opening scene to the very end credits. It even brings in a fleshed out back story and mythology to the character and his origins are explored in a very medieval Catholic mythology sort of way.

Part four sort of keeps the notion of dream powers, introduces new concepts like the Dream Master, the films subtitle, and ends in a final battle with a new powered up girl in a church where at the end she ends up well I won’t spoil it but it’s very much in line with the theme I been repeating.

Part 5 and 6 are where the franchise takes a turn for the worse. Number 5, the Dream Child, is more of a comic book movie, Freddy is even depicted as a comic book villain and his nemesis is his own mother, resurrected to take him back to hell or something I guess. The movie has a more action movie, comic book vibe and style to it. In some ways that is refreshing, in other ways it can be off putting. Part six is, to put it bluntly, a parody of the franchise. It’s basically a Warner Bros. cartoon making fun of the whole concept, and yes it even features Bugs Bunny and Wizard of Oz references and heavily relies on the 3-D gimmick. It does flesh out the mythology quite well, and features a really great cameo by the dark master himself, Alice Cooper, again really mixing the themes in a way that ensures fans will find something to enjoy. It’s the worst of the films by most accounts but still worth watching for a few things, those cameos and back story plus a surprise I won’t spoil.

Part 7, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, gets back to the Gothic horror theme by basically putting Freddy into the Hansel and Gretel story. There isn’t much else to say it’s almost a remake/reboot of the original film with a twist but it’s one of the scarier films in the series, still worth checking out. I won’t go into either Freddy Vs. Jason or the 2010 Remake as they both stray so far from the original their best left in their own world. I enjoyed them each, in their own way, but neither of them live up to the source material. Freddy vs. Jason is made for the Playstation crowd and the remake was too dark and had no ties to the fantasy mythology that the original had. Worse of all, it wasn’t even about a child murderer freed on a technicality, it was a sick perverted child molester that had no motive for murdering his victims in their dream world, which also had no fantasy elements at all, instead it was trying too hard to be dark an edgy where it really just ended up being creepy and uncomfortable.

What can I say, I enjoy Gothic music and themes, I play Dungeons and Dragons extensively and I thoroughly enjoy the fantasy-themed horror series of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Netflix recently added the original film to its streaming service, Part 2 and New Nightmare had been there before but they are not the actual best movies, the first and 3rd films are really the two to watch. Part 4 is pretty good, 5 and 6 are laughable but somewhat entertaining and the rest are different degrees of bad or too dark for my taste.

I also really enjoyed the documentary on Netflix “Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy” that really delved deep into the behind the scenes of the movies.

My personal ranking, with scores, best to worst:

  1. A Nightmare On Elm Street 5/5
  2. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors 5/5
  3. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master 4.5/5
  4. Freddy vs. Jason 4/5
  5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child 3.5/5
  6. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge 3.5/5
  7. A Nightmare on Elm Street 6: Freddy’s Dead, The Final Nightmare 3.5/5
  8. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) remake 3.5/5
  9. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare 3/5

Since I consider both New Nightmare and 2010 to be remakes, I prefer the full on reboot over the half-baked soft reboot. I know others will disagree but I just never cared for the breaking the fourth wall and taking Freddy into the “real” world making everything that came before just a movie, inside of a movie, too meta for my tastes.

There you have it, my general thoughts on the Freddy Krueger character and the films he appears in.