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When did the "show" become more important than the music?


Steel2Velvet
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After this past weekend's tragic fire in a Brazilian nightclub that cost more than 200 people their lives as a result of a music show fireworks display gone wrong, I found myself reflecting on my own concert experiences as a young person.

I remember going to many concerts where the focus was on the band and their music - a simple premise, really. There is a group or singular singer/songwriter up on a stage - perhaps framed with a spotlight - presenting the fruit of their talents for the enjoyment of a thoughtful audience, many of whom could identify with random messages throughout the performance.

But today, it seems the "production" must include choreography, dazzling lighting effects, themed backgrounds, various auxiliary sideshow theatrics and yes, pyrotechnics, in order to garner the most notice.

Though the simple stage and singer presentation may still available, it seems the trend is for larger, louder and more showy, which begs the question; when and where did rock merge its message to Broadway-like productions?

Was it Peter Gabriel's Genesis or Alice Cooper who first wedded craft to camp? Was it The Beatles on a rooftop or Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall tour where the staging upstaged the song?

I would be interested in any thoughts on this subject from you lovers of music.

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I think you're over-generalizing. There are many bands who include spectacle as part of their act - both old (David Bowie, Queen, Pink Floyd, etc) and new (usually pop artists like Lady Gaga). But there have also been plenty of rock bands past, present, and future that just come out and play. In fact, I've been to a fair number of rock concerts in my scant 23 years on this planet, and I've found that the so-called "legacy" acts tend to be the ones that can afford to utilize big light shows and pyrotechnics, while the newer bands tend to keep it simple. Now, I'm speaking strictly from a rock and roll perspective here, as you would never catch me at a Lady Gaga or a Rihanna concert.

...Which I guess goes to show that many of us do still value the music above the "show". I'm sure Lady Gaga puts on quite the show, but I don't like the music, so I wouldn't go. That being said, I don't think flashiness detracts from the music. If The Rolling Stones want to use some fireworks, it doesn't stop them from being The Rolling Stones.

Edited by Guest
Had another thought
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Though the simple stage and singer presentation may still available, it seems the trend is for larger, louder and more showy, ....

Tim, the above statement was meant to acknowledge the excellent point you make about personal preferences driving source venue choice, but do you really feel that rock promoters and newer fans are satisfied with small and intimate? Perhaps the pendulum will swing away from ostentatious, but for now, I sense things growing more theatrical - again, as a trend.

But you didn't give your observation on the roots of the big show; on which the original post is based. Where did the "big rock show" start in your opinion?

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I think there is a wide range of preferences and I think you'll find people (myself, for example) who are equally interested in big ostentatious arena rock shows and small club shows. Then I think there are those who are - fairly or unfairly - referred to as hipsters who would consider a large production to be gaudy and inauthentic and will stick with the small club shows. On the other end, there's the casual music fan. That is, the person who doesn't seek out music and instead enjoys whatever is presented to them by whatever powers are presenting mainstream music these days. This person may require the extra visual stimulation to enjoy a show. This is the kind of person who you might hear say something like "why spend money on a concert when I can hear the same songs on my iPod?" That attitude may be mind-boggling to people like you and me (as well as the rest of the Songfacts community, presumably), but it does exist.

As for where it started, I'd imagine you can look at the 60's and the psychedelic movement. If you watch footage of the Monterey Pop Festival you can see the seeds of crazy backdrops and lighting. Psychedelic music and visual stimulation will always go together because, you know, drugs. If the band is tight, the lights are groovy, and the drugs are good, what more can you ask for?

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Another thought: with the rise of arena shows, big production became almost necessary. With bands like Led Zeppelin selling out stadiums, people needed more to look at than just tiny people on a stage a thousand yards away. So, lights and big screens became a part of the concert experience.

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It may have started when the musicians could move around on stage - the Rock Era. In the days of Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra, putting on any kind of production was impractical and unnecessary, but there was no way to keep Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy (who would enter from outside the venue), Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and many other musical madmen from exploring the kinetic side of their art.

A live performance must exceed the experience of listing to the recorded music, and production elements are one way to do that. Guys like Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen used the energy of the crowd as their draw, but if you're Pink Floyd, how do you make your concerts better than the glorious sanctuary of Dark Side of The Moon through a set of headphones? Lasers.

The arena factor is big too. Anyone lucky enough to see U2 at Red Rocks got something very special, but when they tour the big stadiums, they have to climb out of lemons and have Bono go into character if they're going to make an impact.

The productions are expensive and unweildy, but in many cases are critical to our amusement - I wouldn't see Lady Gaga unplugged. Billy Joel got out of debt by touring with no set, and it was great. You could see everything from everywhere.

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It depends on the size of the venue, really. A smaller venue can't support a lot of that, so artists, no matter how big, scale down the show to fit. When they're playing the Rose Bowl, you've got to find some way for all 100,000 people to feel like they're a part of the experience.

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I think the method of the show has changed, but the fact that there are different types hasn't, if that makes sense.

In other words, in 1975, you could go see Kiss be real loud, covered in makeup and spit blood out of their mouths. In that same year, you could also go see James Taylor sit down with his acoustic guitar and just play music.

It goes back very far, Ken makes an excellent point of bringing up Screamin' Jay Hawkins who was ridiculously theatrical in his performances, at a time when not many people were.

So I would say that the relation to the show and the music has been relatively the same over the years, there are musicians and bands that are very theatrical and ones that are not, the two have always existed is what I'm trying to say. It's not like everybody was quiet at a concert and then one year, out of nowhere, all of this theatricality showed up. It grew, slowly, but it has always been there. Perhaps it's more prevalent now, but it's not something new, I would say.

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