Arts: Satan Wants Me for a Pop Star ; Because the Straight World Was Convinced Rock'n'roll Was Evil, Rockers Have Always Loved to Proclaim Their Sympathy for the Devil. It's Just Boasting, Isn't It? Not All of the Time, Says Phil Johnson

By Johnson, Phil | The Independent (London, England), January 5, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Arts: Satan Wants Me for a Pop Star ; Because the Straight World Was Convinced Rock'n'roll Was Evil, Rockers Have Always Loved to Proclaim Their Sympathy for the Devil. It's Just Boasting, Isn't It? Not All of the Time, Says Phil Johnson


Johnson, Phil, The Independent (London, England)


In the world of pop music, it's almost axiomatic that the more dedicatedly decadent the performer, the more normal he or she turns out to be. From Screaming Lord Sutch to Marilyn Mansun, artists who, on the face of it, appear to be in league with the devil are inevitably revealed as ordinary Joes. Like Alice Cooper's Vince Furnier, they enjoy nothing more dangerous than an occasional round of golf. The live chicken-guzzling Ozzy Osbourne now looks like the pantomime dame he probably always was, and the Herculean drug- intake of "infamous" US bands such as Motley Crue seems merely an extension of the fraternity-house japes practised by any tediously competitive group of college jocks. Meanwhile, the real dark side remains the preserve of Tory-voting teeny-bop moguls and managers, or ex-Radio 1 DJs from the Seventies who end up embarrassing their local rotary club when eventually exposed by the News of the World.

But if it's transgressiveness we're looking for, it's the music itself that comes up with the goods. Cultural representations of pop as essentially evil bubble up from the collective unconscious like The Exorcist's vile lime-green sludge again and again, especially from the days when the music was relatively new. In stiff-upper- lipped British "social problem" films like 1958's Violent Playground, mild guitar-rock of the Cliff Richard variety is revealed as a menace to society. When juvenile liason officer Stanley Baker goes to visit a "troubled" youth on a Liverpool estate, the angelic blond boy is found dancing to a hit parade song. Seemingly possessed by the music, he begins to shake uncontrollably, eyes rolling like a zombie's. Poor Stanley is taken aback, and the hairs of his short back and sides fairly bristle with anxiety. Happily for British society, Cliff's The Young Ones soon supplied the antidote, making both youth clubs and pop music safe once again.

The shaking, however, was for real. In the early days of rock'n'roll in the UK, an ability to shake was essential for any aspiring pop performer. Indeed, some made a whole career out of this and little else, like Wee Willie Harris or Johnny Kidd of the Pirates. Even the "stable' of anodyne acts "groomed' so carefully by manager Larry Parnes (a paradigm of the Svengali pop impresario in Britain) had to be able to shake to earn their keep, and Britain's greatest rock'n'roll star, Billy Fury, was a shaker par excellence. In the US, Elvis Presley had already supplied the template by being famously unable to keep his limbs under control. On The Ed Sullivan Show, the host instructed that Elvis should only be filmed from the waist up, as if what was going on down below was too awful to contemplate. The shake was also a genre convention, a stand-by for rockabilly acts such as Gene Vincent. It perhaps developed originally from the primitive baptist churches of the southern US, where congregations liked to handle snakes and drink ether in order to get more in touch with the Lord. Shaking might even have begun as an emulation of the snakes themselves, a possibility rich with potential references to all those all old blues songs and record- label graphics featuring slithering-reptile iconography.

Along with shaking and snakes, and the obvious sense of sexual threat they represented, popular fictional responses to rock'n'roll also focused on the political dangers implied by the music's hold on youth. In the Sixties, films such as Wild in the Streets in the US, and Privilege in the UK (starring Paul Jones, who'd just left Manfred Mann), imagined pop stars being used as figureheads for fascist coups, lulling their fans into zombie-like compliance through little more than personal magnetism and a three-chord trick. In Nik Cohn's novel of 1967, I am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo - described on its blurb as "a heightened picture of the violent and monstrous reality underlying the pop phenomenon" - pop singer Johnny is bad to the bone, a psychopath who rises to messianic power and glory like Jimmy Cagney in a Thirties gangster film.

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Arts: Satan Wants Me for a Pop Star ; Because the Straight World Was Convinced Rock'n'roll Was Evil, Rockers Have Always Loved to Proclaim Their Sympathy for the Devil. It's Just Boasting, Isn't It? Not All of the Time, Says Phil Johnson
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