Behind the mask
By ProgBlog, Nov 10 2014 09:42PM
There’s something magical about a live performance, unless it’s to see a band that you don’t actually like. My personal nightmares include The Sweet (Barrow, May 1973 which fortunately cost me nothing because I accompanied a friend on his birthday), Slade (Goldsmiths’ College, December 1979) and UFO (Hammersmith Odeon, February 1980) but I’ve also seen performances from artists that I do like that have disappointed (Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth show at the Royal Albert Hall, earlier this year.) I think the disappointment stems from failed expectations. Wakeman had touted the format of the show beforehand but I was too stupid to take in what he’d said and I think that a full concert, rather than the Journey back-story peppered with jokes, some of which could be interpreted as offensive, that took up a good portion of the evening, would have been far less dissatisfying.
I think it’s generally true that musicians, of whatever genre, put a great deal into their live performances. Thematic or conceptual stage shows evolved in the 70s, especially amongst the more successful acts who graduated from small theatres to arenas. This coincided with the golden era of prog where the trilogy of recorded music, album design and stage set were fully thought through to provide what an economist might call ‘value added’. There was a shift from straightforward atmosphere to total immersion in a concept; from a light show to Yes and their fibreglass moulds to fit in with the Topographic Oceans iconography, ELP with their model of Tarkus, Rick Wakeman with inflatable battling dinosaurs or presenting Myths and Legends on ice, and culminating in the architectural designs of Pink Floyd, enhanced with models of crashing aeroplanes, flying pigs and giant puppets. There was no intention to downgrade the importance of the music but the increasing distance of the audience from the stage meant that there was a requirement to offer an alternative view to tiny dots on the stage. This became spectacle and, though many current rock and pop acts continue with the tradition, at the time it was seen as confirmation that progressive rock had become overblown and out of touch.
Though costume changes and make-up were seen as innovative by fans of David Bowie and the wider emerging glam rock scene, Arthur Brown was donning bizarre headgear and sporting makeup in 1968. A couple of years later, Peter Gabriel had also began to experiment with facial makeup, costumes and masks and wore his wife’s red dress and a foxes head for performances of The Musical Box before the release of Foxtrot, where it would be depicted on Paul Whitehead’s sleeve painting. [Have you looked closely at the horse ridden by the green headed huntsman on the cover of Foxtrot? It’s actually in a state of excitement.]
Gabriel’s theatrical touch served two purposes; to help him overcome his lack of confidence as he literally hid behind a mask and to provide a visual focal point as the other four musicians sat, barely moving, concentrating on playing their respective instruments. The costumes evolved from the basic ‘old Henry’ mask used on The Musical Box; through the bat wing head gear of Watcher of the Skies and the flower at the end of How Dare I be so Beautiful? and beginning of the Willow Farm sections of Supper’s Ready; Britannia on Dancing with the Moonlit Knight; culminating with Rael as a Slipperman on The Lamb Lies Down, a suit featuring inflatable genitals. Gabriel continued to wear face paint into his subsequent solo career and when I briefly played in a live band, I attempted to copy the makeup depicted on Plays Live – keyboard player Alistair Penny sported a Bowie-inspired flash and guitarist Eric Whitton wore makeup reminiscent of SAHB guitarist Zal Cleminson. It’s hard to believe that Gabriel was not responsible for inspiring the face painting of Fish, who wore makeup from the live inception of Marillion up to the end of the Real to Reel tour. Part camouflage and part refection of the Jester that appears on the sleeves of singles and albums up to Misplaced Childhood, a study of Fish’s greasepaint seems to show a thematic relationship with the venue. Though Fish denies any conscious adoption of colours relating to his surroundings, such as the black, red and yellow used for Marillion’s first indoor gig in Germany in October 1983, he does admit to putting some thought into occassionally going for specifics, such as a Union Jack and an RAF roundel design used at a gig at a base near Aylesbury in 1981, a design that was resurrected for the Reading Festival headlining gig of 1982. It's also of note that Peter Nicholls, vocalist with classic neo-prog band IQ, was also into face paint and costumes - the cover of The Wake depicts a character with make up very similar to that sported by Nicholls.
It’s difficult to know if Gabriel influenced Progressivo Italiano outfit Osanna. Genesis were certainly a very popular in Italy, where Nursery Cryme was a surprise success, reaching no. 4 in the Italian charts. L’Uomo was also released in 1971 and the cover depicts the band in costumes and theatrical makeup but their sound was rather different to that of Genesis, mixing jazz, psychedelia, folk and blues, indicating that Jethro Tull were a likely influence. They would later work with David Jackson from Van der Graaf Generator, Charisma label-mates of Genesis and another successful UK musical export to Italy. It’s not even coincidence, but VdGG had a track called ’Masks’ on World Record, allowing Peter Hammill to extemporise on the subject of presenting a false persona. The theme of acting a part was also visited in the surrogate band that featured in the live shows of The Wall, wearing masks.
The vast majority of prog was about concentrating on the music. The visual additions to live shows were intended to enhance the musical experience but when theatrics became the dominant force like on the tour of The Wall, or Rick Wakeman performing The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table on ice, it’s as though the entertainment is making up for deficiencies in the music. I certainly don’t regard The Wall as progressive rock and I’ve previously questioned whether Journey to the Centre of the Earth is really prog. A good light show and effects is all you need to add to good music but some costume changes and face paint don’t do any harm; over-reliance on gimmicks, however clever, is slipping on a mask to hide what’s underneath.
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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.
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