To gimmick, or not to gimmick?


From Keith Moon’s exploding drum kit to Katy Perry’s fruit costumes, musicians’ gimmicks are nothing new

Setting the stage on fire, each in their own way.
Setting the stage on fire, each in their own way. Courtesy of Bernd Sauer-Diete, Flickr

In your time here on Earth, you may have noticed people are fascinated by some very odd things. Blind passion, violence, sensationalism, an “image” and stuff that is just plain weird captivates many audiences. If it will generate some cash, attention, or if someone can simply get away with it, a strange action will arise. However, it takes a special kind of person to pull of this kind of act and be praised for it (or be denounced for it and not care).

Musicians, particularly of the pop breed, are notorious for subjecting their audiences to that little “extra” factor. This factor is usually a non-musical and unnecessary feature that is meant to add something different to the performance — the gimmick is born. By definition, a gimmick is facetious and only meant to draw more attention.

But is it more attention to the music, the artist, or something entirely different? We all love to hear why a musician started playing their instrument, so it is seems natural we question their bizarre antics.

But do people really care? Who doesn’t want to see a band destroy all of its equipment after a show, or see a singer wear a stupid costume, a silly stage name, or some weird signature item? These are things people see and, maybe, enjoy. Not everyone has to be a music critic or have a PhD to savour or understand a melody; so the gimmick could be looked over without much effort. So if you’d rather ignore and enjoy Katy Perry’s fruit costumes, Angus Young’s school uniform and Freddy Mercury’s half microphone stand, then go right ahead. I won’t try to stop you. But I will venture to know why musicians can make mundane fashion statements culturally relevant, and why they use so much damned fog.

In 1967, The Who destroyed their equipment at the Monterey Pop Festival, and Jimi Hendrix, following The Who, did the same but took the additional step of lighting his guitar on fire. Three months later on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Who did what they usually did, but drummer Keith Moon decided their televised appearance needed to go out with a bang, a deafening bang that was actually an explosion and destroyed his drum kit.

[pullquote]So if you’d rather ignore and enjoy Katy Perry’s fruit costumes, Angus Young’s school uniform and Freddy Mercury’s half microphone stand, then go right ahead.[/pullquote]If everyone had a Who-like hurricane of destruction after their shows, I doubt many bands would be able to taxi to the runway — let alone make it off the ground. So it’s obvious why this isn’t a regular performance from less commercially successful bands. But is it really a “performance?” If it is, it seems separate from their music, but connected to the feel of the ‘60s and The Who; stickin’ it to the man, right there on national television.

But the atmosphere of that time is what caused the music of that time, in a requited way, so the smashing of expensive amplifiers could merely be some extra cultural baggage attaching itself to the artists; a gimmick may just ground a band to a specific culture and time. But then there are artists who do not use gimmicks or choose to stop using them.

Hendrix who, besides his fiery stunt at the Monterey Pop Festival, would regularly play his guitar with his teeth, play behind his head, play between his legs and hump his guitar — sometimes it was sweet love, and other times it was harsh and up against a Marshall stack. Hendrix ended these antics later in his short career because he wanted himself and others to focus more on his music and not the “gimmicks.” This is something Ike Turner noticed earlier than Hendrix: “He was a real good guitar player, but his problem was that he liked gimmicks.”

Looking at an artist like Hendrix who halted his gimmicks so people would pay more attention to his music, one finds more support for the cultural gimmick. Because a gimmick is meant to draw attention to something (in the case of The Who, it puts a spotlight on the culture of the ‘60s) it also draws attention away from something else, which is why Hendrix chose to cease the antics. When looking back on music, people tend to look past the gimmicks, history and surrounding culture, because unless they are doing extra research, music can transcend cultures and history.

So while a gimmick like smashing one’s instrument can be relevant, somewhat convolutedly, to the music, there comes a time when the spectacle fades away and all that’s left are sounds.

– Billy Davey

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