If you need proof that the right props and staging can make or break a show, consider a Yes concert I saw in 1985 (yes, I loved Yes in 1985 and proudly admit that I still do today). They were touring the 90125 album and the stage done up like the big grey, futuristic “Y” on the cover: It went up on an incline so that the top of the Y (the rear of the stage) was about 12 feet off the ground; it also had a trap door that allowed the band to make their regal entrance from an escalator.
Unfortunately, some genius left the trap door open. So there was lead singer Jon Anderson doing his messianic thing, running to the top of the Y and looking up into the crowd behind the stage, raising his hands so they could clap along. And sure enough, flop!—Down he went, visibly waving his arms for a couple seconds. He made it back to start the next song, wearing the silliest somethin’-eating grin I’ve ever seen on a rock star. Even in my prog-obsessed youth, it was hard to take “Starship Trooper” as seriously after that.
Fortunately, you’re still in an up-and-coming band, so you won’t have the money to blow on booby-trapped sets. You can’t do a Motley Crue and give your drummer a rotating cage to circle above the audience while he performs his big solo—it’s OK though, that‘s already been done. You also can’t make like Rob Halford and have your singer make his/her entrance on a motorbike. Given the size of most clubs, they’d probably go out the other door and wind up halfway to the next town. And of course, you don’t want to put a Stonehenge model into your show: The pitfalls with that one are well documented.
But there are ways to make a good impression without spending loads of cash. Remember the Ramones’ stage trick of having a roadie run on at the end of every show with the pinhead mask and the “Gabba Gabba Hey” sign? That’s an iconic image by now, and it probably cost something like twelve bucks. Likewise, the band Devo played a reunion tour last summer and the finale found them throwing miniature rubber balls with smiley-faces on them into the crowd. It was cheap, memorable and practically screamed out “We’re quirky.” And it was effective enough that I’ve held on to my smiley ball for eight months and counting.
So how can you make an impression? Above all, be creative: Look for something simple and portable that sums up the essence of your band. You’re a cute pop group? Do Halford one better and come onstage on a tricycle. You do metal? Anything in chrome or leather will do for a start. You’re a goth band? Get one of your artsy friends (all goth bands have artsy friends) to make you a suitable backdrop, anything to keep out those dreaded pastel colors. There was a band in Boston who used to burn incense at their shows, the same variety I recalled from Sunday school as a teen. This messed with my head pretty well, which I’m sure was the intent.
Some of the most effective props I’ve seen have just been verbal: Legendary Boston band Mission of Burma (who have a killer three-song package available as Rock band DLC) returned to live gigs in the early '00s, their stage backdrop was a placard reading “No New McCarthy Era.” The political statement was non-specific enough to get you thinking, and it held off any suggestions that the band’s return to action (after nearly two decades apart) was a nostalgia thing.
Otherwise, rock and roll props tend to fall into a few categories. Look them over and decide what works for you:
Let’s be honest here: Fireworks are usually not with the trouble. And not just because they’re dangerous—They’re also noisy, expensive, and drown out the music. My ears are still hurting from the last KISS tour I caught, when they recreated the Fourth of July during every other song. If you’ve got to fire something, take a tip from AC/DC and be creative: Invest in a few cannons. But don’t be like Alice Cooper, whose guitarist used to have a guitar that shot flames out of the neck. Looked great, but the trick was retired after it set Alice’s hair on fire.
You simply can’t lose with dancing skeletons. Especially if you’re ZZ Top, who pulled a genius move about five years ago: They had a fake cantina setting onstage, with skeleton statues at the doorways. After “Sharp Dressed Man”—about 75 minutes into the show, mind you—the skeletons came to life, drank a shot of tequila, saluted the audience and walked off. So I’ve wondered ever since: Did they pull a quick switch when the lights were out, or did they find two guys who could stand still that long?
You’d be amazed at how many famous bands use them, especially to remember lyrics that you’ve known by heart since grade school. But of course you’re not supposed to see them; so they’re usually obscured by some large piece of staging or embedded in the stage floor. If you see a singer looking at his/her feet during every song, that’s a dead giveaway.
Okay, so I’ve only ever seen one band onstage with rotisserie chickens—namely, Rush on its most recent tour. Apparently, the meaning behind this (like many Rush songs) was so mythic that it couldn’t be fully explained. Or maybe they were hungry.
This always makes an impression, but maybe not the one you’re hoping for. Jane’s Addiction was famous for having models onstage, doing things that bordered on “adult entertainment”—but it got to the point where nobody wanted to look at poor Perry Farrell at all. Likewise, I remember a late-period Duran Duran show where they had female assistants doing various suggestive things behind a screen. Made people talk, but I’m danged if I can remember anything the band actually played.
Lots of bands act like they’re drinking copious amounts of alcohol onstage, but we get suspicious whenever they still play well after drinking enough to incapacitate a moose (Whiskey of course looks a whole lot like iced tea). On the other hand, we start wondering about bands who start blowing cues after drinking from a mineral-water bottle.
The fake-instrument trick:
The Who’s Pete Townshend was legendary for smashing guitars onstage, but never the good ones: Townshend would usually grab a cheapo guitar for the last number and trash that. (Likewise, take a close look at Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson sometime: The flute he throws in the air isn’t the same one he plays). Townshend holds onto his guitar nowadays, so scour the junkshops and take that niche over.
These likely peaked in the '70s, when Pink Floyd still had the flying pig and the Rolling Stones had the massive inflatable Jagger lips. This idea calls out to be adapted for club-size stages. Here’s a hint: You can probably still find Super Elastic Bubble Plastic if you look hard enough.
And finally, yourself:
Some of rock’s greatest performers have messed with their audience’s heads by leaping into the crowd at climactic moments—Peter Gabriel used to be legendary for this. Just be sure that the audience actually likes you before attempting this kind of stunt, though: Nothing’s worse than taking the stage dive and seeing people move out of the way.