Halloween, at least in part, belongs to Richard OBrien, as does the midnight hour with which weve come to associate all things frightening, macabre, and sexually taboo. OBrien, 66, is the revered creator of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a stage musical and cult film that fuses together the unlikely triumvirate of science fiction, cross-dressing, and rock & roll. And for nearly thirty-five years, fans of all ages and from all walks of life have stolen away to movie theaters in the wee hours of the nightdressed (or cross-dressed) as Brad, Janet, Frank-N-Furter, and Riff-Raffto participate in this late-night, cult phenomenon.
But you knew that, didnt you? And Miscellaneous Masterpieces isnt about rehashing what we already know. Its about sharing the goodies you might have missed. So, for Halloween, Id like to…if I may…take you on yet another strange journey into the creative, musical mind of Richard OBrien. Set aside the lips and fishnets for a moment, and make room for two brilliant albums of fun and naughtiness that you might have missed: Shock Treatment & Absolute OBrien.
However, if you do need your Rocky fix this Halloween (as well you should), pick up the 1974 live version starring Tim Curry and the Original Roxy Cast, and give yourself over to absolute pleasure…
Shock Treatment (1981)
Shock Treatment, originally titled The Brad and Janet Show, was intended to be the proper cinematic sequel to the RHPS, but casting issues and scripting problems left OBrien in a mad scramble to piece together a coherent, new adventure for his hero and heroine. The result is a story of sibling revenge that takes place entirely in a television studio, where real life and primetime television become a seamless blur. (Talk about being ahead of the game by a couple decades!) While Shock Treatment never developed the same devoted following as the RHPS, some fans argue that the films rocking soundtrack is actually superior to its red-lipped predecessor.
Part of Shock Treatments appeal is OBriens spoofing of small town Americaa nauseatingly wholesome exterior (Ike would have been proud…) with a dark, secretive underbelly. The lyrical satire is razor sharp from the soundtracks opening line Youll find happy hearts and smiling faces/And tolerance for the ethnic races… Bitchin in the Kitchen features Brad and Janet relating their marriage troubles through products advertised during a commercial break. Dear blender, wont you help a first offender/Oh, toaster, dont you put the burn on me/Refrigerator, why are we always sooner or later/Bitchin in the kitchen or crying in the bedroom all night? Thank God Im a Man is a hilarious take-off on modern machismo (i.e., tools, cars, and male chauvinism) and ends with the appropriate line Faggots are maggots/Thank God Im a man.
And when OBrien isnt poking fun at the house-with-a-white-picket-fence lifestyle, hes dishing up rock songs as catchy as anything youll find in Rocky, many of which deal with similar subject matter: sex, insanity, and personal freedom. Little Black Dress is a sexy rocker about a minimal, criminal, backless, strapless, classical, little black dress, and OBriens eccentric vocal delivery drives it home. And its his lead vocals throughout Shock Treatment that make the songs work so well. No longer in the shadow of Tim Currys powerhouse rock & roll voice, OBrien is able to take center stage with his much less traditional delivery, and it fits the songs perfectly. Shock Treatment is a prime example. The combination of OBriens creepy, almost-spoken verses and his high-pitched delivery on choruses gives the film the appropriate vibe of lunatics running the asylum. And OBrien singing, Get you jumpin like a real live wire is pure ear candy. Look What I Did to My Id once again demonstrates that OBrien knows how to rock with a brass section, and the song revisits its creators motto of Be it, Dont dream it. This song includes my favorite lines When Heavens in the music/Hell is in control/The angels got the voices/But the Devils got the rock & roll. This idea seems to be at the heart of everything OBrien does. If being wrong feels so right, then maybe it aint all that wrong after all. And even if it is, it can be a lot more fun.
Shock Treatment isnt Rocky, but it doesnt try or need to be. It has its own unique brand of perversion and insanity packed into some of the catchiest rock songs youll hear.
Where To Buy:
Absolute OBrien (1999)
In the mid-nineties, Richard OBrien wrote and performed a one-man, rock & roll show called Disgracefully Yours. His character, Mephistopheles Smith, is a demonic spokesperson and head recruiter for a new and improved Hellthe idea being that at the very least humans should consider the perks of eternal hellfire before making a choice in afterlives. (Think Satan doing a Vegas lounge act.) A few years later, OBrien decided to put out his first proper solo album, Absolute O’Brien, and pulled the bulk of the records songs from Disgracefully Yours.
Most fans go into Absolute OBrien expecting Rocky rock & roll and are disappointed to find almost absolutely none of the straightforward rock that made OBrien famous. Instead, we get a seductive set of jazz rock songs. Brad and Janets encounter in Rocky might be the thing of nightmares, but the songs on Absolute OBrien possess a somnambulistic quality, capturing the subtle ambiguity and eeriness that emerges in a dark room when youre between awake and asleep. These songs are both quiet and rocking, and OBriens unique voice haunts and hovers in the spaces between acoustic guitars, keyboards, and saxophones, giving the record an ethereal and dreamlike quality.
Incubus of Love and Angel in Me are jazz songs that begin bare only to soar later on with OBriens crooning beautifully accompanied by lush sax lines. Its up to You comes directly out of left field, driven by Spanish guitars and harmonica. Better shoot for what suits you/When you cash in your chips, sings OBrien, returning to the Disgracefully Yours idea of choosing ones eternal destiny. Aint that to Die For is a bouncy rock song with a similar theme and further examples of OBriens sharp lyrical wit. The quick of us pick Icarus/As a stinker of a pilot/But anyone that near the sun/Aint no shrinking violet. Ive Been There Before and Running with the Noisy Boys are as close as OBrien comes to Rocky, the latter sounding like it could be off a Clash or early Elvis Costello album. The best song, though, might be Rhythm of the Heartbeat, a perfect mix of the albums jazz vibe, OBriens classic rock, and his eternal message of letting ones heart be ones guide.
Absolute OBrien demonstrates Richard OBriens range as a singer and songwriter and makes me wish he hadnt waited until his fifties to put out his first album. Its gorgeous and sweet and lulls the listener into feeling secure…and then comes a dark and seductive voice whispering in your ear. Rock packed in a whisper? Yeah, thats how this album strikes me. As OBrien sings in Incubus of Love, Im going to come for you like a thief in the night time/Im going to creep up to your side.
Where To Buy: