‘An image is one thing and a human being is another.’ – Elvis Presley

All bands have an image. A funhouse mirror reflection of themselves in their PR shots, press releases, interviews and their adoring crowd. A distorted picture bent out of all recognisable shape. Twisted by some trick refraction of the light into one of Dr. Moreau’s half man/half beast creations.

It’s not a human. It’s the idea of a human.

Carved out of the sound, the lyrics, the ethos and the trousers. All bands – from the glam of Slade to the anti-glam of Nirvana – consciously or unconsciously put forward an image.

The word ‘image’ has become synonymous with artifice. A carefully crafted look designed to boost record/ticket sales and seen as a dilution of rock n’ roll’s ‘pure’ focus on the music.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be though. A band can simply be who they are, genuine and sincere as someone you’d like to have in the trenches with you. But once it gets a public airing, and certainly once it gets public support, that sincerity becomes an image.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s guys like Alice Cooper and David Bowie. Both went so far as to name their creations. And eventually found it hard to tell where the original ended and the image began. 

‘Cause it gets awfully hard to smell your own bullshit when there’s a crowd singing it back at you.

An image will eventually morph into a set of expectations. When the expectations are simple as ‘be genuine and sincere,’ it’s down to the stage lights and the adoration to wreak havoc with the performer’s psyche.

But when the audiences are screaming for Cooper-style depravity or, in the case of Ziggy Stardust, an actual alien from the furthest reaches of the galaxy, then fatal fame starts playing its ‘hideous tricks on the brain.’ And the lines between fact and fiction start to become increasingly blurred…

Those are extreme examples. Both Cooper and Bowie took image to previously unimagined levels of ambition and success. And both had to kill their alter-egos. Cooper kills his at every concert. The gushing fake blood gets roars of approval night after night.

That’s just theatrics though. Alice is the rock n’ roll equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster. A big budget flick for popcorn gorging.

Iggy Pop was a homemade snuff film.

Jim Osterburg’s body was a canvas painting that Iggy Pop was unsatisfied with. So Iggy slashed and cut and gashed and tortured his vessel in front of baying packs of animals for little to no reward. A lean, lithe cryptid performing flagellation for herds of common creatures.


Whippings, feedback and rolling in broken glass all became part of Iggy Pop’s sadomasochistic image. But no matter how much he bled, more was demanded. Iggy’s sideman James Williamson called The Stooges’ tours ‘Death Trips’. Between the drugs, the show and the Hell’s Angels stompings, any one of those tours could very well have been a death trip.

Jim Osterburg’s alias Iggy Pop morphed from image into expectation and on further into identity. But instead of Dr. Jekyll’s serum, all Jim needed was to hear someone call him ‘Iggy,’ and he would change into his own Mr. Hyde.

The audiences expected a spectacle not seen since the heydays of the Coliseum. And Iggy delivered until Jim couldn’t take any more.

The performer’s only expectation is to put on a show. It’s the crowd who expect the blood, sweat and tears. Then over time, as the endless nights of performing go by and those crowds sing the band’s bullshit back at them, the expectations get adopted from the orphanage by Mr. Insecurity and Ms. Ego as an identity.

And there’s a fine line between an identity and a personality. To walk that line is to cross a rickety rope bridge over a canyon. On either side is a fall deeper into the chasm.

Image is more than spandex trousers and eyeliner. It’s a tool, a weapon. And when used correctly it can help to reap incredible rewards. When used incorrectly, it can win the unfortunate soul a Darwin Award.

It’s a double-edged sword that swings like a pendulum. Hanging precariously over the neck of any performer unwary enough to keep an eye on it. At any moment, the crowd could swing that blade and slice through flesh and sinew. Cutting right down to the bone.

It’s the crowd that really wield the power of the image. The performer may have had the idea. But history proves that ideas always work best when there’s an army behind them.

Or in front, as the case is with rock n’ roll. If David Bowie hadn’t won legions of fans with his Ziggy Stardust persona, he would have looked very silly. Stick a packed-out arena in front of him though… and he still looks very silly.

But history has been made. History has been made with some cracking tunes, tight trousers, and eyeliner.

It took an army. But they did it. They didn’t realise they were doing it. They had no idea of the power they held in their hands, those thousands of Ziggy-consumers. But it was there.

As music buyers, we have to be aware of the damage we can do. No matter how much some rockstars might like to think it, no matter how much we like to think it, there’s no such thing as superman.

Even he had a weakness though. Everyone does: an achilles heel, a stake through the heart, a kryptonite. A rockstar’s weakness is his flesh and blood and sanity. Image can wreak havoc on a body. It can snap a mind. It can even buckle a soul.

Bowie killed Ziggy. Alice goes by Vince except for when he’s on stage. There’s even a definite line between Jim and Iggy these days. ‘Cause as The King put it: ‘it gets kinda hard to live up to an image.’

by James Fleming

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