The resurrection and evolution of a metalhead

Jacek Karczmarczyk, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
WILLIAM STROOCK reforges an old musical allegiance

In 1987 this scrawny, disgruntled 14-year-old became a metalhead. It’s an old story. I hated school and life and everything, really. Metal was the best available outlet for expressing that. I stamped my feet and pumped my fist to drums and bass thumping like a British coal ring jack hammer. I wore all the black metal band T-shirts and grew a long, blond mullet that chicks told me was soft and lustrous. Whitesnake’s Slide It In was the first metal album I bought with my own money. But David Coverdale’s hair metal band was a gateway to the likes of Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Ozzy and other bands more ‘respectable’ within the metal community. With glee, I discovered that Ozzy had been in a band before his solo career. Who knew?

Grunge killed metal, so the cliché goes. In truth, by 1990 metal may not have been dead, but it was certainly dying. The hair metal bands had done just about the last thing one could with the genre. This was chick-friendly metal, and the hard-core fans hated it. The usual hair metal band formula was to release a party anthem, followed with a ballad. It worked for Extreme. Heavy metal collapsed under the weight of its own success and hair metal un-seriousness. As music progressed I progressed too. I grew up and out and lifted weights. Much to the delight of my parents, I cut my hair and put the black heavy metal t-shirts away. I listened to Grunge.

Grunge eschewed glitz and big hair for flannel and sneakers. The Seattle sound was serious. In college, I listened to Kurt Cobain’s stories and Eddie Vedder’s songs about suicide and depression. It seemed Grunge would dominate the 90s. But Kurt Cobain killed himself, and Pearl Jam moved away from the power chords and searing guitar riffs of their first two albums. They became something of a niche band with a cult following. Grunge’s second wave, led by the likes of Creed, was decidedly unmemorable. Dave Grohl soldiered on with the Foo Fighters. Grunge flared out faster than anyone could have imagined and rock was left with what?

In the early 2000s, the last true rock stars were probably Kid Rock, who fused hard rock with rap, and Cheryl Crowe. In Seven Nation Army, Jack White found the last great guitar riff. Rock and roll had run its course. After Grunge died, this former metalhead had abandoned rock entirely and spent years discovering classical music and jazz. By 1998 I was really into Tchaikovsky, not just The 1812 Overture, but pieces like the triumphant Marche Slave. I got into the big bands too. Duke Ellington can whack one over the head with thundering drums just as well as AC/DC. Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington may not have been metal, but they were heavy. Ten years after I got into heavy metal I didn’t care about it at all.

My metal revival began in early 2003. The 90s were already a lost world of frivolities like the Clinton impeachment and the return of disco (it doesn’t suck, by the way), brought to an end by 9/11. I turned 30 and began writing my first novel. Back then, I liked listening to music while I wrote. I broke out the Led Zeppelin box set of ten CDs. I hadn’t listened to them in years.  But now I approached Zeppelin as a grown man, with an ear for music honed by a half decade of listening to classical and Big Band. Now I could pick out bits in a Led Zeppelin song I never would have when we were 15. That summer, I listened to Metallica’s Black for the first time in years. The controversial album, considered by some to be a departure from the band’s oeuvre, sounded as fresh and hard hitting in 2003 as it did upon release in 1991. Slam producer Bob Rock all you want for lightening up Metallica a bit, but Black is an utterly unique album and we’ll not see it’s like again.

During the winter of 2004, I picked up a guitar for the first time. After a gruelling year learning the basics, I taught myself hard rock songs like Free’s ‘Alright Now’, and the ethereal mist that obscured the likes of Jimmy Page slowly lifted. The mystery was gone. I could play Jimmy Page pretty well, and there was no more overrated bit of balderdash than his violin bow over a guitar. AC/DC’s Malcom Young liked simple chord progressions like Back in Black, but brother Angus’ leads were herky-jerky and violent and difficult to pick up. I’ve come to think of Page as more of a pioneer than a maestro and if asked the age-old rock question, believe the greatest guitar player is recently deceased Eddie Van Halen. He was classically trained but played manically like he wasn’t. In time, I could play. After a while, I could shred, nimbly picking strings and moving our fingers up and down the fretboard. I fired out notes frenetically, like a gunner on a quad .50 caliber anti-aircraft gun spitting tracers over the Pacific. Or so I told myself.

Iron Maiden’s Eddie

As I learned to play guitar, I noticed that heavy metal was creeping back into the culture. By then this former metalhead was a more or less permanent substitute teacher at a high school in suburban New Jersey. In the hallways, I saw some of the kids wearing reprints of black heavy metal shirts from the 1980s. I spotted the classic Ozzy Osbourne/Randy Rhodes Tribute T-shirt, Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ cemetery album cover, and even the old Iron Maiden Eddie T-shirts. Eddie, the tattered skeleton that became the sixth member of Iron Maiden, was ubiquitous in the 1980s and now he’d returned. There was Eddie as a white-wigged English judge handing down a ten-year sentence. There he was again in the cockpit of a Spitfire. And most famously, Eddie carried the Union Jack into battle as The Trooper. I pointed out to these young Millennials that I had the same T-shirts, and they actually asked me about metal in the 1980s. With pleasure I recounted, but not too much; I didn’t want to overdo it like a Boomer who can’t shut the hell up about the 60s, man.

I then discovered Sam Dunn, a Canadian anthropologist, documentary film maker and lifetime metalhead. In 2005 Dunn released his first film, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, a two-hour meditation on the history and meaning of heavy metal. He followed this up in 2008 with Iron Maiden: Flight 666, an inside look of Iron Maiden’s 2008 world tour. The author attended their shows at New Jersey’s Meadowlands and PNC Bank Arts Center.  On 11 November 2011 (the very date is a heavy metal inside joke), Dunn released Metal Evolution. This was an 11-part history of heavy metal, from the very earliest proto-metal bands like Jimmy Hendrix and Cream, right on through to the Nu Metal bands of the 90s. Dunn’s series is akin to the BBCs The World at War. There will never be a better documentary series about heavy metal.

As the metal revival grew, in 2008 VH1 launched That Metal Show. Heavy metal was back on the air, albeit on VH-1, which in the 1980s would have been a mark of shame. That Metal Show was hosted by radio DJ Eddie Trunk and his comedian sidekicks Don Jameson and Jim Florentine. The trio were children of the 70s and 80s, and lifelong metal fans; Trunk had been a record industry producer in the 80’s. That Metal Show was a platform for the discussion of all things hard rock and heavy metal, often hilariously so. Florentine bragged about seeing fellow Long Islanders Twisted Sister during their epic pre-MTV touring days. Jameson bragged about losing his virginity while wearing an Iron Maiden T-Shirt. Over the course of fourteen seasons That Metal Show added greatly to heavy metal’s historical record and taught us much I didn’t know.

Twenty years after I first joined the heavy metal scene, I was back, a better metalhead than I’d ever thought possible – and a better music lover too.

Gimme shelter – the fall and rise of the 60s

Rites of Dionysus, by Tim Shaw

MARK GULLICK says the hyperbolised decade turned naivety into nastiness

“They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. We’re at the end of the greatest decade in the history of mankind, and as Presumin’ Ed has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.” Withnail and I

“At first sight, the whole period, the whole state of the world, seems to offer no more secure footing to an historical adventurer than the chaos of Milton – to be in a state of irreclaimable disorder…” Editorial introduction to Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

If you can remember the Sixties, runs the rusted old adage, you weren’t there. For today’s political Left, most of whom weren’t there, it was the blessed decade, a time of liberation, sticking it to The Man, and sex and drugs and rock and roll. For those few Conservatives who remain, it was the fons et origo of the chaotic times in which we find ourselves.

The world-historical events of the 1960s centred around America. JFK’s assassination, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Act and King’s killing, Vietnam, the Apollo moon landing – all these shook, rattled and rolled the country where, as de Tocqueville had claimed in 1835, the world’s first great experiment in democracy had begun. And if the Sixties were remade as a movie, for good or ill, then it would feature an Anglo-American soundtrack – rock music.

Defining musical genres is a mug’s game. With rock music, it defines itself on listening. As with the famous American judicial case requiring a judge’s clerk to define hard-core pornography, with rock music you will know it when you see it. And, in this case, hear it. The first band I saw, at the age of 14 in 1975 and for £2.50, was Led Zeppelin, themselves a product of the Sixties and its bequest of rock music. The man I was watching transfixedly, Jimmy Page, was inspired to pick up the guitar after hearing Presley’s Come On Baby, Let’s Play House. Zeppelin were shatteringly loud. This was a while before The Who forced legislation to reduce the volume at concerts following their 1977 gig at Charlton Football Stadium in south London. The band could be heard in Brighton. I couldn’t really hear anything, not with any clarity, for two days after Led Zeppelin. Quite simply, in Nietzschean terms, here was Dionysus.

But rock music grew not out of its father’s thigh, as did the mythical Dionysus, but out of electric pop and R&B. The details are unimportant, but The Stones began the Sixties as a Chuck Berry tribute band and ended it as Their Satanic Majesties. The Sixties – something happened out there. A number of tributaries flowed into one river, and the counter-culture got the music it required.

I’ll return to the schism which eventually separated rock music from rock and roll, R&B and pop music, but a mixture of youth rebellion, drugs hard and soft, and economic affluence produced a coat of arms for a culture-changing musical crusade which began at El Paso, the Marty Robbins single which was the first January Billboard number one of the Sixties, and ended at Altamont Speedway Stadium in December 1969.

Rock music itself took a broad base of blues, R&B and rock and roll and used it to weave the bands’ own designs, all amplified beyond old-school levels. Rock music is primal and it is Dionysiac. The Sixties’ alchemical mixture which became rock music was bubbling away before synthesisers, sequencers and computers (some experiments aside), and so was visceral, sweat-soaked and animalistic.

Certainly the electric guitar was the weapon of choice for the cultural skirmishes ahead, the staff adorned with pine-cones held aloft by the followers of Dionysus. Coming from the back row of the swing bands of the 40s and 50s, the electric version of the instrument became more prominent when people like Louis Jordan began cutting band numbers to save money on the road. It was Charlie Christian who first made the electric guitar talk through amplification (his famous original guitar was bought by Steve Howe of Yes), and the thread would wind through the guitarists of the Sixties – Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Pete Townshend – the last included as possibly the greatest rhythm guitarist of a crew best known for their solos.

It was the way in which the instrument was played rather than innovation in guitars themselves, with vintage guitars being prized as the age of mass-production began. The riff was born in the Sixties. When Townshend got back from an American tour in 1964 and turned on the radio, he heard the famous staccato barre chords of You Really Got Me by The Kinks. It certainly got Townshend. He sat down and wrote the equally famous chopped riff for I Can’t Explain.

John Entwistle of The Who

The Sixties also saw the rebirth of the often-forgotten bass guitar in rock music. As a bass player myself, I can say that the decade energised and freed the instrument. McCartney’s melodic scales on his iconic Hofner Violin bass, Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones’s rhythmic work in tandem with the mighty John Bonham, the blues scales of Free’s Andy Frazer, The Faces’ Ronnie Lane and Cream’s Jack Bruce set the instrument free, away from the straight rock ‘n’ roll runs and country plod of the Fifties, and no one more so that The Who’s legendary John “Thunderfingers” Entwistle, who brought the bass to forefront of the band’s tumultuous sound.

Rock music was banned in Yugoslavia in the Sixties as subversive, which was precisely its appeal to bored and affluent Western youth who were experiencing a relaxation of authority and discipline after the strait-laced Fifties. Todd Gitlin called rock music incoherent and primitively regressive, while Gerard Howard dubbed it the “Pied Piper’s tune of the new freedoms”. The children led by the Piper in the fairy-tale, of course, were free right up until they were slaughtered in the wood.

Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix nut-shelled the Sixties in one performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He played the electric guitar in a way no one had ever seen or heard. Then he set light to it and smashed it to pieces. This was a sign, a pointer to where the American dream was heading. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud famously writes that dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious”. The dream-work becomes a text to be read off, and the signifiers relate to a signified which is never fully present (Derrida had much to say about this). What type of unconscious can be read off from, and thus lurks beneath, the American dream? In terms of rock music, the dream was interrupted.

Just as the first British invasion of the 18th century led to the Declaration of Independence, American pragmatism built on British conceptual guidelines (Locke and so on), so too it could be argued that the British invasion of the 1960s led to rock music as a progression of electric pop and rock and roll. Arguably, The Beatles began the metamorphosis, moving from covering R&B and Motown songs to writing their own, influenced by both but with something British layered on top. The list of British bands desperate to ‘crack America’ grew quickly. The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five, The Who, Herman’s Hermits… When The Stones recorded at blues HQ Chess Records, significant ground had been ceded by American forces.

There were, of course, two main offensives from Blighty, two very different bands who were attracted to America under different pretences. And, just as Coleridge claimed every man was born a Platonist or an Aristotelean, so too the Sixties had an ontological choice of its own: The Beatles or The Stones?

The Beatles had the shop-store mannequin look A&R men had been looking for, while The Stones always looked to be up to no good in publicity photos. After the amphetamine-crazed early Hamburg scene, The Beatles settled into a life, viewed in terms of narcotics, of marijuana and LSD, mostly. The Fab Four were not known for their live work, which were mostly exercises in young girls screaming themselves hoarse at a slightly animated version of Kraftwerk. The Stones were becoming notorious for their live transformation. Jagger had stopped hopping about like a small variety of garden bird and was now part-turkeycock, part infernal drag queen. Richards was becoming the troubadour. It has to be The Stones, for me, but debate is welcomed. In the end, The Stones couldn’t write Blackbird, but The Beatles certainly couldn’t have performed Midnight Rambler.

In the end, the British took coals to Newcastle (home of The Animals). American rhythm and blues made it to the record shops of the home counties, bands began emulating them, realised that with minor alterations they could cut the suit to fit them, and sold the result back to a willing American public. Perhaps America could have come up with rock music unaided, but then maybe it was too affluent, too shiftless, too relaxed in its hedonistic consumerism. It wasn’t getting over the effects of the worst war the world had even seen, it wasn’t rationed, it wasn’t austere and economically fragile. The British invasion added urban grit to rock music in its infancy, some gin in the baby’s bottle. For this tonic, we have the institution of the British Art College to thank, partly, for bringing Townshend and Clapton and others out from their artistic shells.

America tried to replicate the success of The Beatles with the manufactured Monkees, who actually went on to be a halfway-decent pop band. It is regrettable that the urban myth informing us that Charles Manson auditioned for the band proves to be untrue. Manson was in Rikers at the time, but how would the band have developed? Manson did actually write music; Guns ‘n’ Roses covered his Look at Your Game, Girl.

The rock music whose source lies in the Sixties would be a raging river in the 1970s, and one of its effects would be punk at the end of the decade. Psychedelic rock made its appearance in the 60s and was not confined to freakish one-offs like The Chocolate Watch band. The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, The Who all had their flirtation with psychedelia, as did – more tellingly – the early Pink Floyd, waiting for the Seventies for ultimate fame.

One of the tributaries from the 1960s was garage rock. Determinedly lo-fi, garage was cheaply recorded electric pop music, a dress rehearsal for punk, and a genre only really defined after it was gone. But it must have stirred the sediment of the rock mix. The FBI investigated Link Wray’s 1958 classic Rumble. What were they looking for? Seditious lyrics? (Rumble was famously an instrumental.) (1)

Link Wray

The most obvious and influential off-shoot of garage rock was The Velvet Underground. In the context of the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s ethos of combining consumerism with multimedia with business was visionary. It is said of the first Velvet Underground LP that not many bought it, but everyone who did formed a band. The band combined raw garage rattle and roll with a Euro-gothic, dilettante style. Rock would always have more than a trace element of poison, which is where Velvet Underground came in, to attempt to puncture the homely sureties of, say, Crosby, Still, Nash and Young.

CSN&Y were a sort of anti-Velvet Underground, rural in feel as opposed to urban, harmonic not dissonant, lyrically upbeat, not dabblers in despair. But both of these elements would combine in the best rock music. America had two sides of its rock ball mask, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, perhaps, and they may as well be thought of as rural and urban. Rock music was far from being one monolithic creature as the Sixties ended. In the last two years of the Sixties, The Band released their debut studio album, Music From Big Pink,and Iggy and the Stooges released their eponymous debut album, featuring Now I Wanna be Your Dog.

CSN&Y also shared with The Velvet Underground a microcosmic tendency of America: internal rifts and splits, acrimony, self-induced problems, civil war. Rock music may have been formed by the coming together of many influences, both musical and cultural, but it was going to be its father’s son, part brilliance, part destructive self-hatred.

Warhol epitomised a big part of the Sixties’ cultural ethos: business. Further to this, rock music as business. This was the days of album and single sales and gigs, and that’s it. No brand association, no commercials in your videos, no many-headed hydra of internet hits and downloads. Now, everything is a hit record just like every book is a best-seller. You just tell people it is. Everyone’s a winner. Warhol famously said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. But he went on to write in his autobiography From A to B and Back Again, “…in 15 minutes, everyone will be famous”.

The two sides to rock music in the 1960s shows the same rift, the same oscillation between genius (or vast success) and madness (or a vast amount of drugs) as existed throughout America, with a metaphorical shift or two. Rock music, like its Anglo-American parents, would be born schizophrenic, presenting both the Apollonian spectacle of live rock music and its ornamental imagery, and the Dionysiac back beat, a music which could be exhilarating for a time, then change into something mad, bad and dangerous to know.

In the end, rock music might be the consolation for what the 1960s did to us. This Janus-faced god has returned to the woodland, true, and there is no real rock music to be found today. Entertainment has become wholly Apollonian and rock was always the herald of the Dionysiac, even when the harbinger was a fairly witless stoner like Jim Morrison.

“There is no real rock music to be found today…”

Rock music in the Sixties wore the reversible mask of tragedy and comedy, or at least light-heartedness. It aimed at Woodstock but it ended up with Altamont. And so did we.

Woodstock was the very model of how capitalism works in that it set up a huge venture, lost money partly due to the concert being half attended by people who had no tickets, then made its money back selling the film rights. The performances were legendary, and the counter-culture had a focal point, a quasi-religious event.

But what could counter the counter-culture? The other face of the mask, perhaps, the one shown at Altamont, a few months after Woodstock and an attempt to cash in on the idea. Students of popular culture will be familiar with received opinion. Promoters were beginning to realise in post-Woodstock 1969 that there was an awful lot of money to be made from the potent combination of rock music and the kids who wanted to hear it live. Altamont Speedway in Indiana was duly selected for a gig headlined by The Stones.

Their Satanic Majesties hired Hell’s Angels to see to security, and provided them with $500 dollars’ worth of beer. As things became increasingly fractious in front of the stage, and while the band were playing Under my Thumb, not the diabolic anthem Sympathy for the Devil as legend would prefer, a young black man named Meredith Hunter was fatally stabbed by one of the bikers. It was December, 1969.

The Sixties strove for Woodstock but it ended up as Altamont. Remind you of anything? The contemporary Western world, for example, forever telling us we are on the road to Woodstock, only to find we had the Altamont tickets. Front row. And the Sixties was not only music. Rock and roll was also an attitude. Hunter S. Thompson, Warhol, Lennie Bruce, the Beat – all of these acts were riffing on the same centre of gravity.

Rock music was the answer to a lot of questions, musical, social, political, aesthetic, and it had the broadest sweep both of influences and by what it went on to create. In the UK, among other genres, glam rock and punk were both waiting to see what the seeds of the Sixties would grow in a darker part of the garden.

One of Baudelaire’s collection of poems, Les fleurs du mal, is entitled Music, and contains lines Dionysian enough to serve as an epitaph, if it is that time, for rock music:

I feel the tremblings of all passions known 
To ships before the breeze; 
Cradled by gentle winds, or tempest-blown 
I pass the abysmal seas 
That are, when calm, the mirror level and fairy-tale 
Of my despair!

Editor’s Note

  1. Link Wray is No. 45 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists, credited with inventing the much-copied distorted “power chord”. A live version of Rumble may be found here