The Samsonite demise of heavy metal

BBC2's Seven Ages of Rock reminded us how great metal was, before it merged with grunge and emo to become yet another outlet for teen angst.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

It is often remarked that heavy metal is not fashionable. As a metal fan, I am not bothered by this. Being into something merely because it’s fashionable is something everyone should grow out of when they enter adulthood. I’m more concerned with the question that no-one seems to ask these days: why don’t people in heavy metal groups have long hair anymore?

This is an important question, because for my generation, having long hair was the essence of being a metaller. You can’t head-bang properly without it. The disappearance of Samson-ite metallers has coincided with the virtual disappearance of heavy metal itself, which has now fused with grunge, emo and indie to become a kind of navel-gazing vehicle through which teenagers display their angst.

This transformation was made evident in Saturday’s instalment of BBC 2’s rather good series, Seven Ages of Rock, which was devoted to the legends of metal: Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Metallica. These bands sung about proper things: castles, dragons, mountains, prostitution, insanity, paranoia, capital punishment, killing people, and so on. But what passes for metal now seems to have retreated from its natural points of reference – fantasy, antiquity, night-time, the countryside – and has taken up the themes of punk. It is about urban modernity, personal angst, teenage concerns and incoherent rage at society. Funeral for a Friend, Evanescence, Linkin Park and so on – their basic message can be summed up with the phrase: ‘Why haven’t I got a girlfriend?’

This is why the BBC was wrong to feature Judas Priest in the latest programme. Judas Priest are not heavy metal. They are hard rock. This is because they sing about girls, getting drunk and about themselves, whether it being ‘living after midnight’ or ‘breaking the law, breaking the law’. That’s why Motley Crue, AC/DC and Guns ‘n’ Roses are also hard rock. They don’t do songs about wars and killing people. And Judas Priest were not, as it was claimed, responsible for introducing twin guitar harmonies to metal; Thin Lizzy did this in 1973 with their version of the Irish folk song Whiskey in the Jar.

I can understand why Led Zeppelin weren’t included in the programme, because they always have resented being called a heavy metal band. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page very likely would not have consented to be interviewed for this programme (they do feature in tomorrow’s episode), but no amount of protesting can disguise the fact that Led Zep were metal. Sure, they did occasionally sing about not getting girlfriends, but they also sang about mountains and war and stuff they read in The Lord of the Rings.

Seven Ages of Rock erred in another respect, in that it attributed the sound of proper metal to the noise of factories in Birmingham. We were reminded how the bassist Tony Iommi was inspired to create Black Sabbath’s sound having worked in one. It’s a rather nice idea, similar to the claim that birds’ song now imitates mobile phone ringtones, but it’s a bit too simplistic. It ignores heavy metal’s etymology, its manifest debt to The Kinks, Iron Butterfly, Jimi Hendrix, The Dubliners, Chuck Berry, and most of all the blues. Heavy metal, essentially, is the blues speeded up and turned up to 11. It’s in the same minor key, it is of the same melancholic disposition. The only difference is lyrical, in that blues singers always lament about their wife leaving them, while metallers sing about killing people.

There is also metal’s debt to Wagner and Bach, the former inspiring the dark fantasies for which the genre is renowned, the latter giving the majestic harmonies for which bands such as Iron Maiden are famed. For instance, Diamond Head’s Am I Evil?, which was covered by Metallica, was a reinterpretation of Holst’s Mars from The Planets suite. Let us not forget poetic licence, too. I am pleased to hear that Maiden are again to perform their 15-minute 1984 epic Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which is indeed a take on the Coleridge poem. It may border on Spinal Tap-like absurdity, but it is a stunning piece of work.

So why has metal stopped being the aural equivalent to MR James and embraced the ethos of The Cure? We might partly blame our narcissistic, therapeutic age. Or grunge in 1992, which stopped people dressing in leather and denim and instead encouraged people to dress like tramps. But heavy metal was really killed off by satire. Just as Chris Morris’s The Day Today made it impossible to take television news seriously, or Team America: World Police means I cannot see a picture of Kim Jong-Il without laughing, the 1984 film This is Spinal Tap rendered metal eternally ludicrous. Spandex, eternal line-up changes and experimental songs became the source of ridicule. Aerosmith, who actually did put a picture of Stonehenge on the cover of their 1982 album Rock in a Hard Place, soon recovered to record the legendary reinterpretation of Walk This Way with rappers Run DMC. Anthrax likewise collaborated with Public Enemy. Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and all of Metallica cut their hair in the 1990s, and it was no coincidence that they stopped making decent albums. Remember Samson.

Or maybe I’m out of touch. After all, Iron Maiden, Slayer and Megadeth are playing at this year’s Download festival. I’m tempted to go. I went in 1992 when Maiden headlined and when it was simply called the Monsters of Rock. It was great. We all got drunk on Southern Comfort. People were throwing buckets of piss at each other. A friend of mine took acid and was asking whether the skeletons on the stage were real. I almost froze to death at night and I came home smelling of poo.

Ah, the good old days…

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

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