Thursday, February 9, 2006

A History of Heavy Metal Part Four: The Last Command

The British New Wave of Heavy Metal effectively revived the form in United Kingdom. At the same time, however, it did something quite unexpected. With the success of such British groups as Judas Priest and Def Leppard, there was a new demand for heavy metal in the United States and elsewhere. And soon American heavy metal bands would arise to meet that demand.

Heavy metal would reach its peak in popularity in the Eighties. Perhaps there can be no greater sign that a genre is popular than when it is ripe for parody. The faux documentary This is Spinal Tap, releasead in 1984, mocked every heavy metal cliche there was; perhaps for this reason, the movie's greatest fans are also metalheads. The popularity of heavy metal was also reflected on the playlists of MTV (for you youngsters out there, MTV played videos back then...). Indeed, in 1985 a show dedicated solely to heavy metal, Headbanger's Ball, debuted on that cable channel. Older magazines such as Creem shifted their focus to heavy metal, while new magazines dedicated to the genre, such as Kerrang, arose.

Perhaps unforuntately, the vast majority of heavy metal bands in the Eighties probably belonged to the subgenre known variously as "hair metal," "glam metal," or "pop metal." This was a pop based form of metal which focused primarily on sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll for subject matter and was centred on short, catchy songs. In my humble opinion, the hair bands could be roughly divided into two camps. The first were those bands which drew heavily upon The New York Dolls and KISS for inspiration. They wore make up, outrageous fashions, and, of course, long hair. The second were those bands which drew more heavily upon Van Halen (a hard rock band, but one which influenced heavy metal), Aerosmith, and Def Leppard. Among most hardcore headbangers, neither camp of pop metal was particularly respected.

Examples of the New York Dolls/KISS type pop metal bands were Twisted Sister, Motley Crue, and Poison. Twisted Sister had actually been around since the Seventies; indeed, members of the band had actually been a part of Wicked Lester (the predecessor to KISS). In some respects they were actually a parody of a glam band, with Dee Snyder looking like a latter day Milton Berle in drag. Between their image and the quality of their music, they were hard to take seriously. Motley Crue was perhaps the most popular of the glam metal bands. They were almost blatantly a KISS ripoff, to the point that in Creem or another magazine, when asked why KISS stopped wearing their make up, Gene Simmons replied, "Because we didn't want to be accused of imitating Motley Crue..." Unfortunately, Motley Crue was never as good as KISS. As bad as Twisted Sister and Motley Crue might seem to some, they were not nearly as bad as Poison. The band's fashion sense was obviously taken from The New York Dolls. Their sound on the other hand was liberally taken from (some might say "ripped off") KISS and even the kings of power pop Cheap Trick (their first hit "Talk Dirty to Me" takes its riff from the Cheap Trick song "She's Tight"). The only thing that kept Poison from being the nadir of glam metal were the many other terrible pop metal bands out there.

Indeed, it seems as if the worst hair bands belonged not to the New York Dolls/KISS camp, but to the Van Halen/Aerosmith/Def Leppard camp. Examples of bands of this type were Warrant, Winger, and Slaughter. Warrant was perhaps the worst of three, performing pop based, sex obsessed songs that were as cheesey as they come. Indeed, they may have written the single worst heavy metal song of all time--the notorous "Cherry Pie." Winger looked good compared to Warrant. At least the worst thing that could be said about them is that their songs were fairly generic and sappy. Indeed, they were masters of the power ballad. Slaughter may have been the best of the three. They at least produced a few listenable songs, although, like Winger, they were pretty generic for the most part.

Here I should mention three bands that are sometimes grouped with the hair metal bands, but probably should not. The first is Ratt. Formed in 1978 by Stephen Pearcy, their earliest songs drew more from the classic Britpop band Sweet than anything else (listen to "Ballroom Blitz" and then listen to "Round and Round" if you don't believe me). Second, as the years wore on, Ratt's music would become more blues based. While they shared the "glam" image with Motley Crue and Warrant, they were in a different league entirely. Quite simply, they were good.

Another band that should not be counted as a hair band, although some consider them the epitome of such, is Cinderella. Their first album, Night Songs, was almost certainly pop metal, albeit a superior form of pop metal with touches of power pop thrown in. Starting with their second album, Long Cold Winter, however, the band grew bluesier in style. Indeed, I seem to remember many of their original fans being turned off by the change in style. As for myself, I loved it.

The third band that should not be counted as a glam metal band is W.A.S.P. Indeed, I must point out that here is nothing glamourous about them. W.A.S.P. was essentially Alice Cooper for the Eighties. Like Alice Cooper, they drew upon horror movie imagery for their stage shows and their fashion sense. Indeed, at their shows they would throw raw meat at the audience and even tie semi-naked models to a torture rack (perhaps I should not even menton Blackie Lawless' flame throwing cod piece...). As to their music, it was far harder than anything the pop metal bands ever performed and didn't just deal with sex, but with various fantastic themes ("Mantronic" was about a cyborg), violence, rebellion, and several other subjects.

Indeed, W.A.S.P. became the primary targets of the organisation called the Parents Music Resource Center, or PMRC for short, even though there were even more offensive groups out there (Venom, for one). From the very beginning heavy metal had generated controversy. Accusations of Satanism had been levelled at Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin early on. At the peak of its popularity in the Eighties, however, heavy metal found itself regularly under attack. The PMRC had taken it upon itself to clean up pop music. Initially they focused on such mainstream artists as Prince and Madonna, but eventually they turned their eyes towards heavy metal. In 1985 the PMRC released a list of they called the "Filthy Fifteen," those songs that they considered the most offensive. No less than nine of the songs listed were by heavy metal artists (curiously, "Animal (I **** Like a Beast)" by W.A.S.P. only came in at #9...).

The PMRC did not generate the only controversy regarding heavy metal. In 1986 Ozzy Osbourne was sued when it was claimed that his song "Suicide Solution" drove two teenagers to kill themselves (never mind the song is against suicide). In 1990 Judas Priest was sued because it was claimed an alleged subliminal message in "Better by You Better Than Me" (from Stained Class) led to a suicide. The lawsuit was dismissed when it was shown that there was no subliminal message. Collectively, Judas Priest pointed out the ludciousness of it all with the simple fact that it would be counterproductive to kill off their fan base...

As popular as heavy metal was in the Eighties and as many bands were recording at the time, the subgenre was bound to change. Almost from the beginning of the decade heavy metal began to diversify into different forms. I've already discussed progressive metal and pop metal, now it is time I discussed thrash metal. Thrash emerged from combining the sound of the British New Wave of Heavy Metal with elements of harcore punk. It is generally more agressive than traditional heavy metal, with faster guitar riffs and heavy drumming. Judas Priest utilised some of the techniques that would later be identified with thrash as early as Stained Class in 1978. Ironically, it was perhaps two bands that have often not been taken very seriously that were largely responsible for the emergence of thrash metal. Venom (which had been around since 1979--Henry Rollins of punk band Black Flag once compared them to Spinal Tap...) and Slayer (formed in 1981) sped up the sound of the BNWHM and combined it with elements of punk. I remember in the early Eighties that neither band was particulary respected. Nonetheless, they are responsible for creating thrash.

By far the most influential thrash metal band would be Metallica. In fact, they are reportedly the most successful heavy metal band in history. Metallica was formed in 1981 by Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield. They released their debut album, Kill 'Em All, in 1983, but it was their second album, Ride the Lightning, that really brought them to the fore of heavy metal music. Unlike Venom and Slayer, Metallica has always had a reputation as competent musicians. They are one of the few major heavy metal bands to maintain their popularity well into the Nineties, although their stance on internet file sharing late in the decade may well have driven off many fans.

The other major thrash metal band is Megadeth. The band was formed in 1983 by former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist David Ellefson. The band's sound was a comibination of thrash, speed metal (a form of heavy metal similar to thrash, but more melodic), and punk. Their debut album, Killing is My Business...and Business is Good, released in 1984, was less than impressive. But in 1986 they released their second album, Peace Sells...But Who's Buying to critical acclaim. Like Metallica, Megadeth eschewed the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll themes of the pop metal bands for other subject matter. Namely, Megadeth is one of the few heavy metal bands to incoroporate political themes into their songs.

Another heavy metal subgenre grew out of thrash. Death metal, also called black metal (I suppose some might consider them different genres--I can't tell the difference myself...), is characterised by heavy rhythm guitar and vocals that are little more than yelling or screaming. It is its lyrical content, however, that really sets it apart. Death metal or black metal focuses on mortality, the occult, Satanism, and a stance firmly against Christianity. Like thrash, the form's origins lie with Venom and Slayer. In fact, Venom coined the term "black metal." The genre perhaps dates to 1980 when Venom decided to litter their songs with Satanic references. Death metal or black metal have never achieved widespread popularity, no doubt due to the subject matter of their songs. The subgenre also tends to be more popular in Europe than America. At any rate, death metal and black metal bands continue to exist to this day.

For most of the Eighties, heavy metal continued to be popular. In fact, hair metal has become one of the rock subgenres most identified with the decade. Common sense dictates that no musical genre could maintain such popularity forever and with the onset of the Nineties, the popularity of heavy metal would falter. Indeed, for a time it seemed as if the end of heavy metal was at hand...

To be continued...

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