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12:23 a.m. - June 06, 2006
Metal Head!
Recently, VH-1 showed a four hour documentary on the history of Heavy Metal, and since I do like to bang me head once in a while, I was very intrigued by it.

I actually stumbled across it by accident, and saw the first part of the Judas Priest segment when my family was in town, but thanks to the power of TiVo, I was able to record it and view it at my pleasure.

And while it was entertaining, I was annoyed by some omissions and some factual errors, and it also got me wondering what IS heavy metal, anyway?

Now, if you know me, I HATE the over-genreization of music, especially rock music. To me, it’s good music or it’s not, and yes I do throw some terms around like power pop and the like, but that’s to help people understand what the artist or song sounds like, not necessarily a pigeonhole on where to put that band.

Yet, for some reason, metal is ONE genre that I care what is metal and what is NOT metal. I don’t know why that is – perhaps it was because of all of the glammy poofy hair bands of the 80’s that really cheezed me off when they claimed, or were claimed to be, metal when they were nothing but a bunch of pretty boy sissy marys playing wussy songs using power chords (more on that later).

First, though, let's get to the documentary.

Of course, the documentary started with Black Sabbath. Now while Sabbath is probably the touchstone band for heavy metal, in reality that’s way too convenient to start. (I do realize they had four hours, but still…)

It’s funny that I made a CD set of 100 songs for Teets that was MY take on the evolution of her beloved nu metal (or whatever the hell you call it), so this was all fresh on my mind.

First thing I noticed that there was absolutely no mention of Blue Cheer. None. Anyone who was around, or heard them, or hears them now, knows that Vincebus Eruptum was no doubt the first ever heavy metal album. “Summertime Blues” and “Parchment Farm” were heavy duty. Yeah, they fizzed out after a while, and became much more hippified, but that first record – dayam!

Of course, there’s a lot of table setting for Blue Cheer – the fuzzy guitars of the Kinks, the power of the Who, especially live, the Beatles song “Think For Yourself” – the whole genre of garage rock, etc. but that Blue Cheer was IT – THE starting point, not Black Sabbath. That band was METAL.

They did mention Steppenwolf in passing, and they do play a role, because they used their Leslied Hammond Organ in a heavy duty way. But Steppenwolf, whilst very heavy wasn’t metal – neither was Iron Butterfly or Vanilla Fudge. They were close, though.

There was no mention of the Stooges or of the MC5. Certainly, they had a greater influence in punk rock than metal (more on that tomorrow), yet there were definitely metallic bits and pieces to both the MC5 and the Stooges that I’m sure people sat up and took notice of.

There was no mention at ALL of Deep Purple, which again I found really odd. Deep Purple was one of the heaviest acts of their time. Jon Lord’s organ acted as a bottom and a counterpoint to Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar and Roger Glover’s bass and created a bottom heavy sound that rang with sinister intentions.

How the hell is “Highway Star” not metal?

(Yes, I realize Deep Purple used keyboards, which violates a rule of mine that heavy metal bands don’t use keyboards as a main instrument – only an occasional flourish – yet I give Deep Purple a pass as it’s extremely heavy, duuuuude.)

Do you know that classic Judas Priest rhythm with the two guitars chugging along (like in “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”) – copped right from Deep Purple.

Then they mentioned Alice Cooper as a metal touchstone. Now, while Alice certainly was scary and had the attitude, I don’t really think of his stuff as metal. Besides, Iggy Pop did a lot of his antics (well, minus the snake) on stage as well.

Same with Kiss. Kiss was evil, or cartoony evil, and their music was pretty heavy for the time, but no where near as heavy as Sabbath, or even Deep Purple. In fact, it seems funny now that Kiss is mentioned as metal, but hey, the mid 70’s were kind of fallow for true heaviness. I guess for influences, etc. they belong in the documentary but Kiss will never be TRUE heavy metal to me. I think it was the comic book or the TV movie!

Van Halen got a metal treatment. Now I love me some Van Halen (ok, some REAL Van Halen) but I never thought of them as metal. They rocked like no one’s business but there wasn’t that sinister vibe that I associate with metal.

(The sweet delicious irony is that the second heaviest thing on the Heavy Metal soundtrack was by noted band-killer and total jake Sammy Hagar. The heaviest thing was this delicious piece of speed metal called “Prefabricated” by Trust.)

They glossed over Motorhead – barely a mention really. Motorhead took Sabbath and blended it with punk and wrote about partying and what not, and well, there you go! Without Motorhead, there’s no Metallica, and they got maybe 30 seconds.

(The Scorpions got a short shrift as well – even though they were mostly mediocre – they had a long history and had some moments.)

But seeing the Judas Priest and Iron Maiden segments were great, especially the Priest segment from “The Old Gray Whistle Test” where Rob Halford wore this frilly blouse with an open chest and long hair.

The original singer from Maiden got a lot of face time, yet no interview with him. Bruce Dickinson looked like the Crocodile Hunter, not a metal god! Heh.

They kind of glossed over a bunch of English metal bands in the 80’s that influenced bands today, but that’s probably due to time restrictions, yet, a lot of the 80’s segments focused on Def Leppard and then, ulp, HAIR bands.

Leppard? Not metal. Too light – too fluffy. Oh, it had the riffs but it was all safe and nice and all that. And being safe and nice is NOT metal. It’s good hard rock / pop, much like Bon Jovi.

Some hair bands had metal edges (and yeah, Ratt, Twisted Sister and Motley Crue were metal in my ears – and I guess they’re really not hair bands per se, then. I’m undecided on Quiet Riot – though really if they are then Slade is a metal precursor and I don’t know about that – Slade is a fine band though, so maybe, yeah, OK) but for the most part, gack. Playing hard rock riffs isn’t enough to make you metal, Poison or Cinderella or Warrant or White Lion or Winger. I guess I’m just not into the hairspray thing.

But I guess enough people thought they were metal. Sigh.

Then they went to the bane of existence of metal – the power ballads. (Dee Snyder was especially hilarious in these segments!)

Again, the revisionist history – claiming “Home Sweet Home” as the first one.

Well, first there was “Changes” off of Black Sabbath IV. Judas Priest released a whole bunch of slow ballads early in their career. And the classic Hell Bent For Leather album had “Before The Dawn”, which was definitely a power ballad.

“Bringing On The Heartbreak” by Leppard? Yeah, power ballad, big time!

And to be honest, “Dream On” by Aerosmith could be the first really POPULAR power ballad. It’s all that AND a bucket of chicken over “Home Sweet Home”.

Later, when exploring the speed / thrash metal, they mentioned the “Bring The Noise” collaboration between Antrhax and Public Enemy – yet – no mention of Licensed To Ill by the Beastie Boys, which was metal, really, on many songs, including a cut with Kerry King of Slayer on guitar.

(Speaking of Slayer, they got the short end of the stick as well – they were a bit more prominent than the mention they received.)

Grunge got no mention, even though it KILLED the hair bands, AND while not metal, definitely combined metal and punk (see Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Nirvana), and actually the Helmet, the Melvins and Tad COULD be considered metal by some.

The segment on Marilyn Manson being a pariah was good, but if you mention HIM, you also need to get some love for Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Big Black, and other metallic / industrial bands (that I’m not mentioning because I’ll forget them and that whole scene isn’t really MY scene, ya dig?) that paved the way for whatever is going on now.

One of the funniest segments was about the genrefication of metal – with so many subgenres and what not that it’s almost comical. I’m not really down with a lot of what is passing as metal now, but that’s OK. I nod in its direction, even if I think with digital technologies and the like it’s too clean and precise.

And I think that’s where I’m going (finally!) with this whole thing.

To me, metal IS. It can be fast or slow. It can be deadly serious or funny. But it IS.

Metal has a definite darkness to it, but that doesn’t mean a metal band can’t do a ballad or change things up. Even dark boys have a sensitive side.

Metal lives on the edge of destruction. This is a key – even if it’s very controlled at times there’s always a sense in metal of something just falling apart and you’re careening off track.

Punk rock also has this same sense to me, which is why they are really kin to each other, like first cousins, even if all the metal heads in the 80’s thought punk was junk. Silly boys. (Tune in tomorrow for more about punk rock!)

The ‘metal’ technicians who played guitar in the 80’s (like Yngwie Malmsteen) aren’t metal at all, because they were too clean, too precise, too technical. Yeah, the speed metal guys were very clean and precise, but you always felt like you were one note away from Armageddon when listening to Slayer or early Metallica.

Metal starts and ends with the riff. The riff is the key, whether it be guitar or bass (or with Deep Purple, and Deep Purple ONLY keyboards (sorry Europe and Autograph, you were lame anyway) – ok now Wolfmother as well with keyboards, but still). You hear the riff, and you know it’s metal. This is another place where Leppard fails as a metal band – the riffs aren’t foreboding enough. This is also the reason AC/DC is metal, though I resisted that point for many years. (Though I think it’s mostly the Bon Scott era AC/DC that is metal.)

Sometimes a non-metal band can really turn in a metal song. Whitesnake, who I lump in the hair category, had one song, “Still of the Night” which absolutely kicked serious tail and IS metal. But the rest, feh. I mean “Slide It In” tries, but nah, it’s really NOT metal.

Metal always sounds good played LOUD, too. In fact, a great metal song is one that you can’t turn up loud enough. You always want it to go one louder.

To me, metal’s not the costume, the studs, the chains, the leather, the look. It’s not what guitar you play or how you wear your hair. It just IS and I know what IT IS when I hear it.

I guess that doesn’t really help much for a definition. But I’ll stick to it.

So if someone asks me to name heavy metal bands, I know exactly how I’ll answer, and I’ll have an answer for everybody if they ask me if Kix or Trixter or Slaughter or Kiss were metal or not.

And I’ll be banging me head all the time! Especially today, since it is the National Day of Slayer!.

 

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