The Strange Case of the Disappearing Metal

For the last seven years or so, I’ve been writing about the music, musicians, albums & songs that I love. Lately I’ve found myself hitting something of a roadblock when putting these articles together, usually when exploring a topic from the 1970s. Using the term ‘Heavy Metal’ in a 1970s context used to come naturally and feel completely appropriate to me; but lately I find myself questioning it’s validity in a 1970s context. I’m sensing some kind of shift has been underway in the historical understanding of Heavy Metal, and it’ troubles me. What gives? Why do I now frequently find myself musing, ‘wait, is it Metal, or is it Hard Rock?’ The answer to that question may well depend on when you were born.

My Heavy Metal fandom started in 1978; I was 14 years old. As I started to develop my tastes and buying records as they were released, I also started buying music that appeared before my Metal awakening. My own tastes and personal understanding of the genre led me to the conclusion that Metal became a ‘thing’ in 1968. If I had to pick The First Heavy Metal Band, I’d choose Blue Cheer; First Heavy Metal Album: Blue Cheer’s ‘Vincebus Eruptum’. I understand that the rest of the world seems to have settled on Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut as Ground Zero for Metal. And I totally get that.

In my view, 1978 was Heavy Metal’s tenth anniversary year. A lot of growth occurred in Metal’s first decade; we went from The Yardbirds’ version of ‘The Train Kept a’ Rollin’ to Judas Priest’s pulverizing ‘Hell Bent For Leather’. As a kid in ’78, the ‘heaviest’ record I had ever heard was Sabbath’s ‘Master of Reality’; possibly Van Halen’s debut. Maybe AC/DC’s ‘Let There Be Rock’? I, like many others, kept searching for records that would outdo those records on the Richter Scale. And as Metal evolved, we got our wish. Heavy Metal got heavier. And heavier.

That’s the thing about Heavy Metal; if things get stagnant or stale, it re-invents itself. I’ve been lucky enough to witness the birth of several new sounds, styles, and significant sub-genres in realtime, while following Metal’s twisted path, and if you’re my age, you have too: NWOBHM, Thrash, Death, Black… Ok, yes, also Hair Metal and Nu Metal. So after fifty years of steady evolution, today’s Heavy Metal (or, as it’s more commonly referred to today as simply ‘Metal’) is so far removed from the Metal of 1978 that the fourteen year old inside me is often stunned whenever I put the ol’ iPod on shuffle, and hear Nazareth segue into Napalm Death; Van Halen into Vader.

But can both Y&T and Carcass really inhabit the same genre? Well, yes and no. A funny thing happened on the way to 2020: As Metal evolved into new and different sonic and stylistic territories, it began to shed an entire era of it’s history; a significant chunk of what was inarguably considered ‘Heavy Metal’ in the 1970s is being re-labeled as ‘Hard Rock’, a change that minimizes much of the heavy music produced during the first decade of Metal’s evolution and would leave modern fans’ understanding of the genre and it’s history incomplete and seriously skewed.

Only someone who was a Metalhead in the 70’s would be aware of this subtle change in terminology. If you’re aged 40 or under, you’re probably unaware of this creeping category shift; to you, the Fast, loud, n’ hard music of the 70s is probably known to you as ‘Hard Rock’. The average 20-something Metal fan of today would laugh probably in your face if you referred to Aerosmith as a Heavy Metal band. But if you grew up in the 70s, you know that this was exactly how they were classified. Is Thin Lizzy Heavy Metal? Depends on how old you are. The truth is they were, but now, it’s suddenly debatable.

So what’s happening? Clearly, the Heavy Metal of the 70s is so different from the Metal of the new millennium, that modern fans couldn’t reconcile the two sounds falling under the same umbrella, and decided en masse that the genre boundaries needed to be re-drawn. Obviously Metal music of the 70’s hasn’t changed, only the category to which we might assign it. The sole exception seems to be Black Sabbath, who will probably never lose their Heavy Metal status, due to being widely regarded as the inventors of the genre, but other 70’s Heavy-weights still considered Metal today have begun sporting the ‘proto-‘ prefix before their descriptor. There’s been no coordinated plan, no petition, no agreed-upon date for this change; it’s occurring gradually, organically. For a student of the genre, it’s a fascinating phenomenon.

Ironically, we might consider 1980 and the rise of the NWOBHM to be the cut-off point. It seems as if, at some point after the turn of the millennium, most of the Metal bands of the pre-NWOBHM era (otherwise known as ‘The 1970s’) found their Metal cred in question. I say it’s ironic because the term ‘New Wave of British Heavy Metal’ implies that there was a previous wave of British Heavy Metal. And of course, there was; Queen, UFO, Budgie, Rainbow, Judas Priest all existed before the NWOBHM. But here again, most of these bands are being re-christened as ‘Hard Rock’. But the NWOBHM makes sense as new genre boundary, as after the passage of several generations, the era of the genre’s rebirth becomes regarded as the era of it’s birth.

Do I sound like an ageing fan with a fading memory? Are there readers out there who were born sometime in the 70s, or after, who are thinking ‘this guy is nuts; Hard Rock is Hard Rock and Heavy Metal is Heavy Metal!’ I’m here to tell you it wasn’t always that way. And I can prove it. No, I’m not going to refer you to the internet, where the vast majority fof the content was likely generated after this HR/HM shift began. No, to confirm this, we need access to a static, unchanging source of information, one contemporary to the time period in question: that old pile of Circus and CREEM magazines in my basement. Watch your head.

Some context: When I joined the party in ’78, and just before the NWOBHM breathed new life into the tired warhorse called Heavy Metal, the genre’s popularity was at it’s lowest ebb. Metal seemed spent, and was suffering an identity crisis after assaults from Disco, Punk Rock and New Wave. and the vast majority of Metal’s Heavy-weights chose to take the year off and release live albums. Metal fans were fewer in number but as dedicated as ever, but the rock press knew that the genre was in serious trouble. The situation was so dire that in May of 1978, a Circus Magazine cover blurb asked “Can Heavy Metal Survive the 70s?” music journo Robert Smith took the opportunity to wonder “Can Kiss, Queen, Led Zep and Nugent keep Growing?”

A year later, CREEM Magazine took this a step further, asking “Is Heavy Metal Dead?” in their October 1979 issue. In this article, which was described as a ‘eulogy’ in that issue’s table of contents, one of CREEM’s more irreverent writers, the legendary Rick Johnson, submitted a rundown of all the ‘relevant’ Metal bands of the era and provided his thumbnail assessment of each group’s worth. It’s a hilarious piece; Johnson’s sarcastic style was always entertaining. Looking back at this article, and at the Circus article from the previous year, provides a snapshot of which bands were widely considered Heavy Metal near the end of the 70s.
Here’s a round-up of the bands included in both the Circus article and the CREEM piece:

Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Kiss, Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Ted Nugent, Monstrose, Van Halen, Rush, UFO, AC/DC, Rainbow, Queen, Nazareth, Judas Priest, Whitesnake, Foghat, Thin Lizzy, Status Quo, Uriah Heep, Budgie, Bad Company, Boston, Pat Travers Band, Wishbone Ash, Heart, The Dictators, Molly Hatchet, Mahogany Rush, Starz, Angel, The Godz, The Runaways, & REO Speedwagon.

Sure, decades later, it’s easy to agree that many of the covered bands should no longer be considered Heavy Metal –the fact that REO was included pleads the case for their urgent re-classification; no way in Hell can REO Speedwagon reside within the same musical category that Slayer did a decade later– but at in 78/79, they did. It helps to remember the context: This was Metal’s first decade of existence, and at that point in time, it didn’t get any heavier than this, folks. Deep Purple did not exist in 1978/79, and Motorhead’s ‘Overkill’ record wasn’t released until May 1979, and when the CREEM article was published, it was virtually unheard outside of the UK and Europe.

CREEM’s October 1980 issue, one year after presiding over the death of Heavy Metal, CREEM took note of the NWOBHM and Metal’s rapid resurgence with another feature article by Johnson called ‘Heavy Metal: Back From the Dead’. In addition to many of the bands featured in the 1979 article, the 1980 rundown included Scorpions, Blackfoot, Gamma, The Joe Perry Project, Triumph, and Humble Pie, along with a smattering of NWOBHM bands (although the tag ‘NWOBHM’ was not mentioned in the article). Again, if it looks a little odd seeing this bunch of bands referred to as Heavy Metal (Humble Pie?), it is what it is; that’s they way that it was.

I also dug out a (coverless) Special Edition issue of Circus, cover dated Feb 1980, called Rock Legends. There’s an entire section of the mag covering Heavy Metal, and features articles on Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, and … Grand Funk Railroad. Was GFR a Heavy Metal Band? Circus Magazine, with sales and circulation in the 70’s second only to Rolling Stone, thought so. Apparently, Humble Pie met the 1980 criteria for Heavy Metal certification, before the goalposts started moving .

Somehwere around the dawning of the new millenium, Metal Nation collectively/unconsciously decided that much of the Metal of the 70s wasn’t really Metal at all, and began to re-assign it to the Hard Rock category, and undertook a major re-write of Metal history. Maybe it started back in the 90s, when Metal split into endless sub-genres and fans needed a scorecard to keep track. But it IS happenning; right under our noses, 70’s Heavy Metal is quietly getting demoted, downgraded… diminished. The term ‘Heavy Metal’ indicates a genre seperate from any other; ‘Hard Rock’ reads like a sub-category of ‘Rock’. Yawn.

I think genre tags, musical boundaries and categories are subjective and ultimately meaningless. That said, this shift will never be acknowledged by me as legitimate. I view Metal as a wide spectrum of sounds and styles. I can see no reason why any single ‘era’ of its history would need an etymological update. Perhaps I’m reluctant to see it change because I because I lived through it, I grew up with it; I’m emotionally invested in this era more than any other. So don’t drink the Kool Aid! If it was Heavy Metal then, it’s Heavy Metal now, dammit, it always will be and HEY YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN!

1977: Love Guns vs. Sex Pistols

If you follow Metal’s timeline from its origins in the late ’60s, and continue through its classic early-to-mid ’70s heyday, you will eventually encounter something of a dead end near the end of the decade: The Punk era. Metal was at it’s lowest ebb near the end of the 70’s, as most of the giants had either gone missing (Zeppelin), broken up (Purple) or gotten seriously off-track (Sabbath), while their American ‘Second Wave’ counterparts (Aerosmith, Kiss, BOC) were ‘experimenting’ with Disco, Pop, or hard drugs. Enter: Punk Rock, to point out how tired, overblown and boring mainstream Rock music had gotten, and wipe the slate clean and make way for something new. The situation was so dire that in October of 1979, Creem Magazine ran a cover story entitled ‘Is Heavy Metal Dead?’


Of course, this standardized version of the history of that era is of course a gross oversimplification: Heavy Metal did not ‘die’ at the hands of the punks, only to be ‘reborn’ in the UK (with the NWOBHM) after punk self-destructed. The truth of the matter is that Metal continued to operate, albeit in a diminished capacity, throughout the uproar. The Punk Rock explosion posed the biggest threat in the UK, where its impact was felt as a genuine cultural phenomenon; Punk bands dominated the UK press, and Punk singles and albums charted high. Punk’s raison d’etre, to ‘Smash It Up’, with ‘it’ being Rock’s status quo, was a direct shot across the bow to the established UK Rock and Metal bands of the day.

Some HR/HM bands just starting out in ’76 wisely ignored Punk completely; Rainbow’s ‘On Stage’, released in the summer of 1977, raised the bar for never-ending, self-indulgent soloing, and Judas Priest released ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’, a record that helped shape the template for the HM genre, and then soldiered forth as the ailing genre’s standard-bearers. But most of the established UK HR/HM bands of the 1970s could mark the end of their ‘classic era’ right around 1976/77; aside from the aforementioned, consider Foghat, Uriah Heep, Status Quo, Wishbone Ash… all emerged from the fray mortally wounded, some searching for a new direction, some just sounding tired and obsolete, setting the stage for the NWOBHM.

mi0001448346As an example of just how drastically things changed in Britain’s music scene, consider Slade. After a long string of hit singles (a stunning seventeen consecutive Top Twenty hits, twelve of them Top Five, and six of those were Number Ones!), Slade headed off to try to break America in 1976. After returning to England in ’77, Slade quickly discovered that they were old news and nearly forgotten. Three of their next four singles charted at #53, #48, and #32; one didn’t chart at all. Their next six singles failed to chart at all in the UK. The title of their first LP after returning to England says it all: ‘Whatever Happened to Slade?’ It, too, failed to trouble the UK charts. In the space of 12 months, the single most successful Hard Rock band in Britain had been rendered irrelevant.

Other well-established bands responded, even if only by commenting on the fray through their music. ‘Lights Out’, UFO’s sixth record, came out in May of 1977. For the album’s title track, UFO’s lyricist, Phil Mogg, referenced the punk uprising through military imagery:

‘From the back streets there’s a rumbling
Smell of anarchy
No more nice time, black boy shoe shines
Pie in the sky dreams’

And of course, the title of the song/album is a direct nod to blackout regulations imposed during The Battle of Britain, aka ‘the Blitz’, where Londoners were urged to extinguish all lights to hamper German nighttime bombing raids:

‘Lights out, lights out in London, hold on tight till the end

UFO released ‘Lights Out’ just as the Sex Pistols’ 2nd single, ‘God Save the Queen’, hit #2 in the UK singles chart. Six months earlier, the Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single had climbed to #26. None of UFO’s 9 singles had charted in the UK. Mogg and his band, having seen Punk singles climbing the charts and the movement dominating the press, knew another Battle of Britain was underway.nmecover_july2_1977

Queen’s ‘News of the World’ came out in July of 1977. The title of the album is a reference to the British tabloid paper News of the World, an infamously trashy broadsheet that regularly featured the most scandalous and sensational national stories of the day. Here Queen were referencing the top UK music papers, such as Sounds and the NME, who were at that time thoroughly enamored with the Punk phenomenon; not only reporting on the musical and cultural shifts but also capitalizing on the sensational aspects of the movement by plastering ‘shocking’ headlines and ‘alarming’ pictures of punks in full mohawk & safety pin regalia.

The cover art for Queen’s 5th album also comments on the Punk movement. Queen are depicted as dead, having been killed by a giant robot as a panicked crowd below flees in terror. Inside the gatefold, the robot reaches for more victims. It’s not difficult to decipher the ironic message here: Monster destroys beloved band; you’re next. But the music on ‘News of the World’ also contains a few nods to Punk Rock, most obvious of which is the song ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, which is flat-out Punk. Roger Taylor said in 1991:

“It’s quite interesting, because we were making an album next-door to a punk band, the Sex Pistols, and it really fit into that punk explosion that was happening at the time, which was happening right then. It was actually better that it happened that it came out on the ‘News of the World’ album.”

newsoftheworldOn ‘News of the World’, Queen take on several forms of music: Salsa, Psychedelic Rock, Torch Balladry, the Blues, even football chants, so throwing in a take on Punk would not have been out of place in the least. But ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ is more than Queen showing their versatility; here, it’s cultural commentary. With lyrics like ‘Well you’re just 17 and all you wanna do is disappear/You know what I mean there’s a lot of space between your ears/I feel so ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-inarticulate’, it wasn’t hard to read exactly how lyricist Roger Taylor felt about the Punk Rock audience.

Interestingly, Taylor rights the scales on his ‘Fight From the Inside’, by taking on the point of view of a punk rocker and pointing the finger at the pop stars of the pre-punk era (I.e., himself/his band), and urging the listener to fight to change the status quo:

‘You’re just another picture on a teenage wall
You’re just another sucker ready for a fall
You’re just another money-spinner tool
You’re just another fool 

You gotta fight from the inside
Attack from the rear
Fight from the inside
You can’t win with your hands tied’

Queen’s next album, ‘Jazz’ would include more commentary by Taylor on the transformation of the UK music scene and his band’s place in it. In the album’s final song, called ‘More of That Jazz’, Taylor seems to be complaining about being spoon-fed the same old thing:

‘If you’re feeling tired and lonely
Uninspired and lonely
If you’re thinking how the days seem long
All you’re given
Is what you’ve been given a thousand times before
Just more more
More of that jazz
More no more of that jazz
Give me no more
No more of that jazz’

The song winds up with several snippets from the album’s previous songs, edited together in a montage of the album’s highlights, in effect giving the listener more of ‘Jazz’… and implying that the album you just listened to is just ‘more of that jazz’. For Taylor, always Queen’s resident ‘punk’, the Punk movement clearly instigated some serious self-examination. Queen were at a crossroads during the Punk era; the band would survive the upheaval and move from strength to strength, but would never be the same.

With Punk Rock’s disdain for virtuosity and technical ability came the death of the guitar hero. One of the UK’s biggest was Robin Trower, who charted high in the Top 40 with his 3rd and 4th albums… Then the punk bomb exploded, knocking him down into the low 50’s and then off the charts completely for his 1978 album ‘Caravan to Midnight’. Robin who? His next record would be titled ‘Victims of the Fury’, in a pointed reference to his own diminished stature, and feature a stripped-down, earthy sound, with few overdubs and a renewed abrasive energy. The title track’s lyrics told the tale:

‘We were blessed as though in heaven
We were messengers of joy
There were angels all around us
There was none who dared destroy

Then the world collapsed around us
And the tables overturned
We were lambs before the slaughter
We were driven out and burned

Victims of the fury
Shadows in the dark
Victims of the fury
Arrows found their mark’

Pat Travers, a young Canadian guitarist who emigrated to the UK to seek fame and fortune, found it; he scored a record deal with Polydor and appeared at the Reading Festival before 35,000 in 1976, just before all hell broke loose. On his third album, ‘Putting it Straight’, he explains why he decided to hightail it to America in 1977, in a song called ‘Life in London’:

‘Life in London is bittersweet
Spray can slogans along the street
Some kind of revolution in the town
Razor blades and safety pins make you look like a clown’

Prog Rock gods Yes were an obvious target for Punk rockers’ derision, with their ‘pretentious’ this and their ‘self-indulgent’ that… But Yes’ success was unhindered by the advent of Punk, with their 1977 album ‘Going for the One’ reaching the top of the UK charts and it’s follow-up, 1978’s ‘Tormato’ going Top Ten. ‘Tormato’, however, contains some artistic commentary on the goings on of the previous 18 months, beginning with it’s cover, where a picture of man dressed in period clothing and using divining rods is pelted with a tomato. This can be interpreted as a blatant rejection of ‘the old ways’, or, if we view the man with the divining rods as employing ‘divination’, or searching for something using ‘magical’ methods… an artist following his muse, perhaps… Splat!

tormato_cd_germany_booklet0‘Tormato’ contains a song called ‘Release, Release’, which is as punk a song as Yes would ever be capable of. Its odd time signatures, multiple key changes, and super-busy arrangement prevent it from ever being confused with a Ramones tune, but its stripped-down rock and roll feel, up-tempo delivery and surprisingly direct delivery reflect the energy of the Punk phenom; also Jon Anderson’s spacey lyrics contain ample evidence of an awareness of the turmoil, and perhaps a plea for us to rise above the conflict:

‘Have you heard before, hit it out, don’t look back
Rock is the medium of our generation
Stand for every right, kick it out, hear you shout
For the right of all of creation

Power defy our needs, lift us up, show us now
Show us how amid the rack of confusion Power at first to the needs of each others’ days
Simple to lose in the void sounds of anarchy’s calling ways

Straight jacket, freedom’s march, is it all, far beyond
Our reason of understanding
Campaign everything, anti-right, anti-left Release, release, enough controllers’

At about 2:57, the song left-turns into that most dreaded of all arena-rock staples: a drum solo, played out over a recording of a cheering stadium audience. This self-deprecating gesture added a welcome touch of irony to the album, as the band that brought us ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’, perhaps the absolute pinnacle of Prog excess, struggled to find footing in a hostile musical landscape.

Love it or hate it, Punk Rock was a game changer. UK Heavy Rock’s response to Punk Rock made 1977 a truly fascinating year in Heavy music, forcing many of the established bands of the day to react artistically in one way or another, and giving us a handful of records that stand out as unique in the HR/HM canon. If they’re not your cup of tea, don’t forget: many Rock bands that didn’t face the Punk movement head on were instead ‘experimenting’ with Disco…



Blaze and Ripper’s Excellent Adventure

August 1991. The Metal God pops the clutch on his massive Harley and rolls forward into the fog shrouded darkness. Gliding the beast forward with only the roar of the crowd to guide him, he is unaware that a hydraulic stairway has only partially descended, and smashes into it face first, breaking the bridge of his nose and tumbling off the bike beneath the gigantic stage set. He lies unconscious and bleeding for three minutes before he is found. ‘Hell Bent for Leather’ is performed for the first and only time without lead vocals.

It was the dawn of the 1990s, and a difficult time for Heavy Metal; especially for Metal bands from the ’70s and ’80s trying to stay relevant. Judas Priest had never been afraid to ‘adjust’ their sound to better suit the ever-changing Metal landscape; ‘Turbo’ and ‘Painkiller’ were both concessions to prevailing trends (hair metal and thrash metal, respectively). Both records were successful, but it had been difficult for many to watch Priest, one of Heavy Metal’s most important pioneers, chasing trends rather than setting them. And now the ’90s were presenting new challenges: Metallica had abdicated their throne, and Grunge, Alternative Metal, and Nu Metal were all about to make life difficult for several iconic bands from HM’s glory days. For Rob Halford, the writing was on the wall.

Within 24 hours of bashing his face in, Halford was back home in Phoenix AZ formulating a plan. He wanted things both ways; to work a solo project for ‘three to four years’, and to then return to the band and resume his position. For the rest of Judas Priest, this was ridiculous. Sit around for 3 or 4 years doing nothing, while we wait for their singer to decide to come back? IF he decided to come back at all? No way. Once Halford’s new band Fight was announced in 1992, Judas Priest cut the cord, and the inevitable war of words began. Hey, that might be a good title for an album…

Meanwhile, Iron Maiden were weathering the early 1990s fairly well. Their stripped-down response to the Big Four, ‘No Prayer for the Dying’, hit #2 in the UK, and the album’s (awful) single ‘Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter’ hit #1. The follow-up album, 1992’s ‘Fear of the Dark’ also hit #1. But singer Bruce Dickinson was bored, bored, bored. A solo album and tour in 1990 hadn’t been enough to calm the singer’s restless spirit, and while working on a second solo record during the ‘Fear’ tour, Bruce decided to leave the band. The final legs of the ‘Fear’ jaunt became Bruce’s ‘farewell tour’, which wrapped with a televised performance in August of ’93. The show was broadcast live as a pay-per-view event; magician Simon Drake performed magic and illusions during breaks in Maiden’s set. Drake’s final trick: making Bruce Dickinson disappear.

The Metal God and The Air Raid Siren were gone. Halford and Dickinson’s departures left gaping holes in each of their former bands. Square in the middle of the metal-unfriendly ’90s, both bands would have to establish themselves all over again in an inhospitable landscape ruled by Soundgardens, Nirvanas and Faith No Mores; to prove themselves to a brand new generation of Metalheads raised on the Big Four, Pantera and the emerging Death Metal genre. But there was so much more at stake here than just the fate of two legendary Heavy Metal bands; the fate of Heavy Metal itself hung in the balance. Would Metal survive the ’90s without Judas Priest and Iron Maiden? Twilight of the Gods, indeed.

For a while, it appeared as if Judas Priest were honoring Halford’s request for ‘three to four years’ off. Not much was heard from the JP camp until 1996, when their new lead vocalist was announced: Ohio native Tim Owens. Dubbed ‘Ripper’ by guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, Owens was a virtual unknown who fronted two small-time bands: Winter’s Bane and British Steel. While the former was an all-original metal band, the latter was a JP tribute. The two bands were usually booked together, with Owens fronting both. When a videotape of a British Steel performance somehow made its way to Priest, Owens shot ahead of shortlisted candidates like Ralph Scheepers (Gamma Ray) and Sebastian Bach. Four days later, Owens was in the UK auditioning for the band; after singing one song, ‘Victim of Changes’, Tipton offered him the gig.

Steve Harris wasted no time reaching out to Blaze Bayley of Wolfsbane, who had supported Maiden on the NPftD tour just a few years earlier. Bayley politely declined. Woflsbane had done three albums, an E.P. and a few singles, and were ready to re-enter the studio for album #4; both parties chalked it up to bad timing, and Harris moved on. ‘Arry and the rest of Maiden then slogged through thousands of tapes, CDs and videos sent in by hopefuls from all over the globe… and got nowhere. But by the time Bayley was to enter the studio to begin his band’s fourth album, he had changed his mind, deciding that Wolfsbane had run its course. Bayley soon found himself facing off against Doogie White (just a few years away from joining Rainbow) for the Maiden job. Bayley won.

Priest had perhaps found the one man up to the task of recreating Rob Halford’s histrionic vocal stylings. But in losing Halford, JP lost a lot more than a voice; they lost an attitude, a swagger, and a particular lyrical voice. Halford’s acting background was apparent in his delivery; he could (and regularly did) deliver ludicrous lyrics in a convincing manner, with an air of melodrama and just the right amount of camp. Tim Owens had the pipes but none of Rob Halford’s charisma. Blaze Bayley (real name: Bayley Cook) was blessed with a deep, resonant voice capable of conveying a strong sense of the dramatic. However, Bayley often sang one full octave below his predecessor, delivering Harris’ overstuffed lyrics with an oppressive air of doom and gloom. After 12 years of Bruce Dickinson, an almost super-human vocalist with a flair for the dramatic, even operatic, it’s hard to understand exactly why Steve Harris felt that Blaze Bayley’s voice was the right fit for Maiden.


Iron Maiden’s tenth album, ‘The X-Factor’, hit in 1995, just two years after Bruce ‘disappeared’. It’s a difficult album. The opening song, ‘Sign of the Cross’, clocks in at over 11 minutes, and quickly sets the tone for the next 70. Every song begins with a quiet, delicately-played intro, and then plods along for far too long. The ghost of Steve Harris’ marriage hovers over this album, in both the dour, overwrought lyrics and in the music’s downbeat vibe (the album’s lone ‘fast number’ was written by Bayley/Gers). Bayley’s heavy, brooding presence prevents even the more energetic moments from ever fully taking flight; the man can sing but brings none of the spirit and spark that characterized Dickinson’s better performances. It should also be pointed out that longtime producer Martin Birch was not on board for this album… And the cover is hideous.


Priest’s first post-Halford album is truly awful. 1997’s ‘Jugulator’ is a train-wreck of harsh, over-processed guitars, anguished vocals, terrible lyrics, and haphazard production. Tipton and Downing wrote all of the music, and several concessions to current trends are immediately evident: down-tuned guitars, atonal guitar solos, and Death Metal-worthy titles like ‘Dead Meat’, ‘Decapitate’, Blood Stained’ and ‘Death Row’. Ugh. Tipton himself wrote all of the album’s relentlessly negative lyrics. Each song begins with a short, atmospheric intro tacked on, with creepy guitars, dialogue or sound effects, adding nothing to the proceedings. The guitars are heavy as hell, but without the wit and irony that Halford’s presence always unfailingly provided, it’s a grim, abrasive hour of music.


After the much-maligned ‘The X Factor’, Iron Maiden included a new track, entitled ‘Virus’, on the 1996 compilation ‘Best of the Beast’. Dodgy sound notwithstanding, this energetic and interesting song established that Maiden had indeed awakened from their coma, and the album that followed, 1998’s ‘Virtual XI’, impressed with a lighter tone and brighter sound than its predecessor. As for the songwriting, however, chief writer Steve Harris had clearly lapsed into formula, and each song on VXI sounds remarkably like the song before it. While VXI does contain the Blaze era’s lone classic: ‘The Clansman’, the album’s first single, ‘The Angel and the Gambler’, repeats it’s chorus so many times, you’ll feel the need to check your turntable to make sure your needle isn’t stuck… even if you’re listening via mp3. The single clocks in at 6:05, edited down from the 9:56 album version. Martin Birch, where are you?


Priest’s second stab at establishing a post-Halford credibility was 2001’s ‘Demolition’. Again, it’s Tipton’s record, and again he demonstrates his inability to grasp just what made Priest so special. This record is a little more well-rounded than ‘Jugulator’, but also suffers from trying to be all things to all people; Nu Metal, Rap, and Industrial Metal, as well as elements of ’80s Priest all feature here, and absolutely none of it works. There is, however, a melody or two to be found here, unlike the band’s previous disaster. Imagine Judas Priest at their absolute heaviest, then imagine them pushing even harder, but without the irony; without the campy panache or the flair for the melodramatic that informed their best work.

For Heavy Metal, the Bayley/Owens era was a near-death experience. When viewed against Priest and Maiden’s previous body of work, all four of these records were colossal artistic and commercial failures, and in the battle for the survival of Heavy Metal, they did more damage than good. Without these two massive flagship franchises to help hold Metal’s fan base together, the genre continued to splinter and fragment into fractious sub-genres. Heavy Metal survived the ’90s by blowing itself to bits and continuing forward as an amalgam of separate and distinct pieces of a disparately unified whole. As solo artists, Halford and Dickinson released some decidedly un-Metal music, but each eventually returned to classic Heavy Metal with records that beat their old bands at their own game, and positioned both vocalists for their eventual (and inevitable) return. A revitalized Priest & Maiden helped establish yet another (and perhaps the most important) HM sub-genre: Legacy Metal.

Cheers to Blaze Bayley and Tim Owens for ushering two of our favorite bands through Metal’s darkest days. Coulda been worse… Sebastian Bach?? Doogie White??

NWOBHM: Year One

Punk Rock was the best thing that ever happened to Heavy Metal. Like the comet that struck the earth killed off the dinosaurs, Punk’s impact destroyed the status quo and wiped the slate clean for rock music to reinvent itself. Punk slayed the arena gods of the 70’s, and demanded that you didn’t have to be a musical genius to express yourself musically; anyone could form a band, and everyone should form a band.

Ultimately, Punk rock’s success doomed it to failure, as it eventually assimilated into the very thing it was programmed to destroy: the mainstream. Of course, during Punk’s brief reign, the Metalheads were still out there, both fans and bands, biding their time, awaiting their moment. Punk didn’t kill Heavy Metal; it just drove it underground. In one such underground haven, a hall called The Bandwagon, Metal had found a place to weather the Punk rock storm. Attached to the side of the Prince of Wales Pub at Kingsbury Circle, London, this unlikely setting would become Ground Zero for the Rebirth of Heavy Metal.


Neal Kay was a true believer. As the DJ at the Bandwagon, he created and cultivated a haven for Metalheads, giving them a place to gather and listen to the music they loved through one of the loudest PA systems in London. The Bandwagon was always packed to the rafters, and Kay knew he could make it even more popular with the support of the press. So Kay began calling Sounds writer Geoff Barton, the paper’s resident hard-rocker, and inviting him down to cover the bandwagon.

Barton finally paid the Bandwagon a visit, and was stunned by what he saw. Heavy Metal was alive and kicking in at least one place in Punk-ravaged Britain. He wrote a piece on the scene called ‘Wednesday Night Fever’ which ran in the August 19, 1978 issue of Sounds, one of the UK’s leading music papers. Kay also convinced the weekly to publish a Heavy Metal chart, solely based on requests the DJ received from the regulars at the Bandwagon. Most of what appeared on the chart was music by bands from the pre-Punk era: UFO, Priest, Rush, Scorpions, Rainbow. Suddenly the Bandwagon, and Heavy Metal in general, was receiving coverage by one of the most important music papers in the country.


It can’t be a coincidence then, that in November of ’78, the BBC began airing the Friday Rock Show. Hosted by Tommy Vance, The Friday Rock Show would do basically the same thing that Kay was doing at the Bandwagon, but on a much larger scale: give the metal masses a destination to hear their music. Vance played current HM singles and album cuts, but also plundered the BBC archives for songs recorded exclusively for the Beeb. Archival recordings by Cream, Hendrix, Deep Purple, UFO, Uriah Heep, Led Zeppelin, and many more featured regularly on Vance’s show. Metal was now receiving regular national exposure through two of the nation’s biggest media outlets. But thus far, no new metal bands had arrived on the scene…

In London’s East End, a band called Iron Maiden was struggling to secure gigs outside of their own neighborhood. The band hoped that recording a demo would help them widen their reach. Four songs were laid down on New Year’s Eve, 1978 at Spaceward Studios in Cambridge. The members of the band were Bandwagon regulars, and eventually they handed a copy of the tape to Neal Kay, not in the hopes that he’ll play it, but hoping it might help them get gigs in the area. Kay is floored by the tape, and begins playing the track ‘Prowler’ regularly. The Bandwagon regulars eat it up. ‘Prowler’ debuts on the Sounds HM chart at #23, but by April 21st, the song tops the chart. Iron Maiden receive national exposure for the first time.

Underground Heavy Metal bands all across the UK take notice. This new breed of Metal band adopts an important element of Punk Rock’s DIY ethos: they make their own records and sell them at gigs or via mail order. Even the music is influenced by Punk, with shorter, more immediate songs and a brash, in-your-face intensity. During the 12 months between Maiden’s appearance on Kay’s chart and their debut album’s entry into the UK charts in April of 1980, British Metal gradually emerges from exile and evolves into a true musical movement. ‘Ere’s ‘ow it ‘appened:


April 1979: Iron Maiden’s ‘Prowler’ demo tops the Bandwagon HM Soundhouse chart in Sounds. The band play their first gig at the Bandwagon.

May 1979: Neal Kay books the three biggest bands from the emerging scene: Angel Witch, Iron Maiden, and Samson, for a gig at the Music Machine. Angel Witch opens; Samson headlines. Geoff Barton covers the show for Sounds with a double-page spread titled ‘If You Want Blood (and flashbombs and dry ice and confetti) You’ve Got It’. The article’s subtitle, ‘The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal: first in an occasional series by Deaf Barton’, contains the first known use of the term “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal”.
Def Leppard release a self-financed EP on their own record label. BBC DJ John Peel gives the track ‘Getcha Rocks Off’ repeated airings, and the 7″ sells well enough for legit labels to take notice.

August 1979: Def Leppard’s gig at the Paris Theatre in London is recorded and Broadcast over BBC Radio.
The Tygers of Pan Tang release their own self-produced EP on Neat Records. It is the fledgling label’s third release, and its first Metal record. Important singles from White Spirit, Raven, Venom and Blitzkrieg would follow in the next few months. Neat emerges as the most important independent label of the NWOBHM era.

September 1979: The still un-signed Def Leppard open for Sammy Hagar at the Hammersmith Odeon.

October 1979: Def Leppard record an in-studio session for Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show. Def Lep also secure the opening slot on the UK leg of AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ tour. Leppard are now widely regarded as the NWOBHM’s ‘next big thing’.
Iron Maiden appear on the cover of Sounds; the band begin negotiating with EMI days later.
Trespass release the self-produced single ‘One of These Days/Bloody Moon’; Praying Mantis Release their self-produced ‘Captured City/Johnny Cool’ single, and appear on Vance’s Friday Rock Show.

November 1979: Samson record an in-studio session for The Friday Rock Show.
Iron Maiden, still in the process of closing a deal with EMI, press three songs from their demo tape onto 7″ vinyl, and release ‘The Soundhouse Tapes’, named for Neal Kay’s Bandwagon. The EP is available via mail order only; the band sell through 5,000 copies in just a few weeks.
Def Leppard sign with Phonogram. The UK leg of the AC/DC tour ends in November, with four nights at the Hammersmith Odeon; Rick Allen celebrates his 16th birthday on stage at the Hammy O. Leppard release 2 demo recordings as their first single for Phonogram, ‘Wasted’/Hello America”. It peaks at #61.

December 1979: Iron Maiden record an in-studio session for The Friday Rock Show. They finalize and sign their EMI deal.
Sounds publish their annual year-end issue, which features a comprehensive round-up of NWOBHM bands.


February 1980: Iron Maiden release their first single, ‘Runnin’ Free/Burning Ambition’. The sleeve art marks the first appearance of Eddie; the single peaks at #34.
Neal Kay assembles a compilation of bands he has championed called ‘Metal for Muthas’; the album is released through EMI and features 2 Iron Maiden songs. Angel Witch, Samson, Praying Mantis, and others also appear. Several notable NWOBHM bands (Saxon, Tygers of Pan Tang, Def Leppard) are not featured on the record, as all are already signed to or in the process of signing deals with other labels. A 3-week ‘Metal for Muthas’ tour follows, featuring Maiden, Diamondhead, Praying Mantis, and Raven.
Def Lep releases their second single, ‘Hello America’/Good Morning Freedom’. This one hits the Top 40 (#34).
Iron Maiden support Judas Priest on the UK leg of their ‘British Steel’ tour.

March 1980: Diamond Head releases their self-produced single ‘Shoot Out the Lights/Helpless’.
Angel Witch record an in-studio session for the Friday Rock Show.
Def Leppard release their debut album ‘On Through the Night’, on March 14, making Leppard the first NWOBHM band to release an album. The album debuts on the UK charts at #15.

April 1980: Iron Maiden release their self-titles debut album; it enters the UK charts at #4.

Heavy Metal was back with a vengeance. With two NWOBHM debuts in the UK Top 20, the inevitable major label feeding frenzy soon followed. Metal bands begin regularly appearing on BBC TV’s ‘Top of the Pops’. Sounds launched Kerrang!, a monthly magazine that covered only HM. The rising Metal tide lifted all boats, and stalwart bands like UFO, Judas Priest, Scorpions, Black Sabbath, and all 3 Deep Purple offshoots were rewarded with revitalized careers and Top Twenty albums.

The magic lasted until around 1982, making the NWOBHM’s brief lifespan about as long as Punk’s. Metal had by then become mainstream in the UK, and several successful NWOBHM bands set their sights on the lucrative US market, where money changes everything. But that first year of the NWOBHM, from April of ’79 to April of ’80, when a new breed of Metalhead applied the DIY ethic and independent spirit of Punk rock to their own genre, was one of most important years in the history of the genre. It was the year that Heavy Metal was reborn.

See? Punk Rock was good for something after all.

Blue Cheer and the Metal Mindset

My favorite debate: Who was the First Heavy Metal band? I know I’m not going to settle that debate here. Nobody ever will. But there are opinions and there are facts. What follows is a little of both.

Blue Cheer’s debut album, entitled ‘Vincebus Eruptum’, was released in January of 1968, almost an entire year before Led Zeppelin would release their debut (Jan ’69) and more than two years before Black Sabbath would issue theirs (Feb ’70). There is no doubt in my mnd that ‘VE’ is the first Heavy Metal album ever released. Yes, Heavy Metal grew out of the British Blues Boom of the late 60’s, but that just makes it all the more amazing that this San Francisco band was so far ahead of that curve, melting eardrums way over here in America all by their lonesome and, not as part of an ’emerging movement’ happening overseas.
Again, it’s well established that the seed of Metal took root via white musicians playing blues music through rapidly-developing amplification. Musically, ‘Vincebus Eruptum’ is all that, and more… Writer Carlos M. Pozo has called BC’s music ‘Caucasian Power Blues’. I can dig that. The material on the ‘Vincebus Eruptum’ includes songs written by (and fully credited to) blues giants Mose Allison and B.B. King, and the original material is psych-tinged, primitive power trio blues-rock; all of the songs are then transformed by excessive volume, intensity, and a truly Heavy Metal mindset.

It’s this last element that, to me, seperates ‘VE’ from the UK’s 60’s blues boom pack and firmly establishes not only that ‘Vincebus Eruptum’ is the first Heavy Metal record, but also that Blue Cheer were the first Heavy Metal band. Blue Cheer’s music was Heavy Metal long before it had any right to be. But ‘Heavy Metal’ is NOT ‘just’ a musical term; it is a philosophy, a perspective, an aesthetic. It revels in extremes; the louder/faster, the better. It is tension/release, it is volume-as-power, it is OTT for OTT’s sake. It’s Ian Gillan’s now famous line ‘(Make) Everything Louder Than Everything Else’ (since adopted by Motorhead). Blue Cheer possessed that mindset; even their manager, an ex-Hell’s Angel named ‘Gut’, said ‘they turned the air into cottage cheese.’ That’s Metal. You never heard this kind of shit from the Yardbirds.

Need more evidence? Submitted for your perusal: The first documented evidence of the Heavy Metal Mindset.
On March 19, 1968, Blue Cheer appeared on The Steve Allen Show. They were interviewed by Allen, and performed 2 songs from their debut, released 2 months earlier. The music performed played on Allen’s show has been released on CD (Live & Unreleased, Vol. 1: ’68/’74), but not so the absolutely priceless interview segments that were also broadcast. In the mid 80’s, CBS/Filmways confirmed that each episode of this show was only broadcast once, and any recorded copies of many episodes of this show were destroyed. The March 19 episode is gone forever. It’s a pity, as footage of this ‘counter-culture degenerates vs. shirt-and-tie network TV host’ would have been valuable as archival 60’s pop culture material; at the very least it would have found a permenent home on Youtube, where it could inform passing generations and would have perhaps rendered this debate moot long ago. 20140316_113919
Alas, the only hope of any record of this monumental meeting surviving to the present day was if someone out there recorded the audio live as it streamed from their TV, back in 1968… And as it happens, someone did just that. This audio recording was then copied and traded in underground tape trading circles for years; I acquired a copy myself back in the early 90’s. My copy of the tape starts after the band has been introduced by Allen as ‘the source of that annoying hum’, and then suggests they change their name to ‘That Annoying Hum’. He then begins playing around with the title of the band’s record:


(SA) …maybe Sounds something like ‘Vin Scully was ill last night.’ (audience laughter)
What does that mean? ‘We shall be rocked’? or… What does it mean? Any folks from southern Italy in the room, or…? Anything at all? Anyone who went to a Catholic high school? Anybody who can help me with what this means? Lets ask them; hey, what’s it mean fellas? ‘Vincebus Eruptum.’

(band, barely audible) ‘Controlled Chaos’.

(SA) What’d they say?

(Others, repeating) ‘Controlled Chaos’.

(SA) ‘Control Chaos’? ‘Control the Chaos’?

(band, barely audible) Let us do it and you’ll know what it means.

(SA) What’d they say?

(others, repeating) ‘Let us do it.’

(SA) ‘Let us do it and you’ll know what it means’? (audience laughter) Just for that your not gonna do it. (audience laughter) One thing I cant stand is a Blue Cheer that has no respect for a normal piece of soap… (trails off, audience laughter) Anyway, they are the Blue Cheer, it’s on the Phillips label. Those are the milk of magnesia people. (audience laughter) And… (applause) I seem to be giving these guys a hard time, actually it’s a shame you’re not here with us because they have an unusual instrumentation, it’s ah 43 pieces, 3 human beings and 40 amplifiers. You’ll see that I’m not kidding in a moment, the stage is covered with amplifiers, at least it was earlier this afternoon when I was there. And um the members of the group are Dick Peterson, Leigh Stephens and Paul Whaley. And they have a new and different sound, seriously so please give them a warm welcome, here is, or, here are the Blue Cheer. (applause)

‘Summertime Blues’ is performed

(SA) Little strange, I’m ‘woo hoo’… Ah here we are talking once again, well, with ah the Blue Cheer again and speaking to them for the first time. Your name is?

I’m Dick.

(SA) You’re Dick. And you? Who?


(SA) Dick Peterson. And your name?

Paul Whaley. (repeats, louder) Paul Whaley.

(SA) What did he say?

He said Paul Whaley.

(SA) Oh Paul Whaley, yes. Then he said ‘scroodley boom’ with his drums. You are without question I would say the loudest musical abrogation, regardless of size, in the world, would you agree with that?


(SA) How many amplifiers have you?

Well we got 6 amps and like 24 speakers a piece.

(SA) I seem to count 6 here.

There’s 4 speakers in each.

(SA) 4 speakers in each. This is an amplifier…

This is a bottom, this is an amplifier.

(SA) This is the amplifier, I see, so 1,2,3 amplifiers and 24 speakers.


(SA) I see um, did you discover that 24 was louder than 18, or how did you arrive at that figure? (audience laughter)

Well, you know, more amps, you know the louder it is and the more amps you have the more speakers you have to have. We’re gonna get more.

(SA) Youre gonna get more? (audience laughter, dismay)

(SA) Ah, let me go over here for just a moment, ah I guess I’ll have to walk around Shadow Horn and come back on your station over here. And your name is?

Leigh Stephens.

(SA) Lee (sic) nice to meet all of you fellas, how long have you been uh playing together now?

About, about ah 4 minutes. (audience laughter)

(SA) I guess that adds up. The uh you know the old line about when people go to see a musical or a motion picture or play they say there are certain melodies that you walk out of the theatre whislting. Would it be safe to say that the number we just heard is not something you could walk out of a theatre whistling? I’m not putting it down, now, but I mean is that a safe assumption?

Yeah I think it’s true.

(SA) So youre not selling melody in other words; what are you selling?

Just It’s a powerful physical thing, to knock you over. (audience laughter)

(SA) Yeah! I’m glad you brought that up ’cause I got knocked over, and I got up but no, the reason I mentioned that is in order to appreciate the Blue Cheer, you have to be on the scene because the volume here is utterly undescribable. It is the loudest thing I have ever heard, except once when I had been in the army for about 4 days at Fort MacArthur in the 2nd World War and I happened to be looking down at the ground one day and in my near proximity they exploded a 12 mile long coastal cannon. I went ‘wowee’ you know… And I almost became a pacifist right at that moment but uh that’s the loudest thing I’d heard uh before this today. Unfortunately at home, you don’t get that. You know because we have to control the volume of it and everything comes out the same whether it’s a you know an atom bomb explosion or a harminoca solo or what it is, but you have to uh see these guys wherever theyre performing if they are in your neck of the woods, to really get that feeling. It has an effect on more than the ears wouldn’t you say?


(SA) It makes your belt buckle rattle? ( audience laughter) Your silver turns, you know your gold turns green? (audience laughter) Uh, is this a point of development to which you gradually uh, uh, reached or was it something you started right out with?

No we started out with it, we just went out and bought a bunch of amplifiers and decided to do it.

(SA) Uh do you create all your own songs?


(SA) Where do you find them? The nearest boiler factory? (audience laughter) Or no really, where do you find your material?

Arsenals heheh…

(SA) Uh sort of old explosions. Just, now, what is this here on the floor? I don’t know if we can see that because I cant see it on a monitor.

Fuzz Face.

(SA) Fuzz face? And what function does the Fuzz Face fullfil? Try to say that five times fast.

It’s sort of like a preamp it makes the amps louder. (audience laughter)

(SA) It makes the amps louder. Well I’m glad to hear that, now what are you going to play for us now?

‘Out of Focus.’ (audience laughter)

(SA) (audience laughter) Dedicated to our cameraman ladies and gentlemen. Okay here are uh, is it are or is? (Laughs) Here they come, the Blue Cheer, run for your life!

‘Out of Focus’ is performed


How Metal is that? These guys had an agenda: blow  people’s heads off. They compared their music to explosive devices, weren’t interested in melody, and were planning to further increase their ‘undescribable’ volume. The audience response to their performances, and even to some of the band’s commentary, is a mixture of nervous laughter and fear.  Context is everything; on that night in March of 1968, this monstrosity that called itself Blue Cheer was broadcast into living rooms all across America… Grandma and Grandpa must have been truly appalled. “Henry! These long haired cretins just said they wanted to knock me over!”

Lest we forget, this all happened 10 months before ‘Led Zeppelin’ was released… Two entire years before the ominously tolling bell that opens Black Sabbath’s debut… and thousands of miles away from the British Blues Boom, where an American band with a ‘new and different sound’ was taking blues music to violent extremes and mutating it into something new. You wanna talk about a ‘Boom’? Blue Cheer were the Ground Zero of Heavy Metal.
Blue Cheer

*Thank you, Larry Boyd, for handing me that tape about 25 years ago. I still have every tape you ever gave me. This one’s for you. Rest in peace, comrade.

(Royalty) Check, Please

Sometimes being a professional musician is all about compromise; specifically, about how much of your art you’re willing to compromise toward success in the business of music. Being a fan is about loyalty; and sometimes that loyalty is pushed beyond tolerance by the compromises a musician makes.

Many a rock fan’s loyalties were tested in the 80’s. With the advent of MTv, suddenly what you looked like was at least as important as what you sounded like (and in some cases, maybe more important). Many metal bands that had started in the 70’s but had yet to break through to a mainstream audience saw MTv as a way to do just that. And so we lost several bands to the siren song of mass appeal and mainstream success. All that was required was a greater focus on the image or look of the band, and a slavish adherence to a limited musical template that boiled down to either a) overwrought power ballad, or b) super-dumb rock anthem. Scorpions had virtually invented the power ballad in the mid-70’s, and sadly, made the transition easily. NWOBHM heroes like Krokus, Whitesnake, and Saxon (who actually fired their bass player, who didn’t have ‘the look’) all climbed on board the bandwagon, all hoping to ‘break’ in the states. Perhaps the poster boys for this type of sell-out were the already-image conscious Twisted Sister, who’s debut album was actually a straight-up metal record, but who quickly transformed into bizzarro drag queen cartoons on MTv. In an ironic twist, Kiss, kings of the super-dumb rock anthem, actually had to take make-up OFF to partake in the festivities. But the greatest disappointment had to be The Beast That is Priest.   

I will never forget the first time I heard ‘Turbo’ by Judas Priest. A co-worker had an advance cassette, and let me hear the first song, without telling me who it was I was listening to. After a solid minute I still couldn’t identify who it was, even thought I was listening to a band I had followed for the last 8 or 9 years. When my friend broke the news to me that I had been previewing the new Judas Priest record, I was angry. Not disappointed. Angry.  

Like a lot of metal fans, I take this kind of thing personally; always have. I am tremendously loyal, I invest my time, my money and my passion in the music that I love and in the musicians that make it. Fans aren’t interested in the business that goes on behind their favorite music, they only care about the music, and are grateful to the musicians who make it. For me personally, when an artist makes a calculated business decision to move away from the sound I have committed to, the aesthetic I invested in, I feel betrayed; I’m offended and insulted. And sometimes, shocked; I truly never expected that Metal’s Ambassadors to the world, a band that represented the Heavy Metal genre in much the same way that Metallica would later; would be capable of such silliness.


Back to ‘Turbo’: Sequencers, synthesizers, over-processed guitars, predictable hair metal riffs and inane pop metal lyrics, all wrapped up in a cover that looks like a magazine ad for nail polish. This is not what I signed on for. Gone were the ominous pseudo-religious sci-fi lyrics. Dave Holland’s hard hitting, no-nonsense drum sound was replaced by computerized canon fire. And don’t even get me started on KK’s perm. This was a monumental moment in heavy metal history; one of the heaviest bands of the 70’s had sold out and cashed in.

Judas Priest referred to themselves as a Heavy Metal Band when it was very uncool to do so. They had almost single-handedly carried Heavy Metal through its weakest period in the late 70’s; after the old guard had died out, they flew the flag proudly during the punk rock and new wave revolutions, and led metal music straight into the NWOBHM and metal’s resurgence in the early 80’s. And while they had toyed with camp ever since 1979’s ‘Hell Bent For Leather’, they’d successfully navigated the fine line between tongue-in-cheek and parody on several records, right up to ‘Defenders of the Faith’, where production concessions revealed a willingness to go with the 80’s flow. That album worried me; ‘Turbo’ confirmed my fears. 

So Priest decided they no longer needed me as a fan, and had apparently made the calculation that so many other bands of that era made as they entered the MTv era: they’d likely gain more new fans than the number of old fans that would walk away. They were probably right. So: good business decision; bad artistic decision. Very bad. Embarassingly so. Priest eventually tried to self-correct, and spent the next few years chasing trends until a new breed of metal bands rendered them irrelevant. Their iconic image, legendary status and landmark early releases ensured they’d be able to maintain a career for another 2 decades, but after ‘Turbo’ they had lost all credibility with much of their original fan base. ‘Defenders of the Faith’ my ass. Thank God for Thrash Metal.

Speaking of Trash Metal, Metallica was another band that, after years of pioneering, groundbreaking, and breathtaking music, succumbed to the numbers and decided to no longer allow artistic concerns to guide their career path. Correctly deducing that, with just a few ‘minor’ changes, they could go from being the biggest band on Metal to one of the biggest bands on Earth (a much more lucrative position), they hired Motley Crue’s producer and made the transition from being uncompromising standard-bearers to arena rock’s heaviest band.


I hold a special kind of animosity towards Metallica for ‘Metallica’, aka ‘The Black Album’. For metal once again, change was on the horizon, and bands like Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, and Soundgarden made music that was appealing more and more to metalheads every day. Grunge and Alternative music was everywhere, and some of it was downright metallic, but… It was very much like 1976/77, when punk rock took off and metal’s heavy hitters became… confused. Started experimenting. Made lousy records. What Metal Nation needed badly at the dawn of the 90’s was a band to put an end to the mass defection to Seattle. A band to remind everyone how and what great heavy metal was. What better band to do just that than the mighty Metallica?

Metallica, however, had other ideas. Rather than creating a record that could have led metal through the alterna-grunge swamp and onward toward a new era of global domination, Metallica instead sat out that fight and re-launched their brand, simplifying their songwriting and overall sound, recasting themselves as a Top 40 arena rock band. The singles/videos came one after another, signaling a new willingness to market themselves in ways they had resisted for years. Where once they had led, they now chose to conform. Metallica turned their backs on their art and their fans and made their deal with the devil, becoming megastars while leaving the door wide open for Nirvana and the Alterna-Grunge contingent to further dilute metal’s already fractured fan base.

Yes, dumbing-down their music was a smart career move… if you measure success in dollars and cents. Yes, ‘Metallica’ would not only become Metallica’s biggest-selling album, but one of the biggest selling albums of all time. But these facts speak nothing of its artistic value. I’m aware that, for many reading this, ‘Metallica’ was their first exposure to Metallica, and therefore seen by millions as their defining moment. To understand what a left turn that album was for their original fan base is difficult for those who jumped on the bandwagon after all of the challenge and confrontation was removed from their music. It takes a certain perspective to see this record as the betrayal that it truly was. For us, ‘Metallica’ was a slap in the face; a Fuck You to myself and my friends who had seen them at the Rathskellar in Boston in 1983; who had watched them steadily grow from strength to strength, without radio, without MTv, and without mainstream press, right up to the multi-platinum ‘Master of Puppets’, all without compromising their art. one. single. bit.    

At least with ‘Metallica’ they hadn’t changed their look to conform to the commercial trends of the day. That would come a little later, with their next studio album, the aptly-named ‘Load’.  

Musicians, of course are free to make whatever decisions they wish in the service of their careers. Hopefully they’re aware of how transparent these moves are, no matter how they try to spin it, and how these kinds of moves rightly invoke the wrath of their most fervent fans– although it’s clear that this kind of fan doesn’t factor into the equation when bands do the Devil’s Arithmetic. The bottom line here is that both of these albums suck, and pale in comparison to the records that were made by these bands before potential superstar status was part of the bargain. I understand that surviving in any business requires compromise; ‘evolve or die’, I get it… But, as Stephen King wrote in ‘Pet Sematary’, “Sometimes dead is better.”



Van Halen: The Ramones of Heavy Metal

OK, calm down… Allow me to explain.

Punk Rock was a largely a reaction to the excessive, overblown rock music of the 70’s. Bands like Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer, with their orchestrated side-long concept pieces, and the endless improvisational ego trip jamming of bands like Deep Purple and King Crimson. Tales from Topographic Oceans… Need I say more? Actually, Johnny Rotten’s “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt said it all. Punk cleared away everything that came before it and re-set the table with a new aesthetic, new ethos, new rules (or no rules). No matter how you feel about it, it was a fresh start for rock n roll, and a sorely needed one.


This new aesthetic crystallized in the form of the 1976 debut album by the Ramones. The Ramones used elements of the music they grew up with as a template, specifically the surf, bubblegum and girl groups of the 50’s and 60’s, and stripped rock music down to its basic elements while adding a primitive, just-the-basics delivery. The resulting record, simply titled ‘Ramones’, is a masterpiece of economy and raw intensity. The longest song on the record clocks in at an epic 2:35; the brevity of the songs maximized their impact. There are no guitar solos anywhere to be found, in a deliberate attempt to distance the band from the hard rock guitar wizards of the day. Guitars were placed on the right channel; the bass on the left, adding to the street level, bargain basement vibe. The ‘Ramones’ version of rock and roll was a slap in the face to the mid-70’s status quo; it reminded us all of what was great about rock and roll, and how far away from that it had evolved.

Heavy Metal was out of gas toward the end of the 70’s. The punk rock explosion had changed the rules, drastically changed the landscape, and generally shaken things up in a major way for most of the hard rock and heavy metal bands that had dominated the scene in the early 70’s. Most of metal’s standard bearers had either gone the way of the dinosaurs, or drastically lost their way; Led Zeppelin was MIA, Deep Purple had imploded, and Black Sabbath had forgotten how to be Black Sabbath. Once-mighty hard rock bands became… confused, and reacted in interesting ways to being knocked off the throne. Ian Gillan was fronting a jazz-rock combo. Several bands had given in and ‘gone disco’; others tried to maintain credibility by dabbling in the punk ethos themselves (if Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” from their 1977 album ‘News of the World’ isn’t a direct response to the Ramones, then I don’t know what is). Lyrically, the impact was also evident, as in Robin Trower’s ‘Victims of the Fury’, or the entire concept of Pink Floyd’s “Animals”, or the title of Rush’s 1977 album, “A Farewell to Kings”. Many young metal fans (like me) were waiting for a new band to emerge and end the meandering experimentation, and re-invent, redefine, re-energize heavy metal music.


Blasting out of nowhere in 1978, Van Halen’s debut album did all of that and more. A true wake-up call to the metal faithful, ‘Van Halen’ blew the doors off of the hard rock scene and rewrote the rule book for a new generation of metal bands. VH took the music they grew up with, mainly early metal, AM top 40, Soul and Funk, placed it all in a hard rock context by playing it with the basic guitar/bass/drums instrumentation, and created a sound and style that changed the course of rock music forever.

Like ‘Ramones’, the sound of ‘Van Halen’ was itself a reaction to the played out, unfocused hard rock produced in the years just before its release. If ‘Ramones’ was a slap in the face, then ‘Van Halen’ was a swift kick in the ass. The collection of short, powerful songs explodes with a dynamic intensity. The production is stark, sounding like four guys playing together with minimal overdubs, guitar on one side; bass on the other… Hmmm… but the performances are jam-packed with excitement. Van Halen didn’t invent heavy metal on ‘Van Halen’, but rather re-invented it for a new generation. The record single-handedly jump-started the metal movement on the US side of the pond, just as the NWOBHM (itself a reaction to Punk) would on the UK side. Simply put, it was a game-changing debut, and one that “reminded us all of what was great about heavy metal, and how far away from that it had evolved.”

Oh, and, uh, contrary to the Ramones’ debut, there are a few guitar solos on the VH debut… So yes, musically, the differences between these two records are obvious, but the level of impact and influence they had on their respective genres is equal and enormous. Punk Rock’s seismic shockwave had crossed genre borders and had taken root in the realm of Heavy Metal (or, what Creem Magazine once called ‘Dinosaur Music’ in 1977), where its impact would manifest itself in a young upstart band from California that would itself shake up a complacent and confused Metal Nation. Thus, Van Halen became the Ramones of Heavy Metal. Need I mention Track 2, Side 2?