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!

Who Do We Think We Are? Part One

Danny Joe Brown left Molly Hatchet twice. Both times were due to health issues. His first exit took place in 1979, but he returned just a few years after. During his second stint with the band, Brown would watch every other member of the original line-up exit, and then some… Everyone who had written and played on hit albums like the self-titled debut, 2nd LP ‘Flirtin’ With Disaster’ and 3rd successful record in a row, ‘Beatin’ the Odds’, would leave the band during Brown’s 2nd stint as lead vocalist. Brown was indeed the last man standing. But when Brown suffered a stroke in ’96, his permanent exit marked the end of Molly Hatchet. Forever.

No it didn’t. The remaining members of ‘Molly Hatchet’ replaced Brown with Phil McCormack, and continued on, with ZERO original members; NONE of the musicians who wrote or recorded the material that made the band’s name remained. This was a band made up of replacements of replacements. This bogus Molly Hatchet toured relentlessly, and released four albums under the ‘Molly Hatchet’ banner between 1996 and 2005, Including a ‘Best Of/Re-recorded’, which amounts to a Molly Hatchet album of Molly Hatchet covers. But… seriously, was this band really Molly Hatchet?

Legally, yes. Hatchet guitarist Bobby Ingram, who joined the band in 1986 replacing original guitarist Dave Hlubeck, purchased temporary rights to the Molly Hatchet trademark from the band’s manager after Brown’s departure, so this bunch of stunt-doubles was now legally doing business as ‘Molly Hatchet’. But ‘legally’ only means no one could dispute their use of the trademark; that it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right.

During that almost ten year period between ’96 and ’05 (when Hlubeck returned to the fold on a ‘limited basis’), ‘Molly Hatchet’ operated in a very strange area; a twilight zone of quasi-legitimacy somewhere between ‘Multi-Platinum Recording Artists Molly Hatchet’ and every cover band playing ‘Flirtin’ With Disaster’ at the bar down the street. Legal ownership of a band’s name alone doesn’t make the band ‘legit’. But does a certain percentage of ‘original members’ guarantee ‘legitimacy’? What makes Molly Hatchet Molly Hatchet?

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Foreigner founder Mick Jones has had serious health issues of his own to deal with over the last decade, and since 2011 has replaced himself with guitarist Bruce Watson on occasions where he was unable to travel, play or otherwise fulfill commitments to live work. Therefore, on some nights, you might catch Foreigner, helmed by sole remaining original member Mick Jones; on others you may get ‘Foreigner’, a band consisting entirely of replacement musicians, none of whom performed on the original versions of any of songs in the band’s live repertoire.

On the nights when Jones is too ill to perform, is it still Foreigner? Or is it a Foreigner tribute band? No matter how remarkably life-like this band sounds, can they really present themselves to paying customers as Foreigner? No less than THIRTY FOUR musicians are listed on the band’s Wikipedia page as being either ‘Former Members’ or ‘Touring Musicians’. Bruce Watson is listed under ‘Current Members’, but the entry parenthetically states ‘(filling in for Jones)’. So he’s an ‘official member’ of Foreigner, but only when Jones isn’t playing. Hey, it’s a living.

Mick Jones is now 74 years old; what happens when he decides to call it a day? Will Foreigner continue without him, as Molly Hatchet did? Jones is perfectly happy to let Foreigner operate as Foreigner without him performing with the group, so why not just ‘keep the band alive’ and let them continue working the nostalgia circuit without him? Jones would presumably continue to make money from the continued band activity, so it would be a win for everyone. Gene & Paul: Are you listening? Foreigner are piloting your retirement plan.

But there’s another way to ‘keep the band alive’ (which really means ‘keep the money flowing’). Last year, southern rock firebrands Blackfoot released their first album in 20 years, entitled “Southern Native”. Or… did they? There are no founding members of the band in its current lineup, in fact no one in this incarnation of Blackfoot was even born when the original Blackfoot formed, or when any of their charting records were released. These dudes were in diapers when the Ken Hensley era began, which is basically when Blackfoot ended. The record itself contains standard-issue hard rock record, nothing special, kinda bland, and most notably, not very ‘southern’-sounding. But… the lead singer has a Mohawk! Sorry. This sure ain’t Blackfoot.

HES4022-FINAL

Bottom line: This band is only Blackfoot because Rick Medlocke says it is. The ‘foot mainstay ‘put the band together’, although more likely he simply found a young, capable hard rock band, and signed them to a production deal, with the stipulation that they change their name to Blackfoot. The band’s ‘official’ website states that Medlocke joins the band onstage for ‘certain concerts’. Whoop de-do. C’mon, Ricky, give us a break. Shorty Medlocke must be spinning in his grave.

What’s the difference between the 2017 version of Foreigner and Foreigner tribute band Cold As Ice? Not much… other than the ticket prices, that is. Foreigner’s 2017 US tour is asking $75-$200 a head, and it’s a crap shoot as to whether Jones will even appear. You can catch ‘Cold As Ice’ for six bucks at the door… and who gives a shit who’s on stage as long as they sound decent?

It’s all about audience expectations; if everyone who buys a ticket is aware that they are shelling out their dough for a band consisting of nothing more than hired hands and sidemen, then fair enough. Enjoy the show. If not, that’s something close to fraud, is it not? Shouldn’t there be some required standard of disclosure? An asterisk next to the band’s logo in every concert listing, poster or banner ad denoting the ‘authenticity level’ of the act, like *100% Certified Hack-Free or *Contains 20% Ratt.

Do your research! Your favorite band might be just a brand. Sometimes the jukebox in the corner offers you more authenticity than the band on the stage… Buyer beware. As P.T Barnum kinda sorta said: There’s a rocker born every minute

Epic Fail

His track record is unassailable: He’s earned 23 Gold & Platinum albums. As A&R for Epic records in the 70’s, he signed Cheap Trick, Molly Hatchet, Ted Nugent, Boston, and REO Speedwagon. As a producer for Epic Records from 1970-1982, he produced career-making records by all of the iconic rockers mentioned above. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you own an album with his name on it. “Heaven Tonight”, anyone? “Cat Scratch Fever”? “Boston”? Maybe some of his 80’s work… Twisted Sister’s “Stay Hungry”? Dokken’s “Tooth and Nail”? Motley Crue’s “Theatre of Pain”?

Tom Werman practically produced the soundtrack to my teens.

Werman brought Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rush to CBS, and was turned down in all three cases. Tell me, did this guy not OWN hard rock in the mid 70’s?

Most of the bands Werman worked with had their biggest albums with him; their commercial breakthroughs. Most bands he worked with stayed with him for a number of albums before changing producers. Motley Crue and Cheap Trick each did three records with Werman; Molly Hatchet 5, Nugent 6. And… most bands began their commercial decline after moving on to work with other producers.

Tom Werman’s job was, as he described it, to ‘get bands on the radio’. ‘Cat Scratch Fever’. ‘Surrender’. ‘Flirtin’ with Disaster’… I’ll bet you first heard these songs on the radio. And they are still played on the radio today, 35 years later. Is there any question as to how well this guy did his job?

Yes.

A few years back it somehow became fashionable to dump on Tom Werman. Musicians he had worked with 2 or 3 decades previous were suddenly complaining that the records they made with him were too safe, too commercial, ‘not an accurate representation of our sound’. Why these established rock stars feel the need to look back on their most successful period and complain about the records that established their careers, ‘blaming’ Werman for their biggest hits, is just plain bizarre.

The most infamous instance was probably the war of words between Werman and Nikki Sixx (feel so silly typing that name). Sixx (tee hee) wrote a book about what a super-cool guy he is and how heroin is bad but it’s also very rock ‘n roll, so hey, that’s what decadent rock stars do, dude. In this book, in between blaming his girlfriend for every drug relapse and blaming every drug relapse on his girlfriend, ‘ol Nikk talks trash about Werman, accusing him of spending more time on the phone than producing the Crue’s record. Super-hero Nikki than had to assume control and see the album through. Riiiiight. Werman felt the need to defend himself, and wrote an op/ed piece for the New York Times refuting Sixx’s story and pointing out the inherent absurdities in the version of events as described by Nikki. This, in turn, prompted Nikki to post a response on blabbermouth.com, in which he threatened to ‘out’ Werman to his wife for the partying he allegedly did during the recording of the album. What a douche. Werman responded again. The whole sad saga is encapsulated here:

http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/producer-tom-werman-fires-back-at-nikki-sixx/

Dee Snider played the same game while promoting Twisted Sister’s re-recording of their triple-platinum “Stay Hungry”, titled “Still Hungry”. Besides his production credit, Werman is also credited as ‘co-arranger’ on “Stay Hungry”, and it’s widely known that he reworked some of the songs to make them more commercial. Based on the results, I’d say he was successful. But not Dee. Snider claims that Werman had nothing to do with the success of “Stay Hungry”, that his work on the record came close to ‘ruining’ it, and that he didn’t want ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and I Wanna Rock’ to be on the record… Really, Dee? This is the guy who gets hard rock bands on the radio. The guy who’s number one priority is making sure there’s a single on the record. He didn’t think those 2 tunes were viable? Sounds like somebody’s trying to spark some controversy to sell their new album (which ultimately sold about 30,00 units, just a tad short of triple platinum). Snider goes on to claim that working with Werman was the reason that Twisted Sister’s next album (produced by Dieter Dierks) completely sucked, as poor Dee was too busy fighting against bad ol’ Tom Werman’s commercial considerations while recording “Stay Hungry” to write decent songs for the follow-up record. Really. Dee Snider’s take on Werman and “Stay Hungry” can be found here:

http://www.bullz-eye.com/music/interviews/2009/dee_snider.htm

Cheap Trick, who Werman continues to speak very highly of, have stated publicly that they were displeased with the sound of their Werman-produced records– but only started talking about it after about 25 years. Interesting that they did their 3rd and 4th lps with Werman, as well… Like Twisted Sister, they too, re-recorded one of their ‘Werman Era’ albums, “In Color”, with infamous indie producer Steve Albini; however, they have never released the record. I’ve heard it; it’s a lot more live-sounding than Werman’s recording, a lot more raw, much like CT’s first album, and maybe a lot closer to what the band were hoping for sonically back in 1977. But is it a better record than Werman’s? No. If the Albini version of “In Color” were released in ’77 as Cheap Trick’s second album, things would have been very different for this band. The Albini “In Color” leaked onto the internet years ago and is fairly easy to obtain. Just not here.

What we have here is the classic battle of art vs. commerce, with musicians on the ‘art’ side and record producers representing ‘commerce’. While Werman undoubtedly steered these bands in a more commercial direction than they were comfortable with, no one can argue that he didn’t do his job (‘getting bands on the radio’) exceedingly well. And perhaps these musicians need to take a moment, as they look back on their 30-year careers, and ask themselves if they’d even have 30-year careers to look back on if they hadn’t had the good fortune to work with Tom Werman… Would they really trade the gold and platinum albums and the hit singles that were the foundation of their success, assured their longevity and cemented their iconic status for generations to come, for complete creative control over their records, commercial success be damned?      

Tom Werman’s track record speaks for itself. However, if you want to read Werman’s story as told by Werman, he writes a regular column at popdose.com where he relates his experiences recording some of the greatest records by the greatest rock bands of all time, before they went all douche-y. I highly recommend that you read his stuff here:

http://popdose.com/the-producers-tom-werman-chapter-one/

Werman now owns and runs a bed & breakfast out in Lenox, MA, called Stonover Farm. He once posted his personal email on popdose, but has since changed it to an unpublished address (he can, however, be contacted through the Stover Farm site). If you email him, he will likely answer. I highly recommend that you do so. Thank him for all the great music. I did.