And the Grammy Goes to… HELL!!

Tired of being pissed off at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame every year? Need somewhere else to direct your hatred toward what’s left of the music industry? Well then, why not try hatin’ on the Grammys this year?

“The GRAMMYs are the only peer-presented award to honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position.”

So says NARAS, or the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences. A noble sentiment. It all made sense until 1989. This is the year that NARAS added the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental category for the 31st Annual Grammy Awards.

The Grammys’ entire Heavy Metal history is cringe-worthy. When NARAS finally decided to stop ignoring an entire genre of music (one that had moved hundreds of millions of records throughout it’s history) and recognize the existence of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, Metal Nation was initially pleased. But when faced with the daunting task of actually listening to Heavy Metal, the Academy gave the first award to the only nominated record they could actually get through: Jethro Tull’s ‘Crest Of A Knave’. After this debacle, which was viewed by the rest of the music world as a major embarrassment, the Academy should have just called it quits and left HR & HM alone. But NARAS needed to correct its mistake, and awarded 1990’s Metal Grammy to Metallica for their cover of Queen’s ‘Stone Cold Crazy’. Metallica would have won no matter what they released that year. And thus began Grammy’s 25-year love affair with Metallica, who won the third year as well. It’s a great strategy: Stick with the band that has the word ‘Metal’ in it’s name. It’s like awarding the Grammy for Best Blues Performance to Blue Oyster Cult every other year.

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NARAS couldn’t even get the category right. After the ’89 debacle, the Grammy committee split the category in two, creating a separate category for Hard Rock Performance in 1990. There! All Fixed! Then, in 2012, the category was re-combined again into a single category, Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance. Okay then. And, just in case you needed more evidence of the Academy’s total and utter ineptitude when it comes to these genres, the category was split again in 2014. Ya know what? We’re good. Just leave us alone.

A cursory glance at the list of nominees and winners in this category is a depressing slog through the last 25 years of mainstream metal. Godsmack, Korn, Mudvayne, White Zombie, Cradle of Filth… Nine Inch Nails? I grant that it’s a lot harder to recognize “artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence” in these genres today than it was twenty five years ago. There have been occasions where the Academy has gotten it right; nods for Motorhead’s ‘1916’ and Faith No More’s ‘Angel Dust’ album spring to mind. Machine Head’s ‘The Aesthetics of Hate’, nominated in 2008, was certainly the best metal song I heard that year. Of course, none of these songs actually won, and these nominations are still the exceptions that prove the rule: 99.999% of the time, the Academy gets it wrong.

And how does NARAS address the 30 year period in the genre’s history that came before these categories were created? With their unfortunately-named ‘Hall of Fame’ award. This award is intended to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old and that have “qualitative or historical significance“. Led Zeppelin’s debut has been awarded a HoF Grammy, as has ‘IV’; the individual songs ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ have also received HoF Grammys. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and ‘We Will Rock You/We are the Champions’ singles have also been recognized. But that’s it. A nice gesture, but it it’s too little, too late, as it doesn’t exactly address the previous 30 years of Metal in any substantive way. Seriously, how can any Hard Rock band be awarded a Grammy when Rush didn’t win one for ‘Moving Pictures’? None of Black Sabbath’s supremely important first six albums won them a Grammy, but the ‘God is Dead?’, the single pulled from the tired rehash of the ’13’ album, did. Deep Purple (‘Machine Head’! ‘Made in Japan’! ‘Perfect Strangers’!) doesn’t have any Grammys, yet Slipknot has one…

To further illustrate how useless this award is, I’d like to point out that several live songs and cover versions have been nominated over the years. ‘Live’? Really? Don’t we all know by now that anything that claims to have been ‘recorded live’ is probably as bogus as Milli Vanilli (Grammy Winners, 1990!)? C’mon… Furthermore, does anyone truly believe that a ‘live’ version of Ozzy’s “I Don’t Want to Change the World” was the best Metal Performance of 1994? Out of every single performance recorded during that year? Mr. O. has such an extensive history of – ahem – “assistance” in the vocal department, both live and in the studio, that awarding a Grammy to this clown for a vocal performance is like awarding an Olympic medal for Freestyle Steroid Use. His Ozz-ness won again for his um, absolutely spectacular vocal performance of ‘Iron Man’ from Black Sabbath’s live ‘Reunion’ album in 2000. They should have given him 3 gramophone statues for that performance, because if you listen closely, you’ll hear 3 Ozzys singing on that track.

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If a band is nominated (or win) for a cover version, what does that say about how NARAS regards their original music? Anthrax (once called ‘the highest-paid cover band in history’ by Kerrang! magazine) was nominated 2 years in a row for cover versions, and their ‘Attack of the Killer B’s’ album, filled with covers, joke tunes, live songs, and other worthless junk, was nominated in1992. Motorhead have been nominated twice for covers of Metallica songs (!!!), one of which actually won in ’05. I’m gratified that Motorhead can call themselves ‘Grammy Winners’, but isn’t this just another way the Academy gets to kiss Metallica’s ass? Nominate Motorhead’s ‘Inferno’ album from the same year of GTFO. And If Megadeth’s throwaway cover of Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’, tossed off on a soundtrack album, was the HM genre’s ‘artistic achievement’ of the year in 1996, then I’ll eat my studded writst bands.

(Fun Grammy Fact: Metallica and Megadeth, 2 bands forever linked by a dysfunctional family history, are both Grammy record-holders: While Metallica holds the record for most Metal Grammys won (6, including an award for the awful ‘St. Anger’ album), Megadeth holds the distinction of garnering the most Metal Grammy nominations (9) without ever winning one. I’m betting that fact doesn’t bother Dave Mustaine ONE. SINGLE. BIT.)

The travesty continues into 2015, with two Ronnie Dio-related covers nominated for this year’s Grammys: Anthrax’s cover of Black Sabbath’s ‘Neon Knights’ and unfunny joke Tenacious D’s cover of Dio’s ‘The Last in Line’; I can just imagine RJD spinning in his grave (33 1/3 revolutions per minute, no doubt) as I write. That a by-the-numbers cover of this classic song is nominated for a Grammy Award, while the original version remains unrecognized for its “qualitative or historical significance” is an excellent illustration of the ludicrous nature of this entire enterprise. And if comedy rock duo Tenacious D wins the Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance for covering a song by the legendary Ronnie James Dio, after a decades of goofing on Ronnie and metal in general, I swear to God I seal up my ear holes with Gorilla Glue and never listen to music again.

STOP THE MADNESS. NARAS shouldn’t be giving awards to genres and styles of music it clearly does not understand. They’ve demonstrated time and again that they do not ‘get’ Heavy Metal. I’d love to see Scott Ian or Lemmy get up there this year and outright refuse it, and publicly denounce the entire farce. Grammys? We don’t need no stinkin’ Grammys! But then again, we wouldn’t actually get to see that, as the awards for HM/HR are awarded off-camera every year. So much for ‘legitimacy’. And remember when the Academy failed to include Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman in their ‘In Memoriam’ segment in 2014? That’s two-time Grammy winner Jeff Hanneman?? I got your ‘legitimacy’, right here.

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Still the red-headed step-child. And that’s okay. Hard Rock and Heavy Metal have always existed –nay, thrived– outside the boundaries of legitimacy, propriety, critical validation and mainstream acceptance. Let’s keep it that way. Besides, raising the likes of Rob Zombie and Marylin Manson into the esteemed company of Miles Davis, Ennio Morricone, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder, etc. is absolutely ludicrous. There are a handful of Hard Rock/Metal records since 1990 that would sit well in that kind of company*; but Jack Black parodying one of the all time greats sure ain’t one.

*Slayer – ‘Reign In Blood’

Raging Slab – ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’,

Opeth – ‘Watershed’, ‘Blackwater Park’, ‘Ghost Reveries’

Enslaved – ‘Below the Lights’ and ‘Monumension’

Deep Purple – ‘Now What?!’

High On Fire – ‘Blessed Black Wings’

Mastodon – ‘Leviathan’

Corrosion of Conformity – ‘In the Arms of God’

Megadeth – ‘Rust in Peace’

Pantera – ‘Vulgar Display of Power’

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The Big Four vs The Big Hair

Of all the unfortunate musical developments of the 1980’s, MTv had to be rock bottom. One of the worst things to even happen to Heavy Metal, MTv split the genre down the middle, and forced our heroes to take sides: Go glam or go underground. Some of the greatest hard rock and metal bands of the late 70’s/early 80’s succumbed to the allure of big hair and big bucks… Def Leppard, Krokus, Scorpions, Saxon, Whitesnake, Y&T, even Judas Priest all upped their image ante while sugar-coating their music for a new generation of fans who learned about metal on the visual medium of TV, rather than from their older brother’s record collection.

While the old guard of mostly British and European metal bands abandoned their artistic integrity for a chance to crack the lucrative American market, a new breed of metal band began to develop in America. These bands picked up where the early years of the NWOBHM had left off, injecting a dose of hardcore into an already punk-informed movement. This new sound and style was also a response to the MTv-driven rise of glam; metal fans who weren’t into the whole pretty-boy thing had nowhere to go but down, meaning underground. Gentlemen, this is Thrash.

The gulf between these two styles was enormous. Thrash was about precision, speed, and aggression, where Glam was about surface flash, image, and style over substance. Thrash lyrics dealt with fighting the corrupt system and dystopian futures; glam lyrics concerned themselves with sex, love, partying, and …sex. To be fair, the thrashers were image conscious, too; their tough-guy uniform consisted of long hair, torn jeans, leather jackets, and denim vests. The glam contingent favored gender-bending make-up, big hair, and flashy clothing. There was virtually zero common ground between these two musical movements. Which side were you on?

Although not accessible enough be played on commercial radio or MTv, thrash nonetheless found its own way to success. When Metallica achieved Gold status for their 2nd LP ‘Ride the Lightning’ in 1984, the genre began to be recognized as valid not only by the metal mainstream, but also by the major record companies. The labels felt that a band that could sell 500,000 copies of a record without commercial radio support was a band worth looking at. Metallica was picked up by Elektra; Megadeth by Capitol, Anthrax by Island, and Slayer by Sony offshoot Def Jam. These four bands were about to graduate from the underground to the big leagues, where they would seriously threaten faltering stalwarts like Priest and Maiden; their impact and success would lead to these pioneering bands being dubbed ‘The Big Four’.

Meanwhile, back in Hair Metal Hell, a different formula for success had established itself. Bands with zero talent were selling millions of records based on their looks alone, while their wildly expensive and artistically vacant music videos bombarded the masses in heavy rotation on MTv. By the mid-’80’s, this ‘pop’ metal ruled the airwaves, both on TV and on the radio. By 1986, Pop/Glam/Hair metal was the most popular form of rock music in the world. The stage was set for a battle of epic proportions.

In the 13 months between February 1986 and March of ’87, the so-called ‘Big Four’ would make their grand statements, releasing four genre-defining albums that would establish thrash metal as a valid sub-genre of heavy metal forever. That very same year, in a parallel universe, Hair Metal’s elite forces would detonate 4 highly successful glamma bombs of their own. Heavy Metal had torn itself in two. Peaceful coexistence was out of the question. It was the girlz against the boys in the battle for the soul of Heavy Metal.

February 1986: A Declaration of War

Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’

By 1986, Metallica were already recognized as the leader of underground metal. With the colossal ‘Master of Puppets’, they led that niche genre out of the underground, into the mainstream, and forward into battle. This band had come a long way as writers in just a few records, and MOP showcases the full extent of their full reach and scope. Everything about this album screams ‘Epic’; the riffs, the arrangements, the sounds, the song lengths. While ‘Tallica still steadfastly refusing to release a single or video to promote their work, ‘Puppets’ nonetheless reached #29 in the US. Thrash Metal was moshing up the American Top 40… The young upstarts had become the conquering heroes. Metallica seemed unstoppable. Just seven months later, they would face their greatest challenge.

May 1986: Counter Strike

Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’

How many countdowns are there, anyway? And if this one was final, how come I keep hearing this song, 28 years later? This impossibly cute Swedish band somehow found the formula for the perfect earworm in the album’s title track, a song that has gone on to become the ultimate anthem. Second single Carrie (following the standard hair metal formula of 1st single: anthem, 2nd single: power-ballad) was a bigger hit, but ‘TFC’ has firmly established itself as an inescapable piece of modern pop culture. That, my friends is the definition of evil.

August 1986: Trilateral Offensive (and I do mean offensive)

Cinderella’s ‘Night Songs’

Hidden under all of that hair, Cinderella was probably a halfway decent bar band before MTv changed the game. While the front cover pic instantly takes this album out of the running for any serious consideration, the tunes and the playing inside are fairly solid. Having friends in high places certainly helped Cinderella; Jon Bon Jovi got the band signed to Polygram, sang backups on ‘Night Songs’, and arranged to have them appear as the opening act on the entire 7-month ‘Slippery When Wet’ tour. Second single ‘Nobody’s Fool’, a virtual rewrite of Def Leppard’s ‘Bringin’ on the Heartbreak’, hit the Top Twenty. Thanks, JBJ.

Bon Jovi’s ‘Slippery When Wet’

Hair Metal’s biggest album. It’s interesting to speculate about where JBJ’s career would have gone had he not enlisted the songwriting assistance of veteran hit maker Desmond Child to write for ‘SWW’… Child, the infamous ‘song doctor’ who later co-wrote several key songs for post-make-up KISS and post-drugs Aerosmith, among many others, co-wrote ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ and ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’. Both songs were worldwide smashes, and the primary factor in the record’s mega-success. Ya, these guys could play, but more importantly, the time was right for a gang of pretty boys (and Tico Torres) with catchy tunes, cowboy boots and fringe leather jackets.

Poison’s ‘Look What the Cat Dragged In’

Poison, on the other hand, had zero musical ability, zero songwriting skills, and zero shame. ‘LWtCDI’ was similar to Motley Crue’s debut from just a few years before, in that it was a crappy album, released by an independent label, recorded on a shoestring budget by a bunch of talentless hacks, but still made a pretty big splash because of the band’s ‘look’. This time around, however, the timing was perfect and the market primed and ready to eat this crap up, to the tune of a Billboard #3 slot and 3 million copies sold. The cover is notorious for confusing and embarrassing thousands of hetero guys (‘Check out the hot chicks!’) and the music within is 100% garbage (more on garbage later in this post). Perhaps a better title would have been ‘Look What the Cat Coughed Up’.

October 1986: Shock and Awe

Megadeth’s ‘Peace Sells (But Who’s Buying?)’

When Dave Mustaine recruited players for his post-Metallica band, he purposely chose musicians with a jazz/fusion background. The result: Megadeth reached new levels of technicality and precision, raising the bar for musicianship in metal in the process. ‘Deth’s second album, ‘Peace Sells…’ features a plethora of meticulously arranged, impeccably played songs that featured a boatload of classic Mustaine riffs that Metallica would soon sorely miss. This mixture of dynamic ensemble playing and muscular musical menace, along with a healthy dose of politically aware lyrics, further established thrash metal’s mainstream credibility.

Slayer’s ‘Reign In Blood’

The intensity level of Slayer’s music is truly frightening. That’s Slayer’s thing: scaring people. Slayer scared lots of people with their third album ‘Reign in Blood’, including the suits at Columbia Records, who, at the last minute, decided they didn’t want to distribute the album due to its artwork and lyrics; Geffen/WB stepped in and the rest is history. At a brief but harrowing 29 minutes, ‘RIB’ is never boring, not for one single second; each song a short blast of unprecedented intensity, disorienting solos, and panic attack vocals all delivered with crystal clear, in-your-face production. ‘Reign in Blood’ so successfully achieves everything it set out to accomplish that it is rightfully recognized as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, no matter the genre.

March 1987: Reinforcements from the Eastern Front

Anthrax’s ‘Among the Living’

Anthrax may have been late to the party with ‘Among’, but it’s no less important a record than the other Big Four entries. Anthrax was the only B4 band with a credible lead vocalist (at least in conventional rock music terms), and a viable single in ‘Indians’, which gave ‘Among’ had the best shot at radio play. Anthrax was also the only band of the Four with any discernible sense of humor, throwing in a few yucks while bringing the noise. The songwriting may get a little clunky here and there, but the chops on display are truly monstrous. The mix of melodic vocals and hardcore speed/thrash crunch on ‘Among’ would prove to be hugely influential. Arriving to bat clean-up, ‘Among the Living’ is another groundbreaking thrash album and a worthy bookend to the 13 month Great Thrash Offensive.

It’s widely acknowledged that 1991’s ‘Clash of the Titans’ tour, featuring Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax (Metallica was filling arenas on their own) was the height of trash metal’s popularity, but by 1992, both genres were in serious trouble. Metallica, who almost single-handedly led the thrash movement from its ‘Garage Days’ origins to mainstream acceptance and multi-platinum successes, abandoned thrash metal on their untitled 5th album, and as the public tired of a never-ending parade of ‘power ballads’, most of the major hair bands had either fizzled or self-destructed. Then along came Grunge. Game over, man.

So as the dry ice cleared, who could we declare the victor? The glammy stuff certainly sold more records than the scary stuff did by ’92. If sales are your only criteria, then the poodles won overall. If influence, longevity, and continued relevance count, then the story has a very different ending. Released at the height of hair metal’s popularity, BJ’s ‘Slippery’ went on to sell 12 million copies to ‘Master’s 2 million; but 25 years later, Metallica’s 2008 album ‘Death Magnetic’ has racked up over 2 million units sold; Bon Jovi’s latest, ‘What About Now’, has sold just over 1 million. While Jovi’s last few have hit #1, the remaining 3 Big Four bands have been consistently nipping at BJ’s heels, with each of their most current records climbing to at least #12 on the Billboard Top 200. And what of Cinderella, Poison, and Europe? Please.

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Perhaps the most interesting fact I discovered while researching this post was that the cover art used for Bon Jovi’s ‘Slippery When Wet’ was a photograph of a wet garbage bag with the title written in the water. That’s fitting; I mean, everyone knows what you find inside garbage bags, right?