(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.

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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.

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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.”

 

 

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