Confessions of a Metalholic!!!


By Wil Forbis
May 1, 2009

Guns N' Roses, Axl Rose, Slash

As I look back on the great struggles of my life, I can think of no greater struggle than my attempt to find acceptance for my adoration of 1980s heavy metal. Beginning in my teens, my love affair with this bombastic, shrill and overly theatrical form of pop music --- so free of irony*, so steeped in sincerity --- earned me the condemnation of many of my friends. This social ostracization was a bitter pill to swallow. Most people discover the style of music that will come to define their teenage years through peers and the shared interest cements the social bond. But I had no "metal friends" and my regular friends (if you can call them that) only mocked my love of the music, causing grotesque scars to etch across my sensitive soul.

* Exception: the lyrics of Bon Scott.

Still, 20 years after my fascination with metal began, it persists, though I do find myself examining the genre and my attraction to it with more critical eye. What was it about the music produced by bands like Quiet Riot, Poison, Guns N' Roses and Ozzy Osbourne that so lured me? I must confess that there are moments when a metal song will come on the radio and I'm amazed I ever took this music seriously.

Heavy Metal Rules!First, let's clarify some terms. No doubt, certain readers observed the list of metal bands in the previous paragraph and said, "That's not metal!" (Even I was wary about including Poison.) Hard-core heavy metal aficionados --- fans of such bands as Slayer, Exodus, Metallica etc. --- would argue that true heavy metal* does not include the sub genres of "hard rock" or "pop metal." (Hear their rallying cry: "Death to false metal!") To such readers, let me say that I hear your protests and do not take them lightly, but I think that these groups would be classified as heavy metal by the public at large.

* As time has gone by, the the terms "heavy metal" and "metal" have become increasingly separate. "Heavy metal" applies to older, slower, more bombastic versions of the music, whereas "metal" applies to faster, thrashier, modern forms.

I was born in 1971, which ensured that I would come of age at the point when metal was at its peak. When I was 15, with a 15 year olds' warped sense of the passage of time, heavy metal had a timeless quality to me... it seemed as if it'd been around forever, as if this was how rock music always had been and always would be. I look back now and see how crazy that notion was. Metal commanded only a brief era in the history of rock and it's surprising that it even had that. Because heavy metal, on many levels, was absolutely ridiculous.

Van Halen, David Lee RothLet's take a look at the heavy metal "look." It was a freeform combination of dressing like a pirate, dressing like a transvestite and dressing like one of the post-apocalyptic, chainsaw waving anarchists who populated the Mad Max films. It was an aesthetic found at the curious crossroads of the masculine and feminine. The mostly male membership of the metal community would adorn themselves with the fashion of macho aggression --- spiked leather jackets, sawblade codpieces --- and then top it off with cherry red lipstick, eyeliner and well coiffed long hair*. It goes without saying that this look seemed purposely designed to guarantee ostracization from the more conservative, mainstream cliques found in the American high school. Because, of course, it was.

* The fatal mistake made by female metal acts like Girlschool and Vixen was that they perfectly duplicated the leather and steel look of their male counterparts. Male metalheads borrowed their style from prostitutes and dominatrixes. It looked shocking on men, not so much on women.

Now let's turn our ears to the music itself. It was a song form entirely devoid of subtlety; in fact, most connoisseurs would agree that it was when heavy metal attempted subtlety that it failed. Amplifiers were distorted past their limits, vocals emulated the sounds one makes when being tortured to death and guitar solos were a combination of blistering speed, freeform whammy bar antics and piercing pinch harmonics. (For those not familiar with the term, pinch harmonics are a technique in which a guitar player uses the soft flesh of one of his fingers to "pinch" the guitar string in such a way that produces a high-pitched squeal specifically designed to burst the eyeballs of anyone over the age of 50.)

Of course, I list the above complaints as if they were elements that would've impeded the popularity of heavy metal, when in fact they were the source of its success. There are adult notions of what music and musicians should be like --- cultured, sublime ...not necessarily unpassionate, but certainly discriminating with passion --- and heavy metal flew in the face of these notions. As a result it was immensely popular with kids.

Another characteristic of metal: it was a music of fantasy. The theatrical, operatic, doom laden metal of groups like Black Sabbath, King Diamond, Manowar and Judas Priest focused on the science fiction/sword and sorcery elements of fantasy --- large breasted women riding winged dragons or giant robots wiping out entire civilizations, Meanwhile, streetwise practitioners of glam metal (KISS, Poison, Warrant etc.) seduced male fans with with the promise that listening to metal would provide access to a cornucopia of wiggling underwear models who would achieve ultimate personal fulfillment if just one of your testicles made its way into their mouths. Teenagers are aware of the absurdity of such fantasies --- I certainly was at the time --- but there is that part of you --- that na´ve, clueless dork who hasn't had the sense to give up all hope on life --- who is still receptive to such delusions. Heavy metal spoke to that dork with an optimistic message: the impossible is possible!

But the appeal of 80s metal was not merely antiauthoritarian posturing mixed with an illusionist's bag of tricks. There were also great songs. Consider this: until the late 70s, the Beatles held the record for largest concert attendance. This was bested by who? Led Zeppelin. During its strongest moments, heavy metal was a seamless connection of both bands. It was the pop savvy songwriting of Lennon and McCartney combined with the powerful riffs, grooves and general "heaviness" of Led Zep. Virtuoso party band Van Halen put innumerable great tunes to tape; I would submit their classic work "Panama" --- with its instantly recognizable introduction and the schlock-erotic poetry of bard David Lee Roth --- as a flawless example of pop tunesmithing. Mock if you will "Round and Round" by Ratt, but it has an infectious way of working its way into your head and staying there (as well as a great guitar solo.) While I largely hated Bon Jovi during their heyday, I can't deny that "Wanted Dead or Alive" has deservedly emerged as one of the preeminent songs from that era. And there's no doubt that the greatest song of the 80s --- Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child 'O Mine" --- is pure sonic genius, combining a classic guitar riff, memorable lyrics, an unforgettable chorus and genuine emotional gravitas.

The Three Phases of 80s Heavy Metal
If this music was so addictive, its appeal so well formed, what happened? I believe there are three phases to 80s heavy metal that correspond to its rise, its ascension to the throne and the overreach that led to its demise.

The first phase, occurring during the early 80s, gave us bands like Quiet Riot, Dokken and Motley Crue. This was metal at its "metalist" --- guitars distorted past the point of feedback, singers drenched in lipstick and rouge, screeching falsetto vocals and theatrics verging on (no, sorry, surpassing) the absurd. What was not present in phase 1 was any sense of the outside music industry attempting to mold the music. If the suits and ties populating the recording industry could be thought of as adults, then metal (and punk) artists of the day were their ill tempered stepchildren, cordoned off in their bedrooms, blasting their stereos. During this first phase, the two parties had little to say to each other.

After this initial success, metal faded off for a couple years while R&B and pop acts dominated the charts. Then, in 1987, we saw the onset of the second phase of 80s metal, largely defined by groups like Warrant, Poison, Cinderella, Faster Pussycat and Guns N' Roses. It was during the second phase that the heavy metal moment occurred --- the music transformed from cult curiosity to cultural phenomenon. For a brief (yet seemingly endless) minute battle dominated the music charts, MTV* and popular imagination.

* The importance of the music video to the success of the second phase of metal cannot be underestimated. The music video was a perfect tool for a band to broadcast its character --- from Poison's party all night optimism to Guns N' Roses debauched nihilism --- to their audience of impressionable teenagers. The impact of many of the songs was not found by simply listening to the music but in absorbing the combination of the music and the cinematography of the videos. There are moments from those videos that remain etched in my brain --- the barroom gunfight from Warrant's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or Lita Ford writhing on the floor in her "Kiss Me Deadly" video. The mastery of the form demonstrated by metal video directors would have made Leni Riefenstahl proud.

After the phenomenal success of the second phase of 80s metal, record companies began formulating ideas to broaden heavy metal's appeal. The application of these ideas brought about the third phase of heavy metal, or as I call it, "gay metal." This phase saw the inception of largely contrived, formulated groups like Danger Danger, Trixter, Firehouse and Winger. Many of these groups were not bands in the sense of being friends who'd grown up together with the dream of rock 'n roll, but were combinations of industry approved session hacks. To a casual observer, there was little to separate third phase metal bands from their precursors (aside from the overwhelming sheen of gayness) but upon close inspection several characteristics stood out.

  • Appearance: Third phase bands largely watered-down the more extreme elements of heavy metal fashion. Gone were the women's makeup and pouty red lips, zebra pants and red leather jackets. In their place was a more casual "jeans and denim" look. Additionally, members of third phase bands were generally better looking.
  • Songwriting: A classic staple of most heavy metal is the guitar riff, a musical component perfected by Led Zeppelin. The guitar riff, if not omnipresent, was certainly a major player during the first two phases of 80s metal. It was largely gone by the third phase, replaced with a power chord style songwriting not far removed from the kind of pop ditties performed by the Monkees.
  • Love songs: While first and second phase heavy metal was not without notions of romance, women largely played the role of objects of plunder. Musicians during the third phase embraced the Hallmark card school of lyric writing and the metal ballad, a saccharine ode to a forgettable girl next door, became the weapon of choice.

It's during the third phase of 80s heavy metal that I believe you can find the precise moment things got lame. In 1990 Winger released a video for the song "Can't Get Enuff," the first single off their second album. Like many metal videos, the video featured a youthful protagonist. Unlike so many videos that came before it, the protagonist had short hair. This might seem a minor point, but its significance is monumental. Heavy metal was no longer music for an exclusionary tribe of long-haired she-males but rather something that could appeal to wholesome, farm bred youth of the Midwest. It wasn't that heavy metal had gone mainstream --- that had happened many years previous* --- it was that heavy metal was embracing going mainstream. It had lost its edge.

* Indeed, heavy metal, unlike many musical sub cultures, punk in particular, had never been shy about its desire to achieve mainstream success. Punk defined itself as an "other" while metal wanted to absorb the world.

The Dark Ages
I could make an argument that there was a fourth phase to 80s heavy metal, one that occurred during the 90s and could be called "years in the wilderness." I remember these days well. In 1991 I moved to hyper politically correct Olympia, Washington, and a year later to slightly less politically correct, Seattle. Both cities were percolating with anticorporate, revolutionary music scenes and no one in those scenes considered heavy metal anything less than a complete travesty. According to the dominant viewpoint at the time, heavy metal stood for everything wrong with society. It represented misogyny, hedonism, selfishness and carelessness. Which was all true. But it also represented fun.

As the 90s took off a new music style emerged. Grunge, epitomized by Northwest bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden*, spread across the land and slew heavy metal acts by the hundreds. Bands that once headlined stadiums were relegated to the back of pool halls. Their albums couldn't be given away. Most metal groups broke up. (Several heavy metal acts forever soiled their good names by attempting to release grunge style albums that were, without exception, complete embarrassments.) Only two heavy metal bands maintained any staying power during the 90s. One was Guns N' Roses, who released their double album, "Use Your Illusion" in 1991 and used its success to fuel a multi-year, international tour of Epicurean gluttony. But soon even the Gunners collapsed under the weight of Axl Rose's ego and tyranny. Motley Crue, the band that probably most epitomized everything that was now hated about metal, also survived, though more as a touring act than a recording band. Why them? Partly because metal still had fans --- many who were disgruntled by the bleak, self flagellating worldview of grunge and alternative music --- and the Crue unapologetically stood for 80s metal. Additionally, there were many twentysomethings who embraced the alternative era but yearned for some connection to the music of their teen years. For them, Motley Crue was a guilty pleasure.

*Nowadays when I listen to grunge and metal side by side and I'm amazed by how little really separates the two styles. Grunge was fundamentally metal without the guitar solos, operatic vocals or insipid lyrics. Both music styles were comprised of songs propelled by distorted guitar riffs and plodding, pounding drums.

Despite the toehold metal maintained on popular culture during the 90s and into the new century, I had given up on it, presuming that it would eventually sink into obscurity. But that didn't happen. Motley Crue kept touring and their drummer, Tommy Lee, became more famous than ever thanks to an infamous sex tape. In 2005, The Darkness, a band that seemed as much a spoof of metal as the real thing, had a brief but credible career indicating people wanted to hear hard rock. Three years later, Guns N' Roses finally released their much-anticipated album, "Chinese Democracy," and while critics were lukewarm in their reception to it, almost all of them had to comment on it. Most recently, Mickey Rourke resurrected his acting career in "The Wrestler," a movie that argued that much of what had been written off about the 80s --- televised wrestling and heavy metal in particular --- had some value and was deserving of consideration. In 2009, heavy metal is undoubtably an artifact from yesteryear, but it's one with less shame attached to it than I might have predicted 15 years ago.

Why? I could proffer a theory that the reason is 9/11. The music of the 90s was dark --- an interesting fact when one considers that it was a decade that saw both record-breaking economic growth and the demise of the Soviet Union. If anything, the Western world should have been celebrating. But the curious thing about peace and prosperity is that the human mind --- no longer focused on mere survival --- is free to ruminate on larger existential questions about the nature of man's mortality. This, I think, explains the success of desolate and forbidding bands like Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and the Smashing Pumpkins. With the 9/11 attacks the cultural atmosphere changed overnight --- suddenly we were back to thinking about basic survival. With so many questions about the long term, there were times when we just wanted to have a night of fun. And nothing says fun like heavy metal.

The problem with that explanation is that I don't buy it, at least not in its entirety. Heavy metal would've had a resurgence without 9/11. The trends of popular culture are fickle because society itself is constantly grappling with the push and pull of various social forces. One such force is the parental force, the mother, who seeks to impose rules and order. The mother fights for tolerance, inclusiveness and egalitarianism. Pushing back against the mother, is the child, our self-absorbed inner hedonist who demands instant gratification. While it's popular to bemoan the child, it's his drive to satiate his wants and needs that often pushes us, as individuals and as a species, to excellence. And no one can deny that it was the child that created rock 'n roll.

That was fundamentally the point with "The Wrestler." There will always be people who criticize the more pedestrian elements of culture --- and their criticisms are not without merit --- but there will also always be people who find pleasure, meaning and even purpose in those same elements. Grunge and alternative music gave voice to the mother's primal scream at the perceived meaninglessness of modern existence. Metal just slept with her.

 

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