Metal Nation

Keeping the flame alive

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By Anastasia Pantsios  

No genre has provoked more condescending dismissal, or fist-pumping devotion, than heavy metal. Overwrought and often silly, yet undeniably potent and affecting, this genre, born in the late '60s, has become one of the most enduring influences in rock music. More contemporary trendsetters like Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana have all acknowledged their debt to metal machines like Kiss and Black Sabbath. When Steppenwolf sang "I love smoke and lightning / heavy metal thunder" on their 1968 hit 'Born To Be Wild,' they unwittingly named an entirely new genre of music.

Though Steppenwolf (1968), Blue Cheer (1968) and Vanilla Fudge (1967) preceded them, Led Zeppelin is usually credited with launching the genre its 1968 self-titled debut. Bands like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience had earlier played with some of metal's essential elements, but Zeppelin tied them all together into one dazzling, grandiose package. It started with thunderous electric blues, driven by a lumbering rhythm section, then added the interplay of virtuoustic guitar and vocals. It featured lyrics that dealt either with urgent sexual needs or mystical/apocalyptic imagery. And it was wrapped in exaggerated stage poses and costumes that created, and mythologized, the rock star image. Zeppelin, it can be said, upped the ante for all popular music, effectively replacing '60s Beatles-derived pop with a harder-edged sound as rock's new currency. The over-amped, testosterone rush they offered was irresistible, particularly to their target audience: young, white, working-class males. While middle-class college kids were listening to the Grateful Dead or Joni Mitchell, beer-drinking, flannel-wearing construction and blue collar workers began to adopt metal as an expression of, and release from, their own feelings of restlessness, horniness and powerlessness. Metal quickly established a beachhead with bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Grand Funk Railroad. But by 1971, for the first (but not the last) time, the media declared metal dead.

And metal did have a low profile in the '70s, though some of its most influencial bands came out of that period. Some used their unfashionable status as a selling tool, none more brilliantly than Kiss. By decade's end, bands like Van Halen, AC/DC, Motorhead and Judas Priest stood in proud opposition to the hipper punk and new wave bands. They were punker than punk -- the bands that your parents/boss/government/anyone with power over you really hated. And, as new wave faded and punk fled underground, metal enjoyed a revival so overwhelming that by the end of the '80s, it absolutely dominated the industry, creating a parallel universe to pop artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. In England, the so-called "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" snowballed, producing Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. Groups like Germany's Scorpions, Twisted Sister, Motley Crue (who established metal's most reviled subgenre, "hair" metal), and Quiet Riot, who had the first Billboard No. 1 metal album with 1983's Metal Health, stormed the charts.

Metal's profile was again heightened by MTV (which debuted in 1981), by a slew of new genre magazines, and even by the vocal opposition of censorship forces, which allowed the now high-profile genre to maintain its rebellious mystique. Pop metal made strong inroads on the singles charts, spawning hits for bands like Ratt, Poison, Motley Crue, Mr. Big, Twisted Sister, Skid Row, and Bon Jovi. As those bands stretched the definition of metal into commercial territory, a metal underground of defiantly uncommercial bands emerged who thrived on excessive speed (or dirgey slowness), technical complexity and violent, horror-filled lyrics. By the late '80s, metal's numerous subgenres ranged from poppy glam metal (Poison, Ratt, Winger) to commercial hard rock (Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi) to blues metal (Tesla, Great White) to thrash metal (Megadeth, Exodus, Metallica) to underground genres such as death, grindcore and doom metal (Death, Venom, Slayer, Voivod, Godflesh).

By 1990, a huge percentage of America's local bar bands were growing their hair long, buying Jackson and Charvel guitars, donning spandex and aspiring to be rock gods who drove motorcycles with buxom blonde porn stars perched on thier backs. Major labels spewed new acts by the dozens, and the genre became watered down and self-parodic. Who now remembers Sleaze Beez, Sweet F.A. or Dangerous Toys? Metal fans argue endlessly about the effect of 1991's "alternative," Nirvana-led revolution on metal. It did sound the death knell for commercial metal, already weakening internally from repeated cloning. But alternative also merged with metal, creating a new wave of '90s bands. Some, like Soundgarden, had a traditional spin, while others, like Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, Korn and Pantera, innovated by combining metal with rap, industrial, punk and other sounds. And, although some of the old reliable metal acts suffered diminished sales, others slogged on, playing to old loyalists (Alice Cooper, AC/DC) or adjusting their sound to the times (Ozzie Osbourne, Metallica, Van Halen).

As blue collar, populist music, metal earns little of its support from traditional media and industry channels. Although pop metal bands had their era of airplay, metal bands are noted for their ability to survive without it -- Iron Maiden, and many others, were able to sell out arenas with little radio exposure. Because they didn't depend on radio singles for their success, metal bands tended to have greater longevity. Kiss, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Ronnie James Dio, and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant all continue to tour long after their initial debuts. While more recent versions of metal -- Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Creed, Korn, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails -- have enjoyed a tenaciously loyal fan base that places their albums high on the charts without significant radio exposure. Though certain factions will insist that only theirs is "real" metal, the movement remains more diverse than ever. And as long as there are fans who party hard on weekends to forget the dreary jobs they work all week, there will always be room for heavy metal.

Essential listening:

Led Zeppelin I (Atlantic, 1968) started it all but this band's entire
catalogue is metal's backbone.
Black Sabbath Black Sabbath (Warner Bros, 1970) Paranoid (1970)
Deep Purple Machine Head (Warner Brothers, 1972)
Other artists: Grand Funk Railroad, Steppenwolf, Mountain, Uriah Heap,
Alice Cooper, MC5

Second wave:
Judas Priest Stained Glass (Columbia, 1978)
Kiss Alive (Casablanca, 1975), Destroyer (1976)
Aerosmith Toys In The Attice (Columbia, 1975), Rocks (1976)
AC/DC Highway To Hell (Atlantic,1979), Back In Black (1980)
Motorhead Ace Of Spades (Mercury,1980)
Other artists: Scorpions, Van Halen, Rainbow.

Golden years:
Iron Maiden The Number Of The Beast (Harvest, 1982)
Quiet Riot Metal Health (Pasha/CBS,1983)
Metallica Master Of Puppets (Elektra,1986), Metallica (1991)
Slayer Reign In Blood (Def Jam,1986)
Motley Crue Shout At The Devil (Elektra,1983)
Guns 'N Roses Appetite For Destruction (Geffen, 1987)
Other artists: Twisted Sister, Poison, Venom, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard,
Death, Anthrax, Queensryche, Ozzy Osbourne, Dokken, Whitesnake, Voivod,
Celtic Frost, Godflesh, W.A.S.P., Megadeth

Modern metal:
Pantera Cowboys From Hell (Atco, 1990)
Ministry Land Of Rape And Honey (Sire,1988)
Rage Against the Machine Rage Against The Machine (Epic, 1988)
Other artists: Korn, Deftones, Soundgarden, White Zombie, Nine Inch
Nails, Alice in Chains

Anastasia Pantsios is a photographer and journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The Cleveland Scene.