Seven Ages of Rock: Never Say Die

Heavy Metal: 1970-1991

And so it was that I watched a metal documentary; now there’s a surprise. For those that didn’t know, I love metal, and I loved the VH-1 series Heavy – The Story of Metal. I didn’t even really intend to watch this one (rather, I had intended to watch earlier episodes, missed them and then sacked it off as a lost cause). Anyway, I had just got done watching The Producers and this was just starting.

The episode itself was enjoyable enough, even if the pearls of wisdom it dropped were common knowledge to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the genre: Rob Halford’s (ergo early eighties metal’s) look was based on his illicit trips to fetish shops.; he was gay (I still can’t believe people didn’t know. Come on, ‘Hell Bent for Leather’?); Black Sabbath were a bunch of normal blokes; punk rock made metal ‘uncool’, etc.

Far be it from me to suggest that esteemed writer Charles Shaar Murray was in any way plagiaristic with this episode, but the programme watched almost identically to an episode of the earlier VH-1 series; take a look at the blurb for ’British Steel’. Granted, there is not much one can say about the genre at that time, and such an endeavour presents the dilemma of choosing between a programme of insightful information that may not be known to the average viewer, thereby risking complaints about major omissions, or travelling the safe route of presenting the big information in a nothing-new format. Maybe Shaar Murray had something to do with the VH-1 show; that would explain the spooky level of similarity.

However, not only did the programme opt to present the lowest common denominator information, but even then there were some odd omissions*; such as when the transition was made from discussing the workmanlike British metal scene to their more glamorous, partying, American brethren. For some reason, this strain was alleged to have begun in the early eighties, when Mötley Crüe hit the clubs on Sunset Strip. This isn’t even a particularly trainspottery complaint, as the apparent looking away from such massive earlier bands as KISS and Van Halen is a touch absurd. Perhaps they didn’t feel these bands were strictly ‘metal’ but if they weren’t then nor were the Crüe.

Even the VH-1 programme featured the likes of Quiet Riot, but this is perhaps more an illustration of the differences in the metal experience of the two countries in question. KISS was an absolute phenomenon in America, but that success didn’t translate to anywhere the same degree in Blighty. Ditto Van Halen, I suppose. While they certainly predated Mötley Crüe by a clear half decade or so, their success in England only came with the synth frenzy of ‘Jump’ in 1984.

By that token, though, Mötley Crüe weren’t that big over here before then (they didn’t have a top twenty album in Britain until 1987). Meanwhile Quiet Riot – the first ‘metal’ band to reach number one in the US charts – seemed to barely register over here. If they want to keep the content faithful to the British experience, surely it would have been wiser to include Bon Jovi, which was massive in 1986. Pity poor Def Leppard, then: despite being part of the NWOBHM (Iron Maiden was a focal point of this episode), and one of the key players in the late eighties pop metal phenomenon, they were cruelly stricken from the record. Nothing they aren’t already used to, it has to be said, even though their influence on the likes of Andrew W.K. and My Chemical Romance is large and indisputable (certainly the former).

Also odd in its absence was Guns N’ Roses, the band that seemingly single-handedly bridges the gap in mainstream rock between the glam/Hollywood rock epoch and the ensuing Metallica/Nirvana ‘credibility’ era. And their first album was awesome. Maybe they’ll be featured in next weeks ‘Stadium Rock’ episode, but their trashy heroin chic antics would make strange bedfellows with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and U2.

I don’t know if it was a result of time constraints or some larger statement of cultural relevance, but I don’t like the way 1991 seems to signal the end of metal. Sure, the nineties lacked some of the totally mainstream names of the past that are known to all but it would have been nice, rather than perpetuate the myth that ‘then nothing happened’, if they had looked at the metal that followed. There was a narrative strand throughout the episode about how the genre kept getting heavier, faster, more extreme, but there was a definite sense of holding back. Getting heavier and more extreme is fine in the context of the Sabbath-Priest-Maiden continuum, but maybe true heaviness and extremity would have put viewers off. Let’s not listen to Venom, Slayer et al.

But even then short shrift is given to more recent metal. Directly after Metallica making it big with their ‘black album’, we had the emergence of Pantera; arguably the culmination of Metallica’s decision to cut the crap, get more streetwise and move with the times. It’s not like Pantera lacked commercial success either: their 1994 album Far Beyond Driven reached number one in countries around the world and sold millions. Vulgar Display of Power, from 1992, has gone multi-platinum in America alone. It’s just too heavy, too nasty and, possibly key for the subtext of this show, harder to laugh at than the likes of Priest, Maiden and Crüe. Am I being too cynical? Perhaps, but you can’t blame me after ‘metal’ was a dirty word for so long in musical circles.

My larger criticism of this episode is in the inherent hypocrisy of its very existence. Interviewed a few weeks ago on Radio 4’s ‘Loose Ends’ programme, Charles Shaar Murray explained his intention behind starting the series with a ‘year zero’ of 1965 because he wanted to individualise ‘rock music’ as an entity in itself, rather than merely a part of the ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ continuum. Honourable sentiments, perhaps, but that doesn’t explain the ghettoising of metal – itself an individual phenomenon dating back to at least 1970 and still in rude cultural health – as a single, datable, event in the continuum of ‘rock music’. It’s sad that Shaar Murray has seen fit to besmirch metal in order to glorify the rather nebulous ‘rock’.

For what it was, though, the programme was all right. The script didn’t attempt to deride the genre, we got some decent footage out of it (such as excerpts from an Ozzy Osbourne documentary I had no idea existed), and I was entertained for the duration. It was just a bit hamstrung by its own remit: if it wanted to be even slightly comprehensive, going from Black Sabbath to the black album in one move was foolhardy; if it wanted to present an overview of metal as a whole, the looking away from anything that happened after 1991 is a fatal flaw.

* Even the timeline on the website suggests nothing happened between the years of 1982 and 1990 or after 1991.

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