In 1998 I wore thick black eyeliner and a Marilyn Manson t-shirt in my school photograph. My mother has never forgiven me. Despite my abrasive appearance I was a happy teenager, just overflowing with creative energy and terrified of being lumped into the same breath as the majority of my seemingly brainless, superficial counterparts. I was trying express my individuality before I had fully defined it (thanks to the feverish impatience of adolescence) and the only way I thought this was possible was to completely rebel away from anything deemed normal or safe. Look at me, pay attention to me, don’t ignore me – I AM SPECIAL AND DIFFERENT, YOU GUYS.
(Watch this episode of Metal Evolution HERE if you missed it.)
This is just one of the ways shock rock unified hundreds of thousands of misfits in the 90s. It created a world that made outcasts feel safe and everyone else uncomfortable while sparking a cycle of negative publicity that turned the genre into a sinfully sweet forbidden fruit. Every other genre that has been examined during Metal Evolution so far has been differentiated from its peers based on its sound. Shock rock is the only one that stands alone because of its visuals; images of the Devil, death and destruction. What deep part of the human psyche is resonating with the dark, horrific imagery of shock rock? And perhaps the more important question: why?
Long before Alice Cooper was scaring the living sh*t out of parents and politicians, people were relishing in the dark and twisted imagery of traveling circus sideshows featuring freakish human oddities and animal anomalies. In the 1880s, PT Barnum was the biggest name in the sideshow scene, drawing massive crowds to his traveling freakshows. He was a master of self-promotion, capitalizing on the belief that any press was good press; the same philosophy that would help fuel the fire under shock rock’s ass over 100 years later. People flocked to see these twisted sights, reveling in the exhilaration they felt when seeing something so abnormal. “I just think people want a thrill, they just want a f*cking thrill in life,” says Rob Zombie.
Shocking imagery began to find its way out of the big top and into music as far back as the 1950s. Early rock-n-roll artists used what would now be considered a very small amount of shock to grab audience attention. Any remnant of gay culture and men dressing up to look like women were two taboos so offensive they were relegated to only being deep underground movements, until Little Richard and his unquestionable knack for songwriting brought them up above surface level for the first time. In Georgia, no less.
Another habitual envelope-pusher who brought an essence of the macabre into the American music scene was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Despite the conservative nature of the 1950s he was singing about cannibalism and voodoo, truly creating the bridge between rock-n-roll and horror. And then there was the flamboyant Arthur Brown, whose dark theatrical style was a major influence on future shock rockers including Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson and Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden, who says that watching Arthur Brown was like taking acid without actually needing to ingest it. High praise.
Credited as the forefather of modern shock rock, Alice Cooper’s gruesome stage show had the media and concerned conservatives everywhere in an uproar. At the time, he says, there were only rock heroes. Where were the villains? Using everything and anything he could get his hands on, Cooper developed a notorious spectacle of a stage show that became a self-perpetuating hype machine.
The height of this spectacle came during a show the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival. Alice Cooper is busy covering everyone and everything in feathers as he maniacally rips apart a pillow when suddenly a chicken is thrown on stage. He figured it fit so nicely into the feathery theme he had no other choice but to pick it up and throw it back into the crowd, hoping it would fly. You know, because chickens are REALLY good at flying. Anyways – spoiler alert – the poor thing was torn to pieces by the first five rows of the audience. And this is why it’s so great to hear this story told by Alice Cooper himself, because apparently: everyone in the first five rows were people in wheelchairs. The tabloids the next day were claiming that Cooper had actually torn the head off the chicken and drank its blood. The band began getting death threats and was met with heavy protests at every show but this only added to the mystique and allure, serving as incentive for anyone with even the slightest hint of rebellion in them to go out and see it for themselves.
Feeding this cycle of negative publicity also worked wonders for the face-painted entertainers known as KISS. Taking a cue from the Ringling Brothers, magicians and famous entertainment acts, they created a phenomenon that struck the perfect balance between art and commerce. But as their on-stage antics escalated, the band was somehow linked to Satanism – and they never denied it. People began protesting their every show and burning their records in public. But to the guys in KISS, this only meant that they had bought their record in the first place. And that meant they had won. They used the controversy to their benefit and the protests ultimately backfired. But why was the behavior of KISS so pervasive and offensive to the greater part of America anyways? This can be summed up emphatically in one beautiful quote from the band’s producer/manager Kim Fowley:
“Let’s say you’re the hottest guy in your little town, and you meet the hottest girl in your little town and you work at the Dairy Queen and you decide to get married and you have a beautiful little girl… you don’t want her to have sex with Gene Simmons.”
As the commerce side of KISS grew out of control, it began to overshadow the art and the music. The band that was once considered devilish and sinful was now headed to school with children on their lunchboxes and the demographic of the band’s audience began to change. Alice Cooper began to amass more fans in Middle America as well, and the two former powerhouses opened the doors for a new, even more controversial generation of shock rockers.
In the 1980s, shock rock began really exploiting the character most famously linked to the genre – Satan! Yay. Bands like Venom integrated references to Satanism in their music, pushing it in the public’s face with the goal of pushing boundaries as far as possible. Sam Dunn also speaks to the legendary King Diamond from Mercyful Fate who was notorious for not just including it in the music, but fully living what most would call a “Satanic” lifestyle including residence in a castle that was lit with nothing but candles. Because the Devil hates electricity. Obviously. He tells us of course, that these urban legends only served to fuel him further.
The shock rock genre began to encounter even more systematic opposition, most notably from the Parents Music Resource Centre (or Rich Wives of Prominent Politicians, more aptly) who created a list of what they deemed to be the MOST offensive and deplorable songs called “The Filthy 15.” The group was also responsible for influencing the government to introduce explicit labeling on any album that contained controversial material. So basically, they just clearly labeled the “worst” music and made it more easily identifiable than ever before. Now if you were a kid going into a record shop to find the latest tunes, that black and white “explicit” sticker is EXACTLY what you’re headed for first. Job well done, parents.
This panic subsided at the end of the 90s, until Marilyn Manson emerged with something even scarier than a headless chicken: he had a brain. He was a conceptual, theatrical artist who was putting out songs and music videos so disturbing they even scared Alice Cooper himself. But the most powerful thing about Marilyn Manson was that unlike KISS, he wasn’t just after kids for their money. As author Gavin Baddeley notes, he didn’t want them to just buy his records – he wanted them to think.
He was mocking shock rock at the same time as he was creating it and was far more vocal against his critics off stage than any of his shock rock predecessors. So it was no surprise that when the Columbine school shooting shook the entire world in April 1999, the polarizing Marilyn Manson was being referenced by almost every major network and being used as a scapegoat for media pundits who were left scrambling to make sense of the unthinkable. They referred to his music as “gruesome” but as Manson points out in an interview clip seen in this episode, it was the media coverage of this terrible event deserved that title; showing grieving family and friends, weeping at the loss of their loved ones while indicting entertainers in the same clip. The entire event shook Marilyn Manson to his core, and as a result the band stopped making music for the time being and fell out of the public eye.
The most interesting part of this segment, however, is during the interview with the band’s former lead guitarist, Daisy (although it should be noted he didn’t leave the band on the best of terms). Marilyn Manson wanted to be the villain, he says, and if the media was using him as a scapegoat it was almost his duty to accept that and welcome it. Easier said than done though, Daisy.
In the early 2000s, shock rock continued to resonate with the darkest corners of the human condition. Sam Dunn admits that he was actually terrified when he first saw Slipknot on stage, in large part (I’m assuming) to the incredible freaky masks that the band wears. Struggling with their own inner demons, anger and pain, Slipknot used their live show as an outlet; wreaking havoc and leaving it all on the stage. From Germany, Rammstein brought the circus sideshow back and introduced shock rock to its most industrial sound yet, motivated simply by inciting a reaction of any sort.
But in this day and age, when the media, movies, video games and the Internet have made desensitizing yourself easier than writing an email, what would it take to truly SHOCK audiences today? Alice Cooper doesn’t even expect the public to be shocked anymore, calling even the most wildest of antics “family entertainment” at this point. Arthur Brown feels as though everything is already out there. Even the most sick and twisted thing you could think of – one quick Internet search later it will be at your fingertips. But Rammstein frontman Till Lindemann is asked this question and with just the slightest smirk, gives a reply that sent shivers down my spin: “A public suicide on stage.”
Ultimately, this episode is summed up nicely at the end by Donny Vomit (gotta be his legal name, right?), a sideshow performer at the Coney Island Circus. “As long as there are young people, there will always be people who are willing to scare the old to entertain the young.”
- Sarah Dawley
Throughout this series, it’s become evident that Sam Dunn is a traditionalist when it comes to metal, for lack of a better term. A purist, if you will. He hails from a very distinct camp of metal appreciation; one that values the pioneering sounds of the genre and not so much the various species it spawned over time.
Just like the grunge episode, this edition of Metal Evolution (which you can watch HERE) begins by questioning whether the nu metal genre even belongs in the story at all. Did nu metal really have any lasting impact on the genre or is it collectively agreed to be an embarrassing, ugly sore spot in the family’s history that everyone ignores until someone awkwardly brings it up?
As a hip-hop head, it’s hard for me not to take this episode personally. On the surface, the negativity portrayed towards nu metal seems to only convey the following: rap music came along and tainted metal forever. It assumes that these musicians were simply throwing one popular genre on top of another for no other reason than to capitalize on the commercial viability of both. But this attitude largely discounts the power and relevance of hip-hop and the social, political and cultural environment of the early-to-mid-90s, when rap music was reaching its own peak as a genre.
The roots of nu metal are anything but embarrassing. The crossover track that is most widely credited with sparking the nu metal movement is “Bring The Noise” by Anthrax and Public Enemy. But one can’t help but think the two genres were meteors on an inevitable crash course due to their rising popularity and the essence of rebellion they shared. Anthrax was formed in Queens, NY – an epicenter for hip-hop. As Scott Ian notes, they had a deep appreciation for the genre and so “Bring The Noise” was simply a dream come true: getting to collaborate with one of their favourite groups at the time, despite the vast differences in their music.
Around the same time, funk and R&B influenced grooves were also finding their way into heavier music thanks to bands like Faith No More. But the band who perfected the blend between groove and heaviness was undoubtedly Rage Against the Machine. The band’s incomparable guitarist Tom Morello took his love of 70s riffs and filtered it through his love of punk and hip-hop to push the idea of what a guitar could sound like past any point your ear was previously accustomed to. This blend of sonic styles, combined with Zack de la Rocha’s rap-infused vocals that were laced with highly political dissidence, made Rage one of the most unique bands the decade had seen yet. Pantera emerged as another pioneering band skirting along the edges of traditional metal, with a new rhythmic dynamic that was (and still is) virtually impossible to categorize. Bands began to add the word “DJ” to their lineup, introducing the turntable as a bona fide heavy metal instrument while continuing to push traditional instruments to innovative new heights. This emerging genre was combining rhythm with the rebellious nature of both hip-hop and metal, and turning it into a Molotov cocktail of extremity and accessibility.
The first band to be bestowed with the label of “nu metal” was Korn. Building off of an admiration for bands like Faith No More and Pantera, Korn created their own groove-based sound that was punctuated by the raw and revealing lyrics of front man Jonathan Davis. His personal struggles were revealed via haunting whispering vocals, contrasted by deep and guttural screams. Davis was seemingly using Korn’s music as a form of therapy, which captivated their audience. Further adding to the nu metal roster was the Sacramento band Deftones. A true product of their environment, Deftones blended heavy metal with the inescapable riffs of early rap music that had taken over the west coast of the United States. With a handful of bands that were quickly becoming household names, nu metal was ready to evolve into its very own sub-genre of the heavy metal family tree and the catalyst for that would be “Roots” – the sixth album from the influential Brazilian heavy metal group Sepultura.
What made Nu metal different was that it captivated the attention of a teenage generation who felt the same rebellious energy that comes with the territory of pubescence but who were also growing up alongside hip-hop: a radical new genre of music that was breaking barriers of race and class, not just sound. With multiple audiences engaged, it’s no surprise that the genre blew up as quickly as it did. Nu metal was an underground movement, a sub-genre that appealed to the metal, goth AND hip-hop communities. This is what made it both prolific and ripe for the mainstream. And mainstream it went…
In the late 90s, Limp Bizkit was everything that traditional metal fans hated (Sam Dunn thoroughly included). In contrast to the innovative, musical mash-up that Rage Against the Machine and Sepultura had developed, they were a more structured and compartmentalized combination of the two genres. Their music appealed to those who had never given metal a chance before, and told existing metal fans that the genre could be a party while still being aggressive. And if you try to tell me that you don’t know all of the words to at least the first verse of “Nookie” I will call you a liar. Limp Bizkit hit their commercial stride with this song and their second album “Significant Other” and at this point nu metal as a whole had been launched into a musical phenomenon. And then Woodstock ’99 happened.
Among other acts, Woodstock ’99 featured the biggest names in nu metal: Rage Against the Machine, Korn and Limp Bizkit. It also featured an unfortunate amount of violence, rape fire and destruction. During Limp Bizkit’s set (specifically during the performance of their hit song “Break Stuff”) the crowd turned ugly, tearing off pieces of plywood from the walls and setting fire to anything in sight.
In this episode of Metal Evolution (and in popular opinion, overall) the blame for this turn of events is placed on Limp Bizkit and more specifically – on Fred Durst. Many claim that he incited the violence and continually encouraged the crowd to, well, break stuff. And although the violence did indeed began during Limp Bizkit’s set, this episode doesn’t touch on any other factors that may have contributed to the situation, nor does it acknowledge the fact that the violence and destruction escalated the night after Limp Bizkit’s performance as well, during a set by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
It’s easy to vilify Fred Durst and it’s easy to point the finger at the nu metal. This genre was born out of two groups of outcasts and therefore set up to be hated from the beginning. And suddenly, the genre was directly linked to destruction and disrespect as if this was the first time a small group of idiots had tainted an event for hundreds of thousands of people. But despite the vilification of nu metal, whether justified or not, the genre continued to evolve and even influenced a few traditional thrash metal bands like Slayer into adapting their sound on their album Diabolus in Musica.
A second generation of nu metal bands appeared in the early 2000s after the initial wave of nu metal subdued, including bands like Papa Roach and Disturbed but spearheaded by the biggest band the genre has seen to date: Linkin Park.
Whether you like this diluted, gentle version of nu metal or whether you despise it, there is no debating its success. This is what I feel was largely ignored during this episode of Metal Evolution – really digging deep into what it was about this genre that spoke to the captivated audience, besides asking a few inarticulate people in line to see Linkin Park why they like the band. Nu metal was more than two genres cross-polluting each other, it was a collision of two cultural movements. Not everyone likes the end result, and that’s (more than) fair. But to dismiss the importance of this genre as it relates to music history as a whole is to do both the metal and the rap genres a disservice but as Sam Dunn states at the end of this episode, perhaps nu metal’s lasting legacy is the way it polarized the metal community – for better or worse.
Watch an all-new episode of Metal Evolution, Friday at 10ET/7PT.
- Sarah Dawley
When it comes to the heavy metal family tree, grunge would best be described as the moody, distant, possibly illegitimate cousin who shows up to family reunions in ripped jeans and heavily intoxicated. Who is this guy, anyways? Is he even a part of the family? Does anyone even know where he came from? I’m really wearing this metaphor out, but you get the picture. The question is: Does grunge have a place in the heavy metal family tree? Welcome to episode seven of Metal Evolution and welcome, to Seattle. Hope you like rain.
(Watch this episode of Metal Evolution HERE, if you missed it.)
There are a few parallels between heavy metal and grunge that are undeniable: both are, well, heavy and both contain an element of aggression. But heavy metal has always been known for its musical and visual spectacle and virtuosity. Grunge, on the other hand, is all about stripped down, functional musicianship. No fuss, no glitz, no glamour – just raw emotion and loud noises.
This disassociation from the “metal” label was especially important for grunge when it first began to emerge from the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1980s, a time when the word “metal” evoked images of leather platform boots, eyeliner and hairspray. As DJ and journalist Jeff Gilbert notes, being left out of this group was probably in grunge’s best interests because at the time, the genre of metal came with goofy connotations and was seen as a joke to many of those outside the L.A. scene. In fact, anyone Sam Dunn interviews within the first ten minutes of this episode seems to vehemently deny any connection between grunge and metal whatsoever. But is there really no connection?
Hiro Yamamoto from Soundgarden describes both genres as heavy music, complete with loud guitars, powerful drums and wild kicking and screaming on stage and Brian Slagel from Metal Blade Records agrees: “It sounded like metal to me. I liked it.” Many grunge musicians grew up listening to metal and appreciating that school of thought, but it was an equal love for the raw and gritty grassroots attitude of punk that also helped grunge begin to evolve into a unique and distinct style. Grunge picked up where the heavy metal of the 1970s left off, but it wove a punk ethos into the equation.
All genres of music are shaped by the cities they exist in. From the New Wave of British Heavy Metal to the superficial glamour of the Sunset Strip, we’ve seen the way geography influences sound. So what was it about Seattle, Washington – a tertiary U.S. market that’s closer to Canada than basically anything else – that fostered the development of this highly influential genre of music? Combine the weather (bleak and rainy) with the economy at the time (crappy) and there really wasn’t a whole lot to do besides drink booze and play music.
Very few major tours came through the Pacific Northwest at the time so in Seattle, live shows were basically just big neighbourhood parties. You began to care more about your friend’s band than any mainstream act making waves on the national scene. But when Black Flag made a stop in Seattle in 1984 and people were exposed to their slow, hauntingly heavy sound, the city took notice and grunge began to find its sound.
When grunge began to emerge, Seattle was an interesting blend between a traditional blue collar mentality and an emerging yuppie community. These two contrasting groups and attitudes created the perfect environment for a gritty music scene to form that combined small town communal idealism with the rebellious punk ethos and the heavy sound of metal. Bands began to emerge like The Melvins, who are credited with introducing grunge to the Drop D tuning that would become the defining sound of the genre.
The first record company to recognize the opportunities presented by the new Seattle sound was Sub Pop Records, who turned it into a hype machine via legendary bands like Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden. Of course, no one seems to agree on whether these bands should be classified as grunge, metal or something else entirely. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was well versed in metal but drew from all genres and all influences as a songwriter. This is what made him so prolific; Kurt Cobain was unapologetically full of nothing but raw emotion at a time when the hard rock scene was constantly trying to define itself as larger than life. As Deena Weinstein from DePaul University puts it, “Kurt had pain in his voice that metal didn’t have.” Men in hard rock and metal up until this point were supposed to be king of the world, with contained aggression measured out in perfect portions. Not this.
Along with Nirvana, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam brought something contrary to what metal had long been known for: introspective, angst-ridden songwriting. This is what made grunge a different beast than what heavy metal was traditionally known for being. Naturally, Sam Dunn begins to question his decision to include grunge in the heavy metal family portrait at all.
But if there’s any band whose sound features undertones of an undeniable metal influence, it’s Soundgarden. Their early recordings were a hypnotizing and complex set of melodies, reminiscent of heavy metal’s mythological grandiosity. Although they’ve never self-identified as metal, their work with legendary metal producer Terry Date gave their sound an unmistakable heavy metal feel which some critics labeled as being too “slick” or sonically grandiose to be grunge.
But if there’s one band under this Seattle umbrella that would identify as metal, it would be Alice in Chains, right? I mean, there were on the damn Clash of the Titans tour! In this episode, they are referred to as the “missing link” between metal and grunge which may explain why hardcore metal fans pelted them with crap during their Clash of the Titans tour appearance. But they took it like champs, threw up their middle fingers and played on. We could probably look at this moment as the genesis of grunge. Or maybe I’m just being dramatic.
As quickly as grunge became a full-fledged musical movement, Marc Jacobs began putting flannel on the runway and charging $100 for the torn up shirt your dad wears when he does home renovations. Grunge became a commodity. The genre was dealt another heavy blow when Kurt Cobain was found dead of an apparent suicide in 1994. Then Soundgarden announced their (first) retirement after twelve years together. Then Pearl Jam took a hiatus. By the late 90s it seemed grunge was fading as quickly as it had appeared, but as the next crop of bands to emerge would demonstrate, it wasn’t fading – it was evolving.
The next wave of grunge ushered in a group of polarizing bands like Days of New, Creed and Nickelback. Although some disgruntled music fans would scoff at referring to these bands as grunge, the fact of the matter is that they emerged out of the dust that grunge had left behind. Whether that constitutes as being explicitly derived from the genre or not is up for debate. There is a consensus among virtually every band interviewed in this episode; no one wants to take responsibility for this second generation, what they refer to as “grunge light.” But naturally, this less angst-ridden melodic music tickled the fancy of every major label looking for radio-friendly hits. One of the most recognizable traits of this new grunge generation is the vocal style of “yarling” derived from heavy, baritone voices like Eddie Vedder and Layne Staley. (Cue: Hilarious attempts by multiple interviewees at replicating this “yarl.”) While Eddie’s came out of a real and honest place, it seems it was only a redundant pre-requisite for the grunge light generation, a trademark of this new diluted version of alternative music.
The best – and most surprising – part of this episode is that Sam Dunn actually interviews members of Creed and Nickelback. I don’t know why this came as such a shock to me. Maybe because it’s so easy to sh*t on these bands, I figured that’s all we’d be doing. But like a good documentary should, Metal Evolution allows both sides to have their say. And it turns out Mark Tremonti and Scott Stapp from Creed don’t even consider the band to be grunge – just the product of a music scene that had no identity. Chad Kroeger, frontman of Nickelback, explains that at the time (the late 90s) any music that was coming out was deemed as “post-grunge” no matter what it was. No one knew what was supposed to happen next.
By the dawn of the 2000s, the new wave of grunge had turned the genre into a stadium spectacle with “real” grunge icons like Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains joining bands like Nickelback on stage. An entirely new audience are identifying with this music, enjoying the spectacle of jam-packed live shows and having life-changing experiences that will turn into memories they will never forget. And this really got me thinking. Grunge burned out for a number of reasons, but what becomes evident during this episode is that none of those reasons were named Creed or Nickelback. So who’s to say that these bands are rip-offs or are in any way less authentic than their predecessors? How unfair and elitist is it of us to badmouth these bands simply because they aren’t the bands that came before them? I guess what I’m saying is: I’m sorry, Nickelback.
Oh, Metal Evolution. How you make me rethink… well, everything.
Catch new episodes of Metal Evolution every Friday at 10ET/7PT.
- Sarah Dawley
Many of you are thinking it, so let’s just get it out there in the open. To many music fans, even metal fans, the extreme sub-genre of thrash metal barely sounds like music. It’s rough, hard, fast and in some cases – frightening. So why has this genre survived through the years while others have faded away (I’m looking at you, glam metal)? Episode six of Metal Evolution explores.
Thrash metal emerged as a distinct sub-genre of metal in the early 80s with its ultra-fast guitar, relentless drums and often horrifying lyrical content about human suffering, warfare and murder. Much like any type of music, thrash metal was a cathartic release for those creating it. Except, while other genres allow people to express their deep feelings about things like love and relationships, thrash metal allowed them to act out twisted fantasies about murder and destruction. As Garry Holt from Exodus puts it: “We were just living out our twisted fantasies that were illegal to carry out in real life.” Oh, okay. Totally cool, Gary. Or is it Mr. Holt? Oh God, please don’t hurt me.
In all seriousness though, thrash metal evolved from the same place as many other genres did and will continue to do: the rebellious, awkward, insecure and emotionally overflowing fountain of youth. Combine the innate aggression in young men with the highly conservative political climate at the time (think Thatcher and Regan) and you’ve got the perfect conditions for thrash metal to take root. Many early thrash metal musicians were fans of the punk movement, but felt that it lacked musicality. This resulted in thrash metal emerging as the love child of punk’s aggression and speed and the musical intricacies of heavy metal and the NWOBHM movement.
A defining element of thrash metal is the double bass drum, which found its way into the heavy metal genre thanks to Phil Taylor of the legendary English band Motörhead. Taylor was simply beating away on his new drum kit one day, when the rest of the band happened to walk in. They immediately felt drawn to the relentless sound and wrote “Overkill” on the spot. Yet even though Motörhead is credited for bringing this essential element into the thrash metal equation, they are not considered to be the first thrash metal band. That title belongs to Metallica.
As a non-metalhead growing up in the early 90s, Metallica were one of those bands that were always just sort of… there. They were so huge, I never really gave any thought as to how it happened or why. This episode of Metal Evolution enlightened me on both of those points however, and I feel as though I’m a better music fan because of it. Although a thrash metal scene was developing in stark opposition to the glitzy, flamboyant glam metal environment around them, Metallica struggled to gain a following in L.A. during the early 80s. So they headed north, to the Bay Area. Being slightly removed from the chokehold that glam metal had on the City of Angels, the San Francisco music scene instantly embraced the harsh and aggressive sound of Metallica and were hungry for more. An underground thrash metal scene began to flourish with bands like Forbidden, Exodus, Death Angel, Testament and more emerging to form a community like a pack of wild dogs.
Local San Francisco venue Ruthie’s Inn became the mecca of thrash metal and the site of the first true genre crossover between thrash and punk. This is when metal crowds discovered crowd surfing and mosh pits. This is when shows begun to resemble prison riots more than concerts, but it was all love. In fact, there was so much love brewing in this underground metal scene that networks of pen pals – sorry, PENBANGERS – began to develop across the country. Fans would place ads in local ‘zines, looking for someone with similar taste to trade letters, cassettes and compilations with. This is how thrash metal spread from coast to coast. This was the Internet before the Internet.
This underground web of music exchange is what led Metallica’s “No Life to Leather” demo to land in a flea market in a New York suburb and into the hands of Jon and Marsha Zazula. “It just had such balls,” says Marsha (who totally looks like someone you would not expect to say the word “balls”). They took the demo around to major labels, meeting rejection at every one. Believing in the album and the thrash metal movement so passionately, they started Megaforce Records and did it by their damn selves.
As we’ve seen before in previous episodes of Metal Evolution (and in the music industry in general since well, forever) it doesn’t take much for major labels to get a whiff of underground potential and come running. For thrash metal, this moment can be traced back to one specific show. Roseland Ballroom in New York, August of 1984. Metallica, Anthrax and Raven were on the bill and 3500 fanatic metal fans (and a handful of A&R’s from major labels) were packed into the venue. As a result, all three bands were signed to major labels and thrash metal had arrived.
Signing with Rick Rubin’s label Def Jam, legendary thrash metal band Slayer suddenly found themselves on proper tour buses, wearing new clothes and staying in nice hotels. During the mid-80s, these bands were touring the world and producing their most influential records to date, culminating in what is arguably known as the greatest thrash metal album of all time – Reign of Blood.
Money was being made, new bands were popping up everywhere and each one was as good as the next: Voivod (Canadian!), Sacrifice (Canadian!), Sodom, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. Thrash metal became the fastest growing sub-genre of metal the world had seen so far. And yet ironically, when thrash metal hit its peak in the form of the mega-tour Clash of the Titans, it was also foreshadowing its own demise in the form of opening act Alice In Chains who would go on to become the next big thing.
This is point when Metallica turned into the Metallica that I (and millions of other people) know best. You know, “Enter Sandman” Metallica. “Black Album” Metallica. Their sound changed drastically with this album, going from the frantic and sensory-assaulting sound of traditional thrash metal to the slower, more melodic vibe that would catapult them into commercial success. This was thrash metal’s all-time classic record, yet it was more accessible and radio-friendly than thrash had ever been before. Did they evolve or did they sell out? Well, it depends on who you ask. Of course.
Lars Ulrich will tell you that this progression was something Metallica needed to do for their own sanity, for fear of rewriting the same record over and over again. They felt the true sellouts were those who were staying stagnant and simply giving fans what they wanted. Others felt that this new face of thrash metal conformed to MTV standards, diluting what the genre was all about in the first place. Ballads in thrash metal? That might have worked for Metallica, but other bands like Slayer refused to change their sound despite the major label suits pressuring them to do so.
Thrash metal begun to spin its wheels during the mid-90s and the genre seemed to be fading into the background behind the emerging and brightly burning spotlight on grunge. But then thrash metal re-emerges from a place you would least expect it: Sweden. Borrowing the speed and aggression of American thrash metal but blending it the melody and musicality, Swedish thrash metal began to reinvigorate the scene around the world. In the early 2000s, Lamb of God from Richmond, VA helped spark the revival of the movement in America, giving bands like Slayer and Testament a new feeling of purpose and motivation.
Unlike previous episodes that detailed the rise and fall of certain heavy metal genres, this episode walks us out of a door that may never close. As long as young people are dealing with repressed emotions, frustration and anger, then trash metal – a genre that for many remains mysterious and misunderstood – is ageless.
The almighty grunge movement, my personal favourite, is up next. Don’t miss the next installment of Metal Evolution, Friday at 10ET/7PT.
- Sarah Dawley
From the backseat of a leopard print limo cruising the streets of Los Angeles, Sam Dunn does his due diligence as a director in this episode of Metal Evolution and makes his personal bias against glam metal known from the very beginning. Although glam metal lacks the intensity and aggression that resonates with him as a metal fan, Dunn still recognizes the fact that the rise and fall of glam metal is an important branch in the heavy metal family tree. After all, just because a piece of history happens to wear more makeup than your sister doesn’t mean it’s any less important than the other siblings. (Watch this episode of Metal Evolution HERE, if you haven’t already.)
Honestly, we should all be thankful that Dunn took the time to explore this chapter of metal’s history because it’s FASCINATING. Glam metal (or “hair metal” as it’s also referred to) exploded from a Sunset Strip phenomenon into a global movement in the 80s, but its peroxide-blonde roots can be traced back to the late 70s. At the time, Los Angeles was vibing to the sounds of David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust. Along came Van Halen, a rock band that incorporated an elaborate visual aesthetic with their sound (aka huge, feathered hair and mass sex appeal), laying the foundation on Sunset Strip upon which glam metal would begin to build.
Inspired by Van Halen, and fueled by a friendship between Vince Neil and David Lee Roth, it was Mötley Crüe who sent the glam metal movement into high gear. Vince Neil (vocals), Nikki Six (bass) and Tommy Lee (drums) were the essence of glam metal in its early stages. All living together in L.A. and struggling for money, they would use their boyish good looks and rock star potential to get cash from girls.
Nikki Six believed that the music itself wasn’t enough, that the band needed an unforgettable visual presentation as well. He conceptualized a theatrical, no holds barred image that translated onto the stage as a pyrotechnic spectacle complete with over-the-knee leather platform boots. When Mötley Crüe landed a spot playing in front of hundreds of thousands of fans at the 1983 US Festival, they stole the spotlight along with fellow glam metal band Quiet Riot. The music industry smelled money and began to pay attention. After Quiet Riot hit the number one spot on the Billboard chart with their album “Metal Health” the L.A. glam metal scene on Sunset Strip went spiraling into a blur of sex, drugs and decadence.
Sensing the opportunities available to them in California, Brett Michaels and friends packed up (into an old ambulance, of all things) and headed west from Pennsylvania to the Sunset Strip and unleashed Poison upon the glam metal scene. They were the kings of promotion, coercing large crowds to follow them with the age-old tactics of free beer and hot chicks. And this is the moment in the episode where the realization dawns on you, that it wasn’t the men in the bands who controlled the glam metal scene: it was the women.
Girls loved “hair metal” because the guys in the bands acted just like them, according to Deena Weinstein, a professor from DePaul University. And she’s right. They spent hours on their hair, meticulously put on their makeup and agonized over outfit choices. So if your boyfriend was into glam metal, the two of you could get ready for a show together. How cool is that? Women began flocking to shows on Sunset Strip and we all know that where the women go, the men are sure to follow, regardless of whether they liked the music or not. As Rikki Rockett (drums) from Poison articulately states: “People either wanted to f*** us or fight us. And we were proud of that.” Even Scott Ian from the legendary trash metal band Anthrax admits that they saw the “headbands” as their nemesis but they still went to glam metal shows all the time because “the girls were there.”
Glam metal was taking over the music scene in America partly because its upbeat sound and flamboyant visual aesthetic appealed to the female demographic that heavy metal had previously left relatively untouched. But the rise of a new medium would also play a pivotal part in take glam metal from Sunset Strip and sending it out across the globe: the music video had arrived. MTV and glam metal were a match made in heaven. The genre inherently blended the senses of sound and sight, which was a perfect fit for the visual medium of television. MTV was becoming the defining voice of pop culture, rewarding anything that was a spectacle, so it’s a no-brainer that the station would embrace the mass appeal of glam metal. It was pop dressed as metal, family-friendly power ballads that captured both male and female audiences. For the first time there was a genuine crossover between the genres of pop and rock and the experience of sound and sight but most importantly, it was now available to audiences worldwide.
In the late 80s, glam metal reached its tipping point. Both the music and the look became over-the-top and sensationalized, widening the gap between substance and style. From the depths of this void, the Seattle grunge scene began to trickle down from the northwest to the rest of the country, as a band from within L.A. emerged from the glittery smoke and hairspray fumes of the glam metal scene and changed everything. Amongst the saturated glam metal scene, Guns N’ Roses were a down-to-earth and authentic breath of fresh air with a stripped-down sensibility and a focus on music rather than image. Along with Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam to name a few, Guns N’ Roses were leaders in the new wave of hard rock and grunge that would ultimately send the glam metal movement out to sea.
So what’s a former glam metal god to do in the early 90s? Some got out of music entirely, opting to buy businesses and fill vending machines (seriously), while others slid into emotional and financial difficulties. But we also meet up with other former glam metal stars from Warrant and Poison who stayed true to their passion for music and have found other outlets for their craft: working in high-end guitar shops and running drum workshops. Still, watching this episode, one can’t help but feel sorry for some of them. They were simply young dudes who were capitalizing on an opportunity of circumstance and timing, only to be chewed up and spit out by record labels and the public in the backlash of the genre’s downfall. That hasn’t stopped many of them, though. Nostalgic glam metal festivals are continuing to provide paycheques and since television has always been a natural fit for the extravagance of glam metal, reality shows have proven to be a goldmine for stars such as Brett Michaels (Rock of Love). Call it the second life of a rock star.
This episode of Metal Evolution may be one of my favourites so far. Towards the end of this episode, Sam Dunn has a bit of a personal revelation. Although he was dismissive of the glam metal genre in the past, he now recognizes that many of these bands weren’t just in it for the look and the lifestyle, they had a vision. It just happened to wear eyeliner. After meeting these musicians, he admits to gaining a new respect for the genre and the role it played in the evolution of metal. And I have a new respect for you, Sam.
But let’s not get too mushy. Thrash metal is up next. Catch the next episode of Metal Evolution on Friday at 10ET/7PT.
- Sarah Dawley