Heavy Metal History: From Sabbath to Sabbath
If you were a punk in the ‘70s or ‘80s, you are allowed to look back fondly at the days you strapped on combat boots and dyed your hair with Kool-Aid in the sink. Punk rockers are considered prescient arbiters of cool. Collective pop culturists laud punk’s political and sociological impact on youth culture. Short-lived and as diverse as any musical genre, punk has managed to sustain a remarkable level of respect, even if wearing a two-foot mohawk is no longer cool and yobbing never really was.
Metalheads, on the other hand, are laughable, deluded suburban ogres who never saw the sadomasochistic tendencies of some of its biggest leather-clad stars. Judging by the repurposed Accept and Dokken shirts waifish models wear as they strut from boutique to boutique, metal is only worthy of ironic respect by the masses. And while metal was arguably less political than punk, its treatment these days is a prejudice more than an honest assessment of its impact.
Perhaps punk sustains its cred because it never achieved the level of success metal did. Because of this, there was less pressure for punk rockers or the music ever to conform and sell out. Metal, on the other hand, reached arena-rock size in the ‘70s and ‘80s and dangled the promise of cash in front of aspiring shredders. For example, following the trends, noisemakers like Ministry started as synth pop and, vice versa, Y&T went from ‘70s hard rock to Sunset Strip hair metal. Even Dimebag Darryl, from fiercely heavy Pantera, was once “Diamond” Darryl Abbott and wore makeup and spandex.
Ian Christe’s encyclopedic Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal chronicles the birth of metal (Black Sabbath, then Judas Priest, and later Iron Maiden) and meticulously follows it through its many and twisted incarnations to the present day’s crop of nu-metal ax shredders and, like the Ouroboros, back to Sabbath again, sober and reunited. Even if you don’t completely agree that the U.S. has collectively become a metal nation, Christe builds a compelling argument for the music’s massive influence.
In between Sabbath and Sabbath were the silly to the simply psychotic, and Christe effortlessly touches on all of them. Using descriptive genre boxes scattered throughout the book: UFO (1970 protometal), Raven (NWOBHM), Anvil (power metal), Coroner (German speed metal), Bolt Thrower (grindcore), Kyuss (alternative metal), Cannibal Corpse (death metal), Pan-Thy-Monium (avant-garde metal), and Fear Factory (nu metal).
If you don’t know these names, that’s half the point: metal is most effective and virulent when it stalks its prey through underground word-of-mouth tape-trading channels. Its antiestablishment tendencies reach their climax with Norwegian black metal, the book’s most enthralling section. Once content to simply posture and pose, a handful of deviant black metal rockers took their belief in their music as far as they could, burning churches and committing murder as they practiced what they preached and in a few instances landed in jail. However, metal isn’t always to blame, and Christe chronicles the fear-mongering lawsuits against Judas Priest and Ozzy with an exacting and critical eye, turning his book briefly into a skewering examination of conservative mores and hypocrisy.
To Chiste’s credit, he never gets bogged down by the outsized populist presence of bands like Guns N’ Roses or Poison or Van Halen. Their histories are already written; lesser known bands like Accept, Napalm Death, and Emperor deserve their turn and he rightly gives them it. If anything, the monsters of rock get short shrifted, though he does keep coming back to Metallica’s story, which obsessively dominates the middle part of the book. (He does, though, rightly take them to task for “barely lifting a creative finger” with the albums Load and Reload.) Metallica, like a few bands or individuals (Ozzy, Priest, Slayer), are the riffs around which Christe has built his love song to headbanging. He is clearly a fan but is also honest enough to take on some of the ironies of the scene, such as Twisted Sister debating with the baby boomers of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and then turning around and covering the tepid “Leader of the Pack.”
Despite the book’s dense and all-encompassing desires, Christe’s enthusiastic writing carries the story above being merely a lesson in thrashing history. He peppers his tale with a plethora of expressive adjectives and knowing humor.
If Mötley Crüe was the pinnacle of quick-fix rock and roll, Nitro became the further distilled epitome, an abstraction on top of a derivation, firing delusion up oversize nostrils with silver pistols.
The two final Ozzy-era [Black Sabbath] albums Never Say Die and 1976’s Technical Ecstasy, were the work of a fatigued band. It seemed as though on the seventh record Black Sabbath rested, and then again on the eighth.
Though not to the extent of Legs McNeil’s oral history of punk, Please Kill Me, Christe does cull together an impressive number of quotes from the metal warriors themselves, which show the subgenre from the inside out. And the ones doing the talking are worthy of their face time. I don’t remember a single quote from lightweights like C.C. DeVille or Jon Bon Jovi; only the true purveyors of power and thrash get a chance to speak.
Rob Halford of Judas Priest on hair metal: “Those bands, in their style and approach, that’s what I call tits-and-ass metal. Nothing wrong with that—I wouldn’t expect anything else to come out of Hollywood.”
Dan Lilker of Anthrax on Metallica’s lineup change: “They had just come back from a trip to the deli. They said, ‘We threw Dave [Mustaine] out this morning.’ [Ian] Scott went, ‘Bullshit!’ and Cliff [Burton] looked at him and said, ‘Bullshit, bullshit’—and we all know two negatives equal a positive.”
Like metal’s own increasing need for speed, Christe’s chronological book is a rapid-fire, detailed ode to headbanging. Often, it’s hard to tell the individuals apart, as Metallica’s story becomes Megadeath’s becomes Anthrax’s becomes SOD’s becomes Nuclear Assault’s. Christe follows, perhaps with a little too much willingness, the round-robin rotation of band members, considers the influences of each band, and studies how it all reflects back to the originators (Sabbath, Priest, Maiden) or prophesizes the coming bands. Christe investigates every thread of logic, which creates a fascinating look at the metamorphoses and striations but can become overwhelming in his insistence of covering everything.
The fun of any genre, though, is spewing insane amount of minutiae, and Christe’s book abounds in trivia: Van Halen was initially named Rat Salad after a Sabbath song; only one year separated the first platinum heavy metal album, Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, and the sextuple platinum-hood of Def Leppard’s Pyromania; a photo of Phil Anselmo from Pantera won a Pulitzer. (A few facts are corrected on the book’s Web site, www.soundofthebeast.com.)
For its grand, inclusive scale, Christe’s book is simply extraordinary but I can’t help but think that it would be best supplemented by a few other texts: Frank Zappa in The Real Frank Zappa Book, which includes a first-rate, in-depth examination of the PMRC’s attack; and Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota, a personal and genuinely hilarious account of a metal obsessive; and Mara Leveritt’s look at the wrongful imprisonment of three headbanging teens, Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three.
But Christe is not a first-person bard, he is part historian and part social critic, and Sound of the Beast is a meticulous book as dense and pummeling as the music it chronicles.