The Music in Me: Metal Thrashin' Mad: Confessions of a Recovering Headbanger
Confessions of a Recovering Headbanger by Adrien Begrand: We were the few, the proud, the true. And each in our own individual way, not quite right in the head.
The Music in Me
Metal Thrashin' Mad: Confessions of a Recovering Headbanger
[8 November 2005]
We were the few, the proud, the true. And each in our own individual way, not quite right in the head.
by Adrien Begrand
On a deathly cold December night in 1986, as the small Canadian city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan endures an abnormally brutal cold snap, a group of about three dozen of us huddle around the doors of the city's old hockey barn. Some pass around bottles of rye to keep warm, while the rest of us shiver pathetically, the thought of frostbite overshadowed by the thought of what was waiting for us on the other side of those doors: Metallica, one of the best metal bands on the planet, are in town, and not even the most dangerously cold night in ages could keep us away. We were so starved for good metal concerts, we'd risk life and limb, not to mention our hearing, to see our beloved bands in person. We'd fill only a tenth of the arena's capacity, but we didn't care, and neither did the band, as they would perform with a ferocity they wouldn't come close to equaling two decades later. Exiting a couple hours later, our ears ringing badly, bracing ourselves against a frozen prairie wind that threatened to slice us in two, we'd know we had just witnessed something special. We were the few, the proud, the true. And each in our own individual way, not quite right in the head.
From the age of 13, when a schoolmate played me Motley Crue's scary spoken word track "In the Beginning", to when I was about to turn 19, when I suffered serious hearing damage from the front row at a triumphant Metallica show, between 1983 and 1989, my entire world revolved around heavy metal music. Numerous huge posters of Iron Maiden's "Eddie" adorned my bedroom walls, while cassettes and metal magazines were strewn everywhere. My journal from English class was loaded with reviews of metal albums, and I started copying my favorite mags' year-end issues by compiling my own Best of the Year lists, completely unaware of how much of an obsessive geek I was becoming. Today, little has changed: I'm surrounded by piles of unsorted CDs, and I'm writing reviews for a website, not a high school English class.
A painfully awkward fit in junior high, I couldn't find a place in any of the multitude of cliques that existed, and the fact that I spent most of my time in school alone only made the "loser" tag fit even more. Bullying and derision occurred on a daily basis, and the worse it got, the more defensive and bitter I became, withdrawing into myself, unable to channel my intensifying anger in a healthy way. It was stifling, as my grades dipped, and self-esteem plummeted. Little did I know there were other kids in other junior high schools going through the same thing, and by the time we had all collected at high school, like hairs accumulating in a shower drain, we losers had unknowingly formed a clique of our own, our one thing in common being a borderline unhealthy obsession with heavy metal.
As I headed into my final year of junior high hell, I began to grow more and more preoccupied with all things metal, but with the lack of music videos and radio airplay, it wasn't long before I became stuck, not knowing where to go next. For a kid with zero friends, no older siblings, no one to guide me at all, the only way I could figure out just what band I should listen to was to continue reading the magazines, and blindly take a stab at whatever band caught my eye. After moving from a tiny town to a tiny city the previous year, I was overwhelmed by all the distinct, memorable band logos I had never seen before, of bands I had never heard of. In 1983, I didn't know who Judas Priest were, but that big freaky bird thing on the cover of Screaming for Vengeance looked pretty slick. I had never heard of Iron Maiden until I saw a shirt with that fascinatingly creepy, staight-jacketed mascot of theirs on a T-shirt. And I didn't know Ozzy Osbourne from a hole in the ground, but he sure had a cool logo.
One afternoon during the early fall of 1984, I was perusing new-release cassettes on a shelf at a small local record store, with eight bucks burning a hole in my pocket. In a recent issue of Hit Parader, they had printed a small paragraph on their "new bands" page about a young Los Angeles band called Slayer. Earlier that year, they printed a similar blurb about a San Francisco band called Metallica, but something drew me to Slayer. I don't know what it was, maybe the silly photo that accompanied the blurb, the four scruffy guys trying their damnedest to look as mean as possible, but what really caught my eye in that record store was the cover of their just-released EP, Haunting the Chapel: those cartoonish, bloody swords forming an incomplete pentagram, with "SLAYER" drawn through the center, in jagged, angular lettering. It was the first big music-related decision of my life; do I buy this, based on one glowing review, without ever having heard a note of it? Why not, I thought, as I picked up the little tape, and went to pay for it.
So imagine the shock my 13-year-old ears got, after nearly a year's worth of melodic hard rock and nothing else, when I heard the opening bars of "Chemical Warfare". One guitar in one speaker kicks off with a very muddy, staccato riff, then a second guitar joins in, doing the same thing. Pounding drums follow, a sinister, tribal beat. Then, the snare is hit with a crack, the hi-hat counts in, one two three, then BANG, a snare on the fourth beat, and off they go, riding what I perceived to be a wave of senseless noise. It sure didn't help at all when the singer came in, growling a completely indecipherable chorus. What on earth was this crap? How could I have been so stupid? I was absolutely crushed, as the tape continued through the second track, an equally speedy mess, and the third, a slower, only marginally interesting tune. Turning the tape over, any hope of redemption was seemingly dashed as it was nothing but three sloppy live tracks recorded in front of a small group of howling fans. I was furious. I expressed my dissatisfaction at being duped to my mother, but she had some valuable advice: "Just let it grow on you." Yeah, right, I thought, returning to my Ratt and Twisted Sister albums.
That little Slayer tape hung around, as I went into 1985 a little more wise in the world of popular metal and hard rock, having procured other albums, such as Iron Maiden's Powerslave, Helix's Walkin' the Razor's Edge, Kiss's Animalize, and the first W.A.S.P. album. Every so often, I revisited that Slayer tape, but I still found the music difficult to get into, especially when stacked against more accessible songs like Iron Maiden's "2 Minutes to Midnight" and W.A.S.P.'s "Hellion". In fact, because of my instant aversion to Haunting the Chapel, I foolishly assumed Metallica's new album Ride the Lightning would sound just as lousy, something I would deeply regret a year later. Slowly, over the course of ninth grade, I got to know some fellow metal obsessives, and one day, when I was mentioning how that Slayer EP just wasn't cutting it for me, someone suggested I listen to his copy of the first Slayer album, Show No Mercy, saying it would be a better introduction to Slayer, as it sounded more like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest than anything else. And you know what, the dude was right, the simpler arrangements of "Evil Has No Boundaries" and "The Antichrist" drawing me in instantly. I immediately dug "Black Magic" and "Die By the Sword", realizing that those were two of the live tracks on the tape I had. So, I put on side two of Haunting the Chapel, and then side one, and noticed, "Hey, this isn't half bad."
As the '80s wore on, I quickly learned that the most ideal form of musical rebellion was underground metal. Living in a town of 30,000, with only a small handful of dinky record stores, it was impossible to get into the hardcore punk scene. We all knew who Black Flag (we all thought the cover for Family Man was awesome), Hüsker Dü, Bad Brains, and Minor Threat were, but none of their albums were available in smalltown Canada. Hip-hop was in its infancy, and would not explode in our part of the world until 1986, and although we thought Run-DMC's "Rock Box" was really cool, it was nothing more than a mild curiosity to us. We knew a handful of friendly people who liked college rock bands like the Cure and the Smiths, but neither the acid wit of Morrissey nor the fey affectations of Robert Smith was aggressive or angry enough for us to channel our frustrations (in much broader terms, the Cure were pussies). However, it was very easy for young Canadian kids to get into the metal underground, and all the credit goes to a quirky indie label called Banzai Records.
The brainchild of Montreal record store owner Michel Meese, Banzai brought the very best of European, American, and Canadian underground metal to kids in every corner of the vast country. Aware of the growing number of innovative new metal bands, knowing there was a hunger for cutting-edge heavy music, and frustrated by the exorbitant prices of import LPs, Meese put his numerous connections in the metal industry to good use, ingeniously finagling a distribution deal with national label PolyGram (a major label distributing an indie label was unheard of then), enabling Banzai to handle the Canadian distribution for such blossoming international labels such as Neat, Megaforce, Metal Blade, Noise, and Combat. Plus, not only would the albums be pressed using PolyGram's high-tech duplicating facilities (many people today still claim the original Canadian pressings boast the best sound), but with a major label fully behind them, Banzai would reach every record store in the country.
Looking back today, the list of bands released by Banzai is staggering: in addition to Slayer and Metallica, the label released albums by the likes of Venom, Anthrax, Megadeth, Raven, Trouble, Celtic Frost, Voivod, Fates Warning, Metal Church, Exodus, Kreator, Helloween, Lizzy Borden, Flotsam and Jetsam, among many others. As a result, the years between 1984 and 1987 were the glory days for we Canadian metalheads (Venom's 1985 EP Canadian Assault was even certified gold in Canada), and our growing musical tastes were reflected in our own personal stacks of Banzai cassettes: I wasn't a huge fan of the sloppy Venom and the wildly inventive Celtic Frost yet, preferring the crazed sounds of England's Raven, the shock rock of Lizzy Borden, and of course, the American Big Four of Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax. Sadly, Banzai would go under suddenly in 1987, but people still speak fondly of how that label helped galvanize the Canadian metal community during the mid-1980s.
We all came from different backgrounds, but heavy metal was what united us, and the growing camaraderie gave us all a sense of safety in numbers. We'd loiter in the hallway of the high school basement, ignoring the popular kids, debating which metal bands sucked, just how great the new Metallica album was, or just the usual insipid banter you'd hear from any group of teenage boys. Although I made several great friends in my teens through metal music, most of whom turned out to be the cleverest, most creative kids at school, I was into metal mostly for the escapism of it all. I never cared for the booze-drenched vomit parties, with guys running around trying to emulate Bender from The Breakfast Club. Instead, I preferred to go home from school, sit in my room, and blast my Walkman as loud as I could, losing myself in Iron Maiden's bombastic historical epics, Slayer's horror movie imagery, Megadeth's eloquent rage, and the emotional power of a song like Metallica's "Fade to Black", in an attempt to purge myself of the negative feelings from school, a place I loathed deeply. School hours were a blur of boredom and loneliness; my real day began at four in the afternoon, as I lost myself in a maelstrom of power chords, double bass beats, and siren-like screams.
When people bring up memorable images from '80s metal, the hilarious documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot is often mentioned, and for good reason, too, as it's a frighteningly accurate look at the seedier side of the metal crowd. However, the majority of us were just regular, everyday, teenage kids. Some of us formed bands of our own, while others, like yours truly, enjoyed reading and writing about the music. We killed time during boring trigonometry classes by practicing drawing band logos in the margins of our notebooks. We convened at each others' homes to watch bootlegged concert videos. We swapped tapes with mad obsessiveness, building word of mouth about new underground bands, and collectively learning about older bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. We convinced our English teachers to examine Iron Maiden's adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". We exchanged copies of W.A.S.P.'S "Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)" in Catholic school hallways. We convulsed with laughter at the ingeniously comedic Speak English or Die, by the Stormtroopers of Death. We wrote English essay assignments with such titles as, "Fuck the P.M.R.C." We discussed the convoluted plotline of Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime ("Who killed Mary?" ... "'Spreading the Disease' is some deep shit, man"). And if a noteworthy band came to the larger city near our town, it was a major event, as not even the nastiest, coldest Canadian prairie winters could keep us from attending.
As my musical interests have grown by leaps and bounds since 1984, my interest in Slayer, and metal, has ebbed and flowed over the years, peaking in the late '80s, thanks to such seminal albums as Reign in Blood and South of Heaven, nearly coming to a dead halt during the mid-'90s, and returning with a vengeance in 1998, this time for good. All the while, my little cassette of Haunting the Chapel has been with me, and to this day, the tape plays so well, that I still have yet to replace it with a CD copy. I'm always tempted to substitute the now 21-year-old tape with the remastered CD version, but somehow, I just can't bear to retire my beloved black cassette emblazoned with the little "Banzai" label quite yet. It's one of the only relics from my teenage years that I still cling to. There are many other albums from that period that I consider personal favorites, but that title in particular was the one that kickstarted an obsession that is as strong today as it was 21 years ago.
With the likes of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Megadeth, and Anthrax touring this summer, it's impossible for those of us who somehow survived the 1980s not to feel a twinge of excitement knowing we can revisit these bands once again. Yeah, it's the kind of shameless nostalgia we Gen Xers scorned the Baby Boomers for going through two decades ago, but the bond between metal bands and their fans is stronger than any other in popular music, and although we all know that these bands never "saved our lives", they did provide a much-needed catalyst that unlocked our surpressed imaginations and ambitions. And the music kicked some serious ass, too.