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Punk and Metal: Frenemies for Life

Worlds collided when punk and metal realized they were opposite sides of the same coin.

By 1978, both the punk and metal subcultures had taken root at my high school in the outer suburbs of London. I recall our class camped out in the library for study hour, my punk friends and I on one side of the room and the metal-heads on the other. To us, those long-haired “freaks” represented everything we despised about rock culture: musical pretension and self-indulgence; absurd fantasy escapism; and post-prog stadium-rocking narcissism. To them, we were spikey-haired cultural slummers willing to settle for musical incompetence and amateur ambitions.

The idea that there could be any common ground between us, never mind a fused identity, seemed inconceivable and wholly undesirable at the time. Yet, even then, punk-metal hybrids lingered within our midst. How could we ignore those fat metal riffs coming from the dual guitar maestros—one on a Flying V—in Penetration? Or the note-bending “rockist” guitar solos of Captain Sensible from the Damned? And how could they not see that Lemmy and Motörhead had just as much attitude in common with their punk peers as their metal ones?

In reality, the distance between our two self-imposed camps was not as far as we made it out to be. Yes, metal valued musical complexity more than punk. And yes, punk valued lyrical social messaging more than metal. But they were both rebellious outsider subcultures built around guitar-based primal rock music. What Lester Bangs said of punk could just as easily have been said of metal: “Punk rock has been around from the beginning—it’s just rock honed down to its rawest elements” (Heylin 32).

United by “raw”-ness, both genres also share a common pursuit of the extreme, that (un)holy grail around which they have often crossed, overlapped, or fused. Sometimes, in order to distance itself from the more corporate new wave or avant-garde post-punk, punk (re)established its extreme identity as hardcore and oi by drawing from metal’s toolbox of raw sounds. Conversely, when metal transplanted from “heavy” to “hair” in early ’80s Los Angeles, local thrash metal bands like Metallica and Slayer responded by drifting into punk terrain for extreme intensity revitalization. And then there is Motörhead, who were just born punk-metal, or as Lemmy prefers, echoing Lester Bangs, just “rock ‘n’ roll”.

The myriad cross-pollinations that have developed between these once enemy camps have led to a categorical explosion that includes—amongst others—crossover thrash, grindcore, metalcore, extreme, hardcore, alternative, crust punk, and grunge. In order to understand their emanation one must look backwards in order to look forwards.

The roots of punk-metal can be found in the usual two suspects of pre and proto-punk: the Kinks and the Velvet Underground. In the former’s brand of garage rock one can hear the fundamental sonic qualities of both punk and metal. Just listen to Ray Davies’s snarling, snotty, and sarcastic vocal delivery and his brother’s distortion-fueled guitar riffs on their two singles from 1964, “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night”. And as The Velvets navigated between garage and glam, Lou Reed and John Cale took proto-punk through some metallic processing on songs like “Black Angel’s Death Song” (1967) and “White Light White Heat” (1968).

A little later, in Detroit, The Stooges, MC5, and Alice Cooper also boiled up stews of extreme noise that can now be re-assessed as punk-metal hybrids. Raw Power was The Stooges’ self-designation in 1973, while their later Metallic K.O. (1976) live release contained what Clinton Heylin describes as a “metal-crusher sound” (42). Alice Cooper similarly hardened prior rock sounds into a “killer” metallic sharpness, while singing lyrics about youth angst, anger, and anomie that the Sex Pistols et al would later emulate.

In seeking and finding their patented sound, Motörhead, like Chuck Berry and the Ramones, then stuck to it with an assured regularity and consistency that suggested a perfect formula had been discovered and therefore should not be tampered with. That concoction consisted of sped-up blues-based constructions de-familiarized by Lemmy’s gruff, primitive vocals, a pounding rhythm section that featured his distinctive strummed bass attack, and an incisive wall of guitar noise punctuated only by short solo interludes. In their speed and intensity, listeners heard punk; in the sonic tones and heaviness, they heard metal.

As critics and fans debated which side Motörhead were on, the band just continued to rock down the middle with what Ian Christe calls “a blunt power and integrity” and “a dedication to extremes [that] made even punk seem uptight” (30). Lemmy cited tweeners like the MC5 as inspiration, yet played bass for The Damned when his friends needed a fill-in. He name-checked Black Sabbath in interviews, yet paid tribute in song to the “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” on 1916 (1991) and the Sex Pistols by covering “God Save the Queen” on We Are Motörhead (2000).

He toured with other upstart metal bands, but also shared stages with hardcore bands. Nevertheless, with his outlaw biker look Lemmy was ultimately embraced more by the heavy metal subculture than the punk one, though most of his closest musical friends in the late ’70s were from the London punk set. And although he was included as a talking head in Penelope Spheeris’ documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988), (rather than in Part I on the punk ones [1981]), he is used as a voice of reason and sarcasm, one that contrasts sharply with the self-deluded wasters from the Sunset Strip scene that populate the film.

As Motörhead were “minding the gap between Black Sabbath and the punk explosion” (Christe 30), listening in were a generation of metal and punk advocates increasingly disillusioned with the commercial turns towards mainstream appeal that their respective genres were taking. In response they fought back, pooling their resentments and resources into new hardcore and thrash developments.

Leading this drive were Black Flag, a band that had been at the forefront of US hardcore since 1979. Their debut, Damaged (1981), set the template for the genre, but by the time of their next album release the band had undergone major changes in both sound and style. No doubt inspired by developments taking place across the Atlantic, as well as against those in their home city, My War (1984) created a seismic shift in the foundations of hardcore, moving the genre from punk to punk-metal. The evidence was both macro and micro, in the three six-minutes-plus songs (“Nothing Left Inside”, “Three Nights”, and “Scream”) covering Side Two, as well as in the lengthy guitar solos Greg Ginn indulged in.

Initial reactions were mixed within the hardcore base, ranging from confusion to outrage. Boring, ponderous, and self-indulgent were a few adjectives used by those in the latter camp; they had not anticipated the band’s embrace of Black Sabbath-like doom and sludge grooves nor their abandonment of the peppy punk on album one.

Seemingly unaffected by the dissenters, Rollins and his fellow Flag wavers doubled-down on their new metal affections, growing their hair long for the My War promotional tour, and then adding a solid coat of classic metal sexism to their subsequent punk-metal release, Slip It In (1984). Adding to the cast of the unimpressed by this point was recently acquired female bassist, Kira Roessler, who left after growing tired of the band’s demeaning portrayals of women in both their lyrics and visual art.

Much maligned though the glam metal takeover was during the ’80s, it was inadvertently responsible for eliciting exciting and intense reaction movements from within both punk and metal. Just as Black Flag, Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (D.R.I.), and Corrosions of Conformity made incursions from their punk perches into the “heavy” metal gap left when glam swept up the Sunset Strip, so thrash and speed metal also developed in the shadows of that corporate conglomerate.

All formed in 1981, the “big” four horsemen of the thrash apocalypse—Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, and Megadeth—laid siege on the world of metal in a collective reclamation project that involved them all dipping into the forbidden fruits of punk rock for attitude and inspiration. Leading the charge were Metallica, who were so disillusioned with developments within their L.A. hometown that they uprooted to San Francisco to join more kindred spirits, Exodus, Death Angel, and Testament. There, they played what were called “cross-cultural” events with local hardcore bands that brought with them activities unfamiliar to metal shows like stage-diving and mosh pit frolicking. Hardcore affected the San Francisco metal scene to such an extent that even Slayer shed their partisan “corpsepaint” make-up when they played there.

Although each of the “Big Four” drew liberally from punk’s combative spirit, Anthrax most fully realized the punk-metal hybrid, especially via their splinter group, Stormtroopers of Death (or S.O.D.), which married the Anthrax sound to the hardcore punk that had featured prominently in front-man Scott Ian’s Queens childhood. Described by Christe as “a metalhead’s dream of how hardcore should sound” (175), S.O.D. ushered another sub-genre term into the metal lexicon, “crossover thrash”. Recorded and mixed in just three days, their debut album, Speak English or Die (1985), had a raw immediacy of punk tempered only by the accomplished musical chops of experienced metal players. Regarded initially as a temporary side-project, S.O.D. blew up such that their storm didn’t dissipate and pass until twelve years later.

Although only intended to be an irreverent punk lark, Speak English or Die actually shocked critics and fans alike just with its song titles, which included “Fuck the Middle East”, “Kill Yourself”, “Pre-Menstrual Princess Blues”, and the particularly incendiary title track. Homophobic, xenophobic, and misogynistic at first glance, savvy listeners soon discerned a put-on in the lyrics akin to the parody practices of punk piss-takers like Fear. Scott Ian explained that the lyrics were from the point-of-view of a persona, Sargent D, that he had created “just to piss people off”. Such provocations have never been strangers to punk, of course. Nevertheless, a decidedly un-PC pall has hung over the band. Despite that, punk-metal successors as eclectic in range as Ministry, Pearl Jam, and Slipknot have all cited Speak English or Die as a pivotal album in their own artistic developments.

Another punk-metal band, Napalm Death, were clearly taken with S.O.D.’s penchant for punk rather than metal-size songs. S.O.D.’s debut features 22 tracks, seven of which are under one minute in length. Napalm Death, though, would take that “microsong” methodology to even greater—as in lesser—lengths a couple of years later. Their debut, Scum (1987), features 28 tracks, one of which, “You Suffer“, clocks in at a record 1.3 seconds. Napalm Death were Britain’s answer to S.O.D. Unlike their US counter-parts, though, they came to punk-metal from hardcore punk rather than thrash metal roots.

Initially inspired by Discharge’s blast beats (or D-beats) and the bursts of speed punk put out by (early) Black Flag, Bad Brains, and Minor Threat, the band soon added the dirge riffs, down-tuning, and minor keys by which metal bands like Black Sabbath and Venom crafted their dark arts. Add a dash of the equally sinister industrial vibes of Killing Joke and The Sisters of Mercy, and Napalm Death arrived at a crossroads of disparate if related sounds and styles. The results were heard on Scum, an album that leans hardcore on Side One, then metal on Side Two. A more fused hybridization of those styles would have to wait for subsequent releases.

Taste-maker BBC Radio One D.J. John Peel took note, giving the band airtime alongside the likes of Extreme Noise Terror, Bolt Thrower, and others soon to be catalogued as grindcore or extreme metal. By the end of the decade, Napalm Death were being recognized for ushering in both a new sub-genre of punk and of metal, Christe concluding that their emergence “ended the race for harder and faster” that had been ongoing over the prior decade (189).

The legacy of punk-metal runs far and wide, such that few even recognize the hybrid as the anomaly they once did during the 1980s. Ultimately, the arrival of grunge put to bed all talk of tensions between the two styles and subcultures, leaving fans of either or both genres to reflect upon that strange time period when two musical forms with so much in common were perceived as—and acted like—alien antagonists from opposing camps.

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Works Cited

Christe, Ian, Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, HarperCollins, 2004.

Heylin, Clinton, From the Velvets to the VoidoidsFrom the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk, Chicago Review Press, 2005.

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