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Gentlemen, Start Your Amplifiers
THESE days it's hard to believe there was a time when metal didn't exist. A staple of the classic-rock stations, it seems like it's been around forever. For anyone growing up and listening to FM radio in the seventies, it has been. It's perhaps even harder to imagine that it evolved out of pop and blues; after all, from the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," (which is arguably the very first metal record, with its singular, pounding riff and manic guitar solo) to Ministry, Helmet, or Megadeth, might seem a remarkably long jump. But if you stop and think about it for a couple of minutes, you'll realize that in the final analysis, it's really not so far after all.
If there's one person to blame, really, it's Jimmy Page. Without him there'd have been no Led Zeppelin, and without the monster that was Zep we might never have had "heavy" music, the stuff that became heavy metal, then just metal, before it shattered like a mirror into a thousand shiny reflections of its origin. Or then again, maybe it was inevitable, simply fated to happen. But without Zep it would have certainly charted a completely different course and become ... Well, we'll never know now, will we?
Page was already one of London's top session guitarists in the mid-sixties (it's rumored that he was the one who played the solo on that Kinks song) when he was enticed into joining the Yardbirds, initially on bass, then playing joint lead guitar with JeffBeck (who, in turn, had replaced Eric Clapton in the band; they were positively littered with guitar heroes). Because of Beck's ongoing health problems the lineup only lasted a few months, until November 1966, but it was captured for eternity on celluloid in Michael Antonioni's quintessential film of those Swinging Sixties, Blow Up.
After Beck left the fold, the Yardbirds soldiered on, gradually losing members, until Page--by now the only one left, and not even a founder--was more or less forced to change the name to the New Yardbirds, bringing in John Paul Jones, who, like himself, had been a fairly successful session musician and arranger, on bass and keyboards, then finding singer Robert Plant in a Birmingham group called Hobbstweedle. (He was recommended by another singer, Terry Reid, who was first offered the New Yardbirds gig but turned it down in favor of a solo career.) In turn Plant brought in drummer John Bonham from another Birmingham band. After fulfilling the New Yardbirds' live commitments in Scandinavia, the name was changed to Led Zeppelin, appropriated from one of Keith Moon's (The Who) pet comments, and the legend was ready to begin.
While people have made a strong case for Jeff Beck's Truth (1968) as the first "heavy" album, or even Blue Cheer as the first "heavy" band (their only hit single, a blasting cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," in 1968, admittedly pointed the way), it was Led Zeppelin in 1969 that captured public attention, and record sales. Like Jeff Beck, Page's grounding and his love was the blues, and he used it to strong effect on the record. But Zeppelin had far more going for them than just being a loud blues band. Blues was their point of departure for places music hadn't been before, even in those swirling, druggy, psychedelic days. They took all the elements from the past, tipped them upside down, shook them around, and came out with something new, utilizing the studio as another instrument in a way no one had managed before, to bring a rare fullness and depth (a most important factor) to the sound.
Page and Plant were the undoubted focus of the band: Page as the new guitar hero, every bit as revered as Seattle native Jimi Hendrix (and, in his own way, equally as innovative and pioneering) ; and Plant, with his flowing, golden hair, bare chest, and piercing voice, a new type of idol, one who appealed to males just as much as females. By the time Led Zeppelin II arrived on the shelves a year later, they were already established as a major concert draw. The album (which topped the charts two months after its release) contained the first of what would become a whole series of Zeppelin classics, a song to which every young guitarist learned the riff (and then tried, usually in vain, to copy the solo)--"Whole Lotta Love."
While Page and company might have been the first big name in heavy-metal music, they weren't the only ones for too long. Hot on their heels came Black Sabbath (also boasting strong Birmingham roots), who managed to be even heavier and louder. With lyrics full of Satanic and black-magic imagery, and played at zombie-like speed, Black Sabbath, in 1970, was a revelation (or a revulsion, depending where you stood) to a generation. Critics hated it. Kids loved it. This music owed little to the blues rock tradition, seeming to come from another [under]world altogether. The music of their Ozzy period was tremendously influential in the genre, and their first four albums remain classics.
And then there was Deep Purple, who approached it from an altogether different angle. Starting out as a pop/progressive /pseudo-classical outfit, they had a pair of hits (with songs written by Joe South and Neil Diamond, no less) before releasing organist Jon Lord's ridiculously pompous Concerto for Group and Orchestra (1970), which straggled in the footsteps of the Nice and all manner of other bands with hifalutin aspirations. It didn't sell, so on their next album, Deep Purple in Rock, later that same year, they took another, more direct tack--louder and heavier, with the emphasis on Ritchie Blackmore's guitar solos and Ian Gillan's screaming. With new songs like "Speed King"and "Child in Time," it all came together, and the band became a major force on the scene, at least for a while.
Across the Atlantic the amps were also getting cranked up to 10. Vanilla Fudge had scored a major hit with an extended, overwrought version of the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On," and in fact had headlined over Led Zeppelin on the latter's first American tour. However, following a decidedly half-baked second album--which included one twelve-minute opus purporting to contain the entire history of music!--they were off down the slippery slope to oblivion.
While no one considered them part of the fraternity at the time, hindsight has cast the Stooges and the MC5 as primal punk-and-metal bands. Although their following was small while they existed, both groups have proved to be tremendously influential across two decades, to metalheads and punks alike. Neither was especially proficient, but they had a crude energy that could ignite a performance--especially when Stooges frontman Iggy Stooge (soon to become Iggy Pop) lost control, as he all-too-frequently did, cutting himself with broken glass, smearing himself with peanut butter, or getting beaten up by the audience. It was the people's music ... and power to the people (right on).
The MC5 were unabashedly political, allied to the White Panther movement, and had a touching, genuine belief that rock 'n' roll really could change the world (which was not uncommon in those heady days)--an attitude which more or less assured them low record sales (in spite of some glowing reviews) and only a brief moment in the spotlight, although "Kick Out the Jams" has proved to be an enduring anthem, even if it's strayed far from its original anarchistic intention over the years.
The Stooges managed to last longer, mostly through the intervention of David Bowie, who produced their "comeback" album, Raw Power, in 1973, as well as giving Iggy a strong push at the start of his solo career in the mid-seventies.
Next on the block was the band that was reviled by everywriter in America, and loved by almost every long-haired teenage boy--Grand Funk Railroad. Over the course of their first two years the trio from Michigan racked up an astonishing five gold LPs, and in 1970 reportedly sold more records than any group in America. On the road continually, they played a very basic form of blues rock utterly without finesse or charm. But something in there caught the collective imagination, making them very popular, and very rich, for over half a decade.
Then who could forget Alice Cooper? He did everything possible to make sure his name stuck in your mind. The "master of shock rock" might have taken a lot of his theatrical schtick from space rocker Arthur Brown, but in the end he reached a lot more people than his inspiration. Born with the rather ordinary moniker of Vincent Furnier, he was taken up by that aficionado of the twisted joke, Frank Zappa, who released Alice's first album, Pretties for You, on his Straight label in 1969. From there it was full speed on the road to the charts, with a string of hit singles--"Eighteen," "School's Out," "Elected," "Hello, Hooray," and "No More Mr. Nice Guy"--while his stage act became more and more gruesome, going from the relatively innocuous decapitation of baby dolls, to elaborately baroque mock hangings. And by 1994, Alice, who was still recording, although long without the ubiquitous Budweiser in hand, was laying down two tracks for his new album which had been penned by Chris Cornell, a perfect example of metal coming full circle and the sons giving back to the fathers.
The other major veterans of the era were Aerosmith, who in the early seventies were still very much a regional band, based in Boston and playing throughout New England. They signed to Columbia in 1973 and released Aerosmith the same year, although real success stayed at arm's length until 1976, with the charting of the "Dream On" single (number 6) from Toys in the Attic. Beginning life as yet another blues rock outfit, much in the Stones' R&B tradition (a comparison aided by Steven Tyler's physical resemblance to Mick Jagger), and with a dresssense that owed more than a smidgen to the New York Dolls, it wasn't long before they were moving on and developing a sound that stood as their own, still firmly based in rock'n' roll, but with a decidedly metal edge.
Finally, at that time it was impossible to ignore Blue Oyster Cult. A five-piece band from New York, they started life as Soft White Underbelly and were going nowhere in particular before being transformed into Blue Oyster Cult by the vision of producer Sandy Pearlman (who would go on to produce the Dictators, and the Clash's Give 'Em Enough Rope) and writer Richard Meltzer, with an image that borrowed equally from both Black Sabbath and the Hell's Angels. They never managed to completely shake off their early arty side, however, which usually peeked through in the somewhat impressionistic lyrics--some of which were penned by Patti Smith, poetess and future punk queen--melded to a sound that grew increasingly commercial as time passed, eventually giving them an international smash with "(Don't Fear) The Reaper." That was the apex. They continued to be a strong concert draw for several years, but their albums became flabby, predictable beasts.
And that was more or less the state of play in the early seventies. Grand Funk would keep going until 1976, moving records by the truckload and even breaking the Beatles' ticketsales record at Shea Stadium.
But, beyond doubt, it was the British bands that would define the genre during this period and produce the classic early heavy-metal tunes. Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" and "Iron Man," Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" (which was another must-learn riff for every budding guitarist), and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," became the touchstones and inspiration for a whole era of young groups, and they were merely the tip of the iceberg. Thin Lizzy, Bad Company (both of whom were really more hard rock than heavy metal), UFO and the Scorpions (Europe's entrants in the metal stakes), Budgie--they all filled out the concert bills.
But while Zeppelin was selling out multiple stadium dates around the world and pushing the envelope of what could be called metal (could it really include folk, reggae, and that strange Middle Eastern stuff?), something else was coming out of America.
It was the makeup that you noticed first, even before the music. You simply couldn't ignore it. All four members hid behind it, as stylized as actors' faces in a Japanese Noh play, or adolescents left to run amok at a cosmetics counter. Once that had drawn you in, then Gene Simmons, the tall bass player, waggled his tongue, breathed fire, and spewed blood--and you were hooked.
In many respects Kiss were a cartoon band, as outrageous--and ultimately as funny--as anything on Saturday-morning television. They desperately wanted to seem threatening, but for all they tried, they came across as lovable, especially to kids, who flocked to see them and bought their records. Musically, what they played was hardly original, just a clever pastiche that regurgitated the major movements of the time--pop--oriented metal leavened with a strong slice of glam rock.
For all that Kiss could be easily dismissed as musical lightweights, their impact on a generation of American boys can hardly be overstated. In bedrooms, basements, and garages across the country, struggling with their first electric guitars--in Kiss they found music that was easy to copy (unlike, say, most of Jimmy Page's solos), sounded good, and had power. A little bit of practice and you really had something. Add to that the makeup and costumes with their faint echoes of superheroes (just who were they when it was all taken off, anyway?), a dynamic, slick, theatrical live show, and you had a singular phenomenon on your hands.
Nineteen seventy-four's Hotter Than Hell did a lot to establish their reputation, but it was the release of Kiss Alive! in 1975 that pushed them over the top, eventually going platinum(over a million copies sold, an incredible number for the period), and spawning the anthemic single "Rock and Roll All Night" (which also appeared on 1975's Dressed to Kill). What they billed as "The Greatest Rock and Roll Show on Earth" might not have been quite that, but it was enough to swell the ranks of the Kiss Army--their fan club--to well over a million members, and to give the world Kiss dolls, makeup kits, comic books, and even, quite perfectly, a full-length film, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, which ended up being shown on NBC.
They remained, however, very much an American success story. Europe just didn't get it, and never would. For a while Kiss were the most popular act in the U.S.A. (Gallup Poll, 1977), but across the water they were just seen as four men who played very average, very generic music, and looked even sillier than Gary Glitter.
Not that it mattered to Kiss. At home they continued on from strength to strength, the members all releasing solo albums to better-than-fair success. But cracks were starting to appear in the plaster, and by 1980 drummer Peter Criss had left, to be replaced by Eric Carr. That, coupled with a changed approach to the music, signaled the beginning of the end, and while Kiss limped along for a long time (even removing their makeup to reveal their real selves on MTV, which was probably not the best idea they ever had), the spell had been broken.
METAL MIGHT well have remained the dominant musical movement of the seventies if punk hadn't happened in 1976. Stripping away all the pretensions and excesses, hurling epithets at the "dinosaur" bands, punk tried desperately hard to be the new "people's music." Short songs, sometimes under a minute in length, and no guitar solos, punk became the very antithesis of metal. Even in physical appearance the punks flouted their difference, with short hair, piercings, and clothing that was eithercast-offs, made from household items (garbage can liners, for instance), or for fetishists.
In London it was the Sex Pistols and the Clash who led the charge, while New York had the Ramones (in their own way every bit as cartoonish as Kiss) and Patti Smith, and Los Angeles was championed by X, the Germs, and the Weirdos.
With the press attention given to punk, it seemed that metal might be on the way out. But such predictions didn't stop Led Zeppelin from undertaking its biggest tour ever, or Ted "If it's too loud, you're too old" Nugent from becoming a star in America for a couple of years on the basis of a lot of publicity and some remarkably pedestrian music.
And it didn't stop a group coming forward who reconciled the ideals of punk and metal. Motörhead was formed when bassist/vocalist Lemmy was unceremoniously kicked out of Hawkwind. In combination with "Fast" Eddie Clarke and Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor, he created some of the loudest and fastest metal to be heard to date. Album titles like Bomber, Ace of Spades, and No Sleep Til Hammersmith pretty much told the story of booze and drugs and rock 'n' roll excess in all its leathery glory.
For all its bluster, and the support of a small bunch of fans, punk never really penetrated the American heartland. Ignored--or more accurately, shunned--by commercial FM radio, it never stood much of a chance in a time when the most requested songs were "Stairway to Heaven" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," and the slick formula-rock of Boston was outselling most everything else. Grand Funk had called it a day, Kiss' popularity had peaked and was beginning its slow decline, but there was no shortage of bands to take their place in the hearts and record collections of young males (and metal has always been largely the province of young males, it seems). Aerosmith was enjoying their first run at stardom (which would be repeated in the late eighties and the nineties, after having sorted out Tyler's and Perry's abuse problems). Ted Nugent still drew big crowds, even if his albumsweren't going platinum anymore. In England the ripple effect of punk had created a "New Wave of British Heavy Metal," as it was christened, with bands like Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Def Leppard, all of whom would go on to achieve success during the eighties. Judas Priest, who had actually existed since 1970, began to make an impact as Killing Machine (retitled Hell Bent for Leather in the U.S.) and "Take On the World" hit the British charts.
The real sales story of the time, however, was Van Halen. Discovered by Kiss' Gene Simmons, while playing in a Hollywood club, the ban eventually signed to Warner Bros., and issued their debut in 1978. Undoubtedly it was the delicious mixture of David Lee Roth's campy, way-over-the-top flamboyance and Eddie Van Halen's extraordinarily inventive and fluid guitar work that established their popularity. Within a year Van Halen had sold two million copies. By their third album they were becoming more adventurous (at Eddie's instigation), and using synthesizers. For a while it didn't seem to matter--they could do no wrong. But eventually this departure from the tried-and-true caught up with them, and sales slipped. In 1985 Roth left for a solo career which began well, then spluttered, before rapidly plummeting to small-club obscurity. The band recruited Sammy Hagar, himself a well-known figure on the metal scene, with stints in HGAS, Montrose, and as a solo act. The first record for the new lineup marked a definite return to top form, which was duly reflected in sales, taking a sharp upward turn and charging all the way to number one.
Meanwhile elsewhere in southern California, there was something new and radically different, a band called Black Flag playing a type of music called hardcore. Fast, hard, and loud, it emerged from the rapidly splintering punk scene.
If punk had been the sound of the cities, then hardcore was the sound of disaffected suburban life, the ennui of tract housing and sameness, looking at the everyday things of life ("TV Party," "Six Pack") in a tone of pure anger--and, to a point, encroachingupon metal's traditional suburban audience. It wasn't long before other bands on both coasts were taking the same route, as Circle Jerks and Minor Threat, among others, began putting out records, either releasing them themselves or on small independent labels. This do-it-yourself ethos was as close as punk ever came to making it in America. It was another spice for the stew.
As the calendar turned to the eighties, it was the new British bands who carried the standard for metal. Behind Rob Halford's leather image, Judas Priest gained more and more momentum, having a major U.S. hit with "Livin' After Midnight." By 1982, with their third album, Iron Maiden had become a force to be reckoned with, to the point where their next record could reach number 14 in America. Like Motörhead, they'd learned from punk that playing faster and more energetically wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
Following the death of John Bonham, Led Zeppelin had officially disbanded, but that didn't mean the adulation had gone away. They remained (and still are) idols to many, and it would be a long time before anyone would be able to steal their crown, even though Page went into semi-seclusion, and Robert Plant would spend most of the decade floundering, trying to find something new. The image, and the music, lived on and on.
With the advent of MTV in 1982, the fledgling video network began to play a much more important part in the careers of metal bands--of all bands, for that matter. Quiet Riot, Ratt, and Def Leppard were among the first to benefit from the new medium, being helped to hits by frequent exposure, although only Def Leppard was able to sustain the popularity, even after their drummer lost an arm in a car crash.
Ozzy Osbourne had left Black Sabbath in 1979 to go solo, which he managed very effectively with the aid of an early Quiet Riot guitar player named Randy Rhoads (listen to Blizzard of Oz). In fact, many credit Rhoads, rather than Ozzy, with the band's glory since it was his innovative playing--thought of asthe best since Eddie Van Halen's arrival on the scene--that really defined and centered the sound. But in 1982 Rhoads died in an air crash, and, as if to prove the idea that he was the music's driving force, Ozzy's career seemed to stall, going through a large number of musicians, and even going on trial because some teenagers allegedly took his lyrics as an incitement to suicide (this would also later happen to Judas Priest). Ozzy was cleared (as Halford and company would be), but it left an ugly aftertaste, certainly in the mouths of parents.
THERE WAS a new underground of metal forming, however, which would be the wave that was pounding heavily on the shore by the end of the eighties. In New York, Anthrax had quickly abandoned hardcore as the creative dead-end street it would become for everybody, and started playing music that soon became tagged as speed metal. Characterized by fast, furious playing, aggressive guitar solos, and lyrics which, like hardcore, related to street life--as opposed to the macho stance which had come to typify metal to the average listener--it was in many ways a descendent of punk, as was well shown when the band covered the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" on Armed and Dangerous (albeit performed at a tempo the Sex Pistols had never dreamed of, and would have been incapable of playing anyway). And as metal and rap converged through the antics of Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. doing "Walk This Way", Anthrax would cover Public Enemy's "Bring the Noize," even performing it with them when the groups toured together.
Metallica, too, had obviously listened long and hard to punk; indeed, singer/guitarist James Hetfield had once been a skatepunk. Starting out as a speed/thrash metal outfit, they quickly discovered a voice of their own. (Guitarist Dave Mustaine left before the first album to form his own band, Megadeth.) Technically they were superbly proficient musicians, and honed their skills and sound by constantly touringand recording, choosing to build a fan base that way rather than rely on the industry hype of publicity. It was while on tour in Sweden in September 1986 that a bus crash killed bassist Cliff Burton, and shadows were cast on Metallica's future. But with new member Jason Newsted they came back stronger than ever, initially with the $5.98 Garage Days Revisited EP, which paid tribute to their influences, including Budgie, Killing Joke, and the Misfits, an interesting selection.
From there it was onward and upward, a trail that led from ... And Justice for All to the multi-platinum, chart-topping Metallica and a massive stadium tour, followed by a co-head-lining outing with Guns N' Roses.
For Megadeth the road was decidedly rockier. Playing music that was more intricately arranged than Metallica's, they recorded a speedy three albums in three years before taking a break forced on them by Dave Mustaine's drug habit, which he was subsequently able to break. It has only been in the nineties that their star has really risen to its proper heights, most conclusively with the release of Youthanasia in 1994.
While all this was happening, the darker strains of death metal, with its explicitly gory and graphic lyrics, was raising its ugly head through Slayer (the biggest name in the subgenre), Obituary, and Death.
On the flip side of that, England (most specifically Leeds) gave birth to the goth movement. While not exactly metal, bands like the Mission, the Cult, and the Sisters of Mercy (and even Bauhaus) were certainly heavy enough in their approach, albeit more atmospheric, and started the whole fashion of pale-faced kids dressed all in black.
Queensrÿche, too, have had a long climb to glory. Playing a very thoughtful brand of metal, they have at times been referred to--dismissively--as the link between that style and prog rock, or metal's Pink Floyd (a dubious title they would share with Canada's Voivod). Hailing from Bellevue, just across Lake Washington from Seattle, they were never part of any Seattlescene, recording not long after forming and releasing the self-financed Queen of the Ryche EP. The stir it caused led EMI to sign them and rerelease the record, which hit number 75 in England. Only with their third album, the Orwell-inspired Operation Mindcrime, did they really hit their stride, consolidating their reputation with Empire, which produced three Top 40 singles--"Silent Lucidity," "Best I Can," and "Jet City Woman,"--after which fans had a long wait until Promised Land saw the light of day near the end of 1994.
The mid-eighties were also responsible--some might well say guilty--for bringing pop-metal to the world, bands that could crunch a few chords, rip off a solo, write any number of power ballads, and were invariably fronted by pretty-boy singers. Bon Jovi immediately springs to mind in this category, but they were hardly the only contenders. Mötley Crüe (for all their braggadocio) fit the peg, as did Poison, Cinderella, and any number of others whose work was quickly consigned to the bargain bins. For those few who succeeded, though, it was one of the decade's most popular and lucrative genres, with massive record sales, sold-out tours, and frequent video exposure even if, at the end of the day, there was little of substance left at the music's heart.
In terms of sales and publicity, metal's biggest impact since the halcyon days of the Zep--and its brightest hope, although they nearly blew their chance several times--came with Guns N' Roses. They might have indulged in most of the possible excesses at one time or another, thrown temper tantrums at record companies, promoters, and even fans, but in the end they've always managed to deliver the goods on record.
From the beginning they've approached their music like a hurricane, releasing Live?!*@ Like a Suicide on their own Uzi/Suicide label. That brought on a minor bidding war, with Geffen Records finally claiming the prize. Constant touring brought a large fan base even before Appetite for Destruction hit the racks, selling twenty million copies worldwide and hittingnumber one in the U.S., with the single "Welcome to the Jungle" garnering frequent MTV airplay and making a strong impact in the Top 40.
They followed it up with G N' R Lies (1989), a huge seller, with three tracks taken as singles to become hits in their own right--"Paradise City," "Sweet Child o' Mine," and "Patience." However, inevitably their problems caught up with them. Izzy Stradlin turned his back on stardom for rootsier pastures, which people took in stride, but eyebrows were raised when they kicked out their drummer because of drug abuse--at least some of the others were still getting high, using heroin--and no one was too astonished when the release date for the new record was pushed back, then back, and back, and back some more. Finally two albums surfaced together, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, on the back of which they undertook several major headlining tours, cementing their reputation as one of the nineties' major acts, with Slash as the new guitar god, guesting on all manner of releases, including a session with Michael Jackson for "Black or White". The release of The Spaghetti Incident?, supposedly a celebration of the band's punk roots, wasn't received too well by the critics, and the inclusion of a song written by convicted murderer and cult figure Charles Manson brought them particular rebukes. Nor, in the end, was it a particularly successful seller (at least by their standards).
Guns N' Roses are hardly the end of the road, of course. New bands will always come along, ready and eager to topple the champions and claim the crown. There's Helmet, new media darlings, recycling hardcore and Black Sabbath while throwing in a tinge of jazz. The Melvins, with their sludge rock, moved from punk icons to metal heroes, and, thanks to frequent mentions from the late Kurt Cobain, eventually achieved some small measure of acceptance, although their music makes any mass acceptance unlikely. And, as the definition of metal expands, it comes to include industrial outfits like Ministry, who've certainly progressed from their modern synth/dance/pop beginningsin 1981 to become a brutal, punishing aural experience, packed with pile-driver beats, samples, synths, and guitar. While their popularity has lifted them out of the cult stage, it was only the 1992 Lollapalooza tour and a single, "Jesus Built My Hot Rod," featuring vocals by the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes, that catapulted them headfirst into the alternative mainstream. Trent Reznor's ego machine, Nine Inch Nails, is a metal outfit of sorts by current standards--albeit, like Ministry, very much on the industrial end of the spectrum. It fulfills all the requirements, and there's certainly heaviness enough to spare in the music and the stage performance.
Metal has come a long way, taken some side roads and a couple of dead ends, but in many ways that journey has ended up being a circle. Along the course of twenty-five years a number of things have tugged at it and influenced it, but by and large it remains the music of excess, still fueling the fantasies of adolescent boys throughout the Western world, who can turn up the stereo and play air guitar in front of the mirror, then maybe take up the instrument for real. Its heroes are still the shirtless singers with the piercing voices as well as the twentieth-century gunslingers--the axmen with the fastest fingers. Even if the era of the fifteen-minute guitar or drum solo has thankfully disappeared forever, the image lingers. Metal will probably always be the domain of the guitar, bass, and drums. It's loud noise, ripped vocals, and a Marshall stack in front of a large drum kit. However much anyone speeds it up or slows it down, it comes down to those basics (although synths and drum machines are becoming more acceptable in this technological age). It's still the music of imagination, putting yourself up there in front of thousands, screaming your lungs out or playing the killer solo. It's still the music of dreams, however scary they may end up being.
Perhaps the single most interesting element in the development of metal is the way it's absorbed the ethos of punk--not just the D.I.Y. ethic, but the sound and fury. It's certainly colored the music for the last ten years, but even so, the divisionof fans has largely remained, with punks on one side of the fence, metalheads on the other. A few bands have been able to reconcile the two, but in Soundgarden the idea has found its fullest flower. While they may be, as one critic noted, "the metal band it's okay for punks to like," they're also the punk band metal fans can enjoy without guilt, a spearhead of the whole acceptance of "alternative" music.
Soundgarden do have a place in the metal continuum, there's little doubt of that, but it's not the convenient little pigeonhole they were assigned by the critics or the record company. Where they belong is in the vanguard. The music they play is never not metal; it just isn't solely metal. But, like any musicians who grew up after the metal era began, they couldn't help but be influenced by it and make it a part of their own music. The history of metal runs through Soundgarden, that's almost inevitable, but there's also punk, goth, and hardcore. Listen hard enough, particularly to their early releases, before they really started to develop their own voice, and you can find it very close to the surface.
But to fully grasp what Soundgarden are about, and to catch the rest of the influences, you have to understand the scene that gave birth to the band and nurtured it.
SOUNDGARDEN Copyright © 1995 by Chris Nickson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.