Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Histoire(s) du Metal: Part One

Metal: A Headbanger's Journey
(Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen, & Jessica Joy Wise, Canada, 2005, 35mm, 96 mins.)


What about the voice of Geddy Lee
How did it get so high?
I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy?
(I know him and he does!)
And you're my fact-checkin' cuz.

-- Pavement, "Stereo" (1997)

Although I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, home of refined individuals like the late Katharine Hepburn, I spent most of my childhood in Anchorage, Alaska, the same city that brought the world the late party animal producer Don Simpson (Flashdance, Top Gun). To me, that says it all. When punk hit in the late-1970s, we were aware of it--hey, the 49th state has newspapers, too--but we didn't really care. It wasn't getting played on the radio and it's not as if the Sex Pistols were about to grace us with their spiky presence anytime soon. But we didn't mind--we had the rock.

Yes indeed. In the 1980s, metal was king. It got played on the radio and on TV--specifically MTV's Headbanger's Ball, which I watched as religiously as 120 Minutes (especially when Rob Halford or Wendy O. Williams were the headbanging hosts). In fact, I got paid to play the stuff myself when I took a post-collegiate gig at AOR station KWHL--everything from Richard Marx to Judas Priest. Guess where my sympathies lay? With the 'Priest, of course! (There's a reason Beavis and Butthead adopted "Breaking the Law" as their unofficial theme song.) And once the George M. Sullivan Arena was erected (huh-huh) in the mid-1980s, internationally renowned rockers, like Alice Cooper and the Scorpions, started to make the trek up North.

So this whole time, I was listening, but I wasn't really a fan. While my junior high friends were obsessing over KISS, I was getting into David Bowie and Elvis Costello. By high school, AC/DC and Rush were the biggest bands around, but I was more interested in the Talking Heads and the Police. True story: At a West High talent show, a band of students ripped through a scorching version of Rush's "Red Barchetta." Shortly afterwards, my classical music-loving stepfather bought a copy of Exit...Stage Left (1981). Well, I had a babysitting job after school most days, but one day I came home earlier than usual. I opened the door and the unmistakably melodramatic sounds of Rush leaped out at me. At first I didn't see anyone, but then I noticed something on the floor. It was my stepfather lying flat on his back while high-volume waves of Rush-ness swirled around him. I tell you, I've never stumbled across greater contentment in all my days.

Around the same time, I remember digging through my Mom's cassettes; looking for something or other--my copy of the Smiths' Louder Than Bombs, most likely--when I came across Night Ranger's Midnight Madness (1983) amongst all the classical and folk tapes (I suspect insanely catchy power ballad "Sister Christian" was to blame).

Bottom line: In Anchorage, you couldn't escape the rock. Even the most unlikely music fan would eventually embrace it in some form. I was one, too, although it took me awhile to come around. What changed everything was The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Revisited (1987) by an up-and-coming speed metal quartet from California. All of a sudden, the link between metal and punk became clear to me, and I was hooked. No one would confuse Metallica for a punk band, but their ferocious covers of classic cuts by the Misfits and Killing Joke opened my ears to the heretofore unknown possibilities of metal and also to the harder end of the alterna-rock spectrum (Big Black, Helmet, the Laughing Hyenas, et al). Not long afterwards, I would add releases by Megadeth, Death Angel, and Guns 'n' Roses to my collection.

Once I moved to Seattle in the late-1980s, I started to go see all of these bands live: Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, etc. Of course, I was also just starting to get into hip-hop, which meant shows by LL Cool J, Ice Cube, and Public Enemy--both with and without Anthrax. Meanwhile, the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill (1986) and Paul's Boutique (1989), with all those great Sabbath and Zeppelin samples, combined with the smash hit Run-DMC/Aerosmith re"magining of "Walk This Way" (1986) had opened the doors between metal and hip-hop. Suddenly, anything seemed possible.

Next: I actually review the film!

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