Friday, February 9, 2024

Confronting the Monster (a music press tradition)

One of the most enjoyable things to read in the music papers back in the day were the ritual encounters between the writers and the Metal Monolith - via the metal festival review. Enjoyable to write, not so much! Verily twas a short straw assignment: the rock paper equivalent of latrine duty.... And yet, and yet, in terms of the review filed, if not the actual lived experience, heavy metal at festival scale was a rich text, ripe for observational reportage, quasi-sociology, and obloquy. 

Separated by six years, here are two reports on Monsters of Rock at Castle Donington. The first is by my ancestor-idol Barney Hoskyns, for the NME, in August 1981; and the second is yours truly, for Melody Maker, in '87. In both cases, despite aversion to the subculture and distaste for the onstage spectacle, each writer is attracted to... well, the monstrousness of metal - its awesome noise and power. Both are working a way towards rehabilitation for the genre, via the isolation of certain properties and powers of metal-as-sound. Although reluctant - to put it mildly - to undertake this assignment, agreeing only out of a salaried staff writer's sense of duty, I was already quite taken by Anthrax and intrigued by Metallica. It was a truly unpleasant day, made much worse by dismal, un-summery weather, and yet strangely I look back fondly....

text below


Melody Maker, August 29th 1987

 By Simon Reynolds

 For this festival-virgin, Donington was a brutal deflowering; as futile and squalid as I could have hoped for. I always used to enjoy the music press's ritual encounters with the unbudgeable stagnation of heavy metal: they don't happen so frequently these days, partly because the papers realized how pointless these confrontations were, partly because because of a certain critical rehabilitation of metal. Listening to HM records at home, it's possible to isolate, salvage and enjoy elements of power, aggression, noise. But in this festival-context, where you encounter the totality of the subculture, you're overwhelmed by the sheer size and span of its dumbness; as a critic with dreams and schemes you're chastened by the realization that the word 'rock' means totally different things for different people. For these people, it's a celebration of the lowliest aspects of existence, vaguely in the name of breaking free and being yourself and letting loose inhibitions. Festivals are a chance for these people to live out their version of rock'n'roll with a thoroughness that's just not feasible in everyday life.

A crucial element is mud -- for how else can you wallow? The preceding week was a sweltering blaze, but the weather's not about to let the side down, and Saturday obliges us with a downpour. Within minutes of arrival, I'm soaked to the skin. The soil around here is rich in clay; eerie maroon puddles abound, while the Exits and Entrances degenerate into treacherous slopes the colour of a working man's caff cup of char. A bloke loses his balance and toboggans thirty foot of quagmire on his belly. A plucky paraplegic headbanger tries to negotiate the slope in his wheelchair. Girls's bare legs are streaked with red slime; high heels sink hopelessly into the mud. Others have come prepared, wearing binliner souwesters, or huddling completely enshrouded in giant sheets of transparent PVC. Troll-like figures squat on leather jacket oases.  A 15-year-old bloy lies prostrate, comatose, his dank stringy hair mingling with the murdered grass; a few inches from his lips, a small pizza-shape of vomit. Unconscious before even the second group have come on.

If most people here seem experienced (as festival-goers), in another sense Donington is a vast celebration of virginity (or at least chronic sex starvation) camouflaged. The crowd is a huge sea of gormlessness. There's a dearth of fanciable men. People are either chubby-chopped or hatchet-faced, blubbery or scrawny. Common syndromes include the unsuccessful moustache; the Viking look; blokes with receding hairlines who nonetheless endeavour to grow long, straggly locks. The women tend to be buxom wenches or Sam Fox clones; there's a lot of electric blue make-up about. Everyone looks as though they're from Saxon peasant stock--coarse fair hair; rude ruddy health or underfed sallow. Everyone looks oafish.

 W.A.S.P., then, is probably more a case of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant than We Are (Active) Sexual Perverts. "Any of you rock heads come here looking for PUSSY???!" bellows Blackie Lawless, and there's a massive roar of assent -- desperate, brave-face, wishful thinking.  Lawless leads chants of 'Fuck Like A Beast', then 'I Wanna Be Somebody' -- both hopeless, never-to-be-requited cri de coeurs. Then some "theatre": Blackie wheels on a gallows from which a semi-naked girl is chained by her wrists, flailing ineffectually. Blackie looks to the crowd, that familiar wide-eyed gape at the depths of his own depravity, the extent of his daring. He draws out a scimitar, looks round again as if to say "Shall I?". Dumpy traitors to their sex smirk along with their boyfriends at the naughtiness of it all. Blackie slits the girl's throat, drinks deep and turns to face us quenched, drooling gore; glazed eyes appeal to us to share his disbelief at the enormity of his own evil.

W.A.S.P. are staggeringly bad at what they do,  churning out a leaden, thudding sound that no amount of climactic guitar-smashing can redeem. ANTHRAX are superb. The irony of a group of anti-nuke pacifists who've named themselves after one of the most ghastly weapons of biological warfare, should be obvious. Like hardcore punk, which they closely resemble, there's an unacknowledged fetishisation of the very violence and oppression they denounce. Anthrax get high on the extremity of the language of war and apocalypse. It's as though only imagery that sensationalist is fit to accompany their music, which is located not far from the point where the exponential curve of velocity/noise hits vertical.  Anthrax aren't about uninhibited wildness or release; they take the rhythm-as-manacle idea to its logical limit -- rock as supremely regimented, mechanized carnage. When Charlie Benate pedals the floor tom and bass drum it's like an abbatoir slipping gears and locking into a perpetual cycle of mutilation.

They're great fun. Scott Ian -- manically stomping around the stage - is one of the charismatic metal guitarists. They play "God Save the Queen", getting the HM audience to sing "no fewcha"; it's stronger than the Pistols version, but lacks the edge. Anthrax play a blinder, but get less applause than W.A.S.P., perhaps because they're "sexless". They're driven by a pure, almost hygienic fascination with speed and violence.

METALLICA are like Anthrax only heavier and harder. That might be good on record, but tonight at least it only means they're gruelling; a dismal slog. Their death machine grinds remorselessly, with none of Anthrax's kinetic grace. "Seek and Destroy" and "Master of Puppets" attain a certain pleasing level of punishment, riffs like meat-cleavers. The singer's inter-song banter involves appending the word "fucken" to every noun or verb.

Where Anthrax and Metallica are clearly units, BON JOVI and DIO take their names from their "charismatic" frontmen. The bands are servile, relegated to a backing role. Both Ronnie James Dio and Jon Bon Jovi are as much totalitarians of passion as Mick Hucknall or Terence Trent D'Arby, histrionic and over-expressive. Dio are melodic metal, that's to say they traffic in melodramatic, structured songs rather than chanted hooks (in Anthrax's case, flechettes). Someone once described this kind of glam metal as tart rock: pretty, hygienic guitar, purple lyrics, operatic singing, poncing preening frontmen. I'm fascinated by this sub-culture where it's actually a sign of manliness to have flowing Silvikrin locks. Tart metal seems to be a kind of male soft porn which functions for the delectation of both the girlies and (covertly) the boy fans.

One last wander before Bon Jovi. There have been many appeals to rock'n'roll solidarity tonight ("We Are Rock'n'Roll Children", etc), but in practice it doesn't extend more than few rows ahead of you. People are quite happy to sling one-gallon canisters of liquid thirty yards through the air in order to deal someone a blow to the back of the head, in the process dousing everyone beneath the missile's trajectory with a comet's tail of beer, or worse, still-warm piss. As anticipation of the headliners grows, the bottles and canister teems like spermatozoa in the night air. It's cold: people are lighting bonfires, standing in bedraggled, post-apocalyptic clinches. There are massive queues for the food stalls (vile greasy grub that is breaking out furiously all over people's faces) or toilets (the bowls are smashed, so most people urinates in copses or into empty beer bottles). I pass a Samaritans stall, and consider making a brief distraught visit. Cholera breaks out on the right flank of the crowd. It occurs to me that the Americans don't have events like this: true, they've got a stadium circuit, but perhaps only the British would put up with the torpor, the lousy facilities, would actually pay to stand up for over ten hours solid.

BON JOVI cocktease the audience. After a very long delay, giant vidscreens cut to… Bon Jovi's dressing room! Bon Jovi making their way through the backstage maze! A superb baiting of the breath. And then amid a fanfare of fireworks and dry ice… Bon Jovi descend a Ginger Rogers' staircase…

I enjoy everything about Bon Jovi tonight except their music. In this sodden, beleaguered context, the lasers, the slick bombast, the no-expense-spared showmanship were as welcome as Hollywood razzamatazz in the Depression. Everything must have been rehearsed with military precision, every pout, preen and strut, because it was video-taped, quick-cut and blown-up on the vidscreens as it happened. MTV was inflated to the dimensions of a circus. I enjoyed, so help me, Jon Bon Jovi prancing about on the top of the lighting gantry, enjoyed their guitarist's solo (it blended most pleasingly into the giant, ziggurat riffs of Zep's "Dazed and Confused"). But the music isn't heavy metal, it's harmony rock, all rococo synth and soul-rich singing (euucch!). The tunes are trite, as trite and appallingly sentimental as the philosophical and emotional repertoire of the band. The titles tell the whole, stunted story: "You Give Love a Bad Name" (the Bitch who "promised me heaven/gave me hell"), "Wild In the Street", "Tokyo Rose", "Together Forever" (a ballad about friendship as syrupy as anything by Lionel Richie). Bon Jovi constantly refer to "rock'n'roll" but there's nothing here that fits my definition of rock - no sense of provocation, no idea of change or movement, no impossibilist reproach to the world and its limits. The fantasies here are perfectly feasible -- it's possible to live a monied playboy life of rocking out and screwing foxy chicks, it's just very very unlikely that any of their fans ever will. Bon Jovi aren't rock'n'roll, they are showbiz, and showbiz is all about the idea that the world is as it only can be. Metal bands may call their music "heavy metal" but really they deal in light entertainment: their job is take people's minds off things. Tonight, Bon Jovi did a damn good job of taking my mind off my wet feet and incipient hypothermia. 

A later (March 1984) issue of NME in which the paper gingerly grapples with the Metal Monster, although most of the pieces are dismissive or mocking. Great cover though - NME was streets ahead of the Other Two on the design front in those days. But here's Barney again doing the Singles and finding some metal to enthuse about, including a very early, independent-released single by Anthrax, which gets one of the Single of the Weeks slots: 


  1. Two great reads. In 1987, would you have picked Metallica to go on to conquer the world?

  2. Not on the basis of that show! But I had been impressed by the title track of Master of Puppets for sure. They didn't at that point seem like a band of tunesmiths.

    I think one thing with these festivals is that the bands lower on the bill suffer from not being given the full volume, which is reserved for the headliner. But if the music genre is premised on making your ears bleed, having the volume stuck at a rabbit punch levels of impact, a band can't really come across properly.

  3. Enjoyed reading those, thanks for putting up. Of course 87 would have been the absolute peak of the mullet and general hair metal hugeness so it must have been quite an experience going to that. I spent that summer working in the Waterford Crystal factory, sitting around a table making boxes most of the day and being subjected to metal tapes on the ghettoblaster. Two of the lads working there were Bon Jovi lookalikes basically and were controlling the sounds. One of them might have actually made the trip to Donnington if I recall correctly. By the end of the summer I had developed a real intense hatred of Def Leopard's 'Hysteria'! The daytime radio there wasn't much better -- non stop rotation of Los Lobas 'La Bamba' , Terrence Trent D'arby's 'Wishing Well', 'Never Gonna Give You Up', 'Sweet Little Mystery', 'Under The Boardwalk by Bruce Willis, Heart's 'Alone', 'Where The Streets Have No Name' and plenty of other culprits... 37 years on and I still wince when I hear most of those songs.

  4. Mainstream pop in '86 - 87 - 88 was pretty rank. Saving graces - Prince and Janet Jackson and a few other Jam & Lewis type tunes. I did like the singles off The Joshua Tree. But yeah in terms of the charts, 'rock' was mostly hair metal and pop was mostly retro-soul (as opposed to fully-contemporary R&B which sounded modern and could be great).

    Talking of Hysteria, funnily enough I just recently wrote a mini-celebration of "Pour Some Sugar On Me" at Dissensus where this a thread on Hair Metal. Also praised G'n'R's "Welcome to the Jungle".

  5. I'll take a look at the Dissensus thread. A trope in quite a few of those hair metal videos including 'Pour Some Sugar On Me' was the soundcheck footage interspersed with the real gig. Bon Jovi with the grainy black and white backstage and sound check clips shown to portray authenticity,, realness, the serious rock stars hard at work!

    Joe Elliot always seems a decent sort -- he's been living in Dublin for decades now so he turns up on Irish TV a bit. Big glam fan I think. Wasn't he giving out a few years back about how bands like Leopard never get the credit from the brit rock press -- saying that he goes unrecognised on Oxford St even though he's sold gazillions more records than the likes of Morrissey etc who continually get all the Mojo / Uncut front covers.

    Those Joshua Tree songs are great to be fair but I just had enough of that song by the 60th playing on rotation with Mel & Kim! Plus the Irish media in 1987 had us all brainwashed into thinking U2 were the greatest thing by far since the Beatles and the only band on the planet that really mattered! This was pre me discovering the music press so with no idea about rock history I like many others just had to go along with that claim however much it didn't feel right!

    1986/87 was Bad Chart Years for sure even though looking at those old TOTPs on BBC4 there were plenty of gems as well in that period. And yes, looking back the best of it such as Janet / Prince and the like was sonically way more adventurous and cutting edge than the vast majority of the indie going on, esp in 1985 / 86.

  6. I was tempted to point out on a recent post, I think on blissblog, about rock decadence or something like that, that there isn´t anything more decadent that a documentary on the glam metal scene, called "The years of decadence" or something to that effect, that famously features a guy from WASP completely drunk, talking about his alcoholism, right next to his mother. But I tought, "Nah nobody around here has ever heard about WASP".

    1. Oh we know all about WASP, they were in the music papers a fair bit, being rather over the top in their statements. Blackie Lawless is nowadays a born again Christian!

      I think you are talking about the Penelope Spheeries doc The Decline of Western Civilisation Pt 2? Sequel-but-not-really to her Los Angeles punk doc. Decline pt 2 is pretty absorbing - the alcoholism stuff is alarming, but also the way that everyone in it is convinced they are heading towards megafame and superstardom. They have no back up plan, no doubts at all they are going to make it.

    2. Yes that´s the doc! And well, It´s doubtful there would still be christians around without adictions!