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....
MONSTERS OF ROCK, CASTLE DONINGTON : BON JOVI / DIO / METALLICA / ANTHRAX /
Melody Maker, August 29th 1987
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. 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.