WITH THEIR NEW SINGLE, ‘MAKE ME LAUGH’, ANTHRAX CONTINUE TO LEAD THE HARDCORE CHARGE AGAINST TRADITIONAL HEAVY METAL. SIMON REYNOLDS HITCHES A RIDE ON THE MONSTERS OF ROCK TOUR AND LEARNS ABOUT THE GROUP’S ATTEMPTS TO DRAG HIM INTO THE 20TH CENTURY.
TILLBURG, HOLLAND: the Monsters Of Rock tour continues its traipse across Europe. There’s no hard rain of piss bottles, and instead of mud there’s Astroturf, but the William II Stadium, like Donington, is a vast human sty, a seeping eye-sore. The fans have gathered to celebrate together the belief that being yourself means wallowing in the worst that you’re capable of, that true letting go involves lowering yourself, that any kind of grooming or self-nurture is a pretence, and that only neglect or active self-abuse are “authentic”.
The men look like Vikings who’ve been out of service for a while, who are turning into couch potatoes. The women look like wenches. Everywhere you see the same slightly discoloured flaxen hair, straggling over collars or drooping from upper lips. Men with huge guts and bellybuttons you could lose a hand in, stagger around shirtless. One fellow, as gross as a shaved sow, nearly brains my diminutive Island Records chaperone with his bloated and glistening stomach.
Stepping gingerly over babbling brooks of urine, and comatose spectators, we somehow gravitate towards what must surely be the lowest spot in the entire festival. A gang of oafs are acting up for the benefit of a photographer from a Dutch music rag. They decide to make cruel sport with one of their number who’s completely unconscious, drag him to his feet and pull his pants down for the camera. He comes to, struggles to escape like a hog in a slaughterhouse, makes feeble inebriate attempts to cover his modesty, but his “mates” keep pulling down his trousers, then turn him round so his privates are on display. A throng of onlookers snigger and cackle like serfs at a bear-bait or badger-taunt. Then all five moon in a row, to cheers. Unsightly. Unappetising. Gagging, we flee.
IN THIS MILIEU of baseness and fatuity, Anthrax are a massive and caustic act of hygiene. As people, they’re chummy and easygoing and up for fun, but – bar the regrettable faffing around of the ‘I Am The Man’ spoof-rap – their music is charged up with an apocalyptic sobriety. Metallica and Anthrax are to trad heavy metal (in all its 57 varieties of idiocy) what the Protestant Reformation was to Catholicism. A rigorous and purgative initiative whose aim is take metal out the Middle Ages and into modernity. Metal’s medievalism is vested not just in its emotional repertoire – the themes of warrior manhood, honour, revenge and righteous violence, the fascination with Satan – but in the gaudy pantomime and ossified ritual of performance (which is what the peasant hordes out there lurve). Metallica and Anthrax are trying to replace all that by literacy self-effacement.
In any other pop genre, this demystification would be a reductive manoeuvre; raising of consciousness so often leads to inhibited music (one thinks of the clipped, constipated Au Pairs approach to agit-pop, the Redskins/Faith Brothers brand of “sensible soul”, the dwarfism of The Wedding Present school of authenticity). But the fundamental musical propositions of HM simply are gigantism, disproportion, and exaggeration; what Anthrax have done is retain the sheer mass of metal while excising what’s laughable and embarrassing about its content. But hysteria is the essence of the idiom, so they’ve managed this by replacing tight-trousered hyperlust with an equally histrionic pitch of denunciation.
Hence the magnificent new single, ‘Make Me Laugh’, a splendid tirade against TV evangelism. Not that it tells me anything I don’t already know; but the venom caused by the subject matter was clearly necessary to sustain the severity of the music.
Charlie Benante, drummer, explains in his thick New York Italian accent: “There’s a lot of these guys in America. You turn on a channel, and you see a coliseum-type place, and there’s this preacher looking out at you through the camera with this imploring expression, and he goes on about the will of God, and ‘we really need the money’. And we see this all the time, and we think, ‘this is so ridiculous’. It makes us laugh. But the sad part, the unfunny part, is that people believe in all this shit because they have nothing else to believe in. And the evil part is that this guy is sucking the lost and lonely in, brainwashing them to send in money and then everything will be beautiful. It’s sick.”
Do you think that the evangelists don’t actually believe that they’re the instrument of the Lord, that it’s all a money-making con?
“No, I don’t think they do believe what they say. Maybe some of it. I don’t know. The main thing is they’re making a lotta money out of this. It’s a big fraud. All the money goes back into making more money, not good works.”
What do you think you achieve, when you speak out on an issue like this? Education?
Joey Belladona (singer): “No. We don’t have anything we want to get across to anybody. It’s just something interesting to talk about.”
Charlie: “Maybe it does make people more aware of what’s goin’ on.”
Joey: “But it ain’t preachy, man.”
Charlie: “The other thing is that a lot of these evangelist organisations are ready to put down heavy metal music as . corrupting, and there’s the PMRC, but in reality they are the bad eggs, the mind-manipulators. All we’re doing is playing our music. The thing that hurts us is when some kid commits suicide, and they find a tape in his room with Anthrax, Ozzy, etc on it – and right away, they blame the music. They don’t go into the background of how the kid got f***ed up, how his family was. Could be that the music was what kept the kid going for so long, his only reason for living. Who knows?”
Do they think that the emergence of Anthrax and Metallica within the addled genre represents a moral regeneration for metal – away from the glamorization of living fast and on the edge?
Joey: “Fast cars, sex and drugs, you mean?”
Charlie: “Metal has always had this larger than life image. We’re more into being real. Onstage, people throw things at us, we bleed. We’re not invulnerable. We just try to be on the same level as our audience – except we’re onstage.”
AND ALONG with a moral regeneration, there’s a musical regeneration too – a return to discipline and precision after a long period in which metal has been slack and enervated and…
“Sloppy? Yeah, we try to run a fit band. Some lady was interviewing us last night, and she said ‘a lot of it sounds like noise’. I took this kinda personally. We’re pretty hot musicians, the stuff we play is pretty complex. It’s not chaos, so if someone calls it ‘noise’, I get annoyed.”
Is this like Metallica’s vexation at being labelled “thrash”, because it suggested some kind of shambles?
“I don’t mind the tag, but only in the sense that kids come to our shows, and they thrash.”
It’s interesting that another of the tirades on the album is a song called ‘Antisocial’. Traditionally, rock, and especially metal, has prided itself on being outside the law, careless and vandalistically self-directed. But here are you – with your temperance, your steady girlfriends, and “antisocial” is a term of abuse aimed at big corporations and the uncaring wealthy…
“Well, we didn’t write that song, it’s a cover of a track by Trust, this French political hard rock band. We agree with the lyrics, though.”
The irony is that you combine this social concern with metal viciousness, whereas the bands who still try to peddle the renegade mythology (Guns ‘N’ Roses etc) have this blow-dried, weedy sound. What do you feel about “lite metal”, its sentimentality and romanticism?
“A lot of people think you have to be flamboyant onstage, but it’s not our way. We wear snorts, that’s about as far as we’ll go into dressing up. We’re like these kids going out into the yard to play. But kids today are pretty smart, they can relate to us looking the same as them, they don’t need all this glam shit.”
You’ve been quoted as saying that the new album, Stage Of Euphoria, is your best yet…
“It’s the most complete. We spent more time on it.”
Do you ever worry about whether you’ll be able to exceed what you’ve done before?
Joey: “We’re just starting to get a groove going. This is the first album I’ve been properly integrated into the band.”
Could you ever contemplate a complete step sideways?
Charlie: “Nah. I don’t wanna drastic change. That’s not what we set out to do. We’d get a lot of heat from people who are into us, if we changed. We’re just getting a groove together, paving a way for us. When I was into a band as a kid, and they made a drastic change with the new album, did the album ‘they felt they had to make’, I felt so bad, it was like betrayal.”
With something as unitary and monomaniac and, in the best sense, one-dimensional as Anthrax, though, each of you must have unrealised musical ambitions, wayward impulses that you have to keep in check for the collective good?
Joey: “We probably have fantasies of things we might do, but that doesn’t involve or affect Anthrax at all. Those impulses don’t matter, and if we indulged them within the group, we’d just get sideswiped from what we’re doing. As musicians we’re versatile and accomplished enough to do pretty much what we like. But not within Anthrax.”
THE ONE IDEA Anthrax keep returning to is the desire to be “real”. And this obsession means they’ve not only taken metal out of medievalism into modernity, they’ve actually made it to the 20th Century. As such, they’re unique (Megadeth by comparison, are 16th century millenarians gleefully waiting the impending Armageddon, Metallica perhaps Lutherans for whom the world is a huge globe of excrement and life merely a harvest of sorrow). The obsession with “realism” and “authenticity” is one of the great cultural symptoms of the artifice, role-play, protocols, social codes, rigmarole, mystique and mystification. But this century has seen the burgeoning of counselling and therapeutic organisations who encourage the opening up and display of emotional innards, and who condemn dissimulation of the border between public and private life (think of the Goldman book, the focus on Dukakis’ history of mental health); and culturally, from the nouveau roman to ‘Brookside’, there’s been an attempt to “free” content of the prettifying veils of form, in order to achieve a completely “transparent” reproduction of reality.
At its most neurotic extreme, this longing to get in touch with “reality” leads to a kind of pornography of the real. This is the addiction to images of abjection, violence and catastrophe, because these are regarded as instances of reality in extremis, life at its most “demystified” and unromanticised and explicit. The whole aesthetic of hardcore (from Black Flag to Big Black) is based on such a pornography of the real, on a perverse pleasure in the worst this world has to offer. Anthrax and Metallica are driven by a similar desire to tear off the veils of false consciousness. While not descending to the carnographic depths of a Slayer, they do have a morbid interest in war and exploitation that reminds me of anarcho-punk groups like Dischord or even the mystical nihilism of The Pop Group. You could say that Anthrax have implanted the “soul” of hardcore inside the body of heavy metal.
A side effect of their distaste for mystification is in an attitude to the Love Song that reminds me of the Gang Of Four, as shown in songs like ‘Damaged Goods’ and, ironically enough, ‘Love Like Anthrax’. Anthrax once declared that they’ll never write a song with the word “love” in it.
Charlie: “Scott (guitarist and lyricist) feels that ‘Finale’ is the Anthrax love song. It’s about being in a situation where you’re with this person – it could be a boy or girl singing the song – and you’ve been with them for so long you f***in’ hate her, but you just go through with it. And then the song goes, ‘finally he broke away’. But I can’t see us writing love songs or ballads, it’s not us. What we’re about, is what I think metal should be about, that kinda ‘no room to let up’ attitude.”
Are Anthrax as a band anti-romanticist?
“Personally, we’re all romantic, we all have girlfriends. As a band, we try to have a positive attitude to life. We don’t want to dwell on death, or glorify it, cos it ain’t glorious. But I suppose we do like to think about evil things. You see I’m a great horror fan. The song ‘Now It’s Dark’ off the new album, that was inspired by Blue Velvet. I told Scott, you gotta write a song about Frank Booth. You see, everybody is Frank Booth, there’s some of that psycho in everybody.”
Why does that potential fascinate you?
“‘Cos there’s good and evil in everybody. Everybody has bad thoughts, little impulses, maybe even on the level of wanting to trip somebody up, for no good reason. All I’m saying is, face up to it.”
Was punk a crucial influence?
“Musically, yes. I was into Sex Pistols when they were huge and happening. I liked The Clash. I never adapted to the look though. But I just thought punk was cool. I liked Johnny Rotten, he was like this rotten teenage kid, who just did what he wanted to do, said what he wanted to say. The whole thing of being anti-establishment, the politics, I never bothered with that stuff. Sometimes, you get into that, it ruins the music. That’s one of the reasons I like Public Enemy so much. I know they said a lot of bad shit in the press, but I’m trying to ignore that so I can get off on the intensity of the music, and its originality.”
At one point, it seemed like speed metal and hardcore punk were going to merge, as “speedcore” or “thrash”… Is that still happening?
“It seemed like it was gonna happen, but it never did, they went apart again. I think they’re really separate kinds of musics.”
But the whole spirit of Anthrax – from your lyrics to your near “straight edge” attitude to drugs and drink – is closer to hardcore than heavy metal.
“I don’t know about that. But as far as we’re concerned, you just can’t stand up onstage and sing about ‘lovechild’ and ‘we’re gonna party’ and all that shit. It’s ridiculous, it’s so thin, so plastic. We like to sing about reality, everyday life, much more than ‘baby, I love your spiked heels’. I don’t know what you call that kind of rock – slut rock, glam rock, cock rock – but it’s finished now. It’s over.”
© Simon Reynolds, Melody Maker, 17 September 1988