BARNEY HOSKYNS straps on his breastplate, girds his loins and takes his sword to the HM Monsters Of Rock joust at Castle Donington.
AT THE end of the day, Heavy Metal isn’t really a monster at all – it’s rather well-behaved, actually. Indeed, it’s only the media that needs to conceptualise it as such, to see it as a clearly-defined, fortress-like object. For while the individual HM fan appears to be a certifiably homogenous entity, the supposedly siege-proof stronghold of “Heavy Metal” itself is in fact a reasonably open, diverse field of operations.
Castle Donington demonstrated this discrepancy perfectly. The 70,000-odd fans were, undeniably, an awesomely collective phenomenon – herd-like, ugly, faceless. A sense of single-mindedness prevailed wherever one looked, an ant-like preparation for gratification. On the other hand, the six groups featured at Donington spanned, if not a wealth, at least a distribution of influences.
At one o’clock, right on time, the festival opened with More, whose impervious conventionality was presumably seen as the safest way to kick off the proceedings. This standard British five-piece regard themselves as a compromise between old-wave heavy – with roots very obviously way back in primal Zep, Purple and so forth – and “new wave heavy metal”, but their archaic riffs, frazzled fretboard arpeggios and endless contrived climaxes made such a distinction superfluous.
Blackfoot at least provided some kind of contrast, even if they are just a decrepit version of the much-missed Lynyrd Skynyrd. This ageing Florida four-piece, which has been together for 13 long years, fuses lukewarm Southern boogie – give us ZZ Top, for Chrissakes! – with the colder edge of Anglo metal, and the reason they’ve had to wait till 1981 to jump on this revival bandwagon is that they’re not particularly outstanding at either. If only one could say something cretinous like “he plays a mean slide guitar”, things might be OK. Skynyrd carried the Confederate bit to its logical conclusion – death, the end of the line – and though they were all buddies, Blackfoot play a very tame second fiddle.
Next up, Slade were the day’s token jesters, an HM band only because there was nothing else to resuscitate their pitiful career. Noddy and the lads will never make the transition from singles hype to metal muthas because their training is in Pop. Nevertheless, they can still play ‘Everyday’ alongside ‘We’ll Bring The House Down’ and prompt a massed football-crowd chorus as accompaniment.
Though completely incapable of irony, Slade’s extreme popularity, based on affection rather than awe, suggests that the HM fan’s aesthetic may be as surely grounded in the time-honoured traditions of vaudeville as in the need for some monstrous (and mythical) powerhouse of noise.
Slade have grasped the point that heavy metal is not sexual music, that if anything (as the song ‘Night Starvation’ attests) it is pure sublimation of libido. The overt sexism of many HM lyrics is a desperate guard against the threat posed to the HM brotherhood by women, just as the structure of the sound itself, with its relentless 4/4 beat and rehashed chords, is a musical shorthand for masturbation. HM cuts out, castrates the vital syncopation which r’n’b grafted onto white pop in the ’60s, the on/off beat dialectic of sexuality itself. One-chord, one-hand. The more crudely macho the band, the more popular they become. Which is why this event, with its dearth of Saxons and Iron Maidens, was enlightening.
And also why yer average British metal fan doesn’t quite know what to make of Blüe Oyster Cült, who couldn’t have offered a more pertinent contrast to Slade if they’d wanted to. Grabbing the festival’s highest possible moment of humour, the Cult lamented over the monster they couldn’t bring with them – the one the fans had to take seriously, the absolute power that the band, with their dwarfish physiques, short hair and little black waistcoats, wouldn’t yield, i.e. the mythical Godzilla. And then ‘Heavy Metal’ itself, greeted with gormless puzzlement. How could this crowd switch on to the ghoulish humour of ‘Joan Crawford’? How could they chant along to ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ or ‘Burnin’ For You’?
When David Coverdale appeared the place went crazy – here at last was the real thing, a heavy metal star. In his shaggy, leonine way, Coverdale is quite impressive to look at, and provided he shakes the mane around enough, he fits the image they dream about. On the other hand, Whitesnake are not what their name, logo, and image might suggest. They’re leagues above your Saxons and your Judas Priests, and their tunes are a damn sight prettier than Gillan or Rainbow. Their roots go back above all to the epic heavy-blues ballad was Zep’s ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’, which kicked off a spate of agonised tonsil-torturing sessions through the early ’70s.
Much of the set, as in numbers like ‘Don’t Break My Heart Again’ and the classic ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’ (tip o’ the hat to Bobby “Blue” Bland!), consists of this rather strained passion, and when it’s time for a little virtuosity, e.g. a slide geetar solo by Micky Moody, Coverdale quietly leaves the stage as if this token showiness weren’t altogether his business.
Whitesnake are a resurfacing of the late ‘60s supergroup syndrome, and with mummified museum pieces Ian Paice (balding) on drums, and beergut-laden Jon Lord on keyboards, this would seem to be almost self-conscious. Still, none of them are so old they can’t pull the stops out – ‘Fool For Your Lovin’’ is deservedly an HM classic and the audience went suitably ape over it.
It was almost ten o’clock before headliners AC/DC took the stage, and the atmosphere was, er, “electric”. A giant bell had been lowered onto the stage to prepare us for ‘Hell’s Bells’, and new man Brian Johnson (one time singer with Geordie) was required to strike it thrice, thus giving the signal for the others to enter. This was Johnson’s introduction to the band’s English audience, though one can’t help feeling that, however many larynxes are worn out by AC/DC, their owners will always be hopelessly upstaged by the demented Angus Young. Who can say for sure that hairy drunken Bon Scott didn’t drink himself to death because Angus completely overshadowed him?
Still, it is rather inspired, you must admit, that the undisputed idol of the HM scene should be not a godlike space warrior but a hypnotically grotesque brat who appears to be having a permanent epileptic fit. Angus Young’s stage persona is a double deceit: his schoolboy disguise allows absolute immersion in the role of guitar hero. He can indulge a fantasy without having to embody it.
Young is an incredible guitar player: hardly original, but what’s that got to do with it? This infant deity of monster rock – the only thing on the entire bill that comes even close to the possible evil intimated by HM – never makes a mistake. His timing, his sheer hold on every note, is astounding. It’s a kind of omnipotence; the stage is his nursery floor, to do what he likes, including mock-strip.
Perhaps most important, Young’s only means of expression is that guitar; like Harpo Marx, he is silent, the alien enfant sauvage of rock ‘n’ roll. His performance is a form of possession, and the audience becomes merely an extension of the guitar’s emissions, gasping between its repeated stabs. Angus Young is what happens when – out of desperation and frustration – the youth once more call for the monster of Metal to rescue them from reality: it ain’t as simple as it was the first time round.
So there you are: HM. From Motorhead to Styx and back is a long way, and what you realise when you see denim jackets with Motorhead patches, Rainbow patches, Def Leppard patches, and Styx patches is that these kids live to participate in a group fantasy, a fantasy in which divergences in style are only too easily tolerated and ultimately ignored. In this immaculate regression – devoid of women or racial minorities – the communion is a closed circuit.
© Barney Hoskyns, New Musical Express, July 1981