Heavy Metal Rears Its Ugly Head Again

A new generation of bands is dominating the charts

IT’S BACK, just when the world was supposed to be safe for New Wave, ready at last for smart music, what should rear its leather-clad, lipstick-smeared image on the nation’s TV tubes but that bête noire of rock progressivism, heavy metal. Yes, rising up from the smoking remains of a million shredded speaker cones, nastier, noisier and more popular than ever, heavy metal is with us once again. But why?

Well, of course, it never really went away. Even in the depths of the record industry’s worst sales slump in decades, only a few years ago, a legion of head-banging kids continued to carry the torch for heavy-metal progenitors Led Zeppelin on radio-request lines all over America. If the music’s cultural profile seemed diminished compared to its heyday in the early Seventies, that was only because heavy metal was lying low, waiting for a new generation of puberty-afflicted musical misfits to feel that time-honored ache that only heavy metal’s kick-in-the-codpiece power fantasies can sate. And for the current crop of metal-mongers cleaning up in arenas around the country, the wait has been well worth it: in commercial terms, heavy metal (or hard rock, call it what you will) may be bigger now than ever before.

Maybe it took an Eddie Van Halen to edit some new magic into the old power-chord catechism, or a David Lee Roth to shake his inimitable booty and remind everybody what flash-and-burn is all about But what mainly did the trick was MTV. Girls! Whips! Chains! In color! In your living room! Suddenly, rock’s most extreme fantasy genre looked bigger, brighter, more fantastic than ever before. True, the music had mutated a bit, away from the sludgy tempos and endless caterwauling of early metal and toward faster rhythms, more polished productions, even actual melodies. But MTV instigated a more profound change. Where such metal pioneers as Led Zeppelin had earnest musical aims — attempting to restate the blues with a heady admixture of traditional British folk elements and Middle Eastern musical ideas — such current metal heavyweights as Quiet Riot and Mötley Crüe are really only concerned with presenting the fantasy. And MTV is in the fantasy business. Without the twenty-four-hour-a-day cable channel (and the host of other video-clip shows that are springing up across the airwaves), most of the new metal acts now dreaming up Guignol band logos and instant I-love-rock-&-roll head-banger anthems — the fantasy accessories that give the average American alien metal fan a sense of belonging to something — would still be grubbing gigs in local bars.

Quickly perceiving heavy metal’s new windfall profitability (Quiet Riot’s 1983 debut LP, Metal Health, sold 4.5 million copies and actually charted higher than Led Zeppelin’s classic first album), record companies have jumped on metal mania with, typical shovel-it-out-there zeal. Five years ago, A&R men were doling out contracts to any schlub with a skinny tie and a Rickenbacker guitar; now all that’s required is a smattering of chrome studs, lots of leather and a few biker-mag scenarios to stick in where the lyrics should go.

For nonconnoisseurs, it should be pointed out that this is not the Summer of Love. The new wave of heavy metal traffics in some of rock’s stupidest and ugliest notions. The basic message to women is along the lines of ‘On Your Knees’ (a tide offered by new metalists Great White) and ‘Burn Bitch Burn!’ (a sentiment expressed by metal vets Kiss). And so it’s not all that surprising to learn that the latest sensation in Los Angeles is a band that simulates the beating of a woman onstage.

And yet, metal has more female fans than ever, and such female acts as Girlschool, Rock Goddess and Lita Ford are now accepted as bona fide performers — a situation that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. That’s a point won by punk, which legitimized female participation in rock & roll in the late Seventies. It was punk, too, that pioneered the low-budget, do-it-yourself recording approach utilized by such upstart metal groups as Mötley Crüe to initially get their message out to the masses. But what is the new-metal message? And what about the music?

The following records illustrate some prevailing trends:

Dio: The Last in Line (Warner Bros.) ***½

RONNIE JAMES Dio has credibility in heavy-metal circles simply by virtue of his past associations with Black Sabbath and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. But he’s not just resting on his laurels here. His singing is looser and more natural than in the past, and he’s hired eager young players to help him whip out one of the best heavy records of the year.

The Last in Line has a bit of Ozzy-inspired I’m-a-mad-mamajama nonsense (‘Evil Eyes’) and the obligatory (so it seems) touch of misogyny (‘Eat Your Heart Out’), but the emphasis is on songs, not shriek. ‘Mystery’ (with chord changes that bring to mind Scandal’s ‘Love’s Got a Line on You’) and ‘The Last in Line’ would be strong, hook-filled contenders in any genre. Dio pushes guitarist Vivian Campbell into making the transition from punky thrashing to cascading riffing, but drummer Vinny Appice is a little too busy, rushing tempos while trying to get in some of his flashier fills. Still, given the technology that’s made almost everything else you hear sound slick and seamless, these mistakes are almost a relief.

Twisted Sister: Stay Hungry (Atlantic) ***

ALICE COOPER may have been put out to pasture — or, to be more precise, the golf course — but his spirit is alive and sick in bands like Mötley Crüe and Twisted Sister. After fifteen years of struggling in every dive from Long Island to London (where they finally got recognition and a record deal), Twisted Sister has finally made it in the heavy-metal market: their second LP, Stay Hungry, and its anthemic single, ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, are both taking rapid strides up the charts.

On Stay Hungry, Twisted Sister rehashes such familiar Cooper topics as teen guilt, fear and hormones; and one song, ‘Burn in Hell’, is almost a direct cop of Alice’s ‘Go to Hell’. But the Cooper comparisons don’t end there. Singer Dee Snider has gone so far over the top visually — he wears post-glam war paint, a fright-mop and ultra-giddy glad rags — that he resembles no one so much as Cooper spoofer Quay Lewd (Fee Waybill) of the Tubes. And ‘S.M.F.’ — especially Snider’s live version, in which he leads the audience in chanting “I’m a Sick Muthafucka” for what seems like hours — is nothing more than ‘White Punks on Dope’ carried to the next logical extreme.

Still, there is a serious side to this band. On ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘The Price’, Snider moves away from the kids’ stuff and tries to sort out adult dreams. Having tried for so long to get to the top, he seems determined not to lose his fighter’s edge.

Ratt: Out of the Cellar (Atlantic) ***

THIS YEAR’S Quiet Riot. Ratt’s hit single, ‘Round and Round’, may rework an old theme (Romeo and Juliet), but the unorthodox song structure, neat production twists (particularly the echo on the chorus) and driven twin-guitar attack make this teen vignette — “Out on the streets/That’s where we meet” — feel desperate and right. In addition, singer Stephen Pearcy sounds like a great L.A. street punk who would have been at home fronting the Seeds or the Standells.

The rest of the songs here — with the possible exception of ‘Lack of Communication’, which boasts snotty shouts of “Back off!” — aren’t as fully realized or as full of surprises as ‘Round and Round’. (‘Back for More’, the second single, has practically the same melody as its predecessor.) But guitarists Robbin Crosby and Warren De Martini are promising, and the band members may mature as songwriters and performers. If not, ‘Round and Round’ will still belong on a 1984 version of Nuggets.

Accept: Balls to the Wall (Portrait/CBS) ***

AT FIRST, this German quintet doesn’t seem much different from any of the zillion other outfits that have patterned their sound after AC/DC’s Back in Black — gang choruses, thick clots of vicious guitar, John Bonham-style drum bashing and a singer whose screams make it sound as if burning bamboo shoots were being shoved under his fingernails while he was laying down his lead vocals. But the title track of this album is actually ballsier than anything AC/DC’s come up with since they began producing themselves. And what’s more, the group features one of rock’s most unusual frontmen. Udo Dirkschneider is a little bulldog of a man who looks like he just stepped off the docks. But what’s really bizarre are his lyrics. In ‘Balls to the Wall’, Dirkschneider sings, “Let’s plug a bomb in everyone’s arse”; in ‘Head over Heels’, he gets off watching a couple making love in a park; and while ‘London Leatherboys’ hints at the homoeroticism that lurks beneath much of metal’s macho exterior, ‘Love Child’ makes it explicit. He feels the “power of lust when the guy’s passing by” and wails “Don’t know what I am/A woman or a man.” So who needs Frankie Goes to Hollywood? The possibilities, if Accept chooses to pursue them, could be interesting. It’s about time someone used the form to express some complicated, unconventional emotions.

Lita Ford: Dancin’ On the Edge (Mercury) ***

THE YEAR’S most improved player. On her second album, Lita Ford has gotten rid of the fake blood, the Folies-Bergeres-through-a-meat-grinder costume and the producer — all factors that combined to make her debut album one of the most embarrassing packages ever released. Ford’s got the looks and the attitude to make it as metal’s first female star. Her lead-guitar playing and her vocals are getting tougher, but what she really needs are songs. Lita and band pound, writhe and moan with conviction, but ‘Lady Killer’, ‘Dressed to Kill’ and ‘Hit and Run’ are no more imaginative than their tides.

Quiet Riot: Condition Critical (Pasha/CBS) **

TALK ABOUT playing it safe. Last year, Quiet Riot came out of nowhere and reached Number One with a cover version of the 1972 Slade classic ‘Cum on Feel the Noize’. So what does this L.A. band do on its second outing? Why, cover another Slade song, of course: this time, ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’. Unfortunately, minting new hits from old Slade tunes isn’t as easy as Quiet Riot seems to think, and the rest of Condition Critical shows an equal lack of imagination. ‘Sign of the Times’, for example, features the same bass line that pumped up ‘Bang Your Head’, the one great original track on the group’s debut LP, Metal Health. And ‘Condition Critical’ is nothing more than deflated Led Zeppelin.

Songs of this uninspired sort may work on the road — these energetic, professional showmen probably have a few good tours left in them — but they all sound too long on record, even the ones that clock in at around three minutes. Maybe that’s because Carlos Cavazo, a capable guitarist whose perfect break helped make ‘Cum On’ special, winged his leads rather than putting some thought into them. Or maybe it’s because singer Kevin DuBrow sounds determined to emphasize the most obnoxious aspects of his personality by writing songs like ‘Scream and Shout’ and delivering them in a hoarse, strained English accent (Someone give this man a cough drop, please.) “We are pure escapists” seems to be DuBrow’s prevailing philosophy, and it’s probably his excuse for most of this material, too. As it is, the heavy-metal audience may have already gotten Quiet Riot mixed up with all the other groups in striped tights. This band’s condition could be more critical than it suspects.

Great WhiteGreat White (EMI-America) **

AVERAGE AC/DC imitators with better-than-average production. Great White had the good sense to cover Pete Townshend’s ‘Substitute’, but not the smarts to make it their own (unless you think changing a line from “I see right through your plastic mac” to “I see right through that Satan crap” counts). The inclusion of ‘Substitute’ has a twofold effect: it points up how lame the group’s original material is, and it makes it clear that Great White is really nothing more than a copy band.

Y&T: In Rock We Trust (ACM) *

DON’T BE FOOLED by the album title, the industrial-strength logo or the metal man waving a space-age guitar on the cover. This band has nothing to do with contemporary rock. The first giveaway is the speed of the music — funereal. But that’s not all. Rarely have suggestions of Grand Funk Railroad (the lead vocals), jazzy voiceings (background vocals), est (lyrics) and It’s a Beautiful Day (meandering solos) been combined so painfully. If this ‘Rock & Roll’s Gonna Save the World’, as Y&T announces in its wretched bid for a metal anthem, it’s time to book a flight on the space shuttle.

© Deborah FrostRolling Stone, 27 September 1984

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