Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Short History of Metal (Part Two of Several)

(Part One)

Consider General Ambrose Burnside: general, inventor, gun nut. Well liked in his day, Burnside is remembered as a somewhat inept Civil War General, known most for his bumbling failure at Fredericksburg and his frothingly patriotic "General Order Number 38," which made it a criminal act to express any opposition to the war. His postbellum life is marked by his invention and patent of the Burnside carbine, a device that prevented hot gas from leaking from a rifle (presumably a really good idea), and was tapped to be the first president of the N.R.A. And yet, despite a military career that can be best described as "goobery" and a postbellum career that positioned him as the Original Gangsta Charlton Heston, Burnside is largely forgotten by all but a handful of bespectacled scholars and hyper-sensitive re-creationist nutjobs.

Or so you think.

Because, for all he accomplished in life, and there's plenty not included above, mind you, Burnside is known to every living American because of his hair.

See, Burnside had sideburns. Or, rather, sideburns had Burnside. The man had muttonchops so massive, so resplendent, so utterly sasquatchian that an entire facial hairstyle was named after him. If sideburns were people, Burnside's would have been the love-child of Goliath and Edward Gorey. While lesser men got morsels of soup stuck to their beard, entire sub-species of rodentia evolved in Burnside's muttonchops. And, though the magnificence of Burnside's sideburns can hardly be undersold, there's a certain sadness to the reason for his fame: here was a man who improved the rifle, who presided over a massively important American society, who fought valiantly (though poorly) for his country, and he's remembered for what?

Looking like a dumbass.

Which brings us to Glam Metal. See, like Burnside, Glam Metal had definable successes: taking metal mainstream, for example, originating the bizarre, ironic, and incredibly lucrative Christian metal subgenre for another. Glam Metal launched the careers of iconic groups like Motley Crue, Poison, and Europe, whose signature single "The Final Countdown," reached number one in a staggering 26 countries before being religated to "the song to which European footballers run onto the field" and "the song to which G.O.B. Bluth embarrasses himself." But, like Burnside, Glam Metal is looked upon with suspicion, with a certain head-shaking resignation. And, even more like Burnside, Glam Metal bands are remembered most vividly for one solitary, simple thing: looking like dumbasses.

See, Glam Metal is most commonly referred to as "Hair Metal." As Burnside The Man became Sideburns The Hair, Glam Metal The Genre became Hair Metal The Joke. The genre was typified by grown men with angular guitars mincing about, coifed in hair that even a Houston matriarch would find ostentatious, men in spandex and headbands taking an already excessive genre to levels of excess hitherto unimagined. Also: power ballads. Lots of power ballads.

Musically, Glam Metal was smoother, more refined than its progenitors. The lyrics migrated away from Tolkien and Satan and killing tons of suckas and stuck to that old metal mainstay of screwing broads like it's going out of style. But this genre was metal's crowning "triumph of style over substance" moment. Sabbath, Zeppelin, and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands remain influential to not only current metal bands, but certain punk and post-punk acts as well; many still enjoy radio play. Hair Metal remains influential only to a select group of ironic hipsters and women from Jersey. And though metal has never been renowned for its sober, celibate intelligence, Hair Metal seemed to drag the genre into a morass of libidinous, hubristic idiocy unknown since Caligula. Typical is this quote from David Coverdale, singer for the mostly forgettable band Whitesnake: "This is the sexiest music my guys have ever been involved in, and they are the sexiest fucking musicians. When they play, it's sex." Which, really, is undeniable.

Perhaps most associated with the glib Hair Metal revolution that briefly curdled the American brain was Motley Crue. In addition to pioneering the use of unnecessary umlauts, the Crue took the debauchery to levels that can best be described as "you should probably be dead." Musically, really, they are largely unremarkable, a band that, by any other name, would be forgotten in the $3.99 bin at your local record store, but Motley Crue were impressive self-promoters and legitimate menaces to society. A few lowlights (with bonus Ozzy coverage):

- Whilst strung out heroin, Nikki Six (bassist), pulled a gun on a radio because he thought it was talking to him.

- Vince Neil, singer, wrecked his car in 1984, killed his passenger, served eighteen days of a monthlong sentence. The band then released "Music to Crash Your Car To," which is the third definition of "classy" in the New American Heritage Dictionary.

- Tommy Lee has a big wang.

- And then there's this, which, really, sums up both Motley Crue's debauchery and the fact that Ozzy Osbourne probably looked at them as harmless, fey kindygarteners: on tour (Motley Crue's first major tour, by the by), Sixx snorted a rather phenomenal line of cocaine. Ozzy, unwilling to be outdone, snorted a line of ants off the street, peed on the ground and licked it up, then dared Sixx to do the same. Sixx peed and, before he could commence his own personal homage to "Waterworld," Ozzy was already on all fours DRINKING MOTLEY CRUE'S PISS. Moral of the story: you never never never try to out-filth a man who's bit the head off a bat. Game. Set. Match: Osbourne.

Basically, they drank, they did oodles of drugs, they screwed promiscuously, they cleaned up, they broke up, they reunited, they unreunited, they rereunited. They even wrote a book about it, so long as one of the definitions of "wrote" is "dictated it to some dude they were probably throwing mixed nuts at." But the thing is: their songs are largely forgotten. They're remembered not as a band but more as a traveling circus of death-defying excess.

One point that should be made is that Hair Metal allowed the entire metal genre to become something other than the province of sallow loners, table top RPG players, and occult aficionados.

It was, in a word, popular. Hair Metal was metal at it's most successful. Though the late '90s would see a resurgence in mainstream headbangerness with the wholly execrable "Nu Metal" movement, Hair Metal remains the most lucrative subset of the usually marginalized metal genre. Hair Metal was to metal what the Nintendo Wii was to videogaming: the moment that finally convinced the fairer sex that they should join the party. Beyond that, Hair Metal allowed for lyrics that didn't sound like the poetry of that kid with the trench coat at the back of Biology class. They were fun. They were boisterous. They had a sense of humor, which is understandable, considering they were sung by men in testicle crushing pants and hair more closely associated with victims of electrocution. Van Halen is sometimes lumped in with the Hair Metal movement and, while I don't think that's fair, it does show the ethos of this Glam Metal style: while traditional metal seemed overly worried about appearing bad ass, Hair Metal realized it was ridiculous. It was a largely goofy movement, but a self-aware one. And that lack of pretense, I'd argue, is laudable.

Which, in fact, brings us to Van Halen. One thing you should know here is that Van Halen are among the most successful musicians ever: 80 million albums sold worldwide and more Billboard Mainstream Rock number ones than anybody (I swears). Another thing you should know is, as I mentioned, they are considered by some to be the first Glam Metal band. I think this is a limiting view but there are certain undeniable bonds between Van Halen and Hair Metal: the broad appeal (both literally and as a pun, intended), the lack of slobbering machismo (see Roth, David Lee), and the sheer boisterousness of the band. From inauspicious---and might I add, really charming---beginnings, Van Halen grew into what can probably should be considered America's Great Metal Band.

It begins like this: Eddie Van Halen and his brother Alex get a drum and guitar set, respectively. While Eddie goes off on his paper route (ain't that adorable?), Alex begins messing around on his drums, which infuriates Eddie, whose revenge is playing Alex's guitar. They would remain this way for a good three and a half decades, with Eddie Van Halen reaching canonical guitar deity status and Alex becoming a renowned drummer in his own right. When they were still called "Mammoth" (which, admittedly, is a pretty kick-ass metal band name), they rented a PA from David Lee Roth, but, deciding it would be cheaper to just let him sing, actually, well, they let him sing. Voila: Van Halen.

(This is discounting bassist Michael Anthony, but, well, without being insulting, he's a pretty distant fourth here. We're not talking about Jaco Pastoralus or anything).

Like so many metal bands, the Halen was oft-maligned in their early days. Gene Simmons liked them enough to bring them to his management---but not before suggesting they change their name to "Daddy Shortlegs," which is, really, about the crappiest band name of all time---who decided that they had "no chance of making it" (presumably as either Van Halen, Mammoth, Daddy Shortlegs, or Colonel Ketchup's Ragtime Mega Special Fancy Boyfriend Jam Jamboree, a name they never actually considered but a name no less braintarded than the "Polka Tulk Blues Explosion," which, if you'll remember, was championed by a man who snorted insected and licked up urine).

Van Halen had been playing around Southern California to decent crowds, largely thanks to their habit of fliering at high schools, and, eventually were picked up by a pair of A&R reps from Warner Brothers, who funded their first album and, currently, are living in a mansion made entirely of ambergris and naked women.

This first Van Halen album was wildly successful; indeed, it would earn them a spot opening for Black Sabbath at the end of Sabbath's heyday (or, well past it, depending on who you listen to), reach number nineteen on the Billboard charts, and would contain the first instance of heavy metal finger-tapping, a guitar style of which Eddie Van Halen is apocryphally considered the forefather. (He was preceded---among others---by the nineteenth century violinist Niccolo Paganini, who, in delightful congruousness, was once thought possessed by the devil because of his sheer virtuosity and lithe, vaguely sinister appearance. Indeed, he should be considered the first heavy metal string player, having wowed Europe with his bravado, his chops, and his unreal range---he had the ability to bridge three octaves in a single hand span, a talent borne possibly from a genetic disease that resulted in elongated digits or hyper-mobile joints. Further, Paganini was said to have "lashed" the violin violently, as if possessed, and that he could make the instrument cry. He was also rumored to be a sexual deviant and made no attempt to dissuade people of the notion. Point being: dude was metal. In a couple hundred years, he no doubt would have resorted to drinking the "Mystery Bucket" or lapping pee from the streets of some American metropolis. But let's move on).

This first Van Halen album was---and, most often, is still---considered "hard rock," a classification rife with overtones of all-consuming lameness (sorry Aerosmith). But, arguably, it is the progenitor of Hair Metal. First off, it's fun: even the song "Running With the Devil"---a major reason this album sold ten million copies, by the way---is boisterous despite the Sabbathesque title. The record employs the tongue-in-cheek ethos of Hair Metal, the virtuosity of all metal, and boasted a front man up until now unseen in metal world: a mincing lunatic capable of singing two notes simultaneously (Tuvan throat style, son), a man who played a slide-whistle on a metal song, a man who's been known to show up at parties wheeling his own bar, complete with chips AND dip, a man, needless to say, who is many clicks removed from the pee-drinking slobs and diabolical mutton-chopped manchildren who had fronted famous metal bands up till this point.

A good question here is: why, then, shouldn't you consider Van Halen Hair Metal? Quite simply, it feels limiting. Hair Metal was most assuredly not innovative, whereas Van Halen was. Which is to say, where Black Sabbath and Zeppelin pushed blues into a cesspool of distortion and sheer, impervious volume and while the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands dragged it into a place that was punkier, faster, and ultimately more contemporary, Hair Metal just sort of sat on the sidelines, looking at itself in the mirror, assuring itself it looked fabulous.

It was content to do so.

Van Halen also didn't succumb to the Glam Metal cliches of power-ballads (at least till “Right Now”) or, quite simply, the ridiculous manes and come-hither posturing employed by the leaders of the genre. Furthermore, while Hair Metal is largely considered an eye-averting joke of a shenanigan, Van Halen receives---and indeed, deserves---respect. Call it Pop Metal, if you must. But they, unlike the near entirety of Hair Metal bands, toured and recorded consistently until the turn of the millennium, albeit with two additional lead singers, tequila aficionado Sammy Hagar and ex-Extreme frontman Gary Cherone. They pioneered---or at least re-introduced---new guitar techniques.

But, in the end, whether you decide to consider Van Halen a Hair Metal band or a hard rock band or, even, a pop band ("Jump" being a fantastic argument for this), they were legit. Hair Metal, to be kind, was anything but. Beyond that, Van Halen predates Hair Metal, and, though parts of their general aura and overall aesthetic were co-opted by Glam Metal, they somehow remained above the fray: they used keyboards, they innovated, they weren't, as Motley Crue and so many bands of the same era were, sideshows. If that style over substance ethos defines Hair Metal, Van Halen cannot be lumped in with them. Perhaps their style informed the movement, perhaps it even birthed it, but Van Halen remains above it simply by virtue of their actual skill, the quality of their songs, their status as a music-first-bitches-second metal cohort. They took metal out of the dungeons of sludge-like Sabbath grooving and past the NWOBHM blues-free metal into an era of major chords, shredding, and straight up fun. There were, by way of conclusion, totally fucking rad.

Next week: More metal, less hair.


Gasoline Hobo said...

Another excellent entry!

By the way, I've figured out what this series reminds me of. Wine reviews (I mean that in a good way). For example, here's an actual wine review:

"Moderately saturated ruby-red. Cool aromas of blueberry, violet, cedar and tobacco leaf. Suave and concentrated, with sneaky intensity and creaminess to the redcurrant and tobacco leaf flavors. I like the combination of sweetness and juiciness. An aromatic and rather understated wine that nonetheless possesses plenty of personality."

And here's your review of Chateau de Van Halen, vintage 1985:

"They were fun. They were boisterous. They had a sense of humor, which is understandable, considering they were sung by men in testicle crushing pants and hair more closely associated with victims of electrocution. Van Halen is sometimes lumped in with the Hair Metal movement and, while I don't think that's fair, it does show the ethos of this Glam Metal style: while traditional metal seemed overly worried about appearing bad ass, Hair Metal realized it was ridiculous. It was a largely goofy movement, but a self-aware one. And that lack of pretense, I'd argue, is laudable."

I have to say though - I'm glad you didn't attempt to describe the bouquet of Motley Crue. I'd imagine the aroma to be an unholy mix of unwashed, sweat-crusted leotards and Aquanet, shot through with the fruity acidity of cocaine as sampled through a juicebox straw.

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