ONLY A year ago, a headline in the rock magazine Creem was asking, "Is Heavy Metal Dead?" That was the consensus while disco droned on, rock critics floundered in new wave infatuations, record companies stumbled over themselves to sign any new wave band which knew more than five chords, and radio tightened its playlists and became increasingly homogenized.
But the reports of heavy metal's death have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, the doomsday-decibel style has:
provided nine of the 15 top-grossing concerts of 1979, including a Boston-Heart-Van Halen-Nazareth-Blue Oyster Cult-Sammy Hagar blast at the Dallas Cotton Bowl that grossed $1,215,000 -- in one night;
accounted for one out of five pop records sold in the U.S. in recent years;
and continued to fill larege arenas and stadiums while the rest of the industry has cut back on touring.
Most everyone in the music business now agrees that, contrary to general belief, heavy metal never went away. And in fact, a full-scale revival is under way in England and is headed to America. "Critics hae rediscovered heavy metal is a viable form that sells records," says Gene Simmons, lead singer for Kiss, one of the hottest heavy-metal bands in the world. "It's not all of what we are, but we are a loud band -- which is one of the prerequisites. You can't be soft. Certain lyrics have to be suggestive, sexually or otherwise. Heavy metal audiences are pretty much rowdy, in their teens and they just want to have a good time."
"It's the cravings of the musicians amplified to the cravings of the listeners and fans," adds Ted Nugent, Detroit's gonzo guitarist who will headline a heavy-metal extravaganza at the Capital Centre tonight with the Scorpions and Def Leppard. Indeed, the major complaints about heavy metal -- aside from its crippling hedonistic riffs played at bone-jarring volume, with sledgehammer bass-and-drum blasts, banshee guitar and drawn-out vocals -- tend to be as much sociological as musical.
The audiences are overwhelmingly adolescent. Rolling Stone once described a typical Rush fan -- 90 percent of whom are male -- as "16-year-old males with long hair, faint mustaches and adrenalin to burn." (With the exception of Kiss, females generally are not attracted to the numbing sound.) Heavy metal lyrics feature fantasies of male dominance and aggression, often couched in pseudo-mystical terms to reinforce the image of the male as sexual predator. Rock metalurgists are macho boys' whose violent entertainment often sounds ugly and upset, rooted in teen angst and visions of apocalypse. "They're a frustrated bunch," says Creem magazine's editor, Susan Whitall. "It's a good way for them to let out their frustrations. They want to forget everything and they do it by getting heavily downed out," whether on drugs, liquor, or the music.
Nugent sees his audience differently. "My typical fan is an 18-year-old white male, basically independent, who works for a living, has a pretty girl under his arm, a bottle of Jack in his back pocket and a Smith and Wesson in his belt."
"And it's an extremely loyal audience," adds Marsha Vlasic of ITA, the booking agency which handles MORE HEAVY METAL-HARD ROCKERS (AC/DC, Judas Priest, Kiss, Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, UFO, Pat Travers and others) than any other. "In most major cities, heavy metal groups have always done big business."
The peak years of heavy metal were the early '70s, but its roots go back to the mid-'60s and songs like the Troggs' "Wild Thing," the Who's "My Generation," the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night" and the Yardbirds' "Shape of Things." A common thread in the last four songs was the guitar playing of Jimmy Page, who at age 36 is something of a grandfather figure in heavy metal for his work with the Yardbirds and their successors, the immensely successful Led Zeppelin.
The term itself popped up in William Burroughs' novel "Naked Lunch" ("they ate piles of heavy metal") but was first used specifically in music in the lyrics of Steppenwolf's 1967 (pre-metal) "Born to Be Wild?: "Like a stroke of lightning/heavy metal thunder." Late-'60s power trios like Blue Cheer, Cream and Jimi Hendrix flirted with the style, but 1971-72 proved to be the biggest, with such genre classics as Black Sabbath's "Master of Reality" and "Paranoid," Deep Purple's "Machine Head," Led Zeppelin's fourth album and "E Pluribus Funk" from Grand Funk.
It was only at that point that the "heavy metal" term started being widely applied; and in 1980, most heavy-metal bands are still sensitive about being categorized. "I play rock and roll," Nugent insists. "On strict musical terms, it's easier to peg us that way," admist Kiss' Simmons, "but the way the band looks, the image makes us different." Other bands insist on terms like "heavy rock" and "hard rock."
The diffusion of heavy-metal energy can be traced back to ex-Humble Pie metal guitarist Peter Frampton, who brought in melodic sensitivity in the mid-'70s. ("It's only now getting back to the brutality," gloats one addict.) The fact that heavy metal didn't grow beyond its dense musical origins started to attract charges of "heavy metal sludgery," and the critics and radio programmers started to look elsewhere, though heavy metal continued to be a major roadside attraction.
Last year, a true revival started in England, built around new young bands like Iron Maiden, Saxon, Samson, the all-women Girls School and Def Leppard, whose five members average 18 years of age. "We've always played the same music," says Rick Allen, Def Leppard's 16-year-old drummer. While most other fledgling musicians tested the waters of new wave, ska (a funk-reggae mixture) and the like, "we set out to play the kind of music we play now," Allen says. "The difference in our music is that we took a lot of influences from the new wave thing, like short guitar solos, what we call the three-minute song." Many of the newer lyrics are also less blatantly sexist.
"A lot of young kids felt left behind when new wave moved away from punk," says Ira Robbins, publisher and editor of Trouser Press, a New York magazine which covers the English new wave but not heavy metal. When both lyrics and song structures "started getting clever as opposed to straight aggressive," he says, heavy-metal audiences "were relieved to find bands coming along that didn't tax their minds. The phenomemon hasn't translated into a fact here yet, but a lot of imports are now being released domestically."
Heavy metal's popularity in England may have also been a backlash against new wave's speediness. The bands heavied up, slowed the rhythms down and threw a few more riffs in. They also adopted the new wave strategy of putting out their own singles and EPs while the record companies toed a cautious line on signings.
In England devoted heavy-metal fans, called "headbangers" or "punters," often crowd the stage, flailing away on imaginary guitars (though the more sophisticated now bring cardboard cut-outs). They are often thought of in military terms -- the Kiss Army, which often wears patches and insignias, has been subdivised into Def Leppard's "Rock Brigades".
The new wave of heavy-metal bands is different in other ways, too.They are much closer to age to their audience. Their influences tend to be second-generation bands like Rush, UFO and Judas Priest, though these influences are filtered through their own sensibilities. They're also more aware of the importance of radio and the success of AM strategies by groups like Kiss, Aerosmith, Van Halen and Boston -- who released singles directed at Top-40 airplay with mainstream qualities which were not characteristic of their normal performances. Those hits were immensely helpful in filling huge arenas.
"You still have to deal with radio. That's the key," says Bob Sherwood, president of Mercury Records, which has Rush, Scorpions and Def Leppard. "If it's not exposed, it's not going to sell."
If heavy metal is going to get anywhere, it will be on only one side of the great split in pop radio programming between top-40 and album-oriented rock stations. "There's a greater gap now than ever before," says Sherwood, "and that's going to grow." Heavy metal is best suited to the AOR target audience, which, according to Sherwood, is "the young male who likes to rock." Adds Creem's Whitall, "since heavy metal alienates females, who are actively turned off by it, playing heavy metal is a way those stations can make sure women don't tune in."
Top-40 stations, according to Lee Abrams of the Burkhart, Abrams, Michaels and Douglas syndicate, broadcast consultants to more than 150 commercial radio outlets, "are reticent about playing heavy metal because so much of their target audience is female, 25-34, and their characteristics musically are usually 180 degrees from the other demographic mark."
Heavy metal's commercial resurgence is causing a flurry of signings, as U.S. labels scramble to recruit European groups which have already established a successful product. "A lot of labels can seem to be signing acts and hyping them," Abrams points out, "primarily because they see it as a way to get themselves out of the record recession."
"But," warns Sherwood, "companies who are latecomers and sign any four young guys who can play an awesome power chord are in for a surprise. By the time they get an album out [anywhere from six months to a year], things will have crested." It's the same situation that confronts the new wave movement, which still sees more groups imported than developed and recorded stateside.
Meanwhile, heavy metal continues to reap gold and platinum rewards. While new wave wooed the critics, punk and new wave bands played to empty halls while heavy metal outfits filled the arenas. The fans continue to have their heads bashed in by powerful music, the "simple joys of heavy metal."
"It's so intense right now," says Nugent, "that all the elements that inspired rock-and-rollers in the beginning have snowballed and there's still that uninhibited craving by kids to rock and roll."