Die Laughing: In Defence Of ‘Comedy’ Metal

Yesterday’s news that the money men around Steel Panther would prefer if the tongue-in-cheek hair metal troupe eased up on the smut and silliness and capitalised on their burgeoning success with some “serious” songs isn’t entirely surprising, but it does betray an astonishing lack of understanding of what it is that endears the band to metal fans. Remove the filth and knowingly near-the-knuckle jokes from the LA quartet and we’d be left with merely a highly proficient ‘80s cover band: to appropriate a line from Blackadder II, the Panther without their potty-mouthed japery would be like a broken pencil… pointless.

Besides, heavy metal has always had an awareness of, and indeed revelled in, its own absurdity. From that sword-wielding buffoon on the cover of Sabbath’s Paranoid album to Robert Plant’s infamous “I am a golden god!” proclamation, from Rob Halford’s throbbing ‘hog’ to Bon Scott’s ‘Big Balls’, from Ronnie James Dio’s pet dragon Denzil to Ozzy Osbourne’s pet dwarf, er, ‘Ronnie’, the very best metal bands have understood that ridicule is nothing to be scared of.

For all but the dimmest stars in the metal firmament it’s impossible to play music this bombastic, this theatrical, this vein-poppingly intense without having an inkling as to how silly all this might look to the uninitiated. As Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson sagely noted last year, “Where else can a 54-year-old still run around in a jockstrap and tights and not get arrested?” But we never apologise and never explain: you either get the gloriously OTT nature of our world, or you don’t… in which case the joke is on you.

From Lawnmower Deth to Tenacious D to Evil Scarecrow there’s a noble tradition of satire, subversion and downright silliness in metal that is to be applauded. Only the grimmest of kvlt hearts could observe Evil Scarecrow conducting synchronised scuttling during the anthemic Crabulon at Bloodstock and failed to be moved by the balletic beauty of thousands of pissed up metalheads shuffling sideways and back with ‘pincers’ snapping in the sky. A grindcore band fronted by a dog? Sure.

A death metal band fronted by a Congo African parrot?

Bring ‘em on. A glam metal band fronted by a couple of New York pensioners called Starchild and The Demon? Hilar… wait, Kiss aren’t a piss-take? Awkward.

The truth is that, as seriously as we take our music and lifestyle, metal fans love a good giggle. Perhaps the ultimate proof of this is the love we reserve for This Is Spinal Tap, a film outsiders might see as a piss-take of the genre. No-one adores Spinal Tap (and their scruffier brethren Bad News) more than metal fans. We’re in on the jokes, we recognise the caricatures and appreciate the nuances and subtleties of those scripts like no-one else. We get this. We’re good with this. And that’s why, whatever those suits might think, we don’t need, or want, a neutered Steel Panther, toned down and emasculated for the mainstream. Balls to that. For quite frankly, Michael Starr with a semi is no good to anyone.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.