The 80s were nearly over; Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth represented the cutting edge of the metal mainstream, and thrash – once a widely reviled, underdog genre – was reaching the pinnacle of its soaraway global success. A crucial presence at the birth of the movement in San Francisco’s Bay Area, Exodus had struggled with line-up changes and label hassles that had held back the baby-faced trailblazers from attaining the giddy heights of their Big 4 compadres.
Their much-delayed debut, the legendary Bonded By Blood, had set the underground on fire in 1985, while ’87’s Pleasures Of The Flesh bedded in new singer Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza, but hadn’t grabbed the world’s attention as powerfully as Exodus deserved. Then, towards the end of 1988, a bunch of mega-bouncy riffs and a wacky spoof concept turned up that secured the quartet a break- through anthem that would remain a highly anticipated mainstay of their setlist forevermore.
Writing new material for what would become 1989’s Fabulous Disaster LP, guitarist Gary Holt already had the name ‘Toxic Waltz’ designated for a promising new tune. Handing the demo tape to Steve, Gary told the singer he wanted lyrics about “what fans do at our shows”. Metallica’s Whiplash and Megadeth’s Rattlehead had already emphatically nailed this theme, but Gary’s title suggested an ironic twist; the lightbulb moment came when Zetro got home late after rehearsal and flicked onto a commercial for a compilation of novelty dance songs.
“The lyrics were written in about 25 minutes, top to bottom,” recalls the frontman. “All I did was, I copied the 60s dance songs, like The Twist, The Mashed Potato, The Monkey… I even referred to them in the lyrics. All those songs did was go through, in a cool rhythm and rhyme, how to do the dance. The opening line – ‘Here’s a new dance craze that’s sweeping the nation’ – a lot of those songs started like that, so I just totally parodied that. But when I wrote it, I was in mind of the pit going fucking crazy.”
Steve knew he had some killer funny lines – among other doozies, check out ‘Too much action may leave you in traction/So you better get insurance no matter your endurance’ – but he was expecting he’d have to tone down the comedy on the second draft.
“The next day I came to rehearsal and said, ‘Here it is, but dude, it’s a joke, I’m gonna rewrite it.’ So I hand it to [Gary] and he says ‘This is fucking brilliant, dude!’” Steve breaks off with a hearty cackle. “I’m like, ‘Don’t be a dunce and dance like a runt?’ Are you kidding me? They won’t want this! This isn’t thrash, this is a joke!’ Who was to know that this would become our anthem, a song we’d have to play at every show? I didn’t expect it to be that way, I really didn’t. I thought ‘They’re gonna laugh at this’, because I think I’m a funny guy!”
A performance video was filmed for the song, yet unaccountably The Toxic Waltz was never released as a single. Even though thrash was never much of a singles market, it seems a missed opportunity. “I don’t know why they didn’t do that as a single, because it obviously was,” Steve asserts. “It was an anthem, and it was a video song – we did a two-day shoot at the Fillmore in San Francisco. I hated the song after that; we had to listen to it about 500 times!”
Even after the LP came out and the song (first played live at the University of Sheffield, incidentally) started making an impact, still Steve wasn’t a great fan. Fabulous Disaster is an underrated platter from the tail-end of thrash’s golden age, with some bruisingly epic shit on it, but The Toxic Waltz is the only cut from its tracklist that hung around.
“My favourite songs on that album would be Last Act Of Defiance or Like Father Like Son,” Zetro reveals, “I thought they had way more balls to them and more meaning, and Cajun Hell just rocked, so when people started shouting ‘Toxic Waltz!’ I was like, really? I wrote that song so fucking effortlessly! Sometimes it takes hours to get two verses, some songs I’ll write in half an hour and the whole thing is done. Sometimes songs are written in a funny way, I guess…”
Despite Steve’s initial trepidation about the song’s jocularity, the singer has never met anyone who reacted to it in the way that he was expecting. “No, nobody’s ever come up and said ‘I hate that song, it’s stupid’,” he laughs. “For the thrashers it’s their anthem. Older people that bring their kids to the show will ask, ‘Are you playing The Toxic Waltz tonight?’ Or I’ll ask if someone’s mom listens to us, and they’ll say, ‘Well, she likes The Toxic Waltz…’ Maybe because it’s structured like a parody of a dance song, it’s more easily accessible?”
By the end of the 80s, many thrashers were starting to have a bit of fun with the genre. Once the world’s gloomiest and harshest strain of music, by this time Anthrax were doing hip hop collaborations and hiring MAD Magazine cartoonists, Sacred Reich were throwing in surf rock influences, and Lawnmower Deth were releasing a split album with Metal Duck. The Toxic Waltz didn’t particularly stand out as too grievously flippant, especially on an LP with a photo sleeve depicting the band accidentally triggering a nuclear war by pushing the wrong button on a TV remote control.
“We were always looked at like that, we were always tongue in cheek, right from inception,” insists Steve. “I mean, ‘Get in your way and we’ll take your life/Kick in your face and rape and murder your wife’?! That’s in the song Exodus. When I first heard that – I wasn’t in the band, obviously – I thought it was the funniest thing ever. ‘Hang on, did he just say that?!’ On my first record, Pleasures Of The Flesh, you think we’re talking about some hot chick you want to fuck? Not Exodus, we’re talking about cannibalism! That’s our pleasures of the flesh! So I always thought Exodus had their tongue in cheek. There was always that thing where although it’s serious, we can laugh at it. It’s all ‘good friendly violent fun’! We’re a very brutal thrash metal band, but you can have a good time with us. The song explains that. We wanna see you guys beat the shit out of each other out there, but, let’s be nice about it, you know? Nothin’ personal!”
Despite its parodic nature, the ‘dance moves’ described in the song are as truthfully observed as any real-life trauma exposed in thrash lyrics. “There are lines in it that are so true, everything I say in the song I’d seen at a show,” comments Zetro. “I joined in June ’86, I’d seen them for the last four years in clubs, and there was never a metal show more brutal than Exodus. Not Metallica, not Slayer, they just weren’t. And that was back in the days when these fucking [venues] didn’t know how to build barricades. I saw many of those buckle and break and mayhem going on in the crowd. It was a raw time.”
Steve has seen audience reactions change over time at close quarters, and while he agrees the more risk-averse audiences of today would be horrified by the wild violence of their 80s forebears, they’re much more bonded and savvy.
“It’s still very brutal, but it’s much more uniform, there’s a protocol in there now,” he ponders. “When someone goes down you pick ’em up, we’re all in this together, it’s part of the good time that we’ve created over the last 30-40 years that we’ve been thrashing. I don’t think the crowd knew what it was for the first few years, but they’ve got it down now. From circle pit to wall of death to jumping up and down, they know what they’re doing. It wasn’t like that in the 80s. If a circle pit broke out then you’d think, ‘Wow, these guys have really got their shit together!’ This was a time when it was every man for himself out there. It was the wild wild west, these were pioneers on the frontier! People would come up after the show saying, ‘Look at my eye! I did this for you, bro!’ or ‘I fell on the ground and lost my glasses and shoes’… I’ve heard it all, man! These people were having the greatest time, they don’t give a shit. They just wanna hear this song over and over and over again!”