"As metal staggered to its feet and limped out of the 80s, it was on the cusp of becoming stronger than ever before": How heavy metal got its mojo back

James Hetfield, The Osbournes and Honer Simpson
(Image credit: James Hetfield: Gie Knaeps | The Osbournes: Getty Images | Homer Simpson: Fox)

It’s a tale as old as time: the music pedalled by bands during the so-called hair metal era – a phrase which started off life as a snide, sneering retro-fitted jibe – stripped metal of its ferocious credibility and left the genre battered, bruised, and firmly in the shadow of grunge’s rapid ascension as the 90s rolled around. But that’s far from the whole story. 

In fact, as metal staggered to its feet and limped out of the 80s, it was on the cusp of becoming stronger than ever before. Here, we take a look back at how the genre reinvented itself as the decade drew to a close, and how that spurred its own cultural revolution.


1) Kurt Cobain invents grunge

When Kurt came up with the Black-Sabbath-Meets-More-Than-A-Feeling riff for Smells Like Teen Spirit and did that cute, panda-eyed thing at the camera, the world shifted on its axis. Beyond his genius for a dark pop song, Cobain personified an uncertain era, one that was uneasy with fame and money. He was already ripping down what he’d built when he took his own life in 1995. As he may have guessed, that act had the consequence of preserving it forever.

2) Eddie Vedder thinks he invents grunge (and grunge goes stadium)

The points of dispute between Pearl Jam and Nirvana seemed trivial on Cobain’s death, but while Ten, Pearl Jam’s debut, lacked the critical kudos of Nevermind, its bleak, roaring, anthemic sound was as influential. A large part of that was down to Eddie Vedder, a soulful man who’d channelled many of his lyrics while surfing in a shamanistic haze. The results – Black, Oceans, Release, Even Flow, Alive – ensured that grunge connected to the mainstream sensibility.

3) Metallica ignore grunge and make a flat-out classic LP

Metallica released the Black album two weeks before Ten and six weeks before Nevermind yet it feels like it existed way before them. With the record’s timeless sound, Metallica dragged thrash – a genre they’d helped to create – with them as they became a great metal band. They looked cooler too, the Metalli-makeover making a whole load of spandexed, poodle-haired rockers look ever so slightly stupid.

4) NIN reinvent soundtracks for Natural Born Killers

Trent Reznor’s soundtrack to the Quentin Tarantino/Oliver Stone movie Natural Born Killers spliced dialogue with skilfully edited music from Nine Inch Nails, Jane’s Addiction, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Duane Eddy to transform it into a slick, bloody accompaniment to the film and a standalone piece of art rock. From then on, few films would be complete without a bludgeoning metal track on their soundtrack.

5) Axl Rose makes Chinese Democracy

Every era needs its control-freak recluse, and Axl Rose was ours. Assuming sole ownership of Guns N’ Roses, he emerged only for the odd gig and to find new people to play in the band. News of his eccentricities, from a plan to entirely re-record Appetite For Destruction to a punch-up with Tommy Hilfiger, punctuated his lost years. When Chinese Democracy eventually came out, he refused to do any promotion or tour, amid stories that he didn’t consider the album ‘finished’. Things just wouldn’t be the same without him.

6) Mötley Crüe write The Dirt instead of a new album

Whether it was intuition, luck or marketing genius, da Crüe realised that a resurrection in fortunes was best accomplished not with more music but by telling their story. A memorable ‘autobiography’ about the lives of each member, The Dirt lived up to its name, delivering a series of toe-curling yarns tempered by genuine tragedy. An instant bestseller, copied but never topped.

7) MTV makes The Osbournes

After The Dirt came revelations of a different kind, this time a clever inversion that focused on the mundanity of a rock star’s family life rather than the excesses of showbiz. The Osbournes’ dysfunctionality was a given: what made the show different was their obvious love for one another and the power of family. It worked brilliantly until everyone involved realised it was working and began playing to type.

8) Festivals become good again

The concept of mud, tents, a stage and a burger van was overhauled by Perry Farrell, who conceived Lollapalooza in 1991. The twist was simple: this festival went on tour. And suddenly festivals were fun again, travelling circuses that featured all kinds of cultural diversions along with the bands. Ozzfest, begun because Ozzy wasn’t invited to play Lollapalooza, was another conspicuous success – its bill marrying the old-schoolers with the cutting-edge metallers.

9) Nu metal – the sub-genres get their own sub-genre

And it had a catchy name too, a term for a group of bands who’d grown up imbibing all kinds of grunge, alt.rock, hip hop, thrash and industrial. First attached to Coal Chamber in 1995, nu metal was symbolised by Korn, Slipknot and Limp Bizkit, bands who proved that heavy metal music was capable of endless reinvention.

10) The community mourns Darrell Abbott

Abbott, known to one and all as Dimebag, was the fan who made it big, a guitarist who represented the spirit of the music. His death, along with three others shot by a paranoid schizophrenic at a club in Columbus, Ohio, was dreadful; the outpouring of affection that followed proved how much the man meant to so many people he’d never met.

Dimebag Darrell shows his middle finger to the camera

Dimebag Darrell (Image credit: Total Guitar Magazine)

11) Bands grow old disgracefully

The question of age is rarely directly addressed, but it should be celebrated. No one knows how long musicians should go on for because this is the first generation of rockers to grow old in the job. Ronnie James Dio carried on rocking until his death aged 67, Tony Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne are both 75. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons have just retired in their early 70s, Aerosmith are well into their eighth decade. More power to them, the old dogs.

12) Spinal Tap is still funny

Heavy metal is funny. But no one understands why it’s funny better than the people who love it the most. The genius of This Is Spinal Tap is that every heavy metal band think it’s about them – and it is. Now nearly 40 years old – and with a sequel on the way – it’s still a cultural touchstone for generations of metalheads.

13) Tenacious D make up songs about Ronnie Dio

It might seem insignificant in isolation, but metal has crept slowly into the wider culture, not just via Tenacious D’s love of Dio, but with references in South Park and The Simpsons, Metalocalypse and so on.

14) Hair Metal becomes a nostalgia-fest every summer in America

As its original fans grew up, got affluent, had families and got nostalgic for the good old days, hair metal’s heroes backcombed thinning locks, dug ripped jeans from the back of the wardrobe and set sail on arena-filling ‘package tours’. Pioneered by Poison, perfected by Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard, it’s proved better than a pension plan – and a lot more fun.

15) Metal: now available in different colours

Like the Model T Ford, it used to be that metal was only available in one colour: black. Nowadays, metal is such a many-horned beast that it’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t like some aspect of it, whether it’s the heavy blues of stoner, the rage of thrash or the throb of industrial.

16) Priest get Rob Halford back

Fight, 2wo, Halford, Judas Priest with ‘Ripper’ Owens… somehow it never felt quite right. Halford’s JP comeback album, Angel Of Retribution, was good, but the band excelled themselves on Nostradamus, an OTT concept piece that epitomised the glory of metal, and have only got better since. 

17) Led Zeppelin do it one more time – and then don’t reform

One charity show at the O2 in December 2007 was enough to prove the drawing power of Led Zeppelin: the Celebration Day gig was mythic before it even happened. A single event added to their legend in a way that a tour never would: their mystery and secrets remain.

18) Iron Maiden go global

With Bruce Dickinson at the controls of Ed Force One – their fully customised Airbus 757 – Iron Maiden took their 2009 stage show to places hitherto uncharted for metal bands. Ticket sales topped two million while the band visited 21 cities in 11 countries in fewer than seven weeks. On top of all that, they made a prize-winning documentary and bagged themselves a Brit Award. Not a bad year, all told. And then, in 2016, they upgraded to a 747 Jumbo Jet as the previous craft was "not big enough." 

19) AC/DC keep on being AC/DC

Any AC/DC record is guaranteed a measure of success, but even they must have been taken aback by the critical rapture and sales that greeted Black Ice. No.1 in 29 countries and the second-biggest selling album of 2008 [despite only being released in October], it provoked a host of ‘heavy metal is back’ pieces in the broadsheets. Newsflash: it never really went away, my friends.

20) Anvil make a movie – metal has a happy ending

After the Led Zeppelin gig and albums from AC/DC, Metallica and GN’R marked metal’s resurgence in the wider world, along came Anvil! The Story of Anvil to prove why the genre continues to inspire love like no other. Here was a story about brotherhood, comradeship, farce, failure and passion that captured everything that makes metal great. Now the question ‘why do you like heavy metal?’ has an instantly available answer.

Jon Hotten

Jon Hotten is an English author and journalist. He is best known for the books Muscle: A Writer's Trip Through a Sport with No Boundaries and The Years of the Locust. In June 2015 he published a novel, My Life And The Beautiful Music (Cape), based on his time in LA in the late 80s reporting on the heavy metal scene. He was a contributor to Kerrang! magazine from 1987–92 and currently contributes to Classic Rock. Hotten is the author of the popular cricket blog, The Old Batsman, and since February 2013 is a frequent contributor to The Cordon cricket blog at Cricinfo. His most recent book, Bat, Ball & Field, was published in 2022.