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 poodlehaired 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 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.
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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) Darrell Abbott dies onstage
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.
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 will be 70 next time, and Geezer is almost there. Assorted members of Kiss, Aerosmith, Van Halen and the like are also creeping towards their eighth decades. 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 Spinal Tap is that every heavy metal band think it’s about them – and it is. Now 33 years old, 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, 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.
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 Zeppelin: the 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 become the biggest band on earth
With Bruce Dickinson at the controls of Ed Force One – their fully customised Airbus 757 – Iron Maiden took their 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.
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 Movie 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.
This article originally appeared in issue 134 of Classic Rock magazine.