Perform a Google image-search for “metalhead” and what comes back is exactly what you’d expect: a horde of denim-and-leather-clad outlaws with long hair, tattoos, piercings and – we’re guessing here, admittedly – great taste in music. You could scroll through thousands of such photos and you wouldn’t hit upon any images of middle-aged, clean-cut guys in blazers. This perfectly underscores the dangers of stereotyping, because one of metal’s greatest unsung champions fits that description: Conan O’Brien.
Late-night talk shows aren’t exactly a hotbed of metal culture but, in Conan, heavy metal found a true friend and a staunch proponent. After graduating from Harvard University in 1981, the ginger-haired livewire worked as a writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, before emerging as a cultural icon by hosting the Late Night, and later Conan, talk shows. Though better known for his comedic genius than his music taste, Conan has continually leveraged the power of his platform to showcase a wide array of metal bands – both well-established and up-and-coming acts.
Given metal’s more “selective” commercial viability, at least in the eyes of corporate suits, Conan’s contributions are nothing short of heroic. Network television tends to violently recoil from anything that might possibly spook the car-makers and shampoo companies that buy ad space, after all. But Conan never shied away from celebrating music’s heavier side.
In 2000, the Late Night host offered his stage to Slipknot, who tore through Wait And Bleed as if they were headlining Wacken. Just one year later, Conan invited The Nine back, and they returned the favour by dropping one of their most iconic television performances ever, playing The Heretic Anthem with more aggression than the first 10 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.
In 2005, Slipknot returned to Late Night for a third time, inspiring a comedy sketch about a fictitious acapella band called The Slipnutz: a dorky, khaki-wearing trio who throw peanuts onto the stage and then sing about slipping on said nuts, while slipping on said nuts. Taking things to the logical extreme, Conan arranged for The Slipnutz to open for Slipknot at New Jersey’s Continental Airlines Arena.
Filmed for his late-night show, the appearance initially drew confusion, followed by outright hostility, playing out in a sea of profanity, boos and middle fingers that needed to be blurred out for television. It was wildly funny though, and showed Conan knew how to push metalheads’ buttons in just the right way, without being a dick.
Although metalheads tend to be portrayed on television as one-dimensional thugs, Conan has attacked these notions by not only putting the bands in front of a national audience, but playfully deconstructing metal stereotypes. One of his enduring sketches, the infamous Inappropriate Response Channel, comes to mind. The bit involved average people in the middle of a friendly conversation, when a character suddenly drops a line that could get as inexpedient as, “Ted Bundy was framed!”
Out pops a sneering (and entirely fictitious) British metal musician played by comedian Brian Stack, who rips a thunderous power chord on his guitar and screeches, “Inappropriate!” It’s dumb as hell but, three months after watching it, you find yourself waiting for a friend to say something off-colour so you can bellow, “In-a-PRO-priate!”
Conan has also interviewed metal heavyweights such as Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Zombie, and Disturbed’s Sound Of Silence performance became Conan’s first YouTube clip to surpass 100 million views. The host later joked on Twitter, “I always knew that heavy metal band covers of Simon & Garfunkel songs would be my legacy.”
However, Conan O’Brien’s most enduring contribution to heavy metal has been his willingness to offer his stage to underground bands. These include a young Lamb Of God, who made their national television debut on Late Night in 2007, and Linkin Park in 2001: mere months after the chart-smashing meteorite that was debut album Hybrid Theory. In 2004, Conan featured Skindred, who were still trying to break into the US, and their highly-energised performance of Nobody launched the ragga-metal scallywags into the living rooms of America.
The Dillinger Escape Plan, in 2008, delivered a crushing performance of Black Bubblegum on Late Night. The four-minute slot saw frontman Greg Puciato stalking deep into the studio audience to high five a metalhead wearing a Neurosis T-shirt, and he ended the performance by standing on Conan’s desk, while the host played air-drums behind him with a green glow stick. The fact that Conan gave underground metal bands the kind of exposure that any radio-friendly mainstream act would murder for showcased his genuine dedication to the genre's future.
More recently, on his podcast Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend, Conan interviewed Metallica’s Lars Ulrich in a wide-ranging chat. The host spoke of the “unifying power” of music in a way that revealed his authentic appreciation for Metallica and what they represent. More playfully, he recently had a Finnish viewer on the podcast, and the two end up chatting about Slipknot. “They used to come on my show regularly,” said Conan. “I like those guys.” He later took a run at death metal vocals which essentially involved him shouting “death”, “die” and “rot” repeatedly – points for the effort, though.
Conan’s decades-long support for metal clearly goes beyond mere lip service. His actions reveal a genuine affinity for heavy music, and he clearly celebrates the passionate community behind the sonic fury. Conan O’Brien may not be the first name that comes up when people rank (or Google image-search) famous metalheads, but let it be known that this former Late Night man is a true defender of the faith.