01 October 2008

Downtuned to Nowhere: A Metalhead’s Journey. Part 1: Youth and Young Manhood

I listened almost exclusively to classical music until I reached high school. Musicals, and occasional outbreaks of the reel and strathspey in the capable hands of Jimmy Shand and His Band, were as ‘pop’ as we ever got, while at school, it was Alex Lindsay and His Orchestra who ruled the roost:

“Do you like to dance?”
Oh no, thought Robinson. Please, not that. Last night, he had run through a range of possible disasters, but he had never dreamed it would come to this. In Standard 3, the teacher, Mr Willis, had made them do folk-dancing. Mr Willis concealed an elderly record-player somewhere about his person and would, with the aid of a series of frayed extension cords, set it up in the playground. He would then produce one of a series of records by Alex Lindsay and His Orchestra, put it on, and order the children to line up in pairs and do the strathspey, or the springle-ring, or whatever other bizarre form of torture appealed to him that day. Mr Willis (for those were innocent times) would take the hand of some mortified girl and lead her through the required steps while the other children watched silently. Then he would remove the needle, return the tone arm to the beginning of the record, and watch as they shuffled around, with a hey-nonny-no and a tirra-li-li and a bow for Good Queen Bessie.

(From “Robinson in Love”, one of the stories in my collection Transported. Autobiographical much?)

Then, at high school, I discovered rock. It was 1973, and Deep Purple and Uriah Heep ruled the roost. Someone – it may have been Athol Fricker – had a record player which he was allowed to coax into life in the common room at lunchtime. I listened, entranced, to this alien music, and something clicked into place. I loved classical music then, and I still do now, but now I knew I had been born to rawk: and, though I like many genres of music, there’s nothing that stirs my blood so much as a crunching riff, a pounding drum, and a lead guitarist showing he* can play scales really, really fast – also known as “spanking the plank”.

In short, I’m a metalhead from way back.

The passion has waxed and waned: later in the 1970s, newly independent in Dunedin, I hewed to the line of the New Musical Express, at the time a haven of jejune postmodernism, and if it wasn’t punk or new wave, I was obliged to dismiss it (trying to pretend, as I did, that I felt no excitement as Chic and the Village People on the one hand, and Yes, Jethro Tull and Iron Maiden on the other). I was mainly into Thin Lizzy then, as they were one of the few metal bands of which the NME approved.

For most of the 1980s, the nearest I got to metal was the angular, cerebral progressive rock of King Crimson (although they do get pretty darn metallic at times). It was easy to dismiss metal then, for that was the era of “hair metal”, bands with all the heft and weight of Snowtex.

It took one video to change my mind. I was living in the Township of Gordon Housing Collective in Dunedin, and one flatmate, Louise, and another flatmate’s boyfriend, Eddy, would go on and on about how great this band of young Bay Area metallers, Metallica, were. Yeah yeah, I thought, reaching for the latest Dexy’s Midnight Runners album [check timing]. Finally, Eddy prevailed upon us to watch the video for Metallica’s new single, One. It was serious music played by serious young men. Fantastic music: tight, powerful, engrossing. I was hooked all over again. I worked my way through Metallica’s oeuvre (soon to take a controversial left turn) and discovered other bands like Megadeth and Pantera.

One of the marvellous things about metal is its variety of sub-genres – how’s this for a found poem? And in some respects, I’m stuck in the past, at the point marked “thrash metal”. Metallica took me with them when they changed to the more groove-oriented hard rock of Load and Reload. They made one of the best and most revealing rock documentaries you are ever likely to see, Some Kind of Monster – the classic being the cardigan-wearing therapist who pushes the band too far when he wants to start writing their songs — and one of the worst comeback albums ever released, St Anger. Now they are back with new album Death Magnetic, and on what I’ve heard so far, it’s a return to somewhere on a par with … And Justice for All (one parallel is that both Justice and Death featured a new bass player who is buried so deep in the mix as to be almost inaudible), and not too far behind their classic second and third albums, Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets.

That’s enough for now. More in Part 2 ... but let me leave you with Metallica’s finest moment, Fade to Black.

*Lead guitarists in heavy metal bands are almost always male. Why, when so many leading violinists (for example) are female? A number of reasons come to mind, sexism first and foremost. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way. (The sound quality isn't great, but note the guitarist on the left. This band, Beneath the Silence, won Smokefree Rockquest 2008).

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