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Posts Tagged ‘Lars Ulrich’

Am I Evil? The Autobiography, Brian Tatler with John Tucker (2009; second edition 2017)

“Am I Evil?” is the most famous song by the Midlands metallers Diamond Head. It may be the best heavy-metal song of all time, but I’m not sure that it’s Diamond Head’s best song. They were the best band in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOMBH), but they were never the most successful.

And why not? It’s quite simple: their greatest asset was also, alas, their greatest liability. It was their lead singer and rhythm-guitarist, Sean Harris. He wasn’t just the best vocalist in the NWOBHM: he was the best vocalist in rock. At least, I think so. So does Brian Tatler, the guitarist who was Diamond Head’s second-greatest asset and no kind of liability at all. If Harris had been down-to-earth and affable like Tatler, Diamond Head might indeed have become what they boasted in the beginning that they were: natural successors to Led Zeppelin.

But I think Diamond Head are better than both Led Zeppelin, who inspired them, and Metallica, whom they inspired. Although I was once a big fan of Metallica, I can go years now without listening to them and not miss it. I could listen to Diamond Head every day and never get bored. Their early music has a depth and magic that Metallica’s music lacks. And Sean Harris was an essential part of that. His voice has a plaintive, melancholy edge that made it perfect for Diamond Head’s brooding, complex songs. But I think it could have graced any kind of music that sought beauty or grandeur, rather than menace or malice.

He wouldn’t have been good as vocalist for Motörhead, for example, but I’ve already written that I wish he could have sung for Black Sabbath. It was a case of right place, wrong time, because all four of the band’s original members were Birmingham boys. Except that they don’t see themselves like that. As Tatler says here: “When I am abroad I say Diamond Head are from Birmingham, and in the UK I say Stourbridge, but to be specific all four original members of the band were from the village of Wollaston, a mile outside Stourbridge, in the West Midlands.” The other two originals were Colin Kimberley, the bassist, and Duncan Scott, the drummer and Brian Tatler’s then best friend. Kimberley and Scott weren’t musical greats like Harris and Tatler, but Tatler says he regrets their departure after the recording of Canterbury (1983), Diamond Head’s second album for the big MCA label after Borrowed Time (1982).

Sean Harris’s manoeuvrings were part of why they left, but so were the perfectionism and bullying of Mike Shipley, who produced Canterbury. Would Duncan Scott listen to the album now? His reply, according to Tatler: “Not unless you can give me Mike Shipley’s head on a silver platter.” I myself listened to Canterbury in a new way after I read about how hard and unpleasant Diamond Head found recording it. In a way I’d rather not know, but I think Shipley did get the best out of the band as they tried a poppier and more melodic direction. I just wish he’d been less unpleasant in doing it.

And I wish the album had sold well and that Diamond Head had acquired a better manager by then. It didn’t and they hadn’t. Instead, they stuck with Sean Harris’s mother, Linda Harris, and she was neither honest nor competent, according to Tatler. He says that Peter Mensch, AC/DC’s manager, seemed interested in taking Diamond Head on in the early days, but Harris wanted to stick with his mum. The band recruited new musicians after Canterbury, but quickly lost their way and broke up for the first time. Tatler thinks they might never have got back together again without Lars Ulrich and Metallica.

And yes, most people today know Diamond Head through Metallica. And maybe most fans of Diamond Head do. I’m not one of them: like Lars Ulrich himself, I knew and liked Diamond Head well before I heard a note of Metallica’s music. Ulrich writes one of the two introductions here. The other is by Dave Mustaine, another talented but temperamental musician, and another big booster of Diamond Head. He helped with Death and Progress (1993), Diamond Head’s third proper album, not counting their self-financed debut EP. So did Tony Iommi, whose own autobiography is much funnier than this one and, of course, about a much more successful band.

But Iommi and Tatler are united in not spilling the beans on any hot groupie action. Then again, Diamond Head don’t seem to have got much hot groupie action in their early days. As Tatler says of their time recording Borrowed Time: “We were fairly boring in hindsight. We never went to clubs; we would often play Monopoly in our hotel room. … We didn’t so much paint the town red as magnolia.” So it wasn’t drink, drugs and debauchery that derailed the Diamond: it was Sean of the Head. Death and Progress was his last album for the band and is likely to remain so, unless something very unexpected happens in the future. That album has some of the earlier magic but it didn’t sell well and once again Diamond Head went into hibernation. Tatler played with other bands and Harris carried on trying to become a pop-star. Harris’s own verdict on Diamond Head is this: “We were always trying desperately to be too much too soon.”

Tatler agrees, but I think he can still be very proud of what he achieved with Harris – and despite Harris. Since Harris’s departure Diamond Head have re-formed and soldiered on with a variety of new singers and musicians, as Tatler describes in the second half of the book. He says that, like his good friend Lars Ulrich, he still regards himself as a fan first and a performer second, but he’s glad that he’s been able to make a living from music. He still thinks about the might-have-beens, of course, but in a way they add to Diamond Head’s appeal. The band are a diamond in the dust whose glittering facets have caught the eye of a discerning few down the decades. Fortunately for them, one of the discerning few was the drummer in the metal band that became the biggest of all time.

But if the band Diamond Head are partly about might-have-beens, so is this book of the band. I wish that it had been better-written and that there were fewer photos of bad hair in it. But the sometimes clumsy prose doesn’t matter. Brian Tatler is a musician, not a wordsmith. And I think he’s a damn good musician too. So is Sean Harris and it’s a shame that the two of them aren’t still making musical magic together. Diamond Head never conquered the world like Led Zeppelin and Metallica, but I’m not alone in thinking that they created better music than either their giant influences or their giant influencees.

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Justice for All by Joel McIverJustice for All: The Truth about Metallica, Joel McIver (Omnibus Press, revised edition 2014)

Metallica matter now because they mattered then. They were never the heaviest or fastest metal band in the world, but for a time they were the best. That time began with their first album, Kill ’Em All in 1983, and ended after their first EP, Garage Days Re-Revisited in 1987. They’ve written good songs since, but they’re no longer the best metal band in the world.

That’s what I think, anyway. It’s also pretty much the verdict you’ll find in this book. Like Mick Wall in his Black Sabbath bio Symptom of the Universe, Joel McIver is an objective fan, not an obsessive sycophant. He calls it as he hears it. When he hears Masters of Puppets (1986), he concludes that Metallica “produced a monster: a record that would expand their fanbase, cement their place in metal and ensure their place in musical history” (ch. 12, “The Truth about Master of Puppets”, pg. 150). When he hears Load (1996), he concludes that it’s “a massive step down in songwriting and concept from any music, even the weakest, most cynically radio-friendly Black Album track that Metallica had done previously” (ch. 19, “1996-1997”, pg. 234).

So maybe the bus crash in Sweden that killed Cliff Burton, the bassist on their early albums, also ended Metallica as a musical force. Burton’s death in 1986 is certainly one of the big “What might have been?” moments in popular music. What would have happened to Metallica’s music if he’d survived? I think it would have stayed better for longer. Burton was an interesting, independent-minded man who might have saved James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich from themselves. With his guidance, Metallica might not have gone the radio-friendly route and ended up playing with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.

But I don’t think Metallica would have bettered their early work. That would have been difficult. And success was undoubtedly a factor in their decline. So was getting older. Metallica mellowed and it showed in their music. Slayer prove that this isn’t inevitable and it’s good that Slayer are also part of this book. It’s valuable not just as a biography of Metallica but also as a history of heavy metal. Metallica were influenced by older bands, so McIver discusses Motörhead, Venom and Diamond Head. Metallica were part of a scene, so he discusses Exodus, Slayer and Testament. Metallica influenced younger bands, so he discusses Celtic Frost, Machine Head and many others.

He also discusses the genesis of thrash metal and of newer genres like death and black metal. Heavy metal is interesting in part because it so obviously evolves and mutates, not just musically but sartorially, tonsorially and typographically too. The possibilities of the electric guitar had by no means been exhausted in the 1960s and ’70s. In the ’80s the hunt for greater heaviness and speed was on. This is the drummer Gene Hoglan:

“I used to soundcheck the drums for Slayer on the Haunting the West Coast tour, and all they played at soundchecks were Dark Angel songs. I remember Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman saying to me (adopts worried tone), ‘Dude, Dark Angel, I saw ’em back in LA, they’re faster than us, they’re heavier than us, they’re better than us.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, you’re in Slayer! What are you worrying about Dark Angel for?’” (ch. 12, pg. 150)

The results of metal’s mutations can sometimes be laughable, but the cartoonishness of metal can be part of its appeal too. One of the good things about Metallica is that they have a sense of humour and irony. The liner-notes for Garage Days – which was “Not Very Produced by Metallica” – are both funny and literate. The music on the EP is full of jokes too, but McIver correctly notes that it “boasted one of the best overall sounds they would ever achieve” (ch. 15, “1986-1988”, pg. 183). The good sound and high spirits are absent on their next album, …And Justice for All (1988).

Metallica began to decline with Justice and I suppose I might have skipped the second half of the book. But McIver’s prose, though it isn’t polished, isn’t painful either and there are some interesting things to read about, like the law-suit against Napster and the long-lasting feud with Dave Mustaine. He might have left Metallica very early on, but he stayed true to one of their traditions: make your own decisions. Mustaine has gone his own way and so have Metallica. Good or bad, their choices have been their own. I think McIver does justice to all those choices and delivers what he promises: the truth about Metallica.

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Killers The Origins of Iron Maiden by Neil DanielsKillers: The Origins of Iron Maiden, 1975-1983, Neil Daniels (Soundcheck Books 2014)

Are Iron Maiden the nadir of naff? I would say so. That’s one of the things that interest me about them. Why has a band that seems so bad to me been popular all over the world for so long? I can admire their hard work and dedication, but their music is like cheap beer, harmful to both head and stomach. And I don’t even like dear beer. If a Harris was going to succeed in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, it should have been Sean, the singer in Diamond Head, not Steve, the bassist in Iron Maiden. Both bands share in the ridiculous side of heavy metal, but the boys from Stourbridge have had good tunes to go with it. Iron Maiden haven’t.

But they have been the most influential and successful band of the NWOBMH. Not influential on Metallica, though, I used to think. Metallica said they wanted to combine the grandeur of Diamond Head with the simplicity of Motörhead. They succeeded. Their opinion of Iron Maiden was, I assumed, found in the outro on Garage Days Re-Revisited (1987), where they play “Run to the Hills” out of tune and out of time. But on page 62 of this book Lars Ulrich says that Metallica are Maiden fans and that he himself was inspired to start a band by them.

Metallica have far surpassed Iron Maiden in songs and sales, but there are still a lot of people who will be interested to read this story of the Londoners’ early days and their first four albums: Iron Maiden and Killers, with vocals by the maniacal Paul Di’Anno (born Paul Andrews in Chingford), and The Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind, with vocals by the affable Bruce Dickinson, recruited from Samson. I skimmed and skipped, but it was interesting to see how so much is uncertain and disputed about who did what where, when and why. A lot of things weren’t photographed in the 1970s and 1980s and the web was a long way off. You can understand big history better from small history: if facts and people melt into mist even in the late twentieth century, what were earlier times like?

But Iron Maiden are small history only by big standards. They’ve not been as important as Josef Stalin or Isaac Newton, but they’ve still been part of millions of lives for decades, with fans in every nation from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. And the fans are dedicated: Iron Maiden inspire loyalty like a football team. Steve Harris himself is a fan of West Ham United. I wish his band sounded the way his team play. Unfortunately, they’re school of schlock, not school of science.

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Front cover of Status Quo: Still Doin’ It compiled by Bob YoungStatus Quo: Still Doin’ It – The Official Updated Edition, compiled by Bob Young, edited by Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt (Omnibus Press 2013)

Status Quo have been responsible for some good music and some bad album-covers. I can’t decide which is the worst of the covers. I don’t need to explain the appeal of the music, because Brian May does it for me, joining John Peel, Hank Marvin and H.R.H. The Prince of Wales among the big names who pay tribute to a rock institution. Queen were touring Europe at the same time as Quo and May attended one of Quo’s gigs, probably in Germany:

I manoeuvred myself behind the back line, and found myself with my ears midway between the back of Francis’s amp and the back of Rick’s. So, crouching like a true addict, I got a perfect stereo image, and at entirely suitable volume! As they launched into “Down, Down” I could hear the twin clangs of their superb rhythm guitars interacting in perfect rapport, and I thought …this is a perfect moment. A moment of sheer privilege. There is NOTHING in rock quite like these two giants at full throttle … Nothing! (pg. 57)

“Rhythm” is a key word. So is “volume”. Status Quo are very loud. And yes, despite the good songs, they can be very naff too. If they weren’t one of the inspirations for Spinal Tap, they should have been. But I think they were. Maybe even the chief inspiration. The names of both are amphimacers (dum-di-dum), both come from London and both started playing hippyish flower-power music in the 1960s before finding their true path. In early photos of Quo you can see frilly shirts, page-boy haircuts and even jumpers, cardigans and blazers. Then they put on their denim, grew their hair down and started their Piledriver. The Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, whose first “front-row” show was Status Quo in Copenhagen when he was eleven, calls the cover of that album the “first real head-banging visual unleashed to the masses”.

Album cover of Piledriver by Status Quo

That’s in the foreword, where Ulrich goes on to describe the effects of the show and the album: “Quo were, to this snot-nosed Danish kid in the mid-1970s, KING SHIT”. But his praise may be misleading. One crucial difference between Status Quo and Spinal Tap, or Status Quo and Metallica, is that Status Quo aren’t heavy metal. They don’t write about Satan, violence or sex and they don’t use stage-props. No Stonehenge or dry ice for Quo: just massed amps and loud riffs. “Our gimmick is that we don’t have a gimmick”, as they say on page 86. So the heavy-metal side of Spinal Tap came from bands like Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep. Spinal Tap play more complex music than Quo too, but Quo don’t mind. They have their simple formula and they’re sticking to it. When they went In Search of the Fourth Chord in 2007, they were joking.

Some bad album-covers (click for larger versions)

Some bad album-covers (click for larger versions)


That’s another way they aren’t heavy metal: no pretension or pomposity. No great technical skill or musical innovation either. Very few fans of Eric Clapton think “That could have been me.” Clapton plays too well and has been too influential for fans to easily picture themselves in his shoes. But lots of Status Quo fans must think that. Quo have rocked the world, not re-written rock. This book covers six decades of two blokes in a band: Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt have always been there, drummers and bassists have come and gone. It would have been better with an index and a discography, but it’s mostly pictures anyway. Like Quo’s songs, some pictures are good, some are bad. After all, only the mediocre are always at their best. Quo haven’t been at their best very often, but I’m glad that they’re still doing it and still enjoying it.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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