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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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