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Posts Tagged ‘Megadeth’

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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