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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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Nailed to History by Martin PowersNailed to History: The Story of Manic Street Preachers, Martin Power (Omnibus Press 2010)

The best Manics biography I’ve seen is Simon Price’s Everything: A Book about Manic Street Preachers, which first appeared in 1999. This is less good and less well-written, but one thing hasn’t changed: the importance of the lost Manic, Richey Edwards. He’s prominent on the front cover, is shown all by himself on the back cover, and is described like this in the final chapter:

As the Manics will be the first to admit, at the heart of their story – past, present, future, was, is, will be – stands Richey Edwards. Now 15 years gone, the complexity of his character and fiercely intelligent lyricism continue to beguile, a fact strongly evidenced by The Holy Bible’s ever-growing reputation and the critical plaudits recently foisted upon Journal for Plague Lovers. (ch. 24, “Nailed to History”, pg. 304)

But he’s now been gone longer than he was present and the Manic Street Preachers might have been just as successful without him. After all, he didn’t write any of their music and he performed the guitar rather than playing it. He gave the band something special with his words – a song-title like “Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky” is strange and beautiful in a unique way – but the Manics were always about much more than self-mutilation and suicide-attempts:

“Electronic,” said Wire, “are fat, bloated hideous bastards who deserve shooting. Johnny Marr trying to do windmills on a guitar when he’s one foot tall and weighs fifty stone. It’s as bad as Emerson, Lake & Palmer.” From Slowdive (“I hate them worse than Hitler”) and Northside (“They look useless”) to The Charlatans (“Their fans have moustaches”) and Bowie (“Boring old cunt”), the Manic Street Preachers wanted to carpet bomb the lot. (ch. 6, “Advancing into Battle”, pg. 66)

From Nicky Wire’s wind-ups (and love of vacuum-cleaners) to the band playing “louder than war” for Fidel Castro, from slagging Wales to supporting it, from performing in empty pubs to the Cardiff Arms Park Male Voice Choir singing “A Design for Life” outside a “£15 million public library”: this is the story of a band who haven’t always produced good music, but have always been interesting.

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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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