Is metal music really the musical outgrowth of sixties’ protest?
The latest book I’ve just completed from my 2014 reading list is an anthology of scholarly essays edited by Ian Peddie called The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest. It’s been a longish read, mainly because I’ve read each essay carefully (like the good scholarly reader I am) all the while trying to think of a way to write about such an olio of pieces. It finally occurred to me that the best way to write about such an interesting group of scholarly essays about rock, reggae, and hip hop would be for S&R’s weekly feature, Tuesday TunesDay. So over the next several weeks I’ll be posting essays on most if not all of the essays from this interesting book.
To begin, a couple of general comments about this volume. In the late 1980’s-early 1990’s colleague Sam Smith and I did a number of scholarly presentations at conferences and elsewhere that took scholarly approaches to rock music. One of the frustrations we encountered was the poverty of insightful scholarly writing about rock music by authors who actually understood rock music. Of course there were a couple of exceptions – one in particular that I appreciated was Simon Frith’s Art Into Pop, an excellent exploration of how the English “art college” system proved an incubator for many of the major figures of ’60s rock music such as John Lennon, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend. This volume is at least on a par with Frith’s now-classic monograph. The writers here “get” rock, reggae, punk, hip hop – and so their scholarly approaches have, to use a well-loved term in pop music discussions, authenticity.
A second important element about The Resisting Muse is that it takes a “big tent” approach – i.e., it covers a wide range of popular music in relation to its elements of protest. It does this in an era where the music business has been siloed to the advantage of, well, no one except perhaps hard core fans of specific sub-genres.
So to the discussion of this week’s article: “Communities of resistance: heavy metal as a reinvention of social technology.”
The article’s author, Sean K. Kelly, posits that the rise of what we now call simply “metal” is arguably a result of the evolution of the protest movements of the ’60s. Kelly’s thesis: Metal seeks, through its creation of an alternative community via its uses of myth (or futurist scenarios). to reject a world evolving into a technopoly. Kelly argues that the youth protests of the ’60s were at least in part Luddite – and that in a strange way metal’s embrace of music technology (particularly earsplitting amplification and near-seizure-inducing light shows) by “heavy metal” musicians is a way of refuting technology by turning its own characteristics upon it. Kelly also identifies two of the founding practitioners of this genre of rock music: Black Sabbath and Rush.
It is interesting to note that Black Sabbath represents the mythic (and Satanic) side of the metal philosophical outlook while Rush represents the futurist (and dystopian) side. So Kelly perhaps rightly chooses these two groups, who began their careers within a few years of each other (the first Sabbath album appeared in 1970, the first Rush album in 1974; each group’s first album is titled after the band’s name). Kelly identifies each of these groups as progenitors of later “high period” metal artists such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. He gets this right, it seems to me – it is fairly easy for even a casual fan like myself to see the line from Sabbath to Iron Maiden and from early Rush to Judas Priest. And his observations on the frustration with the failures of social technology expressed by songs such as “Iron Man” and “Breaking the Law” seem spot on.
But there are a couple of points where Kelly stretches his point a little too far concerning both the arc of the metal period in rock and the philosophical impetus behind at least some of metal’s messages.
First, he ascribes to Rush a lyrical populism that just doesn’t make much sense if one considers the arc of the band’s messaging. It is well known, for instance (again even to casual fans) that Neil Peart, the band’s drummer and lyricist, has long been associated with Randian ideas. While Kelly uses “Working Man” from the first Rush album as an example of a signaled solidarity with the plight of the average Joe, Peart’s later lyrics (say, from “Tom Sawyer” or a song Kelly cites for different reasons, “Red Barchetta”) suggest that the band’s message might be better identified with Joe the Plumber – or Howard Roark.
Second, Kelly ignores an interesting point about metal’s relationship with the Satanic. While Kelly does nod in the direction of The Rolling Stones (who truly are the progenitors of Satanic reference in rock – well, if one ignores Arthur Brown), he (and perhaps the band’s admirers such as Bruce Dickinson) ignores an important point about the view of Satanism held by, of all people, Black Sabbath themselves.
Here’s Geezer Butler discussing the song “Black Sabbath,” which he wrote – and from whence the band eventually took its name:
“It’s a satanic world,” Butler told Rolling Stone in 1971. “The devil’s more in control now. People can’t come together, there’s no equality. It’s a sin to put yourself above other people, and yet that’s what people do.”
While this refutation disputes Kelly’s contention that a band like Sabbath saw Satanism as a way of creating alternate community opposed to technopolistic oppression, it does support Kelly’s contention that metal might well be a descendant of the ’60s hippie movement.
So somehow Ozzy may well be a spiritual younger brother of Donovan Leitch.
Who’d a thunk it, right?
As Kelly moves on to discuss the careers of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, he notes that the protest element that he claims for heavy metal evolves to include more of a community paradigm that many of us who are only casual listeners to the genre recognize well. One might call it the “Led Zeppelin” relationship: critics are not necessarily sympathetic to (or even interested in) the music of (insert metal band name here); but the band develops a huge following among fans, has great success and eventually, perhaps grudgingly, draws appreciation from those same critics. Such has been the case for both Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, who, as Kelly notes are the bands who helped metal transition from the role Kelly claims for it as music using technology to protest against technological hegemony to an sort of alternate culture where fans (and their heroes) could find a space to express alternative views about their lives. Both these bands have, in their ways, continued the explorations of futurist dystopian and mythic experiences that Kelly traces back to Black Sabbath and Rush – albeit with their own interesting twists.
Finally, Kelly only lightly touches on the emergence of sub-genres such as pop metal with its party ethos. That makes sense given his thesis. But it would be interesting to see if he has continued to explore metal’s evolution (some might call it devolution) from technological protest against technology to headbanger party soundtrack. Perhaps a later essay will be able to show that this mutation might have been what it seems to have been: metal’s last gasp as a major force in rock.