The Metal/Punk Continuum
At the close of the 1970s, a battle of words broke out in the pages of Creem magazine. The battle concerned the relative merits of heavy metal and punk, two rock music genres that, for all intents and purposes, had arisen during the past decade and had defined some of the most significant, well-traveled avenues in rock's recent history. Though some would date the emergence of metal to the late 1960s, the genre assumed some sort of coherence only in the early 1970s, when bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Grand Funk Railroad were alternately seen to embody a rejuvenation of rock's energies or a new cynicism in the music designed to exploit the unformed tastes of the young. Punk too saw its first stirrings in these years, but became a more identifiable phenomenon in the middle of the decade, when the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and scores of others waged their own war on the weight of rock-and-roll tradition, as well as on the development of a large-scale rock-industrial complex with which metal had become intimately aligned. As punk assumed prominence in England and, to a lesser extent, in the United States during the late 1970s, metal seemed almost to have dissipated; by 1978 bands and performers who represented the height of rock stardom only a year or two earlier, such as Kiss, Aerosmith, and Ted Nugent, entered a phase of steady decline in fortune that would last well into the next decade. Yet the commercial momentum of punk was to remain stillborn, especially in the United States, where the leading commercial radio outlets responded to punk with almost universal rejection.
Metal and punk, then, were both at something of a crossroads when, in the October 1979 issue of Creem, Rick Johnson, a regular contributor, asked in a cover story, "Is Heavy Metal Dead?" The survey of contemporary metal that followed emphasized the number of older bands whose creativity had withered and the paucity of newer bands to take their place. By Johnson's logic, heavy metal had in effect been swept away by disco and the new wave, the latter having become the catchall for punk and its offshoots by the late 1970s. Not all Creem readers were so quick to agree. Come 1980, a growing debate over the vitality of metal as opposed to that of punk or new wave more frequently dominated the letters column of the magazine. Some readers were perfectly happy to accept Johnson's funeral rites. "Joe Blow" from Ohio (Creem conferred creative pseudonyms on the readers who contributed to the letters column) fired back in a February 1980 letter, "Heavy Metal dead? You bet if only it was buried already. You guys are the only guys who realize that dinosaur bizarro thud rock has gone the way of the carrier pigeon." But a few issues later appears a letter from "Real Rock Fan" of Tacoma, Washington, who criticizes Creem for printing "ridiculous letters praising faggots like Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and so on. ... I grew up listening to real Rock that is still being played by any respectable FM station in the country more than any of this New Wave bullshit, and by real performers who know what the hell they're doing, and after 10 or 15 years, can still sell more records and tickets than any New Wave assholes alive."
As the exchange mounted, homophobic rhetoric became commonplace on both sides of the metal/punk divide. While "TWO FUCKIN DEDICATED ROCK FANS" asserted that the "Sex Pistols were so fucking gay, it's a wonder how they ever became a group," B. Lee from Ewan, New Jersey, countered with a poem directed at "all you god-damned Zeppelinites" that included the following couplets: "Punk rockers are really great / Zeppelin fans ejaculate / Punk rockers receive good head / From the bloody fuckers that listen to Led / Johnny Rotten can always sing better / Than Robert Plant, the faggot bed-wetter / Steve Jones can always outplay / Gay Jimmy Page on any day." This trend became so pronounced that a few readers took it upon themselves to criticize the antigay bias of the "heavy metal/new wave" furor. Most eloquent in this regard was Kodi from San Jose, California, who proclaimed, "No doubt the proportion of gay/bi/straight people in Heavy Metal is the same as it is in Punk is the same as it is in the general population, and what bloody difference does it make anyway? There seems to be a notion that if a musician is gay, his music must be wimpy or weak. Anyone who still clings to the antiquated notion that all gays are limp-wristed fairies should stop by any leather bar in San Francisco sometime. Some of these guys could rip you to shreds, and probably will."
Despite such reasoned interjections, the debate raged on, gaining force in midyear following extensive back-to-back features on the Clash (in June) and Van Halen (in July). The subtitle for the July article, "If You Hate Van Halen, You're Wrong," prompted particularly heated replies from punk fans, one of whom responded, "I HATE VAN HALEN AND I'M RIGHT!" Things came to a head in the October 1980 issue, when one pro-metal fan suggested that all punks and new wavers "grow their hair long like Edward Van Halen or Geddy Lee, cut out the slick shit, and play music. And by music, I mean heavy metal," while one punk fan expressed fear of a heavy metal comeback and posited a theory about heavy metal audiences: "My pet theory is that over 85% of Americans between the ages of 13 and 18 do not own record players. They simply buy an album by a group named after a state, take it home, and trade them with their friends like baseball cards. ... Heavy metal is dead, and the majority of teens today are necrophiliacs. Otherwise, living, breathing bands such as the Ramones would be selling millions of records." Meanwhile, Creem's editors, exhausted by the escalating bile of the exchange, parodied the situation with a manufactured debate between a Clash fan (named "Janie Jones") and a Led Zeppelin fan (named, sardonically, "Geddy Lee Roth"). While "Janie" railed against the tendency of metal fans to valorize music that enhanced their sense of potency, "Geddy Lee" accused his counterpart of elitism in the rejection of music popular among a mass audience. Moving between hyperbolic parody and fleeting moments of analysis, the mock debate ended with Geddy Lee collapsing into a drug-induced coma and Janie Jones jumping from a window screaming, "What if he was right?," suggesting that both sides had become reliant on futile gestures.
However futile much of the rhetoric of the metal-punk exchange may have been in this instance, the sheer energy that readers brought to the proceedings raises some serious questions about how genre informs the ways that audiences participate in popular music. What was at stake for these readers, besides the opportunity to see their letter in a national magazine of rock opinion? And why did the metal/punk opposition engender such heated debate? Based on the contents of the letters column, four issues seem to have defined the exchange. First, there is the question of aesthetic value, the basic question "Which one is better music?" that Simon Frith has shown to be fundamental to modes of popular listening. For Frith, drawing on the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, such matters of value are tied to the processes whereby popular music listeners assert a sort of "distinction" for themselves relative to other listeners. Arguing in a similar vein, Sarah Thornton coined the useful term "subcultural capital" to address the extent to which the participants in youth-based music subcultures struggle for distinction not only relative to dominant or "mainstream" culture, but also relative to other subcultures and to each other. The metal/punk debate held in the pages of Creem was clearly an instance of struggle over subcultural capital. When punk fans declared themselves more intelligent than metal fans and accused the latter of being unthinking fascists, and when metal fans claimed their music was the "real" rock and that punks were devoid of talent, each side was seeking to confirm its superior taste and demonstrate the malformed judgment of its opponent.
Closely aligned with this line of debate was the second defining issue, which had to do with public visibility and access to the channels that defined success. However one characterized the relative social or aesthetic merits of metal and punk, it was hard to overlook the fact that metal, whether or not it was in decline, was by far the more commercially prominent form, whose leading performers enjoyed far greater publicity. Given the presumed antipathy between punk and the cultural mainstream that has informed so much commentary on the genre, one might expect to find punk advocates using this discrepancy to their advantage, claiming that their preference for less popular artists was a sign of their more informed taste. Among the Creem letter writers, though, one finds little evidence of such attitudes. Instead, many of the punk fans writing to the magazine bemoaned the lack of success of their favorite artists and lobbied to have their favorite performers featured more visibly. Typical was a letter from Alyssa D., who challenged the editors, "Have you ever put ANY punk or even 'New Wave' groups on your cover in an other than microscopic picture? Mais non! Lead Blimp, yes, but no Pistols or even Ramones!" Complementing this plea was a strategy best exemplified by the letter cited earlier, in which the author described his "pet theory" for the continued popularity of heavy metal: if heavy metal is so successful, it is because its fans have no capacity for discrimination; they like what they like because they are supposed to like it, not because it is good. And so metal could be deemed to enjoy an inauthentic sort of popularity.
The third issue that defined the debate is the matter of gender, and specifically of masculinity. Whereas the common sense surrounding punk and metal might lead us to assume that the two genres present competing versions of manhood, with metal representing the more conventionally "macho," here we find instead that the claim to genre superiority on each side tends to be articulated through a supporting claim of "authentic" masculinity counterposed against suggestions of effeminacy or homosexual desire in the other. A particularly divisive figure in the Creem exchange was the Van Halen singer David Lee Roth. Blonde, tan, and swaggeringly virile almost to the point of parody, Roth even offended some of the pro-metal contingent, one of whom wrote in response to a beefcake photograph of the singer, "For someone who thinks himself so sexy and 'macho' and masculine, he is about the queerest, gayest thing I've ever seen." Yet the coarser remarks issued from the pro-punk contingent, many of whom took the popularity of Roth as a sign not just of the degeneracy of the singer but of the low standards of Creem readers. In a well-worn maneuver in struggles over cultural distinction, Roth was deemed beneath consideration because he seemed to appeal to girls; those girls, in turn, epitomized bad taste. So did Creem reader Jeff Martin proclaim, "I think the girls who read your magazine are sluts! All they ever write about is how they'd like to fuck Steve Tyler or get stoned with David Lee Roth. ... Why don't girls go for guys like Stiv Bators or Joey Ramone anymore? They're the real men left in rock." For Martin and many other participants in the debate, musical choices and sexual choices went hand in hand, and those choices were best when they affirmed a particular model of being a man.
Fourth is the issue of history. Metal fans in the debate stake many of their claims of superiority on the fact that their musical preference is of longer standing. This is the position taken by "Real Rock Fan" above, for whom the accumulated experience of his favorite performers was one of their primary virtues, and for whom music was best when it had stood the test of time. Punk fans, by contrast, typically valued novelty over durability, and indeed were more likely to equate the latter quality with obsolescence. The term "new wave" assumed particular salience in this light. Though one certainly finds many letter writers distinguishing punk from new wave, with the latter pegged as the less offensive, more commercially viable offshoot, the two shared an underlying concern with music representative of the current moment rather than the past. Ouida Montague thus asked her heavy metal counterparts, "Why does the New Wave threaten you? Old doesn't mean better, or maybe you're one of the missing links who still thinks the world is flat."
One other aspect of the metal/punk debate warrants attention. A distinct minority of letter writers questioned the tendency to place music into such strictly defined categories. For these Creem readers, the terms "heavy metal" and "punk" lost any validity they might have if they were used to foster exclusivity. Lew from Trenton, New Jersey, suggested that "rigid barriers ... breed needless conflict between various cults" and celebrated the fact that "while many Creem readers insist on putting up rock and roll barricades between styles, at least some artists go right ahead with fusions of various musics." Lew reserved particular praise for bands such as the Scorpions and Def Leppard, whom he "commended for producing heavy metal that bears a New Wave influence." Meanwhile, John Keane took a different approach. A declared partisan of more punk-inspired fare such as Iggy Pop and Johnny Thunders's Heartbreakers, Keane rather shamefacedly admitted a taste for Led Zeppelin and "(only SOMETIMES) Rush." Having thus outed himself, he proceeded to outline a rather different system of classification from that suggested by metal and punk. For Keane the operative terms were "rock" and "shlock." Under the former category he included punk stalwarts such as the Clash, Sex Pistols, Dead Boys, and Heartbreakers; the metal bands Zeppelin, UFO, Thin Lizzy, and Deep Purple; and some who fit neither category, such as Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones. Under the shlock category he placed bands that leaned toward heavier rock but with a more pop orientation, such as Kiss, Van Halen, Boston, Foreigner, and Bad Company, as well as a few stray progressive rock bands (Yes, Styx, Moody Blues) and a token Bee Gees reference to admit dislike of disco. Whereas Lew from Trenton promoted stylistic fusion, John Keane posited instead that good rock cuts across categories. For both, metal and punk were applied less strictly than they were for the majority of participants in the months-long exchange.
This is a book about heavy metal and punk, two genres that arguably represent the most significant developments in rock music after 1970. The debate recounted above is representative of the range of issues and tendencies that can be located in the relationship between the two genres at a particular moment in time and that have run through their respective histories. Often considered in oppositional terms, metal and punk have crossed into one another as often as they have been starkly differentiated. In studying the two genres together, I am as interested in the terms of opposition as in the terms of recombination. I have not, in other words, simply tried to write a history of metal/punk "crossover," though that phenomenon certainly figures into the story that follows. Rather, by casting the relationship between metal and punk as something like a continuum, I am asserting a degree of interconnectedness between them that has often been acknowledged, especially by nonacademic observers, but rarely analyzed. Metal and punk have enjoyed a particularly charged, at times even intimate sort of relationship that has informed the two genres in terms of sound, image, and discourse. That relationship can be traced back to the emergent moment of the early 1970s, when metal first became codified and punk arose as a dream shared by a small coterie of critical voices concerning what rock should be and could become. Following the interrelated paths of metal and punk from the 1970s to the 1990s, from the rise of arena rock to the fall of grunge, I seek to tell a new sort of story about the way genre works in rock and in popular music, and in so doing to revise presiding interpretations of metal and punk and their place in rock history.
Genre, in its most basic formulation, refers to a system of classification through which categories of music (or film or literature) are differentiated from one another. As such, genre matters to popular music in a number of ways: it informs the performance practice of musicians, the marketing efforts of record companies, the aesthetic judgments of rock critics, and the listening habits and consumption patterns of music audiences. The best writing on popular music genres—whether the broad theoretical insights of Franco Fabbri, Simon Frith, and Jason Toynbee, or the more focused case studies of Robert Walser and Keith Negus—has sought to capture some of this multiplicity of meanings and functions. Fabbri's groundbreaking 1981 article made a compelling, if overly schematic case for there being five principal sorts of rules that figure in the making of music genres: formal and technical rules, having to do with the way music is composed, structured, and performed; semiotic rules, relating to what music is perceived to mean or represent; behavioral rules, concerning the ways performers and audiences are expected to act; social and ideological rules, which involve the forms of community to which music gives rise and the values it is believed to portray; and economic and juridical rules, having to do with how music is produced, distributed, consumed, and regulated. Note that of Fabbri's categories, only one clearly has to do with "the music itself." Although genres are often popularly understood in terms of their musical difference from each other, formal musical elements are but a part of genre's overall significance. Indeed, genre is such a potentially powerful tool for understanding popular music because it stands at the nexus of musical form, social organization, and cultural identity.
Given the emphasis on genre rules in the work of Fabbri and many others, one might expect to find in any single genre songs and performers marked by a high degree of consistency and similarity. Yet while consistency is necessary for a genre to have any kind of coherence, genres do not work by simply reproducing the same patterns over and over; such repetitive logic would likely have little appeal to popular music audiences. Drawing on the study of film genres, Jason Toynbee has made the important observation that genre is a system for controlling the interplay between repetition and difference, similarity and variation, in popular music. Performers may want to sound like their most treasured influences, and audiences may want to hear new songs that sound like their established favorites, but sounding like does not mean sounding the same as. Genre establishes a set of expectations, what some writers have termed a generic contract, wherein certain shared qualities create an immediate sense of familiarity that in turn allows a degree of novelty or even innovation.
This quality, the role of musical "newness" within the workings of genre, has not been as well studied as the ways genre rules serve to codify popular music. Keith Negus is right when he observes that "there is perhaps no developed theoretical approach to genre as transformative." Genres are continually changing from within, giving rise to new formations that retain some connection to established rules but seem to stretch those rules to their limits. One need only consider the range of performers who might be said to belong to the genre of heavy metal to note this tendency. Bands such as Black Sabbath and Poison, Metallica and Bon Jovi, Kiss and Pantera, and Korn and Dream Theater have as many differences as similarities. Over time, the recognition of such differences within the metal genre has given rise to a host of offshoots or subgenres, such as glam metal, thrash metal, progressive metal, black metal, death metal, and nü metal. Robert Walser showed so well in Running with the Devil that the variability of metal is as important to the definition of the genre as the kinship that metal artists, and metal audiences, might feel toward one another. Heavy metal, Walser argues, "is a term that is constantly debated and contested, primarily among fans but also in dialogue with musicians, commercial marketing strategists, and outside critics and censors. ... 'That's not heavy metal' is the most damning music criticism a fan can inflict, for that genre name has great prestige among fans. But genre boundaries are not solid or clear; they are conceptual sites of struggles over the meanings and prestige of social signs." As with metal, so with punk, which has shown a comparable tendency toward differentiation from within and has given rise to similar forms of contestation over what counts as punk. To take one example, the emergence of hardcore in the United States and Canada during the years 1979 to 1982 involved considerable struggle over the meaning of punk, the effects of which have continued to reverberate throughout the genre's subsequent history.
The contested nature of music genres also informs the relationship between one genre and another, as the metal/punk debate in Creem amply demonstrates. However, there is no work on popular music that analyzes genre-to-genre relationships in a sustained fashion. Although some studies, such as Walser's, have admitted a considerable amount of flexibility in the way genre works, the rule has been to analyze a single genre in isolation or else to posit the mechanisms through which genre operates in more broadly theoretical terms. Pursuing these approaches, a few writers have gestured toward the importance of thinking about how genres interact with each other. Fabbri, for instance, put forth a valuable formulation that has remained largely unexamined, at least in English-language writing: "Genres offer an extremely useful instrument for the researcher's analysis—just as they do for the practice of the singer and the songwriter—precisely when they are tested along the boundaries and in the intersections of a misty no man's land that exists between one genre and another." Meanwhile, some of the most illuminating comments in this regard have come from outside the sphere of popular music studies. The literary scholar Heather Dubrow concludes a brief monograph on genre by recognizing that two genres may have a dynamic relationship with each other, in which one acts as a "counter-genre" to the other, working according to a set of norms that are implicitly or explicitly drawn from and at times opposed to the other. Building on this observation, she asks a set of questions that have great relevance for my own inquiry: "Why do the two forms in question sometimes encourage each other's survival by providing a cross-current, an alternative to values in the other form that might seem totally unacceptable were they not somehow counterbalanced, and sometimes instead threaten each other's existence ... by their harsh mutual criticisms? When and why, in other words, does symbiosis turn to sabotage?" To consider the metal/punk continuum is to examine this dynamic between genre and countergenre. It is to stress the transformative qualities that exist between one genre and another as an extension of similar qualities that reside within individual genres. Through the metal/punk continuum, generic boundaries have been continually tested, sometimes to be remapped and at other times to be reinforced.
In the midst of his 1981 essay on musical genres, Fabbri made another observation of key importance to my exploration of the metal/punk continuum. Discussing the semiotic rules that play into the definition of genres, Fabbri notes the significance of space, of where music is heard and by how many people, and of the nature of the events in which music is experienced. "Each genre has its own space set out in a particular way," he claims. "The distance between musicians and audience, between spectator and spectator, the overall dimensions of the event are often fundamental elements to the definition of a genre, and often guide the participants ... in determining what they should expect about other rules of genre." This Ain't the Summer of Love therefore begins not with the release of a particular record or the origin of a sound, but with the rise of a new sort of concert phenomenon: arena rock, which effectively emerged alongside the genre of heavy metal in the first years of the 1970s. As I explain in chapter 1, arena rock was never the exclusive property of heavy metal, but metal enjoyed a particularly close connection to the new, expansive style of rock concert that took shape in arenas and stadiums. More to the point, it was largely through its connection to the arena that metal was defined as a distinct entity, as a category unto itself with a significance that set it apart from other forms of rock. While many have traced the origins of metal back to the 1960s, to isolated tracks such as the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" or to the hyperdistorted sound of bands such as Blue Cheer, I contend that one cannot talk about metal as a genre before 1970, before it was aligned with the concert form that provided a suitable setting for such an oversized sound.
With the simultaneous rise of arena rock and the emergence of heavy metal, rock's capacity as a mass medium assumed newly tangible dimensions. The largest rock festivals of the 1960s dwarfed the average arena rock concert, but with arena rock, crowds of thousands, or tens of thousands, became the norm rather than the exception, a standardized aspect of the rock economy and the concertgoing experience. What this new economy of scale, and its accompanying social and cultural elements, meant for rock became one of the most debated issues of the next two decades, and nowhere more so than in the context of the metal/punk continuum. The sheer size of the arena, and of the crowds it could hold, gave rise to new desires and fantasies of what rock-and-roll success could be and created new forms of belonging among rock fans. For many, though, the scale of arena rock marked a corruption of the desires that went into the making of rock and represented an artificial form of community that was based solely on the capacity for profit. Broadly speaking, one could say that heavy metal has been more inclined toward the first of these formulations, and punk more to the second. Yet the position of neither genre has been entirely fixed on this matter, especially with the proliferation of subgenres shaped by metal/punk cross-fertilization during the 1980s and 1990s. Rather than view arena rock as a polarizing issue where metal and punk are concerned, it is better to consider it a defining issue in the fluctuating relationship that has developed between metal and punk over time.
Some suggestion of how arena rock has served in this way can be drawn from a brief article in the debut issue of the San Francisco–based punk fanzine, Search and Destroy, issued in the year often taken as punk ground zero, 1977. In the first installment of what would be an ongoing column, "Politics of Punk," Nico Ordway offered a number of general reflections on how punk might be considered political. After drawing some broad comparisons between U.S. punk and U.K. punk, he explained an element of punk particular to the United States. Ordway attributed to Bill Graham, the San Francisco–based concert promoter, the belief that the U.S. Northeast was the "potentially richest rock 'n' roll market in the country," but that big concerts were all but impossible to hold there because of the difficulties of crowd control. This refusal to organize large-scale events was for Ordway one of the motivations for punk, as he explained: "Realizing they have no hope as mass performers in a place where industry powers will not encourage mass audiences, some Eastern bands have taken the opportunity to push their public faces as far as possible in the direction of the bizarre, since an entertainment industry unable to satisfy musicians' needs and fantasies by maintaining mass audiences cannot expect to hold onto musicians' aesthetic loyalties." Ordway's charges against Graham and his explanation for the absence of large-scale concerts on the East Coast may not have been entirely factual. But the veracity of his account matters little to its value as a theory of why punk was necessary. Rock and roll for Ordway was rightly the province of needs and fantasies that could be met only by the maintenance of a mass audience. The problem was not that the concertgoing crowd had become too large, but that the rock industry felt too great a need to control the crowd, to keep it under surveillance and make sure it did not become too disorderly. In the face of this will to control, punk promoted the value of bizarre and disorderly conduct, but in this instance at least did not relinquish the notion that an audience of thousands was still desirable.
Seventeen years later, the imagery Kurt Cobain chose to use in his suicide note gave evidence of just how powerfully entrenched these concerns remained in the metal and punk imaginary. Often cast as the figure who brought punk rock kicking and screaming into the mainstream of U.S. popular music, Cobain and his band, Nirvana, created a sound that was steeped in the alternating currents of punk and metal. Yet Cobain had internalized a distrust of mass success and the audience that came with it that he attributed to the "warnings of punk rock 101 courses over the years." Explaining his suicide as though addressing his fans, he claimed to have lost the "excitement of listening to as well as creating music" that had once driven him; part of this loss came through in the lack of excitement he felt when standing in front of an audience. "When we're backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowd begins," he wrote, "it doesn't affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury who seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd. Which is something I totally admire and envy." This last sentence is crucial: as despondent as Cobain clearly was when he wrote this, as much as he felt crushed by the weight of the crowds that came to see him, he could not bring himself in the end to repudiate the crowd, to blame it for his misery. Instead, he was moved to note his admiration for Freddie Mercury, figurehead of the pomp-metal band Queen, whose flamboyance in the face of the crowd remained intact until his own untimely death from AIDS in 1991. Whether or not these pressures were the genuine motivation for Cobain's suicide, they remained unresolved contradictions running through his career and the scene from whence he came, which was itself an outgrowth of the metal/punk continuum.
I was a child of arena rock, born in 1967 in the Southern California suburb of Simi Valley. At the age of eight I bought my first record, Kiss's Alive, with money made from a family garage sale. Before I hit my teenage years, I was the proud owner of a budding record collection that was steeped in 1970s hard rock and metal, in which multiple Kiss albums existed alongside releases by Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Black Sabbath, Boston, and Foreigner. My tastes slowly broadened but remained largely consistent throughout my teens. When I was fifteen I attended my first concert, by the Police, while on vacation visiting family in Detroit. Like several of my subsequent early concertgoing ventures, it was an arena show, but not metal. Starting in 1984, though, that would change. Between 1984 and 1986, my main high school years, I attended almost nothing but metal shows, getting driven from Simi Valley to "the city," as we called Los Angeles, by my parents, parents of my friends, and eventually by my friends (I am a mutant strain of Southern Californian who never learned to drive). During those years I saw the following bands, in no particular order: Van Halen, the Scorpions, Judas Priest, Kiss (without makeup), AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Twisted Sister, Lita Ford, Bon Jovi, Queensrÿche, Yngwie Malmsteen, Deep Purple, Great White, Ratt, Loudness, Y & T, Sound Barrier, W.A.S.P., Krokus, Helix, Talas, Whitesnake, and Dio. Almost all of these concerts were held at either the Los Angeles Forum or the Long Beach Arena, a bit farther south, both of which had capacities of about fifteen thousand; the smallest venue I patronized in these years was the Hollywood Palladium on Sunset Boulevard, which held a couple thousand. Although I lived only about a forty-five-minute drive from Hollywood, I never patronized the clubs on Sunset Strip, the fabled hair metal stomping ground. Partly this was because I was too young, but it was also because as a teenager I had no interest in seeing shows or hanging out in clubs. I was into heavy metal concerts, not heavy metal clubs, and concerts happened in arenas.
Punk entered slowly into this scenario. My first punk-related memories are of watching the Sex Pistols on the evening news during their first and only tour of the United States. I was ten and already a dedicated rock fan; I had no idea who the Pistols were, but they seemed dangerous as portrayed on the news, too dangerous for my taste at the time. A couple years later, the Clash appeared less dangerous, and somehow I was led to buy a copy of London Calling at the age of thirteen; it was the first punk album I owned and would be the only one for some time. What really stirred my interest in punk, though, was a movie, The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris's documentary of the L.A. punk scene circa 1979–80. Not long after its 1981 release, the film was playing on a local cable channel, ON-TV, to which my parents subscribed. I stayed up late to watch it one night, captivated and somewhat freaked by the aggression of early Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, the all too apparent self-destructiveness of Darby Crash, and the crowd-baiting hostility of Fear.
Through it all, X was the one band featured in the film that seemed approachable. They were weird, but seemed less alien; their music had anger and passion and intelligence. When their next album was released, Under the Big Black Sun, I bought it, and liked it. Within another couple of years, buoyed by my attention to the entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times, I was listening more and more to the punk-inspired indie rock of the mid-1980s. The Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, and Black Flag all stretched my musical comfort zone in different ways, and particularly challenged my heavy metal–informed taste for a particular breed of guitar virtuosity. D. Boon hit enough "wrong" notes to make Yngwie Malmsteen wince a thousand times over, but the more I listened to the Minutemen the more those notes sounded right to me. For all that my tastes were morphing, never did I attend a punk show in those years. The Southern California punk scene was a major stimulus, but at a remove. I listened to punk but went to metal concerts and wore metal T-shirts to school. And I never cut my hair unless my parents forced me.
Then I started college at the University of California, Berkeley, in the fall of 1986. One of my freshman roommates was a punk from Orange County whose affinity for Black Flag, Circle Jerks, T.S.O.L., Agent Orange, and Social Distortion was unchecked by any countervailing taste for metal. The first day I met him I was wearing my Judas Priest concert shirt; a few weeks later, I took him and another punk in my dorm by surprise when they found me listening to Black Flag's My War, an album in my own collection. Soon we were going to shows together. My first small club show, at Berkeley Square down University Avenue, featured the Red Hot Chili Peppers. There was a small slam-dancing pit close to the stage (we weren't yet calling it "moshing"), and though I did not join in, I stood beside it, bouncing against the slammers as they veered to the edge of the pit.
During the next few years such shows became the norm rather than the exception for me. I went to one arena show that semester, David Lee Roth at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, and it was the last such show I would attend for years. After so many years of sitting at a remove from the action onstage, I had developed a fondness for standing as close to the stage as I could, even if it meant having to continually shove people away from me as they slam-danced out of control or jockeyed for position to take away my spot. Yes, such action could distract from the music, but something about the contact that happened between fans at these shows compensated for the lack of spectacle and provided a different sort of pleasure. Meanwhile, my roommate took something from my tastes as well. He did not take to metal the way that I was taking to punk and its offshoots, but he could appreciate some of the faster, more punk-inflected varieties of metal purveyed by the likes of Venom and Megadeth. A particular metal-punk bonding experience came when we went to see Motörhead, Megadeth, and the New York crossover band the Cro-Mags at the Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland. It was a pounding, relentless evening of heavy rock, and Motörhead—whose role as pioneers of the metal/punk crossover is detailed in chapter 4—was the loudest band either of us had heard.
My musical coming of age, then, involved moving among and between the genres of metal and punk but was also structured by those genres. Being into metal did not prevent me from taking an interest in punk, but in so doing I was very conscious of crossing a boundary. I initially approached punk with caution for the basic reason that, as a metal fan, certain of its qualities seemed "other" to me. Furthermore, I was aware that crossing over meant stepping into contested terrain. At the same time, allowing my tastes to cross over to punk was symptomatic of the time in which I lived. By the mid-1980s metal and punk were intersecting in myriad ways, and bands from Suicidal Tendencies to Metallica to D.R.I. to Slayer were putting into musical form the impulses that shaped my shifting allegiances. While some who lived through this era bemoaned the loss of musical purity, I was energized by the degree of cross-fertilization that was taking place.
The history that follows is not a personal one, but this book is definitely an outgrowth of my own experiences with metal and punk. Those experiences have led me to think hard about the respective appeal of the two genres and about the reasons why they have so often, over the past thirty-five years, seemed to enjoy such a distinctly charged relationship with one another. My personal investment in the metal/punk continuum has also caused me to question the roles that have been assigned to the two genres in the writing of rock history. Regarding heavy metal, Robert Duncan's description of the form as "the paradigm of the counterculture into the mainstream," written in the mid-1980s, remains representative of a dominant strain of thought. Although several recent works have challenged this view of the genre, the emergence of metal has never been treated as a historically significant event to the extent that it deserves, at least not outside the sphere of a collection of well-researched but celebratory genre histories. By contrast, few eras have been invested with as much weight as the punk explosion that had the years 1976 to 1977 at its epicenter. In the narrative of rock history written by Greil Marcus, Jon Savage, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, and many others, 1977 is the year that marks the clear distinction between "before" and "after," in the wake of which rock could never quite mean what it had before. Such central elements of rock culture as the mystique of the rock-and-roll star, the value placed on virtuosity in rock performance, and the sense that the rock audience could be construed as a unified community were effectively demystified by the punk assault, which brought to rock a new degree of self-consciousness and an unprecedented impulse to reconstruct the dominant premises of the music from within.
In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus offers perhaps the most powerful version of this argument. Studying the Sex Pistols as part of a "secret history" that runs through the twentieth century and includes prior political and aesthetic movements such as Dada and Situationism, Marcus also connects punk to a series of earlier shifts and transitions in rock history. For Marcus, the emergence of punk in the 1970s was the third—and apparently last—of what he terms "pop explosions," following the British musician and critic George Melly. Pop explosions as defined by Marcus are moments when rock history changes course inalterably through a mix of musical and cultural factors that combine to affect the music and the lives of the people who listen to it in profound ways and on a mass scale. Elvis Presley and his rockabilly peers represented the first such explosion; the Beatles initiated the second with their 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Describing the effects of the second event from personal memory, Marcus recalled, "People looked at the faces (and the hair) of John, Paul, George and Ringo and said Yes. ... They heard the Beatles' sound and said Yes to that too." By contrast, when the Sex Pistols made their presence felt on the British listening public some twelve or thirteen years later, the effects were less affirmative.
Seeking a way to explain the impact of the band and the sound they created, Marcus looks back to Bascam Lamar Lunsford's 1924 recording of "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" and Elvis Presley's 1955 recording of "Mystery Train." Both songs, he claims, were marked by a "peculiar mix of fatalism and desire, acceptance and rage" regarding life's circumstances, though Elvis's recording enacted a key shift in tone: "In that founding statement [Elvis] tipped the balance to affirmation, concealing the negative but never dissolving it, maintaining the negative as the principle of tension, of friction, which always gave the yes of rock 'n' roll its kick—and that was the history of rock 'n' roll, up to October 1977, when the Sex Pistols happened upon the impulse to destruction coded in the form, turned that impulse back upon the form, and blew it up." Whereas the pop explosion had earlier been motivated by a mass audience saying an overwhelming "Yes" to the experiences at hand, with punk rock the explosion was set off by more negative impulses. For Marcus these impulses can be found most potently in the voice of Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, "a voice that denied all social facts, and in that denial affirmed that everything was possible." In songs such as "Anarchy in the U.K.," "Bodies," and "Holidays in the Sun," Rotten applied that voice to words that played on images of destruction, violence, and totalitarian horror and pushed those words well beyond the realm of sheer sense-making. In "Anarchy in the U.K." he rolled his r's so that "it sounded as if his teeth had been ground down to points"; in "Holidays in the Sun," a song that portrays the dystopian scenario of Nazi concentration camps converted into tourist sites, "the shifts in Johnny Rotten's voice are lunatic: he can barely say a word before it explodes in his mouth." This voice was dangerously immediate, but also carried impulses steeped in the larger courses of rock music and of twentieth-century culture, according to Marcus, who is also driven to assert that the negation of the Sex Pistols carried a strong affirmative cast as well. Johnny Rotten's voice, after all, issued a denial that "affirmed that everything was possible," or, as Marcus put it elsewhere, "The music came forth as a no that became a yes, then a no again, then again a yes." But it was the negation underlying the music of the Sex Pistols, more than the affirmation it promoted, that set the band's impact apart from previous pop explosions, and that negation was directed first and foremost at rock music itself, which it sought to expose as an empty form even as it renewed the possibilities for expression within the medium.
Marcus's explanation of punk as a pop explosion is compelling for the way it connects punk to the larger scheme of rock history. No writer has made such grand claims on behalf of heavy metal, and it is not my intention to do so here, at least not in any straightforward fashion. My goal instead is to recast existing accounts of post-1970 rock as a story of metal and punk in dialogue. Underlying this objective is a desire to question some of the assumptions that have led to the canonization of punk as the last great moment of rock history. Yet the larger purpose of my project is to consider how history might be differently conceived if sounds, attitudes, and other developments typically considered separate are combined in a single narrative. In this I have been motivated by an observation made by Simon Frith in his book Performing Rites. Considering the relationship between musical genres and social life, Frith posits, "Genre analysis must be, by aesthetic necessity, narrative analysis. It must refer to an implied community, to an implied romance, to an implied plot." For Frith the narrative qualities of genre are most importantly connected to matters of everyday sociability, to the sort of ordinary pleasures and person-to-person social bonds that popular music makes possible. I think his insight also has significant value for assessing the historical narratives that are constructed around popular music and for rethinking historiographic assumptions about the music and its development. Metal and punk both arose from shifts in the structures and meanings that defined rock after 1970, and in fundamental ways both can be viewed as responses to those shifts, efforts to reinvest rock with meaning after the perceived demise of the 1960s counterculture. The transformations that metal and punk have undergone, separately and in combination, have been decisive for the overall shape of rock since those years. This book is about the transformations—stemming from processes of intersection or opposition, from feelings of sympathy or antagonism—that have constituted the metal/punk continuum.