The Seven Most Pivotal Events in Heavy Metal History

metal1

Rob Halford sings in open court – July 31, 1990

American jurisprudence has witnessed many a dramatic moment over the years – the Army-McCarthy hearings, the Nuremberg trials, O.J. and the bloody glove – but few have been, or could ever hope to be, as spectacularly riveting as the moment Rob Halford, long-suffering and leather-clad lead singer of the legendary quintet Judas Priest, cleared his throat, took a sip of water, and sang – acapella, mind you – in a Nevada courtroom. That single verse, from the classic “Better By You, Better Than Me,” not only sealed the fate of the world’s most frivolous lawsuit, it changed the nature of heavy metal music itself. No longer simply tattooed sadists or drunken illiterates, members of rock bands could now be considered charismatic, fully functional adults who not only met their civic obligations, but pretty much turned the goddamn tide, like they were beating back Raymond Burr himself. The case pretty much speaks for itself: the families of James Vance and Raymond Belknap, two virginal twits from Sparks, NV, decided that somewhere amidst the screeching guitars of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, lay the subliminal command “do it,” which could only be interpreted as a push for suicide, rather than a plea to, I don’t know, get a job or something. Ignoring rampant drug use, abusive households, easy access to loaded shotguns, and the illogic of a band actually wanting to kill off its fans, the families instead looked to Rob Halford for emotional and financial comfort. Kids were dead, and someone had to pay. But the universe had other plans. Clad in a respectable blazer and one classy black dress shirt, Halford emptied his pipes, as well as his heart, and the jury returned the only verdict worth a damn. Moronic teenagers would continue to off themselves, of course (thank the stars), but never again could a gullible parent blame heavy metal. Book closed, world saved.

 

metal2

Cliff Burton goes to bed, wakes up dead – September 27, 1986

I remember it like it was yesterday. Eighth grade, a packed lunch room. In the days before instant news and Twitter feeds, rumors circulated like gangbusters, and we’d often have to wait days before things fully shook themselves out. But this one, dammit, was true. Verified, without hope of going back. What started as a whisper, ended as a cacophony of adolescent rage. Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison, fine, but Cliff Burton? Yep, the Metallica bassist was gone. We demanded answers. Apparently, there was a crash. A bus crash, to be exact. Icy roads in the wilds of Sweden. Maybe the driver fell asleep. Maybe he was drunk. But as a new day dawned, one man lay beneath the wreckage. Pinned, as it were, by the very instrument of his fame and fortune. The zittiest, nastiest member of the Kill ‘Em All unit was sleeping with the angels. Here was a band on the rise – Master of Puppets was perhaps their best yet – and they’d lost their heart and soul with all the suddenness of a slap to the face. And while they’d give the world decent music beyond that dreadful day, commercial success was just around the corner. And for a metal band, nothing could be worse. Once upon a time, we, people like myself, hopeless and alienated, were the only fans that cared. We banged our heads in silence, and were happy to do so. With Cliff safely buried, the band could check off one last hurrah, 1988’s And Justice for All, before deciding to sell its very soul. There would be a video. A video! Cliff would have quit the fucking band before allowing that shit. Next, a Grammy appearance. That act of madness, needless to say, might have prompted Cliff’s suicide. Following that, we’d have symphonic duets, Lou Reed claptrap, and self-indulgent movies not even a fan could love. Black albums that blackened our hearts. Lawsuits that made Gene Simmons look altruistic. Documentaries that sent us sobbing for the exits. Metallica had become respectable. Something (gasp) even the ladies could love.

 

metal3

Udo suffers massive heart attack – May 3, 1990

The news came in a flash: Udo Dirkschneider, that full-throated German sausage and lead singer of Accept, was dead. Heart attack, they said, of the massive variety. What’s worse, he collapsed on stage. Was he singing “Balls to the Wall” at the time? Maybe something from the inadequate Russian Roulette, which would serve him right, the four-foot bastard. But was he really gone? Don’t fucking tell me I’d have to wait another three weeks for Rip magazine to give me the news. Even then, they’d probably already gone to press. Who could clear this shit up? I mean, the guy at Recycle Records had never lied to me before, except when he told me that $6 was the best he could do for my impressive collection of slightly-used albums. Then shit got weird. Udo was apparently alive, but clinging to life. He wasn’t actually on stage at the time, but sitting in his car. Or maybe his house in Berlin. He was a chain smoker, after all, so a heart attack made sense, but hell, maybe he was fine and dandy and ready for a world tour. I didn’t know where to turn, but more than that, I didn’t know what to think. Accidents and drug overdoses I could handle, but a myocardial infarction? In heavy metal? Where the fuck is the romance in that? I was just 17, man, and I wanted my rock deaths to be crazy and fucked up, not something that might take down grandpa. Live, dammit, live, so that you can go out by your own hand or something. I mean, this is the guy who rode a goddamn wrecking ball in a music video a full two decades before Miley Cyrus even thought of such a thing. And at least Udo had the humility to keep his clothes on. He wore fatigues despite never serving a day, risked it all with a solo career, and proved that someone even uglier than Lemmy from Motorhead could get laid on command. His blast to the chest was, no two ways about it, our collective loss of innocence. Mine, anyway.

 

metal4

Vince Neil needs a beer, ends a life – December 8, 1984

We were getting a bit complacent by 1984, what with Reagan’s promise to save the nation and all, and by the holiday season of that re-election year, we’d pretty much concluded that everyone had a chance, the world was our oyster, and full equality had finally beaten back the twin foes of poverty and high taxation. All were accountable, even the wealthy, and the dream was very much alive. Then Vince Neil went to get a beer. Not in the kitchen, mind you, like a good boy, but at the liquor store, despite having guzzled several dozen six-packs over the previous three hours. Drunk, but not drunk enough. So, as rock stars are wont to do, he asked a good friend, Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley of Hanoi Rocks, to come along. Dude, it’s right around the corner, and we’ll be back before you know it. The rest, as they say, is history. A sports car, a high rate of speed, the demon rum, and yes, one dead Brit. Two others with brain damage. Vince, drunker than anyone in Los Angeles at that given moment, was alive and well. A few cuts and bruises, but ready to sing “Looks that Kill” with as much gusto as ever. One life ended, several others forever changed, but Vince had a new album to cut. As a result, he’d serve only 15 days in jail. There’d be a small fine and some community service, but even the judge could agree that sex in the tour bus would pretty much qualify. These were desperate girls, some of them runaways, and Vince had so much love to give. The gavel came down, and America died. For anyone else, several years behind bars, and a life lived forever in the shadows. For Vincent Neil Wharton, untold riches and enough pussy to steal away the pain of a deceased daughter. Even Razzle won in the end. A dedication, right there in the liner notes of Theatre of Pain. From that moment on, I never forgot that there are in fact two Americas, and I, expectedly, inhabited the wrong half.

 

metal5

World’s Greatest Guitar unveiled…by Nitro – August 24, 1989

I had absolutely no talent for music back in the day (still don’t), but I knew one thing: playing the guitar would get you laid. Not if, friends, but when. And how often. It’s one of feminism’s dirty little secrets, and a source of eternal shame for the hierarchy. Women might desire equality, and need Title IX and affirmative action and all that, but at the end of the day, they can be dazzled by a drunken rock star with a piece of wood on his knee. They might want it all – kids, husband, executive position, etc. – but for all their claims of sophistication, they have the minds of rats, lured to their doom by idiot pied pipers in possession of whammy bars. Still, by 1989, women weren’t going for the merely ordinary any longer. Sure, they might suck you off backstage, or in some alley, but if you want the pussy, I’m going to need to see something a little more exciting than a ten-minute solo. Even adding smoke and blood didn’t help matters. Rock music was at a standstill. The act of fucking itself hung in the balance. Cue Nitro. By the end of the Reagan era, heavy metal was back in full seduction mode. One neck was old hat. Two necks had been done. Three necks? Still not wet, honey child. But adding that fourth neck? Gold, son. Rock gold, with a key to the kingdom. Unveiled during the surreal four-minute video for “Freight Train,” the quad-tastic instrument of insanity changed the game like nothing since the invention of the power chord. The top two necks, seven strings each. The bottom two, six strings. The rest was revolution, with women once again pacified, tagged, and sent to the bedroom. And for that opening salvo, we have Mr. Michael Angelo Batio to thank. It’s not enough just to show us the thing; you have to play. And play he did, with enough ear-splitting bravado to set us on a new course. Sadly, the guitar was later stolen in El Paso, Texas, and subsequently lost to history. It was simply too much, too soon.

 

metal8

Jim Bakker’s whore makes love to Nuclear Assault – November 23, 1989

We knew her as Jessica Hahn. She fucked more than her share of respectable men during her salad days, but no one with quite the cultural heft of Jim Bakker. With her help, an empire was toppled. A con-man exposed. Jesus himself put on trial. Only she wasn’t quite finished breaking hearts. In what promised to be the first of many outrageous and inexplicable cameos in the coming months, she helped introduce a nation to Nuclear Assault. I knew them quite well, of course, and considered myself a fan, but with 1989’s Handle With Care, it was time to break the mold. With one eye on the charts and another on Riki Rachtman’s seal of approval, Nuclear Assault decided to get people talking. Fine, maybe it wasn’t about the music, but with all publicity being, well, good, what harm could be done by inserting the lovely Miss Hahn into a video about the utter destruction of the planet? As the Cold War heated up to its eventual and bitter end, the woman who blew America’s top televangelist in a seedy motel was now selling catastrophic doom like it was the July edition of Juggs. And to her credit, bless her heart, she sold it well. She’s in the “Critical Mass” video for but fifteen seconds , but during her time in the sun, she pulled up a lawn chair, flashed her tits, tossed her flaming hair about, and looked into the camera with an unprecedented level of come-hither. As the band plays live before oil derricks and alongside images of Chernobyl, LA traffic, and massive piles of garbage, Hahn, in what is called the “Required Nasty Bit,” dares us to challenge the notion that red hot sexuality is always, in a pinch, best coupled with a glass-chewing vocalist screeching, “Another forest dies!” We’d all be drinking dirty water and breathing filthy air, but we’d never lose our lust for the titties.

 

metal7

Metal Church swings right – March 26, 1991

If you listened to heavy metal from 1980-1993, you were a liberal. Sure, the free speech absolutism and disdain for prohibition of any kind also qualified you as a Libertarian, but you didn’t mind the high taxes because, well, you happily didn’t pay any. You were broke, stupid, and living with mom, so you could safely oppose war and greed from your living room. And so you did. But you also knew that Republicans were the opposite of your preferred lifestyle, which was all about being lazy, silly, and loud. And masturbation, let’s not forget that. But whenever the mood struck, you could, if asked, give a shit. Maybe you kept it no more sophisticated than a Stephen Biko poster or a hearty thumb’s up for whatever U2 seemed to be dealing with, but whatever “they” were for, you were against. Life was unfair, mean, and full of bullshit, and you’d had it up to here, goddammit. Then, like a shot, Metal Church told you to shut the hell up. With the release of The Human Factor, and the song “The Final Word,” heavy metal stopped being on your side and put on a fucking suit. Maybe even invested in the stock market. The lyrics said it all: “If you think you’re better off in a different country, why don’t you pack your bags right now?” Excuse me? What happened to America as the personification of evil and hypocrisy? Then came the kicker: “But don’t you burn our flag to make your point, that’s just not right.” It’s not? Since when? “No one’s gonna start a fire in my homeland’s face?” Jesus Lord Almighty, this was more disillusioning than the release of Judas Priest’s Turbo. “What other country do you know that pays you without work?” This one, right? And all of Europe, last time I checked. But why are you suddenly attacking me? I loved this band, even after the sixteen-minute Titanic song. But this was unforgivable. One of my all-time favorite bands, gone in an instant. Fuck 1991.

About Matt

Matt is the site’s Longest Serving Critic and chief misanthrope. He divides his time between classics of cinema and the most ridiculous movies he can find on Redbox.
Follow Matt: @mattcale52