Heavy Metal Thunder: Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax

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"I mean, these are just normal kids – at least normal by today's standards," Hanneman continues. "You have to remember, this society has changed a lot, and some of these kids are coming from some pretty rough family realities and some pretty hopeless conditions. This music is a way of reacting against all that. They go to a show, thrash around for a few hours and then they go home, and hopefully they've worked some stuff out of their systems.

"Basically, I think we're doing a positive thing," says Hanneman. "But if some kid goes overboard, I can't take responsibility for that. I mean, we all have an inborn capacity for violence, but most of us know where to stop. If somebody goes over that line, then their boundary is obviously gone, but that has more to do with how they grew up than with our music. Sometimes we're a bit over the line about killing and stuff like that, but it isn't like we're giving them knives, saying 'Here, cut your throat. Hurt somebody.' That isn't what we're doing."

If speed metal can lay claim to its own Clash or Who – a band that tries to make sense of its audience's moment in history and how that moment can be transformed into the basis for community – then clearly that band is Anthrax. Like Slayer or any other number of bands, Anthrax often deals with questions of rage and despair. But in contrast to these other groups, Anthrax wants to know where those dark feelings come from and how they affect the lives of the people in its audience.

In part, Anthrax's commitment to the ideals of community owes as much to the band's interest in punk as to its roots in metal. Like most of the other musicians on this tour, the members of Anthrax first developed their passion for heavy metal in the middle-to-late 1970s, when artists such as Kiss, Ted Nugent, Black Sabbath and AC/DC were defining the frontier of rock & roll bravado. But in 1976 all that changed. Punk groups like New York's Ramones and England's Sex Pistols took heavy metal's style and stripped it of its excesses – its overreliance on flashy lead guitars and pretty-boy cock rock – and transformed it into something that was both more primitive and more radical. Indeed, punk bands drew new stylistic, generational and political lines across the breadth of rock & roll, and they declared that if you did not stand on punk's side of the line, then you did not stand anywhere that counted. As a result, the punk and metal factions didn't get along very well.

But Scott Ian, Anthrax's lyricist and rhythm guitarist, was a heavy-metal fan attending high school in Queens, New York, when punk was at its peak, and he couldn't see the reason for all the division and antipathy. "To me, Iron Maiden was every bit as valid as the Ramones or Sex Pistols," says Ian, seated backstage at Houston's Summit Arena. "When I was a kid, it all felt like an underground discovery."

In 1981, when Ian and a couple of friends founded Anthrax, he envisioned the group as drawing from metal's style but from punk's spirit. At first not much came of the idea; others in the group were happy to stick with metal's familiar styles and fans. But Ian and Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante started hanging out on Sundays at Manhattan's legendary punk club CBGB and making friends with members of the local hardcore scene. For a brief while they even formed a side band – the legendary Stormtroopers of Death, regarded by many as a key punk-metal crossover group. In time, many of the hardcore kids started coming to Anthrax's shows, and they brought with them some of their scene's more colorful rites – like stage-diving and slam-dancing. By the mid-Eighties, however, the punk scene had lost most of its stylistic inventiveness and almost all its cultural clout, and the emerging thrash and speed-metal bands simply appropriated punk's rhythmic intensity and some of its radical zeal.

These days, Anthrax can pretty much be exactly what it wants to be – a heavy-metal band with a punk-informed conscience. Over the course of the group's last four albums, Anthrax has become increasingly politically savvy and activist-minded, yielding some of the smartest songs about the social and emotional realities of modern-day youth culture that rock & roll has produced in the last decade. But sometimes the band's progressivism hasn't sat well with parts of the audience. In 1989, when the members of Anthrax appeared on the cover of the heavy-metal magazine RIP with their friends in Living Colour, a black metal band, the magazine received some ugly responses from several readers. Angered by the incident and by the killing of a black youth, Yusuf Hawkins, in New York's Bensonhurst area, Ian wrote "Keep It in the Family" and "H8Red," a pair of scathing songs about race hatred that appeared on the band's latest album, Persistence of Time.

Says Ian: "I think there's a pretty good percentage of our audience – you know, white middle-to-lower-class kids – that hates black music and probably hates blacks as well. Why they hate blacks, they probably don't know; it's a prejudice they've never questioned. I'm exposed to it all the time. People see me wearing a Public Enemy T-shirt, and they ask, 'Why do you like that nigger music?' I can't really talk to somebody like that. I don't care if they've bought every one of our albums, I'm certainly not going to condone their attitude just because they're an Anthrax fan."

Ian pauses for a moment and shakes his head. "I wish there were a way to reach those people," he says after a bit. "Maybe for some of them the music does make a difference. Maybe they can hear a song like 'H8Red' and understand that it's a song about being hated just because of the way you look – whether it's because you have long hair or you're a skinhead or you're black.

"I mean, for a lot of our fans who are into this music, things aren't easy," Scott Ian continues. "Some of them are working jobs they can't stand, and they aren't sure who to blame for their lives, and so they end up getting drunk all the time or turning to drugs. I think what we try to say to them is: 'Hey, we've all gone through some of the same shit, but you can find a place in your life where you can make it. You may hate your parents and hate your life, but it's your life, and you just got to fucking do what you got to do to make yourself and your world better.' I think if Anthrax has any message, that's it: Make yourself and your world better."

A short while later, Ian and the other members of Anthrax – singer Joey Belladonna, drummer Charlie Benante, bassist Frank Bello and guitarist Dan Spitz – are onstage in Houston, spreading that message the best way they know how: by playing brilliant and enlivening rock & roll. It's debatable, of course, whether the audience completely understands or agrees with what the band is saying in its music; maybe, for many of those here, the sheer visceral impact of the band's performances is all that really matters. Still, there is something heartening about watching Belladonna deliver the key lines from "Keep It in the Family" – "Don't even try to tell me what you think is right/When to you blacks are niggers and Jews are kikes. . . . And you don't even know why you feel this way/'Cause Daddy hated this and Mommy hated that" – and witnessing the audience flailing and thrashing to the words as if this were a declaration worth raising a ruckus over.

When the band gets around to "Antisocial," there's no question that everybody knows what is being talked about. On record the song is a rousing attack on a man who uses law and order and wealth to beat down the people he doesn't understand. But in concert it becomes something else. "You're anti, you're antisocial," yowl the band members, pointing their fingers at the audience, and the audience stands up on its chairs and roars back the same line – "You're anti, you're antisocial," – pointing back at the band. Finally, the band and the audience are yelling the same refrain to each other at the same time, over and over, until the voices rise into the thousands. In that moment, the crowd and the band are taking a term that has been used for years as a method of branding young people as outcasts and are turning that epithet into both a mutual accusation and a mutual affirmation. They are telling one another that they know exactly how the world views them and that they are proud to be known by those terms. Indeed, they are forging a bond of community they rarely find outside of the society of heavy-metal music. It is a way of saying: "We are here for each other. Whatever the rest of the world might say about us, we are here for each other."

In the world that heavy metal and its fans are consigned to live in, that isn't such a bad promise.

This story is from the July 11th, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.

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