Heavy metal is the idiot-bastard spawn of rock, the eternal embarrassment that will not die. It’s music that doesn’t care what you think. Like some mythical beast that’s part tyrannosaur — slow-moving and pea brained — and part Hydra — multiheaded and malevolent — heavy metal just keeps forging on, flattening everything in its path.
Radio, by and large, won’t play it, but so what? These bands sell millions of records and fill stadiums. Critics scratch their flaccid quills against the hide of the beast, but even if a head should fall, there are ninety more ready to spring up in its place. Punk seemed to offer the kids an alternative in terms of grunge, incompetence and snotty, nosethumbing attitudes. After all, what was punk rock but a revved-up morass of heavy-metal chords? But punk remains a cult taste; what went wrong?
The key to the whole shebang is the Guitar Solo. Punk rock is just too damn smart for its own good, whereas heavy metal, by virtue of its undeniable stupidity, has a built-in survival mechanism that guarantees its astounding regenerative capacity. How else do you explain the ongoing commercial impact of all these groups that possess the exact same idea of what makes a band? The Guitar Solo — the stupider, the better. (Though a screeching, ultrasonic lead singer helps, too.) This Is Spinal Tap was homage, not parody.
Heavy metal is boys’ music, using the electric guitar as a desperate and obvious symbol of adolescent hormonal hysteria. Heavy metal may not be high (or any sort of) art, but it is heroic, and its heroes assume one of several poses: sexual athletics (AC/DC); the ascendancy to manhood via a pulp-fiction variant on knife-wielding juvenile delinquency (Twisted Sister); insane instrumental “virtuosity” (Yngwie Malmsteen); the good old transcendent rock & roll PAR-TY! ethic (Scorpions, Ratt); or any combination thereof (Mötley Crüe).
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AC/DC’s lascivious Fly on the Wall utilizes the requisite five-man heavy-metal lineup — shrieking guitar, chomp-chomp guitar, thrumping boom guitar, sticks on skins ‘n’ metal clang, crotch-on-barbed-wire yelping — to deliver two solid sides of riff-packed brag along the lines of “This ain’t a gun in my pocket/I got the goods in my hand/SEND FOR THE MAN, Yeah” and “SINK THE PINK it’s all the fashion.” You’d never guess how sexist and politically incorrect all this is if you didn’t read the lyric sheet, because you sure can’t make out a single word coming out of the dentist’s-drill glottis of Brian Johnson (except maybe the song titles, which tend to be repeated like mantras). Angus Young is also in great form, playing the dumbest, most irresistibly repetitive chords in the lexicon.
Moving up the ladder of civility, we find Mötley Crüe waxing philosophic on Theatre of Pain — their third and most technically proficient album — which owes a lot, if you can believe the press bio, to sixteenth-century Italian commedia dell’arte. The cover photo of the Mötleys gussied up like postapocalyptic Botticellian angels further supports the claim. Sandwiched betwixt the rock anthems (“Louder Than Hell” and “Raise Your Hands to Rock”) and the hard-boys-on-the-road laments (“City Boy Blues” and “Tonight [We Need a Lover]”) are some plaintive ballads (“Home Sweet Home”), salutes to roots (a chartbound remake of Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ in the Boys Room”) and a martial call to brotherhood called “Fight for Your Rights.”
The manic Swedish fret flailer Yngwie Malmsteen is well connected to his roots, both inside and outside rock & roll. The liner notes thank everybody from the guys who manufacture his strings to Jimi Hendrix, from Rod Serling and H.P. Lovecraft to J.S. Bach and Niccolò Paganini. Paganini, you’ll remember, was the nineteenth-century violin wiz who allegedly sold his soul to the Fireman Down Below in exchange for mind-bending speed on his chosen axe. Yngwie’s probably cut a similar deal, if the nonstop, faster-than-light soloing on his record is any indication. He slows down for a pastoral metal reading of a familiar adagio by the eighteenth-century composer Albinoni (who doesn’t get any liner credit) on “Icarus’ Dream Suite Op. 4.” For all the scorch of Yngwie’s guitar playing, he stays pretty straight. The kid’s obviously very serious about cracking the notes-per-second barrier and doesn’t mean to be taken as some heavy-metal clown. This is what they mean by “classically trained.”
Twisted Sister, on the other claw, is plainly the clown heir apparent to the gaping vacancy left by Alice Cooper. Dee Snider and company fill it with all the banal good cheer and bad-boy rah-rah a kid could want. They tend to write songs that have a giddy, street-smart narrative approach and a gritty coherence that metal usually lacks. Under the Blade is not technically a new album but rather a remix for modern ears of an earlier LP. They’ve included, for all you Twisted hard-cores, “I’ll Never Grow Up, Now!” — the band’s very first product, a single released on an independent label way back in 1979.
Which brings us around to the really dumb, good-natured stuff, the party-animal bands Ratt and Scorpions. Ratt, based in California, packs a clean, glittery, double-punchy wallop. Having scurried up from some subsonic cellar, Ratt makes gleeful, gnawing, hook-riddled music. The predatory connotation of the band’s name is mitigated by the extra T and the cheerful celebration of upright values, like eternal friendship and true love. There’s a certain cerebral ambiguity to Ratt, as the band asserts “You should know by now” without ever saying what it is we should know. Maybe Ratt Rules — or something.
Coming from Deutschland makes Scorpions, in their own way, truly über alles. World Wide Live, four solid sides of raw, adrenalin-injected metal, is a “best of” live compendium of their last four records, with a couple of lengthy in-concert axe scrapings thrown in. The songs twist around the sex-party axis in the pidgin-English argot that only recognizes the most banal slogans in the collective rock unconscious. Fond they are, these Scorpions, of the rich metaphoric turf available in the verb to sting. Two of these guys have been ringing their heavy chord changes for nearly fifteen years, which makes them their own spiritual forefathers.
Any one of these platters is a perfect introduction to the hearts and minds of the youth of the world, a generation dedicated to better living through electricity. And lead guitar.