By SERENE CONNEELEY and JEREMY SHEAFFE
IT may be long way to the top if you want to rock’n’roll but the path is considerably shorter if you release a ballad. We all know the bands – heavy metal heroes with a loyal following of headbanging maniacs. And we all know the story of how that loyal following wakes up one morning and is horrified to find their idols at the top of the charts, being played on Saturday morning video shows and those ‘none of that weird heavy metal’ radio stations. The world sits up and listens, at last, but we think it’s a sell out.
If success is important, then a band changing their style (read “wimping out”) is a small price to pay for making a shitload of cash and gaining the adulation of mainstream mutants. But we know what it was all about. So just how much should a band compromise to chart? And are songs such as “More Than Words”, “To Be With You”, “Nothing Else Matters” and the rest a compromise? Waddya reckon? Of course they bloody are!
Let’s start with Extreme.They’ve released two albums – Extreme and Pornograffitti – and gathered a cult following in America. Their singles had sold just enough for them to keep their record contract and maintain a living – until the release of the ballad “More Than Words”. It shot to the top of the charts around the world and created an instant, new and generally younger fan base.
It’s the same story with Mr Big. Two albums – Mr Big and Lean Into It – and a following of technically inclined musicians interested in the furious fretwork of Billy Sheehan and Paul Gilbert. A few so-so singles ensured they did not starve until boom! – they became overnight chart toppers with the soppy “To Be With You”. The
front rows of their concerts changed from long haired, air-guitar playing, twentysomething blokes to drooling teenage girls in miniskirts and make-up almost overnight.
Now, the big one – Metallica. After four albums that gave them a reputation as the best and most influential thrash band in the world suddenly they’re nestling comfortably alongside crap like Euphoria and Girlfriend at the top of the pop charts. And with a song that is not typical ’Tallica, naturally.
With more and more metal/hard rock bands in the top five, the distinction between them and softer pop/rock begins to blur. What’s the difference between “More Than Words” and any other soppy love song by someone like Rick Price? Where’s the spirit of rebellion that made these bands so great and so different to the mainstream,the spirit that gained the bands such a loyal and passionate following? The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mr Big are very different bands when they rock out, but their chart-toppers “Under The Bridge” and “To Be With You” could almost be by the same band – any band.
Metallica in particular have been painted into a narrow corner as a pure thrash band, which limits acceptance of any growth in a new direction. But the band say they are better musicians now than when they released the brilliant Kill ’Em All in 1983, and are therefore able to write a song that appeals to the fools who used to think they were the best of a dumb genre. What we want to know is, if they can play better why aren’t they playing fast?
“In my opinion musically we’ve progressed a whole lot. We’ve never held back from a taking risks and we’ve never worried about having to come up with things that people expect from us,” Metallica’s Lars Ulrich said. “On the other hand, a band like Iron Maiden has been releasing albums over 10 years that all sound the same because that’s what their fans want. We’d never sell out like that because we want to be honest and put that across in our music.”
No sell-out? Abbadon from Venom – who have influenced Metallica from day one – said of “Nothing Else Matters”: “That’s a fucking sellout. That’s two or three records in a row with no guts – I mean, where’s the metal in that? They’re supposed to be the pinnacle of everything we’re about.” And that has been the reaction of many fans. Our own Jeremy Sheaffe said: “It’s a tastefully exercise in money-making” and few disagree.
Yet if Metallica are to continue to redefine the genre surely the time has come for them to move on. There are only so many variations within any musical style and nowadays there are so many bands doing what Metallica has already done that they must constantly re-invent themselves and their music to stay at the forefront. As Kevn Kinney from Drivin ’n’ Cryin’ said: “They’ve already done the hard stuff, maybe they just need something to offset it.” And Dave Harrison, bassist and songwriter in speed/thrash outfit Allegiance, added: “It’s only one song on the whole album – and it’s well done – so it just makes it a little more varied. There’s still all the other songs that are as heavy as ever, but this makes it a little less one-dimensional.”
And while it’s natural to feel some pride when you can see your heroes on the idiot box, there’s also a protectiveness from the real fans, a real “fuck you, they’re ours” attitude. Still, can any true Metalli-fan really
deny others the pure joy of listening to such a band?
For US hard rockers Extreme the new public interest and awareness of them saved their career. They’d been around for a long time without a great deal of success (cult status is flattering, but it hardly fills your stomach) and were about to give up on their second album when the sudden hit “More Than Words” reaffirmed their record company’s faith in their money-making potential. It gave the label the confidence to let the band work on their new three sided album without interference – even though such a format is a big risk – because now they’ve had a hit they’re guaranteed some sales. It’s therefore more than a little ironic that the song metalheads call a sellout has allowed the band to continue making their music on their own terms and given them the freedom to express what they’re really like. Whether or not we will still like it is another matter.
Of course there’s now the small dilemma of ‘what is Extreme?’ Is it a hard rocking band or the two nice boys of the video who appeal to the kind of people who run screaming from a Slayer t-shirt? Still, the band now has the opportunity to sort this out, with a very large audience deciding on the fate of their next offering. Chances are that now they know about them they‘ll stick around to see what they’ll come up with next – as long as it’s not too different and there’s at least one nice slow ballad.
“Rock’n‘roll is not about writing formulated songs to get a quick buck,” said Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone. “That’s the kiss of death. No one would respect you any more. We have our integrity, and that’s important.”
The situation with Mr Big is remarkably similar. “After a period in the wilderness and years of collectively paying their dues. Mr Big has emerged as the band to follow Extreme down the path to mass acceptance,” wrote a Maura Sutton in the introduction to a recent story on Mr Big. And Steffan Chirazi reviewed their worldwide hit “To Be With You” thus: “I’m sick of bands trying to write their way into the charts.” But what he found out later is that that song is years old and had remained half-written in the head of vocalist Eric Martin since he was a teenager. He had never played it to any of his bands because he thought they would hate it – but they didn’t, and nor has a large section of the record buying public. Given that most Mr Big fans think it’s a cop out, that must mean that it isn’t fans who are buying the single.
“It’s weird,” noted Eric. “The same people who put you right up there end up using you for the dartboard. It’s pretty funny.” He couldn’t repeat the success of the song, he claims, because it was ultimately a fluke. “I
know people are enjoying it, but I’ve written shitloads of better songs.” Ain’t that the truth.
Certainly there must be some frustration in being known only for a track not fully representative of the band, but hopefully people are buying Lean Into It, and discovering the band – somehow I doubt it.
Guitarist Paul Gilbert was just as surprised, and pleased, with Mr Big’s sudden success: “It’s funny because most bands in the pop charts are either ‘hair’ bands or have some image thing. They can’t be musicians – it has to be a dance song or real image-orientated. I always thought, ‘Well, I’m a musician, I can’t rely on my clothes or a drum machine.’ I figured I’d probably never have a number one single, but at least I’d be true to myself.” I must wonder whether he‘s seen the clip, sitting as it does so comfortably next to other top 40 stuff.
And the question remains: If these bands are true to themselves, and their ballads are getting more people into the heavier stuff, how come they’re at the top of the singles charts but their albums haven’t done the same? Most of the fans who bought the albums would have done so anyway, no matter what the single sounded like. Did those who bought the single buy the album?
l have to admit that if Alice Cooper mellowed too drastically I would be devastated. I respect him as an, artist and I respect his right to explore different territory, but I would be disappointed if he released something that was without his intrinsic weirdness and heaviness. To maintain an artist’s interest and creativity they must be
allowed to grow musically, but not so drastically that the feeling that originally appealed to fans is gone.
“Bands need to be able to try different things, because it gets a bit boring if you have to do the same thing all the time,” Dave Harrison said. He’s speaking from experience because as Allegiance have grown they’ve developed a slightly more varied style that their fans have loved – though the band ain’t planning a “More Than Words” cover.
It’s a sad truth that to maintain artistic control and to ensure survival, especially in an isolated country such as Australia, bands must sell records. Nirvana didn’t sell out by signing to a major and shipping millions
of copies of Nevermind – in fact they gave record companies around the world the confidence to sign other left-of-centre bands.
“In the post-Nirvana age any indie band is getting snapped up and signed to a major label, and it’s almost too fast I think,” Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley said. And while it is doubtful whether many, if any, will attain the success of Nirvana, the fact that they’re now getting signed must be seen as a good thing.
“I think Metallica’s success with that song has helped them cross over to an audience that wasn’t into metal before,” says Allegiance’s Dave. “Now that people know about Metallica, they’ll hear about other bands and want to check them out too. Record companies might be more adventurous now that they know there’s people out there who will hopefully buy the albums.” We will see, we will see…
From Hot Metal #42, August 1992