Sunday, 7 March 2010

Heavy Metal Britannia

I watched the BBC documentary Heavy Metal Britannia on Friday night, as the missus was out and I could indulged in a bit of sweaty maleness. It was a good history of the genre, from about 1970 to 1990 or so, just at the period when it's place in the teenage life as complicated by the arrival of grunge and goth.

Metal comes across in the doc as a kind of decadent form of the blues rock sound that had been evolving since the early sixties, a lineage coming via Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and a few power chord-based rock classics like The Kinks's You've Really Got Me Going and the harder sound coming out of LA via The Doors, Steppenwolf and Iron Burretfly (the documentary does a great jobon the musical forebears and some guitarist (I forget who, might have been Ian Gillan, who's a singer.... but anyway) illustrates the evolution of a standard blues riff (from Brooke Benton's Kiddyo) into Led Zep's A Whole Lotta Love.

The hippy dream showed youth in the ascendent, but metal came along at a time - the early 70s - when the hippy dream was over and things took on a more hopeless tone, singing about apocalypses to come and self-abnegation through hedonism, a lot like glam but without the sexual ambiguity and artsy pretense. In fact, the lack of depth that characterises metal versus glam (and later versus punk and indie and various other flavours of rock) is what makes it so easy to mock. The limited intellectual scope for the genre makes it best when the pratitioners just get on with rocking out. As soon as they introduce elements of fine musicianship or intimations of a message, metal becomes rapidly unstuck.

Goth is pretty much the metal of the punk generation and it's interesting that metal and goth are both heavily associated with the fantasy genres, which also often dwell on past glories of vanished empires. The vampire is to goth what the rampaging Conan-esque barbarian is to metal, with Elric as a kind of intermediate figure. Metal comes at the end of the space race and the huge push that SF got from it, but by the seventies fantasy had so occupied the genre space that a blatant fantasy movie stole all SF's best toys. Goth comes at the end of the initial cyberpunk phase, pushing out the rationalistic fantasies of the burgenoing cyber world with fantasies of parasites and monsters.

Fantasy is a turning away in many ways, a way of saying things that are too hard to say in unadorned terms, a way to place the loss of hope or the death of the old away from us. These decadent forms grow out of the unfulfilled hopefulness of the previous genre - the hope offered by rock in the sixties and punk in the 70s turned sour, the hope of the rocket age and the computer age turned rotten. In these times, people turn to fantasy, but the next wave of hopefulness is never far behind.


  1. Reading this makes me think about what musical genres SF (or ostensibly SF) films should be linked with. Should Alien be considered a goth SF film as its body horror elements match the vampiric obsessions of the goth subculture?

    Would Aliens be a metal film as it glorifies a more aggressive solution to the protagonist's problems? Just random thoughts at the moment, so I'm not sure if the idea has any legs to it or not.

  2. My own thoughts on the topic are rather random, too, but that's what this blogs all about - drifting strands of brain thought that settle in my finger tips and stain the keyboard...

    I don't know if you can necessarily draw specific analogies with exactitude. I'm uncertain about my own use of Elric above, because an an intermediate figure between metal and goth, the timing is totally wrong (Elric is firmly metal in terms of timing). But I left it in there, as it makes sense even if the facts speak against it!

    If I were to carry the idea forward, I would also be looking at what figures the fandoms embraced, rather than trying to extrapolate from theme or theory. I was going to write something about Steampunk here - which looks like the decadant form of post-cyberpunk transhumanism - but I have no idea what they listen to at Steampunk club nights - brass bands and Elgar? (Possibly there's a connection with burlesque, another currently modish decadant form.)

  3. Surely the stuff of fantasy was progressive rock. Invented languages, concept albums, embarrassing covers, it has all of them.

  4. Well, I dunno, cos prog also gave us 2112, I, Robot, Hawkwind (who dabbled in both, but were strongly proto-metal), War of the Worlds and - arguably - David Bowie (who isn't often lumped in with prog, but conceptually at least he's right up there. That's a more sci fi angle, I think.

    I also think that prog's "high" era overlaps with metal, also being a late sixties/early seventies thing. The audiences were largely the same - to an extent, prog was "serious" metal. Metal kept its beady eye on drinking beer and frightening your Mum, while prog was the nice college boy equivalent. They ain't a million miles from each other!

  5. re: Steampunk, it strikes me that it is at least similar to the cyberpunk/cybergoth aspect of goth subculture, in that it embraces a notionally futuristic aesthetic, but from a distinctly retro perspective. Theres something incongruous about the adoption of high tech artifacts in both, (goggles, faux implants, rayguns, animated clothing), with the location of these within previous, outmoded visions of the future.
    I imagine there's something interesting to say about the cultural shift from embracing near futurist dystopia to victorian modernism, but I'll leave that to someone more erudite...

  6. Yeah, I think you're right. It follows the trend from sparkly-new futures to "used" futures, where tech is dented and old sometimes outmoded. Bizarrely, I think this aesthetic was popularised by Star Wars, which is filled with futuristic looking junk.

    Thinking it over, in fact, Star Wars has a bit of a steam punk vibe about it...


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