Appealing history of the genre that offended critics, moved millions of units, and thrilled adolescents of all ages.
Konow’s debut follows a straightforward thesis: heavy metal maintained enormous and under-acknowledged worldwide popularity from the 1970s through approximately 1992, when many factors, particularly the Seattle “alternative” explosion, consigned most bands to the cut-out bin. He identifies metal’s crucial elements—multi-guitar power chords, energized vocals, rebellious occult trappings, elaborate stage productions—and traces their almost accidental coalescence during the ’70s as pioneers like Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, KISS, and Queen toured constantly. By the decade’s end, economic malaise compelled a young generation to hurry into bands, resulting in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal: Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, and Judas Priest. In turn, these groups inspired an explosion in American “underground metal,” most prominently Metallica, while pop-metal acts like Bon Jovi and the infinitely sleazier (hence authentic-seeming) Guns N’ Roses dominated record sales in the late ’80s. A fan first and critic second, Konow discusses the laughable (W.A.S.P., Motley Crue, Poison) and the venerable (Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Slayer, AC/DC) with the same lucid enthusiasm. He attributes metal’s commercial dominance to grassroots fan loyalty, MTV’s marketing savvy, and major labels’ deep pockets, which enabled the profligate “hair bands” to consume huge sums while recording and touring. The ludicrous side of metal, immortalized in the seminal “mockumentary” This Is Spinal Tap, emerges in numerous hilarious anecdotes concerning the awesome egotism of figures like Axl Rose or David Lee Roth and the myopia of bands like Dokken or Quiet Riot, which expected to remain popular forever. Konow’s discussion of metal’s commercial decline offers shrewd analysis of cultural shifts: MTV and major labels happily dropped the metal bands once profitability waned, while embittered musicians blamed fair-weather fans and alternative-rock “nerds” rather than examining their own sordid histories (herein documented) of misogyny, thuggishness, substance abuse, and uninspired recordings.
Even non-headbangers may enjoy this engaging account of an improbable musical watershed.