It’s really hard to be a metalhead if you have the wrong sort of hair. As a teenage thrash-metal fan in the 1990s, I was at a disadvantage: while my friends’ hair hung long and lank, mine sat immobile, like a young Douglas Hurd’s. You can’t headbang effectively with a brillo pad stitched to your scalp.
This was a problem. For a while I tried a bleached-blonde mohawk — I looked like a prat, but you couldn’t fault the commitment. A chin-only beard was a nice idea, but I was not a hirsute teen and after several months’ growth I looked as though I had a tennis ball made of pubes stapled to my chin. But, of course, the obvious option for the wavy-haired metaller is to go full skinhead, and that is what I did: buzzcut, grade zero.
In 1998, aged 17, three friends and I went to OzzFest at the Milton Keynes Bowl. It was a heavy metal festival organised by Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath; it had various luminaries of the metal scene playing, including Fear Factory, Slayer and Pantera. My scalp was freshly shorn. It was a blazing hot day; I was too young and self-conscious to want to show weakness by applying suncream, and, of course, I was drinking and smoking weed all day, because that is what you do at a festival when you’re 17.
On my second or third venture into the moshpit, the physical activity, and the drink and weed, and of course the relentless sun on my gleaming bonce, became too much for me, and I started to faint. Fainting in the middle of a large moshpit is not a very good idea. Luckily, a group of skinheaded young men spotted me going pale, grabbed me by the arms, and cleared a path out of the crowd for me. I like to think they were doing so out of solidarity.
I’ve been thinking about metal lately, because recently, one of the formative albums of my youth turned 30 years old. Metallica’s self-titled album, also known as The Black Album, was released in August 1991. I graduated slowly from rock to metal in my teenage years, going from Queen to Guns N’ Roses and Pearl Jam, to Metallica and Faith No More, and eventually Pantera, Carcass and Fear Factory. It was probably The Black Album which did as much as anything to push me along that route. And Metallica were the first band I saw live, at Earls Court in 1996.
It’s probably not so true nowadays, but in my youth metal still had a hint of danger about it. Men wearing make-up and long hair was still mildly shocking to people who remembered the 1950s, and a lot of people still did back then. When the Columbine massacre happened in 1999, conservative voices blamed it on Marilyn Manson (and the video game Doom, something else I spent a lot of my youth playing). Not that long earlier, there was a serious societal concern that heavy metal was encouraging Satanism among American youth. Geraldo Rivera made a documentary saying that heavy metal encouraged devil-worship.
You can see why: the metal aesthetic is blood and skulls. If you go to a death metal festival, you’ll notice something: all the band logos look exactly the same. They’re bone-coloured, illegibly stylised writing on a black background. (Apart from the heroic Party Cannon, of course.)
If you listen to heavy metal lyrics, especially the 1980s and 1990s, Metallica-heyday era ones, they’re usually about things that Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer fans would recognise. Monsters, battles, that sort of thing. Three Metallica songs are about Cthulhu, the sleeping elder god from HP Lovecraft’s fiction. “Enter Sandman”, one of their biggest hits, sings about “Dreams of war, dreams of liars/ Dreams of dragon’s fire/ And of things that will bite.” They have a song about werewolves.
And the Satanic panic people were partly right: there are lots of songs about devils and demons. Slayer, one of the popular beat combos I saw on that warm Milton Keynes afternoon, has a pentagram logo and lots of songs with titles like “Angel of Death”, “Hell Awaits”, and “Black Magic”. Oh, and “The Antichrist”. You could see how that might mislead people into thinking that they had a thing for this Satan character. Lots of metal is aggressive or violent in content: bands with names like Cannibal Corpse or Bloodbath, songs with names like “Hammer Smashed Face” or “A Skull Full of Maggots”.
But from the inside, metal feels nerdy and warmhearted. Metal gigs have always, to me, had the sort of vibe of a classic car meet or a real-ale festival: a place for slightly socially awkward people to find a social group outside the mainstream. The aggressive image it projects is at odds with the rather gentle souls you actually meet doing it. This was particularly made clear to me when I went to Download festival in 2015 and asked lots of metallers for their musical guilty pleasures, and came back with lovely photos of pierced, tattooed, bearded thrashers holding up whiteboards saying “C’est la Vie by B*witched” or “Katy Perry, Firework”.1 And everyone was super lovely.
Philly Byrne, the lead singer of the well-respected thrash metal band GAMA Bomb, agreed: there’s a nerdy stripe to metallers that you don’t get quite so much in other genres. “The thing I say is that metalheads in reality are librarians,” he says. “There are things you can just be into, and that’s fine: with dance music, it’s fine to just be into it. But with metal it’s expected that you’ll know lots and lots. You’ll have knowledge and experience. You’ll collect old LPs, you’ll get patches on your jacket. It’s more like real ale fans or cinema nerds: they’re quite dad-ly, they have a soft edge to them.”
Metal is, in fact, full of the sort of people who play Dungeons & Dragons (another Satanic Panic victim!): nerdy, often (but not always) male, somewhat obsessive. And similar to Warhammer, the fire-and-death ethos is at odds with the geeky, friendly reality. (The metal band Bolt Thrower, incidentally, sang mainly about Warhammer. It’s like a crossover episode of my favourite things.)
You don’t get into metal as a teenager if you want to be one of the mainstream cool kids. You get into it if, like me, you’re not quite sure if you can pull off being one of the mainstream cool kids, so you look for a solid identity elsewhere. Those skinheaded lads who rescued me from collapse in the moshpit were probably gentle-hearted nerds trying to find their way in the world, like I was.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t awful people and bad things in metal. The Norwegian black metal scene has two actual murderers (1, 2), and the aggressive image spills over into reality on very rare occasions. More prosaically, it’s quite insular: a certain amount of gatekeeping goes on over who counts as real metal or who counts as a real fan. I remember ambiguous feelings when “my” bands, bands like Metallica or Faith No More, appeared on TFI Friday or Top of the Pops: on the one hand, the normies get to see how great they are; on the other, they’re mine. But on the whole, it’s a place of gentle souls, a place for the awkward and weird who didn’t quite fit the mainstream.
Plus, metal is one of Britain’s greatest exports. A disproportionate number of the first real heavy metal bands – Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Mötörhead, Saxon, Venom – were or are British: often from working-class Midlands backgrounds. Understandably that has meant that it is predominantly a white genre – but only predominantly. “I’ve played all over the world,” says Byrne. “I’ve played in Japan and South America, I’ve played to an audience of Navajo people.” There’s a popular Mongolian metal band, the HU. There’s a thriving K-pop/metal crossover genre, led by BABYMETAL. It’s a global phenomenon, born in urban England in the 1970s.
I haven’t been to a metal gig for a while. Partly that’s getting older, partly it’s been the bloody pandemic, partly it’s because my job’s changed and it’s harder than it used to be to pretend that I write about music, so can I have free tickets please. And of course it’s parenthood: for a brief period I managed to get my son, then three, to say his favourite song was “Black Star” by Carcass, but now he’s seven and likes George Ezra. (My daughter likes Faith No More, so there’s still hope.)
But now that the UK is opening up a bit —Bloodstock went ahead only last weekend! — maybe I ought to get involved again. After all, Metallica are still going strong. The only trouble is that, as I learnt researching this piece, headbanging these days gives me a headache and my glasses fall off. And, of course, I still have the wrong sort of hair.