Perfect Sound Forever

Heavy Metal in the '80s


by Cyrus Manasseh


Although heavy metal has far from disappeared, in the '80's, it was something quite different from what it is today. It was the era of the emergence of the guitar virtuoso and when music became especially glamorous and glitzy. Especially in the later years, the concert stages for these acts filled up with pyrotechnics and spandex, which in perhaps an overblown way, returned us to the classic glam rock of the '70's.

This was the time when metal stood out in the pop landscape due to gaining an enormous amount of air-play on radio stations, MTV and shows such as "Headbangers Ball," which sprang up to capitalize on the marketability of many of these groups and would in turn have millions of viewers a week. Unlike today, where music is almost invisibly engulfed and saturated by so many other kinds and cross over styles, '80's metal emerged as one of the most major individualized and dominant types of music of the time.

In fact, by comparison with how it had been in the '80's, metal music now is not so significantly capitalized on or promoted as it was then. Though it was surrounded by an enormous array of different music styles like smooth adult jazz, hip hop, urban, rap, pop, soft rock, Eurodance, R&B, freestyle, new wave, techno electro, post disco, dance and many others, in the '80's it became arguably the most significant of them all. Visually, '80's metal showed up off musicians with big hair and sporty fashion, which were marketed and promoted through TV- a notable example would be Twisted Sister. Musically, the '80s were a time when the guitar "shredder" also emerged.

And though it had partly sprung from much of punk's rebellious spirit, metal at that time had become conventionalized through its commercialization. Along with the rise of the guitar wizards, a huge amount of glam and a glitzy pop image-based product increasingly began seeping into the music culture, reflecting a growing anti-punk spirit. In fact, Def Leppard, who came out of the new wave of British metal also ignored punk, taking their inspiration from classic rock instead. Along with flashy solos, Van Halen mixed elements of glam with metal to present something far more glitzy too.

Van Halen as well as the guitarist Randy Rhoads - arguably in some ways an Eddie Van Halen spin-off became very influential for what would follow especially for the increasing amount of guitarist marvels who found themselves playing more and more alongside synthesizers players. Rhoads had been a supreme guitar technician who had helped found the band Quiet Riot - one of the first glam metal bands. Throughout the '80's, great metal shredder guitarists following in their stead had included among many others Y & T's Dave Meniketti, Def Leppard's Phil Collen, Dokken's George Lynch, Pantera's Dimebag Darrell, Dio's Vivian Campbell, Whitesnake's Adrian Vandenburgh, W.A.S.P.'s Doug Blair, Ratt's Warren Demartini, White Lion's Vito Bratta, Testament's Alex Skolnick, Cacophony's Marty Friedman, Danger Danger's Andy Timmons and Nitro's Michael Angelo Batio. There was also Steve Vai a guitarist beyond category who first started with Frank Zappa and also solo shredders Paul Gilbert, Tony MacAlpine, Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani, the last of which had taught and heavily influenced Vai and Metallica's Kirk Hammett.

In addition to increasing displays of technique, which increased the commercial aspect, the emergence of the power ballad would be responsible for much of metal music's commercialism drawing larger and larger audiences throughout the decade. Important for reaching a female audience from what had usually been a mostly male fan base, the formula had been set with pop metal power ballads like Mötley Crüe's "Home Sweet Home" (1985) which helped push metal further into becoming more and more commercialized and mainstream. By the late '80s, more poppy sounding ballads like Whitesnake's 1987 power ballad single "Is This Love" and Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" (1988) would come forth. Others like Bon Jovi, Cinderella. Dokken, Europe, Kix and Kiss had also helped extend the bombastic glam stage pyrotechnics and spandex-wearing commercial romp.

In addition to '80s glam metal, following the example set by Queen's "Stone Cold Crazy," thrash metal also became increasingly popular and emerged with bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer. Though faster and more aggressive sounding compared with glam and seeming on the surface to appear to have more in common with punk's direct lyrics and anti-establishment attitude, thrash focused on themes such as warfare, corruption, injustice and suicide. Yet, it (along with glam) would also fuel a sub culture that would, by the mid '80's, become increasingly swamped by commercial-sounding anthemic choruses.

We must also remember, that in the '80's, metal was all about video and stadiums and the corporatisation of everything. Enabling it all was the fact that already by that time, video started to become very big with major corporations who used its power and influence in the form of massive advertisements as way to promote their product. Following the example of earlier, more extravagant music videos (i.e. "Bohemian Rhapsody") and tied to the growth of corporate marketing which had also become very prominent in a period full of the obsession with image and advertising, music videos became increasingly intertwined with a band's marketability in a way that had never previously happened. Through increasingly glitzy and commercialized video productions, hedondish bands like Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi spread the word and the bombastic style of glam that was embraced by masses, thumbing its nose at the anti-consumerist attitude of punk. These metal bands, especially with the aid of video (which was used to promote an increasingly commercial glitzy image), brought in a much more commercial look and sound. Releasing their first album Too Fast for Love in 1981, Mötley Crüe's guitarist Mick Mars helped the band have legions of fans though his image and guitar playing, creating an increasingly pop style while also seeming to parody both Van Halen and Rhoads' technical prowess.

Apart from its original punk influence, the roots of '80s metal can be traced back even further to the Kinks and the Who in the '60s, as well as metal godfathers who formed from the late '60's - Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Leaving out the blues element in the late '70s, metal pioneers Judas Priest and Mötörhead had used their heaviness while keeping in line with the attitude of punk to create a sound that was heavy rock n' roll punk filled with economic guitar solos, much like those heard in the Ramones and Sex Pistols. In fact, Mötörhead's 1977 self-titled debut, which had included the element of speed, had often mixed the sound of classic rock with punk and the '70's glam rock of Bowie and Slade. This would soon would be followed by '80's metal pioneers Saxon, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Diamond Head and Girlschool who had added a great amount of guitar dexterity to the mix becoming a prime characteristic of '80s metal music from the beginning.

When considering '80s metal, one has to recognize that although the spirit of punk from which it came had mainly focused on anarchy, anti-consumerism, anti-corporate control, much of it, particularly glam, had taken on a strong commercial aspect in the rise of a particularly increasingly commercial period. Mixed with a sporty look and big hair when an enormous mix of different music and styles had existed, after following on from punk and much that was derived from classic rock, metal music in the '80s had flourished as corporate rock in a period when the commercialization of music saw the rise of an unstoppable corporatization on a wide international scale- indeed, major U.S. record companies were selling themselves to media moguls in Japan and Europe. In fact, metal was a music engulfed by a "give me the money decade" full of excess - drink, women, hair, drugs in a period which saw the beginning of fragmentation in music when the rebelliousness that once seemed to possess more innovativeness and originality from which it had originally stemmed from became swallowed up by commercialism.

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