A History of Heavy Metal by Andrew O’Neill

I think we’re going to see a lot of books about heavy metal in the near future. Hell, I’d like to write one! But any prospective authors will do well to top Andrew O’Neill’s ‘A History of Heavy Metal’. Firstly, it is seriously funny. On the strength of this book, I imagine Andrew’s stand-up show is well worth a punt. Secondly, it is seriously knowledgeable. Andrew knows his stuff. I would know if he didn’t… and so would you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. Thirdly, it is well written. The man can write and has a lot of affection for his subject, which is as it should be.

For instance he writes of all-time greats, the massively influential Venom*:

“Venom were so tongue in cheek they nearly permanently damaged their cheeks. Although it suits Venom, this self-awareness didn’t translate into the black metal that they inspired. Which is largely a good thing, because the lack of a sense of humour of the second wave of black metal is what makes it uniquely appealing.”

“Venom are significant in several different ways. Their sonic extremity led to the splitting of metal into sub-genres. In their wake came speed metal, thrash metal, death metal, and most directly, the sub-genre they named themselves, black metal.”

“Venom can be traced as a direct, explicit influence on everyone making dark, extreme metal in the early eighties – Metallica, Slayer, Possessed, Voivod… and they passed the black metal torch on a band who would develop the black metal sound beyond recognition. Bathory.”

Indeed, Andrew’s writing on Bathory is both perceptive and funny. He seems to have remembered that metal is supposed to be fun, an escape from the realities of our daily lives.

He describes Slipknot as a ‘cartoon metal band’. Furthermore he goes on to describe them as:

“Contrived. More like a musical product fine-tuned for maximum consumer appeal than an expression of self. With their masks and boiler suits and anonymity it looked overwhelmingly to my eyes like a gimmick, a Fisher-Price my-first-metal-band’.”

He rightly observes that the mainstream metal press cannot afford to piss off the bands they depend on by giving a non-positive review even if well-deserved (I remember Kerrang giving a rave review to St. Anger! Really! I’d like my money back please! Which proves his point very well.) As Andrew writes:

“The symbiotic, often sycophantic attitude of the metal press to the bands it fawns over makes me yearn for the days when NME would slag bands off.”

He reserves special ire for the likes of David Beckham wearing metal shirts:

“People who don’t like metal have all the rest of culture. Metalheads just have metal. It’s like someone owning a massive hotel asking if they can sleep in your bed. That’s my bit! You have all the rest of it.”

He’s the kind of fella you’d enjoy a chat about metal with in the pub. Indeed, in his book he discusses a phenomenon I was discussing with my friends in the pub only a few weeks ago:

“Genius is fleeting, inspiration is finite and metal bands generally have a solid five years in them before they begin to disappoint you. There are exceptions to the rule quite naturally, but on the whole they all go crap, at least for a bit. In some circles it’s called the Cold Lake theory.”

Recommended for both long-term fans and newcomers to our beloved genre.



* I don’t, however, agree with O’Neill’s statement that Venom are now a divided force. Venom Inc’s new album ‘Avé’, is truer to the spirit of Venom than any of the Venom albums that solely feature Cronos. However, the album hadn’t been released at the time the book was published, and anyway, a good old debate about the merits of various bands is all part of the fun of loving metal.

Steve Earles is author and co-author of numerous projects, including To End All Wars: The WWI Graphic Anthology, available summer 2014 (http://toendallwarscomic.wordpress.com/writers/).