This week I’ll be talking about the relationship between heavy metal and the media. I thought I’d start with a reminder of why NWOBHM deserves to be featured in the media by sharing Bleak House, a band who deserved a much wider audience. They are best known for their 1981 song ‘Rainbow Warrior’, and this piece, about the first major encounter in the Anglo–Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom called ‘Isandhlwana’ is from the flip-side of that record…
The following 1980 documentary, part of the London Weekend Television series ‘20th Century Box’ presented by Danny Baker was the closest our movement ever got to acknowledgement in mainstream TV.
Although it quite rightly focused on Iron Maiden enjoying the limelight on the pedestal they had worked hard for and deserved, it failed to make anything else about our movement appear very attractive.
Although we can see guys playing cardboard guitars and find it funny through nostalgic glasses, at the time there were great bands in desperate need of exposure. So showcasing the hilariously brain-dead wedding photographer Mr Rob Loonhouse as an ambassador of the genre (he describes how women are less suited to head-banging because they don’t do men’s jobs) kind of goes against other interviews, such as the one with Neal Kay that (in a not very glamorous monotone) acquaints the NWOBHM with high art. In my opinion, those who were initially mildly curious about British heavy metal would have been less likely to follow up on this interest after seeing this documentary, which essentially made the followers of these bands look like rambling idiots (definitely the pot calling the kettle black!) and unsophisticated misogynists.
Neal Kay really didn’t do us any favours, he also makes confusing distinctions of what is and what isn’t ‘heavy metal’ while wearing a ‘heavy metal sound’ t-shirt! Was this an early example of the ‘Manowar problem’ (read more about this here) perhaps?
Consider how this documentary aired during the ‘summer of rock’, which was followed very shortly by a widespread rejection of heavy metal in the media. I’ve discussed before how an over enthusiastic tribal attitude displayed by rock fans in the wake of Reading becoming an exclusively heavy metal festival could have contributed to the widespread withdrawal of media support for our music towards the end of 1980, but this documentary arguably demonstrates this media’s inability to make sense of the NWOBHM era in the first place. My personal belief is that this media coverage would have had a greater detrimental effect on the commercial viability of heavy metal than no TV exposure at all.
Here is a 1984 Warfare song that, despite demonstrating them at their best, represents a pretty rubbish metal attitude (tellingly from a band that started off as punks) ‘glorifying’ the summer of 1980 as the ‘summer of hate’…
This brings me on to a strangely well known example of televisual NWOBHM exposure. It always surprises me when people say they remember a one off episode of the Comic Strip Club show featuring a parody NWOBHM band called ‘Bad News Tour’. ‘The Comic Strip Presents…’ was a TV show that first aired on 2 November 1982, the opening night of Channel 4 (a UK channel that in its early days is fondly remembered as a gateway to the rise of British alternative comedy). The core of The Comic Strip was two double acts, Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall, and Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson, who performed at The Comedy Store in London (which was also a strip club, hence the name ‘Comic Strip Club’).
This episode came out in 1982, and was coincidentally in production at the same time as the classic film ‘This is Spın̈al Tap’. Both films had no awareness of a similar project being simultaneously made, and both films are very different. In the case of Spın̈al Tap, the focus is on filling the plot with as many features of heavy metal history as possible, showing the group starting off in a different musical style in the 60s and developing into heavy metal at the turn of the decade. I consider this to be a reference to both Status Quo and Deep Purple, who started life with a more standard beat boom influenced sound then quite naturally evolved into heavier psychedelic ventures. So Spın̈al Tap aren’t really NWOBHM, although they have real life parallels in bands like Bleak House (remember them from the start of the post?) who (as well as Limelight) are rumoured to have their roots in earlier bands that may well have been a bit ‘Listen To The Flower People’…
On the other hand, ‘Bad News’ represents the young and unruly image of NWOBHM, in all its rebellious youthful energy. It documents the band going on a badly organised ‘tour’ (which appears to be just one venue). The shorter running time allows the documentary style to gain exposition from the way the band communicates in their run down van. This gives the film a chance to tackle more topics that would have been discussed by genuine NWOBHM bands of the time (whereas Spın̈al Tap tends to focus on a former stadium group’s fall from grace). Each band member tries to hide their tragic real life personas behind the bravado of desperately maintaining an enforced ‘wild and dangerous’ character. Although some of this is gloriously uncomfortable, some of it crosses the ‘hard to watch’ line, like when their charade of disobedience leads to them abducting a schoolgirl played by Dawn French on the way to the gig.
They chat to pretentious rock journalist Sally Freeway (played by Jennifer Saunders) which triggers some dialogue that must have sounded familiar to some bands of the time. One poignant moment is when dim witted rhythm guitarist Den Dennis (played by Nigel Planer) storms out of the van and says ‘I’m getting out here if we have anything to do with the new romantics’.
Playing down the term ‘heavy metal’ in an attempt to sound more relevant would definitely have been a feature of NWOBHM at this time, for example Jaguar‘s ill advised re-branding of their style as ‘dance metal’, and the Welsh version of Samurai’s insistence that they were more than just heavy metal, referring to their choreographed stage movements and desire for their sonic variety to be recognised…
Despite neither Bad News nor Spinal Tap fitting in completely with the NWOBHM archetype, they demonstrate that our culture wasn’t completely invisible to the man in the street. Ade Edmondson, who plays guitarist/vocalist Alan Metcalfe (I like to believe that this name is borrowed from Martin Metcalfe from Hollow Ground) who gets furious when band mates don’t call him by his stage name ‘Vim Fuego’ is a serious music fan, and has always been enthusiastic to sing and play guitar despite his lack of ‘traditional’ talent.
Here’s some Hollow Ground just because I love them. Buy the ‘Warlord’ compilation CD, it’s amazing…
The music in ‘Bad News Tour’ was co written by Simon Brint is hiliarious. The lyrics show a real understanding of ridiculous NWOBHM lyrics in their title track…
Can’t you see, devil woman
Can’t you hear, black leather
Can’t you see, screaming vengeance
Don’t you know, blood-lust hard-on metal?
I see ‘Bad News Tour’ as a parody of the sleazier misconceptions of our movement brought about by limited (and inept) media coverage found in the 20th Century Box show.
The show was so popular a sequel was made called ‘More Bad News’, which aired in September 1987. This was in production for a while, with Bad News touring universities in 1986, eventually playing at Donington Monsters of Rock that summer. This performance (during which they were hit by a vast quantity of urine bottles from both heavy metal fans who didn’t get the joke and ones who found piss bottle throwing the peak of hilarity) was the main feature of the sequel, which although not quite as funny as the original it still has a charm that totally fits with that five years later phase in the history of NWOBHM.
Here is Bad News on Wogan in 1987 (I know this isn’t Terry Wogan’s first appearance in NWOBHM Dimension, he had more links with our music than I ever imagined).
In this ‘era’ of Bad News Ade Edmondson wore a Japanese style ‘rising sun’ vest, which I wish I had remembered when I was writing the ‘NWOBHM Eastern fetish’ post a few weeks ago!
Arguably, the general public had a better representation of our movement in seeing Bad News on Wogan than they would have had anywhere else on British TV. As a low budget one off comedy TV show, I’d argue that ‘Bad News Tour’ did infinitely more for the nostalgic appeal of early 80s British heavy metal than the Danny Baker documentary two years earlier. It files the embarrassing sexist stereotypes exposed in that documentary in a box clearly marked ‘comedy’.
Some writers have noticed similarities with a 1976 BBC documentary called ‘So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star?’, which is good evidence for how much pop culture research the Comic Strip team did. It’s more than likely that they would have also watched the Danny Baker documentary as research, does anyone else see the similarities between Den and Rob Loonhouse? How Rik Mayall’s fantastically over the top talentless bassist appears to be a camp pretentious version of Paul Dianno? (I’m so pleased that I’ve managed to mention Rik Mayall again. The 80s and 90s would have been crap in the UK without him and there will never be a comic genius who could allow such an innocent British charm to radiate through such magnificently flawed vile characters.)
This is ‘Masturbike’ from the extended 1989 version of their 1988 album, produced by Brian May. The record is about 90% arguing and is bloody hilarious. Every home should own a copy.
This song by Race Against Time serves as a good ending for this post, in that it shows a band exposing the music industry as a hive of corruption full of insincerity and exploitation, which they demonstrate themselves to be immune to.
Vocalist/ guitarist Dave Halliday’s story is a tragic one, but his early songs before forming Hell are so full of wit and humour, you must get the recent ‘Time Waits For No Man’ compilation and experience it for yourself…