One of the albums I’ve been waiting for all year (due the third week of May) might surprise readers of this blog. Whitesnake’s The Purple Album will likely be one of my favorite releases of 2015, and a guilty pleasure at the same time. Guys my age are not still supposed to be listening to headbanging music. But when I got the memo years ago, I crumpled it and tossed it in the trashcan. Hard rock music or heavy metal or whatever you want to call it is a rite of passage for teenage boys for as long as it’s been around. I was there when the first wave arrived along about 1968, and the music got me through my teenage years. I graduated to other forms of music, but I miss those sometimes hellish years, and I miss the bond I felt with those bands and that music, and the truth is that more than four decades later, I still revisit it as often as I can, and lately more than ever.
There is a fine distinction to be made between hard rock and heavy metal music. It’s hard to define. I know it when I hear it, but as much as the music itself, I think the trappings that come with the music help define the difference. I’m not big on labels, though, so I think calling it headbangers music helps to broaden its scope, and takes in virtually any band whose stock-in-trade is volume married to electric guitar riffs, and pounding drums. There is no substitute for this kind of music. When you need to “bang your head”, nothing else will do. The music was stigmatized along with progressive rock and most everything else when punk and the new wave arrived in the mid to late 70’s. But it never went away. It’s far more influential than punk could ever hope to be, but, in truth, they aren’t that far apart. Both are loud, both are tied to rebellion and a sense of being disenfranchised, and though both lend themselves to large, very active and very passionate communities, both are outsider’s music. You can be an outsider and a misfit in society, perhaps, but once you step inside that musical circle, you’re among friends. Never having had a lot of friends, and craving solitude more than most people I knew, I still liked the idea that there was a community out there of people like me who loved this music, and felt as I did about who they were, and the kind of world we were living in.
But to be honest, as much as I loved the music as a teenager, if you’d asked me if I’d still be listening to it 45 years later, I’d have been skeptical. My musical journey has taken me everywhere I found even the narrowest of paths through the years, but I’ve never been far from the headbanging stuff because, I think, I still feel disenfranchised. I still feel rebellious and angry, and the music makes the perfect soundtrack for that.
At 11 or 12, I wasn’t buying the records with a sense of building a collection. I spent money on what I liked, and a lot of it was loud. When the smoke (or was it dry ice?) had settled a few years later, I had the foundation of a pretty great collection of headbanging music because I had been, as I said, there when the music was conceived, delivered and slapped on the ass screaming and crying to a world that was craving it and didn’t even know it. By the time I came to see it as a collection ten years later, a lot of the bands I’d grown up listening to had broken up. But it wasn’t long before the music resurfaced in a big way and took center stage once again in the 1980’s. It was then that I began expanding upon that original foundation. It wasn’t cool to like the hair metal bands of the 80’s, at least not in my small circle of acquaintances, but the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement held some sway with critics, and a lot of bands came out of that who would go on to influence the music for the long term, and make a huge impact on the charts as well.
There was no Internet then, but I was able to keep abreast of what was happening because I was working in record shops, and buying rock magazines. The rock magazines I was regularly reading then covered little headbanging music, so I began picking up Kerrang magazine out of England when I could find it. MTV had Headbanger’s Ball on, and that was a good way of finding out what was coming out, and a convenient place to see new videos, and hear some of the new music.
When the 80’s ended, and the grunge movement surfaced, metal receded again into the background and was reduced again to cult music with a loyal following. The bands that had dominated the charts and played sold out arenas were now on small indie labels, and playing clubs and smaller venues making a living, but just barely.
Here we are in 2015, and the music business has collapsed, and the music that dominates the charts today sells a small fraction of what even just a middling metal band sold in the 80’s. But the metal bands are still around, still touring, still recording. I knew Whitesnake was still active, but until I saw the announcement about The Purple Album – a tribute to Deep Purple when Whitesnake founder and lead vocalist David Coverdale was a member – the band wasn’t on my radar.
In recent weeks the rumors have surfaced about a possible Rainbow reunion with guitarist/founder Ritchie Blackmore returning to the scene after years playing acoustic Renaissance music in the band he has with his wife Candace, Blackmore’s Night. Deep Purple is still together and very active. Alice Cooper is still with us, and so is Aerosmith. Slayer has a new record out. Black Sabbath is planning its farewell tour in the wake of a reunion album, 13, that did quite well. Iron Maiden is still with us although not as active as they once were. Judas Priest were on the verge of a breakup, but a new member has re-energized the band, and their most recent album Redeemer of Souls was considered to be its strongest in years. Even Germany’s Scorpions just issued a new album and is touring. And this month’s Guitar World cover subject is one Eddie Van Halen. Remember him? He used to have a band named after him. Maybe still does.
If you patrol the Internet, there are countless sites devoted to the music, and lots of information to be gathered if you’re interested. When I decided to do a piece on this genre, I visited a number of them. Many of them have compiled lists of what their editors and followers consider to be the best hard rock/metal albums of all time. Those were interesting to look at, although they’re heavily weighted in favor of the bands that emerged in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Any Top 10 list you’ll see features two or three Iron Maiden records, a couple of Metallica, and maybe even a couple of Slayer titles with the remaining spots given over to the earlier pioneers. I would take issue with some of them, but it’s a generational thing that reflects the collective average age of those site’s followers. As my own history is longer, I thought I’d offer a list of some of my favorite headbanging records through the years from the bands that I consider to be the genre’s best. I was able to expand my collection even more thanks to a couple of books by one of the most respected music journalists in the business, Canada’s Martin Popoff. The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs of All Time appeared in 2004, and is not only fun to read, but filled with history while providing an entry point to the music. Popoff’s earlier The Collector’s Guide To Heavy Metal is akin to Leonard Maltin’s bi-annual film encyclopedia in that it’s a comprehensive list of virtually every album in the genre featuring a review and a letter grade as well. Given that Popoff seems to have heard every record in the genre, you couldn’t ask for a more comprehensive source. I own the 1997 first edition, but I believe it’s been updated at least three times since and is readily available. For me, this volume is indispensible.
As for why I still listen to headbanging music when social security is shadowing me, I think it has a lot to do with both my job, and the world in which I find myself living. I rail against a lot of the modern technology that is dominating our lives. We have never evolved into a world that doesn’t think a war is the best way to solve every problem. (So a record like Black Sabbath’s War Pigs hasn’t dated a single minute since it was issued.) Kids still get bullied at school for being different, and take it out on their classmates by killing them. People are still routinely denied basic human rights all over the world. Religious intolerance is rampant. And every day that I go to work, no matter how well I do my job – and I do it extremely well – my boss looks at me like I’m a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of his shoe. I still don’t fit in, and I know I never will. This music will always be relevant to me, and I expect to be listening to it until death rescues me once and for all from the hatred, and inhumanity, and injustice that still dominates this world. I’ve tried to do my best, and I keep trying. But it doesn’t seem to make any difference. The only thing I can do is to turn up the volume louder and louder until the music is all I can hear.
Below is a list of artists and records I reach for when I feel like headbanging. It’s not a complete list, but rather just those I go to most often. Every generation has its favorites, of course, but I’d like to think mine is as good as any. If I reach for a compilation more often than an original album, then the compilation got mentioned.
AC/DC – Back In Black, Highway To Hell
Aerosmith – Get Your Wings, Toys In The Attic, Rocks, Live Bootleg, Young Lust: The
Alice Cooper – Love It To Death, Killer, Billion Dollar Babies, School’s Out
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master of Reality, Volume IV, Sabbath
Bloody Sabbath, Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules, Born Again
Blue Oyster Cult – Tyranny and Mutation, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, Agents of
Boston - Boston
Deep Purple – In Rock, Machine Head, Made In Japan, Burn, Stormbringer, Now
Def Leppard – Vault: Greatest Hits
Dio – Holy Diver, Last In Line, Sacred Heart
The Firm – The Firm, Mean Business
Gary Moore – Out In The Fields: The Very Best of Gary Moore
Girlschool – The Collection
Iron Maiden – 17 Numbers By The Beast
The Joe Perry Project – The Music STILL Does The Talking: The Very Best of
Judas Priest – Sin After Sin, Hell Bent For Leather, British Steel, Screaming For
Vengeance, Metal Works ’73 – ‘93
Kiss – Alive, Double Platinum
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin, III, (ZOSO - IV), Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti, In
Through The Out Door, How The West Was Won
Michael Schenker - Anthology (featuring UFO, and McAuley-Schenker Group)
Motorhead – Ace of Spades
Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Ozz, Diary of A Madman, Bark At The Moon, Tribute,
The Ultimate Sin, Live & Loud, Down To Earth, Black Rain, Scream
Pantera – Far Beyond: The Great Southern Cowboys’ Vulgar Hits, Official Live: 101
Rainbow – Rainbow, On Stage, Down To Earth, Very Best of Rainbow
Sammy Hagar – Un-boxed
Scorpions – Deadly Sting (Anthology)
Slayer – Reign In Blood, South of Heaven, Seasons In The Abyss, Christ Illusion
Ted Nugent – Free For All, Cat Scratch Fever
Van Halen – Van Halen, Van Halen II, 1984, The Best of Van Halen Vol. 1
Whitesnake – 2oth Century Masters
And there were a number of metal bands from the 80’s – hair metal – that made a few records I liked that lend themselves best to greatest hits collections. Among those I would include Cinderella, Faster Pussycat, Great White, Kix, Krokus, Megadeth, Motley Crue, Queensryche, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Slaughter, Warrant, White Lion, and Winger. I can’t single out a particular favorite original LP, but a collection of their best stuff would do me just fine.