May 22 2011

Metallica live at Yoyogi Pool, Tokyo, 13 May, 1989

Metallica: ’80s punk metal the primeval way


Maybe the Ayatollah was right; perhaps the creators of artistic creations that are blasphemous should be strung up.
Metallica’s recent performance in Tokyo brought this issue to mind, but they saved their necks by producing absolutely, nothing that could be interpreted as an artistic creation.
Not since Motorhead has heavy metal endured such affrontery.
But whereas Motorhead, the progenitors of speed metal, became palatable and remained unsuccessful by playing to their strengths, Metallica have become hugely successful and obscenely unmusical by concentrating on their deficiencies.
To their credit, Metallica have made it on their own terms. In an interview with Musician magazine, drummer Lars Ulrich admitted, “This is not rock ‘n’ roll for the people; this is rock ‘n’ roll for ourselves. We do what satisfies us.”
At first, both the public and the media were slow to pick up on the band. Indeed, they have achieved their success in the face of either negative reaction or no reaction at all. Radio stations avoided them like the plague.
But the band won through and their ” … And Justice For All” album has racked up sales of 1 million in the United States, which just goes to show how many sick people there are in the world.
With, the success of “Justice,” the media have been crawling over the band like maggots. Take this, from Musician magazine: “Metallica’s evolved from a troupe of good-natured thrash louts … to a platinum-selling band in the process of bringing heavy metal out of the Dark Ages” (straight into the Stone Age?).
And according to the U.K. magazine Sounds, “Metallica are the definitive metal band of the ’80s.”
A depressing thought, but in many ways Metallica do represent the ’80s – culturally, not musically. Last week, of course, Guns N’ Roses were the band of the ’80s. Axl Rose and the boys certainly play good old rock ‘n’ roll, but the emphasis is on the old.
Like Metallica, Rose is a child of the ’80s living off the music of the ’70s.
Both Guns N’ Roses and Metallica feed off aggression. But whereas the former channels it into the ’80s version of blues-based hard rock, Metallica take the more primeval approach and end up as the ’80s version of punk metal.
And their appeal seems to lie in their aggression. You don’t need brains to appreciate their music; in fact, not having brains is a prerequisite to appreciating their act.
Their music is based on power-chord riffs and … er … that’s it.
Perhaps I’m forgetting the vocals (at least that’s what I’ve been trying to do). Rhythm guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield doesn’t sing, he growls in as doom-laden a fashion as he can muster. And the vocals don’t have even the remotest sign that they’ve been thought out. Hetfield smashes out the riffs and then does a grunt over, as we say in the music world.
But it’s the riffs that get you, Musician magazine’s grovelling writer describes Hetfield’s playing as “weird cadences and lurching phrases, the strange stops, starts and sideways mid-verse leaps into new time signatures that make Metallica sound like Godzilla weaving through Tokyo on a drunken jag.”
And when Godzilla returned home last week, he got an astonishing response. Even the guy who told the audience at Yoyogi’s Olympic Pool that they were going to have a good time (otherwise they wouldn’t have known) got a bigger cheer than most bands get in Tokyo.
Metallica is America’s ultimate greaser’s band (Motorhead still holds the title in the U.K.). Hetfield and bassist Jason Newstead seem to play their instruments with their hair, but if you listen closely it sounds more like they play them with a lead pipe. In Newstead’s solo, only a visual check tells you that his left hand is moving.
The first five numbers were only identifiable as five numbers by the pauses in between. The riffs, the vocals, the lead come together like a freeway pileup, a collision of sounds entirely unrelated and musically meaningless.
“Master of Puppets,” “One” and “Seek & Destroy” all had the quality of construction even if what was constructed didn’t have quality. “Master” is heavy-metal minimalism with barely distinguishable vocals, and “One” has a sense of drama even if it doesn’t have a sense of music. “Seek & Destroy” is good because they lifted the riff from “I’m A Man.”
Two numbers that were listenable were “Last Caress,” which showed the band’s punk influence, and “Breadfan” by legendary Welsh rockers Budgie. But in reality, Metallica is where the wall of sound meets the wall of death.
At Yoyogi last week, death won.
Drummer Lars Ulrich has some useful advice: “If you like it, come along. If you don’t, stay the f*** away.”
Don’t worry, Lars, I’m one step ahead of you.

(Originally published in The Japan Times)

Apr 18 2011

Motorhead at Nakano Sun Plaza, June 10, 1991

Volcano rock blasts crowd at Sun Plaza

By Fred Varcoe

Standing so close to the blast, they had no chance. It ripped into their bodies, made their flesh peel, loosened their teeth. Their hair fell about their faces as their bodies convulsed, uncontrollable, beyond all help.
Old men and women ran into the streets in fear. Nothing like this had been seen or heard for years. The dormant Nakano Sun Plaza, in the heart of Tokyo, had erupted, spewing (cigarette) ash, molten rock and unidentified supercharged gases into the atmosphere.
Motorhead, the original pyroclastic rockers, were back, led by the godfather of punk, the grandfather of thrash, the mother of all greasers: Lemmy.
Motorhead’s first tour of Japan in nine years has been eagerly anticipated by fans of grunge rock and thrash metal. Although thrash is a fairly recent phenomenon (around five years), Motorhead and its unique brand of headbanging rock have been around for 16.
The band predates punk but incongruously took off in the punk era, a time when the predominant theory of music was to buy a guitar and thrash it until you sliced your fingers off.
Lemmy’s approach to music is summed up by the axiom on the back of the tour T-shirts: “Everything louder than everything else.” (Borrowed, incidentally, from an aside by Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan to his sound engineer on the “Live in Japan” album.)
Motorhead and punk were brothers separated at birth but united in the aim of bludgeoning their audiences to death. It was rock’s Pol Pot era, a time when subtlety, melody or (God forbid) intellectualism in music was ruthlessly suppressed. The wall of sound gave way to a wall of death.
Every gig I went to in the late ’70s seemed to have Motorhead as the support act. The band were awful. They seemed to get louder and faster every time I saw them, and they were frighteningly loud and obviously fast. (This point is based on visual observations rather than aural ones as your ears would implode after a few bars of the opening song.)
But then the band did something right. It released a single – “Bomber” in December 1979 – that revealed trace elements of musical construction (a great lead guitar riff) and had been mixed by someone who wasn’t totally deaf. Listening to “Bomber” was like being able to hear all over again. It put the band in a new light and set them on the road to commercial success. Less than two years later the live L.P. “No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith” crashed into the charts at No. l.
After “Hammersmith” and “Iron Fist,” which came out in 1982, the band’s fortune took a slight reverse but they plugged on regardless, spurred perhaps by Lemmy’s addiction to rock’s peripheral pleasures as revealed in a recent interview in Q magazine:
“I like girls. That’s the only reason I’m in the music business – I discovered you could get women to take their clothes off if you had a guitar. And they come off a lot faster if you can play it.”
In common with many of his contemporaries (he’s 45), Lemmy has entered the ’90s with a new determination. He moved to Los Angeles, changed record companies and is now being managed by the toughest boss in the business, Sharon (Mrs. Ozzy) Osbourne.
The Japan tour follows the release of “1916,” an album regarded as being mellow by some hardcore Motorhead followers but still solid enough to kill a Bon Jovi fan at 50 paces.
As anyone who was at Nakano Sun Plaza for the opening show would agree.
The first five numbers didn’t sound any different from the last five numbers the last time I saw them 13 years ago at London’s Roundhouse. The only difference was you could tell at least one of the instruments being fed through the PA was a guitar.
Lemmy looked virtually the same (long hair, mutton chops, black clothes) and the remaining band members, Philthy “Animal” Taylor (drums), Wurzel (“the bastard,” according to Lemmy) on guitar and Phil Campbell (guitar), looked like they had recently been regurgitated from the stomach of a very large lizard – in other words no different (although the two guitarists are relatively recent additions).
Lemmy’s peculiar vocal stance (the mike set so high he has to look at the ceiling) is no less peculiar than his voice, which sounds like his throat is in the process of being riveted to his spine. Usually the only words you can discern are those in the song’s title, as in the excellent ”I’m So Bad (Baby I Don’t Care)” off the new album.
In all, the band played seven of the 11 songs on “1916” and there wasn’t a duffer among them. In fact they were the band’s best numbers and showed that if they really want to, Motorhead can sing to ordinary folk without having to kill them in the process.
“Going to Brazil,” about touring in South America, was the pick of the bunch with a driving beat that hits you in the gut. “Angel City” sounds like a good Sweet song but with typical Lemmy vocals. “Love Me Forever” contained not only – gasp – arpeggios, but also – shock horror – harmonics and – swoon – vocal harmonies. A great song. Where did it come from?
In order to make up for this and “Just Cos You Got the Power” – “This is a blues song, which means you can fuck to it” (actually it wasn’t and you can’t) – the band struck back with “Ramones,” a “very, very fast” (45-second) dedication to Motorhead’s brothers-in-grunge across the Atlantic.
“Killed by Death” ended the set after just 55 minutes to the amazement of the fans. Motorhead may be fast but 55 minutes is hardly value for money. As a further insult to the audience only one of the two scheduled encores was played, “Ace of Spades” getting the nod over “Bomber.” If ever there was a case for putting support bands on bills here, this was it. But Japan’s promoters want nothing to do with the idea in spite of the fact that it would cost them nothing.
In spite of the brief set, Motorhead did get through 15 numbers (that’s four more than Whitesnake managed) and the new songs showed that Lemmy and the boys are improving with age.
Lemmy may only be in the business for girls, but if he doesn’t watch out he may end up getting a reputation as a rock musician.

(Original published in The Japan Times)
Photos by Fred Varcoe