X Close

The beautiful world of heavy metal Why does a genre obsessed with death attract the kindest people?

Am I evil? No I'm not actually (Photo by Gavriil GrigorovTASS via Getty Images)

Am I evil? No I'm not actually (Photo by Gavriil GrigorovTASS via Getty Images)


August 18, 2021   6 mins

It’s really hard to be a metalhead if you have the wrong sort of hair. As a teenage thrash-metal fan in the 1990s, I was at a disadvantage: while my friends’ hair hung long and lank, mine sat immobile, like a young Douglas Hurd’s. You can’t headbang effectively with a brillo pad stitched to your scalp.

This was a problem. For a while I tried a bleached-blonde mohawk — I looked like a prat, but you couldn’t fault the commitment. A chin-only beard was a nice idea, but I was not a hirsute teen and after several months’ growth I looked as though I had a tennis ball made of pubes stapled to my chin. But, of course, the obvious option for the wavy-haired metaller is to go full skinhead, and that is what I did: buzzcut, grade zero. 

In 1998, aged 17, three friends and I went to OzzFest at the Milton Keynes Bowl. It was a heavy metal festival organised by Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath; it had various luminaries of the metal scene playing, including Fear Factory, Slayer and Pantera. My scalp was freshly shorn. It was a blazing hot day; I was too young and self-conscious to want to show weakness by applying suncream, and, of course, I was drinking and smoking weed all day, because that is what you do at a festival when you’re 17. 

On my second or third venture into the moshpit, the physical activity, and the drink and weed, and of course the relentless sun on my gleaming bonce, became too much for me, and I started to faint. Fainting in the middle of a large moshpit is not a very good idea. Luckily, a group of skinheaded young men spotted me going pale, grabbed me by the arms, and cleared a path out of the crowd for me. I like to think they were doing so out of solidarity.

I’ve been thinking about metal lately, because recently, one of the formative albums of my youth turned 30 years old. Metallica’s self-titled album, also known as The Black Album, was released in August 1991. I graduated slowly from rock to metal in my teenage years, going from Queen to Guns N’ Roses and Pearl Jam, to Metallica and Faith No More, and eventually Pantera, Carcass and Fear Factory. It was probably The Black Album which did as much as anything to push me along that route. And Metallica were the first band I saw live, at Earls Court in 1996.

It’s probably not so true nowadays, but in my youth metal still had a hint of danger about it. Men wearing make-up and long hair was still mildly shocking to people who remembered the 1950s, and a lot of people still did back then. When the Columbine massacre happened in 1999, conservative voices blamed it on Marilyn Manson (and the video game Doom, something else I spent a lot of my youth playing). Not that long earlier, there was a serious societal concern that heavy metal was encouraging Satanism among American youth. Geraldo Rivera made a documentary saying that heavy metal encouraged devil-worship.

You can see why: the metal aesthetic is blood and skulls. If you go to a death metal festival, you’ll notice something: all the band logos look exactly the same. They’re bone-coloured, illegibly stylised writing on a black background. (Apart from the heroic Party Cannon, of course.) 

If you listen to heavy metal lyrics, especially the 1980s and 1990s, Metallica-heyday era ones, they’re usually about things that Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer fans would recognise. Monsters, battles, that sort of thing. Three Metallica songs are about Cthulhu, the sleeping elder god from HP Lovecraft’s fiction. “Enter Sandman”, one of their biggest hits, sings about “Dreams of war, dreams of liars/ Dreams of dragon’s fire/ And of things that will bite.” They have a song about werewolves.

And the Satanic panic people were partly right: there are lots of songs about devils and demons. Slayer, one of the popular beat combos I saw on that warm Milton Keynes afternoon, has a pentagram logo and lots of songs with titles like “Angel of Death”, “Hell Awaits”, and “Black Magic”. Oh, and “The Antichrist”. You could see how that might mislead people into thinking that they had a thing for this Satan character. Lots of metal is aggressive or violent in content: bands with names like Cannibal Corpse or Bloodbath, songs with names like “Hammer Smashed Face” or “A Skull Full of Maggots”.

But from the inside, metal feels nerdy and warmhearted. Metal gigs have always, to me, had the sort of vibe of a classic car meet or a real-ale festival: a place for slightly socially awkward people to find a social group outside the mainstream. The aggressive image it projects is at odds with the rather gentle souls you actually meet doing it. This was particularly made clear to me when I went to Download festival in 2015 and asked lots of metallers for their musical guilty pleasures, and came back with lovely photos of pierced, tattooed, bearded thrashers holding up whiteboards saying “C’est la Vie by B*witched” or “Katy Perry, Firework”.1 And everyone was super lovely. 

Philly Byrne, the lead singer of the well-respected thrash metal band GAMA Bomb, agreed: there’s a nerdy stripe to metallers that you don’t get quite so much in other genres. “The thing I say is that metalheads in reality are librarians,” he says. “There are things you can just be into, and that’s fine: with dance music, it’s fine to just be into it. But with metal it’s expected that you’ll know lots and lots. You’ll have knowledge and experience. You’ll collect old LPs, you’ll get patches on your jacket. It’s more like real ale fans or cinema nerds: they’re quite dad-ly, they have a soft edge to them.” 

Metal is, in fact, full of the sort of people who play Dungeons & Dragons (another Satanic Panic victim!): nerdy, often (but not always) male, somewhat obsessive. And similar to Warhammer, the fire-and-death ethos is at odds with the geeky, friendly reality. (The metal band Bolt Thrower, incidentally, sang mainly about Warhammer. It’s like a crossover episode of my favourite things.)

You don’t get into metal as a teenager if you want to be one of the mainstream cool kids. You get into it if, like me, you’re not quite sure if you can pull off being one of the mainstream cool kids, so you look for a solid identity elsewhere. Those skinheaded lads who rescued me from collapse in the moshpit were probably gentle-hearted nerds trying to find their way in the world, like I was.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t awful people and bad things in metal. The Norwegian black metal scene has two actual murderers (1, 2), and the aggressive image spills over into reality on very rare occasions. More prosaically, it’s quite insular: a certain amount of gatekeeping goes on over who counts as real metal or who counts as a real fan. I remember ambiguous feelings when “my” bands, bands like Metallica or Faith No More, appeared on TFI Friday or Top of the Pops: on the one hand, the normies get to see how great they are; on the other, they’re mine. But on the whole, it’s a place of gentle souls, a place for the awkward and weird who didn’t quite fit the mainstream. 

Plus, metal is one of Britain’s greatest exports. A disproportionate number of the first real heavy metal bands – Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Mötörhead, Saxon, Venom – were or are British: often from working-class Midlands backgrounds. Understandably that has meant that it is predominantly a white genre – but only predominantly. “I’ve played all over the world,” says Byrne. “I’ve played in Japan and South America, I’ve played to an audience of Navajo people.” There’s a popular Mongolian metal band, the HU. There’s a thriving K-pop/metal crossover genre, led by BABYMETAL. It’s a global phenomenon, born in urban England in the 1970s.

I haven’t been to a metal gig for a while. Partly that’s getting older, partly it’s been the bloody pandemic, partly it’s because my job’s changed and it’s harder than it used to be to pretend that I write about music, so can I have free tickets please. And of course it’s parenthood: for a brief period I managed to get my son, then three, to say his favourite song was “Black Star” by Carcass, but now he’s seven and likes George Ezra. (My daughter likes Faith No More, so there’s still hope.)

But now that the UK is opening up a bit —Bloodstock went ahead only last weekend! — maybe I ought to get involved again. After all, Metallica are still going strong. The only trouble is that, as I learnt researching this piece, headbanging these days gives me a headache and my glasses fall off. And, of course, I still have the wrong sort of hair.

FOOTNOTES
  1. I recommend the Spotify playlist we made of everyone’s choices. It’s really pure and wholesome and fun.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.

TomChivers

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

34 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sharon Overy
SO
Sharon Overy
2 years ago

I really enjoyed this.

I haven’t been to a metal gig in yonks – I’m a similar age to yourself, and I’ve reached the point where I’m a bit worried that someone there might yell, “Who bought their mum?”, but I’m determined to see the HU and Sabaton at some point.

As I also have your addiction to ‘Plastic Crack’, I’m intrigued by Bolt Thrower, who I’d never heard of before. I had no idea that GW ever produced albums!

Debbie Emery
DE
Debbie Emery
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

I am now in my 60s and have been into rock/metal most of my life. In fact, as I’ve got older my tastes have got more extreme. So, Sharon, never worry about what anyone thinks. I still go to gigs with my son and his friends, in fact, we have got 9 lined up over the next few months and I can’t wait (we are going to see Sabaton and the HU) but the one I am really looking forward to is Behemoth and Arch Enemy. I have always enjoyed the atmosphere at metal gigs, met some great people and had a hell of a lot of fun. I intend to carry on until I really can’t do it anymore!

Sharon Overy
SO
Sharon Overy
2 years ago
Reply to  Debbie Emery

Thanks, you give me social courage! I hope you have a great time!

David Wildgoose
DW
David Wildgoose
2 years ago
Reply to  Debbie Emery

I’m 56. I’ve seen Sabaton a couple of times – they’re great!

Hersch Schneider
HS
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago

Yep, you’ve hit the nail on the head really here. I just this weekend spent 5 days & nights (camping) at Britain’s biggest metal festival- Bloodstock- up near Lichfield
20,000 metalheads in a huge field. All good natured, not one bit of aggro, a fun, good vibe atmosphere. Everyone just there for a good time and some killer riffs

Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago

The comparison between a musical event that assembles 20,000 people who are “predominantly a white genre”, and the Notting Hill Carnage, is instructive. Especially the number of stabbings.

Hersch Schneider
HS
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Couldn’t be more different, yep. I lived on the actual Carnival route on Ladbroke Grove for years, and it was a no go area at night for the whole weekend. The undercurrent of menace, plus the noise, the mess.. it was a nightmare for residents. Why the hell this one culture gets to take over a whole part of residential London instead of allotting them a park..? But hey, we’re forced to all celebrate the WONDERFUL Caribbean culture eh

Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago

They should move the whole thing to a field outside town and charge admission to cover the mess they make. Easier to police and no cost to the public purse.

Antony Hirst
AH
Antony Hirst
2 years ago

I spent my yoof, hanging out with bike gangs, going to gigs, doing some drugs and generally being a complete lout. To be honest, Warhammer and D&D was not really our idea of fun! They were blissfully happy days that I am now so grateful for.
The bikers and the rockers were some of the most intelligent, decent and fun-loving people I have ever met. Now in my 50’s, I feel sorry for those teenagers who became squares and new-romantics. They have no idea what they missed! Epic music. Epic people. Crazy rides. Belonging.
The greatest tragedy of modern youth though is the desperation to conform, the abdication of their lives to fear of the future and their obsession with university and corporate life. As I say to the needfully conformist 20-year-old pilot cadets I fly with from time to time, “I was not airline cadet material at your age!”

Last edited 2 years ago by Antony Hirst
Simon Collis
FN
Simon Collis
2 years ago
Reply to  Antony Hirst

Yep, I’m in my mid sixties and the rockers, bikers and greasers that were half of my social life were the nicest and nerdiest people I knew

anchiba2014
MA
anchiba2014
2 years ago

Here in the U.S., there’s a distinct (maybe even predominant) class element in heavy metal fandom – or, at least that was the case in the ‘80s when I was growing up. Metal had both male and female fans here in my once solidly blue collar town, and I (a brown immigrant) found lifelong friends among them, as opposed to the other, far more well-off kids who either turned down their noses at us (best case scenario), or bullied us in awful ways.

You will *very* rarely (if ever) find SJW types among metal fans, here in America. I think that’s telling, and reflects the class dichotomies inherent in metal fandom vs. that of other music genres. The same goes for country music, but that’s another story. It would be interesting to see if this holds true for gangster rap, as well. These are the only music genres I can think of, in the U.S., not overwhelmed by SJW extremists. Pretty much every other form of music, from pop to classical, has fallen victim to SJWs.

And I think it’s because metal fans here predominantly originate in more blue-collar, and/or poorer communities, where SJW ideologies more or less perish. The only thing they can do is wring their hands about how “white” and or “male” (also: cis, right-wing, heteronormative, etc., etc.) it all is. And, of course, ignore it as much as they can.

I’ve never quite understood the Devil/death/etc. imagery in metal, though it’s never bothered me, but regardless of that, you can find fascinating glimpses of class identities in Amercan metal, such as when one of the members of Slayer (who are big on the demon imagery) described, in an interview, how he had turned to prayer (to God, not Lucifer) to overcome an addiction, because that’s what he grew up with in the working class midwestern community he’s from. I found this immensely touching, and thought about how you will *never* come across a story like that from some SJW-addled popular music performer!

Last edited 2 years ago by anchiba2014
Richard Parker
RP
Richard Parker
2 years ago

Happy times at Donnington Park, too… I quite miss it! If only my Zimmer didn’t get stuck in the mud…

Graham Willis
GW
Graham Willis
2 years ago

Awful racket though.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Willis

And Satanist – no matter what Chivers says. I know, most are just liking that dark because they are ‘edgy’ Nerds, but it is mentally unwholesome to go along with evil sentiments for fun, even if you think it all just a lark and rebellious.

Like if Na* ism theme became a genera of popular music played in dark clubs with mosh pits and lots of body mutilation art – could one just say it means nothing, just good fun? ‘No one believes that junk – we just like it for the music and sense of community’.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I Like the spluttering down votes…

But, who are the World’s most Recognized Metal Fans? Biker gangs, no, they are more ZZ Top and Hard Rock, Street gangs? Special Forces?, no…. Beavis and Bu** head are – they are the archetype Metal Heads….

AC/DC T shirt, check. puerile cackling over any sexual innuendo, Check, and the fore finger – little finger, devils horn’s, hand sign? Check, youth spent in front of a TV, check……

Hersch Schneider
HS
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

You’re taking it far too seriously mate! 😀
Go to a metal gig, or festival, it’s just people having some fun, letting their hair down, so to speak. The devil horns etc is all tongue in cheek, and it’s probably the most respectful, good natured crowd you’ll come across

Mel Bass
MB
Mel Bass
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

So… not a fan of the Swedish band Ghost, then?!

Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Is it still the case that if you call it “heavy metal” you don’t get it? I.e. you’re supposed to call it “metal”?
There was a Fry and Laurie sketch about “light metal”. It was so long ago, Stephen Fry was slim.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbzfINsCcVY

Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Hilarious, thanks.

David Yetter
DY
David Yetter
2 years ago

Perhaps metalheads are kind because the remembrance of death has the salutary effect Christian monks attribute to it, even among people who are often self-consciously non- or even anti-Christian.

Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago

Funny and true. My son’s the metal fan not me, except in a vicarious way – I think Sabaton are great.
I’ve gone over all Seekers recently for some reason.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Richard Riheed
R
Richard Riheed
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

My son’s into metal too. He a kind lad and I’m glad he enjoys it. (He also enjoys classic music). I’ve tried hard to get something from metal but…no. I think I’m too old.

Mark Gourley
MG
Mark Gourley
2 years ago

Thanks that all sounds surprisingly charming. But surely it takes Wagner’s Ring Cycle to give one the real business?

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Gotta love that ‘Cradle Of Filth’

“Cthulhu dawn

Spatter the stars
Douse their luminosity
With our amniotic retch
Promulgating the birth
Of another Hell on Earth
Shadows gather poisoned henna for the flesh
A necrotic cattle brand
The hissing downfall pentagram
Carven deep upon the church doors of the damned
But no Passover is planned
A great renewal growls at hand
And only when they’re running
Will they come to understand…”

Cool lyrics, just what a young mind needs. http://www.darklyrics.com/lyrics/cradleoffilth/midian.html

Stephen Portlock
SP
Stephen Portlock
2 years ago

A teenage friend was into metal and in truth I actually rather liked a lot of it but perhaps couldn’t quite bring myself to admit as much, and so wimped out over synth pop. The music of Frank Zappa was as close as I got around that time. If anything my tastes have got even more extreme over the years and several times I have stilled my mind while my body vibrated to ear-splittingly loud drone m etal. . The evening I got back from a 2019 silent meditation retreat I went to see a concert which I had pre-booked six months previously – Sunn O))).

Matthew Povey
DI
Matthew Povey
2 years ago

Pretty sure that watching Carcass at the Duchess of York in the early 90s was a gateway for me. Though It might have been the library borrowed Maiden album or even hearing Def Leppard on the telly. Whatever it was, metal remains the closest thing I have to a musical home. Great piece and so true that the metal was always a good place to escape from the townies.

James B
JB
James B
2 years ago

A brilliant piece. Great fun. It might also be worth pointing out that heavy metal musicians are, by and large, the most delightful and approachable of types. I had the privilege of meeting a couple of major stars recently, fear of name-dropping accusations prevent me revealing their names, and they could not have been nicer. Utterly charming, intelligent, funny and warm. God Bless Rock.

Terence Fitch
TF
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Like Metal in occasional doses. Agree with the sentiments. Visit Finland to see part of my family. Metal is mainstream dominant teen culture there! None of your RnB wannabes! Refreshing.

Jonathan Bagley
JB
Jonathan Bagley
2 years ago

I agree. Heavy Metal fans are in general lovely people. As are Goths and skateboarders. Whenever I encounter them, it takes me back to my carefree 1970s youth. They remind me of my friends back then and idle summer days.

Tony Taylor
TT
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

Sorry, but heavy metal is just noise.

chris sullivan
CS
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

I once felt ‘the light thru/in my window is like hole in the sky’ was pure poetry – the best description of the effects of a hangover ever recorded ! Gormless happy times !!! before reality set in – i wanna take the red (?) pill and go back !

O Thomas
OT
O Thomas
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

No, that’s Merzbow.

Tony Taylor
TT
Tony Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  O Thomas

And My Bloody Valentine.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

And as a interesting fact – Heavy Metal grew from ‘Glam Rock’, the big hair groups, Mud, T Rex, Bowie, Slade, Gary Glitter, The Sweet, and I think influenced a lot by the big hair Southern Crude American Rock – Van Halen, 38 Special, Molly Hatchett, CCR, ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd