Tuesday, April 21, 2009

ItalicI’m long overdue for another blog post, so I think it’s time for another entry elaborating on one of my best rock books of all time (for the full list check my entry for Feb. 18, 2009).

This time around it’s Chuck Eddy, Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe. I’m talking about the original 1991 edition, not the updated edition released a few years later that had an additional 100 entries on best metal of the ‘90s. I’m sure that one’s good too, but I wasn’t going to spend another round of cash for another 100 reviews.

Besides, part of what made the first edition of Stairway to Hell so great was precisely its focus on metal in the 1970s and 1980s. These were metal’s key years after all, the years when metal recreated the terms according to which rock existed as a form of mass culture. From the early 1990s forward, however great metal has remained musically, it has fundamentally changed in the breadth of its appeal, having been segmented into increasingly specialized micro-genres that hang together loosely under the rubric of extreme metal. While some good metal histories have been written that link the different phases of the genre’s development together from beginning to end (Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast probably being the current standard-bearer in this regard), post-1990 metal really occupies its own sphere, whereas the 1970s and 1980s contain a more continuous thread between them.

Disguised as one of the most tried and true of rock critic conceits – an extensive “best of” list, the likes of which have become the bread-and-butter of VH1’s musical programming, of various Rolling Stone special issues, my own list of best rock books ever written, etc. – Stairway to Hell is actually a series of overlapping arguments put forward in the form of a series of record reviews. Eddy says as much, in a characteristically sardonic way, in the last line of his acknowledgments: “Read closely, and you’ll be able to tear my thesis all to hell. If you can find it, that is.”

Well, I think I found it, and here’s what I think it is:

1. Heavy metal is best when it’s good time rave-up party music. All those bands that wear black leather and display an infatuation with symbols of power and darkness are really boring and have pretensions that don’t belong in heavy metal, and that drag the genre down. Yes, Chuck Eddy is talking to you, Judas Priest, and you, Iron Maiden (both of whom I actually really like, but Eddy makes a point of excluding both bands from his list).

2. Following from the above, heavy metal has the hidden potential to be great dance music, which a few select artists have recognized over the years and that will be the genre’s great salvation. How else to explain the inclusion of Teena Marie and Jimmy Castor albums among Eddy’s top ten heavy metal records of all time? Or all those Funkadelic albums strewn throughout the book? But hey, Eddy is open about this one. One of the final sections of the book is entitled, “Reasons Disco-Metal Fusion Is Inevitable in the Nineties.”

3. Heavy metal may have achieved its greatest commercial successes in the 1980s, but its artistic peak came in the 1970s. As he says in the books introductory overview: “1970-73 were the Years of Sludge … This was a time of snowplow quagmires and speed-freak excesses, with major labels snatching up every trio of un-haircut degenerates whose stink they could sniff out … By the time I entered high school in late ’73, metal was kinda sorta already over.” Of course, it wasn’t actually over at all, but Eddy’s celebration of the early 1970s as a key era of musical creativity went a long way towards reclaiming the significance of that previously much-maligned period.

4. Perhaps most importantly, heavy metal mattered way more than people thought it did, and punk conversely didn’t matter as much as people thought it did. Eddy messes with musical categories throughout his book, but one of the primary streams of thought running through the reviews is that the best metal did everything that punk was supposed to have done and more. Thus, the following from his review of Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic, which ranks at #4 on his list: “Five skinny guys speed off New England’s streets with the sleaziest and sassiest set of sex-swagger ever assembled, hauling in almost a million dollars a month in the process. From the startgate the frustration and fury dash so dang fast; after this, punk couldn’t possibly have mattered, no way.” That Eddy places several albums by punk or proto-punk bands high up on his list (New York Dolls, Adverts, Dictators, MC5, Stooges, Sex Pistols all appear in the top 30) suggests that his vision of metal isn’t shared by all, but it also suggests that the boundaries between metal and punk are far more porous than many would like to acknowledge.

I rate this book so highly for two main reasons. First, I’ve bought a ton of great music based on Eddy’s reviews in this book, music I probably wouldn’t have discovered so readily otherwise (it’s Eddy who led me to the Dictators after all). Second, while I disagree with quite a lot of what Eddy says, no book I know demonstrates so well that music genres are subject to all varieties of interpretation, and that it’s precisely the capacity of a genre like “heavy metal” to encompass so many different sounds and definitions that makes it something worth caring about.

(And if you want a good laugh, check out the reviews of Eddy's book on Amazon, where angry metalheads rant about his rankings.)

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