In 1985, when I loved heavy metal, the only time I could hear it on the radio was once a week at midnight on Metal Shop ( “M-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-metal shop”), and the only place to watch the videos were the UHF station U68 and the occasional clip in Friday Night Videos. Both late at night. This was all pre-cable in Brooklyn, New York, and obviously pre-DVR. To hear new metal, I’d often chance a record based on the cover alone. I first heard Metallica that way, which remains my major coup. Savatage, not so much. Yet now, far, far past the point when I need it, everything on VH1 is coming up metal: Metal Mania, That Metal Show, the million-part documentary Metal Evolution, the preponderance of Iron Maiden and Metallica and miscellaneous metal movies, and Megadeth et al Behind the Music episodes.
It’s all too much, too late.
Nevertheless, I’m watching it, and more often than not I’m surprised by what I’m seeing, despite my vague, dream-like glimpses of memories of having seen them before. The majority of the 1980s metal videos, it turns out, featured futuristic apocalyptic Road Warrior sets—sometimes, oddly enough, accompanied by laser guns and flying saucers; at other times, also oddly enough, accompanied by faux-Renaissance Faire swords and scepters—where the only remnants of the present-day to survive are guitars and, apparently, Aquanet. Crucially, most videos also feature some kind of bondage, chains, cages, or imprisonment scenario, usually with the band itself incarcerated, although sometimes hot chicks in strategically ripped clothing are, apparently, detained for questioning as well. The best worst example is Queensryche’s “Queen of the Reich” video, which gets everything right. Which is to say everything wrong. “LOL” has become a cliché, but just try not to laugh out loud.
I get the end of the world angle. This was the ’80s, with the endgame of the Cold War (which of course we didn’t know at the time), The Day After and the trauma dramas on TV, Mad Max and War Games at the movies, the official red carpet entrance of crack, AIDS, eating disorders, and drive-by shootings into the public lexicon and consciousness. The videos? Mere trickle down dystopia. Metal was anti-authority, and no civilization just meant no rules and less clothing. Let college rock feel fine about the end of the world as we know it; to metal bands and fans, it was fuckin’ awesome.
But this bondage business nags me. Dokken’s Breakin’ the Chains (above image) pretty much sums it up, but Def Leppard’s quasi-crucifixion in Foolin’, The Scorpions’ cages and containers in Rock You Like a Hurricane, Quiet Riot’s and Megadeth’s straightjackets and padded cells, Metallica’s electric chairs and hospital beds, and too many more to name: everyone is trapped, confined, restricted, or in somebody else’s power. I suppose it’s the oldest and most reliable story in existence, the Master Plot of master plots: tension, release; rising action, climax; loss, regain; conflict, resolution. But the song does not remain the same. The images—the chains—do. Yes, they all break free by the end of the clip. But first they need to be tied up or tied down.
I guess there were some now-obvious but at the time (to me) unconscious fetishes at work, but the emotional metaphors trump the sexual ones. In retrospect, there is the inescapable sense of the inescapable, despite that they—we—were white, and straight, and male, and socially unconstrained, irresponsible in the best sense, and at the height of youth, strength, and beauty. Yet in the metal videos, all anyone felt were the metal restraints; all they saw were the bars of their metal cages.
The images seem funny and maybe ironic now, even though I felt and identified with the music at the time in a visceral, animal way. And I’d say that they were funny, except for commercials that punctuate them as they air on VH1 now: a steady stream of Technicolor desperation, ad after ad for credit checks, mortgage and bankruptcy help, baldness cures and hair restoration, and something ominously called the PosTVac, which aims to restore losses of, um, other kinds.
Popular culture to the contrary, the world didn’t end in the 1980s after all, as it turned out. For metal fans, something much worse happened: it went on. And life had much heavier things in store. If you thought you were in chains and cages then, twenty plus years later, you’ve got another thing coming.
But I get to watch all the metal I want now.
Time: fifty-five goddamn depressing minutes.
Coming soon: Darwin, Hegel, Francis Fukiyama, PBS, Ken Burns, and Ozzy Osborne: welcome to the unlikely mash-up that is the documentary Metal Evolution.
UPDATE 2/8/12: Read the Metal Evolution post: VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin