What Is This? Heavy Metal Britannia

Blues, Classical, Dance, Folk, Jazz, Pop, Prog, Soul, Synth…. Just when you think BBC Four’s encyclopaedic Britannia series of music documentaries must have exhausted the genres, they come back at you with another volume that leaves you smacking your head for not realising they hadn’t done it already. This week, they’re opening the book on Heavy Metal Britannia. Keen not to offend delicate metal sensibilities, there is no mention of Spinal Tap, but in honour of Nigel Tufnel’s legendary one-louder warriors, here are 11 reasons all those about to rock should tune in:

  1. Metal Scholars In Full Flow!

It’s a sad indictment of the times we live in, but heavy metal aficionados aren’t given much of a platform to wax lyrical on TV these days. Here though, alongside a fine roster of musicians, we get to hear not one, but two. First, DJ Neal Kay, who, in the mid-1970s, opened London’s legendary thumbs-through-your-belt-loops metal disco, The Soundhouse. Asked to define the music he loves, he almost explodes: “Heavy metal is all about, literally, the AWESOME POWER of electricity through guitar, huge great power chords WIPING you off your feet….” He’s matched in devotion by Total Rock Radio’s Malcolm Dome, who offers: “Thick, dense, intense… HEAVY. A little bit too much for us. That maybe is the definition. It’s TOO MUCH.”

  1. Boris Karloff!

As anyone worth their salt knows, Black Sabbath named themselves after a horror movie by the bloody Italian auteur Mario Bava. In it, Karloff plays an old guy who gets turned into a vampire. It hasn’t turned up on TV in the UK for years, but the documentary includes the film’s trailer, which mostly consists of a doomy American voice saying “Black Sabbath,” over and over and over again. Excellent, clearly.

  1. William Burroughs!

The furthest-out beat author is credited as the man who first coined the phrase “heavy metal.” The documentary doesn’t really know what to do with this tidbit of information, but throws in some nice, paranoid black and white footage of Burroughs, just in case.

  1. No Girls!

Heavy Metal Britannia probes the difficult issue that most metal fans tend to be male. Over footage of lonesome headbangers, Burke Shelley, the chirpy if emaciated singer of Budgie, describes metal concerts thusly: “Some smelly club with a bunch of hairy biker types and a load of dandruff flying around.” Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson concedes the point, but adds, “Because it’s primarily male, people tend to assume it’s therefore sexist. And actually it’s not. It’s very inclusive.” The author of inclusivity anthem ‘Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter’ continues, “It’s just that girlies do Hannah Montana more.” It should be noted that the film completely fails to mention the UK’s great all-woman metal outfit, Girlschool. For shame!

  1. Terrible Album Sleeves!

In the field of unbelievably horrendous cover art, metal punches well above its weight. Sadly, the documentary spends no time exploring this, but there are fleeting glimpses of some all-time rubbish design classics nonetheless, from the famous (Deep Purple’s heart-stoppingly crap Mt Rushmore cover, In Rock) to the more obscure (Saxon’s eponymous debut, depicting a sword-wielding warrior, possibly drawn by a schoolboy during Maths).

  1. The Darkness!

“I keep coming back to this word ‘dark,’” says Jon Lord, Deep Purple’s dignified former keyboard player, as he tries to express the mood of British metal. He’s not the only one. For almost everyone interviewed, metal’s none-more-dark darkness is its definingly dark characteristic. Between footage of gravestones, Judas Priest singer Rob Halford picks up the theme. “That element of darkness, that sombre melancholy… popular music never went there. Metal bands were singing about the angst and the pain.” Wandering alarmingly off-message, Priest’s guitarist Glenn Tipton adds: “Our music is about: ‘Get out and there and do it with your life!’ It’s a very positive outlook!”

  1. Old Nick!

Metal’s controversial dalliance with the Devil is examined. “I think most bands will deny that they’re in league with Satan,” asserts Diamond Head guitarist Brian Tatler. At the centre of this section, however, lie Black Sabbath, who started the whole Beelzebub thing with their theme song. (“What is this that stands before me?” moaned the fearful young Ozzy, “big black shape with eyes of fire?” Turned out it wasn’t the steamed-up Birmingham bathroom mirror, but Satan.) The band’s splendid guitarist, Tony Iommi, who appears to be metamorphosing into an occult Tom Jones, is at pains to make clear his group never, ever burned down a church, a point that original Sabs drummer Bill Ward reiterates. “They really did think we had a manager called Lucifer,” Ward says. “Although, actually – we did have a manager called Lucifer. But that’s a different story. In my particular case, I stopped doing …certain things very early on, because things got out of control.” In a cryptic, mercifully veiled allusion, he adds: “Lust is such a large source of energy.” A chilling image, especially coming from a man who these days looks like former British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan.

  1. The Birth Of Air Guitar!

During the section on the metal crucible that was The Soundhouse club, due reverence is given to the fanboy regular who called himself Rob Loonhouse. One fabled night in the late-1970s, Loonhouse turned up carrying a cardboard cut-out of a Flying-V guitar, then proceeded to stun the crowd by pretending to play along with the records – a moment to rank in the annals of human development alongside the monkey picking up the bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A biopic surely awaits.

  1. The Drink!

To be honest, given the raw material, Heavy Metal Britannia is disappointingly stingy with rock and roll excess. However, we do have Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan recounting how he briefly became Black Sabbath’s singer in 1983: “I don’t know. We ended up drunk under a table. I went for a meeting with Tony and Geezer at The Bear in Woodstock, and I don’t remember any more. I got a call from my manager next morning, saying, ‘Ian, if you’re going to make career decisions, then I really think you should call me first.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Apparently, last night you agreed to join Black Sabbath.’”

  1. The Drugs!

Geezer Butler: “When [Black Sabbath] did Volume 4 in 1972, the cocaine bill was more than the recording bill. And the recording bill was $80,000.”

  1. Lemmy!

One last great reason for watching Heavy Metal Britannia is Lemmy’s in it. Be warned, though: he’s hardly in it, perhaps because they couldn’t get him to say anything. (For reasons that are mysterious to me now, I once interviewed Lemmy by fax; his answer to the first question consisted of a single word: “Telescope.” What the question was is irrelevant, because “Telescope” had absolutely no bearing on it. Sometimes, I pull that fax out, stare at it, and wonder.) The little he does have to say, though, is solid gold, and he gets the last word on metal here: “It’s great driving music. If you like driving into the sides of bridges.”

Originally published in The Sunday Herald February 28, 2010