An entertaining romp through a comedian’s history of heavy metal
The history of heavy metal brings brings us extraordinary stories of larger-than-life characters living to excess, from the household names of Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Bruce Dickinson and Metallica (SIT DOWN, LARS!), to the brutal notoriety of the underground Norwegian black metal scene and the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. It is the story of a worldwide network of rabid fans escaping everyday mundanity through music, of cut-throat corporate arseholes ripping off those fans and the bands they worship to line their pockets. The expansive pantheon of heavy metal musicians includes junkies, Satanists and murderers, born-again Christians and teetotallers, stadium-touring billionaires and toilet-circuit journeymen.
Award-winning comedian and life-long heavy metal obsessive Andrew O’Neill has performed his History of Heavy Metal comedy show to a huge range of audiences, from the teenage metalheads of Download festival to the broadsheet-reading theatre-goers of the Edinburgh Fringe. Now, in his first book, he takes us on his own very personal and hilarious journey through the history of the music, the subculture, and the characters who shaped this most misunderstood genre of music.
There is so much to love in Andrew O’Neill’s A History of Heavy Metal. O’Neill’s love for the genres is clear and rings true throughout. He’s opinionated, clear in his opinions, and damned funny. As he mentions at one point, metalheads are nerds, and this book is packed with nerdy details for all metal fans of any age. For me, it evoked my favourite music journalism from the ’90s and early 2000s, but with extra humour.
O’Neill walks readers (or listeners — I got a review copy of the audiobook) through a history of heavy metal. He starts from the beginning, talking about those bands that nobody could deny belong in the metal pantheon: Black Sabbath, for example. Led Zeppelin, Motorhead, etc. All the greats are mentioned, and O’Neill delivers his opinions on where they fall in the pantheon. The book is peppered throughout with anecdotes and legends of these musical giants, and some the author believes should be giants. He discusses various controversies, popular myths, and the cultural impact of heavy metal (including when it broke into the mainstream, and many things started to go wrong).
The author makes it clear, though, that this is also only one history of heavy metal — his history — because the genre is different for everyone, and is made one’s own. He’s unapologetic about disliking certain bands, sub-genres and trends on the heavier side of music. It really reminded me of when I was a teenager, discovering bands like Metallica, In Flames (still one of my favourites) and others for the first time. The mere fact of liking heavy music was a way to bond with others — it didn’t matter if they were fans of Marduk, Carcass, or (later) Trivium: we are all brothers and sisters in metal. This sense of community is something O’Neill picks up on, and uses it to discuss some of the less-pleasant aspects of heavy metal (the racist corners, Phil Anselmo’s white power slogans, Norwegian Black Metal’s forays into murder and corpse desecration, and so on).
I didn’t find the final chapters as interesting or gripping as the first two-thirds of the book(ish), as more-recent metal and punk have left me rather nonplussed. (“Metalcore to the max” seems to be the order of the day, and that’s a tad boring to my ears.)
Entertaining, oftentimes hilarious (Sit DOWN, Lars!), broad in scope, A History of Heavy Metal is a must-read (or -listen) for anyone who finds joy in loud guitars, head banging, and discussing the minutiae of sub-genre definitions. (Only a little bit of the latter.)
Very highly recommended.
Review copy received from Audible UK