Friday, May 19, 2006

HE WAS THE METAL MAN BEFORE YOU: Left in the dust of Mike Saunders

When electricity came to Arkansas, ca. '70

My friend, Metal Mike Saunders of the punk rock band, the Angry Samoans, coined the usage of the term "heavy metal" in the rock critic's lexicon. It's a fact that riles current fans and chroniclers of heavy metal. They all would rather have that some writer from a British tabloid devoted to covering urban slum metal did it. Or that it popped into common usage sometime around the advent of Judas Priest, after being invoked in non-metal context by John Kay or a well-thought of author.

Anyone, anyone, please, but Saunders.

In 1970, he wrote for Rolling Stone: "Here [Humbe Pie] were a noisy, unmelodic, heavy metal-leaden shit-rock band, with the loud and noisy parts beyond doubt," in a review of As Safe As Yesterday Is.

A paragraph or two later, Saunders caps it with: "This album, more of the same 27th-rate heavy metal crap, is worse than the first two put together, though I know that sounds incredible."

In May 1971, for Creem magazine, Saunders used it again, in a review of Sir Lord Baltimore's Kingdom Come, an album he recommended via a swift backhand. All "true blue" fans of the heavy were to take heart, Sir Lord Baltimore's LP was a "crusher," the work of a band that "[seemed] to have down pat most all the best heavy metal tricks in the book." It was the kind of review that drives contemporary fans of heavy metal up the wall, the insulting of a band while simultaneously pushing its record.

At the time, Saunders was one of the few rock critics who wrote regularly on hard rock. And if you thought he didn't like old school "heavy metal" you were mistaken. As an 18-year old student at the University of Texas, typing out reviews for food and movie money, he free-lanced for Rolling Stone, also supplying copy to the school's newspaper.

While Saunders didn't use the term to recommend Dust's first LP to Longhorns in the boldly inflammatory headline -- "DUST SURPASS STONES: Hard Rock Album One of Year's Best" -- he did use it in a review of Blue Oyster Cult's debut.

". . . I've been listening to 'Blue Oyster Cult' for three weeks now, and I still don't understand that album at all, probably because I prefer the heavy metal guitar sound of Sabbath and Funk and Dust and the Zep and their progeny."

Of the time, Saunders wrote, "I have no idea why the phrase 'heavy metal' occured to NO ONE ELSE. I mean it's right there in the goddamn Steppenwolf song. Oh, wait -- 99% of the magazine and daily paper writers/reviewers had NO use for Black Sabbath or Grand Funk [and] were much less . . . inclined to honor the style with a genre name."

More standard was Rolling Stone's feature coverage of a band like Black Sabbath, well described by the subheading in a long October 1971 profile on the band: "Twelve Homesick Hours With the Dark Princes of Downer Rock." It was not heavy metal yet, but downer rock, a term that wouldn't stick. "It's different" and "It's freaky" wrote the magazine in bemused tone. " . . . we don't understand their popularity, no one can figure it out," an unnamed Warner Brothers executive was quoted as saying.

In any case, VH1 came looking for Saunders last year for a documentary on heavy metal which will start running on Monday as part of the channel's "Metal Month" feature series. Producer Michael Warren wanted Saunders on camera and was going to come out to the Bay Area where Saunders lived, to tape him. After weeks of discussion on an interior mailing list (full disclosure: I was a contributor to the ongoing chat and general fly-on-the-wall, along with others), Saunders let fly he wasn't going to cooperate. He didn't want to be on TV. He offered some old photos and a tape as a substitute, actually kind of suitable under the circumstances.

Saunders decision had its own merciless logic. VH1, in the past, has done quite a few documentaries and specials on heavy metal. Some are very enjoyable. But one thing they don't really deliver is anyone telling it like it is from the flip side of the coin, anyone who steps outside the entrenched wisdom on the genre.

Instead, the color commentary is furnished by journalists from trade publications which exist or existed only to flatter, or other famous and semi-famous rockstars backscratching each other.

For instance, when was the last time you actually saw someone on one of these shows say, "Man, those guys were the worst, not worth the dust the rude wind might blow in their faces"?

It's standard operating procedure for heavy metal. Occasionally, a moment of self-examination occurs within the genre. It is then quickly forgotten or given the bum's rush. Heavy metal bands and fans have trouble with criticism, perhaps because they were generally treated quite shabbily by the mainstream during the years in which the music was emergent.

For example, in "The Virgin Encyclopedia of Heavy Rock," a heavy metal index authored by Colin Larkin, we read "excitement" is "all but obscured by a clutch of bands whose longevity is synonymous with a style of music unwilling or unable to reinvent itself." In other words, heavy metal was and is "content to celebrate its own orthodoxy." But then, the book reverts to chronicling the ridiculous with a straight face. On Obituary, a stubbornly dreadful death metal band: "[Their album] revealed a more considered approach, with the occasional audible lyric . . ."

In any case, Saunders explained in e-mail: "In 1971-1972, I was as big a fan of the genre as any 18-19 year old on planet earth. (Plus the access to national media, or I should say the only person in the country besides [Lester Bangs] at that time interested in saying anything positive about the whole flock of bands that weren't named Led Zeppelin)."

"[M]ost genres go bad pretty quickly . . ."

Part of this reluctance may have been partly my fault for voicing a couple asides on the farcical practices of peddling heavy metal to niche and mass audiences. Basically, it boils down to the judgment of art through the evaluation of strict, frequently nonsensically hair-splitting styles, with the ones being judged best to be those most pursuasive in convincing others to slavishly copy them.

"... as George Smith points out repeatedly," Saunders continued, "the media's canonization of big-bucks 80's metal (or as VH1 put it, When Metal Ruled The Earth) rewrote the critical rulebook into a duplicate of the movie biz. If it was big, then it must be good. Or at least, the bigness superseded the good/bad gradebook. I mean, my gosh, even rockabilly doofs can concede, 'yep the Stray Cats suck(ed) the big one compared to Gene Vincent, except for maybe the better parts of Setzer's guitar work.'"

"But comparing Judas Priest's merits to, forget Deep Purple, let's say Uriah Heep -- not allowed.

The playing field was one one were the rules were made by dunces, said Saunders. And he was opting out.

Warren tried hard to make it work, though, and was never less than gracious. "The fact that Metal Mike Saunders coined the term in print will be in the show no matter what," he wrote in e-mail. "Those are the facts and it's my job to make sure that the story is told."


Anonymous Deborah Frost said...

It doesn't really matter what you are asked to contribute to MTV ( if I had stayed there two minutes more some years ago, I would have the same hairdo as Rob Halford--but self-accomplished) or VH1...

they just pull out the same stock Motley Crue clip and
run the commercials...

12:51 PM  
Blogger Karl Bakla said...

I just scored a copy of Metal Mike's Ted Nugent Is Not My Dad, I really like it!

8:42 AM  

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