Culture

Kiss and Make Up. The combination which has been Rocking Stadia since the early ‘70s

BY John McKie   /  10 June 2017

The concert I attended recently was a little out the ordinary. The entire band had a collective age of 247, each wore full face paint and head-to-toe black leather with metal studs, the lead singer flew through the audience on a zip wire and the guitarists were elevated in hydraulic lift stages and fireworks went off during the first number before a ticker-tape finale.
It was not out of ordinary for the band themselves for they are Kiss. It is alarming or comforting, depending on your point of view, that this is what they have done most nights since 1973.

The previous weekend, the same venue, London’s O2 offered a similar attritional bombardment of the eardrums in front a giant skeleton based on Mayan civilisation while the lead singer danced in a gimp mask, a monkey headdress and on occasion what looked like a general’s jacket from the American Civil War while he wielded an enormous Union Jack flag from a pole. You could say the lead singer Bruce Dickinson was old enough to know better but he is the only member of the band under 60. This was Iron Maiden. This is what they have been doing since 1975.
As an invitation from my beloved, who is more attuned to the merits of this music than I, it was educational seeing audiences totally tuned into the louder side of contemporary music. (She says it’s payback for a near-three hour set from Leonard Cohen at the same venue, something I insist was a kindness). Since marriage, I have frequented concerts by Def Leppard (twice), Whitesnake, AC/DC, Metallica and now this week Kiss and Iron Maiden. You mustn’t under any circumstances tell her, but I pretty much had a whale of a time at all of them.
For the widespread music press sneering at heavy metal, and its near-neighbours in the hard rock neighbourhood, the audiences are loyal and don’t adopt poses. Bands like Kiss and Maiden put on a show and continue to sell out stadia four decades after they began. Maiden are a great British success story, selling around 90million records and playing more than 2,000 shows (many arenas) without the usual music industry back-up of TV and radio.

Unlike many more fashionable groups, who are all about The Music, metalheads have a hinterland. Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson has been a qualified pilot for the past 15 years https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYn2TNGWET8 even flying the band on a world tour. Metalllica’s drummer Lars Ulrich buys and sells art – he flogged a Basquiat at Christie’s in New York for £9.1m – and his dad was a Davis Cup player for Denmark who played clarinet in a jazz band. The band’s singer James Hetfield is an enthusiastic beekeeper.

Metal has been prime real estate for satire since Spinal Tap exquisitely nailed the art of turning it up to eleven, but many of these gentlemen shrug their shoulders -they’re mainly in vests or leather waistcoats so that’s easily done – and get on with playing live and loud in surround sound Dobly. They are also, in terms of bass, drums and guitar interplay, terribly musically intricate and adept.

In the flip, cynical world of the music industry, metal bands deliver on theatrics. Their shows are likened to pantomime which isn’t a phenomenon in the States but a more apt comparison is turn of the last century vaudeville. Alice Cooper, who spent evenings round at Groucho Marx’s, whose brothers cut their teeth on vaudeville shows, understood this. He must have, or hanging a snake around his neck, dancing with skeletons in top hat and tails, and chopping a watermelon with an axe would have been all for nothing. Incidentally, Groucho Marx would go to Alice Cooper shows and was said to love them.

The cast and crew of the heavy rock family are full of surprises. AC/DC, whose Angus Young dresses as a schoolboy, even got replacement singer Axl Rose in line for a world tour. As Guns N’ Roses aficianados will know, this is something Slash and co couldn’t always manage.
David Coverdale of Whitesnake is plummier than even the 2015 Cabinet, and his preferred tipple is red wine.

The most softly spoken pop star I’ve met, and this includes people who have featured on pastel-hued Belle and Sebastian sleeves, was Chris Fehn, also known as #3, or “Dicknose”, from uncompromising boiler suit-clad metallists Slipknot.

There is also a bravery about some of the metal bands lacking in their so-called edgier counterparts. Maiden and their army of fans took on the secondary ticketing agencies with a degree of success (the only similar comparison is grunge band Pearl Jam attempting to face down the music industry closed shop of Ticketmaster), and Metallica went to war with downloading outlet Napster, which led Ulrich to widespread derision from more fashionable bands decades before they spat their own feathers about Spotify, Apple Music and iTunes.

The best thing about heavy metal bands is their sense of adventure. The smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd are guaranteed at their events, as are committed audiences, light shows, big tunes, a few guitar solos and a sense of the absurd. The lead frontman is likely to have 99% of the crowd in the palm of (more often than not) his hand. Paul Stanley and Bruce Dickinson certainly did this week. In comparison, many mumbling indie frontmen of more critically acclaimed bands are, to use a 2017 phrase, just about managing.