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Collage of Heavy Metal Covers from the 1980s

Heavy metal bands in the 80s – Is heavy metal bad for you?

“As Barry listened to the music, he became mesmerized by it, as a whole new world opened up to him. The guitar chords sounded brilliantly futuristic like a bright light, and the harmonies of the songs and the lyrics transported his mind to somewhere completely new. And the moment he became aware that he was actually enjoying it, a thought came into his mind: that if he continued listening to it, he might just end up going to hell. But something in him then decided that this was in fact a risk worth taking.” — GPS📍Places of Interest 6: ‘Heavy Metal Fears of the Late 1980s’

A few years ago, I released one of my audio stories “GPS: Some places are best left unmapped!” as an audio cassette for Cassette Week. That might seem like a bit of a backwards step in terms of technology, but the format was perfect for this particular audio story, which had a scene where two characters stumble across a bonfire in a cemetery, and one of them, Barry Glidon suddenly remembers how he had scared himself stupid as a kid by taping heavy metal from the local radio station, believing at the time that he could hear a subliminal voice asking him to “let me out” as the tape clicked along.

It’s maybe hard for 21st century people to believe this now, but back in the 1980s, there was an almost hysterical fear about heavy metal in the wider society. Metal music had been around much earlier than that, it had started out in England in the late seventies, with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in 1977 with bands like Iron Maiden, having grown out of earlier prog and heavy rock, continuing their model of the concept album using fantasy artwork.

But by the mid-to-late-eighties, the music had evolved in many directions, having gained a foothold with groups of teenagers the world-over: headbangers, metal heads, burnouts, bogans — whatever they were called — this was their choice of music! And along with it came all the associated negative reactions from the older generation, music snobs and institutional authority — as well as a moral crusade from the religious right who identified a Satanic element to this sound.

And though it was hard to understand it at the time, most of this fear had come from the United States and was highly contagious, as all fears are!

There had been some high-profiled cases of teenage suicide in the US which had been linked to Heavy metal, and it led to a Senate investigation in 1986. Instigated by the PRMC (Parents Resource Music Centre), which included the wives of prominent politicians, Heavy metal came under a greater public scrutiny, and it led to the stickering of albums with Parental Advisory warnings.

John Denver sticking his neck out for freedom of expression during the Senate investigation

As kids in the working-class western suburbs of Sydney, we didn’t know who the hell the PRMC was, except that they were led by someone called Tipper Gore (which sounded like a great heavy metal stage name) and that Megadeth had written a song about them called ‘Hook in Mouth’. It was my friend V. who explained the situation to me and how it was related to American politics and censorship.

But the push against heavy metal also came from the religious right, who were frightened by the seemingly “Satanic” content of the music. Besides the already disturbing lyrics, there was the double-whammy of ‘backmasking’ – where if you played the music backwards, you would hear whatever subliminal message the band had hidden in their work, played out in full!

But the problem was you needed vinyl records to do this — and most of us only had cassettes: the most Satanic aspect for us was when our walkman batteries would start to run out, and the tape would gradually drop in speed, and we would staunchly keep listening until the music became so low in pitch, that it was no longer recognizably a song.

I am the first to admit that the artwork of the albums could be quite frightening, gory and horrific, with artistic visions of hell and evil creatures, and strange scenarios like leper colonies and golden keys. These images would seep through into wider society on t-shirts, heavy metal patches sewn onto denim jackets, posters, images that I remember seeing as a little kid — and I’m guessing that many of us were both frightened and fascinated by them at the same time.

Collage of Heavy Metal Covers from the 1980s
Artwork (clockwise left to right): Ed Repka (Megadeth), Edda and Uwe Karczewski (Helloween), Dom Brautigam (Metallica), Derek Riggs (Iron Maiden), Ed Repka (Death) and Albert Cuellar (Slayer)

But there was never a positive perception of heavy metal with the wider population. If it was not seen as laughable by better educated adults in films like This is Spinal Tap, it was seen as menacing by suburban parents, a belief aggravated by our era’s equivalent of click-bait and internet trolls: — daytime TV shows, and the gutter press.

All of us metal head kids knew about Stryper — a Christian metal band who were supposedly combatting the evil of heavy metal with messages about Jesus — but I don’t know anyone who had ever listened to them. For us, it wasn’t about the messages. It was about the music.

Anyway, all I can say is this saturation of Satanic fear rubbed off on us all. As kids, you are living in an adult world; everything that the adults decide, in terms of ideas, but also what music, films and art-forms abound (and of course this includes the adult makers of metal music) has a direct influence on young minds. You absorb it all, and it’s then part of the growing-up process to filter through it all, and decide for yourself, what’s good and what isn’t.

Reference: Heavy metal genre takes a bashing, Glen A. Baker. The Canberra Times, 4 May 1986.

“GPS: Some places are best left unmapped!” is available as a limited-run cassette. If you live in the Americas, you can order a copy through Tapehead City in New York. And if you are in Australia, you can order or pick-up one from Repressed Records in Newtown. You can also find it on Bandcamp!

And for the time being, you can have a guided tour of some of the ‘Places of Interest’ 📍

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