Welcome again to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 1986, Detroit Rock City, Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, and Tipper Gore being quite the bitch. For earlier installments, go here.
For the sake of disclosure, I was born in Detroit, MI. I lived in the city proper until I was about ten years old when my family, the beneficiaries of a small inheritance, moved to the distant suburb of Waterford. We were close enough to the city to reasonably claim Detroit as home, but far removed from the harsh realities of Motor City life in the 80s (abundant crack houses, “white flight,” etc.). Waterford is an unremarkable, working class town. Until recently, I joked that, after 1984 Detroit Tigers’ right fielder Kirk Gibson, that I was the second-most famous graduate of Waterford Kettering High School: turns out that Trevor Strnad, lead singer of The Black Dahlia Murder and one of my high school contemporaries, was just on the cover of Revolver magazine and Myspace’s front page last week, making him second-most famous. I’m not bitter; third place still gets a medal.
Strnad’s ascent to the upper echelons of metal is fitting, as Detroit is a HARD ROCK town. With due respect to the unstoppable groove of Berry Gordy’s MoTown, the Detroit music legacy is by and large one of big rock sounds, some of its most famous exports being Ted Nugent, The Stooges, The MC5 and the White Stripes. Pop metal group KISS were right on the mark with their 1976 single “Detroit Rock City.” Even Detroit’s rap scene, most recently spearheaded by Eminem and Insane Clown Posse, but also including nearly every name in the horrorcore genre, bears nothing in common with the peace and love sounds of early 90s stars like De La Soul, nor the fun, accesible hooks of pioneers like Run DMC. Nay, Detroit is a gritty town with a gritty sound.
Growing up in a cultural wasteland like Waterford, then, there were few contemporaries with which to cut my musical teeth, none of whom were interested in the quirky pop music that spoke to me. An early disciple of They Might Be Giants, the Violent Femmes and the Dead Milkmen, I found myself with no alternative but to gamely try and hang with the handful of other musicians in Waterford, almost all of them metalheads. None of the bands I joined could agree on a sound, and nearly all of them broke up before we got to play even one show. The last band I dallied with consisted of myself, the bassist of Waterford’s first-ever (and possibly only) ska band and the rhythm section of the reigning local metal group, famous among our mutual friends for being able to play any song in the Metallica catalog. My main role in this band was to play rhythm guitar and never go near the microphone, under any circumstances. Again, for the sake of disclosure, nearly everyone who heard me sing before the age of 18 told me not to bother trying to be a singer, that I was talentless at best. Thanks for the encouragement, guys.
My second role in this poorly-matched group was as a complacent participant in regular Metallica listening sessions. I was met with the threat of physical violence if I voiced my opinion that Metallica has always sucked, so I typically sat back and tried not to look too bored. These dudes, before and after practice, would sit around listening to …And Justice For All, analyzing their Bay Area heroes with the fervor and intensity of someone who’s just discovered a mint copy of Action Comics #1. Treating the lyrics to “Blackened” and “One” like sequels to “Helter Skelter,” my bandmates would all ultimately lament that Metallica died when Cliff died.
Of course, the Cliff my contemporaries were talking about was Cliff Burton, original bassist for Metallica, and the second member of the band’s first lineup to jettison from the group (original lead guitarist Dave Mustaine was fired before Kill ‘Em All was recorded in 1983). Metallica was on its’ second European tour in September of 1986 when, outside of Dorärp, Sweden, their bus went off the road and flipped several times. Singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich and Mustaine’s replacement, Kirk Hammett, all sustained minor injuries but were mostly unhurt. Burton, however, was pinned under the bus and killed instantly.
My personal opinion is that Burton suffered the most humane death of anyone in Metallica, as Burton did not have to weather any of the stupid moves made by the band in the subsequent decades. Burton was spared the reinvention of Metallica’s sound with 1996’s Load, the embarrassing class action lawsuit against Napster, the laughably bad 2003 embracing of nü metal with St. Anger and the funnier-than-Spinal-Tap rockumentary Some Kind of Monster. If the eternity one can expect after a lifetime of metal is one of hellfire, Burton is at least burning peacefully, unaware of his band’s trajectory after his death. Hetfield, Ulrich and the rest are not so lucky: after looking like morons for more than twenty years, they all still have hell to look forward to.
Of course, there were some real tragic deaths in 1986, deaths that shook the greater musical world to its very foundation (though no one knew it at the time, and the greater public remains mostly oblivious to their respective creative outputs). Black Flag, 80s pioneers of the D.I.Y. hardcore punk circuit (if you have ever driven eight hours to play a show in an alternative space, in a town you’ve never visited, and people are there to see your band, you have Black Flag to thank) played their final show in Detroit, MI on June 27th, 1986. Less than two months later, guitarist and founder Greg Ginn called Henry Rollins and resigned from the band. Thus ended ten years of out-of-the-box music making, laying much of the groundwork for the then-burgeoning “alternative” rock movement (many key players on the grunge scene reference Black Flag’s regular visits to Seattle as inspiration, as most bands didn’t tour there before 1991).
Embroiled in a lawsuit with Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (then a new organization) since December 1985, over obscenity charges regarding the artwork on their Frankenchrist album Bay Area punks the Dead Kennedys also called it quits in 1986. By the PMRC’s later admission, they picked the Dead Kennedys as likely suspects for a band that could not afford to defend themselves against charges brought upon them by the U.S. government. They picked the wrong band. The DKs rallied and the prosecution tried to present the artwork (a landscape of penises drawn by H.R. Giger) isolated from the band’s music and lyrics. This mode, thankfully, was denied. The trial ended in a hung jury in favor of the defendants and, although the DKs broke up due largely to the stress of the proceedings, you and I can still buy a copy of Frankenchrist today. Tipper Gore may have gotten the Parental Advisory sticker on records, but Jello Biafra and the rest of the Kennedys were largely responsible for keeping those records in stores.
Of course, Jann Wenner, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame founder and former managing editor for Rolling Stone, wouldn’t have you know anything about Black Flag or the DKs, or any of the other crucial pioneering punk bands of the 80s. No, Wenner would have you know that the most influential musicians of 1986 were Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis. These men were the first group of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at a ceremony held at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on January 23rd, 1986. Wenner and his ilk would have you believe that these men were the apex of rock music in 1986, at a time when all of them were long past their creative peaks (and many long dead).
Here begins the biggest dilemma I’ve discovered thus far: the canonization of rock music. 1986 was perhaps the first year in which any organization openly declared that the music of the 60s was the zenith of human musical possibility. This was when nostalgia became big business, setting off the domino effect that finds many of the youth of today nostalgic for times they shared less than five years ago: with the debut of VH1’s I Love The New Millenium show on June 22nd, 2007, “nostalgia” might as well be a genre.
Further, nostalgia is blatantly manufactured by a small handful of people who don’t know you and don’t care about what you like. The average consumer likes the Doors better than, say, Big Star, not because the Doors are better, but someone in an office decided to throw untold millions into keeping the Doors hip, years after their demise. Jann Wenner doesn’t care what you like, and makes no bones about it (the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction/nomination process has never accepted input from the general public). To this day, Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys remain non-inductees (and, in fact, the Hall of Fame Museum operates under the insinuation that punk rock “died” between The Clash and Green Day), while Metallica were inducted in 2009. Tell me, oh faithful and intelligent readers, who is more influential?
Next week: a big year for metal, 1987. Also, the Beastie Boys vs. American Bandstand, and U2’s Joshua Tree.
by Brook Pridemore