Scratch Your Head: Heavy Metal with No Rush

Okay, so this book came out 10 years ago but I think it’s worth spending a few minutes trying to figure out exactly what David Konow was trying to do with Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press: 2002). I know Rush is hard to classify musically, but when it warrants no place in the scope of a book whose subtitle is “The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal,” you have to wonder if Konow is writing about a parallel universe that only some people know about.

And in fact he is. It’s called Glam Metal Land and its capital is Los Angeles.

Konow’s book is really about the ’80s hair bands like Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Dokken, Twisted Sister, Poison, W.A.S.P., Bon Jovi, and Whitesnake and the heavy metal bands on whose heels they closely followed, mainly Kiss, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, and Metallica. These bands either came out of, or migrated to, the Sunset Strip clubs like The Troubadour and Whisky a Go Go that were so big in the 1980s. And while many of the clubs are still around, the bands are either gone or trying to eke out a living as nostalgia acts.

With this as the book’s scope, it’s actually a relief that Rush has no place in it. The Quiet Riots of the world are musical parodies whose antics, on stage and off, have more in common with Britney Spears than with Led Zeppelin. Fittingly, it’s those antics that Konow’s book is really about. The spats between Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth, Don Dokken and George Lynch, Axl Rose and —well, everybody in the universe: they’re all recounted in tabloid-like detail. 

In that sense, the book isn’t about music at all. It’s about young men who are given fame, money, women, and drugs before they’ve had a chance to mature. You can imagine what their lives were about, and it wasn’t music.

Even so, Konow’s approach is curious, because he starts the story with heavy metal bands who really were key to shaping the genre: Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple. He then moves to Alice Cooper, Kiss, Thin Lizzy, and, unexpectedly, Boston. Within this context it would have been appropriate to talk about bands like Rush and, say, Blue Oyster Cult, which were experimenting in interesting ways under the heavy metal umbrella. Rush, after all, was sometimes referred to as Led Zeppelin Junior when its debut album made a splash in Cleveland in the mid-1970s and in its early days it opened for Kiss, Thin Lizzy, and other metal bands.

To be sure, taxonomies are tricky things. When you have a root like “heavy metal,” you can branch off in any number of ways: “thrash metal,” “progressive metal,” “British heavy metal.” The complaint with Konow’s approach is that he doesn’t set the stage for why he turns his attention to glam metal rather than any of these other branches. Nor does he explain that glam metal is just one branch of many whose roots are in heavy metal.

It’s this lack of context that’s the biggest weakness of his book. With his story unmoored from any wider context, his subtitle “The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal” makes no sense. It’s really about the rise and fall of individual glam metal acts. Every now and then we get a glimpse that other things are happening in the world at large and in music, and we suspect that these wider events somehow are impacting what’s happening with the glam metal acts. But we don’t know what those things are.

Toward the end Konow starts referencing the rise of Seattle, and how alt-rock and grunge bands like Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, and Alice in Chains were resonating with audiences that, a decade earlier, would have been listening to heavy metal bands. Konow talks a little about audiences getting fed up with the phoniness of glam metal and the self-indulgence of people like Axl Rose and David Lee Roth, and why bands like Soundgarden, which hit the scene with a higher authenticity factor, would be attractive to the young audiences that rock depends on.

But that’s the extent of any context that we get. Other than that, we’re left with the idea that glam metal bands killed themselves with their excesses. The reader’s feeling is, “good riddance.”

As a side note, in the few times Rush is mentioned, it’s usually in the context of a glam metal act’s relationship with one of Rush’s managers, mostly Cliff Burnstein but also Ray Danniels, who Konow mistakenly identifies as Ray Daniels. In talking about Danniels, Konow mentions Sammy Hagar’s hatred for him. Danniels at the time was managing Van Halen. It’s this kind of gossipy stuff—who hates who, who treats who badly—that comprises the bulk of the book. My mistake was thinking it was a book about music.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault 

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~ by rvkeeper on December 8, 2011.

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