Punk Vs. Metal


Classic rock

‘The Decline Of Western Civilization’, Penelope Spheeris’ raw documentary about the early Los Angeles punk scene, opens with a taunting cry from Fear’s cropped-hair singer Lee Ving. “So how comes they let all you long hairs in? What’s the problem, it’s 1980, can’t you afford a fuckin’ haircut?” At that time the sight of someone sporting shoulder length locks, the indisputable hallmark of the enemy as far as punks were concerned, was enough to provoke a fight. It didn’t need Ving’s inciting comment.

“There was a lot of violence at gigs,” explains Brendan Mullen, author of ‘We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story Of L.A. Punk’ and owner of The Masque, the Hollywood club at the centre of the LA punk scene in the late 70s. “A whole lot of punks might attack some long hair guy or somebody who looked like they might be into heavy metal, because that’s the only time they had enough numbers to fight back.”

The rivalry between LA’s punk and metal fans during the 1980s was a complex and confusing one. Like the feuds between the mods and rockers back in the 60s or the punks and teds in the 70s, fashion was as critical as the music. Getting to the root of the enmity is only part of the story, equally baffling is finding the point at which both musical paths later converged. It’s like a mirage. Every time it comes into sight, the next step forward causes it to disappear. Navigating the journey using signposts like hardcore, thrash, speedmetal and grunge is treacherous.

“There’s no slick little soundbite like, ‘On such and such a date the punks and the metalheads laid down their weapons and embraced’,” says Mullen. Back in 1980, when Lee Ving was provoking the crowd, that day of reconciliation may have still been a long way off but, by the time Metallica’s long-haired, ill-fated bass player Cliff Burton boasted a Fear sticker on his guitar, it was getting closer.

To understand the hostility, it’s important to set the stage. In Los Angeles in 1980, the first wave of local punk bands like The Germs, led by the fatalistic Darby Crash, The Screamers, The Weirdos, The Bags and X had established a groundswell of allegiance amongst the disillusioned. “Punk in LA was reacting against the great success and dominance of bands like Van Halen,” explains Mark Vallen, an illustrator for Slash, the influential West Coast punk magazine. “Just the whole look and feel of it reeked of elitism and the punks in LA wanted something more accessible.”

“There really wasn’t that much of a heavy metal scene by 1980 or 1981. At that point it was kind of dormant before Mötley Crüe kicked in,” says Mullen. “Van Halen weren’t even perceived as a heavy metal band, they were just seen as this big stoner party band. All the punk rockers hated Van Halen of course.” While there may have been a unified hatred of David Lee Roth and Co. amongst punks, there is less clarity on exactly who the enemy was.

“I think it’s completely erroneous to start saying it was codified between heavy metals and punks,” say Mullen. “Not to say that there wasn’t violence, but heavy metal wasn’t the enemy, or was not the perceived enemy. I guess everybody was perceived as the enemy, including heavy metals.”

Penelope Spheeris, who, following ‘The Decline Of Western Civilization’, went on to success directing such films as ‘Wayne’s World’, was well aware of the rivalry. “That was very present. I think when all the punk bands had their stronghold going on, metal was considered to be a lower class music and really old fashioned and out of date and ridiculous.”

Henry Rollins, ex-singer with Black Flag, one of LA’s original punk bands, disagrees. “No, actually. I am not aware of any sanctioned hatred between the groups. I never really saw metal guys at the punk shows. I am sure they would potentially run into trouble at a punk show and vice versa but I was never aware of having to run from metal guys.”

Whether it was sanctioned or Rollins was aware of it, the hatred would at times erupt into violence. David White, an LA screenwriter and one-time Fear roadie, recalls an incident at a punk show at the Stardust Ballroom. “I remember seeing a guy with long hair push his way onto the floor in proximity to where guys were slamming. All of a sudden several people began surrounding him from behind and pointing to him and the next thing I remember is him being literally torn apart. He was really, really badly beaten and taken out by paramedics ten minutes later.”

What might appear an unprovoked attack, was seen by punks as retaliation for the abuse they were enduring every day beyond the sanctuary of the clubs. “Just walking down the street with your bizarre attire led to people rolling down their windows and shouting obscenities at you,“ recalls Vallen. “The metal crowd regarded us as upstarts and talentless revolutionaries and they were only too willing to attack us. Often times metal fans out for a Saturday’s lark would ambush punks and it escalated. I have a lot of friends who literally had to run for their lives some times.”

Thrashead, a writer and devout punk fan for more than 25 years, puts it succinctly. “The thing with the whole metalhead punk thing was, it just came down to your typical high school ignorance, where it was just like, you’re not like me, you’re not part of my crowd, I’m going to kick your head in. It’s that cheesy, homo-erotic alpha male shit.”

“Anyone with long hair would get attacked at a gig, it didn’t necessarily mean they were a heavy metal person,” says Mullen, who goes on to define a longhair. “It just meant somebody was either a redneck, an asshole or a hippy. It could be somebody that liked the Grateful Dead, it doesn’t make them a heavy metal.”

According to White, “Anyone who had long hair, whether they were in their early thirties and were teens in the 60s and genuinely hippies or if they were our age and listened to whatever, were referred to as hippies. The punk scene found a very specific group to demonize.”

By the end of 1980, with the death of Darby Crash and the demise of many of LA’s pioneering punks bands, things began to change, explains Vallen. “The original Hollywood scene, which started in ‘77, you could say was pretty much kaput by 1980 and a new crowd of bands were coming in, mostly from the beach areas of California, like Orange County. They were much more aggressive and violent in nature and were perfectly willing to give the metal crowd a run for their money when it came to street brawls.”

These bands, led by the likes of Black Flag, Circle Jerks and The Adolescents, developed a new strain of punk. Keith Morris was a founding member of Black Flag before going on to form Circle Jerks. “We were more suburban kids. We came from coastal cities where there was a lot of athleticism and when I say athleticism, I mean we would surf and we’d skateboard and when winter came around there’d be skiing, that type of go-for-it mentality. So, you couple that go-for-it mentality along with the athleticism and the music, kick it up a couple of notches and it becomes hardcore.”

But unlike the Hollywood punk scene, which had its origins in English punk and the earlier glam era, hardcore had different roots. “We initially started off listening to Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, louder, more aggressive rock and roll,” says Morris. “One of our big influences here in LA was a band that came from Detroit called The Dogs.”

The advent of hardcore brought division within the punk ranks, remembers Lorraine Ali, a past contributor to Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times and now a senior reporter for Newsweek. “The old school punks hated us. It was all like, we didn’t know what we were doing, and it wasn’t good punk rock because it was just too fast.”

While others called Circle Jerks hardcore, Morris was less inclined to attach a label. “One of the things with us is we never really classified ourselves. We leave that to the critics. They needed to come up with names to place on everybody and that’s what they came up with.”

Encountering the ramped up aggression of this new music caused problems at Black Flag gigs explains Rollins. “The hostility I encountered was with skinhead types and idiot locals who couldn't figure out what we were doing and just decided they wanted to fight.”

As hardcore was taking off in the suburbs, Hollywood was becoming the focal point of a metal revival that had more to do with big hair than long hair, led by Mötley Crüe. Unlike the testosterone-fuelled hardcore audiences, Mötley’s followers included plenty of women and posed no threat, according to Mullen. “When Mötley blew up, it’s like the punk rockers didn’t give a shit because it was like another world anyway.”

In fact Circle Jerks were in part responsible for Mötley’s success according to LA scenester and deejay Rodney Bingenheimer. “One time I had the Circle Jerks on my show and they brought in a copy of Mötley Crüe’s first single and played it, just like kind of making fun of them. Little did they know that while they were playing that Mötley Crüe single, that made them even more popular and people liked it. Playing that on KROQ sort of opened the door for Mötley Crüe.”

“We loved Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P,” confesses Morris, “because if you look at those guys, they look completely ridiculous. They look like cartoon characters. We thought, ‘Wow! It takes a lot of balls for a guy that’s playing metal to be walking around in highheel stilettos with all of that make-up and their hair propped up like that.”

While “the poodle metal scene” as Mullen refers to it was happening in Hollywood, a very different metal movement was emerging a few miles down the coast in Orange County where Metallica and Slayer, along with Houston’s DRI, were pioneering what became tagged speedmetal.  For audiences, they posed a conundrum. “I remember at first when Metallica played the Troubadour some people mistook them for a punk band because they didn’t get it, because this was a whole new thing, a speed thrash metal,” recalls Mullen. “It confused the hell out of people in LA because Metallica had really long hair. So it was like, ‘Wait a minute, they sound punk but they’ve got really long hair’.”

To distance themselves from the “poodle metal scene”, Slayer deliberately stayed away from LA, admits guitarist Kerry King. “We avoided Hollywood because at that point it was when Ratt was big and Poison were coming up and to me we were like the anti-glam band. We didn’t want anything to do with it.”

As pioneers of a new crossover sound, King reflects on their initial reception. ”I remember the early years, probably not in the very beginning because everybody thought we were a metal band, but once we started getting a name, we started getting punks and metalheads.” Although King declares, “I think, even today, we’re still a metal band,” he concedes, “when people called us punk, I certainly wasn’t offended.” While King cites Judas Priest, Venom and Motorhead as primary influences, he also credits the impact of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. “The first Priest show I ever went to, Iron Maiden opened for them. Even though today I’m a bigger Priest fan, that day Maiden kicked them in the teeth.”

Another British movement which impacted the California music scene and helped further blur the distinction between punk and metal was Oi!. ”I always said the influence of those Oi! bands like GBH, Discharge and The Exploited, was an undocumented phenomenon in Southern California,“ says Mullen. “I think those British bands never really got credit.”  The vast Olympic Auditorium would regularly host punkathons, pairing a headline Oi! group with a selection of local talent. King remembers Slayer doing an Exploited medley and a cover of a GBH song, while Circle Jerks’ Morris recounts, “We’ve played a ton of shows with GBH. We love those guys.”

One group who played a role in the evolution of the LA music scene, but defied easy categorization as they transitioned between punk and metal, is Suicidal Tendencies. In 1983 they were all over MTV with their hardcore hit ‘Institutionalized’, but the violent reputation of their fans helped pull the plug from LA’s dying punk scene. “They had a penchant for fucking things up,” remembers Morris. “I actually saw them one night, 30 of them beat up one guy. That’s ridiculous. That’s just totally uncalled for.”

To hoist a single group above all others as the one who finally brought LA’s once rival punk and metal fans together is to invite a volley of fire from skeptics, though one band who could offer as legitimate a claim as any is Guns N’ Roses. By 1985, when fans of both camps were looking around for new heroes to embrace, the young Guns were forging a reputation in the small clubs of LA.

“Guns N’ Roses definitely put punk rock, they definitely put heavy metal and they definitely put 70s hard rock like Aerosmith, put it all into the one blender,” offers Mullen. “That was part of why they were so successful. But of course Guns N’ Roses can’t possibly be getting credit because they were so mainstream,” he adds sardonically.

“I’m sure a lot of people would disagree with me,” states Ali, “but I thought around the time Guns N’ Roses was born, that that was a really good merger of the two. It wasn’t thrash. They had glam. They were rock stars, but they also had punk rock attitudes. And it was much harder and much rawer than any of the metal I had heard, apart from hardcore thrash stuff.”

One person who disagrees with Ali, is Slayer’s Kerry King. “I mean, if you say Guns N’ Roses to me, that’s just sleaze rock and punk. It’s not really metal.”

In Brendan Mullen’s new book, ‘Whores: An Oral Biography Of Jane’s Addiction’, due out later this year, Slash talks about the diverse audience at GN’R gigs. “Guns attracted punk rockers, pick-up-driving heavy metal dudes, fuckin’ preppies, skate kids and the Allman Brothers stoner crowd. I mean dude, we got fuckin’ tattoo guys, college students, bikers, office workers, glam rockers. Dude we had cops, strippers, surfers, marines coming and on and on, you name it man, just this bizarre fuckin’ mix of people.”

Jane’s Addiction is another group that combined elements from various sources, including punk and metal, and could lay claim to uniting the various fans, except that Mullen thinks Perry Farrell’s eccentricities might have been a bit much for some. “Perry was even a freakier looking rock star than Axl Rose. He was considered a freak by the metal audiences. Here’s this crazy guy that looks like a bird man in a corset, flapping around. A metal crowd couldn’t deal with that.”

While Guns and Jane’s were attracting diverse followings in Los Angeles, a few hundred miles up the Coast a new sound was emerging, one that was to become one of the most influential forces in music since punk, more that ten years earlier. It is one many suggest was the ultimate marriage between punk and metal.

Grunge brought together the essential elements of punk - its attitude and soiled look - and melded it with metal’s uncompromising aural assault. Its audience comprised hair of every length, style and colour. And although many agree that grunge was the closest thing to unity, there are still arguments over which group best focused that accord.

While Ali suggests, “I think the true success of those mergers was probably Nirvana.” Inevitably in what is such a contentious topic, Mullen disagrees. ”I would say Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone.”

In the end, mapping a definitive route from the punk metal rivalry of the early 80s through to apparent harmony less than a decade later is all but impossible. As Brendan Mullen puts it, “Every time you try and come up with a neat little theory and put it in a box, there’s always someone that doesn’t fit and it blows it and you’re back to square one. “