Review: A History of Heavy Metal by Andrew O’Neill

IMG_6960[1]What some of you may not know is that whilst reading is undeniably my biggest passion, music is also an important part of my life. I listen to some form of music every day, whether that’s blasting my favourite songs in the car, relaxing in the bath, or just general background music. Now, something you do know is that I have a very eclectic reading taste, and this is something which is directly paralleled in my choice of music. From My Chemical Romance and Avenged Sevenfold, The Beatles and Black Sabbath, to Beyonce and Adele; if its good, I’ll give it a listen. Without a doubt though, my favourite genres of music are rock and heavy metal. There’s nothing quite like going to a gig to watch your favourite band live!

When I heard about Andrew O’Neill’s non-fiction book, A History of Heavy Metal, I was immediately intrigued. As already stated, I love heavy metal, but this is not limited to the currently active bands that I can go and see love. I also love the music from the beginnings of the genre, the music my dad played growing up as a child. In many ways, that’s exactly what this book is; a celebration of heavy metal which attempts to chronicle its movements since its first recognisable foundations.

I know in theory the premise might sound a bit dry, perhaps boring even, but fans of heavy metal really can rest assured. This book is written with life and energy, coupled with brilliant humour and unforgiving sarcasm. It’s unsurprisingly really, when you consider that the author is actually an award winning comedian, and has even performed his A History of Heavy Metal show to the likes of Download and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. However, if you still don’t believe me, then let me give you the very first line of the book:

‘There are two types of people in this world: people who like heavy metal, and dicks. Don’t worry if you fall into the latter category; I’m very persuasive.’ (p. xi).

The opening really does set a comedic tone for the book which is sustained through its pages. I honestly think this is why the book works so well. This is heavy metal we’re talking about; the book would never have survived if it had been written in a serious, uptight manner. In needs that braveness, that ‘heaviness’, for the book to truly work .

What  I also really liked about this book was that the author has attempted to give us a linear timeline as best he can. Music evolves in an extremely organic way, with off shoots appearing continuously, but O’Neill has done his best to give us clear and defined examples of how the history of heavy metal has taken its course. He not only looks at the initial concept of heavy metal through the likes of Black Sabbath, but takes time to establish the contextual environment which allowed such a creation to occur. Although the likes of The Beatles and The Kinks appear far removed from what we label as heavy metal today, O’Neill provides a convincing (and I would agree accurate) argument for such bands paving the way for heavy metal to be born. The Beatles were, and still are, undeniably one of the most influential bands, and this book really looks at how the roots of heavy metal were formed through such precursors.

Of course, he doesn’t stop there, but goes on to explore the ways in which different bands which we would define as heavy metal have helped to create, define and shape the genre. This in turn has led to an incredible amount of exploration, with sub genres being created such as black metal, death metal, thrash metal, and a multitude more. What I really liked was how the author draws attention to how our concepts of heavy metal have changed over time. Bands which were labelled heavy metal at the time they were most prominent, might now be looked at in amazment to think they were once categorised in such a manner.

Of course, readers must remember at the end of the day that this book is one individual’s opinion. As such, you might not agree with everything that O’Neill has to say. Yet isn’t that one of the greatest things about not just heavy metal, but music in general? We can all make our own preferences, away from the influence of others. It’s incredibly subjective, just like reading. For example, the author of the book has some pretty strong views on glam metal, and that’s putting it lightly! Whilst I could see his point of view, and acknowledge that there was perhaps some truth to his dislike for the subgenre, it didn’t offend me. I for one quite like some of the aspects of glam metal, and whilst it was interesting to consider O’Neill’s opinions, I am still free to make up my own mind. On the other hand, I am not the biggest lover of death metal, and as such was not as engaged by those chapters as others. It’s all entirely personal and subjective to our own tastes.

Another aspect of this book which I found really interesting was that O’Neill doesn’t just look at the music itself. Whilst this is of course the main theme, he also looks at the social and cultural ideologies surrounding the music. An excellent example of this was how he made reference to the appropriation of heavy metal band t-shirts by mainstream media. How often do we see a celebrity wearing a Slayer t-shirt or something similar, only to wonder and doubt that they even know who the band are? I’ve even heard horror stories of people thinking Iron Maiden band t-shirts are actually just a clothing label, a trend which was limited solely to fashion, never mind the iconic band behind the items!

As annoying as this can be for metal fans, O’Neill thankfully explores some of the more positive outcomes of heavy metal within a social context. Whilst this type of music has often been misunderstood by mainstream media, the underdog within the music industry, it has continued to survive, a real testament to the passion people have for it. Likewise, heavy metal had provided a whole community for like-minded people, a place where everyone is welcome. It might be somewhat of a stereotype, but there is truth to the belief that those who don’t feel they fit in can often find solace in the metal/rock community. We have our own culture, own our community, regardless of whether you dress in the band gear or not; we all share a passion for the music.

What I will say is this book probably won’t be for you if you don’t like heavy metal or any kind of similar music. It’s a fairly obvious point to make, but I want to stress it anyway. There are so many inside jokes within this book which you just won’t appreciate if you don’t understand their references. For example, at one point the author writes that ‘Metal is truly for the masses’ (p. xiv). This is followed by a footnote stating ‘Just like witches at black masses . . .’. If you don’t immediately begin singing Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’, the beauty of this book really is lost of you. If however, like me, you adore the song and perhaps any memories it conjures (blasting the song in the car as a child with my dad), then I salute and applaud you.

I really enjoyed this book and I think it’s a testament to its power that I found myself revisiting bands I had neglected for quite some time. Its written engagingly, but more importantly with a clear passion and knowledge for the subject matter. If you are a heavy metal fan, pick this up!

Publisher: Headline

Rating: 3*/5*

Disclaimer – I was very kindly sent this book in exchange for a review. I will only ever post my own honest opinions and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.



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