Heavy Metal Before the Internet - Part II: The journey to Valhalla
Recollections by MetalMike
For most young metal fans today, there has never been a time when you couldn't just go on to the Internet and stream a new song, download an album or check out a band's live show on YouTube. Everyone has instant access to everything and the "next new thing" is a tweet or Facebook post or board post away. Even for someone like me, who has been around the scene for over 30 years, it is hard to remember what life was like before the Internet. Recently, I posted something about this very subject on one of the boards here at The Metal Crypt and "threatened" to write about what I remembered. Surprisingly, some folks actually expressed interest so I thought "why not? I'll probably forget it all in the not too distant future." So here it is; my memories of what it was like to be a Heavy Metal fan back in the days before the Internet, before the instant access and before genres were starting to be defined and it was all just "Heavy Metal." Read on...
After my early exposure to Heavy Metal, both live and recorded, the search was on for more. I spent more and more time in record stores looking for new stuff and frequently striking out but around this time many of the local radio stations began airing Heavy Metal shows, usually late at night on weekends. WHJY's Two Hour Metal Hour was a favorite at first, but the DJ always played the "hit" from major label albums and wasn't afraid to play Van Halen or Rush, which you could hear any time so why stay up late? There were others but the best was WERS' Nocturnal Emissions. Now this was the shit! These guys played deep cuts from well-known bands as well as something I'd not heard of before; imports. It was around this time that Metallica was putting songs like "Blitzkrieg" and "Am I Evil?" on the b-side of the 12" single for "Creeping Death" and explaining in interviews that these songs were from British bands that were around when Iron Maiden started but had never achieved the same level of success. I started hearing the term "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" and about all these incredible bands but, other than a few Saxon albums (they had a U.S. distribution deal with CBS records, unusual for a British band at this time), where could you find this stuff? Thus began the life-long search for the rare, the unknown and the fucking cool. Say what you will about Metallica but if it weren't for them, many of us would never have known about a lot of cool music, at least not back then.
The record stores I was frequenting only had major label releases at first, then small independent/import sections began showing up. This allowed me to pick up albums from bands like Megadeth and Loudness, who were on Combat Records and Music for Nations, two labels I'd never heard of. Most of the time, the only way I found out about these bands was when they showed up in one of those import bins. There was certainly nowhere to read about them readily available to me. I was reading Hit Parader and Circus every month, cover to cover, not only to find out when new Iron Maiden or Accept albums would be coming out but also for little blurbs here and there about more obscure bands. Stuff started turning up in the import sections of my usual record store haunts regularly from labels like Metal Blade, Roadrunner and Megaforce and I ate it up. And when one of these new albums turned up on cassette, well, I was in heaven. Or hell. It depended on the artist. :) I bought a lot of stuff on vinyl, not because that was my medium of choice, but because it was the only choice. I really refined my mix tape skills transferring those LPs to cassettes and probably put the kids of the guy who ran Maxell through college. The articles in Hit Parader and Circus on new AC/DC or Scorpions albums were getting old and covers featuring David Lee Roth and Night Ranger started getting more common, but I needed more than the occasional little blurb on some independent or import band I'd never heard of before. Radio was pandering to the major label acts, because that was where the money was. A lot of bands back then made a lot of money, including a ton of shitty ones. Even the U.K.'s Kerrang!, which, when I could find it, ALWAYS had information on new and obscure bands, was getting more and more commercial so I turned to something new, "fanzines." The best was easily the late Bob Muldowney's Kick Ass Monthly. This guy did almost everything himself; reviews, interviews, commentary, printing, editing, etc. and he wrote about REAL Heavy Metal, no commercial, pop or glam. By the time I was reading KAM (as he called it) he also had upgraded to color photography and glossy paper stock. Very professional. I'll never forget reading his review of Slayer's Hell Awaits (99/100, if I remember correctly) that scared the shit out of me or his interview with Anvil that had a picture of Lips playing his Flying V with a dildo. We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto (though had I been aware of what Manilla Road were doing around this time, maybe Kansas wouldn't have been such a bad place to be). It was through 'zines like Kick Ass Monthly that my eyes were opened to all this new music, not only via independent and import labels, but demos, directly from the bands' themselves, many of which could be yours for a couple of bucks and a stamp. I was never into tape trading, except with my friends, but I remember sending money to bands that advertised in these magazines and getting some very interesting stuff back. I think it cost me $4 for At War's Eat Lead 2-song cassette that was very pro with artwork and lyrics (and which I just sold to Sentinel Steel a couple of years ago). On the other hand, $2 got me a demo from Clay, NY's Mannslaughter and it was nothing more than two rehearsal recordings duped onto a Radio Shack blank cassette. Ah, well, what was I expecting for $2, right? The quality of these demos ranged from passable to downright atrocious and I quickly left them behind.
The search was on for quality Heavy Metal and that meant having at least an indie label behind the product. A friend and I had heard about this record store that was about an hour away and, since I had a driver's license, we were off. The place was unassuming...until we saw the left-hand wall with multiple bins of Heavy Metal albums, including a multitude of imports and independent releases. Not to mention an entire case of cassettes! This place was great! I made several purchases there including Helloween's Walls of Jericho (the original Noise Records vinyl), Q5's Steel the Light (Music for Nations, cassette), Grave Digger's Witch Hunter (Noise again, vinyl) and a cassette copy of Kill 'Em All (Megaforce). There were dozens more, purchased during many visits, basically any time I could scrape together enough money to make the trip worthwhile. To get there, we had to park at a train station, ride a couple of stops and then walk half a mile to the shop. It was on a busy street and there was never any parking nearby. This place was so great because you just never knew what you were going to find when you walked in. Sometimes, I'd leave with a couple of things that I'd seen before and picked up because there wasn't anything else exciting but, more often than not, I would come home with an armload of new albums and cassettes and just sit there and open them up and read the lyrics (when included) and agonize over which one to play first. Some stuff was great, some sucked and most was OK, but the real thrill was the discovery. It was such a rush. Who needed fucking drugs? One of the greatest things about these independent and import albums is that they often included ads or order forms for the other bands on their label's roster and, in this way, I found out about a lot of other stuff. Of course, much of it I never saw and some, I was just as happy not seeing. Kick Ass Monthly gave Hellhammer the lowest score ever and dubbed Voivod "Avoidvod," Often, though, I considered sending the mysterious "international reply coupon" overseas and seeing what came back, but I never did. A missed opportunity, to be sure.
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