This is a tough one because Chuck Eddy’s Stairway to Hell: The 500 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe was a watershed for me. A self-respecting metal head might think that’s a sad statement, but I’ll stand by it. Eddy’s 1991 tome was partially (patently?) ridiculous, written by someone whose knowledge of 80’s metal was obviously spotty, for some unknown audience that was neither young enough nor old enough to get it, and published by a company that could have had no idea what it was getting into. I’ve flipped through it hundreds of times.
For readers of this blog, let’s cut to the obvious problems: Eddy’s book about “great” heavy metal records contained no albums by: (i) JUDAS PRIEST; (ii) SCORPIONS; (iii) IRON MAIDEN or (iv) UFO with Schenker. By 1991, if you knew anything about this history of metal, you knew that any one of these omissions would be fatal. All four would be a joke or an art project by Thurston Moore.
ON THE OTHER HAND [“Everything before the 'but' is a lie.”]… somebody knowing more than me published that thing, and I made it my personal duty to figure out why. There had to be a logic to what Eddy was getting at, or this – the biggest mass market book about metal I’d ever seen – certainly would not have made its way into the Crown Books at the El Cerrito Plaza. If I didn’t get it, that was my problem, and I was bound and determined to fix my problem.
The examination paid off in spades, but unfortunately, we’ll need some personal history to explain this revelation. Eddy might cringe at this because he’s hitting for the universal truth in the moment and not anything requiring a particular background to understand, but here goes. When Stairway to Hell emerged I was fresh out of college, having spent a fair amount of the prior four (or so) years forgetting everything I knew about metal when I arrived. Like a lot of college kids, I listened to college radio, went to Greil Marcus readings, and concluded that the first PERE UBU records were, by means of logical proof, the greatest pieces of art ever, unless of course you could track down original seven inchers of any of the bands later to be featured in the Messthetics series or the right Fall records or Magazine 12 inch acetates. In other words, I chained my mind, and my ass was hollow. As Tesco Vee would point out six or so years later: “You’re just a loser, a college radio loser.” But I could talk Urge Overkill when they were cool, Naked City, Naked Raygun, the bands on “The Subpop 100”, Sonic Thurston Kim, and, if you want ducats, the Gilman Street scene (a mile from my apartment) when Green Day were still huffing the Mr. T. Experience’s fumes.
The problem was: all that wasn’t helping me deal with life after school’s out. Stairway to Hell filled that gap. Oddly realistic, it became my companion on the BART train to work each morning. Eddy was a guy writing about “metal” and ironing baby clothes. He was apparently married, in the Army at some point, and living a hardscrabble existence writing about music.
As I struggled to put together Eddy’s thesis – how did Led Zeppelin, Angry Samoans, early UFO, Pere Ubu (again), Kix and Teena Marie all end up on a list of great metal albums, whilst Priest, Maiden et al. weren’t invited? And eventually it began to dawn on me that Eddy was about everything BUT the ironic and intellectual. No wonder my post-college brain was having a hard time.
Eddy was trying to turn us on to the primal joy of heavy music without all the trappings of METAL. One line in there that I will botch from memory is “Iron Maiden and the Scorpions worship power because they are dumb enough to think they might have some one day.” I doubt Eddy has listened to a lot of Iron Maiden or (especially early) Scorpions because they could fit in his book nicely, but this was certainly an interesting take on things.
In a strange way, Eddy hit on what makes metal different than punk: quite simply, it rocks. If you want a vehicle to express your anger, punk and hardcore would seem to be the way to go – at least on paper. But if you want something to get you through the night (whether that means air guitaring at home or cozying up to a secretary out on the town (believe me, you don’t want to kiss a dedicated Crass fan)), you’re better off opening up your heart to the mindless joy of the riff and the swinging 2 and 4. This is why Eddy commits the ultimate sin of referring to disco a lot in his metal writing. Some of the best metal embodies the pounding, unrelenting beat of disco. Some of the best metal frontmen like Axl Rose are, as Eddy says, “real good dancers.”
Even MOTORHEAD had a song called “Dance” on Ace of Spades, of all places. Lemmy advised the confused metal fan that if you wanna “get down with them girls tonight…dance!” Ever wonder why Lemmy starts every show with “we are Motorhead and we play rock n roll?” I doubt Chuck Eddy dances a lot, at least in public. I also doubt he would ever poke fun at anyone for trying to dance. I’m almost certain he would agree that Kurt Cobain didn’t ever dance; we would all agree that Kurt Cobain blew his own head off.
Eddy’s book famously has a lot of KIX records in it. KIX didn’t feature brilliant guitar runs; the guitarists played a workaday role keeping up with a monster rhythm section underneath a singer who was part hair metal and part bratty smarty pants. Their first record is just a beautiful mess of Aero-rock new wave AC/DC’isms filtered through Dictators humor, with universal appeal to those who listen. I’ll prove it to you: Around 1984 or whenever Hell Awaits came out, I was in my car driving to Sacramento to see the fabled “Ultimate Revenge” tour: VENOM supported by SLAYER and EXODUS. With me was a hardcore fan/skater/wasteoid from my home town. He looked through my glovebox and found a cassette of Kix. We instantly fell into a long conversation about how it was such a great, unknown album, and we were soon rocking down the highway blasting “Kix Are for Kids” getting ready to do battle with the Anitchrist. (FYI, my companion was totally taken by thrash after that night, declaring it “what punk used to be,” as he stage dived into a parting crowd, smashed his head on the floor and refused medical attention.) Ergo: if a punk guy and a metal guy heading to a VENOM gig in 1984 can get excited by earlyKIX, everyone can.
But anyway, this is supposed to be a review of Eddy’s latest book: Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism. As implied, Always Forgets is compilation of music commentary; Eddy has organized the pieces roughly by genre and time. As can be expected, he doesn’t just listen to metal and reading this makes Stairway more comprehensible. Taking a theme from fellow scribe Frank Kogan, Eddy knows that pop music is our music, about us, and that pandering to intellectualism, abstraction and “what the music is about” misses all the fun. This is a tough way to write, as the writing becomes a catalog of what the music is about to Eddy, and he needs to make that universal without making it, you know, “universal.”
Throughout the book, Eddy displays his respect for whatever people happen to find popular: country, hip hop, metal. He puts this in the context of real life by, for example, writing pages about Eminem’s family and day-to-day life, which really do say a lot about Eminem’s music. His writing on new country shows the challenge of his approach because he knows that a lot of folks listening to this new country music are close-minded idiots of the highest order, but a genre that shifts so many units must say something about people on a broad level. He does a good job but ultimately concludes (rightly I’d say) that country has painted itself into a corner.
If you can be open minded and want a music book that will make you think a bit (or a lot), I highly recommend Rock and Roll Always Forgets. Chuck Eddy is one of my favorite writers. If he writes a book, I’ll buy it because I know it will stretch my brain. I can’t read only Eddy books because the lack of “normal” context is too much to take all the time. So I fall back on Martin Popoff books, which Eddy would probably deride as lame because Popoff came up at roughly the same time I did, listening to roughly the same stuff, so that I’m relying on a common background to “get” Popoff. Maybe reading Popoff is just nostalgia for a certain small audience – though Eddy would have to admit that it’s our nostalgia, so there must be something in there worth examining. And as someone who mentions Bob Seger often, I suspect Eddy knows a bit about nostalgia.
I was happy to see the opening essay by Chuck Klosterman -- a guy who has actually made a name for himself writing about metal. Klosterman has a similar respect for Eddy, and he cites Stairway to Hell as a huge influence and unexpected find at the time. I’ve always found Klosterman to be a bit too hip for my liking on a regular basis, but I recognize he needs to make a living. I’m sure hanging out drinking and listening to records with him would be a lot of fun, but I have a hard time looking up to a writer who is so contemporary to me. Eddy is like a crazy uncle who you only see at holidays but always drops a pearl of wisdom to get you through the year. Finding Klosterman’s essay was great and re-affirming to me, but it was also a bit like finding out that my cool uncle has a son who will always be in pole position. Maybe that’s called jealousy. Maybe I’ll buy more Klosterman books now.
But anyway, if you want to stretch out a bit, check out Rock and Roll Always Forgets. It’s full of stuff you never thought about but is true. (Latter day SST? Ya! Another counter-intuitive beautiful mess that Eddy spots with ease. Where is my Elliott Sharp record?) If you want to be enraged, check out Stairway to Hell. Then be honest with yourself and try to figure out why it all makes a lot of sense.