ARENA: ‘Heavy Metal’ (BBC documentary, 1989)

I don’t normally write blog style entries for REAL GONE, but this week, I saw a piece of TV from the past which has captured my interest enough to write something a little more personal. I hope you’ll forgive me this indulgence…and I hope in some way there’s a shared memory in here somewhere for you too.

I’ve loved music my whole life. Some of my earliest memories involve music. At a pre-school age, my dad played me Led Zeppelin albums. There’s a slither of a memory where I’m listening to ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Livin’ Lovin’ Maid’ and spending quality time with a colouring book. I may or may not have the measles (that might be another memory closely linked with ‘Led Zeppelin II’). Bits of Led Zep’s ‘II’, ‘III’ and ‘IV’ were heard fairly regularly in our house during the late 70s, yet somehow at that time, my dad never got around to following their career any farther. Even so, those albums were special. I even remember my dad telling me a short while later – in September 1980, I assume – that their drummer had died. He didn’t elaborate on the details, of course, telling me instead that “he died in his bed”. This was the first time I remember being told someone famous had died, but nobody else my age knew or cared about John Bonham. No reason why they would at six years old, I suppose.

I have vivid memories of my dad coming back from the shops in the late seventies with the first Dire Straits album, even though he’d only intended to buy ‘Sultans of Swing’ on 7” single. That album was a family favourite then, and I still spin it regularly some decades later… We also had a copies of Status Quo’s ‘On The Level’ and Rainbow’s ‘Down To Earth’, both of which I liked very much, but, the big breakthrough came in the new decade when my dad bought me a compilation LP called ‘Axe Attack’. There was a whole world of new music in those vinyl grooves: Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead – all destined to become favourites. Aerosmith, Whitesnake, AC/DC, UFO and Black Sabbath would enter my listening spectrum later, but as a kid, I had no time for their less in-your-face, slower styles [especially true of Whitesnake – and I certainly wouldn’t have understood any of David Coverdale’s single entendres]. At seven years old, I was a metal kid, and at my school, I was the only metal kid. Other kids barely even knew what music was, let alone capable of finding niche music they liked so much.

And so, my love of metal followed me through the first half of the eighties, as I purchased Iron Maiden albums religiously, while maintaining a keen interest in Judas Priest and Saxon (a band I discovered after my dad bought home their live LP from ’82; he let me listen to it even though there was “swearing on it and all sorts”). As the eighties progressed, my tastes began to spread further as I spent time listening to Madness and UB40, discovered Clapton and Cream (and the vast back catalogue therein), Pet Shop Boys and The Housemartins. Eventually, by a weird twist of fate, I reconnected with Led Zeppelin, a band that – by this point – I’d not heard for about six years, my dad’s worn out vinyl LPs having departed.

Between 1987-89 I re-bought Led Zeppelin ‘II’, ‘III’, ‘IV’ on cassette. The childhood memories of why I loved bits of those albums were still there, but my more grown up ears appreciated the band’s blues tracks and acoustic workouts, as opposed to just their more proto-metal tendencies. Unlike my dad, I took the plunge and bought the rest of their albums too – it’s still amazing how many different styles Zeppelin incorporated into their sound as their career gained momentum. By the beginning of 1989, aside from Led Zep and Def Leppard, I wasn’t really listening to anywhere near as much hard rock or metal as I had been a few years earlier, and then…

Something happened.

The BBC showed a week of programmes dedicated to metal. ‘Heavy Metal Heaven’, they called it. They even got Elvira to do some cheesy intros, thus reinforcing some silly stereotype that metal is all about gothic castles and vampires and graveyards and all that shit. Okay, so regarding old school metal, some of it is – you’ve got me there – but the programmes didn’t especially need Elvira to make them work, nor did she actually make them any better with her limited presenting skills. But kudos to the BBC for showing an entire run of programmes dedicated to hard rock and metal of a night time. [By 2011, you could barely count on them giving up their precious airtime on terrestrial channels to anything music related at all, let alone anything considered out of the musical mainstream, as metal largely was back then].

Guns n’ Roses had started to have hits in the UK by ’88 and had videos on ‘Top of the Pops’, but the Beeb went an extra mile during their metal season and showed a whole live show (‘Live at The Ritz’). Viewers witnessed Axl and the “proper” line up of G N’R, as they played a selection of tunes from ‘Appetite For Destruction’(which I purchased soon after – it’s still the best). The show has never been released to buy officially, so I assume they hated their raggedy performance. They showed part a Metallica live show too (possibly Hammersmith Odeon ’88) and an absolutely top-notch documentary detailing the history of Def Leppard. The most magical of all was an old black and white film of the mighty Led Zeppelin live in Scandinavia. This may have even been the first time it had been seen in the two decades since it had been filmed; it was certainly a UK first.

One of the other shows broadcast as part of ‘Heavy Metal Heaven’ was ‘Heavy Metal’ – an Arena documentary about the history of metal. This programme was the first time – as a fifteen year old – I was introduced to Megadeth. It was also the very first time I witnessed Slayer. Such power. Such energy. Such speed. Such shit-your-pants intensity. Okay, so I admit thrash metal scared me a bit back then, but by the time Slayer’s ‘Decade of Aggression’ double live LP was released a couple of years down the line, I was a huge fan. By that time, I’d bought as many albums as I could muster and immersed myself in most of the works of “The Big Four” thrash bands. This BBC documentary also introduced me to Napalm Death. Their inclusion was a little odd, looking back. Not in the way their style seemed so marginal in 1989 – even by metal’s standards – but in that the Beeb’s soundtrack of their live recording doesn’t always appear to be the same song they’re playing on screen. I assume they just used the best footage they were able to capture at such a small club show. I didn’t like Napalm Death too much then and don’t much care for them now. Credit where it’s due though, for such an extreme band, even they slowed down eventually and found a sense of maturity.

Over the passing decades, metal has gathered even more history behind it. Fashions have changed and the music itself continues to find new avenues of expression. Many more up to date documentaries have been produced (including a couple by the BBC). Somehow, though, despite Judas Priest and a couple of other important bands being notable by their absence, the Arena documentary from 1989 is still one of the best – maybe even the best. On the negative side, the omnipresent Malcolm Dome (then part of the RAW magazine team) is on hand to give his opinion, which he’s sure we’ll all want to hear. We don’t necessarily, but at least this allows us an opportunity to laugh heartily at his ridiculous, particularly “un-metal” comb-over, captured on film forever [also, check out his workmate in the background – he has clearly been bored to tears by Malc on a daily basis]. The live clips are often great, but ‘Heavy Metal’s real treasures are the band interviews. Here, captured for posterity by the BBC, are major stars in more formative years: Ozzy Osbourne appears somewhat like Nigel Tufnel in many of his facial mannerisms; there are clips of a very young Axl Rose and almost equally young Tom Araya, and – perhaps best of all – the always charismatic Bruce Dickinson talks the viewer through a few rock star wardrobes.

Sadly, I never kept a copy of this immensely enjoyable documentary. For some bizarre reason, BBC2 was running a little early on the night in question, so my VHS timer missed the first ten minutes or so. [An upload which surfaced online many years later was also missing a chunk at the start, so I’m guessing lots of metal fans missed the beginning of the show that night.]

Presented below is ‘Heavy Metal’ – the Arena programme in complete form – as shown on BBC2 one night in April 1989. Turn down the lights, turn up the volume and enjoy this trip back into the past.

September 2011

If you enjoyed this, check out some of the soundtrack!