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Ben Howarth in his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column tells of reacting against Britpop in his teens and moving down the dangerous path of extreme heavy metal
It could all have gone so wrong at an early stage. I could have ended up as a hard rock and heavy metal enthusiast. After all, it happened to quite a few people I knew, and they can’t all have been personally at fault.
In 1997, I came very close to what ultimately would have been a life changing decision, and a personal disaster.
That year, my classmates and I were unlucky enough to turn 13 (the year when your musical tastes solidify, and come to define your friendships, clothing and opinions, not just the look of your CD rack) as Britpop was busily snorting cocaine and signing its own death warrant. Not for us, the thrill of the soaring guitar solos of 'Definitely Maybe' or the jolt of the infectious riffs of 'Nevermind'. No, we got piccolo trumpets and interminable 'Hey Jud'e-style codas.
By 1997, it felt like every other song on Radio One was an indie band jangling away indiscriminately and mumbling into the microphone in a Northern accent. In fact, revisiting the records from this era tells me that there were lots of bands making good singles, if generally lacking the discipline needed for great albums. But, at the time, so many guitar bands on the radio made it seem essential to find a place that didn’t appeal so strongly to drivetime producers.
The dangerous path towards ‘heavy’ music had already begun before Oasis released ‘Be Here Now’. My friends and I had already taken up the cause of Ash’s debut album '1977'. It helped that their label had chosen to make it available on cassette tape for £4.49, these the dark days of the £16.99 full price CD album. '1977' was not the heaviest album ever made, but it contained enough crunching riffs to feel like something a Spice Girls fan wouldn’t have much time for.
Slowly but surely, I began to stop thinking of myself as Oasis’ number one fan. Looking back, my tastes as 1997 turned to 1998 were surprisingly eclectic. As well as Ash, who ended the year with a non-album single ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, I was championing the teenage Nirvana-a-likes Radish as my favourite new band, had discovered the first Stereophonics album, owned everything Shaun Ryder’s Black Grape had ever released (and yet, not a note of his music with the Happy Mondays), was dipping my toes into the murky water of dance music with the Chemical Brothers, and also counted the Charlatans' Dylan-inspired 'Tellin’ Stories' as a personal favourite.
But then, 'Kerrang!' magazine reared its ugly head. In an era when a band as weird as Placebo were guaranteed chart hits, it was perhaps not unnatural that I gravitated to the extremes of a metal magazine in the gradual realisation that I wanted bands 'Top of the Pop's viewers had never heard of.
There followed a series of injudicious purchases - a band called Cold, who mumbled tunelessly in a Cobain-like fashion; Korn, who were never as good as 'Kerrang' told me they would be, although I tried to like them and Soulfly, throaty, hoarse metal that was genuinely unlistenable. Luckily, my paper round didn’t provide enough money to buy every album 'Kerrang' recommended, and I was able to escape such horrors as Coal Chamber, Fear Factory, Machine Head and Limp Bizkit. Others weren’t so lucky.
Although I continued to be magnetically drawn to 'Kerrang!' in Smiths for several years to come, I soon shook off the more alarming habit of buying the albums they recommended.
How did I escape? Luckily, I always had the Beatles to fall back on. My parents were sensible enough to ensure that I had a working knowledge of Lennon and McCartney’s back catalogue before I left primary school, and a good upbringing like that is hard to shake off. When 'Kerrang!' published their list of the supposed 100 best albums of all time, any lingering illusion shattered. Though I cheered Ash’s remarkably high placing (35), I found I couldn’t trust a list that considered Napalm Death more worthy of inclusion than ‘Revolver’.
As we waited for the bus after school, I accepted the mantra that the heavier the riff, the better the band. Only when safely ensconced in my bedroom did I accept what I knew to be true, that only the most remarkable of riff was a substitute for a catchy chorus, a piano and a string section. By the end of 1998, I’d discovered another bargain cassette tape in HMV (£4.99 this time) - Belle and Sebastian’s 'The Boy With the Arab Strap', equally as uncompromising as anything 'Kerrang!' wrote about, and in championing its lightly strummed acoustic sound and wispy, slightly flat vocals I was to escape the heavy rock orthodoxy.
The rediscovery of indie (this time without chart-based approval) led me down a road to Pavement, the Super Furry Animals, Sebadoh and, eventually, to John Peel. It was certainly for the best. Ultimately, you can’t be both a metal fan and someone who buys most of their clothes at Marks and Spencer .
Those less lucky than me ended up with piles of albums by Tool, Messhugah and Nile. None of which they have ever been able to play while cooking pasta at home in the kitchen.
Because of this, I’m glad I quickly dismissed the monkish limitations of Kerrang’s one eyed love of heavy rock. But, its had its side consequences, some of them rather strange. I developed a prejudice against all the bands they celebrated in lieu of the Beatles that I now find impossible to shake off. Take Led Zeppelin, for example, one of the most influential groups of all time. Of their total recorded output, I know only the riff of ‘Whole Lotta Love’. I have never knowingly listened to ‘Stairway to Heaven’, a song many music fans consider to be one of the greatest ever, and I wouldn‘t even recognise it playing in the background.
It goes on. Lots of my friends revere the Smashing Pumpkins with almost religious devotion. I can never quite bring myself to admit that I’ve only really listened to two of their songs (the obvious one, '1979' and also 'Ava Adore', which for some reason I bought as a single, but didn‘t like much). I’ve entirely ignored Metallica, Soundgarden, Jane’s Addiction and Black Sabbath, while I needed arduous persuasion to give the Queens of the Stone Age or Pearl Jam a proper chance.
In 2010, I am more than a decade clear of any alarming metal association. I’m also finding that I miss being able to discover a classic band of the past whole, having largely exhausted the reservoir. The benefits of my metal puritanism are clear, but a perhaps its time to loosen the reins ever so slightly.
So, maybe me and Led Zeppelin might become friends after all. I suppose, at the very least, I could find out what 'Stairway to Heaven' sounds like.