Rock bands, especially heavy metal bands, have always enjoyed big stage shows. My father, a man devoted to the music of Wagner and Mozart, saw the flashing lights and hip gyrations as some kind of recompense for the poverty of the music. Later generations have come to understand that the style, the look, of a band is as palpably relevant to their reputation as the music itself. To think otherwise is to risk being thought of as a cynic or, worse, a rock purist of some kind, known collectively and pejoratively as “rockists.”
This led me to think, however, that perhaps my father was, in many cases, if not most, correct in his observation. Perhaps I’ve reached an age when I can comfortably admit that my old man was right most of the time. So I’ve decided to investigate the matter a bit further, using a number of 1980s heavy metal videos as case studies.
Manowar is a heavy metal band from upstate New York that inhabits its own fantasy realm. The band — ever true to leather, fur, loincloths, swords, and other fully Conanesque accoutrements — has gained some notoriety beyond the shallows of heavy metal fandom, partly due to the fact that many in the “normal” world simply can’t believe that Manowar isn’t some kind of joke. They are pure metal. Pure adolescent fantasy. This is as good as it gets.
“Gimmicks,” such as they are — makeup, flash pots, teased hair, outfits, smashed instruments, etc. — usually have a single, spontaneous origin somewhere in the history of rock music, but they soon become standard repertoire. Sometimes, these visual tricks completely overtake the music itself, in essence smothering it and making it almost irrelevant. This is what interests me most. Van Halen, for instance, is remembered for big, circus-like shows, but rock critics and fans alike were drawn to their high-energy and usually high-quality rock music.
Some of these “show-biz” tricks added value to rock concerts of an earlier era, but after KISS, David Bowie, and other in the 1970s, the box of stage theatrics had been fully raided. After a while, the routines become just that: routines, worn out, boring, and unimaginative.
Of course it is possible to enjoy the music of many bands without the outrageous show, but rock music was, after all, a part of the entertainment industry, a big part in its day. There emerged in the 1980s a variety of hard rock, or heavy metal, group that sought to gain attention by simply piling tricks one on top of another until the whole manic contraption simply crumpled under its own weight.
To be sure, Manowar skirts the vales of the unreal and is akin to the mighty Spinal Tap, but then we must remember that they are one of the very reasons that Spinal Tap exists in the first place. Nonetheless, they are immune to criticism. Manowar is a band beyond parody, beyond the call of adulthood, for whom the shades of the prison-house have not begun to lengthen, possessed of impressive longevity (formed in 1980) and an extraordinarily devoted following.
To confirm their “Tap”-like credentials (Tap was described sardonically as “England’s Loudest Band”), Manowar entered the “Guinness Book of World Records” in 1984 as the world’s loudest band. They have since broken their own record . . . twice.
In their debut video, for the single “Gloves of Metal,” Manowar has about as much fun as grown men can, leaping about an oversized stage in leather pants and fur mantles, while cutting away to images of themselves galloping on horses through streams and woods, brandishing swords, swinging scantily-clad women over shoulders, smashing enemies across the face, no doubt seeking revenge on some dark tyrant, very likely a high school gym teacher.
This is as much testosterone as one may safely pour into a video. Or is it?
– Ernest Hilbert