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1991.10.27 - Metallica, Guns N' Roses and U2 are leading a hoped-for resurgence of rock (L.A. Times)

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1991.10.27 - Metallica, Guns N' Roses and U2 are leading a hoped-for resurgence of rock (L.A. Times)

Post by Blackstar on Sun Apr 15, 2018 8:06 am

COVER STORY : Rekindling the Fire : Metallica, Guns N' Roses and U2 are leading a hoped-for resurgence of rock as a passionate, social force

October 27, 1991|ROBERT HILBURN|

Metallica's music roars through the massive speakers at the Oakland Coliseum with such force on this warm October evening that the sound vibrates against your chest and triggers a ringing in your ears.
It's a merciless torrent of guitar, drums and top-heavy bass that demands total surrender, which is one reason the band appeals so strongly to millions of teen-age rock and metal fans. This is music that offers a total, if temporary, escape from the frustrations and confusions of the day.

To Metallica fans, there's integrity in this all-out musical fury--an alternative to the show-biz calculation and pretense that has dominated mainstream rock for years.

But with the San Francisco-based group's fifth album this fall, Metallica took a significant step toward the rock mainstream by serving up more compact songs and offering more emotionally convincing themes than metal's stock tales of violence and rage.

The album--which examines such issues as personal obligation and deceit-- entered the pop charts at No. 1 in August, and retail orders now total nearly 3 million. "Enter Sandman," a hit single from the album, is a wry bedtime story tailored to this anxious age.

The move couldn't have come at a better time for the vitality of mainstream rock.

Metallica, the two recent albums by Guns N' Roses and the return to action next month of U2 give rock a potent 1-2-3 punch. It's the music's best hope in years for a recovery from the creative and commercial lethargy that has raised questions about the future of rock in the fragmented pop world.

Rock's share of the estimated $7 billion that the record industry takes in annually fell from 46.2% in 1988 to 37.4% in 1990, as fans tuned into such rival sounds as rap, "soft rock," dance and country. Equally dramatically, the concert business--long dependent on the seemingly endless appetite of the youthful rock crowd--was down almost a third last summer.

Some observers believe that the decline in rock was simply cyclical--no powerhouse albums in the stores or bands on the road. This paralleled a dramatic 11% drop in overall record sales during the first half of 1991, which industry figures generally attributed to a lack of recordings by superstars in the stores. Many of the acts being counted on this fall to help the industry rebound are rock acts: Motley Crue, Guns N' Roses and U2.

Yet there has been widespread suspicion that the problem with rock--and perhaps with the record industry in recent months as well--runs much deeper than just a lack of new recordings from proven sellers. The larger fear: a gradual erosion of passion in mainstream rock caused by years of conservative radio programming leaning toward safe, conventional acts rather than the challenging and even radical figures that made rock a strong sociological force in the '50s and '60s.

Metallica, GNR and U2 represent a return of that force--and the sizzling early sales of the Metallica and GNR albums evidence a large audience waiting for this kind of bold and absorbing attitude and music.
That's no guarantee that rock's struggle to recapture the pop imagination will succeed. Albums by major hard-rock acts traditionally start off strong as loyal fans race to the stores to be the first to have the collections, so it will take weeks to see whether Metallica and GNR can maintain the pace. If they don't, the rock world--and the record industry--may be in far greater trouble than anyone has suggested.
Bill Graham, the nation's most prominent concert producer, believes that the current upswing is reason for optimism in mainstream rock.

"There is reason for hope even though we have just gone through the worst six months ever in the rock concert industry," he said backstage at the Oakland concert. He blames part of the rock downturn on the recession but points out that until now rock was "recession-proof." The difference, he believes, is that much of the mainstream audience didn't feel compelled to buy what it heard on the radio.

"There is rap and funk and reggae and metal and smettle," he said, "but there are really just two camps in pop music. One camp is just entertainment, and one camp is music that truly affects the individual . . . music that stands for something and takes risks.

"For too long, we only had the entertainment (in mainstream rock). That's why a lot of people lost interest in it. The music no longer spoke for or represented them. If you look out at this audience today, you can see that they are finding something to care about again."

By the late '80s, mainstream rock 'n' roll was like a once-thriving restaurant that had lost its spice and flair. Sales remained strong enough to hide the warning signs, but the music was operating on borrowed energy and images.

Ensembles such as Poison, Whitesnake and Bon Jovi certainly dressed like rock bands, and they strutted across the stage like rock bands. But they were just living off the tradition.

While many excellent groups were working in the rock fringes of college/alternative and metal/punk, the mass audience--which has to be involved before any movement can approach prodigious strength--began to see mainstream rock as boring and predictable. It was only a matter of time before those patrons looked elsewhere to dine.

Suddenly, however, rock has a new and exciting menu again:

Guns N' Roses' two new albums, plus albums by Metallica and veterans Motley Crue, gave rock four of the top 10 positions on Billboard magazine's pop album chart last week. During the first six months of the year, there was rarely more than one hard-rock album in the Top 10 during a given week.

This commercial upswing has been accompanied by a creative resurgence. Rock was scarce on most critics' 10-best lists last year, but there have been so many striking albums in 1991 that six to eight may end up on some lists. Likely candidates are albums by Guns N' Roses, Metallica, Nirvana, R.E.M., Soundgarden, Dinosaur Jr., Jesus Jones and the Pixies.

Plus, if someone is lured into the stores by the Metallica, GNR or U2 albums, they can find much to admire in a whole separate layer of inventive bands--from the punk/metal excursions of Faith No More to the youthful introspection of England's potentially massive Stone Roses, whose second album will be out next year.

Not surprisingly, members of Metallica, GNR and U2 were as disenchanted by the direction of mainstream rock over the last decade as any fan or critic. So there's a natural sense of triumph about the renewed spirit.

"If you just look back nine months to when the radio and sales charts were dominated by M. C. Hammer, Vanilla Ice and Wilson Phillips, people were saying it was all over, that rock was dying, and maybe they were right in a way," said Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, backstage at the Coliseum.

"But now, you've got the Guns situation, our situation and, hopefully, a great new U2 album, and I think people are going to see that rock is still alive . . . and that it can stand for something other than record company 'product.' "

The important thing about the triumvirate of Metallica, Guns N' Roses and U2 isn't just that they are three outstanding bands with mass followings, but that they represent--in the broadest terms--a reunification of the fragmented rock world.

One reason rock was so powerful in the '60s was that the most liberating artists--from Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix to the Beatles and the Who--reflected the aspirations and values of a generation. This led many of the artists to be looked upon as heroes.

By the '70s, however, it was hard to take seriously the idea of a rock-star-as-hero, because so many of the '60s artists had either destroyed themselves on drugs or become so careless with their art that fans hesitated to put faith in other performers.

It wasn't until Bruce Springsteen in the mid-'70s that words like integrity and inspiration were reintroduced into the mainstream rock vocabulary. Though others joined him in the hero role, including Bob Seger, Tom Petty and John Mellencamp, they were part of Springsteen's generation. The band that picked up that torch and carried it to the next generation was U2.

By the '80s, however, rock's creative center was no longer an inclusive world in which the talents of artists as diverse as the Beatles, Hendrix, Dylan and the Doors could all be celebrated.

The new divisions ranged from the college/alternative bands--including the '60s heirs who thrived on challenge and new ideas--on one side to the headbangers on the other. In between was the mainstream, which would sometimes pick up on a Springsteen or U2 but mostly chewed passively on the hollow servings served up by pop-rock radio. Hence, the millions of records sold by such passing fancies as REO Speedwagon, Styx and Journey.

In the early '80s, Bono Hewson, U2's charismatic lead singer, lamented the emptiness of the mainstream, speaking frequently during interviews about the rock industry being the enemy--how the language and imagery of most bands had become so cliched that he wondered if it was still even possible for rock to be meaningful to people.
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In that thinking, he was aligned with the Sex Pistols, the Clash and other British bands that attacked the English status quo in the late '70s. Although the punk movement never achieved huge success in America, its ideas about working outside the record machinery did catch on.

Hundreds of bands in England and America--from R.E.M. in the college/alternative crowd to Metallica in the metal world--began putting out records on small, independent labels and relying on word of mouth and fanzines rather than radio to spread the word.

While U2's socially conscious, uplifting sentiments eventually caught the ear of the mainstream community, thanks to such hits as "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," the Irish band was considered too "straight" or soft to satisfy the aggression or primal party-time desires of the hard-core/metal community.

Guns N' Roses didn't appeal to the extremes of metal or college/alternative, but its well-crafted songs blended rage and sensitivity in ways that caught the ear of a massive audience. Unlike the cardboard emotions of most mainstream bands, Guns--thanks in great part to its explosive lead singer Axl Rose--struggles with real issues, including individuals' best and worst impulses. But even GNR--with its penchant for such affecting ballads as "Sweet Child o' Mine" and "November Rain"--is considered too pop by most metal standards.

If the hard-core crowd was contemptuous of anything mainstream, the average rock fan--and most critics--had little interest in the hard-core metal world, which seemed full of fire and brimstone but devoid of ideas. That's what's important about Metallica's success: The quartet serves as a bridge between the hard-core/metal world and the mainstream.

Typical U2 or Guns N' Roses fans may still not have much interest in such metal bands as Iron Maiden or Judas Priest, but they might find something of value in the power and passion of Metallica--and a cadre of bands that is forging a new middle ground between hard-rock and college/alternative. The list includes Faith No More, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Anthrax and Jane's Addiction.

When you speak to U2 fans, you get lengthy dialogues about the band's importance : its social conscience, eloquence, inspirational qualities, craftsmanship.

When asked about Metallica, fans at Oakland spoke simply and to the point. The phrases you hear again and again: "They don't give a damn." "They don't play by the rules." All of which means the band doesn't give a damn about--or play by--record company rules. It's an independence that seems to mirror much of the angry, defiant attitude of the fans.

"In the '60s and early '70s, there was a lot of hope along with the rebellion in rock, and a band like U2 still offers hope," said Graham backstage, reflecting on his 2 1/2 decades as a concert promoter. "But there are a lot of kids . . . 15, 16, 17 . . . whose anger seems to grow out of their feelings of no hope. There's a tremendous amount of Angst out in that audience.

"They see what's happening every night on television, and they have a lot of questions. Are the wars ever going to stop? Is there ever going to be an honest politician? Who's going to turn up with the next video of a police beating?"

Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, himself 27, feels the anger of young America.

"I think (our success) has something to do with the times," he said in the group's trailer. "I don't think a band like Metallica would have been given the time of day in the mid-'70s. The same is probably true of Guns N' Roses. I think people were just happy. I don't think our fire and aggression would have come across."

Far from the stereotype of the mumbling metal star, Ulrich, son of a Danish tennis professional, is an articulate, fast-talking young man who seems to enjoy philosophizing about rock as much as the Who's Pete Townshend or U2's Hewson.

Ulrich, who was in his teens when he and his family moved from Denmark to Newport Beach in 1980, heard the road crew testing the sound system as he stepped from the trailer and headed for the giant stage at the stadium.

"A lot of (the rock crowd from the '60s) got very comfortable through the late '70s and early 80s," he said. "They took a look at themselves and sort of realized, 'Wait a minute, I've got my VCR, my TV, my 2.3 kids and my dog. I may have been out throwing bricks at buildings in the '60s because there was something I was angry about, but no longer.' And I think a lot of people, young and old, just spent the '80s going through the motions.

"Now, you find a new generation of people who are really, really frustrated again . . . a lot of kids out there, 16, 17 years old, who maybe woke up one morning and realized they are going to be stuck working at a gas station all their lives or that they don't really have that much of a future.

"You'll find a lot of them are embracing bands like Metallica and Guns N' Roses and so on, and really finding that Axl Rose and (Metallica lead singer) James Hetfield speak for them and their frustrations."

Ulrich is reminded of the summer three years ago when he played stadiums all across the country as part of the "Monsters of Rock" tour. Unlike this day's show, Metallica wasn't headlining those dates. In fact, the band was a decided outsider--third on the bill, behind Van Halen and Scorpions--and being seen by most of the crowd at each stop for the first time.

The band's performance on that tour was overpowering, winning the praise of critics who had been cool to metal acts and helping to build an audience for " . . . And Justice for All," which was released that fall. Estimated sales of "Justice" to date: more than 2.7 million. The new album, titled simply "Metallica," may double that figure, according to executives at Elektra Records.

"For years, radio was the gateway to rock 'n' roll for 95% of the people in America, and people got so spoiled," Ulrich continued. "They'd turn on the radio and be fed something that would satisfy them on a very superficial level. So the 'Monsters' tour gave us the chance to go around radio, which wasn't playing us anyway, and to play to 75,000 people or whatever a night.

"It wasn't just the exposure, but being sandwiched between Dokken and the Scorpions. I don't have anything against them personally, but I think that for a while those bands stood for a lot of the things we were going against in our music. It gave us the chance to say, 'OK, there is one type of hard rock, and here's a different thing.' All of a sudden people could see the difference, and I felt that the difference would be obvious . . . that people were ready for a change."
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