Lights flash, smoke pots explode and a fierce industrial roar erupts from the sound system. The singer, caparisoned in hair and leather, unleashes a banshee wail. Blue Oyster Cult has opened another show, which will build layer upon layer of thick guitar chords as the 17,000-strong audience (composed mostly of teen-age boys) punches the air with its fists. This is heavy metal music, the most extreme form of lumbering hard rock and the most durable travelling music of the ’70s that is now emerging as the dominant sound of the ’80s.
It could be termed rock without roll. The screaming guitars, brutishly pounding rhythms and overwrought sex-crazed vocals that characterize heavy metal represent the trade marks of the most commercially successful rock albums of 1981. The classic heavy metal of Rush, Van Halen and AC/DC
and the more pop-oriented dilutions of REO Speedwagon, Loverboy and April Wine are reaching gold (sales of 500,000 copies in the U.S.) and even platinum (sales of one million) status almost as they hit the record racks. “We usually expect a Blue Oyster Cult or Molly Hatchet to sell between 750,000 and one million records,” explains Julian Shapiro, promotion director for CBS Records International in New York. “But REO Speedwagon’s Hi-Infidelity is still building after five million and we expect it to be the best-selling album of the year.”
An important factor in the burgeoning popularity of harder rock is increased exposure on FM radio. “What’s really happened is that programmers have started paying attention to their
listeners,” says John Parikhal, a broadcasting consultant and partner of Toronto’s Joint Communications. In the ’70s, FM radio had geared itself so exclusively to the over-24 market that hard rock, whose fans are between 16 and 24, seldom received airplay. As a result, explains Gregg Geller, an executive at Epic Records, “A hard rock band had to build its following on the road.” Bluecollar towns, big sports arenas and loud theatrics rather than expensive studio production and extensive radio play were the essential ingredients. “In fact, for most bands, the records only come later,” adds Geller, explaining that it takes three or four albums before record sales catch up with a group’s concert circuit popularity. REO Speedwagon, for example, did not have a solid hit single until their current, 11th album.
The key to the relative popularity of harder rock may be the slump in the
recording industry. “Actually, there is no real revival,” says Geller. “Every year a few bands in this school of rock crack the charts. It’s just coming to everyone’s attention this year because record sales are generally weak and this kind of music hasn’t slipped.” The fans’ sense of loyalty to the harder bands may have prevented this slip. Geller compares the heavy metal listener to the country music fan: “They are remarkably faithful once they accept a band as their own, which invariably happens through years of tough roadwork.”
That fidelity is finally rewarding these dog soldiers of popular music for their years of toil in hockey arenas from Dartmouth, N.S., to Nanaimo, B.C. The American hunger for hard rock has
helped veteran bands such as Rush sustain their popularity (Moving Pictures became their seventh platinum album in Canada and fourth in the U.S.) and has accelerated the rise of new bands such as Loverboy. Even Loverboy’s record company, CBS, underestimated the receptive market, stocking only 20,000 copies of their debut album in American stores last October. Since then, U.S. sales of Loverboy have climbed to 800,000 to supplement their exceptional Canadian sales of 400,000. April Wine’s eight years on the road have finally paid off with two gold records in both Canada and the U.S., and other northern bands such as Harlequin, Anvil, Streetheart and Randy Bachman’s Union are scrambling to follow their peers toward the top of the American charts.
Yet it probably matters little whether the new rising hard rockers are Canadian, British —like Judas Priest or Motörhead—or American. The genre itself is a proven perennial, always playing on the collision of romance and aggression, frustration and release that lies at the heart of male adolescence. While the British call the hard rock camp “headbangers,” the label inaccurately suggests that, like the punks before them, they represent a social phenomenon. But heavy metal is a fixture, not a passing phenomenon, and its socalled revival is a sign that nothing new or rebellious is afoot, that the rock audience is stolidly conservative and deeply resistant to change.
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