Heavy metal. No subgenre of music has been as closely linked to machismo, to the unholy, or to blistering toughness as metal. It is the largest, loudest, and most demonstrative musical form since Tchaikovsky performed the 1812 Overture. Heavy metal can range from sludgy and morbid to crisp and virtuosic. There is, indeed, a simple, almost Zen-like experience to headbanging. You are not dancing. You are not singing. You are simple abusing your neck muscles as a form of gutbucket meditation.
And- aren’t we lucky? – the subgenre of heavy metal has been adapted into a movie.
The cult animated film Heavy Metal hit theaters in the heated summer of 1981 (making it a hefty 35 years old this year) immediately accruing an enthused following of freaks and weirdos. The movie was based on a series of anthology comic magazines that often banked on extreme fantasy and sci-fi images, and was told in anthology style. Like all anthology films, the bulk of the segments were mediocre or forgettable. But there was something about Heavy Metal that lures audiences back time and time again. An edge. An extreme weirdness. A level of assertive oddball toughness that cannot be matched by other movies.
Or perhaps it was the soundtrack. With a title like Heavy Metal, one has to expect a soundtrack record to be bursting with shred, and a certain segment of the populace would have their eardrums violently punctured by the glorious metal shrieks of Sammy Hagar. Let us listen, dear readers, and see if, perhaps, it was the soundtrack that will keep you coming back.
Track 1. “Heavy Metal” – Sammy Hagar
Sammy Hagar has the unfortunate (?) reputation for being the guy who replaced David Lee Roth as the frontman of Van Halen. He is, however, an accomplished pop metal guy in his own right, and is – let’s face it – no more or less obnoxious than Roth. The title track to Heavy Metal is everything you might hope for, provided you were into pop metal in 1981. Right away, you may notice that Heavy Metal is going to present us with a rounded, easily-consumed form of heavy metal, and will not stretch into the darker, harder stuff. There will be no Slayer. There will be no early Metallica. There will be no Cannibal Corpse.
Pop metal is, however, a fun sub-subgenre to these old ears, and Hagar’s title song is catchy and great. It has the wail, the awesome chorus with words like “one-way ticket to midnight.” All the hallmarks are in place. You can dig it.
Track 2. “Heartbeat” – Riggs
Riggs is the Knoxville guitarist Jerry Riggs who plays for the band Lynx.
Here’s the thing about a lot of 1980s pop metal – and you can see this most clearly in bands like The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith: It’s all very blues inspired. This is not a novel observation of course, but I think it’s worth reminding ourselves when listening to the suspiciously easy-going “Heartbeat.” This is a song that leans toward – in terms of tone and melody if not actual sound – electric blues. This isn’t heavy metal. This is, I would say, hard rock. What’s the difference, you ask? Only kids who grew up in L.A. listening to Pirate Radio and KNAC (or their local equivalents) can really tell the difference.
Track 3. “Working in a Coal Mine” – Devo
Devo, of course, is very far from metal, and they are usually classified as New Wave. Although Devo is also occasionally lumped in with punk rock, thanks largely to their cynicism and anti-establishment messages. They are also an electronic band. They are also an experimental band. They are also an awesome band.
So hearing Devo on the soundtrack to Heavy Metal isn’t wholly out-of-place because Devo is welcome everywhere. What’s more, much of the film is sci-fi, which warrants a more Devo-ish sound. Heavy metal is a genre for swords and dragons and ancient gods (which the film also features). Machines and spaceships are more in Devo’s court. “Working in a Coal Mine” is one of the band’s better-known hits. Their great “Through Being Cool” is also in the movie, but didn’t make its way onto the record.
Track 4. “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” – Blue Öyster Cult
Somehow moody, satirical, and totally earnest, this anti-war hit represents the metal demonstrativeness previously mentioned. It’s not “War Pigs,” but what is? Maybe “War Pigs” was too obvious, and the music supervisors sought something more soulful. I would have preferred “War Pigs.” Black Sabbath is already involved. Why not one more? Not to belittle The BOC.
Track 5. “Reach Out” – Cheap Trick
Yeah, Cheap Trick can whip out their balls when they want to. I have personally, as someone with admittedly limited exposure, always experienced Cheap Trick as a more playful band than this track would have you believe. They have had, again in my limited experience, only occasional dalliances with harder material, and are most certainly not known for “heavy metal.” Does the track still rock? Yes. The wailing, the big round guitars, and the vague inspirational lyrics are cheesy, but irresistible.
Track 6. “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)” – Don Felder
Don Fleder is, are you prepared, the lead guitarist for The Eagles. He also played for The Bee Gees. The Eagles, in many circles, are the opposite of heavy metal. The Eagles are gentle and sensitive. The Bee Gees are the very enemy of metal. So what an insult to hear that Fleder wrote and performed a song called “Heavy Metal” for a movie called Heavy Metal. Let’s listen. This track has got to suck, right?
Okay, maybe it’s not so bad. It’s bluesy and catchy and more fun to listen to than some of the tracks on this album. Indeed, the guitar work is funky and cool.
But it’s not metal. When are we going to get to the harder stuff?
Track 7. “True Companion” – Donald Fagen
What gives? This is Heavy Metal, sir. We go from a member of The Eagles to one of the co-founders of Steely Dan? And we have light jazz from him? I’m sorry, this will not work. If you want light jazz, you dig out the cool stuff. You go to Martin Denny. You go to Les Baxter. You go to Esquivel. You find an Yma Sumac track. Heck, I’d even take Herb Alpert. Don’t give me this elevator nonsense. I don’t care what the context this song had in the movie. I don’t want it next to my metal. You’re getting fingerprints on it.
Track 8. “Crazy (A Suitable Case for Treatment)” – Nazareth
Fuck yes. Thank you for listening to me and turning it around. Nazareth is an old-school metal band from the early ’70s, and they are, like many bands you thought disbanded, still playing to this day. The shriek, the instrumentalization, and the guitars are all tough and great. This is tough metal, but it’s also musical (most metal gains traction from volume). It feels like a halfway point between metal and prog. I dig it.
Track 9. “Radar Rider” – Riggs
Welcome back, Riggs. Let’s get the hair back on our chest. Let’s yell. Let’s speed through the sky on an eagle made of fire.
Track 10. “Open Arms” – Journey
I have nothing for admiration for Steve Perry and his unmatched ability to hit those high notes. That’s not easy. Since you are a living human being, I know that you have heard a drunk try to bellow “Don’t Stop Believing” at karaoke, and fail miserably. That said, I hate Journey, and don’t appreciate their wussy brand of balladeering pop rock. Journey is, again in my limited circle, a joke band. They once toured with Styx and REO Speedwagon, and many of us felt this to be an unholy trinity. This song needs to be tossed in the bin next to “True Companion.”
Track 11. “Queen Bee” – Grand Funk Railroad
Hang on. Don’t give up. It gets harder as it goes. Despite the name, Grand Funk Railroad has never been a funk band. They’ve always been hard rock.
My memories of the early 1980s are a bit hazy, but I seem to recall people already using the term “arena rock” to describe bands like this. Big, noisy, major-keyed gutbucket songs with easy chords and a driving, crowd-fueling energy. True heavy metal wants to rip through your body, while arena rock wants to get an energized sing-along going. There is, of course, a fine place for arena rock. I just didn’t expect so much of it from a record with the words “Heavy Metal” on the cover.
Track 12. “I Must Be Dreamin’” – Cheap Trick
Good to see you again, Cheap Trick. Wanna get a beer?
Track 13. “The Mob Rules (alternate version)” – Black Sabbath
Finally. Some real metal. Black Sabbath was one of the biggest, hardest metal acts of the 1980s, and Ozzy lives onto this day, carrying the torch of metal into the present day. You can finally roll down your car windows and unleash this ballsy hell on your fellow commuters.
I cannot comment on the various versions of this song, but I can say that this version, with its noise levels and amazing guitar solos, is what I have been picturing since track 1.
Track 14. “All of You” – Don Fleder
I understand you needed your movie to have ambient sound, and you wanted some rack guitar in there instead of an orchestral score. I also understand that Pink Floyd wouldn’t want to fill this role for you. So you get Fleder. I get it. But I feel like there was something better to be had here. A deep cut. A Norwegian band. A genius musical kook. Something other than the Eagles guy.
Track 15. “Prefabricated” – Trust
Yeah. Like a French band. Get a French band. One no one’s heard of, but who can shred. Something with a silly vocal but a lot of rock firepower. Get a band that once had members of Iron Maiden in it. Get Trust.
Trust didn’t seem to have gone very far in America, and it’s easy to hear why: Lead singer Bernie Bonvoisin has a shrill, amusical voice, and an accent that doesn’t seem to jibe with the music around him. But this is the first real metal deep cut on the record, and metal deep cuts are always going to add to your record’s character.
Track 16. “Blue Lamp” – Stevie Nicks
Going out on Stevie Nicks, huh? I’ll allow it.
Which is Better: The Soundtrack or the Movie?
The film pulls ahead by the sheer power of its cult weirdness. There’s a lot to admire about Heavy Metal, and its extreme genre images display a powerful imagination, tempered by a drooling adolescent prurience that too many of us can relate to. It’s a textured and varied if not misshapen film, and while it may put off some audiences with its unintended obliqueness (seriously, what the heck is this thing about?), there’s enough in it to make it fun and exciting. It’s especially good, I am told, when very, very high.
The soundtrack is halfway to being something great. There is a lot of awesome attitude and a good fistful of arena-ready rock on this record, all meant to be placed alongside the heavier material. Also, there’s Devo, and that’s a good thing. But there are too many weird misfires on the record. One might assume that all the hottest metal acts of 1981 would leap at the chance to be involved. Perhaps this wasn’t the case. Perhaps the music supervisors wanted more, and this was all they could get. Which is what I suspect, as the record does feel scattered at times.
At least we have Black Sabbath.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.