I’d never seen anything like Heavy Metal before. It was a sci-fi cartoon with a bunch of guys from SCTV doing voices…but it wasn’t for kids! I probably saw my first animated genitalia in Heavy Metal. It was also the first time I heard Sammy Hagar.
Sammy’s title track opens the now-legendary soundtrack, which like many others was deleted in the 1990s and commanded heavy prices on the second hand market. When I worked at the Record Store during that period, there were always plenty of names on the wish list for this album. There were tracks on here that were hard to find anywhere else. This version of Hagar’s “Heavy Metal” is different from the one on Sammy’s Standing Hampton LP, and it was not the only such exclusive. “Heavy Metal” is one of Hagar’s best tunes, simply legendary. It’s a pummelling good time!
The rest of the album is equally awesome. Riggs (Jerry Riggs, later of the Pat Travers Band) has a Hagar-esque rocker called “Heartbeat” that is definitely good enough for rock n’ roll. You might not expect DEVO to be on an album called Heavy Metal, but what’s not to like about “Working in the Coal Mine”? I’m sure more than a few metal fans would have skipped this one back in 1981, but when compared to the next song by Blue Öyster Cult…what’s the big deal? B.Ö.C.’s “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” leans just as heavily on synthesizer, so purists be damned. “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” is a classic, through and through, a dark apocalyptic ballad that can’t be touched. Some would say it was the last gasp of B.Ö.C. before a long period of mediocrity. Cheap Trick utilised synth too, but their “Reach Out” is a rocker. Cheap Trick were another band in a period of decline, following the departure of original bassist Tom Petersson. “Reach Out” was a damn fine tune, and not on one of their albums at the time. (It’s hard not to notice that Tod Howarth ripped off the verses of “Reach Out” for his own song “Calling to You” with Frehley’s Comet. Howarth later played with Cheap Trick as a sideman.)
Don Felder from the Eagles isn’t the kind of guy you’d expect to hear do a song called “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)”. It’s an Eagles-metal hybrid and it’s pretty cool, more metal than Eagles, but you can hear them in there. He’s followed by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen who presents the interesting “True Companion”. It’s progressive jazz light rock nirvana. The punks will hate it, but the same guys who dig Captain Beyond will appreciate it. Quite daring to include tracks like this on a CD primarily made up of rock and metal, but this helped open the minds and tastes of many metal heads over the years. Nazareth re-centers it back to rock and roll, with “Crazy (A Suitable Case for Treatment)”. It’s not among Nazareth’s best but it’s always such a pleasure to hear Dan McCafferty gargling glass.
Riggs returns with “Radar Rider”. Heavy riff in hand, it’s a slammin’ good track. But it is overshadowed by the bombast of “Open Arms” by Journey, one of the biggest ballads in the history of balladry. You know what’s funny? Even though I have heard this song 106,941 times as of this morning, I still smile upon hearing it. There must be something timeless to it that I can’t explain.
Grand Funk were in a decline (like a few of these bands), and “Queen Bee” from Grand Funk Lives was their contribution. Good track, though it does not sound much like the Grand Funk I know from the 1970s. And then it’s Cheap Trick again, with a noisy throwaway track called “I Must Be Dreaming”. It’s a bizarre track from the high priests of rhythmic noise, but they do bizarre just as well as they do catchy.
There’s one band that I think blew the doors off the album. One band that, to me, is always associated with this album. One band that defines the phrase “heavy metal”, and that one band is Black Sabbath. If you listen to fools, the mob rules! This was brand new Black Sabbath at the time; Mob Rules wouldn’t be out yet for a couple months. I have always preferred the soundtrack version of “Mob Rules” to the different recording that made it onto the album. This could be because it was the first version I owned. Regardless, to my ears it sounds faster and livelier…and more “Geezer-er”. Not that it matters, because no matter how you slice it, “The Mob Rules” is a shot of adrenaline right to the heart.
Don Felder takes it back to a slow groove with “All of You”, a good rock ballad with some seriously cool funky bass. All told, the Heavy Metal soundtrack has some damn fine playing on it from all of these bands — just incredible musicianship in these grooves. Things wind down with Trust, and a very heavy track called “Prefabricated”. Nicko McBrain was in Trust in 1981, but this does not sound like Nicko on drums. The song would have been better without the vocals. Especially when it’s followed by Stevie Nicks, one of the most iconic voices in rock. “Blue Lamp” was recorded for her solo debut Bella Donna, but not used. It’s certainly not outtake quality. In fact it’s pretty damned classic.
That’s what the Heavy Metal soundtrack is: a classic. If you like heavy metal, but don’t like soundtracks, then you should still own this one. Make it so.
Like many movies with a rock soundtrack, there was also a score for Heavy Metal released. I asked our friend Rob Daniels from Visions in Sound for a few words on this score in the interests of being complete:
“It’s a great score by the late Elmer Bernstein who is best known for a lot of 80’s comedic scores including Ghostbusters, Animal House and Airplane. His score fits perfectly within the metal music atmosphere, weaving its way through the various stories and songs to the Taarna story. The “Taarna” theme was actually first written for the Farrah Faucett character in the 1980’s film Saturn 3 but was not used. It includes an unusual instrument called a Ondes Martenot, similar to a Theremin but with a physical keyboard. Bernstein used the instrument quite a lot in his scores. While a lot of people know Heavy Metal for the songs in the film the score is of equal note and probably one of Bernstein’s best.”