GETTING MORE TALE #589:
Metal 101 – Learning the Basics in the Original School of Rock (Circa 1984-86)
I started getting really serious about rock and roll in the mid-80s. I was 12. Much Music had arrived. I had instant access to so many great bands. Thanks to the Power Hour, I had an hour dedicated to heavy metal every week. I also had friends like Bob and George who were willing to let me tape things from their collections. I started buying rock magazines. But there was a learning curve.
Take Van Halen, for example. All I knew of them were a couple singles from 1984. I had seen the video for “Jump”. I had also learned from my friends that Eddie Van Halen was the greatest guitar player alive. Since I didn’t know the difference between a guitar and a bass, I assumed Michael Anthony was Eddie Van Halen. I don’t know why I assumed that, except I probably liked Michael’s beard. Bob and George corrected me, but I wondered, “How can you tell a guitar from a bass guitar?”
“A bass only has four strings”, they told me. And you could tell the number of strings by the tuning pegs. I got it! Soon I was able to start piecing the rest together. George bought a bass a few months later. There is a local musical legend that lived on our street named Rob Szabo. He is a very talented player, singer and songwriter. He was starting to put together his own band, and all he needed was a bassist. George was adamant that he was that bassist. He decided this before he even bought a bass. Rob was too nice a guy to tell George that they wanted someone else with more experience. He didn’t expect George to buy a bass because of the vacancy in the band. To his horror, that is exactly what George did. I think he jammed with them once or twice before they let him go. Maybe not even once.
Undeterred, George learned the instrument by playing along to records. He put together a couple bands of his own, like Asylum and Zephyr. His singing was shit, but his bass playing wasn’t bad at all. He got pretty good at it. But sadly, in our neighborhood, George might be best remembered for his attempts at singing.
George’s bedroom window was right next to our front step where I hung out a lot as a kid. Bob and I would be up there listening to music, or even playing GI Joes on the lawn. Sometimes we’d sit there in just listen to George. You’d hear him put on a record, start playing along on bass, and when he got singing you’d think a cat was being tortured up there. It was horrendous, but he seemed to have no idea how awful his singing really was.
George worked at Long John Silver’s which was about a 20 or 30 minute walk. In the early hours of the morning, I saw George walking down the street alone with his headphones on, heading for work. Suddenly he burst out: “ALRIGHT! LOVE GUN!” Then came the barely recognizable chorus of one of my favourite Kiss songs. It was the kind of scene that you’d make sure you got on video today. Another time, he was singing Judas Priest. We ran into him that time and asked him what’s up? “It’s Priest Week,” he answered. He was only listening to Judas Priest that week, it seems.
One time George was over playing his bass, and he asked me if I knew how to pick out a bass line in a song. I actually did, and I learned it by hearing him play bass along with his records.
Besides Kiss, Priest, and Van Halen, I was learning about bands such as Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath. Bob had a Black Sabbath tape with a baby devil on the cover. He brought it over one time, raving about a song called “Zero the Hero”. We listened to it and it was cool. I especially liked the spooky music between songs. That was my first taste of Black Sabbath. I knew who Ozzy Osbourne was, but I didn’t know he was in Black Sabbath before. All I knew was the singer of Black Sabbath had long black hair and looked really evil. Ian Gillan was my first Black Sabbath singer.
George was really cool about letting me tape his stuff, to the point that he’d bring his VCR over so I could even record his videos. We did this on about two or three occasions, as he had quite a collection of taped videos. I was interested in getting some more Dio. I had heard “Holy Diver” and wanted some more, so I got the video for “The Last in Line”. The clip was a trip to a hellish underworld of monsters and musical vigilantes. A bit later, we got to a Black Sabbath video for “Neon Nights”. I recognized the two moustache guys. But who was that singer?
I timidly asked George, “Hey…did Dio ever have anything to do with Black Sabbath?”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
No way! My brain expanded about six levels that afternoon.
Sabbath had a singer before the long black haired guy. Unreal. George told me that guy (Ian Gillan) was the singer from Deep Purple. Holy shit!
A few months after that, we were in the park listening to Sabbath’s Paranoid on cassette. “That’s Ozzy singing!” shouted Bob above the music. I simply could not believe it. And not long after that, I was watching Much Music again when they debuted a brand new Sabbath video with yet another singer! A bearded guy! Some guy named Glenn Hughes? Never heard of him before. He had a beard and a suit. Not really very rock and roll. Could you imagine my reaction if I knew at that time that Glenn Hughes was also a singer in Deep Purple?
The circle was becoming complete. This kind of trivia was like candy to me. I ate it up, every last morsel that I could absorb. Band “A” led me to Band “B” and Band “C” via these kinds of connections. Ozzy even connected back to Quiet Riot, the first “metal” tape I ever bought, via original guitarist Randy Rhoads. He was about the only guy who could rival Eddie Van Halen in the guitar stakes, according to my friends. But there was a new up-and-comer that Much Music kept talking about, named Yngwie Malmsteen.
Much was an advantage my neighbors didn’t have. Neither Bob, nor George, nor Rob Szabo had the channel. I began growing and developing tastes of my own, though still heavily influenced by my friends. On my own, I found White Wolf, Sammy Hagar, Savatage, Queensryche, Aerosmith…and Spinal Tap.
Yes, Spinal Tap. “Hell Hole” became one of my favourite songs during the summer of ’86. My sister liked it. She hated her Catholic school, and as we’d drive by, she’d sing “Don’t wanna stay in this Hell Hole!” That school was a indeed a “hell hole”. Shitty teachers and shittier bullies who did not like heavy metal.
It’s true that the teachers gave me hell for wearing a Judas Priest T-shirt. It is also true that we went to a retreat for a week, where music T-shirts and players were forbidden. I have always been drawn to music since my earliest memories. What did these teachers have against music? I knew. It was the old myth that these groups were “Satanic” and would drive us to all do drugs and die. What those teachers didn’t know was that the music made me feel good without drugs. I was even expanding my vocabulary. Bands like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath were not simplistic with their lyrics. I learned words such as “pyre” and “pneumatic”. Through Iron Maiden, I was learning about literature and history. I knew stuff that they weren’t even teaching in school, about Alexander the Great, the Gordian Knot, and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. How could that be bad?
Fuck ’em. I trusted myself. I was smart enough to know better than they did.
I look back at these early days, and I’m not surprised that it’s these bands that the core of my tastes are built around today. Long live rock and roll.