It must have been in 1971 or 1972 that a high school friend loaned me a copy of Paranoid, the album in which Osbourne and the other members of Black Sabbath first unveiled the formula—shrieking guitars, thundering drums, catchy riffs and grim lyrics—that would bring joy to the hearts of two generations' worth of misunderstood teenage boys. After them came the deluge: Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica, Motley Cr7#252;e, Napalm Death and a host of other ominously named groups that catered brilliantly to the insecurities of their adolescent fans. But no more than Ozzy did I suspect that I was witnessing rock and roll history in the making, or that more than a quarter-century later I'd be reading a thick tome entitled Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal.
Ian Christe, a journalist-musician who contributed some of his own metal to the soundtrack of Harmony Korine's film Gummo, takes his subject seriously—a reasonable approach to a genre that has never gotten much respect from most rock critics, who tend to find heavy metal too simple-minded for their liking. To be sure, Christe's prose occasionally runs to the rhapsodic ("Emerging likethe monolith in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, a contemporaneous influence, Black Sabbath were as irreducible as the bottomless sea, the everlasting sky and the mortal soul"). For the most part, though, he deftly walks the reader through the complicated story of heavy metal like the knowledgeable enthusiast he so clearly is.
Though Christe draws some sharp distinctions between and among subgenres, his basic position is that all heavy metal is good until proven bad. "Though metal is larger than life," he writes, "it ultimately comes from life: inflaming the intellect, shaking the senses and stroking the libido more completely than any sound before."
But Christe's forte is journalism, not criticism, and the best thing about Sound of the Beast is the quotes with which it is crammed, some of which are so revealing that one wonders whether he might have done better to publish not a semiformal history of heavy metal but an oral-history collection of first-person reminiscences. Why, for instance, were heavy metal bands more successful in concert than on the radio? One-time Black Sabbath frontman Ronnie James Dio has the answer: "I began getting big stages together soon after I saw the first Alice Cooper concert. I saw the first show where they hung him. The next show I saw with Alice, they electrocuted him. At the next one they chopped his head off. I was so impressed as a member of the audience that I was getting much more than I bargained for. I wasn't getting just music, I was getting this kind of Disneyland."
Similarly, nothing Christe has to say about the emotional content of the music is as illuminating as this remark by Tom Warrior, leader of Celtic Frost: "It's made for people in puberty, definitely. That's certainly the roots of heavy metal. That whole sense of revolution and wanting to be powerful is definitely a puberty thing. Fans don't have to be offended by that. Everybody goes through it. That's why heavy metal is so powerful." Indeed it is, and that is also why heavy metal is so humorless—because it is the quintessential expression of teen angst, that least amused of mental states.
Small wonder that heavy metal, for all its undeniable popularity and commercial success (250 million heavy metal albums have been sold since 1970 in the United States alone), has never been taken altogether seriously by grown-ups. You can't help but smile at its dogged, self-parodying earnestness, which gets a good going-over in This Is Spinal Tap, the 1984 movie in which heavy metal is knowingly skewered from snout to tail (and that Christe briefly dismisses as "a heavy metal mockumentary that lampoons rock excess but almost doesn't go far enough").
Would that Sound of the Beast were itself a little less earnest, but then it would be less true to its subject. While those who know nothing whatsoever about heavy metal may find Christe's sheer accumulation of detail somewhat daunting, full-fledged heavy metal enthusiasts will appreciate the care Christe takes with the music. Sound of the Beast contains everything anyone could possibly want to know about heavy metal, and much, much more.
Other rock-loving readers of a certain age, whatever their individual musical tastes, will likely be charmed by this nostalgic visit to the long-gone days when the star of The Osbournes was still capable of shocking superannuated congressmen and editorial writers with his onstage antics. Compared with the gangsta rap that has replaced headbanging on MTV, after all, Ozzy and his friends seem downright innocent.