Under The Skin: There is no place for racism in Heavy Metal (or anywhere else)

Phil Anselmo - apology video crop

When footage emerged online last week of Phil Anselmo making a ‘Sieg Heil’ salute and shouting “White power!” from the stage of this year’s Dimebash event, my reaction was one of colossal disappointment and disgust.

I was disappointed because there is no place in this world for racism. I was disappointed because there is no place in heavy metal for racism. I was disappointed because I love a lot of the music Phil Anselmo has made with his bands Pantera and Down specifically. I was disappointed because Anselmo was a guy I had looked up to.

How could you, Phil?

And yet here he was, a man who is a highly regarded and important figure in the world of heavy metal, making an abhorrent and deeply racist gesture at an event which existed to commemorate the tragic death of another highly regarded heavy metal musician, Dimebag Darrell: a former band-mate of Anselmo’s, no less.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the footage of Anselmo at Dimebash that was posted to Youtube.

I briefly thought about writing a piece for Skin Back Alley and then initially decided against it. Metal Hammer magazine had been swift to publish Paul Branningan’s piece on the same subject, as had Metal Sucks with Axl Rosenberg’s editorial, which also drew attention to some previous examples of similar behaviour from Anselmo. What could I add?

But in the following couple of days I realised how strongly I was feeling about what had happened. I naturally found myself speaking to musicians, friends, relatives and metal-heads, soliciting their views and thinking through my own as questions arose in my mind. Should I throw out all those Pantera records and Down albums? Should I do the same with other artists’ works if they had done equally idiotic things in their lifetimes? When exactly do you give up on artists you have (had?) respect for?

Once the footage of Anselmo’s offensive gestures had been published, the man himself responded, dismissing his actions as part of a “joke” that was based on the fact that many of the musicians that had been performing at Dimebash were drinking copious amounts of white wine. Although the post has since been deleted, here was what Anselmo had to say in the comments section beneath that Youtube video:

Anselmo comments - Youtube screen shot

And therein lies the admittedly very fine line for me. Anselmo’s behaviour on stage at Dimebash was appalling. Whether he found it such or not, his gestures and that phrase WERE offensive. They WERE racist. They WERE downright wrong. Nevertheless, in time it might have been possible to forgive the man and move forward if he had truly owned his actions, acknowledged how wrong they were, apologised for them and committed to making amends for the future.

As it was, he tried to pass it all off as the “inside joke of the night.” Despite trying to claim that he will “own this one”, he plainly didn’t, ultimately concluding “No apologies from me.”

Well, the spectacularly unfunny “joke” is on you, Phil.

Another respected metal musician who performed at Dimebash, Machine Head frontman Robb Flynn, had his own thoughts on the matter:

Other musicians whose music I love and who I have immense respect for have, down the years, said and done some spectacularly offensive things. Whilst reflecting on the events at Dimebash I found myself thinking of other examples in order to try and place Phil Anselmo’s behaviour in some kind of context.

In 2014, Black Flag and Rollins Band icon Henry Rollins published an article in LA Weekly titled “Fuck Suicide.” In it he wrote some incredibly ill-informed and downright offensive things about people who suffer with mental illness and tragically take their own life as a result.

Back then I was just as disappointed in Rollins as I am now in Phil Anselmo. I corresponded with a musician at the time of Rollins’ article and asked how they felt, knowing that they too looked up to Rollins, but also that they worked closely with charities seeking to end the stigma and widespread misunderstanding associated with issues of mental health. Referencing the fact that Kiss’ Gene Simmons had also made some disparaging remarks about people who had committed suicide, the musician I corresponded with wrote:

“I’m for Simmons and Rollins as people, even though I’m not for all of their opinions. If I had the opportunity, I would sit down with them and try to open up an honest dialogue about mental health. Shame has no place.”

Wise words. And in the days following Rollins’ original column, he published a follow-up that was refreshing in its honesty and attitude. Rollins not only apologised for what he acknowledged were ill-informed and offensive remarks, but committed to educating himself further about the topics of mental health and suicide:

“I have no love for a fixed position on most things. I am always eager to learn something. I promise that I will dig in and educate myself on this and do my best to evolve. Again, thank you,” he wrote.

And there was that difference that I was looking for. Yes, Henry Rollins had expressed views that were undeniably offensive, ill-considered and simply wrong. BUT! He listened to what people had to say to him. He recognised that his position was wide of the mark. He really did own his mistake, apologised for it and made a commitment to educate himself and become a better person as a result.

If only Phil Anselmo had immediately done the same.

After a lot of heated debate within the heavy metal community, Phil Anselmo did publish his own apology, going on camera to say that he deserved the “heat” that he was getting. Here’s the video:

I hope that Anselmo is sincere in his apology. Whilst he has made no public commitment to do so, I also hope he spends time educating himself about racism and, much as Henry Rollins did, try and evolve and become a better person as a result of the controversy. I believe that people genuinely can change for the better, and also believe that it is possible for Anselmo to do the same. Even in the world of heavy metal, a world that thrives on cultures and styles that are outside of the mainstream and that can seem from the outside like a place of extremes, we have to have a compassionate hope for the future, and the future of the music that we love.

As seriously as I take Phil Anselmo’s actions, and whilst I will continue to confront the tension that exists between his music and his behaviour and will continually sense-check myself and my listening with a view to developing and evolving my thoughts and opinions, I won’t be throwing out my collection of Pantera and Down albums just yet (although absolutely reserve the right to do so in the future.)

As a respected classically trained musician and critic asked me in recent days, should we also abandon Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Parsifal because the man himself was very far from perfect? No. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold artists – or anyone else – accountable when they do something so repulsive.

On that theme – and another reason behind my decision to publish my thoughts here – my enormous disappointment with Phil Anselmo himself has been matched only by an equally sizeable disappointment in the response to Anselmo’s actions from people who claim to be fans of heavy metal and its culture.

Even the most brief perusal of the comments posted beneath Metal Hammer’s article or Metal Sucks’ editorial will turn up hundreds of abhorrent opinions: people claiming that Anselmo has nothing to apologise for; people claiming that Anselmo shouting “White power” is no different to others shouting “Black power”; people claiming that liberalism has no place in heavy metal, or that this is just another example of the politically correct brigade jumping on a bandwagon and using it as a means of furthering their own agendas.

No. Enough.

In my heart-of-hearts I have always believed that the heavy metal community, at its best, is about welcoming and embracing minorities. It is about giving a home to people who have felt that they have no place in mainstream society, or who feel that they don’t fit the picture of whatever society deems “normal” these days; people who feel like the proverbial square peg in a very uninviting looking round hole.

What Phil Anselmo did on stage last week is the very antithesis of that philosophy, and the raft of vile and vitriolic opinions that have popped up during the fall-out from Anselmo’s behaviour are too. If you feel in any way that heavy metal has been misunderstood as a culture and community over the years, spouting views that tacitly support the continuing of racial hatred is not going to do you, or the culture and community that you supposedly love, any favours.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. I’ll keep saying it until it becomes clear that it is no longer necessary to do so: there is no place in heavy metal for racism. There is no place in the world for racism.

So please, no more. We can all do better. We need to evolve.


As an aside, and not central to the problem of Phil Anselmo’s racist behaviour, another reason why I decided to go ahead and publish my thoughts here was the sniping that I saw cropping up in various heavy metal publications’ coverage of this story.

In particular, I felt that Paul Branningan’s piece in Metal Hammer, whilst to be entirely applauded for holding Phil Anselmo to account, let itself down in its criticism of other publications’ decisions to either (A) not post any news about the story or (B) couch their coverage in language such as “apparently” or “appears” when describing Anselmo’s comments and gestures. To quote one of Brannigan’s paragraphs from Metal Hammer:

“Certain major rock magazine websites have, at the time of writing, failed to even make mention of the incident, a shameful, negligent oversight which speaks of editorial weakness. Other news outlets have elected to couch coverage of the incident in conciliatory language, talking about what Anselmo “appears to” have said, and “appears to” have done, as if, perhaps, we cannot be trusted to verify the evidence presented before our eyes and ears.”

It felt like an unnecessary swipe and, as it turns out, it was a little hypocritical. In fact, Metal Hammer had used exactly the same kind of conciliatory language in their social media posts linking to their own news articles about the events.

Metal Hammer Facebook Anselmo post

I am fully aware of arguments about how all it takes is for “a few good men to do nothing” for terrible things to occur in the world, and would have expected major rock and metal publications to cover the news. That said, the paragraph in Metal Hammer felt like it was delivered from a very high horse and left a bitter taste.

Album Reviews | Live Reviews | News | SBA Lists | The Playlist | Under The Skin | Without A Song

New music releases, 21st April 2014

Here are the new and notable music releases this week, 21st April 2014:

Give ‘Em Hell, Sebastian Bach

Performs the Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, Eels
Skylarking (Corrected Polarity Edition), XTC
Metamorpheus, Steve Hackett and The Underworld Orchestra
Working Class Dog (Collector’s Edition), Rick Springfield
The New Classic, Iggy Azalea
Food, Kelis
Further Adventures Of, Down N Outz
Georgia Satellites (Special Edition), Georgia Satellites
In Death Reborn, Army of The Pharaohs
Marshall’s Law, Eminem
Under The Skin Original Soundtrack, Mica Levi
Candy For Clowns (Deluxe Edition), Nine Black Alps
Unholy Congregation Of Hypocritical Ambivalence, Impetuous Ritual

All of the above and many more are available via the Skin Back Alley Music Store!

Album Reviews | Live Reviews | News | SBA Lists | The Playlist | Under The Skin | Without A Song

Under The Skin: The Chaos of Creation

And no, I’m not talking about Alan McGhee or Creation Records. Nor am I talking about the place of religious discourse in modern music. You can discuss that particular topic amongst yourselves. (Although whilst we’re mentioning it, check out ‘The Aetheists’ Hymnbook’ page on Facebook, it’s a hoot.)

No, what – or rather who – has been playing on my mind this week is Paul McCartney.

I heard you. That great inhalation that leads to the inevitable sigh. ‘Not another bloody piece proclaiming that The Beatles are the greatest band of all time,’ you’re thinking. Fear not. This is not that piece. But events have conspired in the last couple of weeks to make me (re)consider McCartney’s music and subsequent standing in my own mind.

I’ve listened to a lot of polemic over the years about the various members of The Beatles and their musical output since that behemoth of a band split. The message that has come through loud and clear – the perceived wisdom if you will – seems to be that Lennon was the real genius of the group; the driving force; the x-factor that made them what they were. In the post-Beatles landscape it is easy to see how that opinion would have been formed.

Lennon opted to record Plastic Ono Band and go through a course of scream therapy with Yoko. The album was stripped down and confessional. A zeitgeist capturing piece of work that suited the national mood following the death of the 60’s. McCartney opted to retreat to a small-holding in Scotland with Linda, shear some sheep and record McCartney, an album of light-hearted melodic rock and pop that was seen as just a little throwaway.

And, frankly, that’s the verdict that history has continued to hand down over the last 40 years. Lennon the edgy, cool, arty outsider; writer of Imagine and countless other ‘classics.’ McCartney the whimsical, lighthearted melodicist, plagued by nagging accusations of mediocrity throughout his career.

Well, stuff that.

I came to The Beatles relatively late in life at the age of 20 or so, when a college room-mate played their albums incessantly. Then, in the last twelve months, we have seen the remastering and re-release of the entire Beatles catalogue, some of which I have bought and played plenty. Then, in the last month, I’ve quite accidentally picked up McCartney’s 2005 album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, and found it to be a pop classicist’s dream. I’ve visited The Beatles experience at The Albert Dock in Liverpool and then ploughed my way through two articles in Uncut magazine, one-a-piece on Lennon and McCartney.

And you know what? You do. You’ve already guessed. I really, really rate McCartney’s actions and output. Here is a man who, rather than butt heads with press, fans and ex-colleagues, decided to remove himself from a toxic situation and pull himself together in private with his family. Here is a man who has spent his life working away at the pop wheel, creating pure melodies and capturing a certain English musical sensibility. Here is a man who has created gems of albums, just such as Chaos and Creation…, that have been well received but certainly not canonised in the way Lennon’s have been. Albums that are of astonishingly high quality nevertheless.

Shout me down if you will, but following his early solo purple-patch, Lennon produced a lot of mediocre music. Call me insensitive and unfeeling, but I suspect that some of that music – a lot of it straight-ahead, bland rock n’ roll, pumped out with seemingly little thought – might not have been so revered had Lennon’s life not ended so abruptly and tragically.

By contrast, McCartney’s music has – Rupert and The Frog Song aside – been consistent in it’s quality, taking in pure pop, rock, classical, experimental electronica and more traditional rock n’ roll. It might not be cool, but in it’s own quiet and increasingly reflective way, it is remarkable.

Not cool? So what. Not edgy? Who cares. Not confrontational? It’s overrated.

When you’re 69 years old and still writing brilliant, adult pop music, you deserve some applause and – in the the case of Paul McCartney – some reassessment.

Under the Skin: An ‘Alternative Backpacker’ Speaks

I recently posted a comment on the blog of a staff-writer at a well known British music magazine. The blog post had been inviting suggestions for your favourite music of 2010 so far.

I had been very much enjoying the new album from Sage Francis, Li(f)e. Whilst not the traditional fare of said magazine, I thought I would recommend it anyway. After all, comments had been invited for any and all suggestions. Here’s what I wrote:

“I’m plumping for the new Sage Francis album… A socially concious rap/spoken-word album that contains collaborations with Joey Burns and John Convertino, Mark Linkous and Yann Tiersen? And one that doesn’t spend an hour boasting about “bitches”, “hos” and how much gold a man can wear before falling over? Well worth at least a cursory listen, surely?”

I didn’t think that I’d written anything particularly controversial or offensive. So imagine my surprise when I got this response from the blogger:

“…very wary of creating a binary between what you call “socially conscious” rap and what you criticise in a pretty reductive and cliched way. I’ve personally found, as a crude generalisation, that mainstream rap has given me more enjoyment (stimulating both sonically and politically) than most alternative backpacker stuff (Can Ox being a big exception that comes to mind right now). Sorry, but give me “Big Pimpin'” over Dan Le Sac & Scroobius Pip any day.”

I don’t mind saying that the comment really got under my skin (appropriately enough given the title of this SBA feature.) Sure, the world is a complex place that can rarely be summed up in black and white. After all, there are so many shades of grey. But:

  1. In a comments box that allows a small amount of alpha-numeric characters, one can hardly write a feature article on the state of modern mainstream rap
  2. ‘Reductive and cliched’? Has the writer listened to most of the rap music that makes it to the airwaves in 2010? I would argue that IT is ‘reductive and cliched’
  3. I am being ‘reductive and cliched’, but then Sage Francis and colleagues who write – yes – ‘socially concious’ rap, are seemingly pigeonholed as ‘alternative backpacker stuff’

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am aware that this minor footnote of a spat is hardly an issue that will make or break the world of music. Rather it is something that just pissed me off. But do me a favour and look up the lyrics of Sage Francis’ Little Houdini or The Best of Times and then compare them to Jay-Z’s Big Pimpin’. ‘Nuff said.

Jay-Z is a great businessman, is sonically inventive and a clever wordsmith. As are many other mainstream rappers. But what he and his contemporaries often choose to say with those words leaves me cold. Rolling Stone summed it up well in a recent cover feature on Jay-Z himself:

“But, as in much of hip-hop, Jay’s lyrics, for all his wordplay, can begin to feel like tedious self-branding, exercises in image-building as unrelenting as political campaign ads. It’s like watching one of those television specials that collect the greatest commercials of all time. You can sit back and enjoy the celverness and artistry – but at the end of the day, you’re still being sold a bar of soap.”

You can buy Sage Francis’ new album from The Skin Back Alley Music Store.

Under the Skin: The enduring appeal of Iron Maiden

iron-maidenAs Iron Maiden circumnavigate the globe once again on a world tour to rival Bob Dylan’s Never Ending jaunt, and prepare to release their 15th studio album The Final Frontier in August, I took to wondering what it is that is so appealing about the group.

How is it that a band that burst onto the scene in the 1980’s as part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal can still sell out arena shows the world over, shift albums by the truckload (75 million to date and counting) and command an army of devoted fans that would follow their beloved ‘Irons almost anywhere?

However you look at Maiden, it is clear that they are steeped in history. Take a look at their imagery. In band mascot, Eddie, an icon known the world over, artist Derek Riggs created a character – a ghoul, if you will – painted in the recognisable, mythic horror tradition. The mummy, a zombie, Frankenstein’s monster and death himself all rolled into one. In short, a lasting image from and for the ages. And he serves as a rallying point; an instantly recognisable figure around which people can congregate.

And yet Eddie has evolved and remained relevant to the directions in which the band has headed through the years. An Egyptian idol, a patient in a mental asylum, a Terminator style android, a Gollum like tree-dweller, the Grim Reaper, a mystic figure clutching his own offspring and, most recently, a skeletal tank commander. He taps into the our psyche the way the best horror does, representing, realising and conquering our fears whilst capturing our imagination.

The group’s lyrical content is similarly mythic. Songs based on gothic horror literature, historic battles from many theatres and eras of war, science fiction, the arcane and occult, religious stories and mythology. These are songs that ask the big questions and yet offer no easy answers; songs that reach back into our shared origins and speak to the part of us that wants to know where we came from; the part of us that wonders if we are doomed to repeat ourselves; the part of us that wonders where we are headed and how we might evolve to get there.

Then there is that sound. If Iron Maiden were a film director – let’s call him Byron Maiden for the sake of argument – then we would be talking of him in hallowed terms; declaring him an auteur and studying his canonical works. Because Maiden have devloped, tweaked and altered their sound through the years and kept things interesting. But they’ve always remained recognisably Iron Maiden.

There is no mistaking the low, driving, rumbling and rolling bass lines of founding member and heart of the band, Steve Harris. The triple guitar attack of Adrian Smith, Dave Murray and Janick Gers provides a signature sound of lead, harmony and rhythm that is as recognisable as Eddie himself. Nicko McBrain’s technically proficient, crisp, staccato drumming welds the rhythm section together. And then there is the voice. The ear-enveloping, glass shattering, air raid siren that is Bruce Dickinson. Say what you like about the Blaze Bayley years or Paul D’ianno before him, but Maiden ain’t Maiden without Dickinson. All of which, when combined with the chemistry between the group of long-term bandmates and friends, equals a hugely appealing whole that is – as they say – greater than the sum of it’s parts.

But before we go there is one more signficant aspect of the band to consider: The way that they keep on giving to the people who have helped to put them where they are; the fans. If Bruce Springsteen were a heavy metal act, he would be Iron Maiden. By which I mean no metal band performing today works harder on stage, puts on a more spectacular show or engages with their fanbase in a more thrilling way than Maiden do.

You might expect 30 years on the road to make a man weary; wear him down to the point of being, well, lacklustre. But not Maiden. Their live extravaganzas are as spectacular as ever. All members of the group work harder in a live setting than many men half their age. And they continue to innovate. Do you want to be flown by Bruce Dickinson to an Iron Maiden gig and be treated like a VIP for the entire trip? Well, Bruce being a qualified pilot, you can. Sure, you’ll have to shell out a quid or two, but who else can say that the frontman of the band flew them to the concert?

Work ethic? Check. Songwriting craft? Check. Skilled musicianship? Check. Iconic sound and vision? Check. Commitment to fanbase? Check. Ability to do all this whilst taking their work seriously, but not taking themselves seriously? Check.

A band of enduring appeal? You can count on it.

New album, The Final Frontier, is released on August 16th. Visit the band and see the official video for the title track at Ironmaiden.com. Iron Maiden will also headline the UK leg of the Sonisphere festival at Knebworth on 30th July – 1st August.