My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 30 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. Finally, intimate familiarity with the text is assumed – to put it bluntly, here be gigantic and comprehensive spoilers. Though in the vast majority of cases, I’d recommend doing yourself a favour and checking out the original material first anyway.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
Assume An Attitude
It’s December 30th, 1990. A Sunday. I am twelve years old. One year after IT, slave trading, and Appetite For Destruction. I’m in North Devon, on the top floor of a large house in the tiny village I call home. Christmas is Dad time, but Christmas is done, and we’re back in the sticks.. Depending on how long I’ve been back, I’ve probably already had my first ‘back-from-dad’s-house’ row with my sister. It’s the day before new year’s eve. And it’s 4pm, so my obsession with music compels me to sit in my bedroom, radio/cassette tuned to Radio One, record and pause buttons depressed.
It’s Top 40 time.
This is a relatively new obsession of mine, and a relatively short lived one, too. It won’t be long until the crashing drums and screaming guitars banish chart music from my soul for good, exorcised permanently by the high priests of rock and metal - but for now, just for now, I have one foot on each side of the divide, perhaps best typified by the C90 cassette I own which contains a pirate copy of Skid Row’s debut on side A, and New Kids On The Block’s ‘Hangin’ Tough’ on side B. I still attend the under 18 discos at the youth centre in the local town, on occasion, and if you’re going to dance, you have to know the tunes. Interesting that looking back I wasn’t ashamed to dance, which as anyone who has seen me dance will tell you is… odd. But there were older girls there, and I was short enough to be cute, and they liked it when I danced. So I danced.
In 1991, there will be a moment at the end of an episode of MTV’s Headbangers Ball when Lonn Friend will hold up two ‘album of the month’ choices - three, actually. That moment will, in retrospect, represent a perfect changing of the guard, as well as the death of shows like Headbangers Ball. The recommendations are ‘Use Your Illusions I and II’, and ‘Nevermind’. But that’s seven long months away. Right now, in 1990, we’re still waiting on a new Guns N Roses album, Raw magazine is the fortnightly alternative to Kerrrang!, and in a tiny village in North Devon, I sit with my tape recorder poised, waiting to see what will happen.
The first thing of note for me will have been The Proclaimers cover of King Of The Road, hanging on at number 40. To be honest, I still think that’s a pretty good tune, though I couldn’t say this specific version has stuck in the memory.
I don’t remember Black Box’s Fantasy at 39, but Ride On Time was a floor filler, so I may well have recorded it. The rest of the top 30 is at best forgettable, at worst… I mean, Rod Stewart and Tina Turner - It Takes Two? Geordie Boys (Gazza Rap) by Gazza? I’ve had the fucking time of my motherfucking life? My ears bleed from the memory. Talk about horror.
Was I waiting for a reason? Did I know what was coming? I just can’t remember. It’s possible.
30 to 20 doesn’t fare much better - a lot of Christmas tunes plummeting now silly season is done. I might have been tempted in by Kinky Boots, but probably not. Definitely not INXS. But then, new in at number 23… Anthrax. Got The Time.
And I mean, fucking hell kids, you should go give this one a spin right now. I’ll wait.
Within the year I will hear this song live. At what I have only just remembered was my first actual live gig - not The Pixies at Exeter University, the gig I tell everyone is my first, the one I remember as my first. This one takes place in a school. I can’t remember which one - not mine. But it’s a school band, called Killing Time, and it’s their last ever show, because school’s out and they’re all off to college or work. So it’s summer 1991, logically. I’m smoking by then, at least part time, which is younger than I remember. I have 3 or 4 straights that I’d purloined or purchased from somewhere and stored in a cassette tape, and I let some girl my friend and I met at the gig smoke most of them, before cluing that she was only into me for my nicotine and going off in a sulk. I sulk through most of the support act and the main event. I’m wearing my Metallica T shirt. Yes, because the girl who’s the singer for the headline band sees it as I’m checking out the support band, points and laughs good naturedly, miming someone playing a heavy guitar, her grunge sensibilities clearly amused by my ‘dinosaurs of rock’ stylings, and I laugh and shrug in response. But…
Hang on. If I’m wearing my Metallica shirt, it can’t be 1991. I got that shirt at the ‘93 MK Bowl show, the ‘Nowhere Else To Roam’ tour. And if it’s a summer holiday gig, it has to be the summer after that. Which means I didn’t hear this song live until I was 15, which explains why the girl part bothered me so much and also means that The Pixies really were my first live band.
Phew. That got scary for a second.
Okay take 2: four years later, I’ll hear this song live. The band, Killing Time, will do their set, and a dickhead in an Anthrax T-Shirt will headbang all through the show, impressing the hell out of the girl who smoked my cigarettes, and in the process earning my undying enmity. The band end the set and get an encore, and the guy with the Anthrax T-Shirt will request this song ,and the band, after apologizing ‘to anyone who’s ever known us’, launch into a funk cover version that gets everyone dancing, before launching into a straight up cover that tears the lid off the place, and gets me headbanging like it was my idea all along. I’ll spend most of the evening back at my friend's house hurling my guts up, probably a result of passively smoking half the weed in the hall, but right in the moment the band play that song, this song, I am having a total blast. It worked amazingly well with a female vocal, too.
TL;DR - I have a deep personal connection with this song that obliterates any pretense at objectivity, but I still think it’s bloody amazing. I recorded and replayed the hell out of it, and spent the rest of the chart convinced I’d landed my prize.
Into the top twenty, and it’s back to slim pickings; Chris Isaak, Jive fucking Bunny (if you don’t know, look it up, or, you know, don’t), Status Quo, New Kids, more Black Box. Unchained Melody? A Levi commercial, maybe? Hell if I know. Had made number one, now on the way down. Number twelve I vividly remember recording - Unbelievable, by EMF. Dirty secret? I still think it’s a pretty good song - especially the live version with the guitar front and centre. Don’t judge, especially if you’re a Lost Boys fan. And number eleven was Crazy, by Seal, a song I remember admiring for the vocal, even though the tune was not my thing. It’s also interesting how many of these songs were still around the top 20 on 27th January, 1991 - but that’s another story.
The top ten awaits. Passingly unlikely that I’ll get anything else good, but I’ve come this far, so what the hell? Only killing time anyway.
Did I know? I really don’t think I did, but maybe… maybe…
Ten - Pray, MC Hammer. Bill Hicks has my proxy on this one, though I danced to it at the time, no doubt. Eight - Madonna, Justify My Love. The video didn’t translate well to radio. I still probably dug it. Seven - All Together Now, The Farm. I cannot explain to you why this song still gets to me, but it does. Six - You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ - okay, when we're done here I need to look up what the fuck this and Unchained Melody were doing competing in the UK singles chart for Christmas 1990, because that’s just bizarre.
Top five now. The Grease Megamix. Enya. Cliff Richard’s annual Christmas cash grab is still in the top 3. And number 2 is Vanilla Ice with Ice Ice Baby. Yeah, probably I did.
and then, with practiced sadism, the DJ reads out the entire chart again before announcing the number one. A new entry.
They had form, that’s the thing. ‘Holy Smoke’ had come out in September and made the Top 3. I’d recorded that off the radio, you’d better believe it, and listened to it over and over, trying to figure out the lyrics. Scott , still a metalhead at that age, still seven glorious months before Levelling The Land and Nevermind tore a musical rift between us, proudly showed me the CD picture disk single, featuring typically amazing artwork. And, you know, of the two singles, it’s almost certainly the better song - smarter, sharper. I’ve been listening to the two tunes back to back as I write (with a brief Anthrax sojourn) and yeah, Holy Smoke is a stonker; I’m not wild about the intro, but the verse has that trademark take-no-prisoners Maiden stomp, and the chorus lead lick is a simple but pleasing hook. And for those of us who care about such things, it’s a pretty sharp lyric too - sure, TELevangelists are hardly a tough target, but that doesn’t make them less worthy of ridicule - and of course Maiden had had a share of their own albums burned by this point, so, you know, they had skin in the game.
None of which quite explains how it made number three in the singles chart. That took a little something extra - mainly strategy. They single was released in September, on no less than six formats (CD picture disk, 12” picture disk, cassette, 7” single, the works), with a blitz advertising campaign in the metal press - they went for it. And when it happened, it was pretty stunning - one of ‘my bands’ in the top 5, blasting metal at all the pop pretenders. Pretty sweet.
Turns out, that was the test run.
Because it also turns out that the slowest week for singles sales is Christmas week. Makes sense - the Christmas number one has been settled, and nobody wants to brave the shops.
No one but Iron Maiden fans.
“So here it is; a brand new entry at number one - Iron Maiden - Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter!” The DJ sounds like he can’t quite believe it. Probably he can’t. Radio 1 had just issued a blanket ban on Maiden, effectively declaring them to be irrelevant relics (think about that alongside still playing Cliff Richard and see what it does for your blood pressure). But no-one told Maiden that, no-one told Maiden fans that, and in a big house in a tiny village in North Devon, a lonely twelve year old metalhead is grinning fit to split. It’s a bloody miracle.
Iron Maiden are number one,
and all is right with the world.
And sure ‘...Daughter’ is hardly a classic Maiden song, and it’s from what’s generally regarded as the weakest Dickinson record, but… well, two things.
One, it may not be classic Maiden, but it is quintessential Maiden. All the elements you might want are present and correct - horror movie imagery in the lyrics (courtesy of the song’s origins as a Dickinson solo track for Elm Street 5, a movie we shall return to in due course), stomping verses, a crunching chorus, decent solo and middle eight - it’s representative, and though I know many fans disagree, I was never embarrassed by it.
Two - it’s fucking number one. Iron Maiden did it, and they did it without selling out in the normal sense - no fluffy ballad, no shit hot music video. No, they did it by a combination of ruthless strategy and mass mobilisation of their fanbase.
There were complaints, including letters to the editor accusing the charts of being rigged. A gang of bikers drove down to BBC television studio with a giant Eddie in toe and a petition to get Maiden air play again. But the truth is by then, they didn’t need it. They’d proved they could beat the mainstream without ever joining it or compromising.
You really don’t have to like Maiden at all to recognise the singular contribution they’ve made to Metal in general, and British Metal in particular. In a week where the world rightly mourns the passing of another metal legend, it’s worth reflecting on the band who are arguably only second to Sabbath in their influence and stature over a global genre of music.
So there’s all that. And they’re headlining Download 2016, and I can’t wait to see them doing their thing.
But for all that, I can’t deny that they’ll never mean more to me than they did on 30th December 1990. They achieved the impossible and they did it like the Monkey King - they invaded heaven and brought it crashing down around them. And then, grinning, strode off to conquer the world.
Up the Irons.
PS - Stay tuned to Gingernuts of Horror for a mass celebration of Iron Maiden’s albums, beginning in June. It’s called ‘The Summer Of Maiden’, and if you dug the above, we think you’re going to have a blast.