"Louder, Faster, Harder, Forever"
Heavy Metal Still Rules in San Antonio
by Jim Mendiola
I. Ladies and gentlemen, Pissing Razors.
It’s 10 pm, and all across San Antonio, the contented masses sit on their living-room couches watching Friends, ER, and the local news. But not here. In this St. Mary's street nightclub called the White Rabbit, black T-shirted true-believers quietly stand, a bit restless. It’s the lull between band sets. On the collective fronts and backs of this mostly Mexican-American crowd spans the entire history of Heavy Metal on black concert t-shirts, a three-decade legacy writ large in menacing old-English fonts.
Napalm Death, Pantera, Scorpions, Slayer, old schoolers AC/DC...even a Dennis Rodman era #10 Spurs jersey.
Local band Alienation has just finished their set, up next, Pissing Razors from El Paso, Texas. The deceptive calm of the crowd erodes as the stage lights dim. Under cover of darkness, the fans quickly swarm the stage. Seconds later, the lights flick on. Lead singer Joe Rodriguez grabs the mic as the throbbing mass of Metalheads crowd the front with hands thrust in the air.
The music is hard, fast, brutal, and, strangely, moving – part of new generation of underground thrash and power bands crisscrossing the nation and touring to the faithful, part of what many consider just the latest version of another metal renaissance.
"It all comes in cycles," Steve Gomez from Berlin-based Noise Records explains. "And this time, it's a return to classic metal." And also, it seems, a complicated mix of corporate and underground interest.
MTV just shot a special on the "New Face of Metal." Meanwhile, a growing grassroots internet movement called The Great Metal Takeover is trying to reinstate Head Bangers Ball on the cable channel. Billboard Magazine plans a June 6 special metal edition -- the industry bible's first major interest in the hard rock sub genre in over six years. And on a local level, three San Antonio bands -- Alienation, Face of Anger (formerly Art of War), and Union Underground -- have, or will soon sign, to major record label deals. Heavy Metal, it seems, is rearing its headbanging head once again.
But don't expect your regular Ozzy and Angus show this time around. In this decade's version, Metal has gone wired making for a unified network of once separated underground scenes.
Heavy Metal is dead! Long live Heavy Metal!
II. In the beginning, was the Godfather.
The murky origins of metal are as obscure as they are disagreed upon. Musically, some argue that the subgenre's roots can be traced back to the mid 60s, in early hard rock singles like the Kink's "You Really Got Me." The term Heavy Metal itself, others point out, comes from Steppenwolf's 1968 rock anthem, Born to Be Wild, with their infamous and oft-quoted line about "heavy metal thunder.” Still others argue that writer William S. Burroughs (a sort of literary, proto Ozzy Osbourne figure himself) actually coined the phrase in his hallucinatory Beat-era novel Naked Lunch.
What remains undisputed in the debate is that from 1967 to 1970, seminal hard rock bands such as as Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Deep Purple, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and MC5, among many others, emerged, playing a new brand of rock and roll much louder, faster, and harder than ever heard before. And while their collective musical influence can be felt to this day, Black Sabbath, many agree, was the band that truly invented the blueprint for what we know today as modern Heavy Metal. On LPs such as Paranoid, Master of Reality, and Sabbath, Bloody, Sabbath, the band not only contributed high-voltage volume and slow-grinding tempos to the metal mix, but they also began the self-conscious construction of that unmistakable, Satanic-tinged metal sensibility of doom and gloom and blackness. All hail Ozzy and company, purveyors of all that is wicked – and wonderfully theatrical – in Heavy metal.
On a local level, however, the origins of San Antonio hard rock are crystal clear. All local metal roads, of course, lead back to Joe Anthony, "the Godfather of Rock and Roll," and his partner in hard rock radio crime, Lou Roney.
Throughout the 1970s, first at KMAC-AM radio and then at KISS-FM, the pair single-handedly cultivated a sophisticated and knowledgeable hard-rock audience unique in the country. In the free-form days before corporate driven playlists sucked the soul out of mainstream radio, whatever Joe and Lou played became part of the San Antonio cultural landscape. During the 1970s, from Southside bedroom stereos to car radios at the Judson 4 drive-in, songs like Judas Priest's ‘Victim of Changes,’ Triumph's ‘Blinding Light Show,’ and Legs Diamond's ‘Stagefright’ became not only KISS FM radio staples, but for a certain generation of now 30-something San Antonians, their playlist became a nostalgic soundtrack to their happy years of foosball at the Sportspalace, $10 bags, midnight movies, and other memories of misspent youth.
Joe and Lou started on KMAC-AM, in the days when AM radio ruled the airwaves. The station was nothing if not eclectic. First came a 6 a.m.-to-noon block of religious programming, then a 15-minute farm and ranch news show, then Joe and Lou would hit the airwaves with hour-long Judas Priest sets. The DJs soon convinced station owner Howard Davis to simulcast the four hour block of AM rock and roll on its sister FM station KISS – at that time an obscure automated station of tape-recorded "beautiful music."
The hard-rock show became a hit. By 1975, Roney and KISS were regularly booking acts such as San Antonio stalwarts Rush and Pavlov’s Dog to Randy's Rodeo, a country bar made famous two years later with the infamous Sex Pistol’s gig. Meanwhile, back in the station, Joe was treating the growing radio audience with bands such as Welsh metal gods Budgie and their 10-minute-and-20 second album cut of ‘Parents.’ The station was soon number one in the all-important 18-25 year old market.
"We never felt we were playing Heavy Metal music at the time," Lou Roney says of the half-decade-long experiment, "What we were playing was what you call alternative now, the stuf nobody else would play. As soon as a rival station like KONO or KTSA would pick up one of our singles, we'd immediately drop it from out list and move on to something new. The only format we had was what we liked."
National acts, both famous and soon-to-be, regularly toured through the city. First they would play a successful gig at the intimate and small Randy's Rodeo, the next year a sold-out show at the larger Municipal Auditorium, then a final triumphant return to the Convention Center Arena, when the rest of the country had caught up with S.A. and become hip to the new sounds.
"Major labels like RCA, and Mercury would call us all the time to ask us what was hot," Roney says, "Triumph was just one of the bands that broke out here to become national acts." And the bands knew who was responsible for their success.
Tom Scheppke, "the T Bone," long time KISS DJ, tells the story about the day when a then-obscure German band called Scorpions walked into the KISS studio. "You know that 'we're not worthy' thing people do when they finally meet their heroes? That's how it was with the guys from Scorpions when they finally met Joe and Lou, who were playing them when no one else was: 'We're not worthy.' Joe and Lou were their heroes."
And even for those bands that never really broke out of San Antonio fame, their footnoted music endures in this city to this day. "In San Antonio you'd a thought Moxy was the Beatles," Scheppke says.
The era ended, fittingly enough, with the end of the decade. By late 1980 KISS was sold to an outside broadcast chain and unimaginative radio consultants now dictated the playlists. Within a week, according to Roney, 80 percent of the LPs that made KISS KISS were pulled.
KISS radio would no longer rock San Antonio like in the old days. Corporate radio was here to stay. But not before Joe and Lou had created a critical mass of shared hard-rock musical influences still felt in San Antonio almost a generation later.
III. Metal is Dead, Long Live Metal
It's a typical Thursday night at the White Rabbit and standing on a chair this Pissing Razors night is Baylor University graduate Robb Chavez. No musical genre draws such intense fan loyalty as Heavy Metal, and in San Antonio, there is no greater metal fan than Robb Chavez.
For the past two and a half years, Chavez has produced the cable access show Robb's Metal Works (Saturdays, 11:30 am, on Channel 20). Consisting of band interviews, live concert footage, and traditional music videos, Robb's Metal Works is a cross between a local version of MTV's Headbanger's Ball and a very well-connected fanzine.
Serving as Metal Work's host, interviewer, videographer, producer and editor, Chavez will celebrate his 100th episode on May 22nd – no small feat for a guy with no budget and no prior production experience, all the more impressive, when you realize he's never shown a rerun. A contemporary cable version of another passionate hard rock fan, Joe Anthony, Chavez serves a dual function as disseminator of what's up in the international metal scene, as well as a promoter of local band talent.
"I got the idea for the show," Chavez says, "because there was nothing else out there." Robb's Metal Works is just one part of an underground network of ‘zines, slick mags, word of mouth, and the internet.
These days, in true bad-boy fashion, metal kids surreptitiously log on in the school library computers and download valuable pages of treasured and arcane information from any number of web sites hosted by metal bands, distributors, and metalheads from all over the world. These days, there’s easily accessible news, such as Pissing Razors CD release date, downloadable sound files of upcoming releases, blow-by-blow tour diaries, passionate debate on whether Marilyn Manson is Metal or not; and ad infinitum links to other metal sites around the world.
In fact, the ability to download a song with MP3 technology is of particular importance to an underground band's success. "For an indie label, it levels the playing field," Steve Gomez A&R guy for Noise Records. For a cash-strapped small record label, the free access of the internet provides international marketing and sales capabilities.
Indies, Gomez tell me, "have the advantage. We've embraced the technology rather than pushed it away. It's like Chuck D says, 'Majors hate any technology they can't whore.'"
IV. To Hell with the Devil
Meanwhile, Pissing Razors ends their set, and the controlled mayhem of the pit’s crashing male bodies winds down its aggressive ebb and flow. Among the sweaty thrashers shaking hands with the departing band members are a group of high schoolers from South San: John, Chris, Orlando, and Roger. Passionate and intense, they are quick to break down for me the entire history of metal – going back to well before they were born – as well as their own musical ambitions.
Classic metal like Black Sabbath, they say, led to the mid-70s prog metal of Rush to Motohead to the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) to American pop metal to thrash and power metal to death metal and then to grindcore with a side step to black metal then to industrial metal and finally, back once again, to today's neo=classic metal.
Or something like that.
"Mention our band, mention our band," they tell me. And so I will:
The future of metal is safe in their hands.