When music journalists Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman decided to write an oral history of heavy metal—from its labor contractions in the late 1960s through its midlife crises in the 2010s—they calculated they would need about 18 months and maybe 150 interviews.
“And here we are now four years later with 400 interviews!” Wiederhorn laughs.
The project took up a lot more time and demanded a lot more effort than either of the authors predicted, but the results are impressive: Concise even at 728 pages, Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal is the most generous and informative chronicle of this misbegotten and often misunderstood genre. Metal was disregarded by mainstream critics during its Spandex heyday and famously upended by introverted alt-rock in the early 1990s, yet this big brick of a book—suitable for breaking windows or bashing the heads of home intruders—proves the scene remains lively and vibrant.
Wiederhorn and Turman expertly corral metal’s various strains into a cohesive narrative, knowledgeably differentiating between thrash metal, black metal, death metal, NWOBHM, Christian doom metal and seemingly thousands of other sub- and subsubgenres. Moreover, by adopting the oral history format, the book gives metal’s icons as well as its unknowns an opportunity tell their stories in their own words. While the genre is often carelessly dismissed for lacking nuance, promoting hedonism and celebrating stupidity, in Louder Than Hell metal is redeemed by its own heroes, who prove more often than not to be smart, thoughtful, reflective, generous and insightful.
The process of researching, compiling and finally editing all of these stories was itself a good story, as Wiederhorn and Turman recount in this oral history of their oral history of metal.
Jon Wiederhorn: I’ve been following metal since I was a kid. In elementary school I was friends with Daniel Papkin, who went on to join the band Candy Machine. Even then, he was tapped into music. We used to sit in his basement and listen to Led Zeppelin, The Who and Springsteen. I always liked the heavier stuff that he would come up with. That’s when I discovered AC/DC.
Katherine Turman: I’m an only child and had older parents. My mom was Canadian British, and her tastes were Pete Seeger, The Beatles and the Mason Williams Orchestra’s “Classical Gas.” So I didn’t really grow up with anything too heavy. I took acoustic guitar lessons when I was maybe 12 or 15—“Octopus’ Garden” and stuff like that—but I hated practicing and gave up. Of course, years later I would end up writing for Guitar World and Guitar magazine.
Wiederhorn: My real turning point came a couple of years later, when I was visiting my grandmother in Florida and my cousin came up to me and said “you have to check this out.” He pulls out this giant boom box—which took about 15 D batteries—and puts in a cassette of Judas Priest’s Hell Bent for Leather, which I had never heard before. It started with the motorcycle and that churning guitar, then goes full blast into the title track. I had never heard anything like it. My cousin kept trying to play the full cassette, but all I wanted to hear was that song over and over. That really was the catalyst that sparked my mission to find the heaviest music possible.
Turman: I got into music on my own, partially from growing up in L.A. My first metal album was Black Sabbath’s debut. I was part of the skateboarder/stoner crowd, so it was a perfect soundtrack. I was going to clubs while I was in high school, and at that time in the ‘80s, there was a new wave scene and a metal scene that existed concurrently. One night I’d see the Motels at the Troubadour; the next night I’d see WASP, also at the Troubadour. The Troubadour was all ages, but I was too young to get into most of the clubs, so I had a fake ID made. It got confiscated when I tried to see G.G. Allin at the Music Machine. They shined a light through it and saw that I had taken an X-acto knife to the numbers.
Wiederhorn: A few years ago, I was looking to do a book. I was working with an agent, and we were getting close to landing an authorized biography of Judas Priest. It didn’t work out, and my agent asked if I had anything else. I had a ton of interviews and access to most of the industry, so I asked, “What do you think of a metal history book? What if I did what Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain did for punk with Please Kill Me?” My agent had actually worked with Legs and Gillian on that book, so he thought it would be a great idea but thought it would be a huge undertaking. So I would need a co-writer. Immediately I thought of Katherine. I had worked with her when she was an editor at RIP magazine.
Turman: Over the years I’ve done so many interviews—from Alice in Chains to Johnny Cash to Slayer to Raging Slab—that people would always ask me when I was going to write a book. But I was like, “Ehhh I don’t wanna.” I didn’t want to write my story and feel self-centered and weird about it. But when Jon came to me, it was perfect because it wasn’t first person. Instead, we got to use our wonderful archives and all the contacts we’ve made over the years.
Turman: It was the first book for both of us, and I had no idea how to write a book. I just knew what it was supposed to look like when it was done. We decided to include Blue Cheer and Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper and the MC5, bands that were super loud and bordering on metal. The first few interviews I did were with a lot of those proto-metal guys, and I was just asking everyone, what is heavy metal? No one could answer it. Bands I thought were metal were telling me they weren’t metal. Lemmy from Motörhead told me they weren’t metal. Ozzy said Sabbath weren’t metal.
Wiederhorn: Geezer Butler told me he was offended when he first read in a review that Sabbath was heavy metal. He thought it was an insult—some guy comparing their music to the sound of a bunch of crash cymbals landing on the floor.
Turman: The best answer was from Leslie West of Mountain. He said he thought of it like porn. He couldn’t describe it, but would know when he heard it.
Wiederhorn: It was an interesting way to begin to approach the subject matter, because then we could ask what came along with metal. What kind of lifestyle? And then people would say metal is not just the music. It’s the way you live your life, the way you embrace your friends and your family. It’s your community. It becomes a whole microcosm that’s beyond what’s in the mainstream.
Turman: Metal has a family tree unlike any other genre. Our publisher asked us to do a family tree of all the bands in our books, but it would have taken a wall-size poster to fit everybody in. There are just too many subgenres. We definitely couldn’t even include everyone in the book. We had to make a decision to cut some things; otherwise the book would be much longer than 700 pages. They weren’t going to let us do a 10,000-page book.
Wiederhorn: Only so many trees had to die. We had to cut artists we didn’t even interview, but we also had to cut a ton of stuff we had on tape. That was probably the hardest part of the whole process. We had an entire chapter on grunge, which is now on the cutting room floor.
Wiederhorn: We had to write about Ozzy biting the heads off winged creatures, and we had to write about Metallica’s bus flipping over. We had to write about the deaths of Cliff Burton and Randy Rhoads. These are stories that are metal lore, so we tried to approach them from different angles and maybe find new perspectives that hadn’t been explored. So I talked to Kelli Rhoads, who was Randy’s brother, and Delores Rhoads, his mother. They were able to give some new insights about Randy as a guitar player.
Turman: Metal is sort of a niche genre in many ways. Everybody knows who Katy Perry is, but not everyone knows who Kerry King is. The bulk of the book has the big bands you would need to have in a metal book—Slayer, Slipknot, Exodus, Anthrax, everyone like that—but we cover a lot stuff like black metal and death metal.
Wiederhorn: What I wanted to do with the book was not only to tell the histories of these bands—when they peaked and when they dipped—but also to get inside their heads and find out what kinds of crazy things they lived through. Rock-and-roll, especially metal, is an absurd lifestyle. Heavy metal is all about making things larger than life. As a genre, it’s about extremism. We have several people in the book, including Motörhead, saying that you don’t get into rock-and-roll unless you want to get girls. That’s why you join a band—to get chicks. Except Lemmy didn’t use the word “chicks.” We also wanted to talk to managers, label execs, all sorts of people. They told some of the greatest stories. And some guys who left bands early in the groups’ career also told great stories because they have nothing to lose.
Turman: Usually, their departures weren’t happy ones, so they were pretty open in their vitriol toward former bandmates. We talked to Terry Glaze, who was the original singer from Pantera. He had a lot to say about the Abbott brothers, Dime and Vinnie, and their father who really called a member of Pantera. It was Glaze against three members of this family. But in some cases they talked about the highlights, and they all said they wouldn’t trade it for anything. They probably wish they were still in that band.
Wiederhorn: Very sadly a lot of the people we interviewed passed away after we interviewed them. First Dickie Peterson from Blue Cheer and then Jeff Hanneman from Slayer.
Turman: It wasn’t my interview that killed anyone.
Wiederhorn: The reviews have blown us away. We didn’t anticipate getting into Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly because we figured this is a metal book and it’s for a metal audience. But Kirkus Review wrote about us, as did Publishers Weekly and NPR. These are totally not metal places.
Turman: The reception in the metal community has been overwhelmingly positive. That world is very funny. We’re huge metal fans ourselves, so we understand the idea of feeling a real connection with certain bands. But there’s always going to be people who say “Acheron aren’t in the book” or “Vomitory aren’t in there.” We’ll get messages on Facebook, or there will be an Amazon review by someone who’s very upset that Doro Pesch from Warlock isn’t in the book. We interviewed her, but that got cut.
Wiederhorn: The one big complaint is the word “definitive.” Some people object to that word because we didn’t mention every single band that’s ever been in metal. So how could we possibly be definitive? But we really wanted to give a solid representation of most of the major scenes that have taken place in the history of metal. It’s 728 pages! There’s only so much that we could include.
Turman: We had to stop at some point, or it would have been the Chinese Democracy of books. But I hope we’ve managed to make it accessible to everybody. You can read and enjoy the book even if you have no idea who Geezer Butler is.