The politics of heavy metal

As Ai Weiwei announces plans to release a heavy metal album – “It’s about my condition and China’s condition,” the dissident Chinese artist said last week – Ludovic Hunter-Tilney explores the history of heavy metal and politics.

1. Summits

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev realised a teenage dream when he invited Deep Purple to tea in 2011 and reminisced about spinning “Strange Kind of Woman” in the Soviet era. But that summit pales next to the meeting of minds between George W Bush and Ozzy Osbourne at a White House gala in 2002. The then-US president gave a shout-out to Ozzy’s recordings with Black Sabbath – “Party with Animals”, “Face in Hell” – before revealing: “Ozzy, Mom loves your stuff.” The “prince of darkness” responded by blowing kisses. Christian fundamentalists weren’t impressed.

2. Revolution

Tea Party pin-up Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate in last year’s US election, revealed that Rage Against the Machine were one of his favourite groups. The anti-establishment rap-metallers were aghast. Ryan “is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades,” band member Tom Morello fulminated. Before Ryan could outline the similarities between libertarianism and anarchism, another metal band took a swing: Twisted Sister objected to his use of their song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” at rallies.

3. Geopolitics

When the US invaded in 1989, Panama strongman Manuel Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy. To drive Noriega out, General Maxwell Thurman, the brains behind “Operation Just Cause”, ordered hard rock music to be blasted at the building. Cue Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin and (of course) Van Halen’s “Panama”. Dubya’s dad George Bush thought the tactic “irritating and petty”, but loud music became a common device in the psy-ops handbook with thrash metal being used to deafen inmates in Guantánamo. In 2008, Metallica frontman James Hetfield, displaying the sort of disorientation that military interrogators hoped to induce in their captives, said he was both “proud” and “kind of bummed” that his band’s music was used as torture.

4. Diplomacy

More than 1,000 names from the arts signed a letter to Barack Obama in 2009 calling for renewed cultural links with Cuba. Perhaps they imagined an influx of Buena Vista Social Club-style old timers playing bolero. Instead they got tattoos and intense riffs. Escape, a black-metal outfit from Havana, became the first Cuban metal band to play in the US when they appeared at the SXSW festival in Texas last night.

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