Channelling the Ancients in a frilly vest...

Channelling the Ancients in a frilly vest…

Tonight I watched live videos of Led Zeppelin at their peak, and the official video for Deep Purple’s Child in Time. It’s interesting to watch Robert Plant’s stage persona because it is simultaneously powerfully masculine and sexual, but also coquettishly feminine and camp. For those of us who grew up after the ’70s it’s hard I think to understand how deeply transgressive metal presentations of masculinity were, though the Deep Purple video gives some hint as to the shocked response of ordinary society at the time. The men in these early bands were constructing a new vision for themselves and men generally, and a new ideal of a social order, one which I think in retrospect needs to be seen as much more than just spandex-and-weed nihilism, but as a real (and largely unconscious) attempt to drag the sexual, religious and political radicalism of the English enlightenment into the modern world. I think the only band who actually realized and understood this visionary ideal were Iron Maiden, who are the conscious and willful inheritors of William Blake, but I think the other bands of that era – primarily the British masters, but in their footsteps the American and European legends – were setting about the same project, though sometimes doing it more from a classically romantic rather than strictly enlightenment vision. In amongst the drugs, the sex and the trashed hotel rooms it’s easy to lose sight of the fundamental vision that these men were trying to put forward to the world, a vision of peace, personal religious mysticism and sexual freedom that the world was not ready for, just as it was not ready for and ultimately failed to realize these exact same goals when they were put forward 200 years earlier by Blake and his contemporaries.

I have read that the English Enlightenment is often overlooked by scholars, and that many people don’t even realize there was a separate enlightenment happening in England, but that it had some of the most radical and visionary ideals of any of the enlightenment thinkers. Certainly William Blake was a powerful spokesperson for sexual liberty and political and religious freedom, and it was through the ideals of people like Blake and Wollstonecraft that the Romantics got their chance to rewrite the cultural landscape. I’ve said before on this blog that I think heavy metal is a part of Britain’s mainstream cultural tradition, but in this post I want to go further and say that metal was not just grounded in and drawing upon British cultural history, but was a direct continuation – through Victorian figures like Swinburne – of the radical ideas of the English enlightenment. This is why we find Bruce Dickinson singing Jerusalem at Canterbury Cathedral, and Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven rich with lyrics referencing the faerie and pagan dreams of Chaucer, Blake and Keats. It’s no coincidence that these men were also challenging masculine ideals of the time, wearing their hair long and singing and acting like women, because the redefinition of sexual liberty and sexual roles was an important part of the English enlightenment. I think it’s also no coincidence that the foremost bands, like Deep Purple and Metallica, lent themselves so easily to classical music, because they were themselves drawing on a musical tradition grounded in opium highs and romanticism that they could be easily adapted back to, and have shown themselves very amenable to.

Amongst all the modern strands of music, I think heavy metal is simultaneously the most conservative, because it fails to stray outside of the parameters set down by the classical musicians of 200 years ago, though it may sound radically different to them. It also confines itself to noble themes and the grandiose and political, studiously avoiding the personal and local themes of folk, hip hop, rock and pop; while they focus on talking about themselves and their relationships metal insists on regurgitating the age-old constants of religion, death and war. But it simultaneously describes new modes of sexual liberty, presents masculinity in a new and very camp style, sneers at the madness of modern politics and does the whole thing while hurtling through a classic opium-induced haze. Rather than being seen as the decline and fall of modern civilization, I think metal needs to be seen as the periodic revitalization and restoration of enlightenment values, a powerful and radical push back against the stultifying sameness of modernity and the growing conservatism of post-war art. Metal is also a sign that the enlightenment was not a phase the west went through, but is a constant spirit of restoration and reinvigoration that has been running through western culture for the last 500 years. And what better flag bearer for that spirit of restless change than Iron Maiden, Megadeth and Slayer??

Last night I stumbled on this video of Bruce Dickinson, from Iron Maiden, singing William Blake’s Jerusalem with Ian Anderson (from Jethro Tull) accompanying him on flute. It was performed at a Christmas concert at Canterbury cathedral last year. He performed GK Chesterton’s Revelations, the inspiration for Iron Maiden’s song of the same name, at the same venue, and this can be viewed on youTube as well. The performances are stirring stuff, though at times Dickinson over-eggs the pudding and you can tell he’s used to a slightly different venue, but if you like good British poetry and appreciate the New Wave of British Metal (NWOBM) then you’ll get a lot of enjoyment from these two short clips.

The songs also show very clearly the strong influence of British classical poetry on the direction the ‘Irons took under Bruce Dickinson. Listening to these songs is like listening to any of their more famous efforts, though obviously the lyrics are more skilfully crafted[1], and it’s clear that Iron Maiden drew heavily on their British heritage when they wrote their works. Their most famous songs are steeped in what could probably be broadly described as the cultural origins of modern Britain – the romantic poets, the modernists, and some of the key debates in colonial and Victorian Britain that shaped the growth of the post-industrial British world, all feature prominently as themes in Iron Maiden’s work. Sometimes these are direct translations to metal – as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – and sometimes they are a pastiche of poetry and history, as in Revelations. In other cases they are merely inspirational material, as in The Trooper‘s interpretation of The Charge of the Light Brigade. But in all cases, these influences and thematic elements are obvious in the work.

British comedy, television and especially music is, I think, the strongest part of its modern culture, and even seemingly nihilistic and barbaric elements of it – like the NWOBM or modern genres such as britpop – can be seen as part of a cultural continuity stretching back 200 or more years. This continuity is often obscured by the blandishments of modern art – the gutter style of modern drama, the spandex and satanism of the NWOBM, or the very modern and superficial faux working class posturing of some of the reformed toffs of the britpop scene – and of course it is also unrecognizable in some of the less talented and more degenerate products of modern British culture. But at its finest, modern British art, comedy and drama shows a strong appreciation of, and indeed directly channels, that long cultural tradition. I think for those of us from newer countries like the USA or Australia, this long cultural continuity can be surprising and perhaps also something we can be envious of (hence Australia’s historic “cultural cringe”). It’s also something we don’t always notice or appreciate, being more focused on those things that are fresh or new. But I think Iron Maiden is a really exceptional example of this tradition, being on the one hand embedded in what is often seen as a nihilistic and cultural vacuum (heavy metal) while simultaneously enormously dependent on a long cultural legacy for its themes and artistic influences. It isn’t just a case of a diamond in the rough, but of the ability of a traditional and often conservative entertainment and cultural establishment to continually reinvent itself without losing its roots.

fn1: this may earn me a fatwa from the fan club.