All Access Review: B+
Back in Aerosmith’s salad days, the early- to mid-1970s to be precise, the only way a band could hit every target demographic it hoped to reach was by touring all over and then going back out on the road to do it all over again and again. Today, they call that sort of thing “viral marketing,” as Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton jokes in the second episode of Sam Dunn’s incisive documentary series “Metal Evolution.” Others might refer to it as “paying your dues.”
Hamilton and company had no other choice when they were starting out. Neither did KISS or anybody else of that era that possessed dreams of rock ‘n’ roll world domination. In “Early Metal US,” the road to stardom is paved not with gold, but with broken-down tour buses, empty booze bottles, smashed bongs and used condoms, and while Dunn doesn’t delve deeply into the more tawdry aspects of touring, metal’s most intrepid documentarian does manage to illustrate how important it was from a business standpoint for KISS, Aerosmith and Alice Cooper to be road warriors. To spread their hard-rock contagion, gigging incessantly was the only way to get your name out there – that is unless you happened to get lucky and score an unlikely radio hit, like Alice Cooper did with that anthem of youthful rebellion “I’m Eighteen.” Getting it played on a Toronto radio station, which transmitted the song to parts throughout the North American Midwest, was certainly a coup for a band that, up to that time, had been ignored by radio, even as their elaborate stage show, a fun house of horrific thrills and chills, garnered the kind of publicity they would have never been able to buy.
Recollections of life on the road are peppered throughout “Early Metal US,” with Hamilton providing insight into how vital it was for bands like his to knock ‘em dead every night. It was certainly no different for the face-painted KISS, whose traveling circus of a stage show – what with Gene Simmons’ blood splitting and fire breathing , Peter Criss’s levitating drum kit, and Ace Frehley’s guitar gizmos – surely did the trick as far as building up a fan base goes. However, as Frehley explains to Dunn while vintage images of KISS’s theatricality in concert go rushing past, it was recording the explosive live album, Alive!, that ultimately launched them into the stratosphere and perhaps saved them from calling it quits. Delivering the goods onstage meant everything to KISS, and bringing that same excitement to vinyl was just as crucial.
And as KISS went along, they would use any tool they could to make money, even going so far as to record a chart-topping ballad in “Beth” – Criss, laughing all the way to the bank, talks at length to Dunn about how Simmons and Stanley didn’t want to do it and did everything they could to sabotage it in the studio – and go along with the trends of the day by releasing, horror of horrors, a disco song. Meanwhile, in Boston, Aerosmith set about bringing its furious, Rolling Stones-inspired blues-rock to the masses, with a Jagger-like lead singer in Steven Tyler and a guitar slinger by the name of Joe Perry. Hamilton is open and candid about how Aerosmith took on the critics and won over the people with a rugged, rollicking sound that became electrically charged in a live setting, and Dunn is just as honest in describing Aerosmith’s fall from grace due to substance abuse.
There would be a period of malaise in hard rock before Van Halen came along to inject a little hedonistic fun and a whole lot of heavy metal testosterone into an arena-rock corpse that needed to be shocked back to life. Young and cocky, with a supernatural guitar player in Eddie Van Halen, the California foursome boasted a “big rock” aesthetic, as former bassist Michael Anthony describes it to Dunn, and their thundering drums, blazing riffage and David Lee Roth’s showmanship made rock fun again. Unfortunately, Dunn and company cut short any exploration of Van Halen’s influence rather abruptly, as if time had gotten away from them and a quick-and-dirty edit was needed to wrap things up.
On the plus side, Dunn doesn’t drop the ball in detailing the impact of surf guitar legend Dick Dale and garage-rock, especially the variety that made Detroit famous, had on heavy metal’s development. Lenny Kaye is particularly articulate and concise in his analysis of garage-rock’s influence, while Dale passionately and without artifice explains how his use of thick strings and a revamped Fender amp led to increased volume. The role Blue Cheer played in drawing the blueprints for heavy metal is explored, as well, but it’s when Dunn travels to Detroit to revisit the incendiary, scene that birthed the MC5, The Stooges and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes that things really get interesting. Fiery, visceral concert footage of the MC5 kicking out the jams back in the day – some of it familiar, and some of it not so familiar – and Nugent’s wild-eyed tribute to the Wayne Kramer and the boys is something to behold. And Dunn does a fine job playing up the blue-collar influence on Detroit’s toughest, most confrontational acts, like Iggy Pop and The Stooges, with James Williamson and Scott Asheton establishing a link between the automobile industry and the bombed-out ruins of The Stooges’ drugged sonics.
- Peter Lindblad