O’Neill, Andrew – A History Of Heavy Metal (Book Review)

Reviewed: December 2017
Released: 2017, Headline
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: JP


The British stand-up comedian by trade writes a surprisingly accurate and very funny history of Heavy Metal.

There are a few Books about the history of Heavy Metal. Many (most?) of them are visual histories. Many of them fall short. How do you accurately and in an unbiased fashion, document an entire, global sub-culture that existed almost 50 years? The answer is, you probably can’t. However, each year, people keep trying and these books add to the collective knowledge about the genre.

British Comedian Andrew O’Neill has decided to throw his hat in the ring and give it a go and he does a pretty decent job. His new book A HISTORY OF HEAVY METAL caught my eye only because he has a unique approach. He had been doing a stand-up routine on Heavy Metal and has essentially expanded it and published it.

A HISTORY OF HEAVY METAL is a standard paperback, no pictures, no frills and runs just shy of 300 pages. To start, I like the title. He choose to call his book, ‘A’ history…not ‘THE’ history. There is a difference. This little act of humility goes a long way compared to the many book called ‘The Ultimate…’ or ‘The Definitive…’ O’Neill takes his ego out of the equation early on and states his bias way up front and does not present himself as an expert, ‘former editor of this magazine’ or ‘former writer of that webzine’ etc. This is just his observations and somewhat surprisingly, he is quite accurate most of the time. I don’t say ‘surprisingly’ to be an egotistical jerk, but so many of these book, as I said earlier, fall really short.

Let’s get the few negatives out of the way. O’Neill is a mainstream 90’s Metal guy. He is a Slayer/Sepultura/Fear Factory guy but to his credit he wishes he had been born in the 80’s because he realized he missed out (by virtue of being born too late) and lots of great stuff. Accordingly, because of his fairly narrow tastes, he ignores at least half of all the Metal bands and genres on the planet. In seven short pages (Chapter 10 ‘Genre Inflation: Too Many Cooks, Too Many Cooks’) he discusses Doom Metal, Folk Metal, Power Metal, Pirate Metal, Prog Metal and Gothic Metal and arbitrarily dismisses all of them with the wave of a pen. It is all done very lovingly and in a funny way. He states; ‘…here is a chapter where I will dig into a few of the other areas of Metal and stop you getting all uptight cos I didn’t mention them.’ (p. 190). I was getting upright…I really was!

His other flaw is that he labours under the misconception that Grunge killed Metal. That myth has been rebuked and disproven so many times that I was a bit surprised that he thinks that, especially when so much of his other observations are accurate. He does state upfront he absolutely HATES Melodic Hard Rock/Metal/Glam so naturally he doesn’t follow that scene and consequently thinks it all went away in 1992. Nothing could be farther from the truth, the opposite is true, Grunge died and Glam is still going strong so he certainly needs to do more research, read some facts, revise and refine his opinion.

The last flaw that is very common among writers who lack a global perspective. That is that if a Metal band (or scene) doesn’t come from the UK, America or Scandinavia, it doesn’t exist. The story is very traditional and linear and leaves out many regional scenes around the planet. There are a few other little mistakes in the book but nothing outrageous or unforgiveable.

The positives and the fun far outweigh my criticisms. Like most stand-up comedians, he is a really keen observer of human behaviour, patterns and trends and incorporates his gentle comedy into his writing. He never seems really mean-spirited, even about the stuff he doesn’t like or value. He pokes fun at some of the more ludicrous parts of Metal and yet still retains a really cool sense of elitism that I admire. He loves METAL to death but can make a bit of fun of it. I can’t even begin to even count the jokes…hundreds maybe? I was laughing out loud on several occasions. O’Neill is a Brit and drops many pop-culture references that I fear may be lost on your average North American. I have family and roots in England so I got most (but not all) of the regional jokes but for folks who don’t know who Vim Fuego is or who Dave Lister is, some of the humour may be lost.

O’Neill incorporates many of his own Metallic experiences, concerts, mosh-pits, watching videos, head-banging, and drinking into his narrative, making fun of himself as much as others. In terms of ‘history’ he opted to do a very simplistic time-line style. This was likely to appease his non-Metal audience members with his stand-up routine. He kept the narrative simple, but laced with many pleasingly and surprisingly advanced observations about subtle sub-culture elements, I found myself agreeing with him on many, many points…even if we don’t agree in our taste in bands. He is one of the few people who knows the origins of the term ‘Big Four’! Chapter by chapter he follows the oft-told story…starting with the roots of Metal, the NWOBHM, Thrash, Death, Black Metal, Grunge, Nu Metal and on down the line and never misses a beat.

I could really go into all the really, cool, fun and insightful things he says about Metal but this book review is already way too long, the Double-Live Whitesnake album I listened too while typing this is over and I’m hungry because it’s lunch time. You will have to buy your own copy and read it for yourself. He concludes his history with a long section about his very amusing and well-done predictions for the future of the genre. I can see it happening that way. Ultimately, O’Neill has written one of the best versions of the history of Metal that I have read.

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Format Reviewed:
Publisher: Headline
Pages: 296