Crowcroft, Orlando, Rock In A Hard Place (Book review)

Spread the metal:

Author:  Orlando Crowcroft
Title: Rock In A Hard Place
Publisher:  Zed Books
Published: 2017
Date: July, 2018
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: JP

I enjoy reading the quintessential ‘Rock Star’ biographies of the timeless trilogy of sex, drugs and rock ‘ n’ roll, but it is very nice and a pleasant change to read something with a lot more substance and ROCK IN A HARD PLACE is certainly such a book.

Orlando Crowcroft is a London, England based free-lance journalist who has traveled quite extensively and has lived and worked in places like Shang-hai, Dubai and Jersusalem.  ROCK IN A HARD PLACE seems to be a labour of love and almost a decade in the making and the sub-title says it all, ‘Music and Mayhem In The Middle-East’.   This well put together paperback is just under 300 pages and has a number of helpful references including a very useful map of the Middle-East.  I certainly would have liked some photos.  In some instances publishing photos may have unwanted attention, and in some cases imminent peril to the people being interviewed in these largely oppressive regimes, but a few pictures would have been nice.

I appreciated how he gave a very brief and simple history of some of the major conflicts, political parties and wars in the region because admittedly as a Westerner in my late 40’s, I’ve seen almost four decades of war and terror on the news and it all seems to blend together over the years (who is killing who this month and why)  so it was nice to be re-taught the differences between Hamas, Hezbollah, Hamrah and Homs!

Essentially, Crowcroft discusses, through interviews, the immense difficulty of being a musician (mostly Metal) in the Middle-East. ROCK IN A HARD PLACE is broken into six main chapters each one based on a nation (Egypt, Iran, Israel & Palestine, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria) within each chapter two or three smaller case-studies of artists and bands.  Crowcroft hints there is much more to publish and tough decisions to leave out certain other countries.   He does reference a little bit of rap and punk (which I could have done without) but it does provide context that ALL forms of Western music are pretty taboo, in most nations in the region.   Despite some subtle differences it is safe to say that all Metal is banned in the Middle-East, it is just that in some nations you will merely get shunned or censured, fired, ex-communicated and in other places, jailed, tortured or even killed.  Metal scenes, such as they exist, consist of deep, deep underground enclaves of maybe a few hundred people largely in hiding from authority.   In the few instance where Metal is not ‘illegal’ all of it is form to heavy scrutiny censorship and discrimination from the government, the army, the police, the religion authority and the media. I’ve heard local people complain of a lack of a local scene but they should read this book where people risk jail and/or torture for having a tattoo, long hair or daring to smuggle a Death Metal CD in to the country.

Despite the negatives, and there are many, ROCK IN A HARD PLACE really is  story of hope. Somehow, despite seemingly insurmountable odds Metal-heads congregate, grow, share, live, laugh, love and rock out in a fraternal bond of the Metal tribe. Most women aren’t quite there yet in terms of acceptance let alone active participation. Over the years Crowcroft kept in touch with people, some who stayed in their country, many who fled the horrors of war and or totalitarian regimes.  Tragically perhaps most of these stories have ended badly with what little traction bands gained being disrupted by war or politics or oppresion. There are many bands who again despite heavy odds managed to put on a concert or two, maybe record a demo or EP and almost instantly becoming legendary in their regions, not necessarily because they are ‘good’ (by Western standards) but because they actually DID it.  Crowcroft touches on some of the bigger names (and by that I meant known outside of the Middle-East) in the region by Orphaned Land, Melechesh, From the Vastland and the work of Nader Sadek, as success stories, however much of the narrative is about smaller, regional, independent bands.  I suppose in hindsight virtually every band is ‘indie’ in the Middle-East, there is no music industry to speak of…not for Death Metal anyway!  I’m surprised he did not even mention Iraq’s Acrassicauda one of the most famous bands from the Middle-East but they have had plenty of media coverage previously and Iraq was one of the nations not in the book.

Crowcroft thank fully remains largely neutral and non-political though the entire book.  It is difficult to avoid political subjects but he manages to do a good job. In the epilogue he indulges himself for a moment and talk politics and reveals himself to be very left-wing but as stated before that doesn’t taint the book.  On a slight note I have a Metal Muslim friend from Egypt who speaks of the crack down on Metal in Egypt just a few years ago and he himself had risked jail and saw some of his friends  jailed and tortured. He fled to Canada for a better life and now we go to as many Metal shows as we can where he gets to see bands that would never be allowed to play in Egypt. He is like a kid in a candy store!   His stories mirror the journalistic work done by Crowcroft.

Reading ROCK IN A HARD PLACE made me realize how lucky I am and others in the Western world.  While reading the book I was sitting in room with literally thousands of Heavy Metal CD’s that other people in the Middle-East will likely never have access too and if they did they would be difficult and very expensive.  I can go to my local store and have a huge selection and I can go to any number of Metal gigs without any fear of harassment or arrest. It gave me pause to think of the freedoms we can take for granted.   Crowcroft conclusions are that, if I am interpreting it correctly, that most Metal fans just want to be left alone to live their own lives, to be free to listen to music, attend concerts, to play a guitar or drums and maybe write and record music.  However for many people of authority certain countries that is just not acceptable. ROCK IN A HARD PALCE is a revealing and important book helping shed light on the plight of Metal in the Middle-East.

Technical Specs:

Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Zed Books (June 15, 2017)
Language: English
Product Dimensions: 5 x 1 x 7.8 inches