The book follows the development of heavy metal chronologically, from its earliest origins to its state in the present day. Each chapter focuses on a different stage in metal’s evolution, covering thrash metal, black metal, death metal, and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). These are covered in detail, describing the bands at the forefront of each genre and what they did that was different from before.
Metal is also talked about as a subculture. O’Neill is keen to show that it’s not the Satanic suicide cult as it’s so often portrayed by the media, and is much more of a community of like-minded people united by their status as outsiders. Metalheads reject the values of mainstream society, and take pride in the fact that their music lacks mass appeal. And far from being dangerous and violent, O’Neill says they feel ‘reassured’ when there’s a group of big burly metalheads around.
It’s a lot more personal than just a history book, too. O’Neill talks about their own experience with heavy metal, from getting into it as a teenager to fronting their own successful band (The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, who combine punk, metal, and music hall, and sing dark, funny songs about the Victorian era). They have strong opinions about which bands are good and which aren’t, and will happily take the piss out of bad ones.
Andrew O’Neill is one of the best comedians working today, and A History of Heavy Metal shows the range of their talent. I went to their show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018 and once it was over was mortified when I found out I didn’t have any money on me. They thought I was doing a runner when I left to find a cashpoint, and said ‘bless your heart’ when I came back with a tenner. We had a brief conversation about my Exorcist t-shirt and then I left. It was a great experience.
Review by Charlie Alcock