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??

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