Rock and Roll Book Club: '666 Songs to Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die'

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'666 Songs to Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die.'
'666 Songs to Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

When sociologist Bethany Bryson set out to map musical taste across a range of Americans, one refrain rang out so loudly she used it for the title of her 1996 research report: "Anything But Heavy Metal."

Just like everybody thinks they're middle class except the people who very, very obviously aren't, nobody thinks they're a metal fan except the people who very, very obviously are. To be fair, it's not the most ostensibly welcoming of genres. You'd kind of feel like a jerk to admit you don't like gospel music or acoustic folk, but when bands give themselves names like Slayer, Anthrax, and Five Finger Death Punch, you don't really need to justify it if you'd prefer to take a pass.

We could delve into the history of metal and argue over which metal records you absolutely must have if you want to call yourself a serious musichead, but you know what? This week is Halloween, and God — er, Satan — knows we all have some really good reasons to bang our heads right now. So let's talk about Bruno MacDonald's new book 666 Songs to Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die (die, er, buy now).

Straightaway, MacDonald acknowledges that metal purists won't approve of every track he picks. "If we limit it to acts who actually admit to being metal," he writes in an introduction, "there would be a lot of Judas Priest, Manowar and Saxon in this book, and not much else." Instead, the author's pitched a big tent full of evil clowns like Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, and Slipknot — alongside some slightly unexpected appearances from the likes of the Beatles ("Helter Skelter"), Fleetwood Mac ("Oh Well"), and My Bloody Valentine ("Only Shallow"). The common denominator:

Does it, or does it not, rock? Does it compel you to drum on the nearest surface? Does it make you grab a tennis racquet, broom or docile cat to use as an air guitar? Does it whisk you to a muddy field of likeminded fans, having your retinas scorched by pyro and kissing your hearing goodbye?

In other words, don't overthink it. 666 Songs is essentially a whole book of No Apologies tracks for when you're feeling like getting a little loud, a little dark, and a little dumb. To be sure, there's some serious subject matter here — Jay-Z's "99 Problems," for example, with its bone-crunching sample of Billy Squier's "The Big Beat" — but there are also a lot of paeans to the simple pleasures like "Love in an Elevator" ("Aerosmith's greatest song since their seventies heyday"), "Denim and Leather" ("It's a song for the people," says Saxon frontman Biff Byford), and "The Vampire from Nazareth" (Seth Siro Anton, the frontman of Greek group Septicflesh, says he wants people to know his home country for more than just Zorba).

The book proceeds in chronological order from Link Wray's "Rumble" (1958) to Rammstein's "Deutschland" (2019). An index by artist reveals that the most-represented acts include AC/DC (10 songs), Aerosmith (10), Black Sabbath (13), Iron Maiden (13), Judas Priest (10), Metallica (12), Rush (10), and Slayer (13). Yep, it's a pretty white list, although rap-rock gets its righteous representation via Run-D.M.C. ("King of Rock") and Faith No More ("We Care a Lot," inevitably, plus four more).

Update: After this review was published, Bruno MacDonald wrote to me via e-mail, noting, "The inclusion of Bad Brains, Body Count, Jimi Hendrix, Ho99o9, Ice-T, Jay-Z, Living Colour, Prince and Run-DMC — plus Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, half of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, Skin of Skunk Anansie, William DuVall-era Alice in Chains, Maxim of the Prodigy, Anthrax's team-up with Public Enemy, and Japan's Babymetal, Dir En Grey and Guitar Wolf — makes 666 Songs (in my view, of course) substantially more diverse than one would expect of a book of this nature."

Each selection is accompanied by an album cover and a cute little flag indicating the act's national origin: lots of Brits, Americans, Swedes, and, unsurprisingly, Germans, plus representatives from countries including France (Trust), Brazil (Sepultura), and Japan (Guitar Wolf).

Each song also has a brief blurb, featuring a quick fact or a hot take from MacDonald ("Before 'The Final Countdown,' Europe were credible rockers," he writes in support of "Rock the Night"), as well as a lot of quotes from various press interviews by both band members and admirers. Prince tells Rolling Stone that "Let's Go Crazy" reflects more of a Santana influence than Jimi Hendrix, while Bob Dylan says that "Link Wray invented heavy metal."

Of course, not all the blurbs are particularly revealing. Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Catholic School Girls Rule" was "inspired by a young lady that Anthony Kiedis 'met' on tour." (Oh, really?) W.A.S.P.’s "Animal (F--k Like a Beast)" is "a song about 'animal sex' with no emotional or love commitment." (Ya think?) Re: Body Count's "Civil War," Ice-T offers that "if a motherf---er comes through my door, I'm not grabbing a butter knife."

Except for the hardest-core headbangers, everyone will find artists and songs they don't know on just about every page. The ones new to me include "Runaways-meets-Motörhead" rockers Girlschool with 1981's "C'mon Let's Go"; 1993's "thunderously funky" track "Midnight Mountain" from Cathedral; and "I'm So Sick" from the self-titled 2005 debut of a band called Flyleaf, which apparently went platinum.

MacDonald argues hard for the righteousness of Paramore, who of late have gone indie pop but get five selections in 666 Songs. Their emo peers Fall Out Boy ("Sugar, We're Goin Down"), My Chemical Romance ("Welcome to the Black Parade"), and Evanescence ("Made of Stone") also make the list. There's perhaps less punk than you'd expect (no Social Distortion?), but the Ramones ("Blitzkrieg Bop") and the Stooges ("Search and Destroy") do make the book — and punk revivalists Green Day get no fewer than three songs, including the epic "Jesus of Suburbia."

The album art could be a book in its own right: 666 attempts to visually depict a sonic sneer. Some of the covers are iconic — the four white faces against a black backdrop on the cover of Kiss (1974), the burning skyscraper on Def Leppard's Pyromania (1983), the slamming fist on Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power (1992) — and some of them are, well, not. We're looking at a lot of skulls, a lot of pouting lips, a lot of zombies, and every flavor of black ritual or descent into hell. Typography is distressed, dripping, or gothic: spurning serifs is the antithesis of "heavy."

The winners for most consistently bad cover design, though, have got to be Korn. They have seven songs, and the art for every one looks like it was designed by a stoned freshman putting off their homework in the college computer lab.

Despite the fact that this week's holiday is commonly referenced among these artists (there's a whole band called Helloween, and the Edgar Winter Group have "Frankenstein," and let's not forget Rob Zombie's "Dragula"), you're not actually apt to hear them at your (virtual) Halloween party. Families might welcome trick-or-treaters (when there's not a pandemic) with "Monster Mash" or maybe a little Bach, but Gillan's "I'll Rip Your Spine Out" (1979) might be a little...real.

The one stone Halloween classic that makes it into 666 Songs is actually one of the book's least musically heavy songs: Blue Öyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" (1976). In terms of sheer heart attack potential it's no "Make Them Suffer" (Cannibal Corpse, 2006), but it is very literally about the Grim Reaper. "Basically it's a great love song," guitarist Donald Roeser told NME, "with the dead boy coming back for his girl and finding she's waited for him."

While we mark this uneasy Halloween and watch for a Covid vaccine, there's at one prescription for everyone: more cowbell.

The Current's 666 Songs giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's 666 Songs giveaway between 6:30 a.m. Central on Wednesday, October 29, 2020 and 11:59 p.m. Central on Tuesday, November 3, 2019.

Five (5) winners will each receive one (1) hardcover copy of Bruno MacDonald's book 666 Songs to Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $24.99

Winners will be notified via e-mail on Wednesday, November 4, 2020. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. Central on Thursday, November 5, 2020.

This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2020 Official Giveaway Rules.

You must be 13 or older to submit any information to American Public Media. The personally identifying information you provide will not be sold, shared, or used for purposes other than to communicate with you about American Public Media programs. See Minnesota Public Radio Terms of Use and Privacy policy.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

November 5: Violet Bent Backward Over the Grass by Lana Del Rey (buy now)

November 12: She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music (Revised and Updated 25th Anniversary Edition) by Lucy O'Brien (buy now)

November 19: The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America by Marcus J. Moore (buy now)

November 26: Thanksgiving


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