How Using Heavy Metal As A Scapegoat Led To A Riot

Fernando Catalina Landa, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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People nowadays like to romanticize the salad days of heavy metal. While it’s undeniable that some of the best music ever recorded was coming out in the 1980s and early ‘90s, a lack of understanding by the mainstream served to push headbangers further into the margins. Obnoxious as parental pearl-clutching could be, dangerous political lobbies whose goal it was to paint metalheads as a violent horde, hell bent for self-destruction. 

It’s only human to want to apply reasoning to tragedy. At this point in history, metal proved to be a convenient scapegoat for a spate of suicides and murders across the country. In 1986, Ozzy Osbourne was sued by a family over the song “Suicide Solution” after a young fan killed himself. A similar scenario played out a few years later with Judas Priest over their cover of Spooky Tooth’s “Better By You, Better Than Me.” In California, thrash legends Slayer were sued for inspiring a horrific murder at the hands of teenage fans.

In March of 1987, four teenagers in Bergenfield, New Jersey died as part of a suicide pact. As some of them were fans of heavy metal, whispers began circulating that Iron Maiden somehow inspired the incident. When the band played at the nearby Meadowlands Sports Complex a few weeks later on March 28th, they were asked to address the crowd regarding the tragedy, to which frontman Bruce Dickinson said: “You might have read about a few kids very tragic and very sadly committed suicide around New Jersey recently. This is something … very tragic and not something to be taken lightly, and they’ve asked us to say a few words about it because apparently some of these kids used to be Iron Maiden fans or heavy metal fans.”

He went on, “one or two people in this world who I think have more of an eye for a fast buck and quick headline than for common sense and the truth have somehow decided that the tragic death of these kids is going to be somehow laid at the door of music and I think that’s terrible.

“Whenever anybody says something about our kind of music … you just tell them that what we’re doing up here is not evil, it’s not bad, it’s there to make people happy.”

Unfortunately for Dickinson and heavy metal as a whole, all hell would break out later that night. As The Star-Ledger reported at the time, the riot didn’t begin until after the show had ended at 12:15am. However, fans say that the environment was tense throughout the concert. Maiden fan Jason Kalfin said of the tailgate earlier on: “Everybody’s hanging out, listening to music and all of a sudden a bottle smashes near us.” As the glass continued to fly, he and his friends ducked into the arena to avoid the danger.

When the dust settled in the early morning hours, two cars had been overturned and torched while 33 people were arrested on charges such as aggravated assault with a motor vehicle, simple assault, trespassing, criminal mischief and creating a disturbance. 

Called the worst ever incident to ever occur at the Meadowlands by some police at the time, a ban on alcohol before concerts was temporarily put into effect. As much of a headache as that might be, the real problem to come on the heels of the melee came in the form of a segment on prestigious news magazine 20/20, which used footage of the chaos in order to lambast heavy metal and again posit the blame for the Bergenfield suicides on Iron Maiden.

When asked during the segment about accusations of heavy metal inspiring outrageous and sick behavior, Dickinson responded: “You mean like selling arms to Iran? Or these guys doing insider dealings or companies dumping toxic waste everywhere? Because they wear suits and ties [you think] it’s ok. They’re not sick.

Check out some clips of the segment right here.