They say that there’s no such thing as bad press, and heavy metal has historically thrived in times of and in spite of massive public controversy. While sex, drugs and Satanism are easy to sell, some artists have pushed the envelope into realms beyond what is considered socially acceptable, either consciously or by accident.
These are the ten most controversial acts in heavy metal history.
Few bands have thrived on negative attention quite like these Californian thrash gods. Shock tactics such as Satanism and explicit violence in their lyrics turned Slayer into boogeymen among pearl-clutching parents and church groups from their earliest days onward, but their use of overt fascist imagery, songs about concentration camps, and tongue-in-cheek racism have been the stickiest subjects for most metalheads surrounding the band.
In the early 1990s, a lawsuit by the parents of James Vance and Raymond Belknap thrust the British metal heroes into the national spotlight. Years earlier, a night of partying turned deadly when the two young men suddenly shot themselves. Vance survived for a time, saying in a letter to Belknap’s parents: “I believe that alcohol and heavy metal music such as Judas Priest led us to be mesmerized.” The parents sought restitution, claiming that subliminal messages in the band’s cover of Spooky Tooth’s “Better By You, Better Than Me” inspired the suicide pact. The case was eventually thrown out.
From urinating on the Alamo (kind of) to biting the head off of a bat, the Prince Of Darkness has weathered his fair share of controversies over the years. However, the biggest storm Ozzy Osbourne had to weather came in 1985, when the parents of John Daniel McCollum sued the former Black Sabbath frontman and his record company; alleging that a lyric from the song “Suicide Solution” inspired their son to take his own life. The case was thrown out, and former manager Don Arden was quoted as saying: “To be perfectly honest, I would be doubtful as to whether Mr. Osbourne knew the meaning of the lyrics, if there was any meaning, because his command of the English language is minimal.”
When most people think of American death metal, images of grotesque album covers and an air of menace conjured by sociopathic lyrics quickly come to mind. No band embodies these qualities quite as loudly and proudly as Cannibal Corpse, whose art was routinely censored by retailers in their early days and whose biggest hits carry titles like “Stripped, Raped, and Strangled” and “I Cum Blood.” It’s a good thing for everyone that longtime frontman George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher’s penchant for toys has softened their exterior over the years.
More than soaring riffs and witch-cackle shrieks, the second wave of black metal was built around an aesthetic of abject misanthropy and death. Leading the charge in the early 1990s was Mayhem, whose guitarist Euronymous ruled the scene with an elitist iron fist. When frontman Dead killed himself, Euronymous used his suicide to build an air of mystique around the band. Soon came the church burnings and Euronymous’ own murder at the hands of Mayhem bass player Varg Vikernes.
Whether it be addressing racial injustice or the realities of life in the criminal class, there has always been an undercurrent of political awareness in Ice-T’s work. Along with his metallic hardcore band Body Count, the rapper took the ire of vocal police unions, parents groups, and even the President of the United States on the chin when he addressed the issue of self defense against institutional violence in their notorious 1992 track, “Cop Killer.” Due to death threats and continued pressure on the label’s shareholders, he eventually agreed to have the song removed from the band’s self-titled album of his own volition. Addressing the controversy, Ice-T said: “I’m singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality. I ain’t never killed no cop. I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it. If you believe that I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.”
Art is entirely subjective. When someone releases their work into the wild, they relinquish control over how it will be interpreted both by individuals and whole segments of society. Champions of hard living fun, AC/DC were more than willing to take the heat from hardline Christians who thought their breakthrough Highway To Hell album was Satanic or feminists who bristled at the depictions of women in their lyrics. When their song “Night Prowler” was cited by media outlets for potentially influencing serial killer Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, the band became subjects of public scrutiny at a level they never signed up for.
Nine people dressed up like demented circus freaks playing death-obsessed kinetic heavy metal are bound to strike a nerve here and there. The music of Slipknot has been cited several times surrounding high-profile violent crimes over the years, such as the case of a young couple who used the song “Disasterpiece” to psych themselves up before killing their friend in 2003 and an incident in which a student wearing a mask inspired by frontman Corey Taylor slashed classmates with a samurai sword in 2008.
Controversy doesn’t always come in the form of hyperbolic media panic over lyrical or aesthetic content. When Metallica effectively sued fans who downloaded portions of their catalog via the peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster in 2000, the band immediately alienated all but their most die-hard of supporters. Now, I don’t know anyone who has ever been served court papers stemming from the incident and most professional musicians in the age of Spotify will tell you that Metallica had a point, but it remains a giant black mark on their 40+ year career.
Guns N’ Roses
Where the fuck do I begin with Guns N’ Roses? Robert Williams’ original robot rapist cover art for Appetite For Destruction? Axl Rose’s incitement of multiple full-scale riots? How about the band trying to defend themselves over media reaction to the lyrics of “One In A Million” and just making matters worse? Or maybe the Charles Manson cover would be a good place to start? I dunno, man… take your pick.