If This Were an Argument About a Tournament to Determine the Greatest Hair Metal Song
“Bang Your Head (Metal Health)” seems like it must be included in such a tournament, but close listening and looking reveal its liminal place in a/o near the subgenre. It models most necessary features of the subgenre, before they’d become codified and stale, but transcends those features. Made of spare parts, it is, somehow, a “good” song--even epic. It has aged far better than most of its peers. Its partisans may be upset that it is not in the March Shredness field, but the rejection is entirely appropriate. It lacks the banality and gloss (not to mention the expensive, synthesizer-heavy production values) that would come to define hair metal.
If This Were Such an Argument While Playing Nintendo in a Basement Rec Room Circa 1988
“Whatever, we’re gonna leave ‘Metal Health’ out of this. Too metal, not enough hair. And it’s too good to even be part of this conversation.”
The Only References to Sex in “Bang Your Head (Metal Health),” Shockingly Enough
- “Piledriver” (one of multiple meanings)
- “Fill the crack” (crudely sexual, but there are interesting potential secondary meanings, on which more later)
That’s it. That’s the whole list. All references to “rocking,” of course, have that sexual connotation going back to the origins of the phrase “rock n’ roll.” But to these ears, in this song, Quiet Riot is mostly talking about actual musical rocking, the kind of back-and-forth that would get your head banging.
If This Were a Memoir: Scene One
Do you recall Satanic panic? It was everywhere in small-town Nebraska in the mid-1980s. Kids would spook each other with stories of that barn, that abandoned shack, that boarded-up house, where pentagrams and blood were found, where strange incantations had been heard. Somehow it seemed to infect the grownups, too. This I still do not understand.
I can remember being at the home of my Mom’s best friend, probably around ’85, ’86. I was very young; the grownups were talking at the kitchen table. I was bored. I went down the hall to go to the bathroom.
I peeked into Mom’s best friend’s teenage son’s room. And there was the poster: the cover of the Metal Health album. That straitjacketed, metal-masked figure, one wild eye bulging out, scared the bejesus out of me. Just the words heavy metal kind of scared me, to be honest. I went to a Lutheran school; metal meant Satan.
The emblem for this view of Quiet Riot is that moment in the video when Kevin DuBrow says “rock ya” one last time and glares into the camera with psycho-killer menace.
If This Were a Bold Attempt at an English Class Assignment by a Circa Sixteen-Year-Old Quiet Riot Fan
|Hamlet: “how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me the uses of the world!”||“I’m frustrated, outdated…”|
|Gertrude: “Have you forgot me?”||“Momma says that I never ever mind her”|
|Claudius: “There’s something in his soul/O’er which his melancholy sits on brood…”||“I’m an axe-grinder”|
|Hamlet “put[s] an antic disposition on” to reveal the truth; Polonius: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”||“Metal health will cure you crazy”|
|Hamlet: “But I have that within which passeth show—These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”||Is literally by a band called Quiet Riot|
|Hamlet: “And thy [the ghost’s] commandment all alone shall live/Within the book and volume of my brain…”||“Bang your head and raise the dead”|
The Name(s) of the Song
It is listed as “Metal Health” on the Metal Health LP album. It is “Bang Your Head (Metal Health)” on the single. Take your pick, I guess.
If This Were a Memoir: Scene Two
I got a cheap old turntable in high school. It was 1995 or 1996, at or near the peak of American pop culture’s foreboding Mt. Irony. And yes, reader: I found and purchased a vinyl copy of Metal Health out of ironic “appreciation” for their cover of “Cum on Feel the Noize.”
My friends and I were also heavily into Spinal Tap at the time: the film, the soundtrack, the band. If that gives you any indication. We were maybe ahead of the curve in (semi-ironically) re-embracing hair metal’s cheesiness, and its odd paradoxical dance: the cheap earnestness, the knockoff honesty, the fascistic individualism, the humorous horror-show. You could like grunge as well as this stuff, as Soundgarden showed us, maybe, by covering “Big Bottom.”
The emblem for this view of Quiet Riot is the ridiculous air guitar thing that DuBrow does during Carlos Cavazo’s solo in the video:
The Use of “Bang Your Head (Metal Health)” in The Wrestler
It plays under the opening credits, but made strange: it drags, maybe a quarter slower than standard. The slowed tempo tilts the song towards heavy metal. It’s more like a dirge, but also more like what you might hear in a dream. It seems to be a live version—Kevin DuBrow’s vocals are noticeably different on some lines. (The film’s soundtrack album features the original version.) It’s the entrance music of the film’s protagonist, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, from his professional wrestling heyday in the ‘80s.
The first words we hear in the film are the lyrics of the second verse:
Well, I’m frustrated, outdated
I really wanna be overrated
I’m a finder, and I’m a keeper
I’m not a loser and I ain’t no weeper
This remains The Ram’s theme song until his final match, when he switches to Guns n’ Roses' “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” And this is also noticeably slowed down. Dreamlike. Like a brief history of hair metal, the film starts with Quiet Riot, ends with Guns n’ Roses, and has Ratt, Cinderella, Slaughter, FireHouse (God help us), and others sandwiched in between. The Ratt droppings here include “I’m Insane,” a straight-up “Metal Health” rip-off that makes Quiet Riot seem paragons of subtlety and wit.
Of course, the soundtrack also features Springsteen’s title song. It was nominated for an Oscar, and that’s only right: it is very respectable, very earnest, and more or less the direct opposite of the sound of hair metal. In a way, the film uses its hair- and heavy-metal-laden soundtrack to set up the catharsis of Springsteen playing over the credits: this is the song that’s supposed to make you empathize, make you feel, after the thoughtless hedonism and short-term pleasures and recklessness of Randy’s life and the pro wrestling grind.
But, I don’t know: I walked away from the theater thinking about what a brilliant choice “Metal Health” was for the film, and I can’t say I’ve thought much at all about the Springsteen song again.
Curing You Crazy
A small part of my affection for this song stems from my idiosyncratic reading of these lines. I’m convinced that the lyrics are “Metal health’ll cure you crazy, metal health’ll cure you mad,” not “your crazy” and “your mad.” More or less every lyrics site online begs to differ.
Partly that is simply what I hear. It’s also a much, much more interesting lyric this way. The song plays with the tropes of madness as so many others have since Black Sabbath more or less invented the genre. As with most others, it is not advocating for treatment with a licensed therapist. It is, instead, plainly announcing that “metal health will drive you mad.” This is presented as a very good thing.
In the tradition of just about all 20th-century American art, Quiet Riot is arguing that blindly following societal norms is not sane at all. The crazy-cure of “metal health” is “what we all need.” This reminds me a bit of homeopathy: the small madness of headbanging will help cure those afflicted with the larger madness of giving a damn about what authority figures think of them.
Smell the Glove
Production for This Is Spinal Tap took place in late 1982; Metal Health was released in March 1983. How surreal it must have been for those who had worked on the film—and those who were, I’d assume, working feverishly on post-production in 1983—to witness the success of this album. It is right next door to the absurd musical genius of Tap, particularly in the composition and delivery of lines like “Get your strait-jackets on tonight!” You can picture David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel talking very seriously about how they really want to be overrated.
The video for “Metal Health” is in Spinal Tap territory, as well. The yellow latex kitchen gloves grabbing at the red-leather-strait-jacketed hero at the beginning; the extras in hospital gowns (students from California Institute of the Arts, according to the producer, Spencer Proffer); the fiery iron mask which rolls halfway down the staircase at the end and then just sits there, pretty pointlessly burning.
Rudy Sarzo on the Bass Guitar
You should just know that it seems to have been commonplace back in the '80s for Sarzo to play his solo during the bridge with his bass slung upside down. It looks simultaneously comical and impressive and alien and spidery and is more or less a stroke of genius for a song that plays along the border between cartoonish and menacing. Sadly, because the bridge was shortened for the video/single edit, this move only makes a very brief cameo there: [link] [link] [link]
Oh, but Also Chuck Wright on the Bass Guitar
As with an awful lot of hair metal, the rhythm section makes the difference between good and great. Frankie Banali plays the hell out of the drums on this song, but it’s not a showstopping drum part; it’s the bass that really grabs you. And, apparently, it’s actually Chuck Wright who plays on the album track, presumably recorded before Sarzo rejoined the band after the tragic death of Randy Rhoads in 1982.
That Line Though
“I really wanna be overrated” belongs in the pantheon of great rock lyrics. I mean that. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better, more succinct summation of the hair metal ethos, or—stretching a bit—of the 1980s more broadly. Take all the exposure you can get; ride the wave while you can; do that coke while it’s on the mirror.
So there’s the cartoonish element, yes: but this line is honest in a way so few rock lyrics are. Naked, petulant, adolescent, jocoserious whining for attention, for fame. It’s like the few occasions when pro wrestling transcends: all the buffoonery allows you to break the fourth wall and tell the stupid, crass truth in the daylight. We should also remember that this album was released in early 1983, before the clichéd persona of the decade had been fully codified. The brattiness of this verse, and of the song’s other great couplet—“Won’t ever let up/ Hope it annoys you”—is ahead of its time, if only slightly.
This is the turning point from glam rock to hair metal.
If This Were a Memoir: Scene Three
I have performed “Metal Health.” It was at karaoke night at a bar on the western fringes of Omaha in 2016. It was summer and I was wearing totally innocuous middle-aged-white-schlub clothes. It didn’t matter. You need to dive into a karaoke performance or not bother at all, and so I dove in.
Hair metal songs are right up there with country songs as the best choices for karaoke, and for the same reason: they are all about theatricality and persona, throwing yourself into the character of someone bearing their soul in the most artificial way possible. As an added bonus, “Metal Health” is intended for audience participation: in every live performance video I’ve seen, Kevin DuBrow exhorts the crowd to pump fists and join in on the “bang your head” chorus.
Singing the song was immensely fun. You learn from performing this song in public—in a way you don’t from, say, singing along in the car or the shower—what an unexpected power it has, both for you and for an audience. Menacing and sneering; leading the chant for the chorus; playing the role of the lunatic reaching his breaking point as you come out of the bridge; it is hilarious and exhilarating. You can wink if you want, but I enjoyed playing it as straight as a gawky dude in khaki shorts and sandals could.
The emblem for this view of Quiet Riot is the shot, near the end of the video, when we see that the audience is wearing masks too—that the mask is the mark of freedom:
Join the Pack, Fill the Crack, Bang Your Head, Wake the Dead
Sure, yes, “fill the crack” is a crude sexual reference. And, if we care to make it so, much more.
The Metal Health album was dedicated to the memory of Randy Rhoads, the band’s original guitarist, who died in a plane crash on tour with Ozzy Osbourne in 1982. DuBrow, in particular, was close friends with Rhoads. The last track on the album, “Thunderbird,” is listed as “for R.R” (and is an early entry in the schmaltzy-power-ballad sweepstakes). But if any song on the album is a fitting eulogy for Rhoads, it is “Bang Your Head (Metal Health).” He is the dead the band is calling on us to help awaken.
But, also. In the Kabbalistic cosmology according to Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity’s Rainbow, we—the physical universe—are “fragments of vessels broken at the Creation.” Meant to contain God’s divine will, the vessels shattered under the immense force of the almighty light. Pynchon refers with some frequency to this idea, and in particular to the idea of the Qlippoth, Shells of the Dead, hollow fragments without so much as a spark of the divinity that makes redemption possible for most of us. (I’m indebted to Steven Weisenburger’s Gravity’s Rainbow Companion for this remedial Kabbalistic knowledge.)
In joining a pack of which we form a cohesive, vital, engaged, self-aware part—a couple, a family, a band, a capacity crowd of metalheads or folkies or whatever—we might begin to approach the wholeness that we were intended to be and reflect. We start to fill the cracks of the divine vessels. And in banging our heads—joyfully celebrating our connection to others, to music, to the expression of being human—we might help to wake those shells of the dead, to kindle the divine spark.
Anti-metal? Or does the darkness of metal always help those sparks of divine light burn brighter?
Will Hansen is a librarian, currently Director of Reader Services and Curator of Americana at the Newberry Library in Chicago. His published articles include work on Herman Melville, active learning with primary source materials, archives of “born-digital” materials, and other topics. He has led hundreds of hands-on instruction sessions with rare books and other primary sources, as well as teaching Adult Education Seminars at the Newberry on Moby-Dick and Alexander Hamilton. He has curated or co-curated library exhibitions on Charles Dickens, the Bloomsbury Group, female writers of the Victorian era, Alexander Hamilton, and other topics. Also, he loves Quiet Riot.