If you’re a burgeoning codger like me, you remember this decade we had back in the day referred to as “The Eighties”. Women wore lots of make-up and used lots of hairspray, and they wore outfits that involved massive shoulder pads and often ankle boots with heels. Dudes used colorful bandanas as fashion accessories, doing so unironically, and the one-earring look seemed highly rebellious and edgy. (♥) MTV was changing the game, and in the early part of the decade we were still buying our music on vinyl and cassette because CDs were still trying to get a piece of the market and Al Gore hadn’t invented the internet yet. If you wanted music you could either hear it on the radio, see it on MTV, or had to go down to the store and actually buy it.
Of course, buying music was also a challenge when you were a young teen living out in the sticks a 20 minute drive from anything in a place that didn’t even have a bus stop you could reasonably walk to. You had to wait for those opportunities when you could tag along with your mom or dad when they went into town or, very rarely, to the mall. Those were not to be passed up, especially if you wanted to buy something on your own, and music wasn’t one of those things you could trust your parents to get for you. Given the cover art, I don’t think my mom would have bought me a Dio or Mötley Crüe album even if I’d begged; shoot, I was lucky I once convinced her to pick me up a copy of Judas Priest’s Defenders of the Faith – “Judas Priest? What the hell kind of name is that?” At that point there were still albums I had to sort of hide to make sure they didn’t meet an untimely demise at the hands of a room-cleaning mom.
Which leads me to how I came to own a copy of Masters of Metal when it came out in 1984. It was one of those tag-along trips with one or both of my parents and I’m pretty sure we ended up at a Pay ‘n’ Save store. If you grew up in the Seattle area, you know what I’m talking about. If not, think of a huge drugstore version of K-Mart. They carried a bit of everything, so at the very least you had stuff to look at while your parents shopped. And what they also had in a locked rotating case up by the cash register were cassettes. Cassettes! This was an unexpected opportunity! Unfortunately they were all locked away behind pexiglass, so while I could read the artist and album names there was no way to check out the cover art or see the names of the songs. And since you had to have a manager come over and unlock it for you, it’s not like you could just stand around and look at one after another while he stood around and waited, especially if you were just some punk kid. So I convinced my parents to let me by Masters of Metal based entirely on the title. It was probably the first time I did a musical roll of the dice.
Masters of Metal was put out by K-Tel, a brand that, if you’re of a certain age, you remember for putting out all kinds of music compilations, as well as all kinds of other “As Seen on TV” type products back before “As Seen on TV” was an actual thing and brand of it’s own. You can check out some of their old commercials on YouTube, including for some of their later metal comps – and they’re absolutely stunning, so perfectly 80s that it hurts. But anyway… Masters of Metal‘s 13 tracks were a combination of bands I knew (Van Halen, KISS, Twisted Sister) plus a bunch more I hadn’t heard of (Y&T, Zebra, Krokus), and it became sort of my primer into the world of heavy metal, expanding my horizons with classic bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. (♠) Of course, it lead me down a couple of dead ends too, for example making me think that the post-Ozzy / post-Ronnie James Dio “Trashed” was in some way representative of Black Sabbath’s style. But hey, I still like “Trashed” even if Born Again is a pretty widely despised album. Regardless, this was the closest thing to a heavy metal encyclopedia that I could put my hands on.
I’ve been looking for a copy of this for the last two or three years, always checking the rock and metal compilations sections no matter where I find myself. And every time I got shut out. So the other night after a couple of cocktails I said “screw it”, found a nice copy on Discogs and ordered it. Turns out it came to me from some guy just down the highway in Federal Way, Washington. I wonder if he bought this copy at a Pay ‘n’ Save too…
Master of Metal has an interesting roster of bands, and possibly an even more interesting selection of songs. The tracks were all contemporary, with 10 dating from 1983 and the others (♣) from either 1981 or 1982. Black Sabbath was hardly relevant at the time but their inclusion can be excused as giving the comp some sort of old-school cred, even though it did come off a much-maligned album. KISS had arguably been in decline during the period until they took off the make-up and scored a big hit with “Lick It Up,” so that one makes some sense. Twisted Sister was still on the verge of their mega-breakout album Stay Hungry, so I can’t fault the selection of “You Can’t Stop Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Y&T, Zebra, and Rainbow were bands I’d never even heard of up to that point, which may say more about my tenuous connection to the early 80s metal scene as it does about those individual bands. Which brings us to the last song on side B, Van Halen’s “Dancing in the Streets.” First of all, I never understood how anyone ever thought, even for one second, that Van Halen was metal. I get it – lots of people did. But outside of the intricate technical guitar work of Eddie Van Halen there is nothing even remotely metal about the band, and that goes double for their sound on “Dancing in the Street,” a cover of the 1964 Martha and the Vandellas hit that had already been covered previous by the The Mammas & The Pappas, The Kinks, the Grateful Dead, and Black Oak Arkansas (and was covered again in 1985 by David Bowie & Mick Jagger). Sorry kids, but there’s nothing metal about any of that.
Did I mention, however, how absolutely awesome this comp is? It was so pivotal in my life that I quite literally wore out my copy I played it so many times. To this day I can’t hear “Run to the Hills” or “Who’s Behind the Door?” during an all-80s weekend on the radio without belting out my best falsetto. I love this record. I used to trace the cover art into my school notebooks. Lasers. Bad-ass font (before I even knew what a font was). Killer metal. Songs about drunk driving, women who treat you like crap, the massacre of Native Americans at the hands of the US cavalry… uh… huh… not sure I actually recognized those themes at the time… a bit darker lyrically than I remember… But that’s metal, baby. Throw the horns!
There are so many high points on Masters of Metal. The guitar riffs on “Mean Streak” and “Breaking the Chains”; the vocal power of “Rainbow in the Dark”; the folk-ish “Who’s Behind the Door?”; the synths on “Street of Dreams”. Look, I get it, this isn’t what metal sounds like today. But it IS what metal sounded like in 1984 or so. The first wave of thrash was only just starting to bubble under the surface, but that was considered extreme at the time and not getting any mainstream attention. And I could buy it at the local Pay ‘n’ Save, which was about the best I could do in 1984, until I finally got to high school and there was a shopping mall across the street that had not one but two actual music stores in it.
Thank you, whoever at K-Tel who put this thing together. It meant something to a lot of us.
(♥) The decade came to an end with both genders primarily wearing flannel shirts and hiking boots.
(♠) K-Tel put out a Canadian version of Masters of Metal the same year and with the same cover, though with a few changes to the roster. Triumph and Van Halen were replaced by Mötley Crüe and the Canadian metal band Helix, while Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” was ditched in favor of “The Trooper”. They released similar metal comps in the UK and New Zealand in 1986.
(♣) The other three were Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (1981), Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” (1982), and Van Halen’s “Dancing in the Street” (1982).