Excess all areas

Who better than our jazz man to spend an evening at the homage to heavy rock and eyeliner that is the Kerrang! awards? Sholto Byrnes enjoys a glass or two with Murderdoll and friends
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The Independent Culture

I've shared a stage with a keyboardist from The Pogues, a guitarist who's toured with The Who, and Billy Ocean's former conga player. I've played gigs with bands as oddly titled as Fritz and the West Highland Terriers, and Mr Kipling's Exceedingly Good Jazz Funk. I've even stood behind a mixing-desk and chatted to Freddie Starr. But none of this, I knew, would prepare me for the Kerrang! awards, a byword for excess, bad behaviour and the mysterious world of heavy metal.

If the past is another country, then metal is a different planet, a place inhabited by men with strange names and stranger hairstyles, a place impervious to the subtle distinctions between mezzo- piano and mezzo-forte, and where eyeliner pencil and the power chord jostle for the throne. Dark tales are told of previous Kerrang! ceremonies, of booze-laden tables being trashed, broken limbs, and hair set ablaze, the wild men of rock returning to a primitive and ignoble savagery. So it was with some apprehension that I donned my dinner jacket and patent-leather shoes beforehand, shuddering to think what my dry-cleaning bill would be the next day, and wondering whether my tailor would ever forgive me.

First impressions outside the Royal Lancaster Hotel fitted the bill. A horde of pale-faced girls wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Biker", "Killer" and "Let's fuck" awaited their idols. The dress code was strictly black, occasionally relieved by tartan, tattoos, and distinctly well-fed flesh spilling out of waistbands and market-stall tops. Then a man with white make-up, red and black dreadlocks, and what appeared to be a leopard-skin parasailing harness dangling round his trousers, stepped out of a tinted-windowed car. As if stung by a thousand wasps, the fans screamed as one, desperate for a snatched moment, a kiss or a signature. "Who is he?" I asked my neighbour. "Oh, that looks like a Murderdoll," came the reply.

He spent a very long time walking along the barrier sharing himself with the fans. That's not very rock'n'roll, I thought, but how considerate of him.

Other bands made their way through the crowds, pausing graciously for the paparazzi, all greeted with ecstatic screams by the crowd, and all, with the exception of Gary Numan and Paris Hilton, totally unfamiliar to me. Two members of Electric Six turned up, incongruously clad in white tuxes and looking like cheap wine-waiters. They made a beeline for me. "Nice dinner jacket, man," said one. At the drinks reception, boisterous young men charged around like the lager lads they could have been had the muse not taken them. Quite pretty girls, the kind of girls you see on the bus or behind a till, stood around in small groups, mostly ignored by the men.

And then the ceremony began. The tables were stacked with beers, rum, Canada Dry, and a wine labelled "Death Cult Armageddon". An unusual grape, I thought, until I read underneath, "New Album Out 08.09.2003". Ashley Bird, Kerrang!'s editor, came on stage to read a letter he'd been sent by a 12-year-old girl who'd heard that musicians didn't eat well on tour and was offering to cook some proper food for them. "I don't mind when they come round," she wrote, "because I'm off school until 8 September!"

Behind a railing at the back of the room, a select group of the magazine's readers strained forward, waiting for the bands to show themselves. Guest presenters strode up to the microphone: pudgy Jack Osbourne, his hair like an upturned floor mop; Page 3 lovely Leilani; and the poor- man's Jordan, Jodie Marsh - "the woman who manages bigger tits than Louis Walsh", as the co-host, the Radio 1 DJ Colin Murray, put it. One group had to hang around the podium as a band member had gone to the loo, a fact announced to the audience along with the additional information that he'd been kicked out of his hotel the previous night "for pissing in the basement". Men with beards like liquorice-laces and plentiful paunches appeared, mumbled brief thanks, and disappeared. The winners of the "best newcomer" category, Funeral For A Friend, displayed touching concern for the health of one of their members. "This goes out to Chris's bunion!" said the leader. Chris obligingly lifted up his leg so that all could see the bandaged and no doubt painful pedal extremity.

The crowd at the back were vocal in their opinions, not hesitating to shout out when they were displeased. Evanescence, winners of the "best international newcomer" category, were not popular, and poor Jodie Marsh, whose only crime is to be a celebrity of marginally more pointlessness than most, was drowned by boos.

Whether they won any awards or not (in fact, they won two, "best album" and "best live act"), it was clear that The Darkness had won the hearts of Kerrang! readers. This four-piece band performed early on, two guitarists with identical long blond hair, open white shirts and tight leggings, and a bass player whose tache and police-badged headgear must have been inspired by The Village People. Brian May-type solos sprung from the fingers of the lead singer, who possessed a falsetto not equalled since Robin Gibb sang that long, high note at the end of "Tragedy". Fountains of dry ice and fireworks erupted from the stage while the leader provided the requisite aerial leaps, ending the song having run into the audience and climbed on to a table. There was something of Spinal Tap, a dash of Eurotrash, and a heavy dose of campery - quite remarkable for four lads from Lowestoft.

At the end of the evening, the damage was minimal: one table trashed, a few broken glasses, and apart from one man passed out at a table, all was well. So, where was the mayhem I'd been promised? Nowhere. Not during the ceremony, not at the drinks before, and not at the after-party, where guests mixed happily despite the crowding, and the only physical contact to be seen was not fisticuffs but Paris Hilton canoodling with her boyfriend on a sofa.

The secret is out. The truth is that the reputation of these awards is the royal-est of scams. The hard men of heavy metal are not monsters but very nice boys. There is an adolescent thirst for alcohol and a display of bravado, but these rockers resemble nothing more than slightly gawky teenagers whose clumsy loudness actually conceals a shyness and a need for self-expression. They use the F-word constantly, but it is drained of profanity and merely denotes enthusiasm. It is no more threatening than the words "awesome" or "bodacious", and with their knee-length shorts and attitude of simple wonder and excitement, one could easily imagine many of them as extras in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure or Wayne's World, both films that tap into that white, blue-collar idea of what one would wish for if the genie appeared from the lamp.

"It is an old working-class tradition," agreed Hank von Helvete, the lead singer of Turbonegro, a Norwegian band with "a gay past", as another member puts it. "After having to go to work and the terror of being forced to be like everyone else, it's a relief to dress up and demonstrate your individuality. We are doing the industrial world a favour by keeping the workforce happy."

Hank demonstrated his individuality by applying starburst shapes around his eyes, wearing a funeral director's hat, and letting his considerable beer-belly hang free from his open denim jacket. "We've always wanted to look cool," he confided. "It's important to look cool to give meaning to the style."

Over at another table, I met Chris from Bowling For Soup, a friendly man whose shaven head and large body made him look like a boiled egg perched on a turd. In the same vein, Chris told me that the band was originally going to be called Bowling For Shit, but they thought their grandmothers might be shocked. "So we changed it to Soup. You've got to make your grandmother proud of you, you certainly do. Your grandparents are why you're here." As the one properly trashed table was near us, I asked Chris why his band hadn't destroyed theirs yet. "It's still got drink on it," he explained. "We wouldn't kick it over while there's still beer on it." Very sensible.

Next up was the Murderdoll that I'd seen outside earlier, solicitously signing every scrap of paper proffered to him by the fans. Acey, as he turned out to be named, told me that heavy metal was part of his heritage. "It's a spiritual thing," he said, seriously. When I left, he thanked me and called me "sir".

Surely the bathrooms would provide evidence of some real rock-star carnage, broken doors hanging on hinges and smashed mirrors still bearing traces of the cocaine that would fuel some metalhead excess? All was peaceful there, though I was politely accosted by a man who told me that he so admired my shoes he was going to follow me around all evening. From inside a cubicle I could hear two musicians talking. "The father of the crown prince is in love with a waitress, who's been on the rave scene," said one. "How cool is that?" There is something rather surprising about two fearsome-looking heavy-metal hulks gossiping about European royalty, although I suppose there is no reason why Iggy Pop, for instance, shouldn't ring up Alice Cooper to tut and ahhh over the contents of Nigel Dempster's page.

I stayed on and on at the after-party, in the hope that something would happen to justify the image of the awards. I bumped into Hank again, who seemed a little upset. I patted him on the arm and walked on. The crowds milled around happily, people getting steadily sloshed in a good-humoured way. The scene was more orderly than a typical West End nightclub. If this was slaughter, you could happily bring your daughter. For all their acting up, the bands at the Kerrang! awards and their fans are perfectly pleasant, only slightly odd, individuals who like dressing up and slapping on the make up. I'm sure their grandmothers are very proud of them.