Nu-metal gurus

Punk and metal have no time for each other, right? Not so. In the early 1990s, a cross-over movement began that spread to most of the world, but not the UK. So why, asks Garry Mulholland, can't we have some of it over here?

Once upon a time, when rock dinosaurs bestrode the earth and The Kids huddled in easily identifiable tribes, we class-of-'77, too-late-really-but-what-the-hell punk rockers were sure of one thing. Skins and teds might try to kill us, mods and soul-boys taunt us for our fashion choices, but metal-heads were the pits. Spotty suburban saddoes with dandruff and flares, they clung to their hapless boy-world of sexist-pig fantasies and sword'n'sorcery hogwash and endless phallocentric guitar solos because they had not been enlightened as we had. And anyone who pointed out that the Sex Pistols were a heavy-metal band with a weird singer had simply had their ears ruined by too much Tygers of Pan Tang.

Once upon a time, when rock dinosaurs bestrode the earth and The Kids huddled in easily identifiable tribes, we class-of-'77, too-late-really-but-what-the-hell punk rockers were sure of one thing. Skins and teds might try to kill us, mods and soul-boys taunt us for our fashion choices, but metal-heads were the pits. Spotty suburban saddoes with dandruff and flares, they clung to their hapless boy-world of sexist-pig fantasies and sword'n'sorcery hogwash and endless phallocentric guitar solos because they had not been enlightened as we had. And anyone who pointed out that the Sex Pistols were a heavy-metal band with a weird singer had simply had their ears ruined by too much Tygers of Pan Tang.

But, as we lapsed punks grew up and became Squeeze fans, and most of the dinosaurs perished and each following generation of British youth became less interested in clothes as tribal signal, something changed. Metal bands began to reject the poodle hair and spandex trousers in the wake of This Is Spinal Tap; American keepers of the punk faith throughout the 1980s were up-front about their abiding love of Black Sabbath and Kiss; Johnny Rotten's Public Image Ltd began covering "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin on stage. The truth slowly emerged. Punk and heavy metal had never been that different, really. It was a matter of hair and trousers and, of course, politics.

Ah, politics. In music. Remember that? In 2002's British pop world, it means that Blur's Damon Albarn and Massive Attack's Robert Del Naja put on a "Stop the war in Iraq" T-shirt, and Noel and Liam Gallagher laugh at them, and no one else really notices, and definitely no one writes a song. But that is because British pop, after so many years of fashion fad, "indie" careerism, manufactured-pop overload and tired cynicism, provides no place for discussion or debate, political or otherwise. Except for Ms Dynamite and So Solid Crew. But that's another story.

What we're talking about is the gradual merging of punk and metal, its attempts to breathe life into the dying beast called rock'n'roll, and the fact that the attempt at resuscitation comes from macho, capitalist, racially scarred and stylistically conservative America. And sometimes Australia. And New Zealand. Even Scandinavia. Everywhere, then, except Britain. But, hopefully, not for too much longer.

This weekend, a few thousand British kids will descend on Camber Sands Holiday Camp, in East Sussex, to listen to three days of rock'n'roll. The event is hosted by Kerrang! magazine, which began life in the Eighties as the publishing giant Emap's hugely unfashionable metal title. Whereas once we would have expected such a festival to be one long and unsightly parade of cock-rockers and unreconstructed traditionalism, it is now a rainbow coalition of wildly differing noises, looks and impulses, some defiantly dumb, others terrifically smart. Though it is only fair to point out that women, gays and non-whites will not be putting in much of an appearance, on stage at least. These things take time.

What the Kerrang! Weekender and the mag's digital TV channel and the mag itself do achieve is to reveal how much of a stylistic open house hard rock has become, and how youthful and exuberant and funny and, occasionally, political it all seems, compared with the kind of vapid corporate indie that dominates the mainstream media in Britain. A place, as far as this weekend's shindig is concerned, where the grunge-lite of Wales's Lostprophets, the wilful eclecticism of Reading's The Cooper Temple Clause, the Kiwi garage-band swagger of The Datsuns and the D4, and the strange and sexy post-punk mystery of Brighton's The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster can all be accepted by a young audience in search of kicks, chaos and, crucially, inspiration. Somewhere in that audience may well be the people who have to save the British music industry.

It may be a long time before Pete Waterman goes bankrupt, but Britpop is struggling. Sales in the UK are down, but figures also suggest a long-term problem with selling our music elsewhere, particularly in the States. London is not where it's at any more, and the reason lies in our generation's refusal to let go, to stop employing cool-hunters and start employing cool, to find the UK's equivalent of raging US rock monsters such as System of a Down and Queens of the Stone Age, or small but beautifully formed pop mavericks such as the Strokes and the White Stripes. Either Britain doesn't have them, or, while obsessed with the monumentally dull and sensible likes of Coldplay and David Gray, no one can be bothered to find them. The British rock scene has been culturally bankrupt for far too long.

In America's twinning of punk and metal may lie our salvation. When Nirvana established the form in the early Nineties, it was easy to take on the self-pitying, "I want to die" side of Kurt Cobain and see it all as a typical rock-martyr tale. But what was most important about Nirvana was the debate they instigated about what being a rock star means, the divide between fan and band, the way the music-biz machine distorts what the band itself are looking to achieve. By casually blurring the musical lines between punk, metal and pop, Nirvana created a place where a rock band who wanted to use funk or rap or world music could start to operate without necessarily being ghetto-ised as "alternative". Of course, their pop success also meant the co-option of punk, as formulated by Blink 182 and the Bloodhound Gang, very possibly the worst commercially successful bands in the world ever. But every progression brings a big-selling downside, and the best of the new breed all owe something to Nirvana's deadly-serious satire and their belief that rock is still a gateway to a better world and the most potent form of counterculture.

So, if you still can't take seriously nu metal's baggy shorts, tattoos and piercings; if you think that admittedly awful bands such as Nickelback are all it adds up to, and that it's all corporate angst and boys behaving badly for the lowest common denominator, then fair enough. But I know that the most articulately angry and musically crazed anti-American album of recent times is Toxicity by a Los Angeles-based metal band called System of a Down, and that it was No 1 in America on September 11, and that the band refused to back down when the patriots noticed, and that their fans refused to back down, too, and kept them huge. And that that kind of courageous statement will never be made in Britain until we remember that the kids know where it's at.

Tickets for the Kerrang! Weekender are available only at www.kerrang.com

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