Songs In The Key Of… Headbanging

‘666 Songs to Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die’ book
Bruno MacDonald

Bruno MacDonald: It’s just noise, our parents grumbled… But within metal’s six decades of skull-crushing lurk actual songs.

The author of ‘666 Songs to Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die’ suggests 12 rocking and rollicking tracks

Bruno MacDonald is an author, writer and editor with notable titles such as 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, The Rough Guide To Rock and The Rolling Stone 50 to his name. For his latest book, 666 Songs To Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die, he’s throwing up his devil horns and delving into the world of metal, complete with reviews, quotes, trivia and artwork. Published this month by Laurence King, the book is a must for all music fans, not just metalheads.

Here, Bruno handpicks a selection of his essential headbangers, ideal for those wanting to dip their toes into these darkest of waters…

Listen to the 12-track ‘Songs In The Key Of… Headbanging’ Spotify playlist here > >

It’s just noise, our parents grumbled. We indignantly denied it. We cited the dexterous musicianship, the fantastical lyrics, the genre-trampling ambition. Secretly, however, we thought, it is just noise, and that’s why we like it. But within metal’s six decades of skull-crushing lurk actual songs. Without further ado, here are 12 goodies from my new book 666 Songs To Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die

Billion Dollar Babies, the Alice band’s sole transatlantic chart-topper, is an embarrassment of riches, from the curtain-raising Hello Hooray to the cinematically ambitious I Love The Dead. Halfway through, the hit No More Mr. Nice Guy showcases everything that made the band tremendous: self-mythologizing wit, whimsical flourishes, a singalong chorus, and, courtesy of guitarist Michael Bruce, a Stonesy backdrop that’s at least as good as anything Mick ’n’ Keef were doing at the time.

The bad boys from Boston cruised into first gear on Toys In The Attic, anchored by this not necessarily stoned – okay, almost certainly stoned – but beautiful bruiser. Birthed from the bass of Tom Hamilton, it slunk from the swamp firing Steven Tyler’s lyrical darts at Joe Perry’s then-wife. Add funk that proved Perry and axe-associate Brad Whitford spent as much time listening to New Orleans R&B as they did to that of British white boys, and you’ve got a classic that richly merits its perennial place in ’Smith setlists.

You wouldn’t cite Deep Purple as great songwriters because, like every pre-punk band bar the Stooges, they wanted you to know what virtuosi they were. The same conceit could have stricken Rainbow, given that Rising boasts Ritchie Blackmore, Ronnie James Dio and Cozy Powell, yet Stargazer wastes not a second of its eight minutes, and soars where its antecedent Kashmir plods. Blackmore, Dio, Powell, bassist Jimmy Bain and keys-whiz Tony Carey sound as if they’re striving not to gaze at the stars but to touch them.

The Riff is the foundation of metal, and a good metal song doesn’t need more than one, which is why there’s lots of Slayer and Sabbath in 666 Songs To Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die, and why it’s remarkable that Metallica’s For Whom The Bell Tolls has about twenty-eight in its first two minutes. Where were we? Oh yeah, The Riff. Jimmy Page wrote good ones, and he grinds this out with such venom that it took me decades and a throwaway comment by a reviewer to realize that it’s rockabilly masquerading as metal.

'666 Songs To Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die' book

666 Songs To Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die book, published by Laurence King

Splendid as Walk This Way is, it didn’t invent rap-rock. Rick Rubin’s production of the Beastie Boys’ Rock Hard would have been influential if more than 12 people had heard it. But the visionary was Run-DMC producer Larry Smith, who’d been hardwiring hip-hop since 1984. Like the best AC/DC songs, King of Rock has screaming guitars, REALLY LOUD DRUMS, and brilliantly dopey lyrics. “’Take airplane flights / at huge heights,’” marvelled Robert Christgau. “What do sucker MCs do? Just taxi around the runway?”

Songwriting faithful, you know what makes a good song. A tune is a good start. Nicely expressed lyrical sentiments are a plus. A catchy chorus can never be denied. Well, Det Som En Gang Var has none of these. You can’t play it on acoustic guitar and you can’t sing along to it unless you’re quite severely unwell. It drags on for more than 14 minutes and it sounds very much like someone has sandpapered your stylus. However, it’s also probably the greatest ever black metal song and it will really, really upset your parents.

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“One of Bruce’s best songs,” Tom Morello remarked to Rolling Stone of Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad. “It really cuts to the core of his social justice writing.” Originally a ‘plaintive ballad’ on The Boss’s 1995 album of the same name, the track morphed into a monster in the hands of Rage Against the Machine. A rough version graced a single, packaged with a 1997 video, but the one to seek out is the extraordinary take that appears on the No Boundaries benefit album and on Rage’s own Renegades.

“The ultimate honour,” declared Joey Ramone. “Like John Lennon writing a song for you.” There were, Lemmy explained, parallels between them and Motörhead: “Not much appreciation, looked upon as a joke.” Rightly shy of ninety seconds, R.A.M.O.N.E.S. debuted on 1916 (1991), reappeared – with Lemmy – on Da Brudders’ farewell set We’re Outta Here!, and became a staple for Motörhead. But its greatest incarnation is a reboot on Kiss of Death (2006), with Mickey Dee’s crazed drumming upping the damage.

'666 Songs To Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die' book

666 Songs To Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die book: a guide to the monsters of rock and metal

The pomposity and pretentiousness that made Rush’s greatest influences insufferable are two of the very things that we love about them – and, yes, La Villa Strangiato and Xanadu are in 666 Songs To Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die. But Rush also wrote splendid songs, of which Caravan – for all its superfluity of solos and time signatures – is a prime example. You don’t need to care about parent album Clockwork Angels’ concept to enjoy this brilliant embodiment of Neil Peart’s glorious pursuit of ‘dreaming big’.

‘Make a joyful noise to the Lord,’ commands Psalm 98:4-6. I don’t know whether Kverlertak read the Bible, I don’t know whether they worship God or Satan, and – not wanting to trouble a Norwegian ex-girlfriend – I don’t know whether Tordenbrak means ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’ or ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’. But I do know that a) this song, like all of the owl-obsessed Norsemen’s Meir album, is so joyfully noisy that it will make you glad to be alive and b) even at nearly nine minutes, it ends too soon.

Rolo Tomassi don’t sound at all like Pink Floyd and only a smidge like the Cocteau Twins, but if those bands’ contrary blend of icy impenetrability and ecstatic emotion appeals, check this out. Only forensic technicians will extract more than passing phrases from the black metal screams (a heartbreaking video offers a clue or three), but all will be borne aloft by music that owes as much to sci-fi scores as it does to satanic agonizing. The band sought ‘the balance between the dark and the light’ and here found it in spectacular style.

Kiss critics won’t concede the point, but novelty only carries you so far. If you ain’t got the songs, you’ll be a footnote, not a chapter heading. Babymetal have got the songs, which is why Japanese schoolgirls warbling poppily over ripping rifferama didn’t seem as odd to metal fans as it did to the world at large. From 2019’s Metal Galaxy, Starlight is part of Babymetal’s multimedia Apocrypha extravaganza, and is (fans say) a tribute to their late guitarist. It’s also hammeringly heavy yet celestially pretty.

These songs don’t tell the story of heavy metal. You’ll have to check out 666 Songs To Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die for that, and even then it doesn’t include Whole Lotta Love or Paranoid or, I’m ever so slightly ashamed to say, anything at all by Riot. My wife designed the book and remained unmoved throughout, chortling at the song titles and suggesting it be retitled Metallica And One Or Two Black People. (By the end, when she’d tallied Hendrix, Bad Brains, Prince, Run-DMC, Body Count, and Jay-Z, she redubbed it Metallica And One Or Two Women, and I didn’t have the energy to argue.)

But sifting through six decades of hard rock and metal proved that what I thought when I was 12 was actually right. If a song has a riff that triggers an air-guitar reflex, and drums that sound like someone vigorously punishing oil cans, and a lyric that makes you realize you’re not alone in feeling confused or horny, or feeling that rock and rolling all night might be more fun than homework, and if all that comes in a sleeve with a pentagram, it doesn’t matter that it’s not Tangled Up In Blue or Wish You Were Here or Call Me Maybe. You can love those songs – and you should, because they’re fantastic – but you can also rock like a hurricane, give love a bad name, and let the sun beat down upon your face. (Maybe don’t start with Burzum though.)

666 Songs To Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die, published by Laurence King, is out on 31 August 2020 –

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