Black Metal and the United Kingdom Popular Press

Alexander Hay
Alexander Hay

It is undoubtedly hyperbole to say that certain subjects are made for one another, but if any such genuine example exists, it must surely be black metal — in particular, the notorious second wave of black metal — and British tabloid journalism. In many ways, black metal and British tabloid journalism ought to be a winning mix, at least in terms of compatibility.

What, however, do I mean by black metal? For the benefit of those not already familiar with this heavy metal subgenre, I will use five definitions.

Black metal focuses on satanic, transgressive and misanthropic themes though to what extent depends on each band. Its sound is often deliberately low fidelity and harsh, with a suitably fierce, cold, rumbling and ominous quality to the treble.

Its politics are transgressive, confrontational and often sinister, though unlike punk, the intention is not Dadaist provocation for its own sake, but often sincere, or at least, taken seriously, albeit to various degrees.

The look is based on “corpse paint”: white face make-up with black patterns, lipstick and eye shadow, ostensibly to resemble a plague victim. Black leather, spikes, chainmail and even medieval weaponry, alongside the more usual metal garb, are also clear signifiers.

Finally, the aesthetic is uncompromising and dark, or even nihilistic, with grotesque and profane imagery, and yet also host to a perverse romanticism or idealised relationship with nature and heritage (sometimes to the point of far-right nationalism).

It is also a sub-genre with strong links to Norway. While the first wave, with its roots in the early 1980’s thrash and NWOBHM scenes was spread across the world, the second wave was focussed in Oslo, centred around the “Inner Circle” and the metal record store Helvete. Here, much of the aesthetic now commonly associated with black metal was developed and, in lack of a better word, codified. To understand black metal in the modern sense, therefore, one must take into account the Norwegian (and broader Scandinavian) context in which the sub-genre developed.

However, how can this possibly relate to British tabloids? How they covered the second wave of black metal is, of course, distinguished from the perspective of the latter’s history and study. Yet what this would reveal about the British popular press itself is, of course, highly significant. As such, this article argues that the discussion is relevant for both these reasons.

Indeed, black metal with its emphasis on transgression, horror, nihilism and larger than life personalities (even the ones that have died), certainly appeals to the main tabloid news values of the United Kingdom.

As Gekoski et al. have observed (2012: 1216–22), a good “Red Top”-friendly murder has “perfect victims”, in the form of celebrities (consider the murder of Oystein Aarseth in 1993 by Varg Vikernes), the sensational and the unpredictable, all of which perfectly describe the second wave and its excesses.

How then, did the British red-top press cover black metal? In order to address that question, this article will approach the topic from three angles.

Firstly, a historical contextualization of occult/horror stories in the red tops. Secondly, a study of newspaper coverage in this context between the periods of 1990 and 1995 — the heyday of the second wave. Finally, I will argue that tabloid news values in a British context serve a particular purpose albeit one some may find surprising, and it is how the tabloids cover black metal, and by extension, its primarily Norwegian milieu, which allows us to draw this conclusion.

I should, however, explain why other newspapers are excluded from this study. While middle market tabloids such as The Daily Mail, The Express and, until its closure in 1995, Today were undoubtedly not above lurid exposes, and indeed, in the case of the first two, remain so at the time of writing, this article must, for reasons of space and focus, focus only on the red tops.

Likewise, “quality” or broadsheet coverage is, for the most part, left out for these reasons. Indeed a study of the other two markets would be instructive, but let us begin, at least for now, with the tabloids.

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