While the average AltPress.com reader may not be old enough to remember the burgeoning metal scene that existed in California's Bay Area in the early 80s, chances are good some of your favorite bands do–countless contemporary metal acts count bands like Metallica and Slayer among their influences, and even if they don't, plenty of them grew up listening to it (Looking in your direction, Gerard Way. You too, Andy Biersack.)
Murder In The Front Row is a thick, beautiful book that captures a special moment in time–the period before, and leading up to, the explosion of thrash metal's popularity in the United States. The Bay Area was the epicenter of the madness, and co-authors Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew were there to experience all of it. In addition to new essays from the authors and other contributors, the book also features rare excerpts from fanzines of the day, plus a massive amount of never-before-seen early photographs (most of them taken by the authors themselves) of the genre's heavy hitters–Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Exodus, Anthrax and more–before they became the voices of a generation. AP spoke to Lew via telephone from San Francisco about the book, the scene and why it still matters today.
Interview: Bryne Yancey
Can you talk a little bit about the conception of the book? How long did it take to compile? Were there any problems or snags in the way? How many years in the making was it?
Do you want to go back to how it all came together?
It all starts with Harald [Oimoen] and I. Harold and I have known each other since we were teenagers. We met at some of the early shows. We both happened to be taking pictures and that’s basically how we became friends back in the early ‘80s. Fast forward to—I guess the process of the whole book took a year and a half with Bazillion Points. There’s been a lot of full circle moments with our lives around this book. In the case of the book, Harald had been in contact with Bazillion Points and Ian Christie of Bazillion Points was familiar with Harald’s photos.
He also was familiar with me because I have a metal/pop culture blog and Ian had been reading it and he knew my history with the Bay Area metal scene. Ian suggested we do the book together, which was really cool because Harald and I really haven’t been in touch in recent years. As well as putting the book together, we’ve become friends again, so that’s been really cool.
It was basically a year and a half process. To be honest, it was extremely smooth. It was like, back in the day in the early ‘80s we were following several metal zines and the metal fanzines in the early ‘80s were a lot like the punk fanzines [in that they] always being just a bunch of kids that Xeroxed the zines and we did the cut and paste thing because it was before desktop publishing. Putting the book together—the vibe was exactly like that. It was really amazing.
I have to credit Bazillion Points with most of it because the thing with Bazillion Points and Ian Christie is that they’re so passionate about the projects that they pick and they’re very informed about them. Ian is like a music historian. Not just metal, but punk and films and everything. He really focused the project. I’ve had other friends do book projects in the past and I’ve just heard all the horror stories where they’ve gotten in with a bad agent and the publishers have taken over and edited their vision heavily and that was not the case with Bazillion Points. They made very, very astute observations about what we were doing and suggested things, but to be honest, the book that came out is basically the vision that Harald and I thought it would be, which is pretty amazing.
You mentioned the whole fanzine culture that was so prevalent back then. It still exists in some form, but it’s not as prevalent as it once as with modernization and the Internet–anybody can have a webzine now. What was so enticing about doing the zines back then? How do you feel about the modernization of it as it exists today?
I’m not sure how well known the early ‘80s metal underground is to a lot of people. The punk underground and the punk scenes are so well-documented for whatever reasons—I guess there were more filmmakers in the scene or whatever—but in the early ‘80s, and not just in the Bay Area, but there were metal fanzines in Los Angeles—Brian Slagel, before he started Metal Blade, had a fanzine—but it all started in Europe.
There were fanzines in Germany, France, and England. Metal Forces is the most well-known of them, but basically those fanzines started to show up in our import record stores—at least in the Bay Area—and it was eye-opening because here we had Metal Mania and that was the sounding board for the Bay Area scene, but as these fanzines from other parts of the world started filtering to us, it was really eye -opening because it was before the Internet and even in a big city you didn’t really know what was going on.
To see these fanzines from Germany, even though we couldn’t read through them, they had articles about some of the bands we were into. For me personally, it was like my first real geography lesson. It was more profound than any geography lesson I had in school because I learned where these countries where, but the fact that there were like-minded people in all these other places was really inspiring and mind-blowing. At the same time, we were very passionate about metal. We were serious about the music, but we weren’t serious about life yet.
To be honest, a lot of us original metal fans, we were dorks. We were just nerds. We didn’t know how to talk to girls and we were into science fiction. That’s the time-honored cliché, but we had all this energy and all this passion about the music and we needed to direct it somewhere. That’s where the same friends and I who got into the zine things, that’s where our drive came from. We were so passionate about these bands and the music and the scene and the camaraderie and wanting to feel a part of something. I think that’s with any music scene where it starts in the underground. It starts with these nerdy kids who have this passion for music that no one else even knows or cares about.
Nowadays, it’s kind of cool that anybody can have a blog. All these kids who are always going to be like this—there’s always going to be these outcast, nerdy kids who don’t feel like they’re a part of something and they can do that. It’s so easy now. On the flipside, it’s different now because it’s so easy to do, I think it’s just the nature of technology now where it’s sort of homogenized in a lot of ways. At least back in the old days, you could tell when a fanzine wasn’t from where you were. It had a localized feel. We’d do our fanzine here in San Francisco, but then we’d see a fanzine from New York and it just had a totally different look and vibe and voice. I think just the nature of technology where it does connect everybody now [factors into it], but maybe some of the localizations might not be there as much as it used to be with fanzines.