Like all music books of any worth, Contract in Blood is as much a social history of the Eighties, Nineties and turn of the millennium as it is a studious history of discographies and live shows. What constitutes thrash from metal/hard rock/death and so on, remains fluffy around the edges, and rightly so – with over 700 pages, it seems churlish and overly divisive to erect steely parameters, and there are no entries in here that will cause blood to curdle, unless you’re in a band not included perhaps. The general rule of thumb is a love of Motörhead (Lemmy pops up so many times in anecdotes of drunken revelry as to become almost parody); Exodus, Metallica and Slayer and with influences of the final wave of UK punk – The Exploited and the like. It was the combination of speed, heaviness and disaffection that defines the majority, if not all, of the bands.
Intelligently divided by geographical region, it is a stark and humbling reminder of the vital role played by tiny record labels and venues willing to take a chance on usually self-taught musicians playing a most unfashionable form of music, way off the mainstream. Photocopied posters with spiky logos dangling like Christmas tree baubles displayed proudly outside venues Wakefield’s Snooty Fox and Woolwich Polytechnic display a none more DIY ethic – truly, who else was going to do it for you?
By around 1988 most of the bands that were there at the dawn of the decade had given up the ghost. A bizarrely self-defeating scene, the focus was so centred on the sound and the success of the Big Four (Metallica; Slayer; Megadeth; Anthrax) and others with less generously-lined pockets (Testament; Overkill; even Voivod) that success was both impossible to define and achieve. The accompanying CD box set reminds you exactly how many James Hetfield sound-a-likes (and not so a-likes) there were, satisfying little except a demand from metal fans for live shows when American bands weren’t touring and postponing for as long as possible getting a conventional job.
The safe comfort of a metal pub tended to be the where global domination was planned, whether it be from Huddersfield, Great Yarmouth, North Berwick or Morecambe (all feature), the far away glitz as distant as the constant grumbling was ever-near. Despite the metal press’s constant demand to know when the band of the month was going to crack America, it was plainly obvious this was entirely the problem. American audiences had no need for second tier copyists; for once their own scene was powering ahead. The American overlords, to their credit, seem almost unfailingly supportive: the UK underlings unfailingly grateful.
Token successes – signing to the likes of Chrysalis – are punch-lined with being dropped after the first release, the promise of options for six album deals ringing a little on the hollow side. Perhaps tax write-offs, perhaps simply a complete lack of understanding and empathy for the music and the audience, there was rarely financial success on the cards, with most bands happy to be able to at least half make a living out of it.
The band members recall with often crystal clarity their movements 30-odd years ago, from bunking off school to more challenging narratives:
“At the Cro-Mags gig at the old Klub Foot in London, some lad got his head split in two by a bat, which was probably a bit uncalled for, but he was trying to pull Henry’s guitar lead out while he was playing”
Eastbourne’s Virus there, exemplifying that the aggressive punk thread running through many bands did indeed set them apart from Saxon.
The book is certainly required reading, whether you have any deep-set love for the music or not. Many of the bands, or at least the members, are still at it, which regularly prompts some mental arithmetic as to their current age. Others have retreated to the real world – now deputy head teachers; computer programmers; running travelling funfairs…More recent bands are well covered too – slightly less satisfying with their path to existence already nicely ploughed for them but pleasing for completists. There’s a very entertaining over-use of words like “classic” and “legendary”, though these are wheeled out by the bands themselves as much as the author.
Equally well laid-out is the box set of CDs, the 36-page booklet guiding you through the whys and wherefores of the tracks and, like the book, arranged by geographical origin. Less outstanding is the music, alas. As documentary evidence to soundtrack the book, it is a triumph – for aural pleasure alone, more grating, with the better-known bands – say Venom or Sabbat – underlining comfortably why their names are more easily remembered.