Heavy Metal

After several years of research, I thought I was pretty well-informed about popular representations of the Great War, but I’ve just learned (thanks to Peter Grant) about a thriving genre of songs about the War in recent rock music. Peter’s database has nearly six hundred examples, from Britain, Germany, France and elsewhere.

As regular readers of this blog might have gathered, my interest in popular music doesn’t explore very far beyond 1950, so I had no idea that this music existed. In Britain, the main examples seem to be from heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden, God Dethroned and Bolt Thrower.

For a taste of it, see this video of Iron Maiden’s live stadium performance of Passchendaele (2003). It is spectacular, with an attacking light show, violent sound effects, and a lead singer in a German helmet, who eventually falls dead on the barbed wire. The huge crowd, holding horn-sign fingers high, enter wildly into the spirit of the song.

As a rule of thumb, I always assume that any representation of the Great War will tell us less about the War itself than about the time in which it was created.

So what does this say about twenty-first century Britain? The evocation of war’s violence is ferocious. The lyrics stress noise, horror, loss, futility:

Whistles, shouts and more gun-fire
lifeless bodies hang on barbed wire
battlefield nothing but a bloody tomb
be reunited with my dead friends soon
many soldiers eighteen years
drowned in mud, no more tears
surely a war no one can win
killing time about to begin

There is no indication that this is a war that one side did eventually win. The battles are represented as chaotic and meaningless ā€“ as they must sometimes have seemed to individual soldiers, though even Passchendaele had a shape and intention, despite its awfulness, and the objective was finally reached.

The singer’s choice of a German helmet signifies a refusal of any representation of the War as a particularly British experience. This was performed near to the time when Andrew Motion was defining the canon of war poetry as a ‘national sacred text’, but Iron Maiden, despite the initial reading from Wilfred Owen (in a rather vicarish voice) will have none of that. The abrasive tone has something in common with the harsh German literature of the twenties, which rubbed readers’ and audiences’ noses in the horror and squalor of the fighting. I’m thinking of Brecht and Toller here ā€“ and the performance has something of early Brecht’s ambivalence about his material; often you suspect him of taking a pleasure in the horror he deplores.

It’s not at all my kind of music, and it’s not my interpretation of the War, but it’s powerful stuff that has reached a large audience. I shall find out more about it.


  1. Posted October 3, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Odd. Very odd. I had no idea there was a whole genre of WWI songs in heavy metal!

  2. Anonymous
    Posted October 4, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    “WWI songs in heavy metal!”

    Like Ernest Thesiger’s description of the Battle of the Somme, I suspect: “Dreadful, my dear, absolutely dreadful. The noise. And the people!”

  3. victoriajanssen
    Posted October 4, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    You might want to check out PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake” as well – not metal, but war-themed. with references to WWI.

    • Posted October 5, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Victoria. I’ve taken a look at PJH on YouTube, and clearly she’s musically quite impressive. A video of her ‘Hanging on the Wire’ is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfAvoVDQaAo

      Can this kind of music do anything else than stress futility and horror, though? In other words can it do anything but reinforce the usual stereotype of mud, blood and victims?

      A predecessor of these singers might be the Zombies record of 1968: ‘The Butcher’s tale’ (on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KcIu3pIzWI )

      Here are the lyrics:

      A butcher yes that was my trade
      But the king’s shilling is now my fee
      A butcher I may as well have stayed
      For the slaughter that I see

      And the preacher in his pulpit
      Sermon: “Go and fight, do what is right”
      But he don’t have to hear these guns
      And I’ll bet he sleeps at night

      And I
      And I can’t stop shaking
      My hands won’t stop shaking
      My arms won’t stop shaking
      My mind won’t stop shaking
      I want to go home
      Please let me go home
      Go home

      And I have seen a friend of mine
      Hang on the wire
      Like some rag toy
      Then in the heat the flies come down
      And cover up the boy
      And the flies come down in
      Gommecourt, Thiepval,
      Mametz Wood, and French Verdun
      If the preacher he could see those flies
      Wouldn’t preach for the sound of guns

      And I
      And I can’t stop shaking
      My hands won’t stop shaking
      My arms won’t stop shaking
      My mind won’t stop shaking
      I want to go home
      Please let me go home
      Go home

      • Roger
        Posted October 5, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        There are a lot of fine songs from the folksong revival about WWI, but whatever their other qualities they do tend to “reinforce the usual stereotype of mud, blood and victims”.
        One which looks from a different angle is “The ladies go dancing at Whitsun”.

  4. Posted October 5, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Roger. It’s a fine song.

    I’ve found a video at

    and here are the words

    It’s fifty-one springtimes since she was a bride,
    But still you may see her at each Whitsuntide
    In a dress of white linen and ribbons of green,
    As green as her memories of loving.

    The feet that were nimble tread carefully now,
    As gentle a measure as age do allow,
    Through groves of white blossom, by fields of young corn,
    Where once she was pledged to her true love.

    The fields they are empty, the hedges grow free,
    No young men to tend them, or pastures go see.
    They’ve gone where the forests of oak trees before
    Had gone to be wasted in battle.

    Down from their green farmlands and from their loved ones
    Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons.
    There’s a fine roll of honour where the Maypole once was,
    And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.

    There’s a row of straight houses in these latter days
    Are covering the Downs where the sheep used to graze.
    There’s a field of red poppies, a wreath from the Queen.
    But the ladies remember at Whitsun,
    And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.

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