In the 1980s, when thrash metal clawed its way into the music industry, many prayed for the movement’s quick death. Let’s just say those prayers went unanswered or were offered to the wrong rock gods. Two documentaries take different approaches to thrash metal. Both offer a folk history of how an unlikely sound came to define a decade long after the synthesizers faded.
In the 1980s, when thrash metal clawed its way into the music industry, many prayed for the movement’s quick death.
Let’s just say those prayers went unanswered or were offered to the wrong rock gods.
Two documentaries take different approaches to thrash metal. Both offer a folk history of how an unlikely sound came to define a decade long after the synthesizers faded.
“Get Thrashed: The Story of Thrash Metal,” Directed by Rick Ernst. Lightyear Entertainment. Not rated. Contains violence, sexually explicit language, and drug use references.It was the 1980s, when MTV showed videos instead of reality shows, and the videos were a 24-hour onslaught of hair mousse, cutesy-pie vocals and hot pink spandex –almost always sported by men.
There was bound to be a backlash – and was there ever – as legions of hard rock fans vowed to take back the noise.
Taking their cue from the acid rock bands that dominated British and American music in the late 1960s and early 70s, they spawned a loud, aggressive, new sound.
That sound was called, “thrash,” and this is its story.
“Get Thrashed” associate producer, Lee Kundrat, aka Rat Skates of seminal band, Overkill, lends authority as one who lived the thrash scene, and shared in its glories and hardships and even its tragedies.
Director Rick Ernst, who for more than 10 years worked at MTV News in New York, provides a lucid look at a genre many dismissed as music of unkempt louts (it just couldn’t compete, apparently, with all the meaningfulness and Jungian symbolism of The Police.)
Some of the criticism approached hysteria, and to hear it one would never guess that other crises loomed, such as nuclear escalation, the AIDS epidemic, Apartheid in South Africa, or the Iran/Contra debacle.
The discontent simmering beneath the era’s optimism was the dark muse of thrash, inspiring lyrics of rage and protest along with scary cover art and spiky-lettered logos.
With time lending objectivity, “Get Thrashed” tracks the genesis of thrash and the emergence of thrash scenes worldwide – including San Francisco, Germany and even seemingly unlikely locales such as Japan and Brazil.
Musicians weigh in, with firsthand histories of groundbreaking bands such as Metallica, Kreator, Megadeth and Exodus, and later, crossovers such as Suicidal Tendencies that brought together thrash with disparate forms such as punk and rap.
Like thrash itself, the film is fast-paced, lacking in pretense, sprinkled with vulgarities, and full of heart. For the uninitiated, it’s a thorough tutorial in the subtle differences within this extended family (the inclusion of decadent hair-sprayed Motley Crue at “Headbanger’s Ball” causes howls of outrage), and the peculiar ways in which rival camps influenced each other.
It’s also fearless in its exploration of how thrash culture, a mostly white male phenomenon in origin, related to women and non-white artists and audience members.
There are also unflinching and anguishing accounts of the personal costs many musicians paid -- including more than one fatal on-tour accident.
Nowadays, many rock scholars, including some in the film, argue that thrash was a needed corrective in a time of teased-up silliness. The story is richly told with concert footage, music and memories that make it a must for any rock musician, pop culture historian or devoted thrash fan.
Extras include interviews and an in-depth look at the geography of thrash, with profiles of bands from various countries where the genre thrived and still has a following.
Far from a fad in a decade remembered amusingly for fads, thrash still makes itself heard – and its legacy will leave your ears ringing.
'Born in The Basement'
“Rat Skates: Born in The Basement,” Directed by Lori DeAngelis-Kundrat. Kundrat Productions. Not rated. Some language, violent references.In the late 1970s, Lee Kundrat was a suburban teen who liked skateboarding and loud music.
Kundrat – also known as Rat Skates – went on to become a founding member, drummer and promoter of Overkill, one of the pioneers of the thrash metal sound and stage sensibility.
“Born in The Basement” is his personal account of how his band formed, rose, and fell away, but not before making its mark on a genre often mocked but grudgingly acknowledged for its influence.
If you are looking for a sensational look at hotel room destruction and drug-hazed decadence, you might end up longing for the cult mock documentary, “Spinal Tap.”
You might anyway. Because this film, not unlike “Spinal Tap,” is self-effacing, and smartly honest about what it means to risk everything for a dream.
To Kundrat, it meant, in a word, work – and, many surprising lessons.
If you want to promote your rock band, you can find ideas everywhere, even in a supermarket. (This is where he learned how to shrink-wrap by hand cassette tapes, which he recorded and assembled by hand.)
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Iron Maiden, a band Kundrat idolized, won’t mind to know he even copied the design of the letter “O” from the band’s logo as the first letter of his own.
Creating an image often means improvising, as milk crates take on a new life as slick looking drum risers. An equally jarring drum kit platform becomes a “dungeon” from which the lead swinger, flourishing a vampire cape, can emerge to salute rows of screaming fans.
Another crucial insight: It’s not uncool to get help from family and friends. The film celebrates the support of Kundrat’s parents, buddies and his wife -- Lori DeAngelis-Kundrat, who directed this film and spent many a concert night overseeing the merch table.
(The promotional material refers to “brain washing” girlfriends, but it’s hard to take this at face value, as Kundrat conveys nothing but respect for the woman who has stood by him all these years and remains a creative as well as personal partner.)
For many bands in the thrash scene, there was another, not-so-silent partner: Satan.
Well, his name got dropped quite a lot and, some even argued that a certain subgenre or music with Satanic themes or sentiments stood alone from its non-Satanic counterparts.
Maybe some were sincere, maybe some just pandered to their audience; perhaps many just sought a reaction as the so-called Christian right gained a voice in public policy debates.
For his part, Kundrat said he became increasingly annoyed with overt anti-Christian imagery and messages, which he found mean-spirited and divisive.
In fact, a current that runs throughout “Born in The Basement,” whether spontaneous or consciously played, is a growing alienation from peers who adore the rock lifestyle but aren’t prepared to put in the effort or make the sacrifices required of a professional musician.
When the band finally lands a deal with a major label, Kundrat and his band mates find it something of a hollow victory. They’ve achieved some commercial success, but cringe at the changes that come with relinquishing some control.
Extras include interviews with former band mates, radio interviews, a segment from a German documentary that was never completed.
The fact that the film is largely told from one point of view means it runs the risk of appearing self-serving, and the presentation is a bit busy and distracting at times.
But “Born in The Basement” is a brisk-paced and keen insight into a movement in rock as told by one who has lived it. And, it’s great fun -- with music by Overkill, The Dead Boys, Without End and other thrash pioneers and their kindred.
In a band? Want to start one? Want to do anything creative? When discouragement looms or your impetus flags, watch this and take heart. And then, get off the couch.
Margaret Smith is Arts and Calendar editor at GateHouse Media New England’s Northwest Unit. E-mail her at email@example.com.