In 1982 Brian Slagel was a teenage heavy-metal fan preparing to enter college and working as a buyer for Oz Records, a shop in Woodland Hills. While curating obscure heavy-metal albums for the store and operating a fanzine called The New Heavy Metal Revue, he became frustrated over the lack of attention L.A. metal bands he loved were receiving. Operating out of his mother's garage, he put together a compilation album called Metal Massacre, which featured the first recorded output from Metallica and Ratt. It launched Metal Blade Records, a label that has weathered three decades of controversy, changing trends and a collapsing music industry.
To commemorate the label's 30th anniversary, we spoke with Slagel, Kerry King of Slayer and members of Armored Saint, Bitch, Gwar and Six Feet Under. The oral history below focuses on the formative years of Metal Blade, as well as the targeting of some of its bands by Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center.
THE EARLY YEARS, 1982-85
Brian Slagel: I got the idea to put out a compilation [Metal Massacre] inspired by Metal for Muthas, which spotlighted a bunch of New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands. I wanted to help the scene.
Joey Vera (bassist, Armored Saint): In December 1982, Slagel saw an ad for one of our shows, and came and checked us out because he thought we looked like Iron Maiden. He stood out in the crowd right away because he was the only person with his forearms fully covered in metal studs and leather.
Slagel: The original Armored Saint EP in 1983 [was a crucial release], because after that, they signed to Chrysalis. Chrysalis and the band were really good about telling everyone where they came from. It was a huge deal to have this major-label band in the '80s talking about us.
Vera: Everything happened so fast for us. We were 20 years old when we signed a contract with Chrysalis. At that moment, you had to acknowledge that Metal Blade was a large part of that.
Slagel: Shortly thereafter was Show No Mercy by Slayer in '84, which at the time was our biggest record and sold big on the independent level.
Kerry King (guitarist, Slayer): I think Brian had come to see us play at a club called the Woodstock in Orange County. We were stoked to have an opportunity to do a record. You've got your whole life to make your first record ... but even before that, you have to get noticed. Brian was the first to notice us. Certainly it wasn't like being on Chrysalis or a major label, but it was still very important.
Slagel: The first three years was just me doing [the label] by myself, in my mom's garage. Those two things [the Armored Saint EP and Show No Mercy] helped establish us as a real label. By the time Slayer and Metallica became big, of course, it doesn't hurt that we can say, "They came from Metal Blade." It also doesn't hurt that, to this day, those guys are amazing for giving us credit for starting them out.
TARGETED BY THE PMRC, 1985-87
In 1985, Tipper Gore co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center, an organization whose goals included pressuring record labels into placing advisory stickers on albums that featured (what they considered to be) objectionable content. One of the earliest Metal Blade releases, Bitch's Be My Slave, drew her attention; it featured S&M lyrics on tracks like "Leatherbound" — "When you tie me up and gag me/The way you give me pain."
Slagel: Having politicians and powerful people telling you that your records are not welcome here ... the threats of labeling and censorship were scary. But on another level, I was, like, "Why is this really happening?"
Betsy Weiss (aka Betsy Bitch, Bitch vocalist): Even if the PMRC didn't have good things to say about us, we were pleased with the attention we were getting. Tipper Gore would hold up our album while speaking about her cause. Even if it was for the wrong reasons, it still put our name in good company alongside Twisted Sister, Prince and the other bands they were speaking about.
Slagel: They wouldn't have had nearly the amount of exposure they received otherwise. It was scary for a year or two, where you weren't sure where this was heading or how it was going to affect everything. But in the end, it ... had the opposite effect, it actually helped. It was a huge benefit for all of the bands involved with that.
King: To rebellious teenagers, any controversy is good. To the people that loved this music, the PMRC made themselves look like idiots. Our first advisory sticker was on our album Reign in Blood, and we welcomed it.
Slagel: I grew up in the '70s and was a huge Alice Cooper fan. He went through the same stuff that we got caught up in later. I didn't want to tell bands what they can and cannot say. During the '80s and '90s, there were a lot of people that wanted to ban and censor albums. I am so staunchly for people being able to speak their minds and create the art that they want to create. It almost made me angry and made me want to push the envelope further because these people were pushing back.
Chris Barnes (vocalist, Cannibal Corpse, 1988-95, and Six Feet Under): [Cannibal Corpse's] demo cassette had the title A Skull Full of Maggots. [Slagel] thought that was the sickest title ever, and two weeks later we had a contract.
Slagel: People were really surprised when we released Cannibal Corpse's Butchered at Birth. People went, "We can't believe you released that!" And when I saw that artwork [depicting skeletons in butcher's smocks, using cutlery to perform a C-section on a corpse], I said, "That's awesome. Let's do it, this is great!"
Barnes: There was a lot of controversy that my lyrics caused. Metal Blade had our backs every step of the way. There was a big lawsuit against a bunch of death-metal bands and a few labels [filed in 1997 by an Oregon convenience-store clerk who was assaulted by four teenage Cannibal Corpse fans], but Metal Blade always stood behind the artists' creative visions and stood behind the bands' music.
THE WARNER BROS. ERA, 1988-1993
Slagel: For Metal Blade's first five or six years, we didn't have the resources to compete with what a major label had to offer. I was just a dumb kid with no money. Sometimes an offer came up [and I had to say] "That's an amazing deal, you should take it."
But after a while, we had lost so many bands to the majors, and many of them didn't get as much success as we had hoped. So we decided to seek out a distribution deal with a major label so these bands would hopefully not get their careers messed up by leaving us and signing with the majors.
Vera: [Armored Saint's moving to Chrysalis] was a gigantic adjustment. We went from a small, independent label to a major label that was willing to spend $300,000 on our first record. We didn't know we had to pay them back! This was how young and naive we were. We found [being on a major label] really disturbing, and we didn't enjoy it. Suddenly, there were a thousand people making decisions for you. A lot of people meddled in what you wanted to do musically, artistically, creatively and visually.
Slagel: When we first got there, Warner Bros. was ... a perfect fit for us. It was a major but still very artist-oriented. The first couple of years went great, we had a really good relationship and it was very fun. Unfortunately, what happened though, when CDs and the music industry became big business, all of these labels got bought by large corporations. Warner Bros. got bought out by Time. At the time that happened, the whole Body Count "Cop Killer" thing happened. That record was through Warner Bros., and was a huge controversy.
Dave Brockie (aka Oderus Urungus, leader of Gwar): Warner Bros. wanted certain bands to clean up their act if they were going to put their stamp on the records. We had a song called "Baby Dick Fuck." It's a horrible song. Warner Bros. told Metal Blade that if they take this song off the record [This Toilet Earth], that would increase the chances of us getting the same push that the Goo Goo Dolls got, who broke out on Warner Bros. while being a Metal Blade act.
Slagel: When we signed The Goo Goo Dolls, they were a really cool punk band from New York. They evolved into this pop band. Unbeknownst to everyone including themselves, they wrote a ballad that became massively huge. ... By the time their first huge record (Superstar Car Wash) came out and exploded, it was more of a Warner product.
Brockie: We asked Brian, "What should we do?" We didn't want to fuck up the Warner deal for them, but at the same time we wanted to stay true to ourselves. Brian just said, "Whatever you guys want to do, I'll back it 100 percent." Right there, that is the reason I love that man. He's always about letting his artists do what they want to do, even if it's to the detriment of his own company.
Slagel: There's no way that I'm going to tell a band that they have to change what they are doing. So I said, "If this is the way the deal is going to be, I don't think we can do this anymore."
The good thing [about the Warner era] is that I definitely learned an incredible amount about how the business part of the industry was run. There are a lot of lessons to be learned when dealing with a large behemoth corporation ... lessons learned in what you can and cannot do.
Slagel: The whole thing with the label is that we just sign bands that I like and want to work with. Anything that comes out on the label is something I really like.
Vera: Brian has always been first and foremost a fan of music — he just wants to put out music he likes. With Armored Saint, he doesn't have to put out new records from us. To be honest, we're not selling tons of records or competing with his bigger bands, like As I Lay Dying and Amon Amarth. He just does it because he's a fan.
Slagel: The atmosphere is a lot different now. There's not one specific scene or launching point for fans right now. There's really extreme things like Whitechapel, and [the opposite end of the spectrum like] Ghost and Gypsyhawk, bands that are more '70s melodic metal.
I don't think there's been a huge shift, though, in us signing different types of bands or changing the type of music we put out. We've always done that throughout the years.
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But the way the music business is changing is our biggest challenge. In a way, it's exciting in that independent labels have more power now than we ever had before. But navigating the waters of how to make things work is more difficult these days than it's ever been before. We just have to face those challenges head-on.
Vera: Metal Blade has become this entity where they've been able to roll with the changes in technology and marketing in the new medium.
Slagel: I think that's why we've been able to stick around for 30 years. There's been a lot of change in that time, and we've always been open to rolling along with that change. [But] we're all metal fans, and we're all trying to work to make metal as big as it can be.
Metal Blade Records celebrates its 30th anniversary Nov. 30 at House of Blues with a show featuring Armored Saint, Gypsyhawk and other special guests.