TV review: Heavy Metal Britannia | A Kick in the Head – the Lure of Las Vegas

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ALTHOUGH heavy metal is often dismissed as atavistic garbage performed by bozos for the edification of numbskulls, many of its more elderly practitioners are surprisingly amusing and self-aware. Perhaps that's because the likes of Rob Halford from Judas Priest have gained enough distance to view themselves with a degree of self-mocking hindsight. Or maybe you just need a sense of humour after an eternity spent in Judas Priest.

Halford and his weathered rock brethren were the genial stars of Heavy Metal Britannia, a droll and affectionate tribute to the music of Beelzebub. Narrated by Nigel Planer (no stranger to the Beast from his days in spoof metal band Bad News), this excellent documentary traced the movement from its roots in the industrialised north of the early 1970 to its 1980s excesses in the enormo-domes and trashed hotels of America.

Like BBC4's recent Synth Britannia, it showed how a new genre was born from the oppressiveness of working-class British life in the 1970s. It's just as well that Britain was such a depressing place back then, otherwise fans would never have been entertained by the likes of Black Sabbath, whose none-more-heavy music was partly inspired by the steam-hammer dirge of their local metal foundries. Although the term "heavy metal" was first coined by American beat writer William Burroughs, it was in damp, grimy Britain that it found its calling.

A thunderously disaffected reaction against the prevailing hippie ethos ("I haven't got bloody flowers in me hair," grumbled Halford. "I've got weeds around me feet."), it's hardly surprising that the genre largely escaped censure when punk came along. From lugubrious slabs of metallic chunder performed by men who looked like crows, to speed-driven flurries of shrieking virtuosity performed by men who looked like Captain Caveman in a New York gay bar circa 1979, metal was always crass, juvenile and absurd. And there is a lot to be said for that.

Although classic rock fans won't have learned anything new from the programme, it was still a solidly entertaining assemblage of heartfelt remembrance and wry social history. I find it impossible to resist these BBC4 music documentaries, much in the same way that I can never resist music magazine articles about bands I've read about a thousand times. Despite their familiarity, they feed our enduring fascination with these epic and bathetic Bible fables. They are the greatest stories ever told and retold.

Metal has always contained elements of perverse razzle-dazzle, so it's hardly surprising that the likes of Ozzy Osbourne ended up playing Vegas. Once a playground for sophisticated rous such as Sinatra and his loveable wise guys, Vegas is now a tawdry elephant's graveyard for bloated celebrities, gambling addicts and newlyweds without an ounce of imagination. Or so goes the legend.

In A Kick in the Head – the Lure of Las Vegas, Alan Yentob delivered an engaging history of a town trying to both escape from and embrace its self-made mythology. Its madness was summed up best by stories of the cocktail parties that assembled to watch nearby atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. They even sold postcards and designed mushroom cloud dresses for showgirls. When Armageddon does come, only the roaches and Vegas will remain.