***IF READING ON A SMARTPHONE USE “LANDSCAPE” FORMAT FOR BEST RESULTS***
Pause your Spotify and put down your smartphones for a second, so Grandpa can tell you about the good ol'days… Back before technology gave you access to the most obscure information in mere seconds, just to help you kill time while you're on the toilet.
Back in the 1980's, “the underground” wasn't just a cool term used to describe doing something outside of the mainstream Mall culture of the era, it was an actual description of the network of like-minded fans that existed hundreds or even thousands of miles apart with no way of actually finding each other outside of a chance meeting at a concert or record store, or maybe through a classified ad?
By now, everyone has heard of “Ozzy Zig Needs Gig” or “Loud, Rude, Aggressive Guitar Player” or some other advertisement placed in a local music paper that ultimately put "desperately-seeking" musicians together at a critical moment, just in time for the resulting collaboration to make HISTORY…
Well, the truth is, most of that romantic bluster was limited to the large cities where the cream of the regional talent, having been driven out of the hinterlands, ultimately coalesced. Large market metropolises where the “Music Business” had a presence and the corporate “taste-makers” funneled “the product” into the hands of the suburban mall shoppers.
But in “the underground” of the 1980's, those music-business-types had no interest nor connection to the vital scene of artists who were pushing the boundaries of musical expression.
That's why Metallica couldn't sniff a recording contract, and it took a Flea Market Record Store owner to ignite the career of the biggest Metal band in the world today. Almost all of the great music we cherish from the underground of the 1980's was actually jump-started by the network of zine makers, tape traders and pen pals who connected with one another by good old fashioned word-of-mouth and snail mail.
In those days, we were EXTREMELY fortunate to have the committed crew of miscreants that made up the Eide's record counter staff. Each of them very dedicated to their favorite genres, and all obsessed with getting their hands on the latest and greatest that the underground had to offer. They sold Kerrang! and Metal Forces, sure. And we read those glossy-paper “bibles” religiously.
But we also got regional fanzines that were far-less polished, but a lot more fun. These zines were incredibly informative on the rising tide of underground metal. Bob Muldowney's Kick Ass was a favorite of mine, but we read whatever rags that we could get our calloused hands on, be they printed, xeroxed or mimeographed.
And once we had demos to send out, we began posting them to the publishers of those photocopied “phone-directories” of the international Metal scene.
This is how you got your music “out there”.
Oh, it was an exciting moment when the mail showed up on your doorstep, let me tell you. Once you started sending out demos to magazines and tape traders, the mail would soon arrive from the far-away corners of the world!
As I have already mentioned in chapter 4, we were also incredibly lucky that the competition in our Metal scene was friendly. More of a “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” vibe, rather than a “conquer-and-destroy-all-other-contenders-for-the-throne” type of thing.
And to that end, our buddies in Doomwatch, Dream Death and Eviction were dropping our name to the fanzines and traders who wondered what else might be bubbling under in the Steel City.
As a result, we were all being “discovered” by the network of zine-makers, right along with a veritable “who's who” of the unsigned Metal underground. From coast to coast, from Europe to Asia to South America, the word was out on the Pittsburgh scene, and in came the praises for the originality of the bands from our area.
Read some of the coverage of Necropolis and other Pittsburgh bands HERE: /counterintelligence
A German fanzine called Iron Forces, published by Oliver Schlein, was particularly aware of what the bands were up to in Pittsburgh. His 3rd issue featured Doomwatch on the front cover, Necropolis on the back, as well as an interview with each of us, plus a feature on Dream Death!
He wrote to me:
“I think your music is something new, a very original style…” and “I was surprised 'bout the great scene in Pittsburgh's area, with the fantastic bands Doomwatch, Dream Death, and of course, Necropolis! I think it is the 2nd Bay Area! Thank you also for the copy of your mag WARHAMMER! It is great, really a cool mag with a cool feeling. It shows very good how closed and strong your scene is and gives a cool feeling that seems to be in the Pitts. area scene.”
I know that I have repeatedly mentioned this camaraderie that we were all fostering, but I believe Oliver's sentiments truly display how rare it was to have that kind of cooperation from all of the supporters and bands in our small but sincere group.
It was real, and it showed.
And we all believed in originality. The number of bands claiming the “Thrash” mantle was growing, but more and more the influence of Metallica or Slayer or Venom, etc. was evident. The Pittsburgh scene was dedicated to avoiding those direct influences on our sound. We all listened to the spectrum of bands emerging from the underground, and when the genre was new, the variety of approaches to this more aggressive metallic music seemed endless.
Descriptive terms proliferated, created either by the zine writers grasping at adjectives in a desperate attempt to summarize a particular band's approach, or by the bands themselves, trying to elbow a spot at the ever-crowding table of Thrash.
Death, Speed, Power, Black, Crossover and many other prefixes conjured up anticipation of new and original sounds. It was one of the things that I personally found so exciting about the movement. And in Pittsburgh, we were all striving to find our unique voices. Of course this methodology was a double edged sword.
While some people like Oliver recognized and lauded our individuality, many others had a more difficult time accepting the originality of the bands of the Pittsburgh scene. After the initial entries in the Thrash Metal genre established themselves, there were suddenly “rules” that the so-called “fans” begin to adhere to. And the “purists” started to deride bands for straying from the now-defined styles of the most successful groups. It always struck me as strangely contradictory that in a counter-culture which claimed to celebrate honesty, open-mindedness and originality, following the most successful artists' blueprint was held up as “true”, while forging your own path was somehow deemed “false”.
To me, this appeared to be the new conformity of the Thrash Metal scene.
So, as more groups began rooting their approach in the styles of the “big four”, bands like ours were often misunderstood or misrepresented for not following the established formulas of the genre. And I think all of the Pittsburgh Thrash bands would acknowledge that part of both our individual and scene identities was owed to the Pittsburgh Punk scene that we had merged with in our formative days.
The Punk-Metal “cultural exchange” was not exclusive to Pittsburgh by any means, but there was less animosity and more tolerance from the Punks towards us Metalheads when we first started investigating the Electric Banana. Jesse Michaels, for instance, told me about how he and another skate-punk buddy got up the courage to go to an Exodus gig in San Francisco and how threatening the crowd was to them for not having long hair - “bang the head that doesn't bang,” and all that shit.
And that was sometimes evident in the correspondence we would get, especially from folks in bigger markets.
The Thrash Metal culture was becoming more predisposed and less-tolerant of diversity. Initially galvanizing to our dedicated scenesters, tongue-in-cheek platitudes like “Posers Must Die!” had become nearly fascist rallying cries representing marginalizing attitudes which, to me, suddenly seemed contrary to the environment that I had come up in. I thought that the relatively small nature of our scene didn't afford us the luxury of turning away interested parties, but something as simple as a haircut or t-shirt was enough to get someone ostracized.
Also, the Pittsburgh Punk scene was very diverse and rooted in an art culture that was dedicated to individual voices. That spirit and identity became part of the DNA of our metal scene. Paradoxically, that same philosophy led me to self-identify less as a “Metalhead” and more as an individual without rules or restraint in my musical tastes, fashion sense and even world outlook. I matured from 15-year-old Hesher into a less-predictable late-teen Metal-Punk-Hip-Hopper.
There was no doubt we were broadening our pool of influences. We were all listening to less of the formulaic Thrash Metal bands, while expanding our influence from other sectors. It is INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT to describe the sensibilities of the underground during this era. So many of the now-rote musical genres and sub-genres were new and gestating in the ‘85 to ’89 underground landscape. And not just in the world of Heavy Metal.
1986 was a particularly vibrant year for the music that I loved. Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer all released their first records recorded for the major labels that they had newly signed to. Kreator, Destruction, Dark Angel, Nuclear Assault, Sepultura and many others were releasing debuts or defining albums. Bands of the original Hardcore Punk movement had fizzled-out or migrated into more adventurous musical territories, like the Bad Brains with “I Against I” or Discharge's “Grave New World”, while others had embraced Thrash Metal aesthetics as part of that evolution like Agnostic Front with “Cause For Alarm” or the Cro-mags' “Age Of Quarrel”. Also, Hip Hop's often acknowledged “Golden Era” had begun, with genre-defining releases like RUN DMC's “Raising Hell”, Beastie Boys' “Licensed To Ill”, Schoolly-D's “Saturday Night”, Stetsasonic's “On Fire” and many others.
As our band progressed, so did the perception of Necropolis. And as our world evolved, so did our sound. With George no longer writing the material, it was going to change no matter what we attempted. As 1987 moved into 1988, we still got lots of amazing support from all over the world, however in our home town, we began to hear some rumblings from folks using labels like “commercial” or “sell out” to describe our progressing style. The national and international opinions seemed mostly to celebrate our originality, while in Pittsburgh it seemed that we weren't “staying in our lane” enough for the growing Thrash Metal scene.
But we were young and dedicated to musical experimentation. The more diverse our musical tastes became, the more varied our compositions. We never thought about “air-play” or commercial success. In fact, we were more interested in pushing boundaries and blurring the lines of genre for the sake of musical and cultural freedom. Selling out? What we were doing wasn't commercial, it was commercial suicide.
Take a look at some of the zines we were getting coverage in. We were sharing space with bands from a myriad of sub-genres and styles that would later be pigeonholed into meaningless genre boxes like “Alternative”, “Grunge”, “Pop Punk” and others. But in that late 80's space where the money-men at the major labels hadn't really begun to throw their influence around, artists were just evolving their sounds into unique takes on the varied influential components of the free-form musical subculture.
Eventually, the labels found “the gold in them thar hills” and the 90's ushered in the actual sell-out commercialization of the once genuine 80's underground. Genres became more and more defined and the labelization of sounds and styles became fixed requirements for marketing and consumption. So the exciting and vital “unrestrained” era gave-way to calculated, Music-Industry-guided stylistic formulae. Ironically, the formulas were primarily based on now-big-selling-artists that had initially created their original sound in the unfettered underground without the influence of the Industry.
And round and round we go…
In the end, Necropolis just closed our ranks and stayed centered in our own musical interests, caring little for the opinions of the naysayers and detractors. Perhaps that made us appear aloof or even egotistical, although that wasn't our attitude. We were just doing what we had to, strengthening our resolve in the face of negativity and small-mindedness. Staying dedicated to making the kind of music we wanted to hear.
We were happy in our waning days of High School and innocence and the band members couldn't be closer than if we were an actual family living under the same roof.
But all of that was about to change…
- Spahr Schmitt