A History of the Shady Suit in Metal
As metalheads, we will always be wary of people who are too put together. So much of metal’s style — the spikes, the leather, the long hair — expresses, in reality, that we are all warthogs and werewolves. So when we encounter someone who’s wearing the Productive Member Of Society uniform, it gives us pause. If the jacket, tie, and combed hair are what that person is, then they are a cold and terrible creature; if it’s not what he or she is, then it means we’re being lied to. The whole outfit is tied together with a silken leash.
Given that we’re still reeling from a hilariously insane presidential election in America, and given that our current leader is Lord of the Suits, our wariness gets more relevant every day. When a presidential hopeful comes out with their outfit, hairstyle, and philosophy perfectly tailored and pressed, we see the inhumanity of politics in the flesh (or sometimes a suggested lack thereof, as though beneath the Canali and Brooks Brothers it’s all clockwork and cockroaches and shit). But the fear of the suit has been present throughout metal’s long and arduous history, from its inception at the end of the Summer of Love to its subgenre-filled state today.
In fact, one could trace metal’s distaste for formal authority as far back as the blues, where the white man in the suit was seen as an inauspicious figure. Though the original account paints him as a large black man, the blues Devil who gave Robert Johnson his talent is generally portrayed as a well-dressed white guy. One imagines that if you were a southern bluesman, being approached by someone in a nice suit often boded poorly: either he was a government stooge, a tax man, a record company figure, or at best another bluesman who considered himself fancier than thou.
But of course, metal’s initial fear of the suit stems from the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the clean-cut American G-man became the enemy of free love and open minds. When Ozzy sang about “Generals gathered in their masses just like witches at black masses,” he was painting Satan’s minions as those dressed to the nines; after all, a military uniform is the ultimate suit, a suit with a purpose and the threat of power behind it. Meanwhile, as rock stardom became an institution, the record company executive in a suit and tie became the classic representation of a shallow corporate world that treated rock and roll like freak show and cash cow combined. As with the Robert Johnson-era bluesmen, this suited man could offer you the world, if you just signed on the dotted line and were willing to hand over your soul.
As the ‘70s got older and early metal’s rough-and-tumble image became corporate and mainstream, people became less afraid of well-dressed rockers. Suddenly, the dudes from Kiss were wearing suits, which made their whacky face paint even more bizarre and incongruous. Thankfully, this is when punk showed up, and once more reminded everyone that the term “public servant” was usually as false a front as a fancy suit. The image of a backwards politician photocopied and defaced with ‘X’s and honest policy descriptions became a musical mainstay, and metalheads — the hardcore ones, anyway —nrealized that it wasn’t the Devil, but those decrying him, who they should actually fear.
Thrash was pinnacle of anti-suit sentiments within metal. Mixing punk’s aggression towards authority, metal’s dramatic overkill, and the Cold War paranoia that riddled the 1980s, thrash painted the suit as the ultimate evil. The men in suits weren’t just signing you to shitty record deals or telling you to cut your hair, they were bathing in blood money, spraying carcinogenic chemicals on marijuana crops, and, of course, planning to launch nuclear missiles and plunge the world into WWIII. The growing genre of grindcore also responded with similar disgust, as seen on the cover of Napalm Death’s Scum. Only those clad in spiked denim or studded spandex would be ready for the upcoming apocalypse.
The greatest evil suit in heavy metal history will always be Megadeth mascot Vic Rattlehead. Though headbangers have since cast him as a cool mascot figure, we should never forget that Vic wears the blank black-and-white suit of the politician, and that his pastimes include selling the UN, stealing extraterrestial secrets (while surrounded by a cadre of other evil suits), and feeding the war machine. Vic’s headgear is that of a corpse blinded to the truth: he died hearing, seeing, and speaking no evil, just as the Political Powers That Be would have it. Unlike Iron Maiden’s Eddie, who’s always the hero and fights against those who would corrupt metal for their own uses, Vic Rattlehead is an insidious figure, one who revels in the aftermath of mutually-assured destruction.
While thrash raged against corporate and political footsoldiers, glam metal had a mixed relationship with the men in black. On the one hand, bands like Skid Row, Mötley Crüe, and GN’R happily sang about being grody street punks who didn’t give a damn about the record executives courting them. On the other hand, once all these artist became millionaires who liked to flaunt their decadent lifestyles, those same suits became their friends and coworkers. The dichotomy is poignantly displayed on the art of Warrant’s Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich. Sure, the cover displays a repulsive fat cat with four chins literally hemorrhaging cash, but the title and logo seem to suggest Warrant themselves were reveling in all the fat greenbacks their music was bringing in.
Let’s not focus entirely on the corporate or government suit, though: religion also likes its liars dressed to kill. As thrash got darker and darker and gave way to death metal, religious corruption became as much a target of distaste and loathing as its political counterpart. The most obvious example of this is the preacher on the cover of Death’s Spiritual Healing. An old-school Southern man of God, his suit immaculate white and gold, cash poking out of his pocket, a grin on his lips, claims to be aiding a mentally disabled man with the power of prayer. Behind him, a distinctly Reagen-esque gentlemen looks towards the sky. Once again, the clean suit, devoid of imperfections and implying success, hides the turd of a soul within its wearer and the lie that everything’s fine.
It’s worth noting that black metal shied away from the suit as a symbol of villainy, instead portraying its religious enemies as fully-robed popes and priests, or more often than not as Christ himself. This most likely stems from its forebearers’ Scandinavian roots and their rebellion against the invading faith of old. While thrash and death metal musicians were reacting to the horrors of modern society, the black metallers were rebelling against the dogma that castrated that of their Viking ancestors a thousand years ago and continued to dull their current lives. Why spit on the politician when you can crush the cross?
Obviously, as metal has matured and reexamined itself, opinions on formal dress have changed. British death metallers Akercocke were known for their three-piece suits, though their outfits seem more inclined towards 19th Century libertines than Buddy Holly or Gordon Gecko (and sadly, it appears that they’ve dressed down after reuniting). Mike Patton is happy to take the stage in a jacket and tie, seemingly to rebel against metal’s mindset of blind faith in the brotherhood of steel. Meanwhile, Metalocalypse made a point of its true villains, the Illuminati lead by the evil Salacia, wearing suits and uniforms. How the suit and our opinion of it changes will be interesting to see, though given how political apathy, corporate greed, and religious bigotry continue to dress, it doesn’t look like metal will learn to trust the insect beneath the blazer any time soon.