Hail, Metallica!

In which a British artiste of minor repute salutes his very heavy colleagues for their intrepid bravery in suing Napster.

Published April 24, 2000 4:01PM (EDT)

The queue of major Recording Artistes lining up to lodge complaints about that barbaric device Napster now appears to stretch several times round the block.

At the core of the Artistes' complaint lies a fearful injustice, one that's being perpetrated at their expense -- quite literally at their expense. Money is involved. Their money. And they are losing it. Robbed! Stolen From. Ripped off.

This is terrible.

It's not as though we were just talking about Music -- or "Our Art," as many of the foremost Artistes refer to it. Any fool can rob a few parking meters, get a guitar and play "music." Let's say 10 minutes to raise the cash, a couple of hours to buy equipment; three minutes to record a single ... that's ummm -- well, call it four hours to be on the safe side.

But the Napster scandal is not about music. It concerns the real heart, the very lifeblood of the industry: Money.

Fortunately, many of the Artistes who have been assaulted in this cowardly and underhanded fashion are already comfortably off and will not suffer undue hardship -- but that is not the point. The mental distress to which these sensitive, creative individuals have been subjected is almost too painful to contemplate.

Now that the situation has been clarified for us by the resolute action of a few brave individuals, the true horror of the Napster outrage is revealed for all to see.

A program of great simplicity, Napster allows individuals to exchange music with one another in the form of MP3 files. A simple search by artist, or song title, will produce a list of users who have the song in question and allow one to download it. While one is downloading, other users may upload songs from one's own "library."

Clearly this has to be stamped out.

The situation, then, if I understand it correctly, is that a small number of rock 'n' roll fans are involved in an activity that could possibly be considered morally questionable, and which may even be illegal!

It is scarcely credible.

I am only glad that my dear friend the late Johnny Thunders was spared the sickening spectacle.

For over half a century rock 'n' roll music has acted as a kind of umbrella under which the noblest elements of society have gathered. Today, the very word "rock" is a synonym for everything that's most decent, honorable and moderate in Western society. The model behavior of both its stars and fans is eclipsed only by the probity and rectitude of the men and women at the business end -- that corps of managers, accountants and recording companies whose transparent honesty and compassion have made the industry such a pleasant environment for musicians to work in.

And now a tiny group of malcontents, led by those traditional troublemaking elements -- teenagers and students -- are creating a hideous blot on the face of this fine industry. In an unequivocal demonstration of their intrinsic Wickedness, the unrepentant, hardcore ingrates have organized themselves a site, at savenapster.com.

If the fool would only persist in his folly ...

Such beastliness might continue indefinitely were it not for the prompt and robust action of strong-minded individuals like the members of that highly respected band, Metallica.

I have long been aware of their "heavy" beat and exciting leather jackets, but I had no idea that they were also moral philosophers. Through a firm of dignified and reputable lawyers they have issued a statement that is as incisive as it is beautifully written.

This attractive document likens the behavior of Napster-using recidivists to "common looters loading up shopping carts because 'everybody else is doing it.'"

How right they are to point out the sheep-like depravity of the average Napsterhead. And "common" is precisely the word.

Some years ago I happened to get caught up in a large group of people who were having fun running amok in the Brixton area of London -- an event which later became known as the "Brixton Riots" and which caused considerable distress to the much-loved prime minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher.

I forget the precise reasons for the riot, though essentially I think it was caused by jealousy. The inner-city districts of Bristol and Liverpool had already held splendidly successful riots (or race-riots, as the police insisted on calling then) and Brixton felt honor-bound to uphold London Pride by staging its own pageant. Whatever the reasons it was a splendid success. Many cars were burnt and a great deal of energetic looting went on.

And Metallica are absolutely right: The looters were common.

I spoke to many of them and I can tell you with absolute certainty that I didn't meet a single duke or duchess, marquis or earl -- not even a lowly peer of the realm -- among them. They were not out of the top drawer. They were simply common. We should pause for a moment to consider the debt of gratitude each of us owes Metallica for drawing our attention to this likeness.

If the extraordinary insight demonstrated by Metallica's drummer, Mr. Lars von Ulrich, is anything to go by, our music is in safe hands with Artistes of this caliber at the helm.

Mr. Ulrich (clearly an original and fiercely analytical polemicist) says, "We take our craft, whether it be the music, the lyrics, or the photos and art work very seriously, as do most artists."

You see? Craftsmen.

Not like you or I.

He continues, "It is therefore sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is."

Sickening indeed. I think we all feel it.

You can read Marcuse (or shoot smack) till you're blue in the face, but you won't achieve that sort of understanding: It's something you only come by through personal experience. You have to Live It.

In that case, you may ask, on what basis do I enter the debate? What are my credentials? A most reasonable question. Very well. I was a member of a minor Beat group in the middle of the previous century -- though I never aspired to create Art.

My group, the Only Ones, formed in London in 1976 and recorded a series of albums for the mighty Columbia label. We toured extensively for the next four years and finally split up in Los Angeles in 1980, when we became unable to bear the sight of one another.

The band continue to sell small quantities of CDs per annum, bringing in unspectacular, though regular, royalty checks, mechanicals and publishing monies right up to the present day.

In fact, I learned of Napster when a friend e-mailed me an MP3 of the Cure performing an Only Ones song, "Another Girl, Another Planet," at a Pittsburgh sound check. Never having had the good fortune to play Pittsburgh, I was thus indebted to Napster for allowing me to share the experience.

I became very fond of Napster, using it to track down deeply loved songs that are otherwise very hard to come by -- obscure Delta Blues recordings, long-deleted country-Western rarities and so forth.

Most recently, I downloaded a song I've always treasured but somehow never managed to buy -- the beautiful "Mandy" by Barry Manilow. Goodness it's wonderful. Listen to the implied rallentandos at the chorus ends -- or check the string arrangement where the key modulates from B-flat up to C. Priceless.

But I'm getting carried away.

My computer's current hard drive isn't large enough to post the entire Only Ones catalog, or I most certainly would. It's a good rule in life to put something back for something you've taken.

To this end, before buying a larger hard disk, I wrote on behalf of the band to Sony (which now controls the Columbia catalog) stating, with Neville Chamberlain in mind, that unless we heard from the company by 11 o'clock p.m. on the 23rd of April that it would immediately waive its copyright, a state of unpleasantness would exist between us.

I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received.

By John Perry

John Perry is an English musician and author. A founding member of the Only Ones, he has played with Robert Palmer, Robert Hunter, Evan Dando, The Sisters of Mercy, Marianne Faithfull, Michael Nyman and Johnny Thunders.

MORE FROM John Perry

Related Topics ------------------------------------------