Metal Guru: Inside Mike Saunders’s Brain
By Scott Woods (July 2001)
‘Metal Mike’ Saunders belongs to that unusual breed of species known as rock-critics-turned-musicians, an esteemed list that also includes (most notably) Lenny Kaye, Andy Shernoff, John Mendelssohn, Neil Tennant, Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Chrissie Hynde, Greg Tate, Ira Kaplan, and Shaggy. After dashing off a record review in 1968 forRolling Stone — at the tender age of 15, no less (stay tuned for the upcoming bio-pic) — he continued to write for a host of music publications until the summer of 1973, at which point he waved bye bye bye to Jann Wenner and co. because “rock music was over.” (Until the Swedes got a hold of it, that is.)
After a stint in the punk band Vom (with fellow scribes Richard Meltzer and Gregg Turner), Saunders co-founded the Angry Samoans, penning such ageless chart toppers as “Right Side of My Mind,” “They Saved Hitler’s Cock,” and “My Old Man’s a Fatso.” In 1999, he was drawn back into the fold of music writing, and he’s been filing massive critical tomes for the Village Voice — America’s foremost teen-pop journal — ever since.
I didn’t think to ask Saunders my burning heavy metal question, but he answered it for me anyway, and I am eternally grateful.
Scott: What do you make of the fact that at least three young female performers in the last year have appeared in public wearing New York Dolls t-shirts? (I’m talking about members of Dream, Destiny’s Child, and the Corrs.)
Mike: That’s a darned good question. It must be because it’s a fairly catchy logo, from the ’70s, and everyone knows the word “New York.” I’m sure the music has nothing to do with it. I’ve seen other acts (in magazine photos) besides just the ones you mention.
Scott: Have you ever appeared in public wearing a New York Dolls t-shirt?
Mike: At the start of the ’80s, the basic “New York Dolls” logo (red on yellow, or red on blue) was one of the common 2/$7 record store T-shirts around here (up at the stores in Berkeley) back then, so I had a couple. They got sufficient use to eventually wind up stuffed in a “retired” box somewhere.
Scott: Are you a band t-shirt sort of guy? Why or why not?
Mike: I am when they come from the $1 Goodwill store racks. Here’s a quick survey of my closet’s ’90s thrift store acquisitions of that $1 type: four Green Day Kerplunk, four ’80s Bon Jovi (two diff designs), Def Leppard Hysteria tour, two Hanson, an ’80s Belinda Carlisle, a Hammer “U Can’t Touch This,” four or five total of my favorite two NKOTB designs (I must’ve seen several dozen over the years, these were the winners), three of the same Debbie Gibson Electric Youth tour, of course a flock of Poison and Warrant shirts (I’m seeing about eight different plus some dupes), two diff Nelson that are very scary (one of ’em with the whole “band”), and two Pat Benatar Seven The Hard Way tour. And from the last 12 months: six Spice Girls shirts (of five diff designs), two diff B*Witched, and one Britney. I wish to stress these are only the $1 thrift-store shirts, and of acts whose music I’ve enjoyed at one time or another. I’ve passed on reams of thrift store shirts to friends (by acts I don’t like, or just of shirts I didn’t like the design of).
Chuck Eddy probably has several Def Lepperd in his closet to attest to this fact. Being the one-man-corporation “merchandise” mogul (at my band’s gigs), I’ve dropped a screen of the red “Angry Samoans” logo onto my personal wardrobe’s favorite Spice Girls design (twice), a B*Witched, and a Britney, not to mention an early shirt of a hideously grinning ‘N Sync.
Scott: In your Radio Disney piece you wrote: “Beatles–better songs; [Backstreet Boys]–better beats.” That’s not very fair to Ringo, now, is it…(please expound).
Mike: Wow, you are of course right since most Beatles recordings 1963-65 have great beats. I hereby extend my sincere apologies to Ringo in hopes that I can be excused from Traveling Wilburys road crew duty for yet another decade.
Scott: In “Lester Recollected in Tranquility,” Richard Meltzer wrote that Bangs “even begat a not-half-bad (early-‘70s) clone in ‘Metal Mike’ Saunders.” In lieu of me just asking Richard Meltzer to explain, how do you think he meant? And how would you respond to that?
Mike: Meltzer’s a lot older than me, or I should specifically say WAS. He was like 26 when I was a 19 year old headbanger in 1971 (saying and writing good things about Grand Funk and Black Sabbath, who at that time weren’t touched with a 20 foot stick by anyone else in the rock prozines except Lester Bangs). So I would interpret this as a piece of older brother – younger brother criticism. Who knows what he meant, since explanation is not found in any of the VOM lyrics (recorded or unrecorded…our set had about 14 originals w/Meltzer lyrics, plus “My Eyes Have Seen You” and “Louie Louie”).
Scott: Did you ever go through a period where (like Meltzer, and maybe Bangs too) you felt that writing about rock was a dead-end, a waste of time?
Mike: Actually I had a double whammy moment, and a formal “drop out” point in time that was 12/31/73. My favorite rock bands had all tanked in America (commercially)–Stooges, Slade, New York Dolls, Raspberries. Plus by that late moment in time all the rock prozines sucked–Creem and PRM were both pretty lame by this point (PRM changed format around the end of 1973). Like a lot of other fans, I kinda thought rock music was over, kaput. (Let it be noted that the following year 1974 was the end of the UK “glitter rock” chart scene, with every manny, moe & jack scraping the charts, usually pretty dire musically…not to decry Mud’s eternal genius on “Tiger Feet” and “Rocket.”) So I wrote a half-page short on (Ohio hardpop-rock act, ok album on Mercury) Blue Ash in PRM‘s “year end roundup,” with the distinct notion that this was the last thing I was ever gonna say re: “rock music” in the prozine press, not that anyone was counting or keeping track anyway, and my comments were real negative (re: the state of “rock music”). Sure enough, 1974 was by far the worst year for rock music of the entire ’60s or ’70s. I became an ABBA fan and didn’t write a word in a national prozine for 25 years.
Scott: Is teen-pop your way out of this (supposed) dead-end?
Mike: Actually, Chuck Eddy contacted me a good 25 years later (very early 1999) and asked, “hey, are you interested in writing something on B*Witched?” Since I already had both the non-LP CD-single track and the 12″ with both dance remixes and the mega-mix medley, as a plain old consumer/music fan, I apparently fit his qualifications to become one of his pop-music hitmen. The fact that I euro-dance “pretty ok for a white boy” is just a bonus.
Scott: Do you think rock critics are more–or less–attuned to what’s happening in bubblegum and teen pop now than they were 30 years ago?
Mike: Boy, when I see the lists of what “rock critics” listen to, I have no idea what planet they’re on. Over the last 60 days in April-May 2001 I identified (and acquired the CD-singles of) songs I really liked by Sarina Paris (dance hit “Look At Us”) and Finnish act Tik N Tak (singles “Upside Down,” “Don’t Turn Back”) by trolling the contents of a teenmag named BOP! that recently shifted to all-music coverage. I gather the “rock critics” were busy listenin’ to Radiohead or Lucinda Williams…
Scott: Would you agree that punk rock made it even more difficult for critics to pursue writing about radio pop and bubblegum? Did punk kill this stuff off in the rock crit voice?
Mike: Actually I found it even dumbfounding at the time how lame both the mags and writing were in the “overground” music press during the 1977-82 era…i.e., New York Rocker, Trouser Press, ZigZag, etc. The last time I ever felt there was some kind of “rock crit voice” was during the NME era of Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray…During that 1973-1977 stretch I read NME avidly (subscribed) and really thought it a well-edited rock mag, no small note considering that I am about the ultimate anti-Anglophile. (Me like Grand Funk, James Gang etc., don’t own a single tune by can’t-rock weenies the Clash and Elvis Costello.)
Scott: Who are the best editors you’ve worked for–and what is/was so good about them?
Mike: Greg Shaw and Marty Cerf at Phonograph Record Magazine were very good, enthusiastic and didn’t mess much with your basic copy or content. Jon Landau as “review editor” at Rolling Stone had to continuously apologize for what their “copy editor” back in San Francisco did to his record review sections he submitted bi-weekly…writers’ copy was hacked and mutilated to the point where it was often unrecognizable. I never wrote much forCreem ’cause it was disorganized and unprofessional beyond description during Lester (Bangs)’s time there as “review editor”…he chronically assigned things that didn’t run/never saw print, i.e., solicited far more reviews each month than saw print, it was a big mess. I kinda had the minority opinion thatCreem was great for about a year, mid-1970 to mid-1971, then had to “sell out” to commercial considerations when they went to a slick cover in Fall 1971…for me as a reader the magazine pretty much sucked after that point in time. For instance, they never ran an article on the Dictators in ’75 (i.e., Girl Crazy), I mean how retarded was that? It was pretty much unanimous in rock fandom at the time that that was one of the best and most important rock albums ever made. 35 years later we’re still listening to babble bout how Bob Dylan revolutionized rock lyrics (in 1965) (always sounded like a folkie on speed with dubious taste in backing musicians to me, but I like the songs anyway); well, the Dictators did that in an entirely different 360o (degrees). For us musical boneheads that don’t understand “poetry,” “Master Race Rock” and “Two Tub Man” were inspiration to write dumbass lyrics and be proud.
Back to “music editors,” Chuck Eddy in modern times is a near genius. What Chuck does with the stuff I’ve written for him, is take the “formal copy” plus all related (informal) e-mails, then cut and paste the two animals together, and then reshuffle some more while adding some catchy phrases or adverb clauses I didn’t think of. Since the funniest stuff is always in long forgotten e-mails, I never know what I’m going to see when something appears in published form.
Scott: Can you relate any hellish experiences in your dealing with editors over the years?
Mike: Actually don’t have any. Except for the gruesome things Rolling Stone did to record reviews (see previous explanation) on the “copy editing” end. In the ancient 1971-72-73 days, I didn’t even have a telephone in my $50/mo college garage apartment (with personal bathrom/shower, let it be said), just access to a phone inside the front house…communication from Jon Landau at Rolling Stone came in the form of tiny 1-page memos in the mail. And vice versa.
Scott: How or why did you start writing about music? Was it a big ambition of yours when you were younger?
Mike: Actually, it was a complete accident. In 12th grade English class in Fall 1968, one of our weekly “writing assignments” was to write up a “review” of something (TV, movie, stage, music). Being a 15 year-old suburban white boy, fall 1968, of course I was listening hard and heavy to the “blues.” The Small Faces, Procol Harum, and Bonzo Dog Band might’ve been the only rock bands with albums out that year/season that I liked…Beatles, Stones, and Hendrix were utterly useless by the end of ’68, so Howlin’ Wolf, Paul Butterfield, and Lightnin’ Slim it was (and also my first introduction to “catalogue” albums, graduating the next year to the catalogs of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, etc.). Anyway it seemed a conspicuous omission to my mind that Rolling Stone (which I got through the mail, it was not available on Arkansas newsstands) had never reviewed John Mayall’s Hard Road album with Peter Green. So I wrote up a review for the English class assignment, and what the hell, never mind that the album was a year old, also sent it in to Rolling Stone (who did not have a “review editor,” but instead a back-page box requesting submissions). They actually ran it, rotten grammar and hyperbole and all (no cash payment). The following spring of ’69, I sent in a review of some album or other I had in hand, and not only did a small cash payment come back, but a note from their first “review editor” ever, Greil Marcus. He was angling for someone to do an interview with (Dylan producer) Bob Johnston in Nashville, and figured Little Rock was a day’s drive away on the interstate system…I had to explain that I was a 16 year old high school senior, and even tho’ possessed a 1966 Chevy Nova had a very tight schedule and a ‘term paper’ to write, etc. So you can see, my motivation to be a Cameron Crowe was nil from the git go.
Anyway, I only wrote a few record reviews during Marcus’s year as editor. When Jon Landau came in in Oct. 1970 as the new review editor, he immediately pegged me as a guy who liked “English pop” (of the Badfinger, Raspberries type) and hard rock/heavy metal. He had a gap in those categories (for reviewers) or something. And actually I’m a little ahead of myself here…it was later in the May 1971 Creem, reviewing the first Sir Lord Baltimore album (released the first week of Feb 1971, just two weeks ahead of Sabbath’s Paranoid, so let’s figure the review of my promo copy was typed up in Feb. in my Univ of Texas at Austin dorm room), that I threw down the phrase “heavy metal” in its first use in the rock press ever (outside of the Steppenwolf lyric) as a descriptive term. Yep, all blame and shame goes to me. That was also the Creem issue where Dave Marsh coined the phrase “punk rock” in a column about seeing a Question Mark & The Mysterians club gig…something was definitely in American’s drinking water that month.
Scott: How did your relationship with Rolling Stone evolve over the years? Did they have you pegged for certain types or reviews? Were you in their “good books,” so to speak?
Mike: No evolution, I was a frequent/regular record reviewer only during the long Jon Landau era, fall 1970 – summer 1973.
Scott: Is ‘Metal Mike’ your own invention? How did that come about?
Mike: Simple question, Black Sabbath and Grand Funk were parked on my stereo a huge amount of time during the last half of 1971, my junior year at Univ of Texas at Austin. You know how college nicknames go, “Metal Mike” stuck pretty quick, and has never really left the building.
Scott: How do you think the genre of rock crit has evolved over the last thirty or so years? Are there any essential differences between writing reviews in 2001 than there were writing reviews in 1971?
Mike: As someone who avidly follows a daft VH1 show like, say, Bands On the Run, it has just occurred to me that that disqualifies me from having a legitimate opinion on anything except, uh, maybe which WNBA team’s gonna win the Western Conference this year. But I’ll be glad to ponder the endless musical crimes and hilarities of Asswhacker, Flickermydickonastick, and Harlot (Soulcracker, Flickerstick, and Harlow to you civilians) with anyone who gives me a beer. I know a helluva lot more about them than about Radiohead.
Scott: What do you make of DeRogatis’s thesis (more or less) in Let it Blurt that rock criticism has been ‘sold out,’ gone downhill since the early ’80s? Is he onto something with that or is he missing the boat entirely?
Mike: Whoa, I’d say he’s almost ten years off. On my radar the boat went out to sea waaaay before Duran Duran showed up.
Scott: What/where are the best things happening in rock criticism right now? What/where are the worst things happening in rock criticism right now?
Mike: Since I don’t even know which sea the aforementioned boat got lost in, I don’t have the slightest idea what a possible answer to this question might be.
Scott: How did your stint as a music critic influence your music in the Angry Samoans (if at all)?
Mike: Didn’t, no cross-influence between the two. You have to remember my original (and favorite) instrument is drums, the non-musician slot of the breed.
Scott: How has your work in the Angry Samoans influenced the way you write about music now (if at all)?
Mike: Didn’t, since both hobbies were sort of accidental or incidental in the first place. Playing in a band I got a tiny glimpse into what mind-racking mental torture recording is on the back-end of overdubbed-vocals and mixing, endless decisions of “is this good enough” jammed against a small budget of money and time.
Scott: What sort of ‘real jobs’–if any–have you held in your life, apart from the Angry Samoans and rock criticism? Have any of these jobs been informed by your writing or your music? (And vice versa.)
Mike: My ‘real’ career would be 24 years and counting in the accounting profession, since picking up the degree in May 1977. I loaded up my 401(k) and IRA “retirement funds” to such a compulsive degree that two years ago I got the luxury of cutting back to half-time work (to just cover expenses) and have since been living the life of Reily listening to Britney tracks back home at 2 P.M. any day of the week.
Scott: In an interview in Hangnail, you said: “DO NOT SPEND your time practicing loud music in a small practice space in a rock band–this is bad for your ears. I spent my time instead (for about 23, 24 years) writing songs.” Do you still write songs? And what’s harder, writing songs or writing reviews?
Mike: Ah, I never really did quite enough volume of “rock writing” to be able to compare the two. Songwriting, though, was something I periodically busted my ass on and eventually wound up with over 1,000 finished rock songs (on paper & tape)–over about 23 or 24 years of work. Music is easier for me than words/lyrics, so the combination of being a solitary writer (by circumstance) doing both ends of the work was really a big headpain at times. I’ll still write a crummy song, or even a good one, anytime a guitar is in my hand, but the compulsive exercise of spiffing it up and then committing it to paper and tape was “retired” at some point after the 1000th song. And yeah, there were a couple albums’ worth of good songs that my band never got around to learning or recording before we semi-retired into the e-z club/hall headlining slot of being an “oldies” act (in the last 4 or 5 years)…which certainly gave LOTS of insight into what it must’ve been like to be Chuck Berry, or the Who, or any other act with a core of 15 old songs that’s all most of the audience is ever gonna be interested in hearing.
Scott: Did the Angry Samoans get many bad reviews in their heyday? What was your response to them at the time? Did bad reviews sting, or were you prepared for them given your experience on the other side of the fence?
Mike: American punk rock was mostly verboten from the mainstream press during the ’80s, so as curator of “printed matter” that box was 90% from all the fanzines and oddball magazines. The interesting thing was that when you do albums that are distinctly different from each other, a mere four in our case, the takes on them (in print) in the “career summary” type articles is all over the place. Lot of people/writers even preferred the one (or two) that sucked…or maybe just the style they were in, I guess.
Scott: Which rock writers have most excited you over the years?
Mike: Ah, since “entertainment writing” is the dregs of the writing world, I don’t have a whole lot of incisive commentary here. Back with the late ’60s – mid ’70s writers, my favorites were Nick Kent of NME for journalistic ability, and Lenny Kaye for style (his tilt towards a historical bent and a ‘fannish’ tone of voice). I’d agree with Lester Bangs himself that his writing mostly went in the tank after he moved to Michigan and lost his “outsider” perspective. But, ‘Lester Bangs’ is one of the great sounding names of all time, so if they’re gonna canonize a rock writer I can’t think of a better suggestion.
Actually, if you remember that VH1 panel-type show with a handful of writers discussing the topic of the day, there was a guy on there named J.D. Considine (from Baltimore) who was really entertaining, kinda iconoclastic. This past year I noticed a couple talking heads on the current VH1 shows that’re pretty funny and actually from Rolling Stone (usually being asked about pop or rock music…those dopey “Year In Music 2000…1999…1998” specials).
But if I may render one and one opinion only about rock writing past or present, the funniest and thereby best thing ever written under the auspices of “rock writing” was the original printing of the Paperback Writer book by Mark Shipper (a private pressing, mid-late ’70s). When a major publisher later put it out they cheezed out and deleted or messed up a lot of the hilarious graphics so I don’t recommend the later pressing. For those not “in the know,” the book was a phoney-history of the Beatles culminating in a 1977 Beatles reunion tour/album (that bombs and they wind up opening at the bottom of Peter Frampton bills)
Scott: If you were going to form a band with some rock critics now, who would they be? And please try and describe the music you would play.
Mike: If I was in a band with actual “rock critics,” we’d do songs like, “Eric Clapton Sucks” and, “Styx Are The Worst Fucking Band Of All Time,” to the tunes/music of cover songs. I’ve always liked cover songs. Wouldn’t matter who was in the band. You know a song called “Eric Clapton Sucks” played by rock critics is gonna be good.
Scott: What article or review of yours is your personal favorite; and can you summarize what you were trying to say in it?
Mike: Ah, easy, the long endless Britney diary-type spread (for the Oops album) in last year’s Village Voice. What it was was, the first 2,000 words were literally culled/chosen by Chuck (Eddy) from a very sizable collection of e-mails and even internet postings (to message boards), me being a quite fixated Britney/Max observer from Day 1. Chuck found/pulled some funny stuff from long-forgotten e-mails that I’d totally forgotten. The last 30-40% of the spread was of course self-consciously written, starting from the single (“Oops”) and “SNL” appearance and pre-album promo…but reading it cold for the first time, like an unsuspecting reader, was really funny (since I had no idea what was contained, and had told ed. Chuck to not show/send any of it to me). My inarguable qualification for being the official rockwrite Britney-head was of course accidentally trolling up (in the local record store 50-cent cassette junk bin) a copy of the Summer 1998 shopping-mall-tour cassette sampler long before the “Baby One More Time” single. I still regard the 6 uptempo cuts from Sweden (on the Oops album) as a milestone in modern pop music, so any Max Martin nay-sayers do not tangle with me.
Scott: What’s your favorite most pretentious album of all-time?
Mike: That’s easy, I’d have to go with the first Aorta album (on Columbia, 1969). It’s utterly daft/wack, about everything you would expect or hope for from a Windy City psych-album. It charted for eight weeks that spring, so there’s no reason for anyone not to own a copy.
Scott: Being in Canada, I’ve never heard Radio Disney. Is it still, a year or so after your Voice epic appeared, as appealing? Do you still hear segues that you would describe as “surreal”?
Mike: Unfortunately, the playlist got tightened up a lot sometime around the end of Year 2000, with their oldies mix suffering particularly.
Scott: What are your most sublime movie-music moments? (I’m thinking here of music as ‘soundtrack’ rather than foreground…i.e, not scenes featuring bands playing songs.)
Mike: This is the one question in this Q/A collection that has me scratching my head, so it’s the one question I’m throwing out. Swear ta god, I keep thinking of the end of Never Been Kissed where Drew Barrymore goes all smootchie to the Beach Boys “Don’t Worry Baby.” And I liked lots of the music/songs as ‘backdrop’ in last year’s Detroit Rock City…I’d say I’m disqualified entirely from even commenting on music in movies.
Scott: Favourite version of “The Locomotion”?
Mike: Kylie’s version is a seriously great SAW (Stock, Aitken, Waterman) production, so I’d have to count hers as a tie with the very different Little Eva original. Grand Funk’s version is only fit to torture people with.
Scott: Forced to choose on a desert island: Tiffany’s or Tommy James & the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now”?
Mike: I like ’em both.