An Interview With Rock Journalist:
MARTIN POPOFF


Martin Popoff has been writing rock reviews and doing interviews with loads of metal bands for years. He also has a string of books to his name. His latest is "The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs Of All Time". This book is compiled from lists sent in by rock fans and critics, as well as numerous interviews Martin has done over the years. Whether you agree with Martin's opinions in past books or not, there's no arguing that at least his writing is worth reading, entertaining and usually well researched. Like past books, his latest on Metal Albums will likely spark some controversy and discussion. Check it out below; thanks to Martin for answering my Questions.

 


 

KJ: Where did you get the idea of doing such a 'poll' and concept for your latest book, The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs Of All Time?

MP: I, like most guys, have always loved lists, and I thought it would be cool to know the answer to this question. It's the male collecting gene, the urge to order one's universe, I suppose. And I also thought it would be different, interesting, even freeing, to write song reviews versus album reviews for a change, given that a song is a shorter space of time, more abstract therefore, three, four minutes of pushing air, which allows you to say pretty much whatever you want, based more on emotion than the bag of material things you have to go through when addressing a whole suite of songs. They could be short or flippant or long and deep, basically platforms for sometimes manic writing. Plus, I thought having the artist quotes would make it better than other books like this. I already had like 800 interviews done before I started, many with good quotes. Then, once I decided to go for it - and once I had the final tally - I peppered in the "song" question in all the applicable interviews I've done since. Some pretty amazing stories behind these tracks; others have just general stuff - out of 50 songs, there's a quote there for maybe 460, 470 of them. And if I already had a good song one, I moved onto the "album" question, which is the next book. But more on that later (or see www.martinpopoff.com, under future plans or what I'm working on now or whatever it's called). Plus, as a little bonus, I asked the artists for their own Top Tens and stuck a bunch of those in the book as well. We rounded the thing out with a bunch of appendices and some pictures of singles covers and bam, done deal.

 
KJ: What did putting this book together entail as far as obtaining lists, finding people etc.? How many actual lists do you figure you actually received back?

MP: We got lists from placing the question in metal mags, at sites, by minor bits of spamming to acquaintances, friends, biz associates. I also, like I say, asked rock guys in interviews, even in-person ones, which also gave me access to crew guys to ask or whatever. Not sure the number of lists, but given the way the math was done, I know there were like 18,000 votes and around 4500 songs voted for.

 
KJ:  There is an awful lot of tracks from a number of bands, and songs from the likes of Sabbath, Maiden, or Metallica - which may be great, but I would've never expected to see make such a list. Did you ever worry about 'vote rigging' being a problem, or was this monitored somewhat? [OK, part of this is my disgruntlement that what I consider second rate type songs by these bands and others made it in place of a number of Heep songs :-)) ]

MP: Not sure what you mean by vote rigging, but I think you mean friends getting together and voting for the same songs. Problem is, it would take a lot of friends to change the results, given the number of respondents. In any event, I think that stuff won out because very likely, the demographic of the voters tends towards younger guys who might have discounted some of the '70s greats. The '80s in general did really well... definitely lots of Metallica, Maiden, Priest. If you think about it, the '80s - all of the '80s - was perhaps the golden age of metal in terms of raw sales numbers and general mainstream exposure. You had the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, which also helped many of the old wave British bands as well - Budgie, Priest, Sabbath, and yes Heep - look at Conquest versus Abominog and tell me which got more airplay, press, talk. Even lesser like Wishbone Ash and Lucifer's Friend tried their hands at rocking out. Then you had metal all over the first years of MTV. '83 basically kicked off the hair band era and it never stopped until '92. In between you had the rise of American thrash, the beginning of death metal, and a major sales kick up the arse for hair metal come '87 to say, '89 - there were probably 30, 40 bands that went platinum in the states or better. And again to that '80s bias... I actually believe that some of these younger voters, even if they liked Zeppelin, Nazareth, Foghat, ZZ Top, Heep, UFO, Thin Lizzy, may have thought they didn't even count as heavy metal bands and therefore didn't vote for them in droves.

 
KJ:  You list a number of bands that did not have songs that made the list. Why do you think this is, and what were the biggest surprises to you as far as song or bands that didn't make it?

MP: Again, I think it's that people slowly, gradually, eventually forget the roots. I mean, every age bracket has a cut-off point for what they think metal is. I personally reach back a bit before my own original listening years to 1970, but people older than me look at hard psychedelia or heavier British blues explosion stuff as the roots - Cream fits both those categories. I wouldn't doubt it if some teenagers think metal started with the first Metallica album and they wouldn't be wrong; they just have a less inclusive, less compromising definition of the term. They might call Priest and Scorpions hard rock - too smooth vocals, not fast enough etc. I definitely remember a few people, when asked for their top songs, sincerely asked me, "Does Guns N' Roses count?" Hell yeah! Other older guys, like 50 year old ex-rock stars, didn't want to look too old and were unsure of whether Hendrix counted - I can think of a half dozen who asked that question. But the cool thing is it was entirely democratic. So there's a taint of the results there - how many people that DIDN'T ask if say, Kiss, counted just decided to not vote for their favourite Kiss song? But the cool thing is, it was entirely democratic. Many people voted for Bowie, Zappa, Yes, King Crimson, Pearl Jam... but because not enough did, they simply fell out of the Top 500. As well, I had people that tried to be smart and went entirely or mostly for obscurities. They were rewarded for their smarminess by having absolutely no impact on the final 500, because those songs ended up at #3345 or #2117.

 
KJ:  What tracks or bands surprised you with greater than expected responses or placings?

MP: Megadeth. People love Megadeth. They did really well, as did Slayer and even Manowar. Thrash in general did really well. But let's not forget that tons of '70s stuff did get in there. Sabbath ruled (they actually won the whole thing if you add up the points), Deep Purple did well, Priest, AC/DC... but in the '80s, man... Maiden songs all over the place! Also surprised Ace Of Spades made #3 and that Maiden's somewhat obscure Hallowed Be Thy Name made #7. That right there is a testimony to good taste. If I remember correctly, Ace Of Spades didn't rank all that high on people's list, but tons of people had it on there somewhere. If you think about it, that song's a big deal because it was early in the NWOBHM, it helped kick off thrash, speed, purposefully dirty production... maybe it helped invent Metallica.

 
KJ:  Do you plan on following up this book with any other related book - Top Albums, etc.?

MP: Yes, The Top 500 Heavy Metal Albums Of All Time is done and with the publisher right now. It's killer! Probably about 750 pages (the songs book is no shrinking violet at 486 pages either), longer reviews, longer quotes, more time to gather the quotes. Master Of Puppets won it, and in general, the results are much more extreme, pointing to the fact that extreme bands don't have huge stand-alone songs, i.e. singles, 7"'s, 45's, videos, radio play. So their albums get a boost relative to the classics, versus the songs. That book however, won't come out for at least six months as the big book chain buyers said they didn't want confusion with this one, i.e. it's going to look quite a bit the same.

 
KJ:  How has the response been so far and what sort of press is going on for this book?

MP: Response has been good - some of it not the kind I like, i.e. pointing out typos and errors, but generally digging the book. Had a launch party for it which was fun; I got to read from it like a poet or something. Was on Book TV nationally, have had some reviews already. I particularly like the responses (and there have been dozens already) where people email me aghast that some song didn't make it. I simply tell them that this is what the public picked and that it wasn't up to me. As well though, the reviews I wrote are not all positive; I trashed songs I didn't think should have gotten up so high... so I guess that's where I got my say and made it a little un-democratic!

 

KJ:  How would you recommend this book to heavy metal / hard rock fans?

MP: I'd say that even though it's 486 pages long, it's a fun, light read, and something you can just pick up and scan whenever, and at whatever point you want, no real attention span needed. Essentially, given the fact that it's 500 songs and coincidentally, close to 500 pages, each page is a little shrine to that song... a review, a quote, maybe a list from that artist. If anybody cares, it's also my best writing to date. As well, there are really cool stories behind these classic tracks people might not know. I guess the other cool thing is that readers can play most of these tracks in their heads while reading about them, so it's relevant because they know the music, possibly have most of it.

 
KJ:  What other books have you got on the go or in pipeline?

MP: The Collector's Guide To Heavy Metal - Volume 1: The Seventies. Over the next five years, we're splitting the big reviews book from '97 into '70s, '80s and '90s, with '70s due this September. This is no straight repackaging. There will be approximately four or five times the amount of '70s reviews as there were in the old book, plus, given that I think most of the writing is bloody awful in the old one, I'm extensively overhauling/rewriting the reviews that were there in the first place. The definition of heavy metal has been loosened quite a bit to fit a bunch of bands you might take issue with being there, but the concept is to tighten the definition as the decades move on. The definition of heavy metal or hard rock is essentially what it would have been in that decade. The second and third books will very likely see the number of reviews increase four and five fold as well, with major rethinks being done of the '90s stuff, as many of those reviews were written when the album was a new release, and lo and behold, those guys now have six or seven albums out. So much has changed and I've learned so much. Point in case: when I wrote The Collector's Guide To Heavy Metal, pretty much from '89 to '96, I had interviewed maybe 30 guys, all in the last couple years there. Now I've logged 900 interviews, which means I've gotten inside the guts of these albums and full catalogues to an enormous extent. It goes on and on... reviews in there were written when black metal was just starting, Swedish thrash was just starting, hell, even when grunge was just starting. So much has changed.

 
KJ:  Where can people order your book at present? [anything you wish to plug?]

MP: Well, most of the big bookstore chains should have it. As well, the online versions of them, including www.amazon.com Also, you can get a signed copy of it for $25 US (US folks), $32 Can. (Canadians), or $28 US (International) to Martin Popoff, P.O. Box 65208, 358 Danforth Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4K 2Z2. Four of my other books are also still available and all the pricing etc., plus details of what they are, are explained at www.martinpopoff.com. Plus there's a picture of me with Lemmy there (ha ha) and these long essays, called Ye Olde Metal, on classic old albums. As well, check out my other gigs... Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles (and www.bravewords.com), www.hardradio.com, Lollipop (www.lollipop.com) Record Collector, Goldmine, Chart, Classic Rock, Guitar World...

 


 

Interview Kevin J. Julie (Universal Wheels) May '03