“Welcome to the Jungle”: “Inside Metal” looks back at the early 80s L.A. metal scene

By on July 21, 2016

The 2015 documentary Inside Metal: Pioneers Of L.A. Hard Rock And Metal — now streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — doesn’t glamorize or sensationalize the manic sleaze of L.A.’s glammed-out hard rock scene the way that Penelope Spheeris’s 1988 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years did.

So, if you’re looking for more tales of bad boy rock n’ roll debauchery, drinking, drugs and backstage bragging about getting blowjobs from their many groupie fans, you’re probably looking in the wrong place.

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The film’s director and narrator, Bob Nalbandian, didn’t want to cover the same well-traveled rough terrain the same way, deciding instead to focus on the music itsself and not the rock star excess and antics the way that Spheeris had.

It’s a respectful and refreshing approach to a scene where the musicians themselves are usually their own worst enemies, gloating about their excessive “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle more than talking about the recordings, the clubs and the bands themselves.

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Nalbandian wasn’t a filmmaker like Spheeris, who had earned her MFA in film from UCLA and had made short films — for the first season of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”) — with comedian Albert Brooks, and rock videos for her own company, Rock and Reel, before lensing her first Decline documentary, chronicling L.A.’s punk scene (some but not all of it).

She was certainly even more experienced by the time she began chronicling the L.A. rock scene — from 1986 to 1988 — that makes up The Metal Years.

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Bob Nalbandian (1982)

Instead, Nalbandian approached his documentary firstly as a fan of the glam-metal sub-genre so prevalent in the Sunset Strip rock scene in the mid-to-late 80s.

He was seventeen years old, in 1982 — and still living with his parents in Huntington Beach, down in Orange County, south of Los Angeles — when he expressed his love for the music by founding The Headbanger, a nationally distributed zine devoted to the still-emerging heavy metal music scene.

It featured the very first profiles of then-unsigned L.A. bands Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth. Nalbandian would print the fanzine himself and then deliver copies around to music stores and record shops (the last issue of The Headbanger came out in 1985).

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Nalbandian saw some of the early 80s-era metal bands at some of the O.C. clubs — like Jerry Roach’s Radio City and at the Golden Bear in his own H.B. hometown — but he also made it up to L.A. occasionally to see bands like London, Mötley Crüe, and Dante Fox in those early daze.

He began contributing regularly to nationally-distributed music magazines like Creem, Music Connection, Hit Parader, BAM, Foundations, Loud, and Metal Rendezvous, as well as becoming the publisher/editor of Shockwaves Magazine and associate editor for two men’s magazines, Platinum and Men’s Perspective.

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Nalbandian also ended up managing Orange County-based Eden, and then worked for a couple of small record companies, heading up the west coast office of Roadrunner Records and working closely with mega-bands like Sepultura, Type-O Negative, and Last Crack.

He then went on to work for Bizarre/Straight Records in early ’90s (Rhino/WEA), as their Director of Publicity and assisting label president Herb Cohen, before he ended up hosting a couple of podcast radio shows — the Shockwaves/HardRadio Podcast on HardRadio.com and the Shockwaves Skullsessions Podcast featured on the Roadrunner Records webpage — and that’s where he met metal videographers Joe Floyd and Warren Croyle, who came on the show as guests.

That’s where he learned they were interested in producing a documentary on the L.A. metal scene. Nalbandian ended up working on the project as a camera operator before eventually becoming the film’s director.

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For Inside Metal, Nalbandian wanted to capture what had happened in the scene that he knew about — from the late 70s until about 1986 — and about the music that had been such an important part of his own teenage youth.

It’s clear that he wanted his audience hear the truth about the scene, through personal interviews with the major players who had been in some of his favorite bands back in the day, in a scene that was often overlooked because clubs were focusing on New Wave and punk bands (the film details how the glam rock era evolved in this setting).

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He’d already seen The Metal Years and various other documentaries and VH1 specials about the ‘80s L.A. music scene, but wanted to approach the topic of the music seriously, for a change, and not just focus on the decadent parts which many fans knew about already, because he didn’t want to embarrass any of the rockers he’d long respected.

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The resulting film — the first part of planned trilogy series for his company MetalRock Films — is three full hours (broken into two parts of 90 minutes each) of informative, insightful insider perspective, supplemented with lots of rare archival concert and rock club footage, all of it feeling something like the motion picture equivalent of flipping through the pages of an issue of his The Headbanger fanzine.

Some of the photos, rare music and video clips came through the metal community and fans, including L.A. scenester Alan Wood, who supplied Nalbandian with a lot of the footage, photos and fliers seen in the film.

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Nalbandian conducts candid, in-depth interviews with Lars Ulrich (Metallica), Don Dokken, Ron Keel, Stephen Pearcy (Ratt), Carlos Cavazo (Quiet Riot/Ratt/Snow), Michael Des Barres (Silverhead/Detective/etc.), Joey Vera (Armored Saint), Jack Russell (Great White), Kelly Garni (Quiet Riot), Dave Meniketti (Yesterday & Today), Frank Dimino (Angel), and members of many more bands, some of them — like the Orange County-based A La Carte — largely forgotten unless you also happened to have been fully immersed in the early 80s L.A. club scene.

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Lesser known bands like Smile, Wolfgang, Snow and others are treated as equals in the documentary, although many certainly didn’t have the same level of success as the well-known groups, many of whom were out-of-towners, like Angel, Detective, Legs Diamond and even Yesterday and Today, who all had major label record deals and all played the local venues and concert halls in the Los Angeles area.

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Nalbandian also interviewed major supporters of the scene during those early days, including David Forest (promoter/manager of The Starwood and The Whisky), Malcolm Dome (U.K. journalist), Kevin Estrada (photographer), Jon Sutherland (journalist), John Kornarens (journalist, scenester), Gina Zamparelli (concert promoter), Grover Jackson (Jackson Guitars), Craig Williams (radio personality), Tracy Barnes (radio personality), and Brian Slagel (CEO, Metal Blade Records).

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That glammed-out rock scene (derisively called “hair metal,” a neologism that most fans and bands don’t seem to care for too much all these years later) initially grew out of and then began to thrive during the late 70s as more and more of the clubs — like the Whisky a Go Go, Gazzarri’s, the Roxy, and the nearby Troubadour and Starwood venues — began to avoid booking punk rock bands because of fears of violence at the shows.

Instead, those club owners and bookers began filling up their marquees outside with the names of local-area hard rock groups, who were typically booked on a “pay to play” basis, meaning the bands had to get their own fans to come (and pay) to see them play.

Soon enough, big-haired rock bands were being lured to the greater L.A. area from all over the country, coming out to make a name for themselves, the same kinds of scenario depicted in the music video for Guns ‘N’ Roses’s “Welcome to the Jungle,” which begins with lead singer Axl Rose disembarking a bus in Los Angeles.

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Inside Metal: Pioneers of L.A. Hard Rock and Metal covers the period from 1975 to roughly 1981. The second documentary in the series The L.A. Metal Scene Explodes covers the period from 1982-1986, during the era of Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Portland’s Black ‘n’ Blue, W.A.S.P., etc., and the third in the series The Rise of L.A. Thrash Metal focuses on the period that folllowed. All three titles are double-DVD sets.

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Nalbandian plans to expand the serious out to other metropolitan cities, including New York City and San Francisco, as well as taking the concept across the pond with a look at Inside The New Wave of British Metal.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.