Neil Daniels: Writing Metal
09-Jun-2012 Words: Brendan Crabb
Neil Daniels is a freelance British metal and rock writer who has penned biographies of the likes of Robert Plant, Judas Priest, Bon Jovi, Journey and Linkin Park. He’s recently released two new tomes, each covering one of heavy metal’s biggest bands – Metallica and Iron Maiden. Loud chatted with Daniels about his new works, influences, the current state of the publishing industry, the hardest book he’s written and much more.
Q: Can you tell us about your origins as a music writer and some of your main journalistic influences?
A: I did a degree in film studies and when I finished that I started writing about music for a bunch of websites. From there I moved on to magazines and fanzines and then I pitched my first book, which was a Judas Priest bio, to Omnibus and it came out in 2007. The books have rolled on since then - Led Zep, Bon Jovi, Journey, Linkin Park, two more books on Judas Priest as well as a few collections of interviews. They’re all listed on neildaniels.com.
I like a lot of the seasoned rock writers like Dave Ling, Derek Oliver and Dave Reynolds. I interviewed all those guys in my All Pens Blazing books. Martin Popoff is great too and Dave Thompson. I’m a bit of a nerd. I like films, comics, books, music, good TV shows like Game of Thrones. I’ve written a little bit about films but not as much as I’d like.
Q: Interesting. I wanted to start by talking about your two new books. First of all, Metallica: The Early Years and the Rise of Metal strictly covers their first four albums, which are obviously the most beloved by the majority of fans. However, they experienced their greatest commercial success from Metallica onwards. What was the reason for focusing on this period of the band?
A: I’ve actually wanted to do this for a while but it was only recently that I found an interested publisher - Martin Roach at Independent Music Press. I worked with Martin before when he hired me to write a bio of Robert Plant back in 2007. He was really keen on the idea of a book on Metallica. Given that the band’s best work is undoubtedly their first four albums – possibly the fifth in some fans eyes – and that they’ve recently celebrated their 30th anniversary it seemed like a no-brainer. When metal fans talk about Metallica’s best albums they usually mention Kill ‘Em All, Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets and … Justice.
Q: Indeed. There have been numerous books written about Metallica in recent years, including those by high-profile journalists such as Mick Wall and Joel McIver though. What new elements or fresh perspective did you want to bring to the table and do you feel you’ve achieved that?
A: I know those guys and those books are great. Mine would never compete with that but it wasn’t my intention either. My book is not a biography but rather a chronology and a fan’s handbook on the most important, influential and interesting period of the band’s career. It’s also a book on the thrash metal era and with contributions from people like Bob Nalbandian and Bill Hale as well as a few journos that knew the band during that period. I think it’s come out as a good read. The feedback has certainly been good so far.
Q: Who provided you with some of the best stories for it?
A: Kerrang! journalist Xavier Russel, Bob Nalbandian, Ron Quintana, Bill Hale and Brian Tatler had great stories. Brian also wrote a foreword to the book which really puts the band’s early years into perspective. There are more interviews and I’m pleased all these guys agreed to speak to me.
Q: What are your thoughts on the band’s recorded output from Metallica onwards?
A: I really like Metallica/the Black Album and Load/Re-Load. Not too keen on S&M to be honest; it’s not a great live album. I liked Garage Inc., especially the covers disc. St. Anger and Lulu, I’m not a fan of at all. Death Magnetic was their strongest release since the Black Album and "Beyond Magnetic" was a great EP. I’d really love to see those guys going back to super-quick and sharp three- to four-minute thrash songs rather than the six-minute yawn-fests they’ve subjected to us in the past 20 years. I have my fingers crossed for next year’s new studio album.
Q: Now on to Iron Maiden: The Ultimate Unauthorized History of the Beast. Perhaps their story hasn’t been as documented in book form as Metallica’s, but most angles of the band’s history are likely already well-documented. Did you discover many aspects of their history that surprised you?
A: Well, it’s not a biography per se. It’s part of a series of heavyweight hardback’s on major rock bands. My Maiden one follows illustrated tomes on AC/DC, Queen and Aerosmith. It’s a potted history of the band, with reviews from fellow rock scribes like Mick Wall, Martin Popoff, Ian Christe and John Tucker et al, as well as tour dates, set lists and various fresh articles written by me and others for the book. The graphics are amazing. It’s a real fans’ book but casual fans should dig it too.
Q: Good to hear. The book also includes cover art by Derek Riggs. How much of a thrill was it to enlist him for the project?
A: Yes, the publishers approached him and I was thrilled he designed the book cover. I mean, what could be better for a book cover on Iron Maiden? It looks great!
Q: It also features a dissection of the band’s discography. After undertaking that process, is there a particular album in the Maiden canon that you think has been overlooked or unfairly treated by fans and critics?
A: I think Somewhere in Time has its strengths despite the dubious reaction it got back in 1986 and still gets today from some fans. I like the fact that Maiden are not willing to stick to an agenda yet whatever they do still sounds like Maiden. I think Judas Priest could learn a thing or two from Maiden.
Q: They’re more than 35 years into their career and yet seem as popular, if not more so, than ever. What do you attribute this to?
A: It’s a combination of things. Young bands like Avenged Sevenfold talk about Maiden being an influence so that alone gets kids interested in Maiden; everything goes round in circles. Metal is popular again. Maiden are making some of the best music of their career; they’re amazing live and they work hard. Sadly – and as much as I loved Priest – they look like dinosaurs compared to Maiden.
Q: You’ve also written biographies of the likes of Judas Priest, Bon Jovi, Journey and Linkin Park. What has been the most challenging book that you’ve written and why?
A: Journey wasn’t easy because they have such a complicated and epic history. The one I’m writing now, which I can’t say yet, is also complicated.
Q: What other writing projects do you currently have in the works?
A: Obviously the Metallica and Iron Maiden ones are my most current. I’ve got a little bio out in August on a UK pop/punk band called You Me at Six. Next year I’ll have another book out on Bon Jovi as well as a fictional rock novel and three rock bios which I can’t name yet. Two will be meaty rock bios and one will be a nifty early years’-type book. Contracts are signed though and mostly all written.
Q: As mentioned earlier, you also compiled the print-on-demand book All Pens Blazing: A Heavy Metal Writer’s Handbook a few years ago, featuring interviews with dozens of music journalists. How difficult and time-consuming was that process and what did you learn from it?
A: I started a little project on my site www.neildaniels.com called “Interviews with Writers”. It wasn’t concentrated specifically on rock scribes, but writers of fiction too like Kim Newman. I had been e-mailing with Martin Popoff and asked him if he thought it was a good idea for me to compile the rock writers’ interviews into a self-published book. He said it was a great idea and to my knowledge there isn’t a book like it. I like the Paris Review of Books series and wanted something similar with rock and metal writers. I looked into self-publishing and thought it was too expensive so I went down the print-on-demand route as it is cheaper, and there are literally hundreds of PDO companies online. In the States most music writers seem to use lulu.com but I wanted a UK company - because I live in England - so I went for Authors OnLine. I included some interviews that had been published on my site but a majority of the 65 interviews in Volume 1 are exclusive to the book.
Volume 1 was well-received so I decided to have a go at a second volume. Volume 2 has 69 interviews. Both are them are meaty books; the first one has a foreword from Martin Popoff and the second one includes a foreword from Mick Wall. I’m sure I’ll work on Volume 3 at some point next year. I’d like a personal library of books similar to Popoff’s Ye Olde Metal series. It’s pretty cool, I think.
I like Derek Oliver, Paul Suter, Howard Johnson and current Classic Rock scribes like Geoff Barton and Dave Ling; and I am very familiar with a lot of their work. I knew there’d be a few rock fans out there interested in reading about their careers’ too. I mean, a lot of the writers have far more interesting stories than the artists. Volume 2 includes more internet-based writers and writers from other countries. Both volumes cover a broad spectrum of rock journalism.
Q: Sounds intriguing. What advice would you give to aspiring journalists interested in entering the world of music biographies and autobiographies?
A: With the current climate being what it is in the publishing industry I think the timing is really bad but there are a lot of print-on-demand/self-published opportunities so I’d probably go down that route. Make contacts, be friendly and be willing to work a lot for little money. I’ve got a day job – there’s no money in this.
Q: Any famous last words?
A: Live long and prosper.
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