Metal dominates the ''Billboard'' chart -- A noir retelling of how heavy metal took over the charts

By David Browne
Updated July 19, 1991 at 04:00 AM EDT

I was cooling my heels in my office late one night, tossing back gin and wondering what case the music business would throw my way next. I was antsy — it had been a while since my last order for a knuckle sandwich to go.

Suddenly there was a knock on the door. In walked a gorgeous dame with a Walkman, wild black hair, and a complexion that would make Casper the Friendly Ghost look healthy. I placed her right away: She came from the artsy part of town where the alternative-rock crowd hangs out. I just glanced up and continued polishing my gat.

”Are you the private dick?” she said. ”I need your help. Look at this.” She tossed the latest Billboard on my desk. Van Halen’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge had premiered at No. 1, just a week after Skid Row’s second record, Slave to the Grind, had done the same. Then she pointed to all the raunchy slabs on the charts — Extreme, Alice in Chains, Queensrÿche, Scorpions, AC/DC. ”Enough metal for a shipyard,” I quipped.

”Someone like Morrissey writes such thoughtful songs about finding our place in this insensitive world, and these metal guys nearly bump him right off the charts,” she said. ”The hard-rock gang owned this town around ’89. I thought they went away, but now they’re back. I need the inside poop. And I hear you’re the best.”

I said okay, but I already knew the answers; they came fast and easy, just like counterfeit tapes on the street. I’d been talking with Billboard chart analyst Paul Grein, who said the magazine’s new method of tallying sales meant that hot new albums would debut much higher on the charts. And metalheads scoop records up fast, especially those by gonzo warlords like Van Halen, who haven’t released a new Frisbee since Bonzo was President, or young honchos like Skid Row, once considered tough-guy posers but now being taken seriously, especially since they’re touring with Guns N’ Roses.

”Here’s the scam, dollface,” I said. ”Face it. Kids want music that’s tough and loud. There are a lot of those kids out there, and they’re not going away. The new Billboard charts are just reflecting that. Why isn’t Morrissey mining platinum? Maybe his hair’s too short.”

Miss Dreamboat harrumphed and turned to leave; as she walked out of my life, I saw the Smiths’ logo on the back of her T-shirt. Under my breath, I muttered good luck to her and all the kids like her in this crazy town looking for solace amid jangly guitars and soul-searching lyrics. As the night grew black as vinyl, I poured another shot.