The local heavy metal pub in my East Midlands hometown offered a lot of firsts during my formative years: my first gig; my first kiss (with a skater obviously called Ashton, by the cigarette machine as Disturbed crackled softly in the background); my first time getting stoned – and consequently projectile vomiting in the pub's garden. A 15-year-old and her screaming mates probably weren't the ideal clientele, but the joy we exuded from hanging out in a space that allowed us to be ourselves and drink Jägerbombs for less than a fiver seemed to pacify even the grumpiest of regulars.
Metal pubs – in the UK at least – can be a rite of passage for a lot of people who don't fit in; for those of us who pulled our hoodie sleeves over our hands and lowered our heads as we shuffled down our local high street or got spat on in the school corridor for dressing like half-dead extras from a Pantera video. That said, they've also got a reputation for being full of old white straight dudes with sweaty ponytails, and while I was lucky that my local metal pub embraced me during my teenagedom, they can also be intimidating to people who don't necessarily care about Sons of Anarchy or wear the standard black tee uniform. So where exactly does that leave them today, at a time when plastic skulls and smoke-stained velvet curtains feel pretty dated, but when the need to save independent institutions that cater to a specific subculture feel important to swathes of us who still value it?
The UK Metal Venues Directory cites that there are over 400 metal pubs and venues in the UK right now. In recent years, however, Britain's nightlife has been in trouble – and that extends to the metal pub scene. Thanks to the constant sweep of gentrification and people who move into flats above venues only to then complain about the noise, adequate spaces for subcultures continue to dwindle. In 2009, roughly 52 pubs in the UK were shutting every week (in 2016 the Campaign for Real Ale reported that the number has now dropped "dramatically" to 21 a week – still a pretty bleak number) and a lot of those pubs will be metal spaces. If the one in my hometown helped me and my pals feel like we'd finally found our kindred spirits, I'd imagine they're still doing the same for young people all over the country, even if certain aspects of the culture can feel exclusionary or, as in some cases, genuinely problematic.
It may be a murky scene to navigate, but there are arguably still metal pubs worth saving. Fuel Rock Club in Cardiff, for instance, is currently facing a noise nuisance complaint from a new resident in the area. The complaint could mean massive financial penalties and even permanent closure. "Since we took over the premises lease full time in November 2013, we have held an average of three live gigs a week; in fact we had a sold-out gig on the very first night that we officially owned the place," owner Rob writes on the pub's Facebook page. "Since opening we have had no complaints regarding sound levels." There's been an outpouring of support for the pub, but it's another addition to an all-too-familiar tale of metal pubs losing their music licenses, leading to them shutting their chipped black doors for good.
Another blow is the case of Bristol's The Stag and Hounds – a metal/rock pub focused on the promotion of local and DIY shows – which will be closing next month. Announcing the news on their website, the team explained that "through a series of events and circumstances (some out of our control) we have looked at the books and it's not viable for us to carry on to see the contract out." This kind of statement is becoming a broken record when it comes to fans of metal pubs – their presence tumbling thanks to various issues like tax hikes, the persistent demand for luxury flats and the feeling that they simply don't feel hugely relevant or crucial anymore when metal can often feel more like a genre you pass through, rather than one you commit to.
But these kind of closures have left a huge hole for groups of people who have nowhere else to go. Metal fans don't necessarily want to watch an acoustic show at a co-operative vegan cafe, nor do they want to be pressed against some handsy guy in a packed-out super club to the bland throb of 2010 Calvin Harris. They want to drink pints and listen to Metallica on an almost-broken jukebox or play pool surrounded by a decor that matches their darkened and tortured souls. Clichés aside, without these spaces, metal fans are left without access to a place to watch music, make friends and honour who they are in an environment that welcomes them without judgement – even if that does mean doing so under extremely questionable cobweb-covered plastic chandeliers.
Joe, who used to work at Newcastle metal bar Trillians, says: "It was one of the most fun jobs I've ever had... There was nothing pretentious about it. I've always liked metal music but it was never my only thing so before I started I thought everyone would think I was some kind of poser and grill me about my favourite Megadeth B-sides, but the punters made me feel welcome. Some had been going every week since the place opened years and years before."
Nicole, who now works in Bristol's The Hatchet, has been hanging out in metal pubs since she was a teenager. "I've always found that metal pubs are much easier to go to, personally. It's people that are into the same music and fashion and lifestyle all coming together. Instead of standing out, it's a place where you fit in. They're always more welcoming than any other club aren't they?" Perhaps metal pubs aren't always more welcoming than other bars if you're not into that particular subculture, but it's hard to argue that they can be fun for those who are. The Hatchet is a two-storey building located right across the street from the O2 Academy, acting as the go-to venture before those trusty Sum 41 and Alien Ant Farm reunions. It also hosts regular metal "club nights" – AKA a bloke called Dave chucking on some Megadeth and Slipknot via Spotify – making it a key fixture in the city's metal scene and independent, music-orientated community.
"If we're too busy, we'll always encourage people to go to [nearby metal pub] The Gryphon," says Lyndsey, manager of The Hatchet. The metal pub scene in England's south-west has, she continues, banded together amid venue closures: "We let people put up posters for gigs at different venues and there's a charity that raises funds so kids can go to rock concerts and meet their idols; we let them come and collect money from the customers. As it's all rooted in music, it feels important to support each other."
If it all sounds terribly sentimental, so be it. At a time when society's slicing itself up along lines of difference, we need a sense of support and community more than ever. While grassroots music venues will always find a way to survive, whether in the form of basement shows or living room tours, it's impossible to recreate the experience that metal pubs offer: the sticky back rooms, the mute TVs glowing to Axl Rose, the absolutely cheap-as-hell drinks and the feeling of freedom that comes with being surrounded by groups of people who are into exactly what you're into, if that's your thing.
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