By chance, with no plan, and without really realizing what’s going on. Like all the best ragers. That’s what the filming was like for “Heavy Metal Parking Lot”, an over-the-top time capsule about to turn thirty with a cult following that just keeps getting bigger. On May 31, 1986, Jeff Krulik, who had a job with a local TV station (Channel 6A), and his partner John Heyn, who earned a living copying VHS tapes of industry movies, borrowed a camera, took four 20-minute video tapes each, and rolled into the parking lot of the Capital Centre arena in Landover, Maryland (a suburb of Washington, D.C.). Scheduled for that afternoon was a concert by Judas Priest, long-standing giants of the metal world from Birmingham (UK). With the Angelenos Dokken as the opening act for their fifth and colossal world tour, they would be presenting their tenth album, Turbo.
Krulik and Heyn, who couldn’t care less about heavy metal and knew next to nothing about Rob Halford and his crew, wanted to feel out the scene and ask the kids a few questions as they arrived at the arena in droves. At first, the adolescents blew them off, but things started to get interesting once they said (lying through their teeth) that they were from MTV. Very interesting. The result is 15 minutes of silliness, hormonal outbursts and intoxicated shouting, memorable statements, sexual confessions, pedestrian pro-legalization proclamations, hilarious insults lobbed at Madonna and punk music, overworked security guards who prefer not to poke the hornet’s nest... The band itself doesn’t even appear in the video; there’s a quick picture and a cut of their classics “Living After Midnight” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” during the lead-in. The real stars here are the drunken scamps in the parking lot and their brilliant, impertinent knuckleheadedness as they respond to questions from “the guys from MTV”.
Let’s set the scene. At the time when one of the interviewees screams at the top of his lungs about rolling a joint to stretch from coast to coast, and one of the girls attributes a bruise on her leg to wild sex with her boyfriend in a car, the ultra-puritan Ronald Reagan had just been re-elected president and the First Lady, Nancy Reagan, had doubled down on her anti-drug efforts with the “Just Say No” campaign. Nancy had even invited her counterparts from thirty other countries to a dinner to talk about the subject and had recently made a cameo in the legendary anti-dope video Stop the Madness with LaToya Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Hasselhoff and an incredibly young Whitney Houston, among other celebrities.
Despite the release, two years earlier, of the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, a comedy directed by Rob Reiner, in the eyes of “right-minded Americans” heavy metal was still the devil’s music and terribly detrimental to society. Judas Priest had been put on the blacklist by the censors at the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), founded by Tipper Gore. A few months before their concert in Maryland the band had been taken to court in Reno (Nevada), accused of inciting (using subliminal messages) two young men to blow their brains out. The entire case and the subsequent trial were documented in the amazing film Dream Deceivers (David Van Taylor, 1991). In parallel to Krulik and Heyn’s discovery of “stars” like “Zebraman”, the director Penelope Spheeris began filming the sequel to The Decline of Western Civilization, centered on the outlandish L.A. glam metal scene. It was still six years before Mike Judge premiered his brainless Beavis and Butthead on MTV. Now it’s pretty clear that we don’t need the horrifying silicon busts of Beavis and Butthead to know what they would look like in real life. HMPL is the real deal, man.
Heavy Metal Parking Lot wasn’t screened at any festivals [they didn’t accept video format anyway]. It was passed from hand to hand, going “viral” way before marketing theorists coined the term in the mid-90s. Dave McKenna gives a very graphic explanation in a colorful article for The Concourse called “The Deranged True Story of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, The Citizen Kane of Wasted Teenage Metalness”:
“Krulik and Heyn never had any distribution network or marketing plan for the project, yet it nevertheless became an underground sensation through word-of-mouth. By the mid-1990s, you were as likely to find a VHS copy of Heavy Metal Parking Lot on a touring rock band’s bus as you were the King James Bible in a motel room. This singular document of metal’s heyday got talked up by, among others, Nirvana, the very combo credited (or blamed) for killing that era by ushering in grunge, and whose members’ stamp of approval gave HMPL the sort of credibility in certain rock circles that Pope Francis’s endorsement gave Mother Teresa’s sainthood campaign”.
Over the years, HMPL went from a bootleg tape passed around in rock circles to being talked up by the singer Belinda Carlisle or by actors like Leonardo DiCaprio or Nicolas Cage and his cousin, the director Sofia Coppola. In the 2000s it was even the inspiration for preppy parodies in videos by the pop punk band American Hi-Fi and none other than the Backstreet Boys. It also spawned its own drinking game, gave its name to an underground metal festival in Austin, and was the object of a tribute last March at the South By South West (SXSW) festival in that same city. Its legacy survives in the academic world – ethnomusicologists from the University of Maryland have put it on the syllabus – and on the street: two years ago the New York artist Jasper Patch painted a giant mural outside a bar in Tennessee as an homage to his favorite “characters” from the video.
AND if you’re wondering what became of those kids in the parking lot from 1986, here is a video made in 2006 for the release of the first DVD version, where the directors pay some of them a visit. Spoiler: they find Zebraman, and a few are still headbangers, “ready to rock”!