Originally published in The Copenhagen Post - January 21, 2011
With the rather dubious exception of Aqua’s ubiquitous late-90s cheesefest ‘Barbie Girl’ – recently ranked number five on the list of ‘100 Worst Songs Ever’ by AOL Radio – Denmark is best known on the international music scene for producing one fourth of Metallica.
As one of the best selling bands in history, Metallica is a band nearly everyone is familiar with – both metalheads and non-metalheads alike. And even casual followers know that the man behind the skins of one of the world’s biggest bands, Lars Ulrich, hails from little old Denmark. More interested fans of the band also probably know that Ulrich was – and in many ways continues to be – the driving force behind Metallica.
Long before Ulrich became a balding multi-billionaire known as much for his unpopular fight against music-sharing service Napster as his drumming skills, he was a young boy in Gentofte living an affluent life as the son of professional tennis player and jazz musician Torben Ulrich and mother Lone Ulrich. Shortly after the family left Denmark for Los Angeles in 1980, Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield found each other and the behemoth that would become Metallica was formed.
Danish black metal
Meanwhile, however, back in Copenhagen, out of the ashes of Danish bands Brainstorm, Black Rose, and Brats, another influential metal band formed in the shape of Mercyful Fate. While never achieving crossover mainstream success, Mercyful Fate would come to be viewed among metalheads as one of the all-time greats.
In 1981, Mercyful Fate’s original lineup consisted of vocalist King Diamond (aka Kim Bendix Petersen) guitar players Jank Shermann and Michael Denner, bassist Timi Hansen, and drummer Kim Ruzz. With the band’s dark imagery – most famously King Diamond’s horror-inspired face paint – and subject matter, Mercyful Fate is widely considered one of the originators of the black metal sub-genre.
According to rock journalist Joel McIver’s 2004 book, ‘Justice for All: The Truth About Metallica’, the origins of King Diamond’s look can be traced to a September 1975 Copenhagen stop on American shock-rocker Alice Cooper’s first solo tour:
“It was Alice Cooper. I saw the ‘Welcome to My Nightmare’ tour in Copenhagen in 1975. Even though there wasn’t that much make-up . . . it changed him completely. He became unreal. I remember the show so well. I was up front – and I thought if I could just reach out and touch his boot he would probably disappear.”
King Diamond’s theatrics, when combined with music heavier than that of Cooper, in turn paved the way for the legions of face-painted metal bands that dot the landscape today. It also subjected King Diamond and Mercyful Fate to accusations of Satanism, which Diamond addressed in ‘Justice for All’:
“[The Satanic Bible] doesn’t say to anyone, listen here, this is the right god and this is the wrong god . . . It simply tells you to pick and choose whatever makes you happy, because no one can prove anything anyway. . . So if people say I’m a Satanist if I believe in the life philosophy in that book, then sure. But if they’re saying, do you believe that baby blood will give you extra energy, and you can conjure demons with it? Then no, I don’t believe in that.”
In 1982, the band released ‘The Mercyful Fate EP’, which was followed by their debut full-length album ‘Melissa’ in the following year. Their early career path would often cross with that other (one-quarter) Danish band, Metallica, with the two sharing the stage on tour and with Metallica working out tracks for their 1984 album ‘Ride the Lighting’ at Mercyful Fate’s Copenhagen rehearsal space.
Shortly after Mercyful Fate’s release of the album ‘Don’t Break the Oath’ that same year, the band split ways with the blame being ascribed to the classic “creative differences”.
After the mid-80s break-up, King Diamond started his own band, creatively titled King Diamond. Since 1986, the band has put out a dozen records that are known for a focus on horror storytelling, with some of the wicked tales even running across the span of multiple albums.
In 1992, in the midst of King Diamond’s (the band) career, King Diamond (the man) reunited with his former band mates and resurrected Mercyful Fate. Mercyful Fate then put out four more records before taking a ‘hiatus’ after the 1999 release of ‘9’ so King Diamond could focus on . . . King Diamond.
If you think this is getting confusing, it gets worse. Running parallel with the career of King Diamond (the man and the band), was the similarly-named British heavy metal band Diamond Head, a group that – like Mercyful Fate – shares a close history with Metallica. In fact, Diamond Head’s best-known song is probably ‘Am I Evil?’ due to the inclusion of Metallica’s cover version on their 1983 debut ‘Kill ‘Em All.’
Late career boost
Although neither Mercyful Fate or King Diamond (or Diamond Head, for that matter) never obtained anything approaching the level of fame of Metallica, they have undoubtedly been helped along by their more successful brethren. Metallica’s 1998 release of covers and compilations, ‘Garage Inc’, included a song entitled simply ‘Mercyful Fate’, a medley consisting of five Mercyful Fate songs: ‘Evil’, ‘Curse of the Pharoahs’, ‘Satan’s Fall’, ‘A Corpse Without a Soul’ and ‘Into the Coven’.
The medley was also included in the popular video game ‘Guitar Hero: Metallica’, introducing a generation of fans who think music is played with multi-coloured buttons on a plastic guitar to Mercyful Fate. The game also features the original version of ‘Evil’ (as well as Diamond Head’s ‘Am I Evil?’) and in an ultimate nod of respect from Metallica, King Diamond appears as an animated character in the game.
In November 2010, King Diamond underwent triple bypass surgery and his music has been put on hold as he recovers. While the face-painted, falsetto-voiced metal god now makes his home in Texas, the names King Diamond and Mercyful Fate belong in the discussion of famous Danish musicians alongside Lars Ulrich and yes, sadly, Aqua.
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