The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #241: Black Metallic by Catherine Wheel (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #241: Black Metallic by Catherine Wheel.

I have mentioned in previous posts that some of my most favourite music came to my attention when I joined the Columbia House Record Club and began buying Greatest Hits and/or Compilation CDs. It was on these compilation cds, in particular, that I found songs that I had never heard before that instantly became my new favourite, must-play songs. These cds were often ones like “Big Shiny Tunes” from Canada’s own, Much Music or else, “MTV Buzz Bin” or “120 Minutes Live” from MTV in the States. This is where I came across a song called, “Black Metallic” by a band called Catherine Wheel. When I heard it for the first time, it seemed like the coolest sounding song I had heard in a long time. I wore that track completely out and still like it a lot, all these years later.

Catherine Wheel were an alternative band that formed in the 1980s in England. I didn’t know it at the time but the lead singer of Catherine Wheel, Rob Dickenson, is the cousin of Bruce Dickenson, the lead singer of the legendary band, Iron Maiden. No doubt that musical talent runs in that family! The song, “Black Metallic” came from the band’s debut album, “Ferment”. Initially, the band were seen more as one of the ‘shoe-gazing” bands, like My Bloody Valentine because of their use of floor pedals and distortion when they played. But, as they moved forward with their career, they became more rock-oriented and served as musical influences for later bands such as Interpol and Death Cab for Cutie…(both of whom were profiled earlier in this countdown. Those posts can be read here and here).

Catherine Wheel ended up being one of those bands who were, almost, victims of the times. After they left “Shoe Gaze”, that scene really took off. As they became more rock-oriented, the music scene in the UK turned to Pop or, more specifically, to BritPop. Consequently, Catherine Wheel always seemed more popular abroad than they ever did at home. Eventually, the band had simply been adrift in the musical firmament for too long and disbanded, leaving in their wake a series of modest hits and a scattered collection of albums that were popular with the cool kids who frequented vinyl record stores.

The song, “Black Metallic” is about having to deal with someone who is difficult to relate to. The opening lyrics make this fairly clear.

“I’ve never seen you when you’re smiling.

It really gets under my skin.

You say it’s easy when it’s faster.

I still can’t guess what you’re after.”

There was some minor controversy about “Black Metallic” when it first came out because some listeners thought the singer, Rob Dickenson, was saying he didn’t like the person in the song because of the colour of their skin which looks like, “black metallic”. But, no, the song is simply about someone who is cold and aloof, like the cold steel of a car, of which Dickenson, apparently, was a buff.

Like I said, “Black Metallic” came to me by fluke but, I was really happy to have discovered it when I did. It was Catherine Wheel’s biggest hit, reaching the Top Ten in the US and, for most casual fans, remains the one song they know by the band, making Catherine Wheel dangerously close to falling into the category of being a one-hit wonder when it comes to chart success. But, if that is to be the case then, what a one-hit to have.

So, without further delay, here is one of Alternative Music’s signature songs, “Black Metallic” by Catherine Wheel. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Black Metallic” by Catherine Wheel, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for playing the best music by the best bands. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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