By Ed Power
The worst-kept secret in Irish music has been confirmed with the announcement that Metallica are to headline Slane Castle on June 8 next year.
But are a longish-in-the-tooth thrash metal band with a combined age of 217 what Slane requires to restore its pre-eminence as centrepiece of Irish rock?
It’s a question to which there is no straightforward answer. Metallica remain a huge live draw and, given that it’s 10 years since they last played Ireland, their many fans will regard this as a must-attend event.
Yet, for all their popularity, nobody — the group themselves least of all — would describe Metallica as mainstream.
Unlike Guns ’n’ Roses, who headlined in 2016, they’ve never had a real crossover hit — when last did you hear them on the radio? Come to that, how many of their songs can you name off the bat? ‘Enter Sandman’ and…?
So while they have pulling power, it is with a deep but narrow demographic of heavy metal aficionados — meaning that, for the first time, Slane has essentially become a niche event.
This isn’t the fault of the organisers. We are living through the twilight of the rock star so that the number of artists with the heft to fill the 80,000-capacity venue in Meath, overlooking the Boyne, is diminishing rapidly.
The problem is pop has not proved itself capable of stepping into the breach. Recall all the jokes pinging around social media about unsold Taylor Swift tickets when she was booked into Croke Park for two nights over the summer? And that was Taylor Swift — one of the brightest stars of her generation.
Metallica have always been a jaw-dropping live proposition and can be relied upon to deliver a blockbuster performance at Slane (apparently they couldn’t fit their new production into the 3Arena because of the ambitious pyrotechnics).
Yet the punter in the street may wonder if the minimum ticket price of €89.50 is money wisely spent. They certainly won’t be smitten by the support bill of Ghost and Bokassa — obscure acts surely only of interest to metal fans. A home-grown opener is also promised — this being Ireland, don’t be shocked if it’s inescapable human man-bun Hozier.
There is an outside chance Metallica will sell out Slane. But even if they do, it’s clear the event is no longer the glistening jewel in the crown of live music. Now it is just one concert among many.
Whatever the future holds, the days when it was the only show in town are long over.
Bruce Springsteen, 1985: Slane was the largest audience Springsteen had yet performed to and he was reportedly taken aback at the size of the crowd. The first date of the European leg of his ‘Born in the USA’ tour would live long in the memories of audience and performer alike.
Queen, 1986: One of the classic Slanes — and a performance by a group at the height of their powers. Strutting back and forth, Freddie Mercury was at his imperious peak.
David Bowie, 1987 Pilloried at the time, with hindsight the Glass Spider tour was an ambitious attempt by Bowie to reclaim his avant garde credentials. It was also the first occasion he’d played Ireland since becoming a truly global star. There was comedy value, too, in seeing the Thin White Duke arrive suspended precariously from a wire — like his own David Brent-style tribute act.
Oasis, 2009: Liam and Noel would have a nasty falling out later on the same tour. At Slane, they were a group clearly on the brink — and the bad blood soured what was in many ways a spirited performance.
Madonna, 2004 Apparently Madonna did little to endear herself to Slane when she made one of her rare Irish appearances. “That was a testy time,” the castle’s owner, Henry Mountcharles, would reflect. “Let’s just say that if you were to ask us if we would have her back we would give you a one-word answer. No.”
Stereophonics, 2002 Nothing against Stereophonics (‘Have A Nice Day’ and ‘Handbags and Gladrags’, in case anyone’s forgotten) — but even the Britrock hod-carriers, at the height of their popularity, looked a little astonished to be playing to 80,000 people.