From Sabbath to Slipknot: Andrew O’Neill’s bringing a history of heavy metal to the Garage

Andrew O'Neill

Andrew O'Neill - Credit: Archant

An embodiment of the ‘outsider artist’, comedian Andrew O’Neill’s latest show draws on his metalhead knowledge, says Alex Bellotti.

“I tick a stupid number of boxes,” admits Andrew O’Neill, and a quick online search of his name backs him up. Amongst the many descriptions of the Tufnell Park resident, you might pick out cross-dresser, vegan, occultist, anarchist or even steampunk pioneer, but it is his two biggest passions, music and comedy, that form the basis of his latest show.

A History of Heavy Metal is a production that does what it says on the tin. A “heavy metal 101”, it rifles through the musical movement’s origins in blues, country and then rock ‘n’ roll, right through to the explosion in sub-genres such as black-metal and death metal that occurred during the 1980s.

While there is an obvious appeal to die-hard Metal-heads, it’s also designed for those who know nothing about it.

“It’s just a matter of storytelling really,” says O’Neill. “There are so many great stories in the history of metal, like when (guitarist) Tony Iommi lost the tips of his fingers but kept on playing, which is why Black Sabbath sound like Black Sabbath.

“I had my mum in mind throughout the whole of the writing process. She came to see the very first performance of it and I spent the next two days on the phone to her cross examining her, going ‘Right, show me the difference between black metal and death metal. If she gets it, anyone can get it. Not that she’s not stupid or anything, she’s just more into Roy Orbison.”

For O’Neill, metal was his first experience of belonging to an ‘outsider’ community, so he’s keen to ensure the show eschews tired jokes about outlandish outfits for a more inclusive celebration of the sub-culture.

Most Read

The 35-year-old’s first loves in music were ironically Queen and Public Enemy, but when the latter collaborated with thrash metal group Anthrax, he decided to look up the genre’s biggest exports, Metallica, and “the doors just flew off”.

“Metal is wonderfully inclusive. When people talk about the way Metalheads, Punks and Goths dress, the classic thing to say is ‘Oh, you think you’re different but you’re all just dressing the same’. To which the response is ‘We’re not dressing different to you, we’re dressing the same as that’.

“Being part of a tribe is realty important. I’ve travelled the world doing stand up and I look to the Metalheads and they make me feel welcome. It’s a proper passport to an international social life.”

More than nearly any other comedian you could think of, O’Neill embodies nearly every ‘outsider’ culture available. When he stepped on stage for a recent tour, he was dressed in a combination of metal and drag attire, and proceeded to talk about his newfound life as an amateur occultist.

Underpinned by a sharp intellect and an open mind however, he has an ability to rationalise the obscure, explaining how “in reality I buy my clothes online like everyone else does, I buy my food from Sainsbury’s like everyone else does. It’s absolutely a case of being drawn to things that I indentify with rather than any kind of teenage rebellion against society.”

If anything, he’d be happy for society to reflect him more: “My wife and I often talk about how when the World Cup’s on and football’s everywhere, it’s on adverts and on the sides of Coke cans. The people who love football must just think the world is made in their image and I don’t get to feel like that about the wider world, but if I go to say Bloodstock, a metal festival, I suddenly just feel relaxed and right at home.”

Andrew O’Neill’s A History Of Heavy Metal comes to Islington’s The Garage on May 2. Visit