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Searching for the Riff

Wrecking Crew, meddling with metal

The many lives of Celtic Frost’s “Dethroned Emperor” riff

I’ll always remember the day I walked into my best friend Tom’s room about a decade ago, and he held up an album called Balance of Terror. He looked at me with an excited glance and said, “Dude … just listen”. He put the needle on the record, and the next minute was pure bliss in the form of ridiculous, ignorant, hard riffing. It was a harder intro than anything I’d ever heard. It sounded like it was written specifically to blow up your mind, to rile up your senses and get your body to fill up with adrenaline, forcing you to go outside and punch someone in the face for doing you wrong. It was “Why Must They” by Wrecking Crew, Boston’s late-80s answer to Agnostic Front. I had never heard the band, but right then and there I knew I’d never forget them.

Tom and I were two high school kids in a small town in Belgium back then, listening to an obscure hardcore record before Mp3s existed, yet I still knew the song was Wrecking Crew’s attempt to rewrite Agnostic Front’s “Toxic Shock,” a classic crossover slammer that I knew from Last Warning, the first hardcore album I ever owned. I’d bought it off a skinhead babe when I was fourteen.

Years of bedroom moshing later, in 2005 to be exact, I was sitting onstage setting up with DFJ, the drummer of Righteous Jams. His band and my band were opening up for Agnostic Front that night. Knowing AF never played it anymore, DFJ took a guitar and played the intro to “Toxic Shock.” Cooch, then the RJs bass player, asked Justin if he was playing the Celtic Frost version of the riff. That’s how I found out: One of my favorite hardcore intros was written by an old metal band. I could have guessed, since ripping off Celtic Frost was a classic New York Hardcore move. (One of my other favorites, Sheer Terror’s “Cup O’ Joe” intro is a well-known example.) When we were done setting up, I got to meet Vinnie and Roger from Agnostic Front in the dressing room, both of whom knew Righteous Jams’ guitar player Nathan from when he was in Wrecking Crew.

Another four years down the line, a good decade after first hearing them, I went to see Wrecking Crew play a reunion show in Boston. As expected, they played a decent set, but no one was moving. No one knew who they were. I had traveled six hours and endured many mediocre bands, no re-entry, and cold pizza just so I could finally mosh to “Why Must They.” Alas, they waited too long. They’d kept their big hit for the end of their set, and by that point, it was just awkward. The singer was dumbfounded as three or four guys moshed to one of the greatest hardcore intros ever, and the other few hundred in attendance were just staring at old men playing old songs.

A few weeks after Boston, I went even further into the vortex of time, and saw Obituary, a band I’d been listening to since I was twelve, but had never witnessed live. I won’t waste any time on how awesome it was, on (John) Tardy’s voice, or on “Viking Face.” The point is, Obituary covered Celtic Frost’s “Dethroned Emperor,” and as soon as Viking Face ripped out that opening riff, my mind was chopped in half. A question that had burned in my subconscious for years had suddenly, unexpectedly been answered: It was the same riff as Wrecking Crew’s “Why Must They.” Of course. Now I knew how a good, but not great band could have written one of the best intros of all time. They stole it from Celtic Frost, the Swiss gods of moronic slam riffs.

This is when the story took an unexpected turn. A few days after the Obituary concert, some friends and I were sitting in a van, blasting Metallica. In a twist of fate, our dueling conversations each ended abruptly, and my focus went back to the music. And then it hit me. Dude … it was the same riff. Both Metallica and Wrecking Crew had swiped it from Celtic Frost. That’s how good it is.

… Wait. The Metallica song we were blasting was their cover of Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil,” which I listen to on a weekly basis, and had thought of ripping off myself. All of a sudden, the pieces all fell together in my puzzled mind. It had taken me an entire decade to trace the line from NYHC back to NWOBHM. And Celtic Frost, the most ripped-off band in the universe, had been doing plenty of ripping themselves. Then, a new question entered my thoughts… Who did Wrecking Crew rip off? Was it Metallica, Celtic Frost or Diamond Head? Maybe I’ll ask them in another ten years.

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  1. Emperor’s Return on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    [...] One of my favorite things about this EP in particular is that the song Dethroned Emperor — CF basically re appropriated the riff from Diamond Head, and then the riff was subsequently re appropriated by Agnostic Front and Wrecking Crew. Read a more academic take on the whole situation here. [...]