A Tailgate for the Ages

In less than 20 minutes, two filmmakers captured a magnificent moment in music history. Heavy Metal Parking Lot is turning 35, and we’re ready to celebrate.

Today in Tedium: I almost saw Aerosmith in concert once. It’s not that I’m a big Aerosmith fan (they have some fine moments), it’s just that ZZ Top was also on the bill that night. So I had to make a decision: do I sit through Aerosmith so I can see ZZ Top or do I hold out for the Judas Priest show where they’re going to play an entire album live? I never did attend that Aerosmith show. A few months later, Judas Priest played a spectacular show at Red Rocks here in Colorado—and I missed that one, too, unfortunately. But thanks to the magic of the internet, I had an opportunity to see what I missed out on via YouTube, which is where an entirely new generation of fans are likely now finding one of the greatest music documentaries I’ve ever seen: Heavy Metal Parking Lot. It was a viral video before anyone had a concept of such things. Like aspiring filmmaker Laz Rojas’ demo reel, HMPL became a frequently copied and shared piece of media, with some high-profile fans. On May 31, 1986—35 years ago this Memorial Day—John Heyn and Jeff Krulik set their sights on capturing a moment in rock history. As numerous fans waited with extreme excitement for the Judas Priest/Dokken concert to begin, they filmed the parking lot proceedings, making rock and roll history in the process. What happened in that Maryland parking lot on that unassuming late May night ignited public interest, essentially spawned an entire documentary genre, and captured the hearts of metalheads everywhere. It was definitely a tailgate to remember. In today’s Tedium, we’re celebrating a milestone anniversary of one of the greatest rock documentaries ever: Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Let’s rock. — David @ Tedium

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17

The approximate length—in minutes—of the original Heavy Metal Parking Lot documentary film (the original short is exactly 16:40 long, for those interested in such things). Shot in the parking lot of the now-demolished Capital Centre in Maryland, the film captured a true slice-of-life from the halcyon days of the 1980s heavy metal scene. On the surface, it’s a document of a tailgate party prior to a concert, but at its core, HMPL is the story of how something so extraordinary came to be, took on a life of its own, and ultimately became an essential part of pop culture history.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot

A scene from Heavy Metal Parking Lot, famously shot before a Judas Priest concert in Maryland. (all photos courtesy Jeff Krulik)

A bit of Fuel for Life

By the time Judas Priest embarked on the Fuel for Life tour in 1986, they’d already had nine previous albums under their collective belts. To support their newest release, Turbo, they hit the road in North America and Europe on a largely successful tour. The tour aesthetic was futuristic and dynamic, with a fantastic representation of the band’s music up to that point (even if it was slightly more commercial than usual). Their opening act on the night of May 31, 1986, was another essential heavy metal band from the period, Dokken. But all of this is merely incidental to the real story here: the friendship and professional pairing of the minds behind HMPL: Jeff Krulik and John Heyn. Tedium recently had the tremendous opportunity to speak with both of them for this piece, where they were kind enough to give us some insight into the phenomenon.

Krulik and Heyn became friends over their mutual love of old DC-area movie theatres (to this former projectionist, there’s nothing more nostalgic than a projector, some 35mm film, and a classy venue). Working together on several documentary projects about these legacy entertainment venues, the pair became fast friends. In the midst of beautiful suburban Maryland, Krulik spent his time running a public access community TV studio and decided to invite Heyn to join him in coming up with new ideas and helping him out with various productions.

A nascent independent filmmaker at the time, Heyn appreciated access to high-end equipment via Krulik’s public access job that would have otherwise been unavailable. One day, he made the suggestion out of the blue to go down to the Capital Centre and interview some heavy metal fans just before the concert. Per Heyn:

We did it on a creative whim. We had been working together for a year and had been quite prolific. Producing concert videos primarily, using public access gear. Generally, we sought out subversive ideas for our documentaries, subjects that other filmmakers didn’t have an interest in or notion of covering. We appreciated the power and energy of merging rock n’ roll with cinematic storytelling, hence HMPL was a natural outcome to our predilections.

Both men had attended concerts there in the past (“not heavy metal,” Krulik says). They knew the venue boasted crazy tailgating parties often. It didn’t matter who was playing on any given night; one could always depend on the “party in the parking lot.” Largely due to the popularity of hair metal and MTV, Krulik says, “metal could fill arenas even though the music wasn’t necessarily being played on the radio.”

With free access to professional gear and a solid idea, they paid to get into the show and just sort of went from there. The fact that it was a Judas Priest concert was a coincidence, as Krulik told us:

It was pure dumb, but very good luck that it was Judas Priest because they have become true metal icons and their music is iconic and really holds up. It could have been any band, but because we zeroed in on a Saturday night in late May, that’s when Judas Priest was headlining.

Because it was such an iconic band—with equally iconic fans—the two intrepid filmmakers managed to capture enthusiastic fans, occasional awkward moments, the precipice of a changing music scene, and an overarching sense of something much larger than the moment in time in which it took place.

“For anyone who wants to understand what a heavy metal crowd looked like when heavy metal was at its peak popularity in the 1980s, this is a perfect document of that point in musical history. It’s just a great snapshot of fandom.”

Laura Schnitker, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Maryland, in an interview with NPR for the film’s 30th anniversary. To celebrate the milestone, the university displayed an extensive exhibit about the film called Heavy Metal Parking Lot: The 30-Year Journey of a Cult Film Sensation, which contained numerous items from the Jeff Krulik collection (which itself is available in UMD’s Special Collections Archive).

Judas Priest HMPL

The film was shot in an unplanned fashion—which added to its appeal.

Part of HMPL’s appeal lies in the technology and techniques that captured it

Tailgate parties and the parking lot scene pioneered by fans of jam bands like The Grateful Dead are still quite common. Phish fans, for instance, have taken this idea to an impressive level for years (there’s a documentary about that, too). So it wasn’t really unusual to see people partying outside the venue. So how did a spur of the moment documentary ignite such a unique genre?

While watching the original documentary, one gets the sense of stepping back in time and seeing a version of life as an American youth in the 1980s. It’s really a snapshot of teenagers performing a form of rebellion and working through their frustrations through the conduit of music. It’s candid, occasionally amusing, and decidedly not public access television.

Technical limitations and the lack of a script did nothing to deter Krulik and Heyn. As Krulik told us, “We just turned the camera on and waded forth into the crowd. We had no script, and no plan.”

This sort of freeform interviewing technique wasn’t planned, but it adds to the film’s charm and appeal. There were, however, some technical limitations that led to what we see in the final edit.

Heyn felt the video gear was a bit unwieldy, largely due to the bulkiness of 1980s video equipment and accompanying cable spaghetti. Tapes were also quite short and batteries didn’t last long. There were more manual controls and monitoring required on the user’s part. It wasn’t like today, where one could point their phone at the proceedings and capture every moment.

But despite the technological setbacks and limitations, they managed to capture some great footage. Krulik jumped in to point out that they were genuinely curious and interested in the subject.

“We had no agenda, and certainly no intent to mock anyone. We were just curious, and we let everyone just be themselves,” he said.

Letting everyone cut loose and be themselves ended up being the cornerstone and foundation of the story.

Per Krulik, the film was edited to only include the most entertaining material. Some folks were more sober and subdued, and at first they really weren’t sure what they were going to come across when they set out to do the documentary. Krulik says apprehension eventually gave way to enthusiasm, and the duo started mingling with the crowd and learning about them, their lives, and personalities.

Funny enough, Krulik says the duo essentially shelved the film after a final showing in 1990. When they learned that it was being rented out in a place called Mondo Video in Los Angeles around the year 1994, they decided to bring it back and start screening again. Every year since then, people continue to rediscover the documentary, bringing it to a younger generation, and cementing its status as a cult film in the process.

Grohl HMPL

Noted Heavy Metal Parking Lot fan Dave Grohl.

Whether it was through bootlegs, tape trading, or other avenues, the film spread around. It even caught the attention of Nirvana, becoming a favorite film on their tour bus (a fact that Dave Grohl confirmed to NPR in 2011).

The film’s legend grew to the point that it received direct tributes in pop culture—most famously in the music video for “Flavor of the Weak,” a 2001 power-pop hit for American Hi-Fi that changed the location from Maryland to Massachusetts, but kept the DC-101 shirt.

Ultimately, the directors were pleased with the final results, and not unlike Weird Paul Petroskey (we can basically guarantee he’s a HMPL fan), became viral before “going viral” was even a coherent thing.

2003

The year a short-lived, half hour series focusing on various bands and their fan bases having tailgate parties (it extended into 2004). In the vein of HMPL, Trio TV’s Parking Lot had Andy Cohen as an executive producer and covered similar ground. Although Parking Lot wasn’t on the air long, it did manage to cover those Phish parking lot parties we mentioned earlier, which is frankly kind of awesome (to the surprise of absolutely no one, I’m a pretty big Phish fan, too).

Neil Diamond Parking Lot, the decade-later sequel to HMPL.

A brief timeline of HMPL’s legacy

Parking Lot wasn’t the only one show that stemmed from the 1986 classic. The year 1996 brought the world HMPL’s official sequel Neil Diamond Parking Lot. It was at the same arena, but offered a totally different take. Despite the dissimilar genres, the film had the same vibe and energy as its predecessor. Two years later, Jeff was looking through lost HMPL footage and discovered five minutes of outtakes from the full 65 minutes they’d recorded that day.

At that point, they started selling VHS tapes of the film in 1999, they “unintentionally launched a franchise” when they shot a Harry Potter book signing (Harry Potter Parking Lot) near Krulik’s residence. The year 2001 marked the 15th anniversary of HMPL, with numerous screens across the country. The following year saw the film blown up to a 35mm print and paired with a Chris Smith documentary entitled Home Movie for theatrical distribution and release. A few more years passed and in 2006, HMPL found its way to DVD with more than two hours worth of special features.

2010 saw the premiere of Heavy Metal Picnic, which toured with the Found Footage Festival (which featured a super cool intro). 2016 brought the 30th anniversary of the film and plenty of online celebration ensued. As we approach the 35th anniversary, The Found Footage Festival is putting on a virtual 35th anniversary virtual event with a screening of the movie, some awesome rare footage, and a live reunion of the film’s stars. I’ll be there; won’t you?

(Note: If you’re reading this past the date of the event, don’t worry; you can still check out the original documentary online.)

Heavy Metal Picnic was born out of a friend sharing with me some VHS footage from a wild MD field party that he shot with a video camera and a swiped CBS microphone flag; I was stoked because it was from 1985, a year before we shot Heavy Metal Parking Lot, and I knew how rare video footage was of such a scene, so that inspired me to pursue making a documentary.”

— Jeff Krulik, describing the genesis and process for one of his other films, Heavy Metal Picnic.

Zebraman

The iconic Zebraman, one of the stars of Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

We’ll meet at the end of the tour

Throughout Heavy Metal Parking Lot, viewers meet several colorful characters including the Glen Burnie Girl, Zebraman Graham of Dope, and Zev Zalman “Z.Z.” Ludwick.

As he told Nate Goyer of The Vinyl Guide podcast, Rob Halford of Judas Priest loved HMPL. He loved seeing fans share their passion for Judas Priest and called the presentation a means to get a “beautiful sense of what it’s like to be a genuine fan of the style of music.”

On the podcast, Halford mentioned he sometimes wonders where the fans are these days. While a DVD release addressed this very question, here are a few updates graciously provided by Jeff Krulik. We don’t have the space to go over all of them here, so we’ll focus on a few of the most interesting.

One of the most mysterious was the Glen Burnie Girl—the girl seen in the film yelling, “party!” and similar refrains. As it turns out, she was just a teenager having a good time at the concert. Today, she’s a professional with a family. ZZ Ludwick—the shirtless, long-haired man wearing suspenders in the film—now repairs stringed instruments at his violin repair shop.

For other updates, there was a Nashville Rock-N-Pod Expo featuring Jalyn Graham Owens (aka Graham of Dope) and Johnny the “DC-101 Guy” (Jeff says it was the “first time DC-101 Guy ever went public”). Graham himself wrote a memoir as well, but sadly passed last year.

For a more in-depth experience on discovering the whereabouts and happenings of various heavy-metal parking lot alumni, check out the DVD special feature presentation on that very subject.

“The content still delivers a gut punch, even with today’s jaded audiences. And it’s a wonderful unvarnished time capsule.”

HMPL co-director John Heyn, on the lasting impact of the film. Part of the reason it resonates with so many of us is how it represents something tangible, yet nostalgic and out of time. It’s a snapshot of the mid-’80s, with references to bands that remain relevant today. Not bad for a film put together from two hours of footage.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot certainly has its own unique legacy. Both Heyn and Krulik use the film as a calling card for their careers and told us about its positive influence on later work. These days, Heyn works as a video producer in the documentary niche and avoids the term “underground film” in reference to HMPL. He likes to pepper his creations with sly and irreverent humour whenever possible. When he collaborates with Jeff, they work extremely well together and after the employee guerilla filmmaking tactics.

Krulik has worked on numerous documentary films and provided research for others, including the Rat Fink (remember him?) documentary from a few years back. Both are successful filmmakers in their own right and retain a strong friendship today.

NBC Last Call shoot 2010

Krulik, left, and Heyn during a 2010 shoot for the NBC show Last Call with Carson Daly.

“We were joined at the hip, connected for life, brothers from another mother, etc. regarding Heavy Metal Parking Lot, and everything it spawned since 1986,” Krulik said.

Despite the film’s success, he still considers it as “running a little bit under the radar.” But ultimately, Heavy Metal Parking Lot became a vessel for experiencing the mid-1980s right of passage in a unique and relatable way.

Experiencing a concert vicariously through someone else’s shared experience or via a recording of the show may not be the same as actually being at the show, but it’s something many of us can relate to. And at the end of the day, something like Heavy Metal Parking Lot has the potential of usher in that shared, collective experience.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Judas Priest album and a pot of coffee waiting for me, so until next time, don’t forget to keep on rocking!

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For those curious about seeing the original Heavy Metal Parking Lot in a celebratory environment for its 35th anniversary, the Found Footage Festival is hosting a virtual event on May 31; tickets for the Zoom-driven event are available on the festival’s website. It’s $8, which any modern-day Judas Priest fan should be able to cough up.

Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! Thanks again to John Heyn and Jeff Krulik for taking part, and thanks again for Morning Brew for sponsoring.

David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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