Heavy-metal expert Martin Popoff ponders his amazing career as a cranker-outer of books

By Steve Newton

When you’re a young, rock-obsessed kid living in a small town, anywhere you can buy music is like the ultimate candy shop. Fortunately for author Martin Popoff–Canada’s leading authority on heavy metal–growing up in the wee burgh of Trail, B.C. offered several places where he could slake his thirst for new tunes.

“We had like five record stores in Trail,” says Popoff on the phone from his condo/office in Toronto, “it was crazy. And occasionally we’d get to Vancouver, which was eight hours away at that time, but more so Spokane, Washington, which was two hours away–and had even better selection than Vancouver. So there was no problem gettin’ stuff.”

And when Popoff couldn’t find his musical goods at Trail outlets like the Rock Island Tape Centre and Kelly’s Stereo Mart, or Spokane head shops like Strawberry Jam and Magic Mushroom, there was always the old standby: the Columbia Record Club. He recalls that his first mail-order purchases, when he was nine years old, were Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Pendulum, a Three Dog Night live album, and Steppenwolf Gold.

“Lookin’ back, none of that stuff was very heavy,” he notes, “but it was the first step up from children’s music. I knew I wanted and liked the heavier stuff, so basically as soon as I heard Sabbath and Zeppelin and Deep Purple I was totally hooked, a crazy music fan.”

As a teenager, Popoff worked a lot to support his loud habit, babysitting and taking on the “heavy metal job” of tending the grass at a cemetery, going down there in the dark at five in the morning to turn on the sprinklers. By the time he was 15 he and a buddy were working at the Rock Island Tape Centre, running the record department and selling stereos.

That’s when he scored himself a sweet sound system that included a 40-watts-per-channel Yamaha amp and a high-end Sony cassette deck that cost him $800 alone.

“You were either an eight-track kid or a cassette kid,” he recalls, “and I was a cassette kid. Eight-track kids were a little wilder and a little skiddier, right? Eight tracks were always scattered all over the car, and the cardboard box was ripped or long gone. The eight-track guys were always the partiers, and the cassette guys were always just a little bit more civilized.”

Popoff says that he still owns about 30 or 40 eight-tracks that he bought from some old guy in Louisiana just as a lark. The vinyl collection that he started at around nine years old grew and grew and reached about 11,000 before he started slowly paring down and selling things off to friends. He’s now weeded it out to around 5,000 LPs.

“It’s a lotta crap,” he explains, “but a lotta good stuff too. And when I could get stuff signed by bands I would keep that.”

When it comes to the physical perks of the professional music writer, Popoff was a little late to the game to score himself mountains of complimentary wax.

“I never got vinyl for free,” he states, “but I definitely got in on the whole comp-CD situation. So I have a massive CD wall where most of that was free. That’s a seven-foot-tall wall in my office here that’s 31 feet long. A lot of the jewel cases were thrown out so things are in little plastic sleeves and stuff. That really started petering out around 2008, you know, and I don’t push anybody for freebies anymore. I don’t have any room.”

Popoff’s journey to becoming one of the world’s top rock writers–not to mention the owner of 18,000 compact discs–started nearly 30 years ago, with the November 1993 release of his first book, the self-published Riff Kills Man!, which saw an initial print run of 2,000.

“It’s crazy that I printed so many copies,” he says, “but when it’s your first book you just have a burning desire to make it a success. But that whole thing was kinda nuts. It was basically a record-review book, so it was just the idea of taking all of those stories and all of that trivia and just putting it on a page so you could pour it out of your head–and then have it chronological and alphabetical.

“It was just an orderly thing that I felt needed to exist,” he adds. “I mean at that point there were some record-review anthologies, but man, back then there was practically never anything on heavy metal. So I just thought it was such a cool thing to do.”

Riff Kills Man! was the jumping-off point for an amazingly prolific career that has seen the 59-year-old writer crank out about 115 books, with a few more finished and coming out soon.

“It seems like a lot,” admits Popoff, “but I’m one of the rare guys that basically, after the year 2000–so that’s now 23 years ago–was full-time in this. The first big step was getting on with Tim Henderson at [heavy-metal magazine] Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, so that was me actually starting to interview people. So basically these other books came about because I would interview these bands, and I would interview them again and again, and eventually it got to the point where it was like, ‘Okay, I kinda have a book here.’

“And so the earliest books, besides the record-review book, were biographies of bands, and then it just started up. And I found I wrote pretty fast. There are people I know who are smart and they know about music and they’re good writers, but they write so slow. I remember hearing somebody call writers like that ‘stonecutters’, but you have to be fast to get this stuff done.”

While he’s conducted roughly 1800 interviews over the years that he can reference for his books, Popoff is also noted for his in-depth, almost professorial analysis of the elements of hard rock and heavy metal.

“I did Led Zeppelin: All the Albums, All the Songs,” he notes, “so that’s just writing about all those songs, like its non-interview intensive. I did the same thing writing about every single song for the Clash and the Damned. So it depends on if maybe the publisher has an idea that’s more analysis-based.

“It’s cool to do both analysis and interviews,” he adds. “I mean you want to be a deejay, right–you want to be someone who’s turning people on to stuff. So you have your job of selling these songs and showing how much you love them, and you want to have your own voice. But I don’t have an ego about any of this, so when I do those books on bands I just really want them to talk, because they are the artists.”

Popoff almost never seeks official authorization from his subjects to write the books, claiming that there’s no real reason to do that. “It’s just something that very rarely comes up because probably in most cases it won’t get off the ground.”

And as far as pissing off any artists with his published works, that doesn’t happen much either. There are exceptions, though.

“I remember [guitarist] Adrian Vandenberg getting his back up about something [producer] Keith Olsen said, but I can’t remember what he was upset about. Was it the hand injury thing in Whitesnake? Something like that. So there’s just the odd little thing like that. The funny thing is, if you write a whole book on a band, they can probably find 75 things where it ticks them off. I imagine anybody reading a book on themselves can find tons of things that rub ’em the wrong way, right.”

Popoff’s latest tome is AC/DC at 50, a $60 coffee-table book from British publishing house Quarto that examines the history of the Aussie ear-busters through the lens of 50 milestone events.

“Quarto does beautiful, beautiful layouts,” he raves, “so there’s a lotta pictures and memorabilia. You know, I’m forced to write very concisely, 400 to 600 words on these 50 career highlights, so I think you get my voice and some pretty high-end sentences from a real fan. Even though it’s this sort of glossy overview of the band, and it’s not a 300,000-word biography, I think anybody reading those entries would realize that this is a fan that isn’t writing down to a common denominator, so that’s cool.”

Popoff is obviously pleased with how AC/DC at 50 turned out, but he doesn’t hesitate when asked which of his books he’s most proud of.

“I really like the one I did called Who Invented Heavy Metal?, which is 120,000 words, so a fairly long book, but it ends in 1971, and it’s a timeline-with-quotes thing about the whole history of heavy metal leading up to 1971. So that was cool.

“I really like those ones where I got to analyze every single song by a band, and If I had to pick one of the three–which was Clash, Zeppelin, and the Damned–I’d say the Damned. It’s just a small little trade paperback–it’s nothin’ much to look at–but it’s my favourite in terms of the writing. The idea of writing 300, 400, 500 words on every song the Damned ever did was just hilarious to me.”

When it comes to pinpointing his most popular books, Popoff reveals that the most successful writing project he’s undertaken was a trilogy of books on RushAnthem: Rush in the ’70s, Limelight: Rush in the ’80s, and Driven: Rush in the ’90s and “In the End”–that came out first as hardcovers and then as softcovers. But he points out that it’s difficult to foresee which of his creations will catch on and become his bestsellers.

“I’m amazed at how well the Mercyful Fate book did,” he relates, “and the Blue Öyster Cult stuff always does well. The Max Webster did well, the Accept did well. It’s crazy. And then, some bigger books on bands like Megadeth and Metallica, those ones didn’t do that well. So it’s really been a weird sort of crap shoot. But it’s interesting to see when these bands have these dedicated cult followings around the world.”

Whether or not Popoff’s new AC/DC book will match the high-voltage selling power of his Rush entries remains to be seen, but it’s fair to say that he’s a massive fan of both groups. He has been heard in a YouTube video declaring that the interview he did with AC/DC’s Malcolm Young in the summer of 2003 was the highlight of his amazing career.

“It was the day after the big Toronto Rocks festival, so 400,000 people. AC/DC, one of their greatest shows of all time; it’s gonna go down as a legendary show because they start playing on this beautiful summer day, right when the sun’s going down. They’re the second-to-last act on the bill–the headliner is the Rolling Stones.

“So it’s the next day after the thing, in a nice hotel downtown in Yorkville, and I was there with Malcolm in person and got him to sign stuff. He was just a super-nice guy, very polite. And I saw Angus, got to say hi to him in the hallway as he’s walkin’ through the hallway in his little white hotel robe with a trayful of tea.”

One of the things fans of hard rock and metal appreciate most about Popoff is the fact that, as much as he loves writing books about established “rock royalty” like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Rush, he’s also jumped at the chance to pen titles about less celebrated acts like Thin Lizzy, UFO, Blue Öyster CultMax Webster, and Ronnie Montrose.

So does it give the author some satisfaction to turn people onto bands or artists that might not get all the credit they deserve?

“Yeah, definitely. I mean I’ve always thought…you go back to those old albums, they’re all recorded with the same big producers, they all took the same amount of time, they’re all recorded in the big studios, they’re all on major labels. All those acts are essentially doing the same level of art as anybody else is, right, and they just didn’t get as successful. You know, some of these bands I’ve written books on them 15, 20 years ago, and still no one’s written a second book on them.

“And I envisioned idealistically that these guys, when they’re sitting on their rocking chairs and stuff, and they never got around to writing their own biography or whatever, there is a book sitting out there for however many years there’s a planet that their ancestors will be able to pick up somewhere and read about their grandfather or whatever, right. So I always thought that was kinda cool.”


To hear the full 33-minute audio of my interview with Martin Popoff subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 350 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Russ Dwarf of the Killer Dwarfs, 1988
Paul Kelly, 1995
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Jordan Cook, 2001
Steve Earle, 2012
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Sonny Rhodes, 1999
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J. Geils from the J. Geils Band, 2006
Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20, 1997
Jason Newsted of Newsted (and Metallica), 2013
Marshall Crenshaw, 2013
Dan Hartman, 1984
Sean Costello, 2006
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Tommy Stinson from the Replacements, 1993
Brian Blush of the Refreshments, 1997
Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, 2003
Craig Northey of Strippers Union, 2021
Melissa Etheridge, 1990
Joe Jackson, 2003
Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity, 2001
David Ellefson of Megadeth, 1992
David Lee Roth, 2003
Grant Walmsley of the Screaming Jets, 1991
John Popper of Blues Traveler, 1991
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 2012
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1993
Ellen McIlwaine, 2001
Derek Trucks of Tedeschi Trucks, 2012
J.D. Fortune of INXS, 2006
Fernando von Arb of Krokus, 1984
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, 1997
Gary Holt of Exodus, 1985
Dizzy Reed of Guns N’ Roses, 1992
Scott Ian of Anthrax, 2012
Gary Lee Conner of Screaming Trees, 1992
Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, 1985
David “Honeyboy” Edwards, 2003
Rudolf Schenker of Scorpions, 1992
Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, 2001
Jeff Keith of Tesla, 1988
Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton of Arc Angels, 1992
Marc Bonilla, 1992
Mike Smith of Sandbox (and Trailer Park Boys), 1996
Dewey Bunnell of America, 1983
Robert Randolph of the Family Band, 2003
Keith Strickland of the B-52s, 2008
David Johansen of the New York Dolls, 2005
Nathan Followill of Kings of Leon, 2003
Todd Kerns, 2016
Bill Payne of Little Feat, 2002
Robbin Crosby of Ratt, 1989
Tommy Shannon of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, 1998
Alejandro Escovedo, 1997
Billy Duffy of the Cult, 1989
Dave Martone, 2020
Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, 2006
Joss Stone, 2012
Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest, 2005
Jack Blades of Night Ranger, 1984
Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard, 1992
Colin James, 1995
Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, 1998
Tom Cochrane of Red Rider, 1983
Ed Roland of Collective Soul, 1995
Taj Mahal, 2001
Tom Wilson of Junkhouse, 1995
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
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Matthew Sweet, 1995
Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, 2001
John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
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Grace Potter, 2008
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Don Wilson of the Ventures, 1997
Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, 1998
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Albert Lee, 1986
Yngwie Malmsteen, 1985
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Tony Carey, 1984
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Kate Bush, 1985
David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, 1984
Jeff Healey, 1988
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1996
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
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Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Edgar Winter, 2005
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Randy Hansen, 2001
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
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Joey Belladonna of Anthrax, 1991
Joe Satriani, 1990
Vernon Reid of Living Colour, 1988
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
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John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
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John Mellencamp, 1999
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John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
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Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
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Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
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Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
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Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
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Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
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Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
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Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
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Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil, 2001
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Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
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Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1985
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001

….with hundreds more to come


One thought on “Heavy-metal expert Martin Popoff ponders his amazing career as a cranker-outer of books

  1. I bought the I guess you would call a second edition of riff kills man, and I was in heaven. It was cool how me and Martin had a lot of the same take on many records in bands, or favorite records by bands (contrarian pics or takes, like Blue Oyster Cult-Mirrors my fave by them, Sabbath -Sabotage fave Sabbath album) and even when I didn’t agree with him on a particular take, it was still a great read, and I
    would go back to the releases and reevaluate them, sometimes seeing them in the new light, other times being like nah, I still feel this particular way about this release);.. and what was great was as much as I was immersed in the metal culture, there is so much stuff that I didn’t know. And he helped guide me to many great albums and bands, a lot of times but never could find, or new stuff. I remember emailing him on my old Dell computer, tell him how much I love this book, and a part of a few albums I disagreed with or bands and tried to guide them to things that I felt about a particular act etc. He commented that that was the beauty of music that we all can have our own opinions and tastes, remind me how even my metalhead buddies as much as we agreed on most of the stuff, there would be bands records where we didn’t find common ground. Even my wife it wasn’t a metalhead read the book, she loved his writing style and it’s sense of humor. So then I still think about some of this lines or quotes and crack a smile. I mean I remember cooking am I the only person in the US or surrounding countries who knew about the swedish band Torch (!!!!) And seeing him review their records and remember I felt the same way about them just need to move forward without even meeting him I knew we had a common Bond. And that’s what hard rock and heavy metal was about when I was growing up-going to a show and run into people from school, your neighborhood or a previous concert; and it was such a bonding experience. Now I get to follow him on the internet whether it’s written word, or YouTube , or listening to his podcasts. Boy me and Martin could have saved a lot of money in our day if somebody had written a book like that, or again was able to where about these bands, or you can hear them on the internet highway. Geez I know I’m rambling, the boy thank God for Martin Popoff!! 🤘🐸✌️

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