Monday, February 6, 2006

A History of Heavy Metal Part One: The Beginning

I suppose everyone has various genres of music that have played large roles in their lives. For me the music of the British Invasion and its American descendant, power pop, would prove to be very influential. But they are hardly the only subgenres of rock music that have had a large impact on my life. From a young age I must confess that I have been a metalhead. For those of you who do not know what a "metalhead" is, it is quite simply someone who listens to the subgenre of rock music known as "heavy metal."

Stylistically, heavy metal is not an easy music form to define. Part of the problem is much of what defines heavy metal is the sheer loudness of the music. The form has traditionally been characterised by distorted guitars played at incredibly high volumes. For some people, then, Van Halen may be sufficiently loud enough to be classified as "heavy metal." For me, well, they are not. It seems to me that for a band to be heavy metal they must go beyond the simple use of power chords. In addition to the use of distorted guitars played loudly, I would also include the use of very basic rhythms, and often repeated guitar riffs. Moreso than any other subgenre of rock save perhaps power pop, heavy metal is driven by guitars.

While it is hard to define heavy metal as a music form, there can be little doubt that its name is an apt description of the music. Sadly, the origins of the term "heavy metal" for a subgenre of rock are largely unknown. The term was in use as early as the 19th century when it was used of cannons and other artillery. Since the 1930s the term was used in chemistry and metallurgy to refer to metals with a specific gravity of over 5.0 (both lead and mercury are heavy metals). The word "heavy" itself came into use among beatniks of the Fifties as a term meaning "profound" or "signifcant." And as anyone who has read the liner notes to Iron Butterfly's album In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida knows, the term "heavy" was eventually applied to music. Indeed, their first album was named Heavy.

As to how "heavy" music gave way to "heavy metal," that is another question entirely. William S. Burroughs used the term in his 1962 novel The Soft Machine. Not only is the term used as a metaphor for drugs, but the novel also features a character named Uranian Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid (apparently the Uranians were really addicted to heavy metals.... ). Although tracing the origins of "heavy metal" as a musical term to Burroughs is exceedingly popular, it must be pointed out that in none of his works does he apply the term to music. It seems to me, then, that the term "heavy metal" for music may have its origins from two sources. The first is the use of the Beatnik term "heavy" with regards to music, cited above. The second is to be found in the lyrics of one of the most iconic rock songs of all time, "Born to Be Wild":

"I like smoke and lightning
Heavy metal thunder
Racin' with the wind
And the feelin' that I'm under"

The song seems to be quite obviously talking about riding a motorcycle, hence the use of the term "heavy metal thunder" to refer to the roar of its engine. It is the first recorded use of the words "heavy metal" in a rock song. What is more, it is a song that could be considered a prototype for heavy metal music itself. Quite simply, it seems more likely to me that it was Mars Bonfire, not William S. Burroughs, who led to the widespread application of the term "heavy metal" to a subgenre of rock music.

Regardless, the earliest documented use of the term "heavy metal" appeared in May 1971 in an issue of Creem. In a review of the Sir Lord Baltimore album Kingdom Come, critic Mike Saunders used the term "heavy metal" for a musical form for the first time in print (you can read the historic review here). Fellow Creem critics Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh followed Saunders in using the term of bands such as Black Sabbath, Vanilla Fudge, and Led Zeppelin.

While the origins of "heavy metal" as a musical term are hard to trace, the genesis of the music is not. Like power pop, heavy metal has its roots in the bands of the British Invasion. The Britpop of the early to mid-Sixties was largely driven by electric guitars. When The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds played blues, they used electric guitars. The Kinks and The Who introduced the use of power chords into rock music. Indeed, "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night" by The Kinks and "I Can See For Miles" by The Who can both be considered proto-metal songs. The Beatles themselves would have a profound influence on the development of heavy metal. On Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band it can be aruged that both "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band" and, especially, its reprise, can be considered proto-metal.The Kinks, The Who, and The Beatles would be followed by Cream. Often considered one of the first supergroups, Cream combined the psychedelic sound with blues. American band Vanilla Fudge, whose first album was released in 1967, did the same. Not surprisingly, many of the earliest bands to perform heavy metal, had started out playing the blues.

More so than Cream, Iron Butterfly and Jimi Hendrix would have an enormous influence on heavy metal. In fact, as pointed out above, Iron Butterfly may have influenced the choice of the term "heavy metal" for the new music. Their first album was entitled Heavy. And in the liner notes of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida they explained their name--"Iron- symbolic of something heavy as in sound, Butterfly- light, appealing and object that can be used freely in the imagination..." Their sound, which involved instruments played at high volume, could be counted as proto-metal. Jimi Hendrix, who took guitar playing to new extremes, would have even more influence on the subgenre. He played blues influenced rock at incredible volume and often used distortion, not to mention repetitve guitar riffs. "Foxy Lady" can easily be counted as a proto-metal song.

Of course, none of this answers the question of what the first heavy metal song was. Some will argue for Blue Cheer's remake of the Eddie Cochran song "Summertime Blues," released in 1968. My thought is that it is merely proto-metal--old time rock 'n' roll amped up to ridiculous extremes. For me the honour of the first heavy metal song goes to The Beatles and, hard as it is to believe, Paul McCartney. On the album The Beatles, better known as The White Album, there is a McCartney composition called "Helter Skelter." McCartney was inspired by The Who's "I Can See For Miles" to write something even harder. What he wrote was heavy metal--distorted guitars, a loud, repetitive, guitar riff, screaming--all the ingredients are there.

If it is hard to settle upon the first heavy metal song, it is even harder to decide upon the first heavy metal band. Many would give the title to Led Zeppelin. Formed in the wake of the breakup of The Yardbirds by Jimmy Page, the band played blues with distorted chords. Despite this, I tend to think of Led Zeppelin as a hard rock band that had an enormous influence on the development of heavy metal, a hard rock band many of whose songs could be considered heavy metal. For the first true, heavy metal band, we must look elsewhere in England.

That elsewhere is Birmingham, England, where in 1967 John "Ozzy" Osbourne, Terence Butler, Bill Ward, and Tony Iommi formed a group called the Polka Tulk Blues Band. The group blended elements of blues and European folk music with distorted guitar and power chords. Polka Tulk (as the band's name as so shortened) later became Earth. Learning that there was another band by that name, they took their name from one of their songs, which in turn took its name from a Boris Karloff movie--Black Sabbath. Not only did Black Sabbath cement the musical elements of heavy metal, but they also cemented the thematic elements of its lyrics. Not only did they deal with darker issues than the average rock band of the era (anger at authority, disatisfaction with life, et. al.), but with such fantastic themes as the occult ("N.I.B."), science fiction (notably "Iron Man"), and so on. Black Sabbath's influence can be seen on many, if not most, heavy metal bands that have followed in their wake.

Regardless of whom one considers the first heavy metal band, one thing is clear. By 1969, the time for heavy metal music had arrived.

To be continued....

1 comment:

anothershamus said...

I always attributed 'Summertime Blues' to the first heavy metal song but I recently found 'Talk Talk' by The Music Machine, and it seems to fit for an early example of the genere.

Check it out, link here: