A Brief History of Heavy Metal

A Brief History of Heavy Metal

“When the power chords come crashing down
Go tearing through my senses
It's for the strong, not for the weak
In light and dark dimensions

It stimulates, regenerates
It's therapeutic healing
It lifts our feet up off the ground
and blasts us through the ceiling

Heavy Metal, Heavy Metal
What do you want?
Heavy Metal, Heavy Metal
What do you want?”

(Rob Halford, ‘Heavy Metal’ on Ram it Down, Columbia, 1988)

While his vivid and manic description of the effect of Heavy Metal music looks somewhat disturbing, there is no doubt that when Halford emphatically answers his own rhetoric question, “What do you want?” with “Heavy metal!” he is not alone. According to research cited by Walser, some 10 million Americans would join that chorus. However, that same research suggests nearly twice as many would blanch at the prospect. Such is the power, and divisiveness of this broad and provocative genre of rock music.

As with many genres and sub-genres of music, a definition of the parameters of Heavy Metal is maddeningly difficult. Even its genesis is hotly debated. Shuker charts the rise of Heavy Metal from the late 1960’s, with the introduction of distorted guitars into the blues influenced rock and roll scene, the eponymous ‘heavy metal thunder’ line from Steppenwolf’s 1968 hit ‘Born To Be Wild’ and Black Sabbath’s first album in 1970. Rob Godwin prefers a three pillared foundation around the Sabbath release, Deep Purple’s In Rock and Uriah Heep’s Very ‘eavy, Very ‘umble, all in 1970. Whatever the date, it is apparent that Heavy Metal derived from a number of sources and influences, converging in the late 1960’s with a number of groups pioneering the genre simultaneously. Still, just which bands those are is also contested. “Metal started in 1970 with Black Sabbath” declares Popoff. Others are more inclined to see Led Zepplin as the seed that sprouted the Metal tree, as guitarist Jimmy Page “stumbled upon the creation and perfection of heavy metal”. Peter Jelic, owner of a rock-album rarities store in Canada, sums up several key players when he picks Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep and Led Zepplin as the instigators of the Heavy Metal movement, a grouping more or less agreed with by most.

While its origins are obscured in clouds of dry-ice and the shriek of Marshal stacks, the distinctive sound that anchors the genre’s identity is not. In his own personal history with the music, Hunter draws on and concurs with the dictionary definitions which emphasise the volume, driving beat and “often violent, nihilistic, and misogynistic lyrics.” “More than anything else heavy metal must surely be defined by its sound” argues Popoff. Walser agrees, describing the ‘language’ of Metal as a “coherent body of musical signs and conventions.” “The most important aural sign of heavy metal is the sound of an extremely distorted electric guitar.” Hunter is somewhat more subjective, and tongue in cheek, when he suggests that the presence of any distorted guitar made allowance for the Metal tag: “So long as it had a cranked-up guitar in there somewhere, no matter how low in the mix, or one of those solos (you know, a whiny one), then Metal fans would give it the collective thumbs up.” While Walser devotes quite some space to the discussion of that distortion and the peculiar timbre of the Metal guitar, the other significant element of genre’s sound is its volume. “The nature of metal and the needs and pleasures it addresses demand that it always be heard loud.” While this is easily exhibited in a concert environment, not every home stereo and personal music player can rival a jet plane for volume, and so Metal is not always experienced with the ear splitting decibels it was recorded for. This in part has lead to the blurring of the lines between true Heavy Metal and other Hard Rock music, as both share similar arrangements and instrumentation.

A Brief History of Heavy Metal

This explains the difficulty in tracking the Heavy Metal trajectory through music history. While names like Led Zepplin and Black Sabbath are spoken in hushed tones by ardent Metallers, there were a number of bands that began to make a big noise in the early 1970’s that are viewed with varying degrees of acceptance by Metal fans. Judas Priest emerged in the UK with their debut Rocka Rolla in 1974 and set about “catapulting [Metal] to new levels of distinction” in the mid 70’s. Across the Atlantic, the theatrical KISS formed in 1972 and their live double album Alive! saw Metal invade America’s Top 10. Around this time, antipodeans AC/DC were making inroads into both the US and UK markets with their own blend of distorted guitars and screamed lyrics – an incursion that would span three decades. Fellow long-timers Aerosmith took wing in 1973 with a self titled album, but their sound initially paid more homage to the genre’s blues-rock roots and so they are one of the ‘disputable’ metal groups.

Here is where the hem of the genre unravels. While the distortion-guitar-based sound, driving rhythms and raging vocals are essentials, not every band with those prerequisites is allowed the hallowed Metal tag. Shuker sees authenticity as a vital part of the Metal mystique, its raw expressiveness and power setting it apart from the more commercially packaged pop world. In 1980 MTV arrived, and this new medium of video was embraced by many for its huge ability to reach audiences, and therefore sell records. However, it was exactly this approach that Metal purists were opposed to. Therefore, bands with the prerequisite Heavy Metal sound that embraced the new technology were considered lesser to those whose material, sound and image was not MTV friendly. Motorhead, a brutal and intense threesome from London embodied the latter, their coarse and ear-splitting sound putting them “in the unique position of being accepted by both long haired rockers and punks who could not tell what they were listening to if they kept their eyes shut.” Bon Jovi however, broke the mould of “big ugly men with greasy hair and bad teeth” and thus earned labels like ‘poodle rock’ for their efforts. For die-hard Metal fans, they wandered too far from the core ideology and image of the genre.

Perhaps some of the reason for such disdain of the more commercialised groups came from the identity of the Metal masses. At its core Heavy Metal appealed to the young, white, working-class male. Walser points to Birmingham, the industrial heart of Great Britain as the womb of Metal, and sees its birth as heralded by the labour pains of American de-industrialisation during the 1960’s and 70’s. Such locales and climates define an audience drawn by the overt masculinity and the iconic, quasi-phallic guitars. Certainly, Hunter spends considerable time affectionately cataloguing the guitars of Metal, quipping that, as Heavy Metal musicians began to customise instruments that visually represented the musical style, “[we] at last felt that we were becoming sexy.” While exotic guitars are beyond most fans, the trademark imagery of Metal is not. Black Sabbath “codified the image and attitude” of metal – an image that was dark and cynical, diametrically opposed to the optimism and brightness of pop. Long hair is sacrosanct, evidence of one’s faithfulness to the cause, despite severely limiting employment options and social integration.

Die hard stalwarts clung to this image and ideology through the late 1970’s as Punk reigned supreme, particularly in Europe, and in the 1980’s Metal found its second wind. In Britain, Heavy Metal rode a ‘New Wave,’ buoyed along by emerging groups like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Saxon. Throwing off the shadow of Punk, Iron Maiden toured extensively in the early 1980’s, and alongside Leppard spread the Metal sound across northern England and around the London scene. The resurgence of the genre did not go unnoticed. In San Francisco, Lars Urlich, drummer for Metallica, was taking a keen interest in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Metallica picked up the Metal baton and played with a speed to rival the Punk nay-sayers, but a vehemence characteristic of true Heavy Metal. For many, Metallica would become synonymous with Heavy Metal but in fact, their emergence was part of the great fracturing that the genre would experience as the 80’s and 90’s progressed.

As Robins observes, “the outrageous eventually gets sucked into the mainstream” and as Metallica’s album sales began to register in the millions, more bands rushed in to fill the ‘fringe’ areas of Metal. These new acts were less clones than siblings, introducing new elements that “kicked Heavy Metal’s perpetually fat and lazy arse and forced it into new directions – or at least kept us busy objecting to them.” The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Living Colour introduced funk into the Metal sound, and hardcore acts like Megadeth and Anthrax injected speed. “Metal would have died long before without their cumulative influences.” However, as well as reinvigorating the Heavy Metal genre, they were fracturing it. Metal gave birth to Thrash, which sired Death Metal, and Funk Metal produced the Rap Metal of Faith No More and latterly, Linkin Park. Sub Genres abounded, almost one for each new band that distinguished itself in the Metal Pantheon. The divisions, as within (or between) any genre are in almost constant flux, and often dependant on who is defining them.

Heavy Metal continues to evolve, splinter and spread. The once distinctive driving beat and distorted guitars which made Black Sabbath stand apart on the radio during the 1970’s now feature in the most contrived commercial Pop products. Instrumentations and volume once the sole domain of the Metal elite can now be found on Disney products. The children of Punk (Ska, Emo, Goth et. al.) have interbred with Metal’s offspring to populate the charts and CD racks with hybrid strains of music whose origin and allegiance is difficult to ascertain. However, there remains a core that is undeniably Heavy Metal. While the popular acts like Metallica become mainstreamed, there is a steady rise of new bands, louder, faster and more explosive, waiting to bear the Heavy Metal badge into battle for a new generation of listeners.

We are as one as we are all the same
Fighting for one cause
Leather and metal are our uniforms
Protecting what we are
Joining together to take on the world
With our heavy metal
Spreading the message to everyone here
Come, let yourself go

(James Hetfield, ‘Metal Militia’ on Kill ‘em All, Music for Nations, 1983)

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