One night a couple of years ago, I was walking home and listening to some tracks from Judas Priest’s “Sin After Sin”, and it suddenly occurred to me that this was really heavy metal as we came to know it in the 1980s. I mean, who else was making music like this in 1977?!
There has been a lot of debate about when heavy was born and what exactly is heavy metal, but everyone I have heard contribute to the discussion agrees that Judas Priest was the forefather of the modern metal sound, which was then intensified and developed into further extremes later on.
The debate mostly revolves around the state of heavy metal music in the 1970s with the debate split between there not having been any heavy metal prior to 1976 with the exception of Black Sabbath and that heavy metal did exist because the term was being used to describe intense, exciting and, as was usually the case, deafening guitar rock, even though most of that music would now be classified as hard rock. Typically, it’s the older folks who experienced heavy metal in the 1970s, or at least in the early 1980s (like me), who argue that what we had back then was heavy metal because that’s what that style of music was called. Music lovers and music critics alike referred to that music as “heavy metal”.
Ted Nugent in 1977
During the 1970s, heavy metal music went through some important transitional phases. The original downer rock/heavy rock style that became labeled as heavy metal was prevalent between 1969 and 1971. From 1972 onward, the music of loud and intense guitar rock bands began to shift away from the doom and gloom minor chord style to something more like intensified rock and roll. By 1975, heavy metal was heard on albums by UFO, Nazareth, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, and Rush, while Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, KISS, and early Queen were also regarded as playing heavy metal music.
The following year, however, was when an important change began to appear in heavy metal music, most particularly seen in two albums: Rainbow’s “Rising” and Judas Priest’s “Sad Wings of Destiny”. The style was a move away from the pentatonic scale hard rock sound of most bands to more technical riffing with an added penchant for creating classically-influenced compositions. Ritchie Blackmore was a known fan of classical music and Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton had classical piano training. In a way, the move was toward more epic songs with more complex musical structure. Lyrics returning to war themes were less about the futility of war and the doom it spelled for mankind and more about the struggles of the hero fighting against oppressive forces. Evil was not necessarily personified in Satan but in warlords and evil wizards who oppressed the people and heroes of the story. Fantasy themes were revived as well, as in Rainbow’s “Stargazer”. Judas Priest soon would begin giving us fantastic characters like the “Sinner” and the “Starbreaker”.
By 1977, there some a couple of major shifts occurring in the heavy music scene. Perhaps most importantly but least obvious in album releases was the beginnings of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. It would take the current hard rock scene, some inspiration from the progressive rock scene (certainly in the case of Iron Maiden), the likes of Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and Rainbow, and the rise of punk rock to inspire young British bands to create a new style of heavy metal for the 1980s.
But in 1977, most bands who were part of the NWoBHM scene were only just forming. Quartz released their debut album in 1977 and this album is sometimes regarded as the first release in the NWoBHM. The style is certainly portentous of things to come.
As for the old guard of seventies heavy metal, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin did not release albums in that year. Deep Purple had split up, and what the various members were offering on vinyl was a mixed bag of blues, funk, rock, jazz fusion, and hard rock. Rainbow released a live album, but no studio album. The Ian Gillan Band released their second album, “Clear Air Turbulence”, a jazz fusion album. John Lord and Ian Paice were with Tony Ashton in PAL, who rocked and grooved but were not really even hard rock, despite having Bernie Marsden on guitar. Roger Glover was immersed in guitar-less progressive music with his album “Elements”; Nicky Simper was in the hard rock band Nicky Simper’s Fandango; Rod Evans had left Captain Beyond and was about to commit career suicide with an attempt to create an all-new Deep Purple; Tommy Bolin was dead; Glenn Hughes was following his funk ambitions; and David Coverdale launched his solo career with a bluesy, funky, rock album called, “Whitesnake”.
Other bands from the early seventies scene included Nazareth, who released “Expect No Mercy”, a solid rock album with some heavier tracks and a very metal cover. Their 1978 album, “No Mean City”, however, was closer to a heavy metal album and possibly their second heaviest after “Hair of the Dog”. Uriah Heep released two albums in 1977, “Innocent Victim” and “Firefly”, both featuring some traditional Uriah Heep hard rockers and some more progressive tracks as well as some lighter tracks not worth considering in a hard rock and heavy metal dialogue.
From the mid-seventies hard rock scene, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, KISS, Moxy, Thin Lizzy, UFO, and several others released albums along with a slew of second wave bands on their first, second or third albums like The Runaways, Teaze, Triumph, Angel, Starz, Thor and so on. But for many of these bands, the 1977/78 period was one of identity searching. Angel had begun more like a heavy rock band with progressive proclivities and Rainbow-esque themes but by 1977/78 the band was stripping back to an AOR sound and by the fourth album were heading in a catchy, glam rock/hard rock direction. Canada’s Teaze also began their career in a solid hard rock base with their debut in 1977 but then switched to a more radio friendly approach. Starz also followed a similar trajectory. KISS was lightening up a bit with “Love Gun”, and Sweet would release their last really hard rock album in 1977 with “Off the Record” before softening their sound for the next year.
The mighty Blue Oyster Cult were always spread out over heavy rock and hard rock but with strong connections to rock and roll and the melodies of early 60s American pop radio. After achieving major success with their song “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in 1976, they delivered their fifth album in ’77. “Spectres” which includes the concert staple “Godzilla” but also piano-infused rock and roll and melodic numbers like “Searchin’ for Celine” and “Celestial Queen”. In the following year they would release their least heavy album of the seventies, “Mirrors”.
Thin Lizzy, Alice Cooper, and UFO all released albums in ’77 with some hard rocking tracks but also, in the case of Thin Lizzy and Alice Cooper, a range of styles. UFO’s “Lights Out” is a highly-regarded album among fans of seventies rock, but it was noticeably lighter than the previous two albums.
To summarize the state of hard rock in 1977, some bands were getting harder and heavier, some bands were diversifying their sound, and many other bands were delivering their last really hard rocker before attempting an AOR or arena rock approach. More melodies, more keyboards, more catchy hooks. This is perhaps what most inspired the October, 1979 article in Creem magazine about the death of heavy metal.
However, aside from hopefuls Judas Priest and Rainbow and – save for the Quartz debut album – the as yet unknown New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene, there were still some bands who released albums worthy of distinction in 1977.
Riot – Rock City. Riot’s debut album took American style hard rock and put some extra juice into it. In a way, certain tracks can almost sound like a forerunner of the soon-to-be unleashed British scene. There’s an intensity particularly in the first half of the album that shows a band striving to add an extra punch and pound to its music. The album does lighten up with more emphasis on vocal melodies towards the end. But for 1977 it sounds like an album pointing the way ahead rather than jumping on the bandwagon.
Bow Wow – Signal Fire. Japan’s Bow Wow released their second and third albums in 1977. Though they were later to fall victim to identity search like many other bands, their album “Signal Fire” rocks with a more consistent intensity than Riot’s “Rock City”. Had this album come out of the U.K. in 1980, it would have fit right in with the likes of Tank, Raven, Saxon, and Tygers of Pan Tang.
Motorhead – self-titled. It took over a year for Motorhead to finally get their debut album released, and though it lacks the more developed sound of the next three albums, the debut still offers up that familiar raw, lo-fi biker rock sound that made Lemmy and Co. unique. Though Motorhead’s style is rooted in a more primitive rock and roll approach, Lemmy’s ragged vocals and the speed and grit of Motorhead’s music easily associated the band with heavy metal.
Rush – A Farewell to Kings. Originally a hard rock band, Rush’s shift towards progressive rock opened up a wonderful opportunity to develop a new style of music. Sometimes regarded as the godfather’s of progressive metal, Rush took prog’s complexity and technicality and applied it to their power trio format, augmenting their sound with keyboards. “A Farewell to Kings” is not as heavy as some other albums of ’77, but tracks like “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1” show how heavy rock can be intelligent and complex while still hammering home the power chords and energetic displays of metal intensity.
Scorpions – Taken By Force. The original Scorpions and their debut album in 1972 were very much a part of the so-called Kraut Rock scene. But the band folded after the departure of Michael Schenker, and so brother Rudolf Schenker along with vocalist Klaus Meine went to see guitar wiz Uli Jon Roth and ask to join his band. Roth agreed if they could use the more known Scorpions name. Over the next three albums, Scorpions would gradually shed their Kraut Rock sound and develop a hard and heavy rock style that was different from those of the U.K. and North America. “Taken By Force” is probably the best sounding album of the early Scorpions releases, but more importantly it features two fantastic heavy metal tracks in the dark and technical “Sails of Charon” and the speedy, proto-thrasher “He’s a Woman, She’s a Man”.
Based on my impression from dozens of albums released in 1977 and as well the views expressed by Martin Popoff in the Banger TV video on the best heavy albums of 1977 and Scot Waters’ video of hard and heavy rock of 1977, I feel 1977 was a year of transition for the mid-seventies hard rock scene and the nascent underground New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene. While some bands looked for a more melodic and catchy music style to attract greater appeal, other bands were intensifying their sound or writing songs of more lyrical intelligence and musical complexity and technicality. This was not only the beginning of metal as we knew it from the 80’s but also where the divergence of hard rock and heavy metal began to set in with Judas Priest at the vanguard of the new style.