Who Were The Firebirds/The 31 Flavors? – A Music History Mystery

I love a good music mystery and I discovered another good one concerning a pair of albums made by a band of two names, The Firebirds and The 31 Flavors, in the late sixties.

The Firebirds album “Light My Fire” and the 31 Flavors album “Hair” were both published on the Crown Records label, apparently the former in 1968 and the latter in 1969. Both albums feature the use of heavy distortion and a Jimi Hendrix-inspired approach largely overlaid with Blue Cheer fondness for heaviness. As such, these two heavy psychedelic albums have earned themselves a place among the ranks of other proto-metal artists from the late 60’s.

But who were The Firebirds/The 31 Flavors? It seems the albums have caught the attention of many bloggers and music reviewers around the world and some posts include several comments by people who are familiar with the recordings. There are some conflicting facts: for example, one writer says that Crown was the British supermarket label answer to the American K-Tel and thus the band(s) must be British, while another site says they were probably from L.A.

Recently Gear Fab Records have released a double-disk re-issue of these two albums and I ordered a copy from Amazon. The CD comes in a mini-album paper sleeve with a single square sheet of paper printed on one side only with minimal background information. To understand the recordings well, it seems one has to know about Crown Records, and there is an excellent web site here: The Crown Records Story. As it explains, Crown Records emerged as a budget label of the New York-based Modern and RPM Records (suggesting the band was likely American). At first they re-issued previously published stock but later began releasing new recordings. In many cases, existing hit songs were re-recorded on Crown by bands that often included one former member of the band that created the hit song. Crown often bought the rights to songs for a flat fee to avoid paying royalties and session musicians were paid a daily wage. Crown became known as the “King of Junk” for all its shoddy rehashes of well-known songs and albums comprised largely of filler.

Based on what I have found, The Firebirds/The 31 Flavors (and later in 1969 known as The Electric Firebirds on their “Dance Party Time” album) were likely a young group that was paid to record covers of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and later songs from the “Hair” musical soundtrack, “Hair” and “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” for Crown Records. To fill the album, the group were permitted to record their own songs, and as many of the songs are instrumentals, I suspect that they were likely a trio of guitar/bass/drums with one member providing vocals on a few songs. Not on any of the web sites I checked nor on the square paper that came with the CD is any credit given to any band members, and considering Crown’s policy of buying up rights and paying musicians a working wage, it’s no surprise that no one was given any credit. Quite likely the albums were just meant to be sold to poorly discerning buyers who only recognized the titles of the well-known songs printed in large letters on the album cover.

As for the albums, the music suggests a young band that had some songs well-rehearsed and ready for studio recording but some others that sound as though they were possibly improvised and recorded after only one or two rehearsals, particularly on the first album. The running order of the songs on the album cover is not the same as on the CD and I found that on some sites that picture the original vinyl albums, the running order is different again. Here’s a quick run down of the music on the Gear Fab re-issue.

The+Firebirds+Light+My+FireThe Firebirds – Light My Fire

Light My Fire – The title track sounds like a guitar/bass/drum backing track for the famous Doors’ song. It’s in a slightly different groove but you can sing the lyrics to the music. Maybe try a deep and smooth lounge singer vocal style and see how that works.

Delusions – This introduces the mega-fuzz guitar but needs some help. I can’t help think that this one was not well-rehearsed prior to recording.

Reflections – Takes on a very serious heavy psych/fuzz guitar journey, complete with Mitch Mitchel style drumming and a rudimentary attempt to blend Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” with Blue Cheer’s more doomy sound.

Bye Bye Baby – A blues effort of b-grade.

Gypsy Fire – Send in the Hendrix mimics. The vocal style here is a deliberate attempt to sound like the legendary JH.

Free Bass – A short instrumental that features a not-so-interesting bass solo. This track is actually part of an instrumental piece that also featured a drum solo and a guitar solo but those two would not appear until the “Hair” album. I listened to the three instrumentals back to back and clearly they are from the same session.

No Tomorrows – Ultra fuzz here as the band reach the apex of their proto-metal sensibilities. The sound is rather crappy and it reminds me of my best friend and I at the age of 16 and before we took any guitar lessons jamming in his bedroom. There are audible pops in the sound that suggest this CD release was taken straight from the vinyl. In spite of the sound quality and garage band sound, the song does attempt to push the boundaries of heavy rock. The guitar solo and accompanying drums, however, sound unfocused and could have used more work.

Warm Up – The opening track on the original album, this song has left me with little impression. It seems I already removed it from my iPhone!

thirtyoneThe 31 Flavors – Hair

Hair – Appalling.  Who is singing? Someone was drunk and taking the piss on Bob Dylan. “Not lack for bread”? Good only as a painful joke.

Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine In – A young woman who didn’t place in a high school singing contest gets the lead vocals here. Sometimes going flat, this is one of the most abysmally performed vocal performances I have ever heard on record.

Protest – Has potential. Less distortion (none on the Hair songs). With a little more work this could have turned into something. As it is, it’s not too shabby.

Free Fuzz – The guitar solo part of the the “Free” series. At times the guitarist seems to be on to something but I think the “Free” series was just an improv jam session. At least the distortion is back.

One-Two-Three-Four – Another song that seems to have great potential. Perhaps after a year or so of playing together, the band actually managed to work out their material more for their second recording session with Crown. Another no-distortion number that resembles a less intense song by the very intense Sonics.

Real Far Out – The distortion is back but used with a little more attention to detail here. This is an instrumental that show cases the guitar playing in a bluesy kind of style.

Free Drums – The drum solo in the “Free” series.

Distortions of Darkness – Ah, here we have the song, or instrumental, that most proto-mental fanatics (including me) came for. The guitar here attempts to make Blue Cheer look like a flower meadow. Actually, it reminds me of a very early version of the music of Pelican on “What We All Come to Need”.

All in all, a few tracks here make this double-album CD release worth checking out. Whatever happened to the band? With this re-issue of their work will someone stand up and claim it as theirs? Did anyone later become famous elsewhere? Or did everyone take up non-musical careers and are now enjoying their retirement oblivious to the fact that their music has now garnered interest?

Here are links to other sites that discuss these two albums. Read the reviews for some wonderful descriptions of the music.

savagesaints

redtelephone66

heavypsychmanblog

psychedelicbaby

pointblankplay

ohwowee

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Citizens of Hope and Glory – A Review

cover-various-citizensofhopeandgloryCitizens of Hope and Glory: the Story of Progressive Rock by Stephen Lambe

Stephen Lambe is a co-promoter of the Summer’s End Progressive Rock Festival, a promoter of the band Magenta, the Secretary of the Classic Rock Society, and a writer for Rock Society magazine. His book “Citizens of Hope and Glory” was originally published in 2011 and the second edition only recently released with a few updates. The title makes the book sound like a historical account of the progressive rock, and that the book covers the history of the genre from its inception in the late sixties all the way up to its present revival and even mentions albums from 2013 made it seem like it might be one of the best books out there on the subject of prog. But it was not exactly what I had hoped for.

As author Stephen Lambe explains in the beginning, the story is told largely by mentioning important bands and their albums with “gateway” albums being given a brief review. The actual development of the musical genre comes together by explaining which band was doing what to contribute to it. In this way, if one wanted to, you could buy or listen to all 64 “gateway”albums reviewed in the book as companion pieces to the book and you would have a very clear picture of Lambe’s journey and experiences with progressive rock.

The story unfolds well enough but for me it was a little too casual and light and never dug deep enough. Additionally, the perspective is British and mostly looks at symphonic prog bands. Regarding the former, a great many of the bands and artists mentioned are British and the state of the genre is largely seen as growing or failing based on what was happening with the music scene in Britain. There is plenty of room made to mention American, Italian, Scandinavian, European and Eastern European bands as well, but I felt there were some notable gaps such as Rush not getting mentioned until 1981’s “Moving Pictures” and Saga not being mentioned at all (my Canadian perspective). Uriah Heep are also often listed as one of the big heavy rock prog bands of the 70’s but their name appears only once, if I recall correctly.

As for looking at symphonic prog mostly, it is fair enough, but, as Lambe admits, that means other genres are given only a paragraph or two and many significant bands are hardly mentioned if at all. The rise of progressive metal is treated very briefly.

For the reasons stated above, I would say this book is more like reading about a friend’s love and passion for the music and learning about how he has experienced it rather than a comprehensive historical account. And Lambe does not deny his personal approach. He out rightly admits that this is his book about progressive rock, his journey.

What I really enjoyed while reading the book was the feature of many albums that Lambe felt were worth mentioning. Of the 64 albums given a review, I had 20 in my collection already and another 20 I had already placed on standby in my Amazon account. This meant that Lambe and I shared roughly two thirds the same musical taste so it was easy to understand where he was coming from. Many of his opinions and experiences with the music paralleled mine, most notably his original regard of Peter Hammil’s vocals and how he came to accept them and even appreciate them. Hammil’s vocals kept me away from Van der Graaf Generator’s albums initially, too. Now I understand them much better. As for the albums I didn’t know, it has been fun checking some of them out in an effort to find new music that I might enjoy adding to my collection.

Of course as a book chronicling the story of prog, there are plenty of short background stories and anecdotes about artists and albums, and there is a decent reference list at the end, plus a lot of photos of artists and bands then and now, including a colour photo section.

The book also includes chapters on topics such as the evolution of equipment and recording technology, concerts and festivals, the DVD concert, vocals and lyrics, and so on. At first I found the placement of these chapters puzzling and intrusive. While reading about prog in the late seventies a new chapter begins on progressive rock live that takes us from the 70’s to the modern stage show. Then we go back to the history of the music in the following chapter. Later on I understood what was going on as more such chapters appeared.

Overall it has been a fun book but a very easy one to read. I learned some new things and I have picked up on some new albums and bands to check out, plus I have given a second chance to albums that I previously wasn’t interested in, sometimes finding that my hunch was right and other times finding that I might just like them after all. As for really learning about an in-depth behind the scenes of progressive rock I feel there must be a better book out there. Two out of five stars for not living up to my expectations but four out of five for being an enjoyable book nonetheless.

Singles Bungles

You can hardly blame them. Record companies make their money by bands selling music, usually albums and singles and with singles traditionally being the primary source of revenue. Albums are fine. Fans buy albums. But singles are what get played on the radio, get the band or artist spots on TV, get the music to the music buying public. So of course, record companies want singles. But the cry for singles has often backfired on everyone and at times the deliberate avoidance of writing songs for singles has led to success.

pallas-sentinelPallas- The Sentinel

In the 1980’s, neo-progressive Scottish rockers, Pallas, wrote a series of songs that were performed in sequence at live shows. The songs told the story of the fall of Atlantis but also served as an allegory for the Cold War. When EMI gave the lads a record deal, they agreed to include some of the songs but not the entire suite (if I may call it that). Instead, the record company heads wanted the band to give them singles, the genius behind the thought being that the subsequent album would have singles for radio stations and the single buying public and the fans would get some of their favourite songs on an album at last.

But the plan totally missed the mark. While the inclusion of songs for radio play was not a bad idea in itself, the decision to leave off some of the songs that made up the Atlantis story meant the story was published incomplete. Additionally, the order of the songs was changed so that the story was now told in pieces jumping back and forth. Fans were disappointed at not getting the full Atlantis story and the band disappointed about having their story meddled with. The singles didn’t cause a great stir either. Since the album could have sold to fans first it would have made sense to give the fans what they wanted. Instead the album didn’t sell as well as hoped and all parties involved were disappointed. Note: the album was re-released on CD in 1992 with the three individual songs and the full Atlantis suite in proper sequence.

220px-YlittlegamesThe Yardbirds – Little Games

For the most of their brief career, the Yardbirds had been writing and playing the style of music they enjoyed and doing fairly well that way. Since their formation in late 1963 they had become successful initially as a blues act with Eric Clapton on guitar and then gradually pursued more experimental music with Jeff Beck and his fuzz boxes. When Jeff Beck left, Jimmy Page, who had joined first to take over bass guitar and then switched to electric guitar, remained as the band’s guitarist. In 1967, just as the psychedelic years were really taking off, the Yardbirds prepared to release their next album. Their concert performances were made largely of old Yardbirds hits that were taking on an even more experimental nature than during the Jeff Beck period. Jimmy’s violin bow had been introduced and the fuzz box was getting featured regularly. The times were ripe for extended instrumental sections and solos and this is how the Yardbirds came across live.

However, the record company called in singles producer Mickey Most to make sure the band had a good stack of radio-friendly songs. The resulting album “Little Games” was released in the summer and was a confusing melange of music. Songs like the title track, “Drinking Muddy Water,” “No Excess Baggage,” and “Think About It” stuck with the group’s guitar-driven sound but most of the other songs came from many different directions. Previously the band had written songs together but this time it was more like a Monkees album with everyone writing on his own or with someone else. The album sounds like half a Yardbirds album and the rest a mix of solo efforts (“White Summer” by Jimmy Page, “The Black Rose” by Keith Relf) and obvious single flops of music uncharacteristic of the band but written for and played by them. The end result: the Yardbirds rapidly began the slide to their demise which occurred a year later.

Rush_2112Rush – 2112

Perhaps one of the most well-known and best examples of a “singles be dammed” story is that of Rush’s “2112” released in 1976. Ever since the inclusion of drummer Neil Peart, the band had begun moving away from the Canadian Led Zeppelin image that had got the attention of Mercury Records and radio-listeners and started writing in a more progressive vein. Their second album featured an 8-minute track telling the story of a battle between two fantasy characters, which raised a few eyebrows unfavourably at Mercury. But their next album “Caress of Steal” made everyone sit up and take notice, perhaps even stand up and take notice with great alarm. Half of side one was taken up by a three-part fantasy story and side two was comprised entirely of yet another story-telling suite in six parts. Mercury Records was not impressed. The album did not receive support or promotion but instead manager Ray Daniels was called in and leant heavily upon. “More singles” was the snarling cry as the tour was taking the band to smaller and smaller venues that didn’t sell out.

This could have had two responses: the band could have acquiesced and written an album of rock singles or they could have spilt up. But the three ambitious musicians decided to give it one more go their way and put out an album with side one being filled entirely by a concept piece not coincidentally about a young man with a guitar who is told by the high priests of music control that his own music is irrelevant. Mercury Records threw its hands in the air in exasperation. Rush went on tour and by golly they drew a crowd. Word spread without record company support and the album became a success. Not only that but it became a classic and has since made it on many lists of best and important albums. It was also the album that brought Rush world-wide fame.

So there you have two examples of where the record company decision to record singles for an album led to a disappointing result and one case where the deliberate ignoring of the cry for singles led to success.

The Quest for the First Heavy Metal Song – Part Three

In parts one and two we looked at Bitter Creek’s song Plastic Thunder and its place in proto metal history, mentioning contemporaneous music and albums that could also be considered proto-metal. In part three, I would like to look at bands and their songs that were recorded between 1964 and 1966 that also portent the coming of the metal age.

Cream
For a really heavy guitar sound Cream’s debut in 1966 “Fresh Cream” was probably the heaviest to reach the market, at least the mainstream market. Already many bands were experimenting with guitar sounds – using fuzz boxes, coming up with fuzz toned guitar riffs, and honing soloing skills. Eric Clapton had made his mark in the world with the Yardbirds and continued with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. Still claiming to be a blues man and wanting nothing to do with pop, Clapton teamed up with Jack Bruce (bass/vocals) and Ginger Baker (drums) and they released an album of mostly blues covers, which was common enough, but with a new sound that was simply heavier. The two tracks that stand out as far as proto-metal goes are “Spoonful” and “Toad”. The Willie Dixon song “Spoonful” is given a whole new sound with a guitar that gets more powerful as the song develops, most notably after the guitar solo. “Toad” is actually Ginger Baker’s drum solo but it opens and closes with the band playing some pretty heavy guitar rock.

The Guess Who
Most recognized for their hit in early 1970, “American Woman”, Canadian band The Guess Who has never been associated with heavy metal. However, during their early years they too were attracted to the rock guitar sound developing in the U.K. Guitarist Randy Bachman had a “pipeline” to records in the U.K. and this steered their sound away from the pop rock of their earlier recordings when the were known as Chad Allan and the Expressions. In fact, it was their very Yardbirds-sounding cover of Billy Kidd and the Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over” that got them their first hit and the name change to Guess Who? in 1965. An energetic piece with a fuzz-toned reverb guitar, forceful vocals (the singer had a cold and was lying on the floor of the studio, nearly shouting at the mic) and a guitar solo that went beyond standard pop and blues, “Shakin’ All Over” was just one of the songs recorded over 1965 and ’66 that would feature a harder rocking guitar sound. Two other tracks notable for their hardness and the use of distortion are “Seven Long Years” with a very aggressive middle part and really harsh and heavy chords, and “It’s My Pride” where the bass guitar was plugged into the fuzz box and played as the lead rhythm guitar.

The Rolling Stones
Another rock band that is not usually listed in proto-metal history, their hit song of 1965 “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” features a couple of key ingredients for heavy metal: the guitar riff (with distortion) and lyrics related to sex. The Stones have often been called the original bad boy rock band and in the early days when the Beatles still had a clean image, the Rolling Stones were honing their image in the opposite direction. Some of their earlier work, though not as close to proto-metal as other bands’ music, inspired hard rock bands of the seventies and their rock and roll image influenced the image of countless bands in the hard rock and hair band genres.

The Sonics
Often cited as a proto-punk band, Seattle’s garage rockers The Sonics spent the early part of their career recording mostly high energy and aggressive cover songs of rock and roll and rock-a-billy hits. Their cover of “You Keep A-Knocking” sounds determined to be the fastest and most aggressive version ever. The vocals were rough and usually shouted, the guitar played hard and the amplifier tampered with to create a distortion sound, and subtlety a word left outside the studio. In 1964 they penned their own tune entitled “The Witch”, a simple but heavy rocker built on their trademark sound of guitar, saxophone, bass, and drums with very punk-like vocals. By their second LP in 1966 they had added two more wonderful heavy rockers, “He’s Waiting” and a cover of “Louie Louie”. The former was about an unfaithful girl whose very soul is in danger for her deceit because “Satan knows what you did.” The guitar is gritty, there’s a simple but heavy riff, and a guitar solo that sound like the grinding of steel. The “Louie Louie” cover seems almost a deliberate attempt to take The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” and make it look like pussy rock. The Sonics take on the garage rock classic is so hard and heavy that it is easy to see how this could have influenced both heavy metal and punk rock.

The Who
Another band whose influence was felt across both metal and punk, The Who produced their fair share of rockers between 1964 and 1966, “My Generation” being the most recognized of these. Late in 1964, Pete Townsend tried to create a song in the vein of the Kinks “All Day and All of the Night”. “I Can’t Explain” was built on a simple bar chord riff and while not as gritty as the Kinks’ guitar sound, still provided inspiration for many future hard rock and heavy metal guitarists. The single was backed with “Bald Headed Woman” which was a blues-based rock tune and featured a heavy distorted guitar note at the beginning. Apparently that guitar playing can be attributed to Jimmy Page who was a session musician at the time and “the only one in the country who owned a fuzz box” according to the liner notes of the “Odds and Sods” album by The Who.

The Yardbirds
Track for track, their was likely no other band who recorded more songs that experimented with pushing the electric guitar further into its future place in heavy metal. With Eric Clapton’s blues solos setting the pace originally, it was the addition of Jeff Beck to the band when things started to turn gritty and wild. In 1965 the band recorded two tracks of particular interest to proto-metal, “Train Kept A-Rollin’”, which was a cover of the rock-a-billy version by Johnny Burnette, and “I Ain’t Done Wrong”. This second song features bar chords and a simple rock riff and is in 12-bar blues format. However, the music suddenly breaks into what can best be described as 12-bar blues thrash as the chords are played with speed and aggression and the drums keep up with explosive bursts to match the guitars. There’s a guitar solo followed by more heavy chords. The song closes with very hard-played guitar. “Train Kept A-Rollin’” became not only part of Led Zeppelin’s early set list but was covered by Aerosmith and Motorhead in the seventies. It was re-written and recorded as “Stroll On” for the movie “Blow Up” in 1966 and features the addition of Jimmy Page. This version is heavier than the original “Train Kept A-Rollin””.

Ritchie Blackmore
The future guitarist of Deep Purple and Rainbow spent his formative years playing in bands like The Outlaws and Screaming Lord Sutch as well as doing hundreds upon hundreds of session jobs. A versatile guitarist who could play country, folk, and rock, his real love was for playing more hard edged rock and as early as 1964 he was wowing audiences, albeit largely underground audiences, with his guitar technique. Listen to his very innovative solo on this 1964 track by The Outlaws, “Shake with Me”. This was to be their last recording after having been an electric western music band. They went into the studio and said, “Let’s record what we want to play.” The single also featured their cover of “You Keep A-Knocking” and more of Blackmore’s personalized take on rock guitar solos.

The Kinks
Sometimes cited as the inventors of heavy metal, The Kinks’ two biggest contributions to the genre came early in their career with “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night”. Though barely resembling in any form and sound what has become heavy metal music as we know it today or even as it was in the 1980’s when I was a youth in denim jackets, The Kinks gave us distorted bar chords comprising a hard rock riff, energetic rock, and wild guitar solos. Both songs have become rock classics and can just as easily crop up spontaneously at a punk concert as at a metal show. “You Really Got Me” was revived in 1978 when Van Halen covered it on their debut album.

Before every story there are events which led up to it. And before heavy metal’s early days in the seventies, and even before the proto-metal efforts of the late sixties, came the above groups and their songs which paved the way for the music to come. But even these artists of this period written about here found inspiration in earlier music. That, however, I will leave for others to write about.

The Quest for the First Heavy Metal Song – Part Two

Bitter Creek’s “Plastic Thunder” is posted on YouTube with the claim that it is the first ever heavy metal song and that it is from 1967. In part one I took a look at this claim and tried to discover the real date of publication, which seems likely to be fall of 1968, as well as I considered what other proto-metal songs and albums were being released in 1968. In part two we’ll take a look at seven albums with proto-metal tendencies that could make the claim for the Bitter Creek song invalid even if it is from 1967. We’ll go in reverse from the release dates.

The Who Sell Out by The Who – recorded May to November, released in December
Surely one of proto-metal’s favourites, The Who easily make the list with their early use of guitar distortion, their highly energetic playing, and their influence on both the heavy metal and punk rock genres. The Who Sell Out includes “Armenia City in the Sky” which positively stomps in the rhythm section while Pete Townsend’s guitar plays in fuzz box frenzy both forwards and backwards. The album is most famous, though, for “I Can See for Miles” which, according to one story, Pete Townsend said was the grittiest, heaviest song they’d recorded or, according to another story, was reported by one music critic as being the heaviest song he’d ever heard. In both versions, the claim is supposed to have inspired Paul McCartney to write “Helter Skelter” in an effort to one-up the Who in heaviness.

After Bathing at Baxter’s by Jefferson Airplane – recorded June to October, released in November
Least likely of the seven to be considered a proto-metal album, Jefferson Airplane’s third album took a sharp turn away stylistically from their previous album, released earlier in the same year. While Surrealistic Pillow showcased the bands inventive combination of folk and commercial psychedelia, After Bathing… saw them embrace more wholly the experimental guitar trend of the time. Guitar distortion was used liberally and although most of the tracks are still too light weight to be considered “heavy metal”, there are parts when the band do turn up the energy and let go with some fuzzy guitar solos backed by some chunky bass and allow themselves to venture into some heavy power chord territory.

Disraeli Gears by Cream – recorded in May, released in November
Cream had already established themselves in the world of heavy guitar and distortion on their 1966 debut. Their sophomore album was lighter in regards to sound but perhaps more metal as they attempted to write shorter songs that were steeped in guitar distortion and mostly not covers of American blues classics as much of their first album had been. “Sunshine of Your Love” was the hit single that presaged heavy metal music with it’s power chord chorus, but other songs like “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and “SWABLR” with it’s ripping hard rock guitar intro easily fall into the proto-metal pack. Not forgetting to mention, Eric Clapton was already a guitar god whose solos graced every song and Ginger Baker was perhaps the first drummer to introduce the double bass drum set up.

Vanilla Fudge by Vanilla Fudge – released in August
In 1967, this band’s calling card was their re-arrangement of R&B and pop hits which filled the well-know songs with a flood of organ, waves of gospel-like chorus vocals, and a guitar and drum section that gave the songs sonic weight. Though not as heavy as their third to fifth albums would prove to be, this early attempt at combining heavy guitar with original arrangements of cover songs makes Vanilla Fudge’s debut both a proto-metal and a proto-prog album.

Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd – recorded February to May, released in August
Though Pink Floyd is not a band to be confused as heavy metal, they have given the genre their fair share of influence. Their debut, now cited as one of the most defining albums of the psychedelic era, was a blend of experimental musical sounds, exotic instrumental passages, and quirky English children’s story book type lyrics. Two tracks that stand out in the proto-metal field here are the lengthy experimental instrumental “Interstellar Overdrive” and the less aggressive but eerie sci-fi number “Astonomy Domine” which was later covered by Canadian speed and progressive metal band, Voivod.

Little Games by the Yardbirds – recorded March to May, released in July
This could have been one phenomenal guitar album. Jimmy Page was now the (sole) lead guitarist after Jeff Beck quit the band and he was very keen on continuing the band’s role as one of the flagship British bands in guitar experimentation. Live, the Yardbirds were playing their heavy guitar classics and extending them by playing longer solos and adding Jimmy’s violin bow technique. But when it came time to record an album, the record company unwisely decided to call in producer Micky Most and try to get some pop-charting singles out of the band. The result was disappointing for everyone, and Jimmy Page’s opportunity to showcase on vinyl what he had been doing live was nearly nullified. Fortunately, a bit of fast fingering on electric guitar and distortion still get served in small helpings. The best though is on “Think About It” where the early workings of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” guitar solo can bee heard.

Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience – record December 1966 to April 1967, released in May
Though his music was a combination of traditional blues and R&B, it was unlike anything anyone had ever heard of before. There is hardly any need to expound upon Jimi Hendrix’s influence on rock music in general, never mind guitar music, hard rock, and heavy metal. But as an example, the following remarks and accolades are mentioned on the Wikipedia page about the album: “American musicologist Gilbert Chase asserted that the album ‘marked a high peak in hard rock’.” “The Miami Herald credits it for introducing… the guitar style of heavy metal.” “Kerrang! Magazine listed the album at #41 among the ‘100 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums of All Time’.” “Creem magazine named the album number six on the Top Ten Metal Albums of the 20th century.” And remember that “Purple Haze” – a proto-metal classic – goes back to late 1966.

I think we can see that the claim that Bitter Creek’s “Plastic Thunder” is the first heavy metal song has some very heavy competition. I would rather simply place the song among the pantheon of landmark proto-metal songs that were coming out of those consequential years of 1967 and 1968. But to every story there is a prequel and in the third and final installment of the quest to find the first heavy metal song, I will look back even further to a selection of ten songs recorded between 1964 and 1966.

The Quest for the First Heavy Metal Song – Part One

Long ago, when I was in elementary school and had fallen in love with heavy metal music, I read in a magazine that heavy metal was born in 1964. I wondered where I could find music from that time, having no one around me who could corroborate the story and point me in the right direction. I somehow ended up buying Deep Purple’s eponymous third album and believed erroneously that it was from 1964 (though actually it was 1969).

I always kept an ear to the ground from then on and in my high school days I amassed a collection of cassettes and used LPs of bands like Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, Ten Years After, Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Yardbirds, The Who, The Kinks, Humble Pie, Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin, and so on.

A couple of weeks ago my interest in the roots of metal was revived, and I was checking out video postings on YouTube of heavy psychedelic rock/acid rock/proto-metal and stumbled across a psychedelic-styled animated video to a song called “Plastic Thunder” by a group named Bitter Creek. The video title claimed the song was from 1967 and was the first heavy metal song. I was curious. I honestly could not say what the first heavy metal song was as it depends on how one defines “the first heavy metal song” and “heavy metal”. (Wikipedia’s entries for “hard rock” and “heavy metal” attempt to explain the difference but as Wiki says, in the early days the distinction between the two was not clear cut and many songs fell into both categories). But I listened to the song and was quite impressed.

The song opens with a very distorted guitar sound that immediately reminded me of the sounds on albums by Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer, or even Jefferson Airplane. Soon though, we understand that this song is in the vein of Blue Cheer because it sounds really heavy. The vocals are gruff and the rhythm section also suitably aggressive with timely cymbal crashes and some fast drumming in place of a steady single beat. The song’s main riff follows the typical rock 1,4,5 pattern, easily recognizable in songs like “Louie, Louie” and “Wild Thing”. A powerful riff makes the second verse climb in tension towards the chorus. The song features two guitar solos – one in the usual place after the second chorus and another before the song’s finale. Though the music follows a rather standard rock format regarding composition, the song’s heavy sound, distorted guitar, and serious (heavy) lyrics do make it a candidate for early heavy metal in my books.

“Someone’s screaming in the darkness / Tears are streaming from the heartless / Plastic world that keeps me dreaming / I hear distant rumbling sounds of thunder.”

“Fiery skies and rain and thunder / Break the walls that keep me under / Spells of fear and spells of sorrow / Fiery skies and rain and sounds of thunder.”

Certainly these lyrics and the heavy sound rank above just about anything I can think that ever heard of from 1967. But is this truly a song from that year? As mentioned above, the guitar sound is similar to that on some other contemporaneous albums. Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer, and Steppenwolf all recorded their debut albums in the fall of ’67 and they were all released in January of 1968. Blue Cheer was the heaviest of the lot, their rendition of “Summertime Blues” nearly approaching speed metal in tempo and with a thundering guitar that gallops along like a warhorse. The whole album maintains this auditory assault. Iron Butterfly recorded a wonderful proto-metal instrumental entitled “Iron Butterfly Theme” with some choice heavy guitar chords and guitar effects but the rest of the album was rather light-weight in comparison. Steppenwolf’s album included distortion and solos too and even used the words “heavy metal” though it was in reference to a motorcycle engine. But musically, neither band was as heavy as Blue Cheer. As for Jefferson Airplane, their albums employed fuzz boxes from the onset but their music was a blend of folk and psychedelia and rarely approached the proto-metal corner.

So the real clincher is whether or not “Plastic Thunder” is from 1967. Searching the Internet, I found that most sites (blogs and music forums) that cited the song as a 1967 recording were responding to the YouTube post. I did however find that LastFM wrote that the song was from 1968 while WikiAnswers says the song is from 1966. I don’t believe it’s from ’66 at all because the style of song writing and composition is just too advanced for the year.

I decided to see if I couldn’t track down the song on CD and I found it on a compilation called “Psychedelic States: Georgia in the 60s (Vol. I)”. The “Psychedelic States” series was published by Gear Fab Records and started with three volumes of music from Florida and then moved on to Georgia. Whether the series ever reached all 48 contingent states or all 50 states I do not know, but I read several reviews of people who had other states and claimed the music was great but the sound quality went downhill as the project continued.

I found a copy of “Georgia” in the Amazon Marketplace and for a very reasonable price and I ordered it. The liner notes are quite detailed for some bands but Bitter Creek’s notes only say that they were possibly from Atlanta and that their single “Plastic Thunder” was released on Mark IV in the fall of ’68, backed with “Behind the Smiles”. (It would be interesting to hear that b-side.) An additional observation is that of all the songs on the compilation (27 in total) quite a few make use of guitar distortion; however, the songs from ’67 and older tend to follow the garage rock format of music composition. Only one other track comes even close to matching Bitter Creek’s aggressive rocker and that’s the Spontaneous Generation’s “Up in My Mind” with reverb guitar distortion for a very psychedelic approach to suit the psychedelic title. It too is said to be from ’68. One has to wonder what other bombastic heavy rockers turned up on the other discs in the Psychedelic States series and in what year they were recorded.

So, the compilation CD says “Plastic Thunder” is from the fall of ’68 – after Blue Cheer’s “Vincebus Eruptum”. But could it have been a typo? I searched the Net for an image of the single on vinyl and tried to see if a date was printed on the disc but the image was too small to make out clearly. LastFM and Gear Fab say the song is from 1968 while the video on YouTube says it’s from 1967. It would be nice if the artists would come forth and shed some light on the issue. So many “lost” heavy psych and proto-metal gems – some of which had never even seen an vinyl pressing – have in the last decade made it to re-mastered CD as the Internet has helped to spread the word about these old treasures, and the original musicians are turning up with their stories. Bitter Creek, where are you guys?

In part two, I will take a look at other proto-metal songs of 1967 and then in part three I’ll look back over ’66, ’65, and ’64 and we’ll see what other songs might have been associated with the first rumblings of heavy metal.