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.