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.