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.

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.


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