Thinking about it now, looking back through the decades to the early years of heavy metal is like looking at a great mountain range from a distance. We can see and identify the highest and most famous peaks with ease: Mt. Led Zeppelin, Mt. Black Sabbath, and Mt. Deep Purple. And some of the lesser prominent peaks also stand out from this distance: Mt. Uriah Heep, Mt. Grand Funk Railroad, and Mt. Nazareth. We can also see beyond and further back in history Mounts Iron Butterfly, Cream, Blue Cheer, Jimi Hendrix Experience and others. But like any mountain range, there are many lesser peaks, satellite peaks, sub-peaks, and mountains of lower status and height which are not readily visible from a distance.
When I first embraced heavy metal back in my late primary school days (around 1982), I soon became intrigued by the roots of this genre and from the magazines that were available at the time – Creem, Circus, and in Canada, Metallion – I learned about the big name bands that helped create this style of music that combined musical virtuosity (at times) with energy, power, and sonic aggression. The Big 3 were of course Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple, and for a great many people, the genre was born with Black Sabbath’s early 1970 release of their eponymous debut. Black Sabbath invented heavy metal. To anyone who gave it a bit of thought, however, there were several progenitors who all contributed prior to the mighty riffs of the Black Sabbath title track.
Drummer Bill Bruford notes in his autobiography that no new form of music can suddenly appear on the scene. People need something to which they can reference new developments. (There’s that wonderful scene in Back to the Future where Marty McFly thrills the crowd with a Chuck Berry guitar solo and then leaves them stupefied with an Eddie Van Halen solo.) As Bruford points out, punk rock didn’t abruptly emerge in 1976. It was built on the garage rock music of the 1960’s which in turn was a back-to-grassroots effort to recapture the simple power of the original rock and rollers of the 1950’s. Heavy metal experienced the same slow growth, perhaps beginning with some of the guitar rock of the late fifties and finally coming to conception with The Kinks You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night in 1964. The next several years saw this new aggressive, guitar-driven style gestate and develop with the likes of The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Jeff Beck’s fuzz tone guitar antics with The Yardbirds, the heavy blues of Cream, the guitar wizardry of Jimi Hendrix, the psychedelic rock of Iron Butterfly, the thunder of Blue Cheer, and so on. By January, 1969, when Led Zeppelin released their debut, a well-paved route to that landmark album had already been laid out and a plethora of bands of varying success existed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as on the continent.
If heavy metal was born with Black Sabbath’s debut in early 1970, then 1969 was the year the genre achieved consciousness. For this was the year that new bands started up with the desire to record entire albums of primarily fuzz tone guitar rock and not just include such styles as one of the flavours on their vinyl offerings. Though Led Zeppelin led the pack with Good Times Bad Times, Communication Breakdown, Dazed and Confused, and How Many More Times, and more tracks on their sophomore album, groups like Grand Funk Railroad, Andromeda, High Tide, and MC5 were hitting the record store shelves with various approaches to frenzied guitar rock, be it amped up blues boogie, garage aggression, or progressive heavy guitar rock. The world was being prepared for this new beast.
When both Black Sabbath and Deep Purple released their thundering guitar rock (plus organ in Purple’s case with In Rock) albums in 1970, dozens of bands in the U.S. and the U.K. were already in recording studios everywhere laying down their polished material which in many cases had already been in their repertoire for a couple of years. In the U.S. Euclid, Yesterday’s Children, Bloodrock, Sir Lord Baltimore, and others would put out their debuts. Many other bands would soon follow, like Sainte Anthony’s Fyre, Dust and May Blitz. In the U.K. bands like Budgie, Jerusalem, Iron Claw, T.2., Iron Maiden (an earlier band not related to the famous one), Leaf Hound, Necromandus, and others would set their songs to vinyl over the next couple of years. In fact, by the early 70’s there were bands all over the world who were experimenting with aggressive, fuzz tone guitar rock.
It’s interesting now to think that the proto-metal bands whose names still resonate as major contributors to the creation of the genre are mostly British. Yet the term “heavy metal” in reference to a music style seems to have come from America. Many will point out Steppenwolf’s lyric in Born to Be Wild, “Heavy metal thunder”, which is used in reference to a motorcycle engine. Indeed, Led Zeppelin make a similar reference in the lyrics to their 1975 song, Trampled Underfoot: “Check that heavy metal / Underneath your hood”. Others will cite the title of Iron Butterfly’s debut, Heavy. However, as many web sites report, the first use of heavy metal to refer to a style of music appeared in a review by Barry Gifford in the May 11, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone of a U.S. band named Electric Flag: “This is the new soul music, the synthesis of white blues and heavy metal rock.” (see Wikipedia article on heavy metal). Two years later, Mike Saunders, reviewing Humble Pie’s debut, As Safe as Yesterday Is, for Rolling Stone, wrote: “Here Humble Pie were a noisy, unmelodic, heavy metal-laden shit-rock band, with loud and noisy parts beyond a doubt.” Used in the pejorative here, it is no wonder that Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan would say in his documentary Highway Star that heavy metal is the most unflattering name for a genre of music. Heavy metal was also used to describe the music of the debuts of Grand Funk Railroad, Sir Lord Baltimore (who claim they were the first to have this label ascribed to them), and Dust.
The term heavy metal as a label for loud, aggressive, “heavy” music became quickly accepted in the U.S. and soon the label was being attached to British bands as well, with many American bands citing British acts as their inspiration. The term showed up a few years later in What’s Another Day of Rock and Roll on the debut album of Canada’s Triumph: “We’ve been five years working in a rock and roll band / blasting heavy metal right across the land.” However, after the initial rush to join the parade, many bands began turning towards more conventional rock styles and kept the guitar distortion to a radio-friendly level. Blue Cheer, Grand Funk Railroad, Stray, Nazareth, Deep Purple, and many others moved in varying degrees away from the aggressive, noisy approach of heavy metal. Other bands dissolved and some members left the music scene altogether or turned to other music styles.
By 1974, when Judas Priest released their debut, Rocka Rolla, many of the old guard had changed their sound or gone away. Here heavy metal entered a chrysalis stage where few bands dared turn up the volume and fuzz. Glam rock bands such as KISS and Sweet were among the new breed of hard rock outfits that drew crowds of fans. What is sometimes labeled heavy metal in the mid-seventies gets blown out the door by the re-intensification of metal in the mid-eighties. The punk rock movement also set a new challenge for heavy metal bands. Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny was the reinvention of heavy metal, according to music journalist, Martin Popoff. Interestingly enough, the new bands to emerge in the late seventies and usher in a new era with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal built their sound on varying combinations of classic heavy metal of the early seventies, progressive rock (most notably Rush and the guitar work of bands like King Crimson, Genesis, and Yes), and punk rock.