The History of Heavy Metal – The First Generation: Chapter One

Most documentaries and accounts of the history of heavy metal music will mention the debut album by Black Sabbath as the first instance of the popular music sub-genre. Others will report initial stirrings of the style in the psychedelic years of the late sixties. Sam Dunn’s series “Metal Evolution” explores the history of the genre further back by making connections with classical music, jazz, and the blues. But as one metal musician somewhere once pointed out, without rock and roll there would never have been heavy metal.

Chapter One: Rock and Roll in the 1950’s

Experts disagree when rock and roll came into being. The earliest elements appeared in blues records of the 1920’s. The term was originally used to describe the motion of a ship at sea but later became an expression referring to spiritual fervour in black church rituals and also slang for sex. A song in 1934 by the Boswell Sisters was entitled “Rock and Roll” (about being on a ship and not very rock and roll at all) and in 1942 the term was used in Billboard magazine to describe upbeat music.

Though the elements that lead to rock and roll were already in place by the late forties, one key element seems to have turned up quite accidentally as a recording session was about to take place in 1951. Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (actually the band was Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm) were unloading their gear in front of Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios. Accounts vary but either the guitar amplifier fell from the roof of the car or was damaged by rain. Yet another account says it was damaged while in transport. In any case, the speaker cone had come loose and in order to fix it in place newspaper was stuffed around the cone. The result was a distorted guitar sound which Sam Phillips loved.

The song that came from this recording session was “Rocket 88“, a rawer version of a jump blues and swing combo. This is one of the first instances of a distorted guitar sound being recorded and the song went on to stir up influence in the popular music scene.

As rock and roll music became the latest trend in popular music, elements that would eventually become quintessential to rock music and later hard rock and heavy metal began to crop up. The distorted guitar sound appeared in rockabilly songs, perhaps most influentially Johnny Burnette’s cover of “Train Kept A’Rollin’” which would later be covered with more aggressive guitar by the Yardbirds in 1966, by Aerosmith and Motorhead in the 1970’s and later by Guns ‘n Roses.

Link Wray guided the role of the electric guitar further with his power chords and aggressive, distorted guitar instrumental “Rumble”, a piece that influenced The Who and The Kinks. The music’s tense and brooding atmosphere and the title which was a slang term for a street fight got it banned from some radio stations. Surely this was one of the first bad boys of rock even though power chords and distorted guitar sounds were already in use in the early 1950’s.

Another essential development in the guitar department was the guitar solo. Many 1950’s rock and rollers included guitar solos in their songs, and it is perhaps Chuck Berry whose infamous one-legged hop while soloing performance turned the guitarist into a showman and not just a musician.

Louder music, stripped down to the bare bones replaced the big bands of the previous generation. The Second World War had made large bands impractical and uneconomical. Jump blues with its guitar riffs, prominent beats, and shouted lyrics did much to pave the way for rock and roll. The guitar, however, was not always the lead instrument. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard took the piano to the forefront, and along with their gruffer shouted singing, rock and roll became a wild affair with teens shaking their heads to the beat. In one video of Jerry Lee Lewis from 1964, the audience seems to be doing an early form of headbanging.

Rock and roll and rockabilly remained popular for a few years. But by 1960 the scene seemed to have run its course. Elvis joined the army; Buddy Holly died in a plane crash; Little Richard retired to become a preacher; Jerry Lee Lewis was involved in a scandal surrounding his marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin; and Chuck Berry was arrested. As this was happening, female singers began dominating the charts with love ballads and girl groups drew in a larger female audience. Teen romance themes became popular with Frankie Avalon and his contemporaries. Musical styles were changing, and surf music and garage rock became the new guitar-based purveyors of the music genre that would soon become referred to simply as rock music.