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. As the 1960’s began, two new forms of American popular music helped contribute to the future of guitar-based rock.
Chapter Two: Surf Rock and Garage Rock
While teen romance and girl bands along with Motown began claiming the pop charts around 1960, two new styles of music were about to capture the attention of guitar rock fans. The first was that of surf music. Originating in California but later expanding across the States and even across the Atlantic, surf rock emerged thanks to the popularity of guitar instrumental music by bands like the Ventures. Though when it comes to surf music most people think of the Beach Boys and their memorable vocal harmonies, it was guitarist Dick Dale whom most historians believe created the genre.
Dick came from a multi-ethic background which included Lebanese, and his love for Middle Eastern music and Eastern scales found their way into his unique style of guitar playing. Dick Dale and the Del Tones played a number of instrumental pieces, many of which were built on the Eastern sound that was part of Dale’s musical psyche. “Misirlou” is probably his best recognized initially hugely popular on the surf music scene in the early 60’s and later enjoying a revival after it was used as the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Pulp Fiction”. Dick played fast and has been said to be the grandfather of heavy metal because he played an early style of shredding by double picking the strings (for “Misirlou” he apparently played it all on one string only). Dale also contributed to the heavy sound by playing with a thick-bodied Fender stratocaster and used thicker strings than standard for guitars. With lots of reverb he created a “wet” sound that was meant to capture the sound he heard when surfing.
In addition to speedy playing on thicker strings, Dale also spoke to Leo Fender about making the first 100 watt amplifier because Dale kept blowing up Fender’s amps. Furthermore, Dale was quite a showman with the guitar. All these contribute to his performances being regarded as a precursor to heavy metal. Play loud. Play fast.
Surf music wasn’t all blazing guitar instrumentals. Many bands recorded songs with lyrics. But surf songs were not going to lay any foundations for metal with cheery songs about sunshine and waves in good harmony. It took another new form of music to bring heavy metal a step closer to realization.
By the early 1960’s, many youngsters dreamed of starting a rock and roll band and in the suburbs, the best place to rehearse was in the garage. Electric guitar, bass guitar (which was a relatively new instrument and picked up by not only surf rock and garage rock bands but also by country western bands as well), drums, and vocals, along with the occasional organ or saxophone, young musician hopefuls took fifties hits and churned out their versions with amplified guitars.
The riff rock song became king as the garage rock movement began. “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen became one of the most recognizable songs of the day. It was not, however, the song itself but the influence it had across the Atlantic that would make history. The story goes that Ray Davis of The Kinks was trying to play “Louie Louie” and came up with the guitar riffs for both “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night”. Played with a new sound he’d created by slicing an small amp’s speaker cone with a razor blade, Davis created two of the first power chord riff-based, distorted guitar rock songs with wild guitar soloing. These songs in turn inspired The Who’s Pete Townshend to compose “I Can’t Explain” which was not as hard and heavy in the guitar sound but still and important riff rock song.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., The Sonics were finding their own way to damage their speakers and creating their own riff-based rock with plenty of vigor. Like most garage rock bands, The Sonics started out doing mostly covers; however, in 1964 they recorded “The Witch”, a heavy rocker of the time if there even was one. This was follow a year later by “He’s Waiting” which was not only an excellent proto-metal song with its angry distorted guitar chords but also because the song mentions “Satan”. When The Sonics released their second album in 1966, they had covered “Louie Louie” with a heavy rock version that was so gritty, raw, and powerful not only in the music but with vocals that pushed the red line in the recording studio. The guitar solo too is worthy of praise as it bends and swerves like a viper rather than blazes.
Vocal styles were becoming more daring too as American bands found that they didn’t necessarily have to sing like Elvis, and a good number of bands with strange vocal styles – anywhere from shouting to rough singing – began gaining popularity. Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Seeds, and many others found success with this new approach to rock. However, both surf rock and garage rock were about to be joined by another new take on rock and roll. For as another Paul Revere is alleged to have said, the British were coming. But before that, a very important piece of equipment that would be vital to the sound of heavy metal was invented by accident.