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. But even by 1966, the elements that would combine in various degrees to create the music that would be called heavy metal were already in place.
Chapter Five: The Four Pillars of Foundation
Rock and roll music was the result of a natural evolutionary process of popular musical styles, and as rock and roll matured, so did it grow and evolve on its own. In the early 1960’s, new styles and new sounds had emerged, first from the United States and then, as rock and roll caught on across the Atlantic, the British began making their contributions. Though heavy metal was still several years away from being recognized in any way as a distinct subgenre of rock, the four most important musical elements present in rock were in place by 1966.
The Blues Just Got Heavier
The British loved the American blues, and one of the most prominent bands to take on the blues classics had lost their guitar player. Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds in 1965 and went on to play with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. In the meantime, Jeck Beck joined the Yardbirds and helped the band explore a more aggressive style of blues, blues with an edge and an attitude. By the time Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds in 1966, the band was moving in new directions that meant a lot of their songs were blues-based but bore little resemblance to what they had been recording in 1964.
Then Eric Clapton left John Mayall and teamed up with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce, and together they recorded a blues album that was to be a landmark in the foundation of heavy music. “Fresh Cream”, the debut album by the power trio, featured music that both closely adhered to the classic blues roots and introduced a heavier, more hair-raising rock band sound. In particular, the band’s cover of “Spoonfull” included some very heavy music in certain moments, and the guitar sound and chords for the band’s introduction to Ginger Baker’s drum solo “Toad” were among the most heavy music to date if not the heaviest. The sound was two to three years ahead of its time, and the album became legendary.
Transatlantic Call and Response
As the garage rock scene had gained popularity in the United States, it was natural that British youth would want to try their hands at it. Bands like The Kinks and The Who were already making hits in 1964 and 1965, and it was a style of music that became part of the Mod subculture. The Mods who started out as fashion-conscious young men who listened to jazz in the late 50’s; however by the mid-sixties rock and Mods had become interrelated. Britain produced a number of bands among which some of the most popular and influential were The Action, The Creation, and The Attack. Although their music in 1966 was still entrenched in pleasing pop melodies, the guitar-based music meant that fuzz boxes were a natural complement to the music, and guitarists who were keen to experiment with sounds and the developing harder style of playing could express their ideas through their respective bands’. In particular, The Attack would go on to produce some heavy rock before dissolving with new guitarist John Cann going on to form an even heavier band, Andromeda.
Back across the ocean in the U.S., the British take on rock was inspiring to many Americans, and soon a new breed of bands doing covers of British music as well as their own originals began releasing albums. Two of the biggest bands to emerge were The Amboy Dukes with a young Ted Nugent on lead guitar and The Litter whose 1967 song “Action Woman” would earn them popularity and a place in the classic garage rock period of the 1960’s. Another band most noteworthy was The Misunderstood from Riverside, California. Initially a blues band performing songs in a similar vein to the earliest of The Yardbirds recordings, things changed when they moved to London in 1966 and lived in the heart of swinging London’s burgeoning psychedelic culture. The music took a decided turn towards heavy psychedelic rock with a steel lap guitar being used very effectively for Eastern scales. The six songs they recorded at Fontana in 1966 almost edge into early heavy prog.
Freak beat music as it later became termed, gradually developed in a more energetic and aggressive style, with The Who being the pinnacle of loudness and aggressive performances. As such, garage rock and freak beat music became the progenitors of punk rock.
Progress in the Studio
Up until now, the studio had been a place to record the music that the various artists performed live. In 1965, however, a new American group going by the name of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were busy in the studio experimenting with how music and sounds could be manipulated and combined to create music that would be quite different from what a rock band might typically perform live. Across the Atlantic, The Beatles took inspiration from Zappa and applied this new concept of how the studio could be used for the recording of their album “Rubber Soul”. In a typical fashion of transatlantic trading, The Beatles inspired American Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys who took his surf music band into new territory with “Pet Sounds”. The album not only featured an array of sounds and unconventional instruments but also incorporated elements of jazz, exotica, classical and the avant-garde. It became hailed in Britain at the time as the most progressive pop album ever. Thus, the notion that rock music could grow beyond its roots had now become material. The Beatles responded with “Revolver”, and as such the earliest stirrings of the progressive rock movement had begun.
The use of the studio for creating music and the incorporation of different styles and sounds would play important rolls in the development of heavy metal as rock grew and expanded over the following years. In particular, the new progressive movement encouraged musicians to create an album of carefully crafted and related songs as opposed to putting out an album of three singles and filler tracks. This would be important as heavy guitar-based music led to heavy prog and heavy metal.
The Start of the Trip
The Beatles and Brian Wilson wrote and experimented with music while under the influence of psychedelic drugs. During the period of 1965 and 1966, there was a change in how musicians regarded their abilities and many of them sought to exploit their individual creative talents through the help of so-called mind-expanding drugs. In fact, as South African Ramsey MacKay of Freedom’s Children explained in an interview:
“Something subliminal happened to kids in the ’50s and ’60s that was precursor to the drugs,” he explains. “Drugs was not just about drugs. In the beginning Freedom’s Children took no drugs [and] what we saw on the drugs was what we were aware of anyway…that the world was (and still is) run by squares who relied on fear and authority to stifle any way of seeing the world differently.
“The ’60s drug scene is much more related to people who took drugs in the 19th century, starting with the Romantic Movement in poetry and thinking and moving on to the Symbolists in France – people such as Verlaine, Rimbaud and Bauderlaire,” he continues. “One cannot understand the ’60s without knowing that drugs only played a part in what was naturally coming out of our brains. Drugs made a metaphor of which the reality was already in that generation.”
Certainly musicians who used drugs began creating rock music that was different from anything that had come before. In addition to the effects of drugs, there was a general interest in consciousness expanding. Eastern music and sounds, such as those produced by the sitar, were considered to have a strong influence on opening up the consciousness. The Kinks and The Beatles were among the first to use sitars on their recordings. But the buzz of a guitar played through a fuzz box could also create similar sounds.
Thus with the beginning of psychedelic music and progressive music, the new notion that pop music could be something for really listening to and not just dancing to started to take hold. Musicians experimented with their instruments and bands added instruments not previously associated with rock and roll. By 1966, new bands such as Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company and a young American guitarist named Jimi Hendrix were preparing to shake down the popular music scene with their unique styles of playing.
Heavier blues, more aggressive garage bands, progressive pop music, and the advent of psychedelia in music – these became four crucial elements that would combine in various ways and create the new subgenre of heavy metal.