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

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.

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

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. Black Sabbath could never have been if it had not been for this crucial musical development in their home country. For when the British discovered the blues, that really set things in motion.

Chapter Four: The British Invasion

Rock & Roll came to Britain in the 1950’s and immediately appealed to the British youth. By the late fifties, Britain had produced its own stars like Cliff Richard and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. Rock & Roll was a product of America and was exported to the U.K. via the American service men who brought records from back home with them. This included not only Rock & Roll but also jazz and blues. The exotic sounds of African American music, particularly its focus on rhythm, inspired many young Britons who were already interested in picking up instruments and learning to play Rock & Roll. While many young drummers turned to jazz, a good number of guitar players and singers preferred the blues. The Blues were led by a guitar riff and featured soulful vocals. The guitarist was given the spotlight for a lead performance. Bands dedicated to the blues began forming around the country.

The vanguard of the British Invasion (as the succession of chart-topping British pop bands came to be known in the U.S.) was fronted by the Mersey beat mop tops, the Beatles whose music was very pop oriented. However, close behind were The Rolling Stones whose career would stick closely to the blues and who began doing mostly covers of old American blues numbers. The Kinks became famous for their garage rock hit “You Really Got Me” but initially they also covered blues classics. Originally known as The High Numbers, The Who did R&B numbers and American pop hits covers but with intensity and they referred to their music “maximum R&B”. There was also The Yardbirds, with a young Eric Clapton on guitar, who really tried to stick with the image of a true blues band, even going as far as to record an album with blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II (a.k.a. “Rice” Miller). The five bands mentioned above were each very distinct in their musical styles from one another. During the years between 1964 and 1966, two of them would have the greatest influence on the development of heavy metal.

The Beatles were the lords of the pop charts. In all of their career, their contribution toward heavy metal would remain at a minimum in comparison with the other four bands. The Kinks inspired distorted guitar riff rock with their songs “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night”, and these songs are sometimes cited as the first instances of heavy metal music for their raw sound and blazing guitar solos. Indeed the songs have been covered many times by rock, punk, and metal bands, and Van Halen’s cover of “You Really Got Me” in 1978 put the song back in the spotlight. The Rolling Stones, as we saw in Chapter Three, kicked the fuzz box craze in motion with their buzzing classic riff for “(I Can’t Get no) Satisfaction” in 1965. But neither The Kinks nor The Rolling Stones would develop the heaviness of their music quite like The Who and The Yardbirds.

From the onset, The Who was not content to be another British pop band. They did R&B covers, and Pete Townshend scored the band’s first hit when his efforts write a garage rock riff number churned out “I Can’t Explain”. The B-side of the single included a cover of “Bald Headed Woman” with a rather heavy fuzz-toned guitar opening played by young session musician, Jimmy Page. Through 1965 and ’66, The Who would record many more originals as well as covers, and the band’s individual members would turn The Who into legends. Guitarist Pete Townshend would become famous for his leaps and scissor jumps on stage while swinging his arm like a pinwheel and slashing the guitar strings. Bassist John Entwistle became a leading force in bass playing and is featured playing a fuzz tone bass in his solo “The Ox” and known for his bass solo in The Who’s smash hit “My Generation”. His playing style influenced many future bass players. As the lead vocalist on most songs, Roger Daltrey put a face to the songs. He would later develop a rougher and more powerful style of singing. And then there was drummer Keith Moon, whose off-stage antics became almost as legendary as his drumming style. It was said that Townshend and Entwistle would play the music and Moon would just solo over everything.

As much as their music, The Who would contribute to the future style of heavy metal in two other ways. One was Pete Townshend’s quest for volume. As The Who moved out of small clubs and into bigger venues, the band required greater amplification for their instruments. Townshend worked together with Jim Marshall at Marshall amps to develop an amplifier that could deliver the output required. This led to the development of the Marshall amplifiers that gave The Who their wall-of-sound and earned them the title of loudest band in the world. The Marshall amp became synonymous with heavy metal music in the late seventies and eighties.

The other crucial contribution by The Who was their stage performance. The British Invasion emerged during a time of Mod culture in Britain, when young men pursued fashion in the way of Italian suits. Early recorded performances show British bands standing erect and proper, dressed in suits and playing their instruments cheerfully in the TV studio or on the stage. The Who would change that one night when Pete Townshend raised his guitar and accidentally rammed it through the low ceiling over the club stage. The audience found this amusing and this infuriated him more so he crashed the guitar onto the stage. The audience took notice now as did Keith Moon who promptly kicked his drum set over. Daultrey began stomping on his microphone. News of the band’s wild behaviour spread and this wanton destruction of their instruments on stage became a shock factor that people wanted to experience. Loud, wild, and rocking, The Who may just as well have been one of the first punk rock bands, too.

The smooth blues of the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton as their lead guitarist earned them a following among electric blues fans. However, the band was not getting on the charts as their contemporaries were, and a pop number “For Your Love” was recorded. This got them recognized on the charts, but Eric Clapton was not pleased as the band began considering doing more pop numbers. Unwilling to sell out, Clapton quit the band. After Jimmy Page declined to take over, he suggested his friend Jeff Beck. Beck was an ideal fit because he could play the blues, he could play more pop-oriented numbers and perhaps most importantly, he was eager to experiment with the sound and style of the guitar.

With Jeff Beck on board, The Yardbirds’ sound became grittier. Jeff used fuzz boxes for guitar solos as in “Heart Full of Soul” and “Mister You’re a Better Man Than I” but he also played more aggressive riffs such as on The Yardbirds’ cover of “Train Kept A Rollin’” and “I Ain’t Done Wrong”, the latter including an instrumental part that sounds like twelve-bar blues thrash metal. Another important instrumental number is “Somebody to Love Part 2” which features lots of experimental fuzz guitar playing and some unusual scales with a more eastern sound. In Jeff Beck, the Yardbirds also had their own Wildman. Beck’s hair was longer than most musicians at the time and he also had a habit of breaking the wooden casing of his fuzz boxes. He was prone to take out fits of frustration on his guitar. In the 1966 movie “Blow Up”, Both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page appear playing in The Yardbirds performing a heavier, re-written version of “Train Kept A Rollin’” called “Stroll On”, and when Beck’s amp starts acting up, he smashes his guitar and throws the neck out to the audience.

The British bands gave rock music a new look and sound: guitar-based rock bands that played the blues with more aggression and a grittier sound and with more volume than ever before, and who could gain notoriety through wilful destruction of their equipment. What had started as a fascination with African American blues had turned into a new style of playing rock music. The influence of their music would last well into the seventies. In the meantime, on both sides of the Atlantic musicians and studios were changing. No longer content with standard classic Rock & Roll, new ideas were being brought into pop music and the recording studio was going under a make-over. The Psychedelic age was about to begin.