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.