The History of Heavy Metal – Chapter Six: Break On Through

The years of 1967 and ’68 were arguably the most influential and important years in the evolutionary history of pop music. The world of pop music prior and the world of pop music after look very different from one another. As far as the development of heavy metal was concerned, the psychedelic peak years were the period when some classic proto-metal music was recorded.

In chapter five we considered four developing sub-genres of pop music – British invasion electric blues, American garage rock and its British counterpart known as freak beat, the nascent progressive rock scene, and the emerging psychedelic music scene which was very closely tied to the proto-progressive bands (chiefly The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention). The psychedelic explosion that occurred over the above-mentioned two years altered the other three sub-genres profoundly. Blues artists such as Cream and The Yardbirds entered the psychedelic years on strong legs and experimented with the immensely varied possibilities that psychedelic music created. Cream gave us two very different and remarkable albums with “Disraeli Gears” in ’67 and “Wheels of Fire” in ’68. Their blues sound became less emphasized but their music more diverse and imaginative, yet still they managed to keep the blues an integral part of their music and scored memorable hits with “Strange Brew”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, and “Crossroads”. Yet despite their success, or because of it, Cream disbanded in 1969.

The Yardbirds, under the guidance of Jimmy Page, were moving toward a harder blues rock sound; however their 1967 album “Little Games” was influenced too greatly by their producer Giorgio Gomelsky who pushed for more quirky British psychedelic songs. Though Page continued to steer the band toward heavy psychedelic rock, the band dissolved before the end of ’68 and Page hastily summoned new members, forming The New Yardbirds who soon changed their name to Led Zeppelin. Their debut album in January of 1969 is a landmark album in the history of heavy metal music.

The garage rock and freak beat scenes were divided from the beginning with some bands pursuing more pleasing pop numbers while others preferred a grittier sound with rough vocals and fuzz tone guitar. The Seeds and The Sonics both emerged early on with their distinctive sounds – The Seeds with a sneer and penchant for fuzz tone and The Sonics with their highly energetic and aggressive approach. Their styles, however, became significantly mellow during the peak psychedelic years. On the other hand, The Litter and The Amboy Dukes (led by Ted Nugent) went in a heavier direction with The Litter’s final album in ’69 being as much a proto-punk album as a proto-metal one, and The Amboy Dukes experimenting with heavy guitar-based progressive music by the end of the decade. Britain’s The Attack also turned heavier with the inclusion of guitarist John Cann, and though they would dissolve in ’68, Cann would create his heavy progressive act Andromeda during the final year of The Attack’s existence. Ultimately, though, garage rock would lose popularity and run its course as psychedelic music encouraged more experimental and often more complex music.

The progressive music scene was likely the one that benefited most from the psychedelic explosion exactly because it encouraged experimentation and complexity. Early landmarks were The Beatles “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” for its almost conceptual nature and Procol Harum’s hit “Whiter Shade of Pale”, which was derivative of Bach and further expressed the concept of writing pop music with classical influences. Indeed already The Beatles and The Beach Boys had already created albums that were meant to be listened to and not just music for dancing and parties. By the year 1969, progressive rock was miles ahead with debut albums by King Crimson and Yes, and the envelop-pushing sounds of The Nice.

Psychedelic music gave musicians and song writers the freedom to explore any approach they desired. This meant music could be mellow and sweet with acoustic guitars, flute, organ, and harmony vocals (many Summer of Love anthems), loud and powerful with brass and deep, soulful vocals (The Electric Flag, Tom Jones), trippy and experimental with in-studio effects or guitar and organ effects (Jefferson Airplane’s “After Bathing at Baxter’s”), or raucous and aggressive (Blue Cheer’s “Vincebus Eruptum”). As such, some bands sought a heavier sound with emphasis on electric guitar and distortion effects. To accompany this, louder and more powerful vocals were often necessary. The rhythm section of drums and bass also advanced to help create more complex music. In particular, changes in the styles of drumming occurred with great leaps as drummers with strong jazz backgrounds contributed their talents and eastern rhythms were introduced in western music. Ron Bushy’s drum solo in Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was distinctive of the new drumming styles of the late sixties.

Few would argue against the notion that heavy metal’s most recognizable instrument is the electric guitar with its distortion. Guitar playing was already making great advances in the early to mid-sixties with musicians like Dick Dale, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and the lesser-known Ritchie Blackmore developing new methods of playing. But in early 1967, one man would bring to the table a way of guitar playing and song-writing that was unprecedented. Jimi Hendrix dropped jaws at his debut appearance at the Marquee in London, and among those jaws that fell open were those of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Pete Townshend. The Jimi Hendrix Experience released the single “Purple Haze” in March, 1967 and their debut “Are You Experienced” came out in May of the same year. Hendrix’s blend of traditional blues with eastern modalities, guitar distortion and his unique style made him a sensation. His band’s short run would produce a number of classic hits and as well influence countless musicians, particularly those in the still nascent heavy metal and hard rock genres.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream produced two of the most memorable guitar riffs in 1967 with “Purple Haze” and “Sunshine of Your Love” respectively. The Who, following The Beatles example of a concept album, recorded their commercial sell-out concept album, “The Who Sell Out” and featured the killer psychedelic hard rocker “I Can See for Miles”. Jefferson Airplane began the year of ’67 with their classic album “Surrealistic Pillow” that scored two hits: “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”. But it was their follow-up to that, “After Bathing at Baxter’s” where the guitar experimental sounds and a harder edge to some songs entered their repertoire. Fellow California-born band The Doors held no bars with the frantic pace of “Break On Through (to the other side)“. The Yardbirds album “Little Games” might have been a disappointment to many; however, “Think About It” on side B introduced an early version of the guitar solo that would appear on Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” in ’69. Meanwhile on the American east coast, Vanilla Fudge were creating a unique sound with soulful vocals, Hammond organ, and a heavy guitar sound. Their covers of “You Keep Me Hanging On” and “Ticket to Ride” caught the attention of many musicians, including one Ritchie Blackmore who decided that he would like to create a band like Vanilla Fudge. Also worthy of mention in ’67 was the debut of Pink Floyd, which featured some loud and experimental guitar numbers “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Domine”.

Amidst these stand out points, there were bands across the western hemisphere who were exploring heavy psychedelic and aggressive garage rock. As 1967 reached its autumn, new bands were recording debut albums to be released in January of ’68. That month gave us two excellent proto-metal hits with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” and Blue Cheer’s bombastic thundering cover of “Summertime Blues”. Also in that month, Iron Butterfly released its debut with “Iron Butterfly Theme” being an exemplary instrumental of loud, heavy psychedelic rock.

The year 1968 also saw the formation of Deep Purple, and though the music on their first three albums would pale beneath the thunderhead album that was “Deep Purple in Rock” in 1970, there was still a drive by Ritchie Blackmore to feature energetic and creative rock music with classical influences and hard rock guitar shredding. Some of Blackmore’s most volatile solos can be heard on these early albums.

It was the year of a turning point in rock music. Though 1968 saw certain bands reach the peak of their careers, there were new bands forming in the wings, and while the older bands whose careers had already spanned two or three years – or even more in some cases – were continuing with the current trends, the new bands were picking out the best of the heavy sounds and preparing themselves for the final year of the sixties. Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” had produced yet another classic proto-metal riff. Jimmy Page was taking a violin bow to his guitar. Jeff Beck had released his debut with Rod Stewart on vocals. Vanilla Fudge were getting heavier. The influence of Blue Cheer’s debut was rippling outward. Cream and The Yardbirds were getting heard in America. The Who were enjoying worldwide success. The Beatles tried to top The Who by recording the pounding stomper “Helter Skelter”. If anything, hard-hitting, heavy and aggressive rock music was becoming attractive. And the new bands of 1969 would usher in the next generation of heavy rock, a style that would earn itself the title heavy metal.

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