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

1969 – The Turning Point

The two big years of psychedelic music caused a change in popular music that was unlike anything to have come before or after. Within those two years, rock was transformed into serious music; short and simple dance songs dropped out of favour and instead longer compositions with more technical playing or more advanced and complex music was becoming the in thing. Short songs were still necessary for radio play and hits, and simplicity still appealed to a large portion of the listening public. But rock musicians were interested in experimentation and thus many new sounds and styles emerged that had previously been heard only in experimental tinkering or not at all.

As previously discussed, in 1966 there were four foundations that would each contribute to the development of heavy metal: electric blues, garage rock, psychedelic rock, and the nascent progressive rock subgenre. Over the two years of 1967 and 1968, when psychedelic music mushroomed and swallowed just about every form of popular music, the three other foundations were transformed as though they had gone through adolescence and reached adulthood. Electric blues bands like The Yardbirds and Cream had adapted to the new sounds of the psychedelic period but by the end of it, both groups had folded. Yet the blues had not dropped of the music map at all. On the contrary, it re-emerged in 1969 with new muscle, and the most exemplary would have to be Led Zeppelin’s debut in January of 1969, featuring blazing guitar work by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant’s powerful howls, and a rhythm section with John Paul Jones and John Bonham that simply pounded the floor. If there was to be one album of 1969 that resonated furthest into the future of heavy guitar rock, this would be the one.

Garage rock as it had been in 1966, which was perhaps also its peak year, also underwent a great transformation. Bands had managed to work in the psychedelic sounds of ‘67/’68 and for many this lead to a harder-edged style. The Stooges, MC5, and the final album by The Litter are examples of the new approach to the garage rock style, and from this new sound the forth-coming subgenre of punk rock was in gestation. A great majority of bands, however, faded out by 1968, finding it difficult to maintain success with the style of music that had drawn the respective musicians together in the first place.

The subgenre to benefit most from the psychedelic peak years was progressive rock. By 1969 a slew of new groups had formed – mostly in Great Britain but also in Germany and Italy – who were interested in experimenting with music and who would take rock music far beyond its unsophisticated beginnings. Among these new groups, King Crimson was likely one of the most influential, not only in prog circles but also in heavy metal and most notably for their monster heavy hit of ’69, “21st Century Schizoid Man”.

The most important point that distinguishes the music of 1969 from previous years is that there were numerous new bands who recognized that it was not only possible but desirable to record an entire album, or nearly entire album, of heavy guitar rock music. Prior to 1969 perhaps the only album that was truly heavy to that extent was Blue Cheer’s “Vincebus Eruptum”. Led Zeppelin’s debut in January was a monster in itself with a heavier guitar sound than had appeared on most earlier blues rock recordings (except for maybe a couple of tracks from Cream’s “Fresh Cream”). More importantly though was that the music was no longer strictly adhering to the blues but had become blues-based. Speed burners like “Communication Breakdown” and the hurricane force of the instrumental section of “Dazed and Confused” combined speed and heaviness in ways barely unheard of and established this form of music as more than just a novelty but as a new style. The appeal to playing loud and heavy music extended even beyond bands who would establish themselves as classic heavy rock acts. After The Who had released “I Can See for Miles” in 1967, The Beatles had topped it for hard-hitting heaviness in 1968 with “Helter Skelter”. But in 1969, Pink Floyd beat that with “The Nile Song”, which had even more distortion and shouted vocals than The Beatles had in them.

With the appeal of loud, heavy guitar music, other new bands that appeared on the rock scene and thundered their way across vinyl were Americans like Grand Funk Railroad and Sir Lord Baltimore, whose muscled up music was so loud and raucous that it earned from critics the derisive appellation “heavy metal”. Lesley West played his heavy blues rock in his new band Mountain and Yesterday’s Children managed to cut a sole LP in 1969 of their brand of heavy rock. In Britain, Andromeda and High Tide were combining heavy guitar rock with the more complex musical approach that the new progressive rock bands were experimenting with, and the soon to be famous Deep Purple were approaching a critical moment in their history when guitarist Ritchie Blackmore would push the band further into a heavy guitar rock direction.

Without contention the most influential band in the early history of heavy metal, Black Sabbath, was also coming into form. Having changed from a folk-based band called Earth, the four musicians from Birmingham were working on a new sound that combined blues and jazz with heavy psychedelic sounds and fantasy and occult themes. Though their debut would not see record store shelves until 1970, their earliest single releases were quick to grab attention around the world. Iron Claw in Scotland, Pax in Peru, Bang in the U.S. and Flower Traveling Band in Japan, to name a few, snapped up this new heavier sound and began writing and recording music over the next couple of years.

Though heavy metal music is identified by its guitar sound and playing style, for a lot of heavy rock bands in 1969 the Hammond organ was equally important. Vanilla Fudge had introduced the sound of loud, heavy guitar with swirling Hammond organ chords to great success in 1967, and this sound had appealed to Ritchie Blackmore, who wanted to create a band that would be like Vanilla Fudge. Other bands in 1969 who included a Hammond organ player were Valhalla from Long Island, Spice (soon to be Uriah Heep) from the U.K., Warpig in Canada, and Lucifer’s Friend in Germany.

Naturally, as this new style of music became in vogue, many of the bands that had helped initiate it in 1967/’68 struggled to fit in the new scene. Iron Butterfly experienced a line-up shake down, losing guitarist Erik Braunn and taking on two new guitarists, Mike Pinera and Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt. The band managed one more album in 1971 before folding. Vanilla Fudge performed their farewell concert on March, 1970. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was no more as Hendrix began work on a new band project, Band of Gypsies. Other bands like Blue Cheer moved away from the heavy and voluminous sound they had created and ventured into another new subgenre called roots rock, which brought back the country and acoustic origins of rock and roll. More heavy rock bands would later also follow this route.

The year 1969 saw the rock music scene begin to coalesce into new subgenres out of the fertile nebula of psychedelic music. It was the year that progressive rock began to rise to the surface, that punk rock began to take on a form that is recognizable against the style that became popular in the mid-seventies, that roots rock started to attract a loyal following of musicians, and the year that a good number of bands around the world agreed that loud heavy guitar rock, sometimes including a thundering Hammond organ, was the direction in which their music lay. The first generation of heavy metal bands was born.