Defining a New Sub-Genre of Rock
On February 13th, 1970 the debut album of a new band, Black Sabbath, was released in the U.K. The album came amidst a wave of loud, heavy guitar rock albums and at the time it was poorly received by the music press. From one perspective, the eponymous debut was nothing exceptional. The guitar was loud, played with distortion effects, used power chords, and included lots of soloing. The bass was not simply quietly in the back as a rhythm instrument but mixed near the front and often playing an important lead melody. The drums hit hard but had a jazzy swing to them. And the vocals were a little higher register than those of some contemporary vocalists but sung with passion and power and a certain degree of theatrics as the music required. Lyrics were about the occult, war, and fantasy. Individually, all these elements were nothing new. They had all been emerging in rock music over the previous several years and had become part of the new sound of heavy rock that grew out of the peak psychedelic years in 1967 and ’68. But as history would prove, there was something special about the music of Black Sabbath that distinguished it from the music of most other bands of the time.
One important factor was in guitarist Tony Iommi’s playing style. Having sliced off two finger tips in a sheet metal shop accident during his final days of employment, he was mortified that he would never be able to become a professional musician. Thankfully, he learned of another guitarist who had suffered a similar accident and how that guitarist had fashioned false finger tips. Iommi took inspiration and did the same, moulding artificial tips from plastic. Playing the guitar with this plastic tips wasn’t easy however, and to facilitate his playing technique, Iommi down-tuned his guitar. This would prove to be a crucial reason for the band’s future success.
Down-tuning was nothing new. As far back as 1966, the American garage rock / early psychedelic band, The Music Machine had tuned their instruments a key lower than usual in order to give their music a darker, heavier sound. But Black Sabbath would strike a chord, so to speak, with the addition of one element more: the diabolic tri-tone. It was avoided in western music for centuries because of its dissonant quality. As early as the 18th century, it became known as diabolus in musica, and many writers assert that the tritone and other dissonant chords were avoided in medieval and renaissance music because of its satanic connotations. It later became acceptable to use in western music composition, and the tritone that famously opened Black Sabbath’s self-titled song which opens the debut album, was inspired by Mars, the Bringer of War from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.
The album begins with the sound of rain, the distant peal of a church bell, and rumbles of thunder. Then abruptly the band play the tritone riff, slowly and ominously with an underscore of force, giving the music a frightening tone of heaviness and foreboding. The lyrics, “What is this that stands before me? / Figure in black that points a me,” were inspired by a real-life incident experienced by bassist Terry “Geezer” Butler when one night he alleged to have awoken to find a black figure standing before his bed. The sound of this new album was something different. Heavy guitar rock fusing psychedelia, jazz, blues, and even classical music, and lyrics of dark subject matter were already about (the band Coven had even written a song entitled “Black Sabbath” a year earlier), but it all came together here, along with Iommi’s down-tuning to create a monster of a hair-raising song with the rest of side one following the course with songs about paganism, wizards, and Lucifer. Several musicologists claim that the title track, and as well side one of the album, were the turning point of heavy rock music, where the elements that came to be recognized as synonymous with heavy metal music appeared in the right combination for the first time.
But in 1970, this particular new approach to rock and roll had not yet found an identifying moniker, and the term heavy metal had only just come in to use in reference to music – loud, raucous, untalented, rubbish music.
The term had been about in chemistry describing metallic elements with high atomic numbers, and it had been used in a 1962 novel by William S. Burroughs, “The Soft Machine” for the character Uranium Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid. A follow-up novel linked heavy metal with drugs and the term “metal music” appeared. “Heavy” became a term used in the late sixties to describe something potent and profound. The term could also refer to something grave and emotionally weighing. Steppenwolf famously used the term in their 1968 hit “Born to Be Wild”; however the phrase “heavy metal thunder” referred to the engine of a motorcycle. Heavy music was a beatnik phrase applied to slower and more amplified music. In the May 1968 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, reviewer Barry Gifford referred to Electric Flag’s album A Long Time Coming as the “synthesis of white blues and heavy metal music”, though Electric Flag’s music bears very little resemblance to that of Black Sabbath.
Perhaps the most famous use of the term comes in a review by critic Mike Saunders. In his November 1970 review for Rolling Stone of Humble Pie’s Safe as Yesterday Is, he described the music as “noisy, unmelodic, heavy metal-laden shit-rock”. In May of 1971 for Creem magazine, Saunders wrote of Sir Lord Baltimore that they seemed to have “down pat most of all the best heavy metal tricks in the book”. The term became used as a putdown for the music of other bands like Grand Funk Railroad and Dust, and the drug reference of Burroughs returned in 1979 when a New York Times music critic panned heavy metal rock as “brutally aggressive music played mostly for minds clouded by drugs”. In an interview with Black Sabbath’s Terry Butler, he said that people described their music as “the sound made when one drops a load of heavy metal”. Drummer Bill Ward coined the term ‘downer rock” and it became used for other bands like Bloodrock as well until the term heavy metal became the popular term.
Though Black Sabbath’s style may have best captured the essence of what was to become known by future generations as heavy metal, there were between 1970 and 1972 countless bands around the world playing their own take on heavy guitar music. Led Zepplein had already established themselves a year earlier as a heavy guitar rock band, though much of their music was more clearly rooted in R&B, and Deep Purple released In Rock, an monumental album of their new harder, heavier, and more aggressive and furious sound, in the spring of 1970. Styles among bands varied and could be blues-based, psychedelic-based, or progressive like bands such as T.2. and High Tide. A band may include a keyboard player on Hammond organ or be a power trio. In some cases a fifth member on rhythm guitar was included. Heavy rock music was played in not only the U.K. and the U.S. but bands also appeared in Germany, France, Iceland, Japan, Peru, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and a host of other countries whose artists would have less of an impact but whose albums are still sought after by collectors.
The early 1970’s were the years of progressive rock, roots rock, and the height of the first generation of heavy metal musicians. However, a generation in popular music is usually given five years from emergence to ultimate decline, and heavy metal music was to a large degree doomed to become unfashionable within such a short time. It would face a transformation and a period of underground existence.
A Playlist of Heavy Guitar Rock from 1969 to 1973