The History of Heavy Metal – The First Generation: Chapter 9

Decline and Hard Rock

Until the Age of the Internet and digital music sharing, the popularity of any sub-genre of rock and pop was likely to last about five years. The new sounds would first begin to show up with some obvious connections to a previous generation of pop in the first year and develop into one of the new popular sounds of the second year. By the third year it would be at its most robust but also suffer a lot from music industry influence. By the fourth year a decline would set in as the next new flavour was beginning to take off. The fifth year usually marks that last year of any noteworthy songs or albums of the sub-genre before it became supplanted by the next new thing. The new sub-genre would gradually slink into the underground, outside of mainstream view for the most part, waiting for some future revival and evolutionary infusion. The case of the first generation of heavy metal suffered the same fate, albeit with an interesting twist to the tale.

Heavy guitar music had gradually at first and then more rapidly caught on in the sixties and it had come through some phases and changes. By 1969, a new wave of groups that had formed in ’68 were releasing albums of even heavier and more aggressive rock. In 1970 the new sound was established with the likes of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and scores upon scores of others. During this year and the next two, albums were recorded and released, some not released, singles hit the charts, and the new heavy guitar rock sound had a following. But by 1973 the scene was changing. Some bands like Necromandus and Iron Maiden (of Essex) had folded because of a lack of support. Other bands changed their sound to the more radio-friendly roots rock (Bang), pop guitar rock (Grand Funk), or even to progressive rock (Bloodrock and Hightide). Deep Purple became funkier, Black Sabbath more progressive but still very heavy, and Uriah Heep became less progressive and heavy and more hard rock. In fact, the hard rock movement was really coming to the forefront.

The serious heaviness of heavy metal was a bit much to maintain for most. Either albums weren’t getting recorded anymore or bands found it easier and more natural to follow the market and lighten their sound. The former manager of Bloodrock commented on one fan site that after some changes in the band roster, the band worked more on progressive rock than aggressive rock because they found the heavy rock sound limiting. As the early American punk scene focused on songs more than complex progressive music and the blues rock revival of the late sixties had made blues-based guitar rock fashionable again, a new wave of guitar rock was on the rise. Bands like Aerosmith and KISS were about having a good rocking time. Ted Nugent’s garage/psychedelic/progressive band The Amboy Dukes turned into a simple hard rock party band and became known as Ted Nugent. Scotland’s Nazareth had released one heavy guitar rock album followed by an unexpected experimental album of folk, blue grass, and blues before they became the hard rocking, blues-based hit band of the seventies. Blue Oyster Cult had begun their career as America’s answer to Black Sabbath but very quickly evolved into a hard rock band with occasional progressive tendencies. Boogie rock was one branch of rock that combined blues-based rock with hard rock guitar but was not particularly heavy. The seriousness of heavy metal lyrical themes was also something that fell out of favour with the general public as the fast living themes of hard rock life better appealed to the generation of the mid-seventies.

All over the world, bands who had been playing and recording heavy, slightly progressive, and deep music were now changing their styles. As the new sub-genre of hard rock sneakily usurped heavy metal’s throne, most first generation heavy metal bands collapsed. April Wine, AC/DC, Gary Glitter, Thin Lizzy, and the new breed were in the spotlight. Glam rock with its flash and sparkle also briefly claimed centre stage with KISS in the U.S. and Sweet in Britain scoring hits. Black Sabbath were one of the few bands to retain its heavy guitar sound, yet by the mid-seventies even Sabbath were struggling to find direction and not only produced a couple of their least popular albums of the seventies but also temporarily lost singer Ozzy Osbourne who considered starting his own band.

But it was not only hard rock that was surpassing heavy metal in popularity. American punk rock had been catching on, suspiciously with beginnings often considered developing in tandem with the first generation of heavy metal. The Stooges and MC5 were more punk rock than metal and yet they are regularly mentioned as pioneers of the heavy guitar rock sound. By the mid-seventies, once the British punk rock movement had arrived, old school metal – along with progressive rock – was practically stamped out. It would take an innovative change to the style of heavy metal to bring about the second wave, and that wave would be built upon the achievements of not only the first generation of heavy metal, but also in part it would be built on the unanticipated addition of punk rock and progressive rock sensibilities. First, however, an album by British rockers Judas Priest would set the blue print for the next sound development in heavy metal on their 1976 release “Sad Wings of Destiny”.

In the meantime, for most people, the change in style didn’t disrupt the popular view that loud, heavy guitar music performed by long-haired men (and some women too!) should be know as anything else than rock, rock n’ roll, or even heavy metal. As far as 1974 and 1975 were concerned, heavy metal was KISS, Aerosmith, Sweet, Nazareth, Blue Oyster Cult, and all those other bands. Canada’s hard rockers (with some metal and progressive tendencies) Triumph sang on their 1976 debut, “We’ve been five years working in a rock and roll band / blasting heavy metal right across the land”. But not matter how hard and heavy these bands rocked, there was often little semblance to the heavier sound of the early seventies when songs were about war, death, the evils of politics, the occult, and environmental destruction if not about lusty women.

The story of heavy metal’s second coming is, however, for some future topic. For now we can consider 1973 as an important transitional year when the last of the early seventies heavy guitar rock bands (excluding Black Sabbath) recorded albums of really heavy music and the new wave of hard rock bands began charting singles and selling debut albums.