Heavy Metal: Music By Any Other Name

Essays on Heavy Metal, Number #1 – The significance of the term “heavy metal” as a moniker for a genre of music

Heavy metal has been around for nearly 50 years and despite repeated threats of extinction, the music has always managed to adapt and evolve, ever thriving in the underground scene when mainstream success was for the most part unattainable. Heavy metal has never truly cared anyway. The fans have never truly expected airwave dominance either. Mainstream success would mean intervening record companies who would fluff up the sound or bands who would “sell out” by choosing to fluff up their sound.

For legions of metal fans, the term “heavy metal” is synonymous with the personal choice of enjoying music that has been the bane of critics, a hot piece of iron difficult to handle for radio stations, and something of ridicule for many classic rock and pop musicians, not to mention aficionados of jazz and classical music. Choosing metal is a statement of individuality over following the galvanized pop for the masses or some hoity-toity community of ivory tower music snobs. Yet while fans maintain a pride in being “metalheads” and “headbangers”, many progenitors of the genre don’t want to be associated with the monster they created. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin refers to early seventies heavy metal as “that horrendous boring period in music.” Cream bass guitarist and vocalist, Jack Bruce, once said, “I still don’t take the blame for inventing heavy metal. Hang that one on Led Zeppelin”. Fellow bandmate and drummer Ginger Baker put it more disdainfully: “People say Cream gave birth to heavy metal. If that’s so, we should have had an abortion.”

Metal Sucks

So, is it the musical style that is so repulsive or the image? Or is it just the term “heavy metal”? Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan has never liked the label. “Heavy metal is a term that is just unintentionally clumsy.” Black Sabbath’s Terry Butler said of it that Black Sabbath’s music was likened to the sound of a box of heavy metal objects being dropped. As for music critic Lester Bangs, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, he posited a more articulate statement against heavy metal:

“As its detractors have always claimed, heavy-metal rock is nothing more than a bunch of noise; it is not music, it’s distortion—and that is precisely why its adherents find it appealing. Of all contemporary rock, it is the genre most closely identified with violence and aggression, rapine and carnage.”

Not surprisingly, for musicians who believed they were making music and not noise, being associated with such an unflattering label was tantamount to career damnation. No matter what talent you possessed, if you were heavy metal then you were just loud and noisy and unsophisticated. Lemmy Kilmister skirted the association with the label by always claiming that his band, Motorhead, played rock and roll and insisted that heavy metal was just rock and roll.

When the term “heavy metal” first began being used to describe a genre of music in the early 1970’s, it was applied as a pejorative; “heavy metal-leaden shit-rock” was how critic Mike Saunders described the music of Humble Pie’s Safe as Yesterday Is in his review of the album. Their third and self-titled album was described as, “more of the same 27th-rate heavy metal crap”. Considering that in those days, heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium were poisoning the environment, there wasn’t much that was flattering about the appellation.

Why “Heavy Metal”?

Even still, why did Saunders think to apply the label to an emerging subgenre of popular music. Deena Weinstein explores the roots of the term in her paper entitled Just So Stories: How Heavy Metal Got Its Name—A Cautionary Tale. Mike Saunders wrote his reviews while attending college and had spent some time studying the Periodic Table of the Elements. “Heavy metal” and “leaden metal” were still fresh in his mind when he considered the heavy, leaden drumming on the Humble Pie albums, drumming that lacked the “swing” of hard rock. In an email message to Weinstein, Saunders explained how he derived the term:

“I’d taken freshman chemistry during fall 1969 and spring 1970 semesters … the phrases ‘leaden metal’ and ‘heavy metal,’ along with the periodic table of elements’ neighborhood where they derived from or resided, clocked in a lot more time-share space in my day-to-day mind than any old Steppenwolf hit song … [Humble Pie’s album, Safe as Yesterday Is ] was stiff, turgid, i.e. leaden in its lack of hard rock drummer “swing” (also known as cool drum rolls/parts). Since ‘heavy’ had been around for three whole years as the most common genre term, i.e. ‘heavy rock,’ hell yeah…why NOT insert the phrase ‘leaden-metal’ in between the ‘heavy’/’rock’ tandem? Flipped around, ‘metal-leaden’ must have looked catchier on paper…’heavy metal-leaden rock’…since that put the words ‘heavy’ and ‘metal’ into a tandem status just like on the elements table. Oh yeah, the Humble Pie album that I’d wasted my money on was complete shit, so throw in the ‘shit’ word too….’heavy metal-leaden shit-rock.’ shortened in the next/final paragraph to simply ‘heavy metal crap.’ (no hyphen)…Maybe the leaden part (as pejorative describing the dreadful Humble Pie rhythm section) was just implied.”

The Steppenwolf song he refers to is of course the classic early 1968 hit song “Born to Be Wild” which includes the lyric, “heavy metal thunder”. However, in the context of the lyrics, it attempts to capture the image of a motorcycle or car engine. Indeed, Led Zeppelin would use the term in their 1975 song “Trampled Underfoot”: “Check that heavy metal underneath your hood.” But perhaps Robert Plant’s usage in this case also implied innuendo as the song’s refrain repeats, “Talkin’ ‘bout love, talkin’ ‘bout love” and the lyrics go further in suggestiveness with the line, “I’m so glad I took a look inside your showroom doors”. Exactly what is this hood he looked underneath and what are those showroom doors?

Whatever image Robert Plant was trying to imply with his use of the musical term he reviled, he was not talkin’ ‘bout heavy metal music. And neither were Steppenwolf, who were, by the way, not the first to use the term in a musical context. In 1967, the British avant-guard outfit Hapshash and the Coloured Coat used the term in their album title Featuring The Human Host and the Heavy Metal Kids. Here, though, the term seems to reference a novel by William Burroughs, which we will consider shortly.

Who Was On First?

So, was Mike Saunders then the first to use heavy metal to describe a style of music? As he states in the quote above, the term heavy had already been in use for three years, as in “heavy rock”. Weinstein’s paper delves deeper into the origins of the term and there is more than one critic who demands credit for inventing descriptive moniker. Blue Oyster Cult manager and lyricist, Sandy Pearlman, claims that he came up with the term originally, again citing the Periodic Table of the Elements as the source for the inspiration. In a review he wrote in Crawdaddy! About The Notorious Byrd Brothers album, Pearlman claims he used the term “heavy metal” to describe “the incredible complexity of the distortion”.

Once again, “heavy metal” becomes synonymous with distortion and noise; however, the review was on the website ByrdWatcher: A Field Guide to the Byrds of Los Angeles, and there was no mention of “heavy metal”. Site manager Tim Conners gives Lester Bangs credit for inventing the term, remarking that he lifted it from a William Burroughs’ book series that included a character called “Uranian Willy The Heavy Metal Kid”. Uranian Willy had no association with any style of music but instead the planet Uranus and its drug-addicted inhabitants. But Bangs makes no use of the term in his reviews or other writing until later on in the seventies, after the term had come into frequent usage.

Still, Pearlman used the word “metal” as early as 1967 when writing about the Rolling Stones’ album Got Live If You Want It. Weinstein observes that “metal” or “metallic” was used eight times in the first eight sentences, although the term is used to describe the sound of the music rather than a style of music.

Another contender, which is also mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for “heavy metal”, is a 1968 review published in Rolling Stone and written by Barry Gifford. He writes of musician Mike Bloomfield that his new album is “the New Soul Music, the synthesis of White Blues and Heavy Metal rock”. The author later clarified the intention of his use of “heavy metal” as a means to describe the sound of the band, and the music bears no resemblance to what later became known as heavy metal. Still again in 1968, the terms “heavy” and “metallic” were used in a New York Times review of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s album Axis: Bold as Love, where author Jim Miller wrote, “Jimi Hendrix sounds like a junk heap, very heavy and metallic loud”. Once again, “heavy” and “metal(lic)” are used to describe the sound of the music, and while Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield, and The Rolling Stones all have quite distinctly different sounds to their music, we are reminded once again in the Hendrix review at least that “heavy metal” could be used in criticism of the music’s sound. Another description used elsewhere described Hendrix’s music as, “like listening to heavy metal falling from the sky”.

Quite interesting as we get closer to the birth of the term to describe the genre of loud and metallic heavy rock, Weinstein’s paper reveals yet another usage of “heavy metal” prior to the Mike Saunders’ penned review. The surprise is that the review which included the term was written by none other than Lester Bangs, this time in a 1970 review of The Guess Who’s album, Canned Wheat. Bangs writes about the band, “They’re quite refreshing in the wake of all the heavy metal robots of the year past”. The term here describes a number of bands who have been churning out monotonous and uncreative music but not a genre of music. Still, it’s not flattering to those bands.

Heavy? Downer?

Alternatively, heavy rock, as Saunders pointed out, was already being used to describe the music of bands like Cream and Blue Cheer in the late sixties and later for Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. “Heavy” on its own, though, implied no derision, and the term had already been used by the Beats from jazz and co-opted by the sixties counter-culture youth, where it meant “deep”, “meaningful”, and even something that was good. It could also refer to something profound and serious. But by the time it was used for Black Sabbath’s music, it no doubt was applied to the sound of the heavy (i.e. low toned) guitars, the low bass, and the crushing drums.

Downer rock was yet another term used to describe music whose song lyrics dealt with the unpleasantness of reality with its wars, political corruption, environmental destruction, crime and punishment, substance abuse, mental illnesses, and death. The facts that were being addressed in the lyrics of bands like Black Sabbath (“War Pigs”, “Children of the Grave”, “Hand of Doom”), Grand Funk (“Paranoid”, “Can’t Be Too Long”), and Bloodrock (“Wicked Truth”, “DOA”) were the antipodes of the hippie idealisms of universal love and peace. Add to that the frequent use of depressant “downer” drugs by some fans of the music and a certain appropriateness of the term becomes recognizable. Indeed, Lester Bangs made more ready use of “downer rock” to describe the musical style of Black Sabbath than he did “heavy metal”. In a 1972 issue of Creem he described a Black Sabbath concert like this:

“The audience, searching endlessly both for bone-rattling sound and someone to put the present social and psychic traumas in perspective, found both in Black Sabbath … they possessed a dark vision of society and the human soul borrowed from black magic and Christian myth; they cut straight to the teen heart of darkness with obsessive, crushing blocks of sound and “words that go right to your sorrow, words that go ‘Ain’t no tomorrow,’” as Ozzy sang in “Warning” on their first album. The critics…responded almost as one by damning it as “downer music.” Since much of it did lack the unquenchable adrenaline imperatives of its precedents and one look around a rock concert hall was enough to tell you where the Psychedelic Revolution had led, the charge seemed worth considering.”

Ying and Yan

Robert Plant, in the People Weekly article briefly quoted at the beginning of this post, laments that people didn’t get the other side of Led Zeppelin, the softer and subtler parts. That Led Zeppelin should include opposite extremes of “heavy” and “light” is spelled out right in the name “lead”, a heavy metal, and “zeppelin”, an airship. Though the name was suggested in mockery by either Keith Moon or Pete Townshend (depending on your source) in a comment stating that Jimmy Page’s new band would go down like a lead zeppelin, it couldn’t have been more appropriate for the music the band would go on to create. Iron Butterfly chose their name exactly for the purpose of capturing the essence of their music, which included both heavy and light and beautiful sounds. One could consider this “heavy” and “light” connotation further by applying it to other bands such as Vanilla (light) Fudge (dark), Black (dark, unknown) Sabbath (holy day), and Judas (deceiver of Christ) Priest (religious leader and pious man). Certainly, each of these bands chose their name from other inspirations, yet the concept of dichotomies remains.

Loud, Noisy, Toxic, and Metallic – A Product of Industrial Heartlands

In the end, is “heavy metal” such a derogatory term? Weinstein writes in her conclusion that the term “showed a set of characteristics and sensibility”. Would it have included the same set of bands had it been called “downer rock” or “heavy rock”, or that more generic term “hard rock”? As we saw, both terms “heavy” and “metal” were already employed to describe the sound of the music. Mike Saunders’ brilliant spur of creative writing thought to put both terms together as an adjective for the sound of a musical style. Another source noted that the acceptance of the term for the genre rests in its appropriateness in defining how listeners interpret the music. The same could be said for “punk rock” or “progressive rock”. The name implies something about the music.

Looking to The Phrase Finder at phrases.org.uk, under the entry The Meaning and Origin of the Expression Heavy Metal, we find once again the connotation of “heavy” with “serious” or “profound”. The entry then points out the common usage of metals in band names, such as Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Iron Maiden, and Metallica (the list of bands that used “iron” in their names can go on). Also, the toxic nature of heavy metals lends its image to the musical style (once more, unflattering to some musicians). Another interesting point is that some of the earliest bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Judas Priest hailed from industrial Birmingham, and you can add to that all the proto-punk and early metal bands like Stooges and Grand Funk who emerged out of the industrial heartland of the U.S. in Michigan. No wonder Rush’s “Working Man” resonated so strongly with the industrial working class!

Perhaps, like the birth of the music itself, the term “heavy metal” has a number of sign posts leading up to its invention. Just as heavy metal music was the product of several years of distorted and energetic guitar riff rock, psychedelic experimentation, and a return to the blues with heavier electric music, so the term “heavy metal” comes from nearly a decade of the appearance of the words being used to describe serious and profound matters and loud distorted guitar rock music. As most will agree, though, the music we call heavy metal today has evolved and progressed a long way from its first appearance.

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