Japan’s Killer Queen

My wife has come down with a fever. Queen fever. With an acute case of affliction for Freddie.


The movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” opened in Japan on November 2nd, and I expressed interest in seeing it in part because I had finally welcomed the music of Queen into my life only the year prior. The first Queen song I ever heard knowing that it was a Queen song was “Radio Gaga”. This was 1984 and the year of new releases by Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Accept, Metallica, Dio, and many other heavy metal bands. This was music to be excited about. “Radio Gaga”? Nothing more than soft eighties pop fluff to my ears. Over the years I heard plenty of Queen classics like “We Are the Champions”, “Rock You”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “Somebody to Love”, “You’re My Best Friend”, “Body Language”, “Killer Queen” and of course “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but except for the occasional rock out guitar moment, Queen were to me nothing more than a stadium rock, pomp rock, pop band.

radio gaga

My perception began to change when I heard their name mentioned from time to time in prog rock circles, but it was hearing that “Stone Cold Crazy” from 1974’s “Sheer Heart Attack” was a kind of proto-thrash song that I decided it was finally time to bring home Queen. One album purchased in 2017, and then in early 2018 I heard about “It’s Late” mentioned as a hard rock song when I was checking out hard rock from 1977. “News of the World” became the second Queen album to sit on my shelf. By the time the movie was announced, I had “Queen II” in my Amazon shopping cart and I clicked the order button for than one too. Now, five albums sit on my shelf with three more on order, one already a few days overdue.


My wife has always liked Queen since her college days but recently she can’t get enough. She’s on YouTube every day watching videos; she has ordered a photo book of Freddie Mercury pics and three DVDs; she’s a follower of Brain May and Roger Taylor on Twitter and Instagram; and she talks of almost nothing but Queen and Freddie. As I type, she is watching the movie for the fourth time, this time in IMAX, with her sister. The first three times, we watched the movie together. I really enjoy it as well. Yes, I am aware of all the factual discrepancies, but as a movie telling the story of a rock band, it covers a lot of the clichés in a way that Spinal Tap did. I especially love the actors and their performance, so I am not really concerned about “Rock You” being shown as created in 1980 instead of 1976, or when Freddie actually found out about his condition, or if the band really broke up or not. If anything, I have learned more about the band by learning about what was different in the movie from reality.


Queen fever has returned to Japan too thanks to the movie. On a TV program this morning, it was explained with a bar graph how movie goers had been flocking to the theatres with ever increasing numbers, ticket sales increasing more than tenfold by the fourth week when compared to the first. Many were repeat viewers but the number of new viewers was almost half of the fourth week figure. Young women especially have been turning out, often after being taken along by their mothers. Several young ladies commented on how “heart-warming” and “easy to catch” the melodies were.

The movie soundtrack has been selling very well, but most surprising is the live DVD of Queen performing in Montreal in 1981 with their Live Aid performance included. The DVD sold a modest 200 copies between September and October, but after the release of the movie, sales increased 277 times! The publisher is currently out of stock and manufacturing more.

The media in Japan is also hot for Queen. “BURRN” magazine has a special feature on Queen as do at least three or four other music magazines published this month or due for publication next month. The national broadcasting network, NHK, interviewed Brain May and Roger Taylor a few days ago and recently reran a 2002 program called “The Bohemian Rhapsody Murder”, and the other day, a program called “Songs” featured four celebrities giving their comments about Queen’s songs.

What makes Queen so popular in Japan? One woman in her sixties offered her remarks. Back in 1974, the big rock bands were Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Guys loved the music and talked endlessly about the gear – guitars, amps, etc. Few women felt inclined to follow the conversation. But Queen brought fashion, presentation, flamboyancy, and an appeal that women could be excited about. As such, Queen’s following in Japan quickly swelled as word spread among female fans. In particular, Roger Taylor was a female favourite pin-up boy. One man on the program even stated that Queen was something you liked in secret. Men had to be manly and like tough guys. Queen appealed to the feminine side and thus was a little embarrassing for some guys. One TV director I know recently posted on Facebook that he was alright with the long-haired, flying fashions of mid-seventies Queen, but was shocked to see the “hard gay” image Freddie sported in 1979.

Another commentator said Queen’s anthemic melodies very catchy and certain lines in the lyrics easily stand out. Perhaps the 1976 song, “Teo Toriatte”, a song with the chorus sung in Japanese, also is a reason why Queen have connected so well with Japan.

I know a couple of men around my age who love Queen’s hits, and a high school student of mine really got into Queen earlier this year, well before the movie was advertised.

Strangely enough, many of Queen’s classics that I did not care for in the past have become recent favourites of mine. I can listen to some songs again and again and not feel the need for a break. “Radio Gaga” is now actually a good song to my ears, though I still find “Body Language” and most of the songs on “Hot Space” a career misstep.

I am surprised, however, to heard just how heavy the band could be in the early seventies, or at least through their first five albums. Though I am still waiting for the debut to show up in my mailbox, “Queen II”, “Sheer Heart Attack”, and “A Night at the Opera” pack some wallopers, while “A Day at the Races” only just dropped into my mailbox yesterday. Some songs that are a joy to my early heavy metal appreciation lobes are “Father to Son”, “Ogre Battle”, and parts of “White Queen (as it began)” and “The March of the Black Queen”, and I think I may add “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke” as well, and that’s just “Queen II”. From “Sheer Heart Attack” there’s Brian May’s guitar work in “Brighton Rock”, “Stone Cold Crazy”, “Flick of the Wrist”, and “Now I’m Here”. “A Night at the Opera” has “The Prophet’s Song” and of course the rock out head banging section in “Bohemian Rhapsody”. But other songs also delight, such as “Bring Back that Leroy Brown” and “39” among others. I am still familiarizing myself with all the music. I am especially looking forward to “Queen” as metal music journalist Martin Popoff holds this album in very high regard.

queen-bandI’m a bit hesitant to order any of the later albums like “It’s a Kind of Magic”. It seems each of the later albums has a rock number but also has a lot of eighties pop which is really a distaste for me. Some songs still have that Queen power to them, but others are very light-weight in that eighties kind of way. Especially Roger Taylor seems worst hit as his drumming is restricted to stale eighties 4/4 beats. At least Brain May still gets a guitar solo.


As for Queen fever in Japan, several movie theatres have special large screen screenings with high volume music and the audience is encouraged to stand up for the Live Aid scene. Some people requested this and the theatres responded. The movie is still going strong with some women claiming to have watched it 25 times already.

Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple still have a place here, but Queen might just be the rock band for Japan.



The History of Heavy Metal – The First Generation: Chapter 8

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

High Tide



Iron Claw


Sir Lord Baltimore

Stone Garden

The 31 Flavors





Blue Phantom


Lucifer’s Friend

May Blitz







Leaf Hound


Yesterday’s Children


Sainte Anthony’s Fyre



Glass Sun Band


Blues Creation



Atomic Rooster

Captain Beyond




Uriah Heep

Blue Oyster Cult


Grand Funk Railroad

Blackwater Park

Highway Robbery

Night Sun

Blue Cheer


Deep Purple

The Power of Zeus

Black Sabbath

Iron Maiden

Iron Butterfly





Flower Travelin’ Band

Bulbous Creation


Killing Floor


The Pink Fairies

The Litter



Wicked Lady


The Amboy Dukes


Vanilla Fudge


Hard Stuff

New Lords


Freedom’s Children







Led zeppelin


A Foot in Cold Water



Samuel Prody

Elias Hulk

Alice Cooper

Separated at Birth? – The Nexus of Prog and Metal

The psychedelic period in rock music history permitted musicians and artists to experiment with the genre in ways greater than their predecessors had ever enjoyed. Rock and Roll music had caught on in rapid steps in the 1950’s and continued its pace into the 1960’s, albeit with a sidestep underground in the U.S. around 1960. But even as the next generation of youth picked up guitars and drumsticks, or practiced on organs, pianos and saxophones, the standard format of a rock song changed little. Songs were still usually two to three minutes long with an almost obligatory verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. The sound of rock and roll changed but not the general song format.

What the psychedelic movement encouraged was longer instrumental sections and more serious musicianship. It also gave songwriters new lyrical freedom as the usual songs about love and heartbreak or dancing and partying were no longer essential for recording a hit song. The new lyricists wrote about social issues, poems, fantasy, literature, history, war, death, the occult, or simply enigmatic lyrics that the listener was free to interpret in his or her own way. And, although it’s not true for all new artists of the period, LSD certainly played an enormous contributing role in the new found musical expression.

Prior to the advent of psychedelia and rock music (for the “and roll” was not longer suitable to this more serious style of pop), two new musical styles were beginning to take shape. The drive to fuel guitars with distortion or fuzz tone effects and the desire to master and build on electric guitar solo techniques along with a more assertive and aggressive style of singing and playing eventually led to the sub-genre of heavy metal. Meanwhile, other artists saw the studio as a place to experiment with rock and attempt to create something that went beyond expectations of the rather simplistic approach to recording. These were the earliest days of progressive rock.

Freak outThe year 1966 was a pivotal one as psychedelic rock was beginning to emerge. The Beach Boy’s “Pet Sounds” and The Mothers of Invention album “Freak Out!” are both seen as albums within the rock genre that took giant steps toward initiating the progressive rock movement. On the heavy side, Cream introduced the world to a heavier sounding version of electric blues with their debut “Fresh Cream”. The Yardbirds recorded songs like “Happenings Ten Years’ Time Ago” and “Stroll On”, their rewrite of “Train Kept A Rollin’” for the movie “Blow Up”. And The Who released their first album as well, including their hit, “My Generation” and the growling, bulldozing bass solo, “The Ox”. By the end of the year, The Jimi Hendrix Experience had recorded “Purple Haze” and Jefferson Airplane were working on their sophomore album. Both progressive rock and heavy metal were still a few years away from developing into name-worthy sub-genres of rock but the basic molecules were in place. All they needed was a catalyst.

Or a Big Bang. Between the years of 1967 and ’68, psychedelic rock came into its own, serving as a Big Crunch to several music styles. Rock and roll, folk, country western, classical, and jazz – all of these and more contributed matter and energy to the explosion that would spawn both progressive rock and heavy metal. If one looks at the ProgArchives list of proto-prog bands and the MetalMusicArchives list of proto-metal bands, more than a few bands and artists can be found on both. HeavyIron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, Jimi Hendrix all released albums during these two consequential years and their music is built on both the foundations of prog and metal, at least as it was back then. Other bands tended to lean more to one side than the other: Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf being more rock, blues, and heavy psychedelic rock, and Jefferson Airplane and the Doors going more for the experimental take. Then there was Pink Floyd who practically invented space rock with their adventures in electric guitar and organ soundscapes.

Bearing these considerations in mind, it should come as no surprise that the progressive rock album that broke down any remaining barriers did so with a bombastic, distortion overdrive song called “21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson. The band’s debut, “In the Court of the Crimson King” was released in October, 1969 and is often hailed as the first true progressive rock album.kc It features an eclectic amalgamation of heavy psych, jazz, classical instruments, folk, and experimental music. Other bands, however, were also busy developing their music into new territory. The Moody Blues were turning standard pop rock into musical adventures by adding various instruments and experimenting with new recording techniques. Yes were busy expanding their songs by adding snippets from show tunes, Beatles references, church choir-inspired vocals sections, jazz, and anything else they could fit in. Meanwhile, the distortion and aggression types were aiming for a heavier, harder sound, first with Jeff Beck and then with Led Zeppelin at the forefront.

Deep PurpleBy 1970, the monikers “progressive rock” and “heavy metal” had already been applied to bands in their respective sub-genres. But some bands eluded a swift pigeonholing by straddling both sides of the grey area boundary. Deep Purple are always mentioned as one of the progenitors of heavy metal, however, the advanced talents of Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards), and Ian Paice (drums), not to mention bass players who had to keep up (Nicky Simper and Roger Glover), and some of the band’s early songs put them in the proto-prog and prog category (their latest album is a rapturous step back to that style). Uriah Heep are found in a similar vein, attempting lengthy compositions that on occasion included an orchestra and choir.

As both styles of music ascended swiftly in popularity, there was precedent for quite a few bands to attempt to embrace both. The Wikipedia entry for progressive metal covers mostly bands like Queensrÿche, Dream Theater, Fates Warning, and Crimson Glory who emerged in the 1980’s. The coverage of earlier bands mentions a few who began releasing albums between 1969 and 1970: High Tide, Lucifer’s Friend, Night Sun, and of course, Uriah Heep. High TideThe approach these bands took was to incorporate distorted guitar sounds and heavy metal playing with other instruments, usually a Hammond organ but in the case of High Tide, a violin, and then create longer songs with extended instrumental sections that often referenced classical music (Baroque or Romantic) and at times leaned towards jazz. Volume and virtuosity, imagination and intensity. These bands were not the only ones bridging the two styles. Necromandus could be seen opening for Yes or Black Sabbath and were once said to be like “Yes plays the hits of Black Sabbath”. T2_-_It%5C'll_All_Work_Out_In_BoomlandT.2. and Jericho (a.k.a. Jericho Jones) were also fully capable of rocking all out with chugging power chords and screaming guitar solos and then switching gears to an acoustic number with classical piano, strings, horns, choir, or whatever suited their taste. Germany’s Eloy began as a hard rock group but by their second album were already deep into prog territory. Brits in Hamburg, Nektar, too crossed heavy rock with progressive thinking.

As the seventies counted out the first few years, bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Budgie as well as many lesser known bands were experimenting with more complex and varied songs. Some heavy rock artists went prog for a few years while other prog artists experimented with heavy rock. King Crimson included bombastic heavy music on their albums and Jethro Tull mixed acoustic rock with heavy electric rock while Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, and even Genesis managed to turn heavy rock into progressive art as they found ways to fit it into their songs when deemed appropriate. Though there may have been two distinct camps of rock sub-genres, both sides couldn’t resist borrowing techniques and ideas.

By 1974 / 75, two groups had emerged who could claim influence from both styles. Judas Priest experienced the early ‘70s as a “progressive heavy blues-based” band, according to founding member, Al Atkins. The first two albums by Priest capture the band in transition, moving from the experimental heavy rock style prevalent at the time toward a new approach to heavy metal. Indeed, music journalist, Martin Popoff, sees Judas Priest’s second album, “Sad Wings of Destiny” as the reinvention point of heavy metal, but the album still features some of the old progressive elements. Sad_wings_of_destiny_coverThe other very important band is Rush, who began as a straightforward blues-based rock band and then quickly metamorphosed into a heavy rock band with a desire to build their music on progressive rock principles.

Progressive metal is usually regarded as a musical style that emerged in the 1980’s and that is probably because many people consider true heavy metal to have emerged in the late seventies or early ‘80s. But the way I see it is that progressive metal is as old as proto-prog and proto-metal. Perhaps proto-progressive metal should be recognized as an apt moniker for the music of those bands of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s who attempted to create music that was both artfully complex and aggressively loud and bombastic.


Antecedents of Progressive Metal 1968 to 1976 – A Suggested Playlist

Iron Butterfly – In the Time of Our Lives

Vanilla Fudge – Some Velvet Morning

Deep Purple – Wring that Neck

Andromeda – Turn to Dust

High Tide – The Great Universal Protection Racket

T.2. – In Circles

Uriah Heep – Salisbury

Necromandus – Still Born Beauty

Eloy – Castle in the Air

Nektar – Crying in the Dark

Judas Priest – Epitaph / Island of Domination

Rush – By-Tor and the Snowdog

Going Metal – The Early Years of the Heavy Metal Genre

Thinking about it now, looking back through the decades to the early years of heavy metal is like looking at a great mountain range from a distance. We can see and identify the highest and most famous peaks with ease: Mt. Led Zeppelin, Mt. Black Sabbath, and Mt. Deep Purple. And some of the lesser prominent peaks also stand out from this distance: Mt. Uriah Heep, Mt. Grand Funk Railroad, and Mt. Nazareth. We can also see beyond and further back in history Mounts Iron Butterfly, Cream, Blue Cheer, Jimi Hendrix Experience and others. But like any mountain range, there are many lesser peaks, satellite peaks, sub-peaks, and mountains of lower status and height which are not readily visible from a distance.

When I first embraced heavy metal back in my late primary school days (around 1982), I soon became intrigued by the roots of this genre and from the magazines that were available at the time – Creem, Circus, and in Canada, Metallion – I learned about the big name bands that helped create this style of music that combined musical virtuosity (at times) with energy, power, and sonic aggression. LedZeppelinThe Big 3 were of course Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple, and for a great many people, the genre was born with Black Sabbath’s early 1970 release of their eponymous debut. Black Sabbath invented heavy metal. To anyone who gave it a bit of thought, however, there were several progenitors who all contributed prior to the mighty riffs of the Black Sabbath title track.

Drummer Bill Bruford notes in his autobiography that no new form of music can suddenly appear on the scene. People need something to which they can reference new developments. (There’s that wonderful scene in Back to the Future where Marty McFly thrills the crowd with a Chuck Berry guitar solo and then leaves them stupefied with an Eddie Van Halen solo.) As Bruford points out, punk rock didn’t abruptly emerge in 1976. It was built on the garage rock music of the 1960’s which in turn was a back-to-grassroots effort to recapture the simple power of the original rock and rollers of the 1950’s.fresh cream Heavy metal experienced the same slow growth, perhaps beginning with some of the guitar rock of the late fifties and finally coming to conception with The Kinks You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night in 1964. The next several years saw this new aggressive, guitar-driven style gestate and develop with the likes of The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Jeff Beck’s fuzz tone guitar antics with The Yardbirds, the heavy blues of Cream, the guitar wizardry of Jimi Hendrix, the psychedelic rock of Iron Butterfly, the thunder of Blue Cheer, and so on. By January, 1969, when Led Zeppelin released their debut, a well-paved route to that landmark album had already been laid out and a plethora of bands of varying success existed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as on the continent.

If heavy metal was born with Black Sabbath’s debut in early 1970, then 1969 was the year the genre achieved consciousness. For this was the year that new bands started up with the desire to record entire albums of primarily fuzz tone guitar rock and not just include such styles as one of the flavours on their vinyl offerings. Though Led Zeppelin led the pack with Good Times Bad Times, Communication Breakdown, Dazed and Confused, and How Many More Times, and more tracks on their sophomore album, groups like Grand Funk Railroad, Andromeda, High Tide, and MC5 were hitting the record store shelves with various approaches to frenzied guitar rock, be it amped up blues boogie, garage aggression, or progressive heavy guitar rock. The world was being prepared for this new beast.grand funk

When both Black Sabbath and Deep Purple released their thundering guitar rock (plus organ in Purple’s case with In Rock) albums in 1970, dozens of bands in the U.S. and the U.K. were already in recording studios everywhere laying down their polished material which in many cases had already been in their repertoire for a couple of years. In the U.S. Euclid, Yesterday’s Children, Bloodrock, Sir Lord Baltimore, and others would put out their debuts. Many other bands would soon follow, like Sainte Anthony’s Fyre, Dust and May Blitz. budgieIn the U.K. bands like Budgie, Jerusalem, Iron Claw, T.2., Iron Maiden (an earlier band not related to the famous one), Leaf Hound, Necromandus, and others would set their songs to vinyl over the next couple of years. In fact, by the early 70’s there were bands all over the world who were experimenting with aggressive, fuzz tone guitar rock.

It’s interesting now to think that the proto-metal bands whose names still resonate as major contributors to the creation of the genre are mostly British. Yet the term “heavy metal” in reference to a music style seems to have come from America. Many will point out Steppenwolf’s lyric in Born to Be Wild, “Heavy metal thunder”, which is used in reference to a motorcycle engine. Indeed, Led Zeppelin make a similar reference in the lyrics to their 1975 song, Trampled Underfoot: “Check that heavy metal / Underneath your hood”. Others will cite the title of Iron Butterfly’s debut, Heavy. However, as many web sites report, the first use of heavy metal to refer to a style of music appeared in a review by Barry Gifford in the May 11, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone of a U.S. band named Electric Flag: “This is the new soul music, the synthesis of white blues and heavy metal rock.” (see Wikipedia article on heavy metal). Two years later, Mike Saunders, reviewing Humble Pie’s debut, As Safe as Yesterday Is, for Rolling Stone, wrote: “Here Humble Pie were a noisy, unmelodic, heavy metal-laden shit-rock band, with loud and noisy parts beyond a doubt.” Used in the pejorative here, it is no wonder that Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan would say in his documentary Highway Star that heavy metal is the most unflattering name for a genre of music. Heavy metal was also used to describe the music of the debuts of Grand Funk Railroad, Sir Lord Baltimore (who claim they were the first to have this label ascribed to them), and Dust.

The term heavy metal as a label for loud, aggressive, “heavy” music became quickly accepted in the U.S. and soon the label was being attached to British bands as well, with many American bands citing British acts as their inspiration. The term showed up a few years later in What’s Another Day of Rock and Roll on the debut album of Canada’s Triumph: “We’ve been five years working in a rock and roll band / blasting heavy metal right across the land.” However, after the initial rush to join the parade, many bands began turning towards more conventional rock styles and kept the guitar distortion to a radio-friendly level. Blue Cheer, Grand Funk Railroad, Stray, Nazareth, Deep Purple, and many others moved in varying degrees away from the aggressive, noisy approach of heavy metal. Other bands dissolved and some members left the music scene altogether or turned to other music styles.

rocka rollaBy 1974, when Judas Priest released their debut, Rocka Rolla, many of the old guard had changed their sound or gone away. Here heavy metal entered a chrysalis stage where few bands dared turn up the volume and fuzz. Glam rock bands such as KISS and Sweet were among the new breed of hard rock outfits that drew crowds of fans. What is sometimes labeled heavy metal in the mid-seventies gets blown out the door by the re-intensification of metal in the mid-eighties. The punk rock movement also set a new challenge for heavy metal bands. Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny was the reinvention of heavy metal, according to music journalist, Martin Popoff. Interestingly enough, the new bands to emerge in the late seventies and usher in a new era with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal built their sound on varying combinations of classic heavy metal of the early seventies, progressive rock (most notably Rush and the guitar work of bands like King Crimson, Genesis, and Yes), and punk rock.

Take Those Old Records off the Shelf

By the early nineteen seventies, the rock band or pop artist as a commodity that could be sold to millions of young people had reached a unique point in music history. Bands and artists were no longer signed to a record label solely for the purpose of making an instant profit via a hit song. Musicians were allowed to grow and develop their music, and it was understood that any one band may take two or three albums to make the payoff. Furthermore, not every band had to become an instant success to keep a record label interested. That one successful group could carry the cost of ten non-successful groups was the understanding.

As such, there were many groups who were signed to a label, recorded an album or two, and then dissolved for various reasons. Sometimes the group found their new position as a recorded artist heaped greater responsibilities on them after years of being a relatively local touring group. Some members rejected their new burden while others wanted to move on. Then there were groups who were all ready to go out and promote their new product but found that the record label was not supporting them because someone else was making the charts. Some musicians continued in the music business, others went different ways.

In the nineties, however, record collectors began discovering old albums of “unheard of” groups, and the search for the “lost classic” began. Where was that album that by all means should have been a hit? Old albums were reissued on vinyl and later on CD. In the last 10 to 15 years many of these albums have been reissued again, often with bonus tracks and CD booklets telling the story behind the band and album. Here are eight single-album bands of the seventies that I have added to my CD collection since last year.

Leaf HoundLeaf HoundGrowers of Mushroom
Vocalist Peter French is more known for his work with Atomic Rooster and Cactus but before all that there was Leaf Hound. Though the band name and album title sound drug-inspired, French insists that the names came from horror stories he was reading at the time. The band was evolved from a former incarnation called Black Cat Bones, which played mostly blues-based rock. With French on board, the band became a little heavier and fit in more closely with the likes of Led Zeppelin. After their album was recorded, the band went to Europe to tour and promote it, but when they returned to the U.K. they found the album had still not been released. Disappointed, Leaf Hound split up and French joined Atomic Rooster. Only then was the album released, but with no band to take it on tour it quickly disappeared from public interest. Two decades later. It was voted the number one collector’s item in Q Magazine. French reformed the band with new members and released a new album in 2007 called “Unleased”.

Vernon Pereira had been a regular figure in the Midlands rock scene since the mid-sixties and had even been in the Band of Joy with Robert Plant. Other members of Possessed had also performed in bands with future big names, including one member taking over for Greg Lake in Shy and member Mick Reeves being in a band with Al Atkins who would soon after form the first incarnation of Judas Priest. Possessed took their name from a description of Pereira’s stage performance – it was said that he was possessed by the music. They recorded an album in 1971 and tried to find a label that would be interested. They had no luck but continued touring around in Britain. Then in 1976 tragedy struck when early one morning their van struck a stationary tanker, killing three of the members, including Pereira. Word was the Plant and John Bonham discussed re-forming the Band of Joy for a one-off charity and tribute concert to raise money for Pereira’s wife and children but Led Zeppelin’s commitments stood in the way of making it happen. Note that this band are in no way connected with the 80’s American thrash metal band of the same name.

Dark-Round-The-Edges-ReissueDarkDark Round the Edges
Dark were three young British lads accompanied by a fourth who went to a small studio one day to cut six tracks of the music they had been working on. Guitarist Steve Giles paid for the whole production and asked for blank album sleeves to which he glued on a photo he had taken and had had printed in his father’s photo studio. They printed 30 copies at first which were given or sold to friends and family. However, the response they received was very encouraging and so they printed 30 more copies to send to record labels. They never got the response for which they had hoped, but years later when someone was cleaning out the EMI office in London, Dark’s album was discovered. It is now hailed as a very important heavy fuzz guitar album and it fetched such a high price from collector’s that all but one band member sold his copy for a handsome sum. The album was reissued on vinyl and CD by Machu Picchu Records in Oregon in 2012.

necromandusNecromandusOrexis of Death
“Yes plays the hits of Black Sabbath” was how this band was once described. Indeed, the band had a close connection with Black Sabbath and Toni Iommi even became their manager, which sadly was the ultimate reason for their demise. At first there was much excitement about the band and they often toured and played with Sabbath and even Yes. But as Black Sabbath’s career took off so did their manager. The band recorded an album and had commissioned an album cover by the legendary Roger Dean. But Iommi was overseas touring in the U.S. and there was no one to move the album through the hands of record company executives. Shortly after, the band split up. A couple of years later, Ozzy Osbourne was planning to go solo and start a band called Blizzard of Ozz. His new band was to be comprised of three of the Necromandus members. After a wild weekend of pranks and studio fun, Ozzy had a change of heart and chose to stay with Sabbath. “Orexis of Death” was finally released in 1999 and then again in 2005. A live album was also released and a “Necrothology” which included additional tracks not available on the CD version of “Orexis…” or the live album. A recent reissue puts both the studio album minus two original tracks and the live album on one CD.

ironmIron MaidenMaiden Voyage
Going by the outlandish name of BUM, this band converted from a blues act named Stevensons Blues Department to a guitar-oriented rock band with dark lyrics about black gods, rituals, and plagues. One member’s girlfriend’s father agreed to manage them if they would change their name to something more socially acceptable. Someone picked the name Iron Maiden and it became their new moniker. Working primarily in the Essex area, the band attracted the attention of a label, recorded a single with a B-side and a bunch of demos, and then got dumped. The band lost steam and split up. Come the nineties and their original studio demos were finally put out on vinyl with their single. Then surprisingly, the original master tapes turned up and the original concept for the cover (drawn on a paper napkin) was made into a new cover for a CD released in 2012. Note that this band has nothing to do with the famous heavy metal band of the same name.

When the electric blues was something new in Britain, three young dudes went to see John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and were so impressed that they knew they had to form a band, even though no one could play an instrument. Over the years they worked hard to learn how to play and write their own songs and eventually, after some personnel changes, they became Jerusalem. Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan took an interest in them and decided to produce their first album. However, after that the spirit in the band somehow changed and they soon split up afterwards. Too bad because it was a rather good debut.

In the late sixties and early seventies, if you wanted to play music in Iceland you had to be a covers band. But three young musicians had the idea of composing and playing their own songs. They managed to stir up a small following in their native country and then went over to Copenhagen, Denmark where there was more music action. They recorded an album, got some favourable reviews, played their music, and decided it was time to go back home. Fast forward to the magical 90’s and their album gets discovered on a shelf, played, and becomes a “lost classic”. Bootlegs are made and finally a proper label releases the album in early 2014. Icecross are now back together and have their own web site.

Bent WindBent WindSussex
For most Canadian bands, the sixties were a hard time to get recognized. While many obscure acts were at least getting singles out and cutting demos south of the boarder, in Canada few proper recordings got done. In Sussex, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, a heavy psychedelic act, Bent Wind recorded and released an album – 500 copies pressed. No label showed any interest and the band mostly sold their albums at their shows and even threw them as Frisbees in the park, according to the Museum of Canadian Music. Twenty years or more later, one former member was running a pawn shop and had his album pinned to the wall when a collector friend of his spied it and told him Bent Wind’s album recently sold for a few hundred dollars. Well, Bent Wind got reformed and cut two more albums. “Sussex” was recently re-released on CD with bonus tracks.

Black Sabbath, “Black Metal”, and the Occult in Music

Black-Sabbath-Black-Sabbath-498592On Friday, February 13th, 1970, a debut album by a British rock band was released in Britain, an album that would prove to be one of monumental significance and influence. “Black Sabbath” by the band of the same name took psychedelic rock and heavy blues and turned it into something darker and more sinister. The opening track – also called “Black Sabbath” – began with a distant church bell ringing solemnly in a thunderstorm. Then a massive tri-tone guitar riff played on distorted electric guitar and bass and accompanied by a crash of drums with each chord introduces the album and the world to what later some would call the first heavy metal album and the first doom metal album. The lyrics on side one mention Satan, Lucifer, and a wizard, and the dark figure on the album cover affirms the occult nature of the songs inside.

When the “Satanic” metal bands of the 1980’s began achieving their share of fame and initiated the so-called genre of Black Metal, there was likely not one among them who wouldn’t have cited Black Sabbath’s debut as a major inspiration. But Black Sabbath was not a satanic band. In the song “Black Sabbath”, even though the lyrics mention a “big black shape with eyes of fire” and “Satan’s coming round the bend” the protagonist of the story is clearly frightened out of his wits and cries out, “No, no! Please, God help me”. In the song “N.I.B.” – mistakenly thought to stand for “Nativity in Black” – the lyrics speak from Lucifer’s view point of Old Nick falling in love .

The dark imagery of the band’s lyrics and heavy, ominous music continued on subsequent albums; however, the sinister lyrics referred to the evils of the world (“Generals gathered in their masses / Just like witches at black masses” – War Pigs) and did not necessarily reflect any band member’s desire to be a practicing Satanist. Conversely, one can often hear Ozzy Osbourne singing hippy lyrics about a world of love and even encouraging a belief in God in the song “After Forever (including the elegy)” from their third album “Master of Reality” – “Would you be afraid of what your friends might say if you believe in God above / They should realize before they criticize that God is the only way to Love”. This song was later covered by a Christian thrash metal band, Deliverance in the early 90’. Even the giant crosses that were used as part of their stage sets were never inverted. Dark and referencing the occult at times in their lyrics and album art, the band did not involve themselves in any satanic worship practices. When deliberate satanic imagery was used in the album artwork, it was without prior consent from the band members.

venom_blackThe rise of Black Metal in the 1980’s saw bands taking the whole business of Satan more seriously. The British metal band, Venom, actually used circumscribed pentagrams, goats’ heads, and other symbols associated with Satanism in their album art and even called an album and song of theirs, “Black Metal”. A young Swedish musician, Thomas Forsberg (stage name, Quorthon) started the band, Bathory (named after a Hungarian countess who was rumoured to have been a killer of young women and bathed in their blood) and with their first four albums set the blueprint for Scandinavian black metal. In the U.S., Possessed also were one of the forerunners of the black metal movement. The movement caught on in Norway with some band members being associated with murder and church burning.

However, while many modern bands look to Black Sabbath as a mentor of dark music and songs about the occult, there were actually other bands prior to Black Sabbath who were not nearly as heavy in sound but quite serious about the occult in their lyrical content. Britain’s Iron Maiden, a short lived act that bears no relation to the world-famous heavy metal band, though not actually involved in the occult, wrote songs about sacrificial rituals and evil. Their only single was “God of Darkness” released early in 1970. Also from Britain, Black Widow released a few albums between 1969 and 1973 that also dealt with the occult. Their first two albums were “Return to the Sabbath” (1969) and “Sacrifice” (1970).

covenBut when it comes to early use of satanic imagery, America’s Coven goes unmatched. Their debut in 1969, entitled “Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls” includes a photo of band members giving the sign of the horns, the first time this appeared in popular culture (usually the sign’s first use is credited to the late Ronnie James Dio during his days with Black Sabbath but Coven had already done it ten years earlier). There is also an inverted cross and the band standing around a nude young woman on an altar prepared for sacrifice. Song titles include “Black Sabbath” (and a band member named Os Osbourne, too!), “Dignitaries of Hell”, and “Choke Thirst Die”, plus a song about a witch. Unlike many bands then and later on who used the occult and Satanism for entertainment only, the members of Coven were quite serious about their beliefs and were well-read in the subject. The final track on their debut album is over 13 minutes of an initiation ritual of a neophyte. The music was not really heavy and still steeped in psychedelic rock with a jazz tinge. But when it came to knowing about devil worship, these guys were as close to real deal as one could get.

After the end of bands like Coven and Black Widow in the mid-seventies, one would imagine that occult rock had gone away until the revival in the 80’s. Not so. Searching for proto-metal bands on YouTube brings up a varied selection of underground and little known heavy metal bands with dark, satanic imagery on their covers and in their lyrics. Check out the videos below to see that Venom, Bathory, Possessed, Slayer, and the many other bands that came after were nothing new but building on and expanding upon what, to various extents, had already long been established.

Zior – Entrance of the Devil, 1971

Bedemon – Nightime Killers, 1974

Seompi – Almost in a Hole, 1970

Pentagram – Be Forewarned

Wicked Lady – Psychotic Overkill, 1972

Iron Claw – Skullcrusher, 1970

Pinnacle – The Ripper, 1974

Macabre – Be Forwarned (later to become Pentagram)

Necromandus – Nightjar, 1972

Salem Mass – Witch Burning, 1971

Bulbous Creation – Satan, 1970

Who Were The Firebirds/The 31 Flavors? – A Music History Mystery

I love a good music mystery and I discovered another good one concerning a pair of albums made by a band of two names, The Firebirds and The 31 Flavors, in the late sixties.

The Firebirds album “Light My Fire” and the 31 Flavors album “Hair” were both published on the Crown Records label, apparently the former in 1968 and the latter in 1969. Both albums feature the use of heavy distortion and a Jimi Hendrix-inspired approach largely overlaid with Blue Cheer fondness for heaviness. As such, these two heavy psychedelic albums have earned themselves a place among the ranks of other proto-metal artists from the late 60’s.

But who were The Firebirds/The 31 Flavors? It seems the albums have caught the attention of many bloggers and music reviewers around the world and some posts include several comments by people who are familiar with the recordings. There are some conflicting facts: for example, one writer says that Crown was the British supermarket label answer to the American K-Tel and thus the band(s) must be British, while another site says they were probably from L.A.

Recently Gear Fab Records have released a double-disk re-issue of these two albums and I ordered a copy from Amazon. The CD comes in a mini-album paper sleeve with a single square sheet of paper printed on one side only with minimal background information. To understand the recordings well, it seems one has to know about Crown Records, and there is an excellent web site here: The Crown Records Story. As it explains, Crown Records emerged as a budget label of the New York-based Modern and RPM Records (suggesting the band was likely American). At first they re-issued previously published stock but later began releasing new recordings. In many cases, existing hit songs were re-recorded on Crown by bands that often included one former member of the band that created the hit song. Crown often bought the rights to songs for a flat fee to avoid paying royalties and session musicians were paid a daily wage. Crown became known as the “King of Junk” for all its shoddy rehashes of well-known songs and albums comprised largely of filler.

Based on what I have found, The Firebirds/The 31 Flavors (and later in 1969 known as The Electric Firebirds on their “Dance Party Time” album) were likely a young group that was paid to record covers of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and later songs from the “Hair” musical soundtrack, “Hair” and “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” for Crown Records. To fill the album, the group were permitted to record their own songs, and as many of the songs are instrumentals, I suspect that they were likely a trio of guitar/bass/drums with one member providing vocals on a few songs. Not on any of the web sites I checked nor on the square paper that came with the CD is any credit given to any band members, and considering Crown’s policy of buying up rights and paying musicians a working wage, it’s no surprise that no one was given any credit. Quite likely the albums were just meant to be sold to poorly discerning buyers who only recognized the titles of the well-known songs printed in large letters on the album cover.

As for the albums, the music suggests a young band that had some songs well-rehearsed and ready for studio recording but some others that sound as though they were possibly improvised and recorded after only one or two rehearsals, particularly on the first album. The running order of the songs on the album cover is not the same as on the CD and I found that on some sites that picture the original vinyl albums, the running order is different again. Here’s a quick run down of the music on the Gear Fab re-issue.

The+Firebirds+Light+My+FireThe Firebirds – Light My Fire

Light My Fire – The title track sounds like a guitar/bass/drum backing track for the famous Doors’ song. It’s in a slightly different groove but you can sing the lyrics to the music. Maybe try a deep and smooth lounge singer vocal style and see how that works.

Delusions – This introduces the mega-fuzz guitar but needs some help. I can’t help think that this one was not well-rehearsed prior to recording.

Reflections – Takes on a very serious heavy psych/fuzz guitar journey, complete with Mitch Mitchel style drumming and a rudimentary attempt to blend Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” with Blue Cheer’s more doomy sound.

Bye Bye Baby – A blues effort of b-grade.

Gypsy Fire – Send in the Hendrix mimics. The vocal style here is a deliberate attempt to sound like the legendary JH.

Free Bass – A short instrumental that features a not-so-interesting bass solo. This track is actually part of an instrumental piece that also featured a drum solo and a guitar solo but those two would not appear until the “Hair” album. I listened to the three instrumentals back to back and clearly they are from the same session.

No Tomorrows – Ultra fuzz here as the band reach the apex of their proto-metal sensibilities. The sound is rather crappy and it reminds me of my best friend and I at the age of 16 and before we took any guitar lessons jamming in his bedroom. There are audible pops in the sound that suggest this CD release was taken straight from the vinyl. In spite of the sound quality and garage band sound, the song does attempt to push the boundaries of heavy rock. The guitar solo and accompanying drums, however, sound unfocused and could have used more work.

Warm Up – The opening track on the original album, this song has left me with little impression. It seems I already removed it from my iPhone!

thirtyoneThe 31 Flavors – Hair

Hair – Appalling.  Who is singing? Someone was drunk and taking the piss on Bob Dylan. “Not lack for bread”? Good only as a painful joke.

Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine In – A young woman who didn’t place in a high school singing contest gets the lead vocals here. Sometimes going flat, this is one of the most abysmally performed vocal performances I have ever heard on record.

Protest – Has potential. Less distortion (none on the Hair songs). With a little more work this could have turned into something. As it is, it’s not too shabby.

Free Fuzz – The guitar solo part of the the “Free” series. At times the guitarist seems to be on to something but I think the “Free” series was just an improv jam session. At least the distortion is back.

One-Two-Three-Four – Another song that seems to have great potential. Perhaps after a year or so of playing together, the band actually managed to work out their material more for their second recording session with Crown. Another no-distortion number that resembles a less intense song by the very intense Sonics.

Real Far Out – The distortion is back but used with a little more attention to detail here. This is an instrumental that show cases the guitar playing in a bluesy kind of style.

Free Drums – The drum solo in the “Free” series.

Distortions of Darkness – Ah, here we have the song, or instrumental, that most proto-mental fanatics (including me) came for. The guitar here attempts to make Blue Cheer look like a flower meadow. Actually, it reminds me of a very early version of the music of Pelican on “What We All Come to Need”.

All in all, a few tracks here make this double-album CD release worth checking out. Whatever happened to the band? With this re-issue of their work will someone stand up and claim it as theirs? Did anyone later become famous elsewhere? Or did everyone take up non-musical careers and are now enjoying their retirement oblivious to the fact that their music has now garnered interest?

Here are links to other sites that discuss these two albums. Read the reviews for some wonderful descriptions of the music.