The History of Heavy Metal – Chapter Six: Break On Through

The years of 1967 and ’68 were arguably the most influential and important years in the evolutionary history of pop music. The world of pop music prior and the world of pop music after look very different from one another. As far as the development of heavy metal was concerned, the psychedelic peak years were the period when some classic proto-metal music was recorded.

In chapter five we considered four developing sub-genres of pop music – British invasion electric blues, American garage rock and its British counterpart known as freak beat, the nascent progressive rock scene, and the emerging psychedelic music scene which was very closely tied to the proto-progressive bands (chiefly The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention). The psychedelic explosion that occurred over the above-mentioned two years altered the other three sub-genres profoundly. Blues artists such as Cream and The Yardbirds entered the psychedelic years on strong legs and experimented with the immensely varied possibilities that psychedelic music created. Cream gave us two very different and remarkable albums with “Disraeli Gears” in ’67 and “Wheels of Fire” in ’68. Their blues sound became less emphasized but their music more diverse and imaginative, yet still they managed to keep the blues an integral part of their music and scored memorable hits with “Strange Brew”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, and “Crossroads”. Yet despite their success, or because of it, Cream disbanded in 1969.

The Yardbirds, under the guidance of Jimmy Page, were moving toward a harder blues rock sound; however their 1967 album “Little Games” was influenced too greatly by their producer Giorgio Gomelsky who pushed for more quirky British psychedelic songs. Though Page continued to steer the band toward heavy psychedelic rock, the band dissolved before the end of ’68 and Page hastily summoned new members, forming The New Yardbirds who soon changed their name to Led Zeppelin. Their debut album in January of 1969 is a landmark album in the history of heavy metal music.

The garage rock and freak beat scenes were divided from the beginning with some bands pursuing more pleasing pop numbers while others preferred a grittier sound with rough vocals and fuzz tone guitar. The Seeds and The Sonics both emerged early on with their distinctive sounds – The Seeds with a sneer and penchant for fuzz tone and The Sonics with their highly energetic and aggressive approach. Their styles, however, became significantly mellow during the peak psychedelic years. On the other hand, The Litter and The Amboy Dukes (led by Ted Nugent) went in a heavier direction with The Litter’s final album in ’69 being as much a proto-punk album as a proto-metal one, and The Amboy Dukes experimenting with heavy guitar-based progressive music by the end of the decade. Britain’s The Attack also turned heavier with the inclusion of guitarist John Cann, and though they would dissolve in ’68, Cann would create his heavy progressive act Andromeda during the final year of The Attack’s existence. Ultimately, though, garage rock would lose popularity and run its course as psychedelic music encouraged more experimental and often more complex music.

The progressive music scene was likely the one that benefited most from the psychedelic explosion exactly because it encouraged experimentation and complexity. Early landmarks were The Beatles “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” for its almost conceptual nature and Procol Harum’s hit “Whiter Shade of Pale”, which was derivative of Bach and further expressed the concept of writing pop music with classical influences. Indeed already The Beatles and The Beach Boys had already created albums that were meant to be listened to and not just music for dancing and parties. By the year 1969, progressive rock was miles ahead with debut albums by King Crimson and Yes, and the envelop-pushing sounds of The Nice.

Psychedelic music gave musicians and song writers the freedom to explore any approach they desired. This meant music could be mellow and sweet with acoustic guitars, flute, organ, and harmony vocals (many Summer of Love anthems), loud and powerful with brass and deep, soulful vocals (The Electric Flag, Tom Jones), trippy and experimental with in-studio effects or guitar and organ effects (Jefferson Airplane’s “After Bathing at Baxter’s”), or raucous and aggressive (Blue Cheer’s “Vincebus Eruptum”). As such, some bands sought a heavier sound with emphasis on electric guitar and distortion effects. To accompany this, louder and more powerful vocals were often necessary. The rhythm section of drums and bass also advanced to help create more complex music. In particular, changes in the styles of drumming occurred with great leaps as drummers with strong jazz backgrounds contributed their talents and eastern rhythms were introduced in western music. Ron Bushy’s drum solo in Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was distinctive of the new drumming styles of the late sixties.

Few would argue against the notion that heavy metal’s most recognizable instrument is the electric guitar with its distortion. Guitar playing was already making great advances in the early to mid-sixties with musicians like Dick Dale, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and the lesser-known Ritchie Blackmore developing new methods of playing. But in early 1967, one man would bring to the table a way of guitar playing and song-writing that was unprecedented. Jimi Hendrix dropped jaws at his debut appearance at the Marquee in London, and among those jaws that fell open were those of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Pete Townshend. The Jimi Hendrix Experience released the single “Purple Haze” in March, 1967 and their debut “Are You Experienced” came out in May of the same year. Hendrix’s blend of traditional blues with eastern modalities, guitar distortion and his unique style made him a sensation. His band’s short run would produce a number of classic hits and as well influence countless musicians, particularly those in the still nascent heavy metal and hard rock genres.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream produced two of the most memorable guitar riffs in 1967 with “Purple Haze” and “Sunshine of Your Love” respectively. The Who, following The Beatles example of a concept album, recorded their commercial sell-out concept album, “The Who Sell Out” and featured the killer psychedelic hard rocker “I Can See for Miles”. Jefferson Airplane began the year of ’67 with their classic album “Surrealistic Pillow” that scored two hits: “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”. But it was their follow-up to that, “After Bathing at Baxter’s” where the guitar experimental sounds and a harder edge to some songs entered their repertoire. Fellow California-born band The Doors held no bars with the frantic pace of “Break On Through (to the other side)“. The Yardbirds album “Little Games” might have been a disappointment to many; however, “Think About It” on side B introduced an early version of the guitar solo that would appear on Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” in ’69. Meanwhile on the American east coast, Vanilla Fudge were creating a unique sound with soulful vocals, Hammond organ, and a heavy guitar sound. Their covers of “You Keep Me Hanging On” and “Ticket to Ride” caught the attention of many musicians, including one Ritchie Blackmore who decided that he would like to create a band like Vanilla Fudge. Also worthy of mention in ’67 was the debut of Pink Floyd, which featured some loud and experimental guitar numbers “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Domine”.

Amidst these stand out points, there were bands across the western hemisphere who were exploring heavy psychedelic and aggressive garage rock. As 1967 reached its autumn, new bands were recording debut albums to be released in January of ’68. That month gave us two excellent proto-metal hits with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” and Blue Cheer’s bombastic thundering cover of “Summertime Blues”. Also in that month, Iron Butterfly released its debut with “Iron Butterfly Theme” being an exemplary instrumental of loud, heavy psychedelic rock.

The year 1968 also saw the formation of Deep Purple, and though the music on their first three albums would pale beneath the thunderhead album that was “Deep Purple in Rock” in 1970, there was still a drive by Ritchie Blackmore to feature energetic and creative rock music with classical influences and hard rock guitar shredding. Some of Blackmore’s most volatile solos can be heard on these early albums.

It was the year of a turning point in rock music. Though 1968 saw certain bands reach the peak of their careers, there were new bands forming in the wings, and while the older bands whose careers had already spanned two or three years – or even more in some cases – were continuing with the current trends, the new bands were picking out the best of the heavy sounds and preparing themselves for the final year of the sixties. Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” had produced yet another classic proto-metal riff. Jimmy Page was taking a violin bow to his guitar. Jeff Beck had released his debut with Rod Stewart on vocals. Vanilla Fudge were getting heavier. The influence of Blue Cheer’s debut was rippling outward. Cream and The Yardbirds were getting heard in America. The Who were enjoying worldwide success. The Beatles tried to top The Who by recording the pounding stomper “Helter Skelter”. If anything, hard-hitting, heavy and aggressive rock music was becoming attractive. And the new bands of 1969 would usher in the next generation of heavy rock, a style that would earn itself the title heavy metal.

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

Most documentaries and accounts of the history of heavy metal music will mention the debut album by Black Sabbath as the first instance of the popular music sub-genre. Others will report initial stirrings of the style in the psychedelic years of the late sixties. But even by 1966, the elements that would combine in various degrees to create the music that would be called heavy metal were already in place.

Chapter Five: The Four Pillars of Foundation

Rock and roll music was the result of a natural evolutionary process of popular musical styles, and as rock and roll matured, so did it grow and evolve on its own. In the early 1960’s, new styles and new sounds had emerged, first from the United States and then, as rock and roll caught on across the Atlantic, the British began making their contributions. Though heavy metal was still several years away from being recognized in any way as a distinct subgenre of rock, the four most important musical elements present in rock were in place by 1966.

The Blues Just Got Heavier

The British loved the American blues, and one of the most prominent bands to take on the blues classics had lost their guitar player. Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds in 1965 and went on to play with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. In the meantime, Jeck Beck joined the Yardbirds and helped the band explore a more aggressive style of blues, blues with an edge and an attitude. By the time Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds in 1966, the band was moving in new directions that meant a lot of their songs were blues-based but bore little resemblance to what they had been recording in 1964.

Then Eric Clapton left John Mayall and teamed up with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce, and together they recorded a blues album that was to be a landmark in the foundation of heavy music. “Fresh Cream”, the debut album by the power trio, featured music that both closely adhered to the classic blues roots and introduced a heavier, more hair-raising rock band sound. In particular, the band’s cover of “Spoonfull” included some very heavy music in certain moments, and the guitar sound and chords for the band’s introduction to Ginger Baker’s drum solo “Toad” were among the most heavy music to date if not the heaviest. The sound was two to three years ahead of its time, and the album became legendary.

Transatlantic Call and Response

As the garage rock scene had gained popularity in the United States, it was natural that British youth would want to try their hands at it. Bands like The Kinks and The Who were already making hits in 1964 and 1965, and it was a style of music that became part of the Mod subculture. The Mods who started out as fashion-conscious young men who listened to jazz in the late 50’s; however by the mid-sixties rock and Mods had become interrelated. Britain produced a number of bands among which some of the most popular and influential were The Action, The Creation, and The Attack. Although their music in 1966 was still entrenched in pleasing pop melodies, the guitar-based music meant that fuzz boxes were a natural complement to the music, and guitarists who were keen to experiment with sounds and the developing harder style of playing could express their ideas through their respective bands’. In particular, The Attack would go on to produce some heavy rock before dissolving with new guitarist John Cann going on to form an even heavier band, Andromeda.

Back across the ocean in the U.S., the British take on rock was inspiring to many Americans, and soon a new breed of bands doing covers of British music as well as their own originals began releasing albums. Two of the biggest bands to emerge were The Amboy Dukes with a young Ted Nugent on lead guitar and The Litter whose 1967 song “Action Woman” would earn them popularity and a place in the classic garage rock period of the 1960’s. Another band most noteworthy was The Misunderstood from Riverside, California. Initially a blues band performing songs in a similar vein to the earliest of The Yardbirds recordings, things changed when they moved to London in 1966 and lived in the heart of swinging London’s burgeoning psychedelic culture. The music took a decided turn towards heavy psychedelic rock with a steel lap guitar being used very effectively for Eastern scales. The six songs they recorded at Fontana in 1966 almost edge into early heavy prog.

Freak beat music as it later became termed, gradually developed in a more energetic and aggressive style, with The Who being the pinnacle of loudness and aggressive performances. As such, garage rock and freak beat music became the progenitors of punk rock.

Progress in the Studio

Up until now, the studio had been a place to record the music that the various artists performed live. In 1965, however, a new American group going by the name of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were busy in the studio experimenting with how music and sounds could be manipulated and combined to create music that would be quite different from what a rock band might typically perform live. Across the Atlantic, The Beatles took inspiration from Zappa and applied this new concept of how the studio could be used for the recording of their album “Rubber Soul”. In a typical fashion of transatlantic trading, The Beatles inspired American Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys who took his surf music band into new territory with “Pet Sounds”. The album not only featured an array of sounds and unconventional instruments but also incorporated elements of jazz, exotica, classical and the avant-garde. It became hailed in Britain at the time as the most progressive pop album ever. Thus, the notion that rock music could grow beyond its roots had now become material. The Beatles responded with “Revolver”, and as such the earliest stirrings of the progressive rock movement had begun.

The use of the studio for creating music and the incorporation of different styles and sounds would play important rolls in the development of heavy metal as rock grew and expanded over the following years. In particular, the new progressive movement encouraged musicians to create an album of carefully crafted and related songs as opposed to putting out an album of three singles and filler tracks. This would be important as heavy guitar-based music led to heavy prog and heavy metal.

The Start of the Trip

The Beatles and Brian Wilson wrote and experimented with music while under the influence of psychedelic drugs. During the period of 1965 and 1966, there was a change in how musicians regarded their abilities and many of them sought to exploit their individual creative talents through the help of so-called mind-expanding drugs. In fact, as South African Ramsey MacKay of Freedom’s Children explained in an interview:

“Something subliminal happened to kids in the ’50s and ’60s that was precursor to the drugs,” he explains. “Drugs was not just about drugs. In the beginning Freedom’s Children took no drugs [and] what we saw on the drugs was what we were aware of anyway…that the world was (and still is) run by squares who relied on fear and authority to stifle any way of seeing the world differently.

“The ’60s drug scene is much more related to people who took drugs in the 19th century, starting with the Romantic Movement in poetry and thinking and moving on to the Symbolists in France – people such as Verlaine, Rimbaud and Bauderlaire,” he continues. “One cannot understand the ’60s without knowing that drugs only played a part in what was naturally coming out of our brains. Drugs made a metaphor of which the reality was already in that generation.”

Certainly musicians who used drugs began creating rock music that was different from anything that had come before. In addition to the effects of drugs, there was a general interest in consciousness expanding. Eastern music and sounds, such as those produced by the sitar, were considered to have a strong influence on opening up the consciousness. The Kinks and The Beatles were among the first to use sitars on their recordings. But the buzz of a guitar played through a fuzz box could also create similar sounds.

Thus with the beginning of psychedelic music and progressive music, the new notion that pop music could be something for really listening to and not just dancing to started to take hold. Musicians experimented with their instruments and bands added instruments not previously associated with rock and roll. By 1966, new bands such as Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company and a young American guitarist named Jimi Hendrix were preparing to shake down the popular music scene with their unique styles of playing.

Heavier blues, more aggressive garage bands, progressive pop music, and the advent of psychedelia in music – these became four crucial elements that would combine in various ways and create the new subgenre of heavy metal.

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.







The Quest for the First Heavy Metal Song – Part Two

Bitter Creek’s “Plastic Thunder” is posted on YouTube with the claim that it is the first ever heavy metal song and that it is from 1967. In part one I took a look at this claim and tried to discover the real date of publication, which seems likely to be fall of 1968, as well as I considered what other proto-metal songs and albums were being released in 1968. In part two we’ll take a look at seven albums with proto-metal tendencies that could make the claim for the Bitter Creek song invalid even if it is from 1967. We’ll go in reverse from the release dates.

The Who Sell Out by The Who – recorded May to November, released in December
Surely one of proto-metal’s favourites, The Who easily make the list with their early use of guitar distortion, their highly energetic playing, and their influence on both the heavy metal and punk rock genres. The Who Sell Out includes “Armenia City in the Sky” which positively stomps in the rhythm section while Pete Townsend’s guitar plays in fuzz box frenzy both forwards and backwards. The album is most famous, though, for “I Can See for Miles” which, according to one story, Pete Townsend said was the grittiest, heaviest song they’d recorded or, according to another story, was reported by one music critic as being the heaviest song he’d ever heard. In both versions, the claim is supposed to have inspired Paul McCartney to write “Helter Skelter” in an effort to one-up the Who in heaviness.

After Bathing at Baxter’s by Jefferson Airplane – recorded June to October, released in November
Least likely of the seven to be considered a proto-metal album, Jefferson Airplane’s third album took a sharp turn away stylistically from their previous album, released earlier in the same year. While Surrealistic Pillow showcased the bands inventive combination of folk and commercial psychedelia, After Bathing… saw them embrace more wholly the experimental guitar trend of the time. Guitar distortion was used liberally and although most of the tracks are still too light weight to be considered “heavy metal”, there are parts when the band do turn up the energy and let go with some fuzzy guitar solos backed by some chunky bass and allow themselves to venture into some heavy power chord territory.

Disraeli Gears by Cream – recorded in May, released in November
Cream had already established themselves in the world of heavy guitar and distortion on their 1966 debut. Their sophomore album was lighter in regards to sound but perhaps more metal as they attempted to write shorter songs that were steeped in guitar distortion and mostly not covers of American blues classics as much of their first album had been. “Sunshine of Your Love” was the hit single that presaged heavy metal music with it’s power chord chorus, but other songs like “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and “SWABLR” with it’s ripping hard rock guitar intro easily fall into the proto-metal pack. Not forgetting to mention, Eric Clapton was already a guitar god whose solos graced every song and Ginger Baker was perhaps the first drummer to introduce the double bass drum set up.

Vanilla Fudge by Vanilla Fudge – released in August
In 1967, this band’s calling card was their re-arrangement of R&B and pop hits which filled the well-know songs with a flood of organ, waves of gospel-like chorus vocals, and a guitar and drum section that gave the songs sonic weight. Though not as heavy as their third to fifth albums would prove to be, this early attempt at combining heavy guitar with original arrangements of cover songs makes Vanilla Fudge’s debut both a proto-metal and a proto-prog album.

Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd – recorded February to May, released in August
Though Pink Floyd is not a band to be confused as heavy metal, they have given the genre their fair share of influence. Their debut, now cited as one of the most defining albums of the psychedelic era, was a blend of experimental musical sounds, exotic instrumental passages, and quirky English children’s story book type lyrics. Two tracks that stand out in the proto-metal field here are the lengthy experimental instrumental “Interstellar Overdrive” and the less aggressive but eerie sci-fi number “Astonomy Domine” which was later covered by Canadian speed and progressive metal band, Voivod.

Little Games by the Yardbirds – recorded March to May, released in July
This could have been one phenomenal guitar album. Jimmy Page was now the (sole) lead guitarist after Jeff Beck quit the band and he was very keen on continuing the band’s role as one of the flagship British bands in guitar experimentation. Live, the Yardbirds were playing their heavy guitar classics and extending them by playing longer solos and adding Jimmy’s violin bow technique. But when it came time to record an album, the record company unwisely decided to call in producer Micky Most and try to get some pop-charting singles out of the band. The result was disappointing for everyone, and Jimmy Page’s opportunity to showcase on vinyl what he had been doing live was nearly nullified. Fortunately, a bit of fast fingering on electric guitar and distortion still get served in small helpings. The best though is on “Think About It” where the early workings of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” guitar solo can bee heard.

Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience – record December 1966 to April 1967, released in May
Though his music was a combination of traditional blues and R&B, it was unlike anything anyone had ever heard of before. There is hardly any need to expound upon Jimi Hendrix’s influence on rock music in general, never mind guitar music, hard rock, and heavy metal. But as an example, the following remarks and accolades are mentioned on the Wikipedia page about the album: “American musicologist Gilbert Chase asserted that the album ‘marked a high peak in hard rock’.” “The Miami Herald credits it for introducing… the guitar style of heavy metal.” “Kerrang! Magazine listed the album at #41 among the ‘100 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums of All Time’.” “Creem magazine named the album number six on the Top Ten Metal Albums of the 20th century.” And remember that “Purple Haze” – a proto-metal classic – goes back to late 1966.

I think we can see that the claim that Bitter Creek’s “Plastic Thunder” is the first heavy metal song has some very heavy competition. I would rather simply place the song among the pantheon of landmark proto-metal songs that were coming out of those consequential years of 1967 and 1968. But to every story there is a prequel and in the third and final installment of the quest to find the first heavy metal song, I will look back even further to a selection of ten songs recorded between 1964 and 1966.

The Quest for the First Heavy Metal Song – Part One

Long ago, when I was in elementary school and had fallen in love with heavy metal music, I read in a magazine that heavy metal was born in 1964. I wondered where I could find music from that time, having no one around me who could corroborate the story and point me in the right direction. I somehow ended up buying Deep Purple’s eponymous third album and believed erroneously that it was from 1964 (though actually it was 1969).

I always kept an ear to the ground from then on and in my high school days I amassed a collection of cassettes and used LPs of bands like Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, Ten Years After, Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Yardbirds, The Who, The Kinks, Humble Pie, Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin, and so on.

A couple of weeks ago my interest in the roots of metal was revived, and I was checking out video postings on YouTube of heavy psychedelic rock/acid rock/proto-metal and stumbled across a psychedelic-styled animated video to a song called “Plastic Thunder” by a group named Bitter Creek. The video title claimed the song was from 1967 and was the first heavy metal song. I was curious. I honestly could not say what the first heavy metal song was as it depends on how one defines “the first heavy metal song” and “heavy metal”. (Wikipedia’s entries for “hard rock” and “heavy metal” attempt to explain the difference but as Wiki says, in the early days the distinction between the two was not clear cut and many songs fell into both categories). But I listened to the song and was quite impressed.

The song opens with a very distorted guitar sound that immediately reminded me of the sounds on albums by Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer, or even Jefferson Airplane. Soon though, we understand that this song is in the vein of Blue Cheer because it sounds really heavy. The vocals are gruff and the rhythm section also suitably aggressive with timely cymbal crashes and some fast drumming in place of a steady single beat. The song’s main riff follows the typical rock 1,4,5 pattern, easily recognizable in songs like “Louie, Louie” and “Wild Thing”. A powerful riff makes the second verse climb in tension towards the chorus. The song features two guitar solos – one in the usual place after the second chorus and another before the song’s finale. Though the music follows a rather standard rock format regarding composition, the song’s heavy sound, distorted guitar, and serious (heavy) lyrics do make it a candidate for early heavy metal in my books.

“Someone’s screaming in the darkness / Tears are streaming from the heartless / Plastic world that keeps me dreaming / I hear distant rumbling sounds of thunder.”

“Fiery skies and rain and thunder / Break the walls that keep me under / Spells of fear and spells of sorrow / Fiery skies and rain and sounds of thunder.”

Certainly these lyrics and the heavy sound rank above just about anything I can think that ever heard of from 1967. But is this truly a song from that year? As mentioned above, the guitar sound is similar to that on some other contemporaneous albums. Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer, and Steppenwolf all recorded their debut albums in the fall of ’67 and they were all released in January of 1968. Blue Cheer was the heaviest of the lot, their rendition of “Summertime Blues” nearly approaching speed metal in tempo and with a thundering guitar that gallops along like a warhorse. The whole album maintains this auditory assault. Iron Butterfly recorded a wonderful proto-metal instrumental entitled “Iron Butterfly Theme” with some choice heavy guitar chords and guitar effects but the rest of the album was rather light-weight in comparison. Steppenwolf’s album included distortion and solos too and even used the words “heavy metal” though it was in reference to a motorcycle engine. But musically, neither band was as heavy as Blue Cheer. As for Jefferson Airplane, their albums employed fuzz boxes from the onset but their music was a blend of folk and psychedelia and rarely approached the proto-metal corner.

So the real clincher is whether or not “Plastic Thunder” is from 1967. Searching the Internet, I found that most sites (blogs and music forums) that cited the song as a 1967 recording were responding to the YouTube post. I did however find that LastFM wrote that the song was from 1968 while WikiAnswers says the song is from 1966. I don’t believe it’s from ’66 at all because the style of song writing and composition is just too advanced for the year.

I decided to see if I couldn’t track down the song on CD and I found it on a compilation called “Psychedelic States: Georgia in the 60s (Vol. I)”. The “Psychedelic States” series was published by Gear Fab Records and started with three volumes of music from Florida and then moved on to Georgia. Whether the series ever reached all 48 contingent states or all 50 states I do not know, but I read several reviews of people who had other states and claimed the music was great but the sound quality went downhill as the project continued.

I found a copy of “Georgia” in the Amazon Marketplace and for a very reasonable price and I ordered it. The liner notes are quite detailed for some bands but Bitter Creek’s notes only say that they were possibly from Atlanta and that their single “Plastic Thunder” was released on Mark IV in the fall of ’68, backed with “Behind the Smiles”. (It would be interesting to hear that b-side.) An additional observation is that of all the songs on the compilation (27 in total) quite a few make use of guitar distortion; however, the songs from ’67 and older tend to follow the garage rock format of music composition. Only one other track comes even close to matching Bitter Creek’s aggressive rocker and that’s the Spontaneous Generation’s “Up in My Mind” with reverb guitar distortion for a very psychedelic approach to suit the psychedelic title. It too is said to be from ’68. One has to wonder what other bombastic heavy rockers turned up on the other discs in the Psychedelic States series and in what year they were recorded.

So, the compilation CD says “Plastic Thunder” is from the fall of ’68 – after Blue Cheer’s “Vincebus Eruptum”. But could it have been a typo? I searched the Net for an image of the single on vinyl and tried to see if a date was printed on the disc but the image was too small to make out clearly. LastFM and Gear Fab say the song is from 1968 while the video on YouTube says it’s from 1967. It would be nice if the artists would come forth and shed some light on the issue. So many “lost” heavy psych and proto-metal gems – some of which had never even seen an vinyl pressing – have in the last decade made it to re-mastered CD as the Internet has helped to spread the word about these old treasures, and the original musicians are turning up with their stories. Bitter Creek, where are you guys?

In part two, I will take a look at other proto-metal songs of 1967 and then in part three I’ll look back over ’66, ’65, and ’64 and we’ll see what other songs might have been associated with the first rumblings of heavy metal.