May 1st, 2009
Approach the average fifteen year old punk-ass teeny-bopper and ask them to name the earliest metal band they can. Go ahead, I'll wait. Let me guess, they said Metallica, right? That's because to the average teenage loser, music started no earlier than the 1990's, and everything preceding it was just cavemen pounding on stuff with the bones of their dead relatives. If you're lucky, you'll meet a kid who has had some proper history lessons and they'll say Van Halen or Guns N' Roses, and maybe one out of fifty can came some metal from the 1970's. And there's probably a few who could only name modern metal bands like Disturbed or Saliva, since anything released prior to 2003 is for "geezers" of the ripe old age of twenty.
Now I'm no expert on the history of rock, but I know damn well that metal started in the '70s, and has its roots beginning ten years earlier. Being somewhere around 26 years old I'm a prime candidate to be listening to the modern stuff, but my tastes tend to run to the olden days, when someone could play an awesome guitar solo (seemingly a lost art, although some of the young metal bands out there can pull it off), singers did more than just scream and growl into microphones and a drummer was more useful than just keeping time like a metronome.
Heavy metal can be traced back to ancient China, when Confucius found an electric sitar and started throwing down some heavy riffs (which were later plagiarized by Def Leppard). He started a five-person ensemble called Konfucius and the Analects of Destruction, whose biggest hit, "Study, Self Cultivate or Die!" reached #4 on the Yang-Tze Billboard charts. Sadly, the group disbanded when Confucius started getting really preachy about restoring the Mandate of Heaven.
But that's all complete bullshit. Maybe I should do some research.
One of the primary hallmarks of metal music is the guitar. But this isn't your dad's old acoustic guitar, or even your brother's Fender Squire hooked up to a twenty dollar amp. I'm talking about a guitar whose sound has been twisted, shredded apart, super-glued back together in wood shop class and covered in a tasty marinara sauce.
Before there was metal, several guitarists were responsible for getting this sound out of the garage and onto radios everywhere. Three big leaders were Dave Davies of The Kinks, Pete Townsend from The Who and, above everyone else, Jimi Hendrix. While Davies and Townsend were doing moderate distortion, feedback and overdrive, Hendrix took these sounds to their limit, turning his six strings into an entire band by itself, a one-instrument symphony of incredible music (of course, Hendrix had a drummer and bassist, and later a full band, but the focus was always on his abilities). Listen to the other rock albums which came out at this time and you see that Hendrix was truly revolutionary with his sound.
Other important guitarists were Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Leslie West and Michael Monarch, who played guitar for Steppenwolf.
The second mark of metal is the lyrics. They're slightly poetic, in a less-than-Shakespearian fashion, and while many consider metal lyrics to be dark and depressing, most metal bands actually stick to five inconsequential subjects: drugs, drinking, going to hell, partying, and lots of sex (while these subjects may not seem "inconsequential" to some, I don't consider someone getting laid and puffing on a joint as world-changing as an all-out nuclear war).
And don't take that "slightly poetic" statement as a slam against metal. Plenty of metal bands could do some serious lyrics (like Iron Maiden). I just don't consider them to be in league with Keats and Poe.
Since people have been singing about sex and various other debaucheries for a long time, it's hard to pin down exactly when the lyrics of heavy metal first started showing up. Some say Steppe&wolf's "Born to be Wild" and The Beatles "Helter Skelter" were precursors, while others say Black Sabbath were the first to do truly metal lyrics. But perhaps that's because many believe Sabbath to be the first metal band.
Which leads me to my next topic. Who was truly the first band to kick-start this music craze? Poking around on Wikipedia, they claim that Led Zeppelin was the first, but they also say that Zeppelin was the first hard rock band (which I believe to be a different style). Since Wikipedia can't make up its damn mind, I did some digging around online and found basically nothing but blogs with people's opinions on who the first band was (Iron Butterfly was an interesting choice). I can't seem to find any experts who can agree on anything, so I'm going to have to say Black Sabbath was truly the first metal band.
Sabbath released a sound pretty different from what the other bands at the time were doing. While their first self-titled album is somewhat lost to time (except to the true fans), their second album, "Paranoid," became an huge hit and showcased a band that had a unique sound. Mixing heavy guitar with dark, hard lyrics, songs like "War Pigs" and "Ironman" stood out, if for no reason than the fact that no other bands were doing music like this at the time.
Another metal release from the same time was Deep Purple's album "In Rock". The songs "Speed King" and "Child in Time" were the biggest hits off of this album, but most importantly this album showed the band's change in direction. Their previous hit, "Hush" had been bigger than these two songs, but their popularity grew with the albums after "In Rock", notably "Machine Head", which had two of their most popular songs: "Smoke on the Water" and "Highway Star".
Sadly, any youngster who listens to "Highway Star" today is likely to disqualify it as heavy metal (just as they're not willing to consider Eric Clapton's band Cream to be an early hard rock band). But that's what happens when our schools don't teach proper "history of rock" music like they should.
Another band of note from this era, seemingly forgotten, is Wishbone Ash. While they're not a true metal band, they pioneered the use of twin lead guitars. While everyone else had one lead guitarist and one rhythm guitarist, Wishbone Ash felt like changing things up and revamped the line-up of bands for decades to come.
By now an astute reader is saying "wait a minute, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath were British bands. And so was Led Zeppelin? What about American metal?"
From everyone I've talked to and all the (minimal) research I've done, the first American metal band seems to be Grand Funk Railroad. Yeah, surprised the hell out of me too. Their most popular songs are "I'm Your Captain" and "Some Kind of Wonderful". Who in hell declared this to be metal? Their song "We're an American Band" is a bit heavier, and the lyrics are more in line with something resembling heavy metal, but what group of geniuses decided this?
American metal seems to have really kicked off with the breakthrough of Blue Oyster Cult and Kiss. Out of these two, I'd say that Kiss is more along the lines of metal music. Heavier guitar than BOC (although Buck Dharma has Ace Frehley beat on the guitar solos), and Kiss sings mostly about two topics: rock music, and sex. And Kiss's influence extends beyond inspiring other metal bands; they were seemingly the first group to do an incredibly elaborate (and incredible) stage show that went past being a great performance towards being a true spectacle.
But out of all this metal, one of the biggest bands to hit the world has still been left out. While America and England seemed to be leading the planet it this new music style, Australia wanted to have its say, and along came one of my favorite bands, AC/DC.
AC/DC hit the radios in Australia and England in 1975 when they released their first album, "High Voltage". Their American popularity took a while to catch on, but "Highway to Hell" (1979) brought them across the oceans in a hurry. Today, they are amongst the leaders in terms of albums sold, with a small handful in front of them (no one will probably ever overcome The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin's fourth album claims to sell 1,000 copies a week to this day).
And so, metal was born. Early roots in the 1960's, true birth with Ozzy and company, continuing even today with subgenres of thrash, death and black metal. While I personally think that modern metal has lost some of its touch (and some of its talent), it continues to be popular and will have people head-banging themselves silly. Except for me. Head-banging gives me a headache, and I look pretty stupid when I do it.
And to think that rock started with Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats.