These are the great standard-bearers of old, the height against which all the others are measured. If you’ve had any exposure whatsoever to the genre of heavy metal, there’s a pretty good chance it’s one of these. The reason is the considerable overlap between heavy metal and classic rock, as you’re likely to hear any of the below acts on a classic rock station. In fact, the influence of the early bands is so profound that I find it necessary to split them into two separate sections: first, the United Kingdom, represented here, then the United States.
Most fans probably wouldn’t contest the “official” birth of heavy metal to be 1970, with the arrival of
British group Black Sabbath. However, early influences are not limited to Ozzy Osbourne and company.
If you wanted to go back even further to the very beginning of heavy metal/hard rock and probably the
seminal hard rock song, you’d have to go back to 1964, to the brothers Ray and Dave Davies, of The
Kinks (also a British group). Although Van Halen’s cover version re-popularized it years later, at the time
the unparalleled fuzzy snarl of the main riff inspired guitarists the world over.
It was only a tiny glimpse of what was to come. For most of the 1960s, popular music was largely safe
and polished, epitomized by The Beatles, but by 1967 music was becoming more political, more bluesy,
and more, dare we say it, angry. The root of all heavy metal (and rock and roll, for that matter), is
blues music, imported from America and revamped through the fuzzy distortion of a new generation of
rock musicians from the British Isles. Cream was introducing a unique blend of blues rock, drenched in
psychedelic haze, that would be the most important influence upon early metal.
Another British act that is very rarely recognized and not nearly as famous as Cream played a pivotal role
on developing the high-pitched tenor vocals and shocking stage presence that would come to be more
associated with Alice Cooper and Mercyful Fate. I personally only recently discovered just how many of
these heavy metal tropes were developed by Arthur Brown and his band, the Crazy World:
Even before Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper, Arthur Brown was swinging from chandeliers, wailing like a
banshee, and wearing black and white face paint! Oh yes—it’s all a lot older than you probably think!
But the most well-known British contribution to heavy metal’s early days was the trifecta of the most
influential hard rock/heavy metal bands, all from poor/working-class industrial neighborhoods and
sporting a long-haired, tough-as-nails attitude that would deflate the drug-fuelled hippie culture of the
Popular and influential as they were, Led Zeppelin isn’t usually considered “heavy metal” per se
(more just straight up hard rock); Deep Purple is a bit more debatable. As these groups shot to the
stratosphere (selling literally hundreds of millions of records between them), the entire music industry
actually started to shift as a result.
But where the debate pretty much ended on what heavy metal is, of course, was with a British band in a
class all by itself…Black Sabbath.
Starting out as a blues cover band called Earth, it took a terrible tragedy for the band (and the entire
genre of heavy metal) to really take off. When he was working at a steel-cutting factory operating one
of the machines, lead guitarist Tony Iommi didn’t pull his hand back from a cutting machine in time, losing the tips
of his second and third fingers on his left hand. Undeterred, he actually fashioned new tips for himself
made out of molded plastic and rubber and had them surgically grafted back on. He also switched to
using banjo strings on his guitar and played more power chords since both were easier on the fingers.
The result was a thick, dense, heavy tone that drove people nuts.
And what many consider to be the first heavy metal song, like a horror movie set to music, is the song
that caused Earth to change its name to Black Sabbath. Just look at that album cover. Creepy, no?
And yet, people loved it. Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward found themselves
the center of a new genre, which Rob Zombie describes as, “Everybody who plays heavy metal is playing
Black Sabbath, whether they realize it or not. They might be playing it a little faster, a little slower, a
little upside down…but they’re playing Black Sabbath. They wrote every single cool riff. Ever.” Another
fan told me once that he considered Black Sabbath to have written every single type of heavy metal just
on their first three albums (largely true, but not quite).
Loud. Dark. Crushing. Powerful.
Heavy Metal, the greatest music on earth, was born.
Today, Black Sabbath has announced a full reunion that has only been marred by Tony Iommi’s diagnosis
with cancer. The worldwide tour was announced and then cancelled due to the news, although the new
studio album is still on the table. When and if it drops, headbangers around the world will rejoice, as
this crowd at Birmingham did in 2012.
Feel free to add on to the discussion on early metal in the comments, or if I missed one of your favorites,
go ahead and add it! Horns up! See you next time.
Written by Matt P