Metal History – Early Metal (USA)

April 10, 2013 — Leave a comment

EARLY METAL AND HARD ROCK: USA

Previously on this metal history, we saw the UK edition of early influences upon heavy metal, which hit its stride in the late 1960s and culminated in the arrival of Black Sabbath.

But across the pond in America, the birthplace of the blues, a new group of bands would craft their own spin on this dark new music that was slowly emerging. Although the free love and hippie movement remained strong in the USA, not every psychedelic band was singing along with “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

The darkest of these psychedelic bands was The Doors. Although they hailed from sunny Los Angeles, frontman Jim Morrison introduced a trademark brand of dark poetry that blended with Ray Manzarek’s overdriven Hammond organ to create both enormous pop hits and harder-edged songs in equal measure. And of course, could Jim Morrison yell:

The very earliest hard rock and heavy metal scenes in the United States had their centers in San Francisco, home of Blue Cheer and also Iron Butterfly, both of whom contributed seminal early recordings to the development of the genre. Like their contemporaries in Cream, neither group lasted terribly long, but they made their few years together as a band count.

Iron Butterfly, one of the forefathers of the psychedelic genre, made its mark with “In A Gadda Da Vida,” complete with epic-length drum solo and all. Steppenwolf also rose to prominence with its signature song, “Born To Be Wild,” establishing what would a trademark heavy metal theme: riding around on a motorcycle and roaring down the highway. It’s also the first instance of the words “heavy metal” being used in a popular song.

In Detroit, a different scene was developing, something much more raw and primal than the hippies over on Haight-Ashbury. When listeners first heard The Stooges, they didn’t want to sit back and light up a blunt…they wanted to break something. Considered one of the first punk bands, even before the Sex Pistols made punk rock a phenomenon in England, the Stooges and their contemporaries in MC5 were especially influential upon thrash metal, hardcore and the other more extreme heavy metal subgenres.

Ultimately however, The Stooges were too volatile to last, and they split as the drugs and violence took their toll. Thankfully, this wasn’t before Detroit crowds were treated to an unprecedented live show of aggression, with bony frontman Iggy Pop walking on the audience’s hands and writhing around like a man possessed.

Later hard rock and heavy metal superstars like Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent would enrapture audiences with splendid live theatrics, the former with a well-known “travelling horror show” aesthetic and the latter with a yowling, I’m-from-Detroit-and-I’m-here-to-party stage presence that hasn’t really waned. Parents lost sleep over the both of them long before they were losing sleep over Marilyn Manson.

Some people actually thought the Alice Cooper show was real, that he was actually coughing up blood and guillotining himself onstage…many nights in a row. And Ted Nugent is just…well, he’s Uncle Ted.

Just witness the below! Detroit—gotta love ‘em.

So far, the American brand of early hard rock/heavy metal was loud and aggressive, to be sure, but it couldn’t really be characterized as “evil” in the early days. There wasn’t any occult, Charles Manson-like imagery in the early days of the American scene.

That all changed with a little-known California band called Coven, who released an album in 1969 that even contained a song called “Black Sabbath” (hmm…). Perhaps the band members’ interest in Satanic imagery had something to do with it. That album cover may look pretty tame by today’s standards, but at the time it freaked so many people out that it was pulled from circulation.

I guess people didn’t realize that Janis Joplin had an evil twin sister…who do you think you’re foolin’?

Some critics of the heavy metal scene in the USA like to contend that, although American bands did their part to carry the flag forward and produce some quality classics, there was never an “American Black Sabbath” that could contend with any of the British heavyweights.

In fact, there was—a band called Pentagram, just as doom-laden as Black Sabbath.

Active in the Baltimore-DC area in the very early 1970s, Pentagram collected many demo tapes and recorded a number of original songs, developing a large cult following. Unfortunately, they were shunned by the record companies and were unable to release a full album until 1985. Today, they have thankfully been rediscovered, and their treasure trove of excellent 1970s recordings is now available. The American metal scene might have looked very different if Pentagram became as big as Sabbath. It’s an interesting what-if scenario.

A new fire had been lit on both sides of the Atlantic, and the action would soon shift back to the British Isles as the next wave of heavy metal music began to emerge. 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.

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