Anybody who has spent any time on the Internet has read a list (because everything has to be a “listicle” these days). And it makes sense to a point: Who doesn’t love a good countdown, especially one that actually makes some sense?
But let’s be honest…a lot of them don’t. A lot of them I’ve found poorly written and presented. Rolling Stone magazine’s “Greatest” lists are especially asinine. Not only is the ranking itself nonsensical; they start right away with the #1 entry which ruins the whole anticipation and point of the countdown!
So I put this list together as a fun tribute to some of my favorite music, and regardless of the exact order (which I know there’ll be quibbles with) I think it presents a great overview of these earliest days of heavy metal. I hope headbangers will enjoy this celebratory blast of old-school noise. This was a lot of fun to create, and I’ll be honest–I didn’t obsess too much over the exact ranking, especially of the lower 25 tracks presented here. There’s a lot of wiggle room here in part 1. I feel much more strongly about the top 15-20, which will be included in part 2.
But what is “quasi-metal,” you may ask? That’s my term for 70’s songs and bands that straddle the line between traditional hard rock and metal. A band like Deep Purple, for instance–some folks think they’re metal, others not. For the purposes of this list, those bands that are “under dispute” are still considered valid. Otherwise, it would consist only of Black Sabbath songs–and I already have one of those!
Let’s do this. Rolling Stone magazine has nothing on Head of Metal! Here’s part 1, the first 25 plus an honorable mention…
51. (Honorable Mention) Sir Lord Baltimore – “Master Heartache”
In a legendary article in “Creeem!” magazine that was arguably the first time “heavy metal” was mentioned in print, this Brooklyn band was the subject of discussion. It’s not hard to see why. Great old school metal, so old school it could be called “caveman metal.” All the chiseling and scratching on the walls are there…
50. Motorhead – “Bomber”
Like a companion piece of UFO’s “Lights Out,” the “Bomber” flight crew lays waste to the enemy, accompanied by a life-size World War 2 model plane above the stage.
49. Rainbow – “Tarot Woman”
With the release of 1976’s Rising, Rainbow became the premier heavy metal band in the world. This was the song that started that legendary record off, with Tony Carey’s keyboard solo setting the table.
48. Queen – “Stone Cold Crazy”
Sometimes considered the first thrash metal song, it’s been famously covered by Metallica. Just another example of heavy, forward thinking that isn’t usually considered metal.
47. Black Sabbath – “The Wizard”
Complete with propulsive harmonica as its most distinctive feature, “The Wizard”‘s character is “never talking, just keeps walking, spreading his magic”…but to what end? The first of several Black Sabbath entries on this list.
46. Deep Purple – “Smoke On The Water”
Features arguably the most famous guitar riff ever written. “We’ve done better, but if that’s the song everyone wants to regard as our signature one, it’s alright,” says Ritchie Blackmore. The studio version has gotten so much airplay on radio stations and guitar stores around the world, that for variety’s sake I’m going to go with the live version on Made In Japan. It’s even cooler than the studio version.
45. Pentagram – “When The Screams Come”
If you were lucky enough to get your hands on this original 1973 7″ B-side, you know all about this early-doom classic. For the rest of us, including yours truly, we have the First Daze Here collection to grant us access to these legendary early recordings.
44. Uriah Heep – “Look At Yourself”
The title track from Uriah Heep’s 1971 album is a foray into progressive rock. Live, it is extended so everybody takes a turn.
43. Sir Lord Baltimore – “Helium Head”
From that same caveman metal band, this has a complete proto metal performance from all involved. Gregorian choirs; fluttering, busy drumming; a sweat-soaked R&B-style yowl of a vocal, and engaging, fuzzy lead and rhythm guitars. Probably Sir Lord Baltimore’s finest song.
42. Black Sabbath – “Children of the Grave”
Some metalheads believe there is simply no better song to headbang to than this one. Although it’s frequently cited as such, “Children of the Grave” is not about zombies or the undead–it’s a call to love in action, as the lyrics prove: “Show the world that love is still alive, you must be brave/Or you children of today are children of the grave!”
41. Scorpions – “He’s A Woman, She’s A Man”
Late nights when the Scorpions would go out on the town, they met all kinds of interesting characters. Like most of their early work, the best version of this track is on their live record, Tokyo Tapes.
40. Aerosmith – “Back In the Saddle”
Two words: “I’m BAAAAAAAAAAAAAACCCKKK!!!!”
39.Blue Oyster Cult – “Cities On Flame With Rock and Roll”
Yes, that big, beautiful riff wasn’t created by a British band, but by a bunch of Long Islanders with magnificent fros. America’s answer to Black Sabbath had arrived with this song.
38. Led Zeppelin – “Achilles Last Stand”
Jimmy Page’s favorite Zeppelin song is a 10-minute opus, one of the longest they ever created. Bonzo drives the show by matching Page note for frenetic note in this tale of epic battle.
37. Kiss – “Detroit Rock City”
The unofficial anthem of the namesake city, Kiss’ 1975 track is a tribute to the passion and energy of the rock and metal audiences that filled Detroit’s venues throughout the 1970s.
36. UFO – “Too Hot To Handle”
Possibly the most underrated and prolific proto-metal band of the period, UFO chose this as track 1 for their 1977 masterpiece, “Lights Out.”
35. Black Sabbath – “NIB”
Introduced with Geezer Butler’s cleverly-titled “Bassically,” “NIB” (which does NOT stand for Nativity In Black or anything else) playfully imagines the devil falling in love with a woman. The title is a joke about Tony Iommi’s nib-shaped beard that he’s always sporting.
34. The Stooges – “T.V. Eye”
Iggy Pop’s primal howl blends into Ron Asheton’s most enduring riff. You can still hear the Detroit grit more than 40 years later.
33. Rush – “Anthem”
Based on the Ayn Rand book of the same name, it was one of the ideas that Rush’s “new guy” drummer, Neil Peart, brought with him to the group in 1975. The joke is that he’s still the “new guy” 40 years later…
32. Uriah Heep – “Gypsy”
Very ‘eavy…very ‘umble. With shrieking organ and a lurching riff, Uriah Heep tells a tale of the lengths man will go to for his gypsy queen.
31. Deep Purple – “Burn”
When David Coverdale became the new lead singer of Deep Purple, he needed to prove himself, and he did with his song, his pipes in fine form.
30. Van Halen – “Running With the Devil”
An extremely hungover Dave Mustaine was awakened by someone practicing this bass part in the room below him. That player became his bassist despite contributing to his throbbing headache. True story. Introduced the world to the majestic, flashy playing of one Eddie Van Halen.
29. Mountain – “Mississippi Queen”
Leslie West and his trio, Mountain, penned this hard rock standard in 1970. The thick, Southern-fried main riff is both distinctive and influential.
28. Black Sabbath – “Black Sabbath”
The song that started it all, not only for Sabbath but for metal too. “That song scared the shit out of me,” James Hetfield of Metallica wrote in Rolling Stone. It was named after a horror film that was being shown at the theater across the street from where Earth (as they were then called) rehearsed. It must have been quite a film, because Earth changed its name to Black Sabbath and haven’t looked back since. For an even slower version, check out the tribute version recorded by the late Peter Steele and Type O Negative.
27. Rush – “2112/Temples of Syrinx”
The full suite is 20 minutes long, but it’s most commonly presented in its first 2 parts only. “2112”‘s futuristic soundscape depicts a dystopian world where music is controlled by the priest-administrators in the Temples…
26. Rainbow – “Stargazer”
One of Rainbow’s signature songs, “Stargazer” has been covered by Dream Theater. No surprise there, considering its epic arrangement and participation by the Munich Philharmonic. The cruel wizard oppresses his people to to build him a mighty tower of stone…with treacherous implications.
Written by Matt P