Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Short History of Heavy Metal (Part One of Several)

With the possible exception of ferreting through Dad's closet in search of his mythical porno stash, nothing is as overtly masculine as Heavy Metal. It's music by men for men, the natural outgrowth of the "Get Rid Of Slimy GirlS" club, the place where fancypants musings on love and loss are usurped by heady ballads about pillaging, nuclear war, and how kickass dragons are. Critics call metal "subliterary" and "banal." Fans found those critics and got biz-zay with some truncheons.

Now, admittedly, this is the narrow view. Bands like Van Halen and Def Leppard enjoyed wide appeal and the genre itself was ostensibly created by Led Zeppelin, who are, well, not exactly a niche group. But if you find yourself at a metal concert these days, you'll notice a few conspicuous facts: namely the utter lack of women, the total absence of dancing, and the enhanced probability of early onset tennitus. Modern metal is loud and it's fast and it has no use for your sissy Y chromosome. Sure, you'll find a few anomalous womenfolk milling about, but you'll have to Where's Waldo them out a sea of suffocating dudeness.

So today, we begin examining this most macho of Western musical genres. Women are allowed but will be treated like Demi Moore in G.I. Jane.


While it's impossible to pin down the beginnings of blues or jazz, with heavy metal, our task is easier. Antecedents include Blue Cheer's cover of "Summertime Blues", Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", and that lovable Charlie Manson favorite "Helter Skelter." What these songs have in common is an almost quaintly gritty, distorted quality as well as a hefty helping of fuzzy blues guitar. Yet, listening to them now, they feel remote, which is to say: the link between the Beatles and Slayer is tenuous to the point of preposterous.

Some argue that the real beginning of metal comes with a band famous for raucous live shows, virtuosic musicianship, and fucking groupies with mud sharks. That band, of course: Led Zeppelin.

Zeppelin was indeed a pioneer in the "White Guys Playing Blues (With Distortion)" movement that evolved into what the genre is today. In particular, the soaring, chromatic run-down in "Dazed and Confused" still sounds heavy and menacing, at home even in these grisly days of metal excess. Lyrically, Robert Plant tended towards barely coded couplets like "Baby, squeeze my lemon, till the juice runs down my leg" and Lord of the Rings references that number somewhere in the low trillions, which, when coupled with the band's well-documented weakness for drugs, loose women, and Dr. Morreau-style cross-specieal orgies, you can see why Zeppelin is considered the priapic granddaddy of metal.

We, however, take a different view.

Because, for every "Dazed and Confused," there's a "Tangerine." For every "Immigrant Song," there's a "Fool in the Rain." Which is to say, Zeppelin was, from the very start, staggeringly eclectic, a veritable goulash of nearly every American brand of music. In fact, they don't exactly have a "metal album" or, really, a "metal song." "Black Mountain Side" plays like a manic, Hindu hillbilly jam, "Thank You" as a Beatles-esque love song; Zeppelin's "Three" is very nearly a bluegrass album. And that's just their early albums, to say nothing of the dirty funk of "Trampled Under Foot" or the Elvis flavored jamboree that is "Hot Dog." What we're getting at here is simple: Zeppelin were simply too schizophrenic to be considered the first metal band. That distinction, my friends, belongs to Black Sabbath.

Originally billed under the ludicrous moniker "The Polka Tulk Blues Company" and later "Earth," Sabbath began as a blues cover band, until guitarist Tommy Iommi left momentarily to join Jethro Tull, a band which, laughably, won the first Heavy Metal Grammy in 1989, prompting frontman Ian Anderson to claim "well, sometimes we do play our mandolins rather loudly."

Iommi's stint with Jethro Tull lasted a month.

It's after that four month flute-drenched failure that heavy metal really started. While Led Zeppelin were off screeching about Gollum and using citrus juice as winking shorthand, Black Sabbath was becoming, well, Black Sabbath. The story goes that bassist Geezer Butler wrote the song "Black Sabbath" before the band became "Black Sabbath" (and then, in a bout of still unparalleled creativity, released an album called "Black Sabbath") after he read a Dennis Wheatley book, fell asleep, woke up, and hallucinated a hooded ghoul at the foot of his bed. At that point, Sabbath was still Earth, and their eponymous song was, to be sure, a dramatic departure from the improvised blues jams Earth was never famous for.

The song "Black Sabbath," then, can be seen as the beginning of the band that began heavy metal and, quite frankly, there is no more appropriate song. For one, it's one of music's famous examples of the tritone, the interval between a C and an F# (or, in this case, a G and C#), an interval known once as "the devil's interval" or "diabolus in musica," which, even for those students flunking Latin 1, should be an easy translation. It's one of the two major discordant relationships and in the same way "Ode To Joy" makes you want to spoon and cuddle, the tritone has an "and the call was coming from the basement" sort of feel to it. Plus, the song's about the devil. Or, to put it less in perspective, it's a song that has the same name as the band that has the same name as the album that has the same name as a horror movie that uses the devil's interval to sing about the devil ---it's like a Mobius strip from the dollar bin at Alastiar Crowley's garage sale.

"Black Sabbath" sold well. In fact, it went platinum. But, like the patently undiabolical Billy Joel, critical reception did not jibe with public fanaticism. Fancypants critical fops like Lester Bangs called Sabbath "Cream, but worse!" but Sabbath soldiered on. While their first album & Zeppelin's "One" were in certain ways similar, each band's following effort took them in their own separate direction. Zeppelin's "Two" is bluesier while Sabbath's "Paranoid" is, undoubtedly, the all-time metal album, containing not only the iconic title track, but "War Pigs," the surprisingly funky "Faeries Wear Boots" and "Iron Man," which is so metal that just listening to it is like injecting cadmium straight into your face.

Both Zeppelin and Sabbath released their first three albums in two calendar years, Zeppelin spanning 1969-70, Sabbath 1970-71. Interestingly, both were British, the Brits having long distinguished themselves as savvy co-opters of American musical styles. The American contingent in the early days of metal is a fairly sad collection without any one band that can be honestly called trail-blazing or original. In fact, it takes until 1974 and the formation of Kiss to arrive at anything approaching a truly innovative American metal band, if you can even call Kiss metal, which, I'd argue, you shouldn't. In fact, when you get right down to it, metal is one of the truly international genres: while metal began in Britain and indeed flourished there, with bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Def Leppard being later torch-bearers, Scandanavia, Germany, and, yes, America (particularly Southern California and Tampa Bay) have all produced massively popular bands, with scenes that continue flourishing to this day. Further, as metal grew, it subdivided into near countless subgenres, each defined with a near-medical precision. While Death Metal, Doom Metal, and Black Metal might seem basically identical to the layman, a proper metalhead will put down his Neil Gaiman novel, toss his ponytail to one side, and guffaw audibly if you so much as suggest that metal has been overly stratified.

Yet, if metal began as the aforesaid "White Guys Playing Blues (With Distortion)," what exactly happened that changed the genre into what it is today? What, in other words, makes metal metal?

You know, besides these guys:

Let's get our learn on.


The year is 1974. Hank Aaron breaks Babe Ruth's home run record, a Floridian TV anchor commits suicide on-air, Watergate proves to an entire nation that Richard Nixon is, as they'd long suspected, a jowly shitbag.

Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath have both managed five albums in a mental state that can be generously described as "hyper-medicated." Metal isn't exactly stagnating---indeed, Sabbath's fifth album "Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath" is perhaps the band's finest effort and even contains a song called "Fluff" that plays like the instrumental CBS uses when it's recapping a round at Augusta---but it isn't exactly flourishing either. Arguably, it's still a two-band genre---bands like Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, and Grand Funk Railroad have released fine singles off perfunctory albums, but nothing certifiably new-fangled has emerged outside of the Zeppelin/Sabbath quinella.

Which brings us to Judas Priest.

Behind our two-headed Godking, "Sabeppelin," Judas Priest is arguably the most important heavy metal band ever. The reasoning here is three-fold. First, Judas Priest were the first metal band to significantly stray from the crunchy blues ethos that still formed the foundation of the genre. Their sound was less jam-based, crisper, more succinct. And while the importance of this cannot be understated, other bands, namely Motorhead, would break far more abruptly with this framework around roughly the same era. Beyond that, while Zeppelin and Sabbath still dressed, essentially, like hippies who power-dried their shirts into tiny near-rags, Judas Priest pioneered the S&M flavored metal wardrobe. The chains, the leather jackets, the metal studs: for this, you can thank Rob Halford and company. But fashion isn't the reason the Priest belongs in the revered pantheon of heavy metal. No, what Judas Priest should be lauded for is far simpler. Namely, Judas Priest deserves its propers for the two guitar attack.

If you've ever been in a Guitar Center, well, first off, I'm sorry. But if you've ever been to a Guitar Center, you've probably heard dozens of teenagers in the orgasmic throes of an arhythmic shred-a-thon.

Which is to say, quite simply, a lot of teenage boys are metalheads and a lot of metalheads want to play guitar. With apologies to metal drumming---a maddeningly complex, precise, sometimes tribal style---heavy metal IS the guitar. Most specifically, it's sweep-picking, it's tapping, it's show-offy pentatonic cadenzas, harmonized, cod-pieced riffage, unwashed, six-string virtuosity. And while Tommy Iommi and Jimmy Page remain interstellar guitar deities, it was Judas Priest who popularized the idea of dueling metal guitars. Judas Priest drew the blueprint for harmonized riffs and traded solos that would become commonplace as metal grew out of its toddling years. Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, and hosts of other lighthearted headbangers have continued the tradition to the extent that a typical metal band these days is far more likely to utilize the two guitar ethos than not.

With Judas Priest's influence in tandem with Motorhead's mutton choppy brand of punk/metal/50s rock and roll, metal was finally evolving. It was becoming faster, less bluesy, less "hard rock." It was, in essence, becoming heavy metal. This era is typically referred to as "The New Wave of British Heavy Metal," and also contains personal favorite Iron Maiden, the monstrously successful Def Leppard, the still-below-the-radar Saxon, and Metallica-inspirer Diamond Head, whose initial drum kit, according to a retrospective article in the UK Guardian, consisted of "...a biscuit tin, a cow bell and some empty sweet jars." This was the movement that punted the blues influence and, though Maiden was and still is tremendously popular and Def Leppard went on to become one of the most successful bands ever (no shit), most of these NWOBHM acts were working class Brits, playing metal for metalheads. Centered around the Soundhouse club in Kingsbury, the movement was one of those special little moments where a genre blossoms in a specific place and the bands take cues from one another. Albums were self-released. Failures were rampant. But metal was blossoming quickly.

By the early '80s, building off the modest but important successes of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the genre would reach some measure of mainstream cred---well, not mainstream credibility, per se, but success, certainly. And hey: with metal accounting for a full fifth of American album sales in 1983, credibility could kiss metal's ass. Heavy metal was reclining on a couch in its forty-room estate, eating peeled grapes fed to it by big-tittied slatterns.

But success came at a price. (Cue the "Behind the Music" score, please). Metal became less and less dangerous by the year, wussifying itself until it became downright saccharine. If metal was once all bravado and pointy cod-pieces and satanic imagery, this 80s brand of metal was a flourescent spoof, a risible mockery of a once-proud counterculture. If old school metal, as Lemmy Kilmister once said of his band Motorhead, "...moved in next to you, your lawn would die," 80s metal would edge your lawn in its brand new riding mower, give a pony to your children, and fuck your wife when you went to work.

What follows is the story of Glam Metal. We'll get to that next week.


SOL's view said...

Have a great 4 July. Looking forward to a history o' Glam Metal. =)

Gasoline Hobo said...

Fucking masterpiece! I love how you worked in the word "risible", and the last bit about 80's metal is just perfect.

Also, thank you for giving Black Sabbath the opportunity to stab the shit out of the goddamn Gummi Bears theme song that has been bouncing around my head for too long. I'd much rather have "Fluff" up there.

birdmonster said...

SOL: The fourth was fourthy. I had pig on top of cow, covered in slaw. 'Merica, donchaknow. (Next post coming Thursday again)

GH: I think Slayer covered the Gummi Bears theme. I could be wrong. And, though I rarely laugh at my own shit (the usual reaction is embarrassment or slight horror), I laughed about the riding mower thing too. I think I may have been drunk. I think I may be drunk now. My God, what's happening to me?