Monday, September 18, 2006

Origins and early popularity (1960s and early 1970s)

American blues music was highly popular and influential among the early British rockers. Bands like The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds recorded covers of many classic blues songs, and sometimes speeded up the tempo and using electric guitar where the original had used acoustic. As they experimented with the music, the British blues bands developed sounds that would become the hallmarks of the heavy metal genre, including a "heavy" rhythm section, distorted virtuostic guitar-playing, and screaming vocals. Such powered-up blues music was encouraged by the intellectual and artistic experimentation that arose when musicians started to exploit the opportunities of the electrically amplified guitar to produce a louder and more dissonant sound. Where blues-rock drumming styles had been largely simple shuffle beats on small drum kits, drummers began using a more muscular, complex, and amplified approach to match and be heard with the increasingly loud guitar sounds. similarly vocalists modified their technique and increased their reliance on amplification, often becoming more stylized and dramatic in the process. Simultaneous advances in amplification and recording technology made it possible to successfully capture the power of this heavier approach on record.

Ultimately, it was the combination of blues-rock and psychedelic rock that resulted in the creation of heavy metal. Many artists and songs that melded these sensibilities during the late 1960s have been pointed out as prototypical of heavy metal. A particularly influential band was the psychedelic blues-rock power trio Cream, who derived a powerful sound from unison riffing between guitarist Eric Clapton and bassist Jack Bruce as well as Ginger Baker's use of double bass drumming. By 1968, heavy blues sounds were becoming commonplace—many fans and scholars point to Blue Cheer's Jan. 1968 cover of Eddie Cochran's hit "Summertime Blues" as the first true heavy metal song. Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" (released in Jan. 1968), and the Yardbirds' single, "Think About It" (recorded Jan. '68; released Mar. '68) should also be mentioned; the latter employed a similar sound to that which Jimmy Page would employ with Led Zeppelin; these were soon followed by Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (July '68). Beatles scholars cite in particular the song "Helter Skelter" from The Beatles (more commonly known as The White Album) (Nov. 1968) and the single version of "Revolution" (Nov. 1968), which set new standards for distortion and aggressive sound on a popular album. Dave Edmunds' band Love Sculpture also released an aggressive heavy guitar version of Khachaturian's Sabre Dance in November 1968. The Jeff Beck Group's album Truth (August 1968) was an important and influential rock album; released just before Led Zeppelin's first album (Jan. 1969), leading some (especially British blues fans) to argue that Truth was the first heavy metal album.

Tony Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath in 1973The 1970 releases by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple defined and codified the genre that would be known as heavy metal. Led Zeppelin had formed out of the ashes of guitarist Jimmy Page's previous band, the Yardbirds, and came to define important aspects of the genre with singer Robert Plant's dramatic, wailing vocals and lyrics concerning themes of magic, conquest and the occult. Black Sabbath also dealt heavily with occult themes; formerly a blues-rock band called Earth, Black Sabbath adopted a new name taken from a Bela Lugosi horror film and a darker, heavier sound partially necessitated by an industrial accident guitarist Tony Iommi had suffered. Unable to play normally, Iommi had to tune his guitar down for easier fretting and had to rely on power chords due to the ease of the fingering. Deep Purple had fluctuated between styles in its early years, but by 1969 vocalist Ian Gillan and the guitar stylings of Ritchie Blackmore had pushed the band into the direction of the developing heavy metal genre. These bands quickly become successful, with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath scoring hits on the pop charts with the songs "Whole Lotta Love"(1969) and "Paranoid" (1971), respectively. However, most critics were not kind to the music, objecting to its perceived commercial artifice and reliance on visual spectacle. As the seventies wore on, newer heavy metal bands emerged, such as Blue Öyster Cult, Kiss, Scorpions, Judas Priest, and Rainbow, who relied on constant touring and increasingly elaborate stage shows for their commerical success. In particular, Judas Priest worked over the ensuing decade to "achieve the definition of heavy metal." and would act as a pivotal influence on later heavy metal bands.