Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Hard History

Heavy metal is one of the most misunderstood genres of music in our day. Rather unfortunately, this is often a result of brazen ignorance about the subject, brought about by certain sectors of the media, society, and listeners themselves. Instead of blindly backlashing against those responsible for the defamation of heavy metal, I decided to write a history of the aforementioned music, in hopes of providing yet another source of information for those who wish to learn about its development.
In no way is this a heavy metal band list or an attempt to include every detail, important or not, within the genre's history, but I believe it is a fairly comprehensive guide. I have included bands that have been influential, prominent, representative, or successful throughout their careers, and in the process omitted several others that would prevent any conciseness. I have also made the attempt of remaining as objective as possible (although words like "well-deserved" will appear throughout the text), and therefore have also included bands that I do not enjoy listening to or whose general visual image I do not respect. After all, heavy metal is something of an acquired taste. With no further comments, I leave you to read my take on the history of heavy metal. I hope you will enjoy it and maybe learn a little from it (and with any luck, you won't find it boring at all).

When did heavy metal begin? It's hard to say. According to most metal annals, the first outbursts came from the Kinks with "You Really Got Me" and the Who with "My Generation" around 1964. As for the first heavy metal artist, that position arguably belongs to Alice Cooper, whose band was founded in 1965 under the name The Spiders. Heavy metal, however, was not to truly flourish until the year of 1967, and Alice Cooper was to become embedded in the collective mind of the world until 1971 with the classic Love It To Death.
During 1967, the rock world was still absorbed by the Summer of Love, but it was about to witness one of its most important revolutions. Bands like Golden Earring (formed in 1965), Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, Vanilla Fudge, Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, Blue Cheer, Deep Purple, Grand Funk Railroad, Free, Uriah Heep, Mountain, Humble Pie, Bloodrock, MC5, Black Widow, Atomic Rooster, Cactus, and Black Sabbath came to being between 1966 and 1970, and struck the world with what both Iron Butterfly and Steppenwolf would first baptize "heavy metal;" the first through reviews of its Heavy album and the second due to the phrase "heavy metal thunder," found in the motorcycling classic "Born to Be Wild." A new type of music, which borrowed heavily from rock and roll and the blues, was gaining influence on the youth of those times, which was slowly getting tired of the stagnant Summer of Love scene.
Out of the explosion of new bands, it was Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience that were to be the first bands to give heavy metal a high commercial profile. The legendary guitarist Eric Clapton was part of the first; a band that remains a seminal power trio and heavy metal act that released such memorable songs as "Sunshine Of Your Love" and "White Room." During the course of four albums and two years, Cream became a prominently successful band that influenced the likes of Rush and Van Halen, and would later spawn the also legendary Blind Faith. Meanwhile, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was another musical trio, based around the guitar histrionics of the legendary Jimi Hendrix. Albums such as Are You Experienced? and Electric Ladyland drew thousands of ravenous fans, which feasted on the music provided by a band that is often mentioned along with Janis Joplin and the Doors as one of the world's all-time premiere rock units.

Several new bands, including the bluesy Savoy Brown, Foghat, and Bad Company, the ferocious Budgie, and the legendary UFO, were spawned by the growing heavy metal explosion, while others like Status Quo hardened their sound; but until 1973 the kings of heavy metal were undoubtedly Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath. The three were bands with a technical prowess and a compositional inventiveness and passion unseen before, which coalesced into the hardest music existing during those times. Moreover, the era also marked the beginning of Satanic imagery and of spectacular, energetic live shows in heavy metal.
The Satanic imagery came courtesy of two English bands: Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin's guitarist Jimmy Page (formerly of The Yardbirds, a band that was critical in influencing heavy metal with its psychedelic distortion and in spawning legendary guitar players Page, Clapton, and Jeff Beck) had a strong personal fascination with the occult, while many of Sabbath's lyrics within their ample range of themes dealt with it as well. The Sabs, however, did not claim to be Satanic, unlike many future metal bands; in fact, Ozzy Osbourne, vocalist of the band during those times, claims to have been scared off by fans wearing black robes and carrying candles with themselves.
As for the live shows, they were carried out by every band, most notably by Led Zeppelin's "rock till you drop" concerts that lasted about two hours and by Alice Cooper's colossal shows, known to feature boa constrictors, mutilated female mannequins, and Alice Cooper himself in a beheading spectacle. Bands moved onstage, introduced bigger-than-life special effects into their shows and recreated their music in front of fiery crowds of fans.

The first few years of heavy metal (the music being called classic metal at times because of its pioneering status) are considered by most as the best era of the genre ever. Without a doubt, it is quite a memorable segment of this music's history. It was back then that Led Zeppelin, unquestionably the most popular heavy metal band ever, created classics such as "Black Dog" and the Arabian "Kashmir;" but also had the brilliance of experimenting with forms of music such as reggae and folk. In fact, the latter was an essential part of the most widely known heavy metal song ever: "Stairway to Heaven." The masterfully created masterpiece was crafted by Page and vocalist Robert Plant to perfection and even today remains a constant radio staple.
It was, however, until 1970 that Black Sabbath inaugurated what many consider the "true" spirit and essence of heavy metal. Gloomy, crunching, and foreboding, albums like Black Sabbath, Paranoid, and Master of Reality demonstrated the wicked musical direction of guitarist Tony Iommi and band members Ozzy Osbourne, Bill Ward, and Geezer Butler through classic songs like "N.I.B.," "Paranoid," and "Children of the Grave." Bands such as Corrosion of Conformity, Metallica, and Nirvana were all influenced by the metal anthems provided by one of the genre's most memorable bands ever, and the face of modern music has hardly ever been the same since the Birmingham act exploded unto the scene. Meanwhile, Deep Purple, after going through a progressive rock stint with vocalist Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper, developed a solid slab of rock on its classic Deep Purple In Rock, and would for a long time be heralded as a true innovator of music. In fact, Ritchie Blackmore's classical guitar training, along with Jon Lord's synthesizers and Ian Gillan's piercing shrieks, was crucial in the development of heavy metal as it is known today.
During the mid-Seventies, six new bands were to also walk into the spotlight: the Blue Oyster Cult, Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, Queen, Aerosmith, and Kiss. Judas Priest would be responsible for popularizing the concept of two guitarists in a heavy metal band; Aerosmith for bringing back the blues, sex, and drugs; Thin Lizzy for breaking through with aesthetical and musical flash and style; Queen for introducing perhaps the greatest degree of experimentation within music and the renewal of majestic melodies and harmonies with a progressive rock edge; and Kiss for revolutionizing the art of live shows, at times presenting slightly macabre theatrics strongly reminiscent of Alice Cooper's. And the Blue Oyster Cult? They disappeared into oblivion after a series of forgettable albums released in the 80's. But during their halcyon days in the 70's, they were an important part of the hard rock arena circuit, combining beautiful 60's harmonies with searing guitars.

While a number of heavy metal bands cemented their reputation as rock giants for years to come, certain bands would begin taking another highly popular form of music, progressive rock, into a heavier direction. Bands like Pink Floyd and Genesis had remained most of the time outside the heavy metal realms, while others like Jethro Tull, Yes, and King Crimson flirted with it more often on songs like "Aqualung," "Heart of the Sunrise," and "21st Century Schizoid Man," respectively. Characterized by complex song structures, odd time signature arrangements, and a highly technical and virtuous use of instruments, progressive metal would nevertheless not come truly into being until the creation of Rush. On its debut album, Rush, the band had not yet acquired a tendency for the progressive; but by the time of Fly By Night and the acquisition of drummer Neil Peart, the band had changed its approach and become more ambitious lyrically and musically, driving its progressive outings to their furthermost limits on albums like A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres. Most other progressive bands throughout history, such as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Focus, Asia, IQ, and Marillion, only flirted with metal through their years of existence.
Unfortunately, metal was to stagnate completely in the late Seventies. Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy, and Black Sabbath were digging their own graves due to their drug-consuming habits, Kiss had lost its charm because of over-commercialization, Deep Purple faded out through its never-ending personnel changes, and Led Zeppelin ended with the death of drummer John Bonham; only Judas Priest and Queen remained almost intact during these times. And not only were the greatest bands dying slowly, but every new band was just ripping off the old glory; metal was on its dying bed. Only a few bands were still thriving among the ruins, among them AC/DC and Rush; the former taking over the world with its three-chord attack, guitarist Angus Young's lunatic careening on stage, and Bon Scott's hell-raising screams; the latter inspiring new generations of musicians with its progressive brand of music. Ted Nugent, formerly of the Amboy Dukes, also released hyperactive gems like Cat Scratch Fever and Double Live Gonzo to much acclaim during the last half of the Seventies, and would be another of the few surviving musical groups. Blackmore's Rainbow was the last of the great rock giants to die or metamorphose by the end of the Eighties, after Ronnie James Dio left the band amidst a flurry of clashing egos which had earlier produced melodic epics on albums like Rainbow Rising and Long Live Rock n' Roll.