Saturday, November 18, 2006

The term "heavy metal"

The origin of the term heavy metal in relation to a form of music is uncertain. The phrase had been used for centuries in chemistry and metallurgy and is listed as such in the Oxford English Dictionary. An early use of the term in modern popular culture was by counter-culture writer William S. Burroughs. In the 1962 novel, The Soft Machine, he introduces the character "Uranian Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid". His next novel in 1964, Nova Express, develops this theme further, with heavy metal being a metaphor for addictive drugs: "With their diseases and orgasm drugs and their sexless parasite life forms — Heavy Metal People of Uranus wrapped in cool blue mist of vaporized bank notes — And the Insect People of Minraud with metal music."

Metal historian Ian Christe notes the meanings of the individual components of the term in "hippiespeak,": "heavy" meaning anything with a potent mood, and "metal" designating what the mood would be, grinding and weighted as with metal.
The word "heavy" (meaning serious or profound) had entered beatnik/counterculture slang some time earlier and references to "heavy music"—typically slower, more amplified variations of standard pop fare—were already common; indeed, Iron Butterfly first started playing Los Angeles in 1967, their name explained on an album cover, "Iron- symbolic of something heavy as in sound, Butterfly- light, appealing and object that can be used freely in the imagination". Iron Butterfly's 1968 debut album was entitled Heavy. The first recorded use of heavy metal in a song lyric is the phrase "heavy metal thunder" in the 1968 Steppenwolf song "Born To Be Wild": "I like smoke and lightning/Heavy metal thunder/Racin' with the wind/And the feelin' that I'm under". A late, but disputed, hypothesis about the origin of the genre was brought forth by "Chas" Chandler, who was a manager of the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1969, in an interview on the PBS TV program "Rock and Roll" in 1995. He states that " was a term originated in a New York Times article reviewing a Jimi Hendrix performance," and claims the author described the Jimi Hendrix Experience " listening to heavy metal falling from the sky." The precise source of this claim, however, has not been found and its accuracy is disputed.

The first well-documented usage of the term is contained in a May 1971 issue of Creem, during a review of Sir Lord Baltimore's Kingdom Come. The article notes that "Sir Lord Baltimore seems to have down pat most all the best heavy metal tricks in the book". Creem critic Lester Bangs subsequently has been credited with popularizing the term in the early 1970s when describing bands such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. "Heavy metal" may have been used as a jibe initially by a number of music critics but was quickly adopted by its adherents.

The terms "heavy metal" and "hard rock" are often used interchangeably, in particular when discussing bands from the 1970s, a period when the terms were largely synonymous. However, many of the first heavy metal bands—including Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, and UFO, among a few—are often not considered heavy metal bands by the modern metal community. For example, Ian Christe's 2003 book Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal labels bands whose sound was more similar to traditional rock music as hard rock or proto-metal, while Black Sabbath and Judas Priest are pinpointed as the specific progenators of the genre.