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Happy 40th Birthday, Heavy Metal

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On Friday the 13th of February, 1970, a band from Birmingham, UK named Black Sabbath released their self titled debut album. It began with a thick and ominous tritone, a pitch-dark riff that reverberated with a wash of shivering fear…and the world of music would never be the same.

Happy 40th, Birthday, Heavy Metal! We raise our horns to the members of Black Sabbath, Pentagram, Blue Cheer, Sir Lord Baltimore, and ahost of others for casting the spell, for turning their backs on flower power, and for plunging into a loud nightmarish curtain of sound.We thank them for turning it up and tuning it down simultaneously, for mesmerizing the misfits and miscreants, weaning them off of their faux hippie teets, and turning them on to the bloody bosoms of the shrouded figures in black that now appeared in their dreams.

Here's to the people who may or may not have coined the term "Heavy Metal." John Kay of Steppenwolf with his lyric "heavy metal thunder" or rock journalist and Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman who used it in an interview in Crawdaddy Magazine in 1968…or maybe Herman Hesse or William Burroughs who eluded to "heavy metal" within a passage from his novel The Soft Machine in 1964.

Here's to the blackened Brits from the stellar second wave of metal…especially Rob Halford who, through his own self exploration of his sexuality, and the costumes of its appropriate underground scene….brought the leather to the metal show by accident and forever. It was he and his band Judas Priest who brought the soaring melodic screams to the genre, and buffered by bands like Budgie, Iron Maiden, Saxon, Deep Purple, and Motorhead, sent metal into the stratosphere.

Metal has branched off into more sub-genres than any other category of music,some embarrassing (hair metal, rap metal, crab core??) and some unintelligible (grindcore, funeral doom). It has made many men millionaires who blossomed in black from their perspective genres and bands that became cornerstones like Slayer, Metallica, and Motley Crue. But when we venture back and peruse the roots, the fans can count on the blanketing themes of aggression, anger, fear, and alienation that percolate in its core and present a purpose, maybe even a solution for the struggle, whatever it may be. Metal gave many millions of cast out kids who wandered into parking lots clad in denim, bumming smokes and clutching "Bad Wizards" a place to be, not just a place to go. And the horns remain up forty years on.

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About seanony

  • seanony,

    At first, I didn’t submit my comment correctly, so here goes (best as I can remember).

    Thanks for attributing the fathering of metal to Sabbath and not to Zeppelin. I’ve always contended that the former spawned metal and the latter, hard rock — and there’s a difference.

    Thanks also for indicating that this is a genre that has given many outcasts “a place to be.” This genre enjoys a loyal following. Can you imagine anyone going to see Britney Spears when she’s pushing 60? Motorhead and Priest still draw at that age and still kill live. You don’t have to be beautiful to please metal fans — but you do have to be good and practice integrity.

    Thanks for a great blog.

    Peace, love, metal,



    I’m now 55 years old. I was there when it started and I know the context heavy metal developed in.
    In the 1960’s there was no serious FM radio almost everything was AM only. On AM the diversity went from Sinatra to Hendrix in 2:50 minutes flat. Heavy was a verb, a term for almost anything. A great looking smart chick was “heavy” and great insightful lyrics to a song were considered “heavy” too. It was a term used as often as ‘cool’ or ‘far out’. Music that was considered to be heavy was seldom played on AM radio with few exceptions. Steppenwolf got tremendous airplay for example which was very heavy. With the exception of (local) talent being featured groups like Blue Cheer got almost zero airplay nationally and therefore had zero influence on society at large. Steppenwolf along with Hendrix, Cream, Deep Purple, Joplin and a few others were all very ‘heavy’ as the term was used then. It wasn’t until about 1970 that FM radio started making it way into cars and homes and introducing the music of Black Sabbath that the term heavy and metal were joined together. Its the term “metal” that separated Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and The Who from this new sound, this “metal” sound. In 1970 I first heard Sabbath and new this was a very heavy and very new sound. I didn’t hear their first album until after I bought the ‘Paranoid’ album. I was hooked. As a note when John Kay of Steppenwolf penned the phrase “heavy metal thunder” it was in the context as in a bunch of Harleys thundering down the road and making a thunderous roar. Outlaw motorcycle gangs were also very popular at the time. Heavy metal as a noun wasn’t actually coined by any particular person. It simply morphed into existence. BLACK SABBATH was the beginning. Lead guitarist Tommy Iommi tuned down his top guitar string simply because he had injured his finger along the way. It made it easier to play. It also was the somewhat accidental creation of a whole new sound. A killer sound an a heavy sound with a metal edge to it.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    What’s your guys thoughts about UFO? I heard they were a huge influence on Steve Harris maybe even the whole Maiden crew.

  • Baronius

    To me, there are three definitive bands and albums that were the origins of heavy metal: Black Sabbath’s Paranoid (1970), Deep Purple’s Machine Head (1972), and Uriah Heep Live (1973). Metal wouldn’t have become what it did without them. Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin had a rough sound, and even the MC5 did whatever it was that they were doing, but they weren’t heavy metal.

  • seanony

    I may be one of the top ten Zep fans on the planet…I never would have picked up a mic if it weren’t for Percy Plant….but I never considered them metal…Yes, they predate Sabbath by a couple years. They were loud and fast as hell..Communication Breakdown, anyone?(1969) But the blues they used was held close to their belts…same as Hendrix(who predates Zep)…Loud, dirty, distorted, bluesy, yes…..but not metal….no doom and gloom…no feeling of fear, despair or anger.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    El B –

    If you Google around, there’s a pirated video of Led’s concert last year when they did a one-time gig for royalty, with John Bonham’s son banging on the drums with all the fury of his dad.

    The video is of Kashmir…and it’s just as good as the original.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    What’s really, truly cool was:

    – going to my son’s eighth-grade school last year and seeing a kid wearing a Jimi Hendrix tee shirt.

    – watching my son’s eyes light up as he told me, “Dad! Look! I just downloaded ‘Crazy Train’ by Ozzy Ozbourne!” And I’d never even mentioned Ozzy to him before.

    – Watching a few hundred twenty-somethings rockin’ out at the Elton John/Billy Joel concert along with those of us who grew up with what’s now known as ‘Geritol Rock’.

    Yeah, I know, Elton and Billy aren’t Heavy Metal…but the point is that when I was young we didn’t get all excited over what our parents watched – which was ‘Lawrence Welk’, if anyone remembers him (he was “Wunnerful, wunnerful, wunnerful, and now here’s Bobby and Susie with a wunnerful polka!”).

    My brother’s been a DJ since the early seventies (he now DJ’s for five stations in the MS Delta (three of which are rap stations (a middle-aged white guy as a DJ for a rap station!)))…

    …and I have to agree with him when he says that the sixties was the most influential decade and the seventies the very best decade in all of the thousands of years of musical history…and I feel quite privileged and grateful to have grown up with the rage and angst and rebelliousness – and the testosterone-laced joie de vivre – that was (is!) Heavy Metal.

    Now please excuse me – it’s time for me to listen to Enya while I’m waiting for my yoga class later this morning (I’m not kidding).

  • Very nice salute but I think you missed it a year. I can hear bits of heavy metal on Zeppelin’s debut.

  • seanony

    Duly noted.

  • My point is they doing the loud sludge thing long before Sabbath…predating your “birthday” by at least three years.

    It’s a minor quibble though. If metal is to have an “official” birthday (as indicated by your lead paragraph), Sabbath’s debut is as good a point as any I suppose. Whether it’s 100% accurate however is still open to debate.


  • seanony

    And I did mention them at the beginning of the article. Dickie Peterson (Blue Cheer) put his band together in San Francisco at the height of the hippie movement. Stomping right over all of the flowers.

  • I think a decent argument could be made that heavy metal actually started with Blue Cheer in 1967. Just sayin’….

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Ahha… For me, the word “cornerstone” means a lot more because the cornerstone in a house helps keep that house standing. Now, while I admit that the first two Crue albums were pretty good they do not enter my mind when I think of “cornerstones” for Thy Blessed House of Metal! *smirk* Personally, I think the popularity aspect is what kills music history for every genre.

    But, I get your point…

  • seanony

    Well said,Brian. Hair metal is a term known by many masses of people.I guess I’m one of those people who call it that,but it has certainly been given other names. I used the term “cornerstone” as a gauge of influence and popularity, regardless of the “embarrassing” tag. For example, Limp Bizkit is a cornerstone rap- rock band that influenced countless, useless others.
    That’s where I was coming from.
    By the way, the first two Motley Crue albums were fantastic.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Yes,Happy Birthday you cursed, wicked & infectious genre for the masses!

    Nice Tribute…

    Though, how can you call Hair Metal embarrassing (which I agree) but claim that Motley Crue(which was the biggest Hair band) a cornerstone?

    Honestly, “Hair Metal” was a term coined by MTV which are the curators of an inaccurate Music History where they still perpetuate that “Grunge” killed “Metal”. BUT, in reality it was smorgasbord of different styles that killed off Glam Rock. That may have been Metal for the uninformed & pussy-whipped who looked to MTV for guidance,but, it wasn’t a true culmination of the killer bands that lay waiting just beyond the tube!

    Still, nice tribute & I’ll get off my soapbox now.