Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians™
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.
S3:E7 – What Makes Heavy Metal, Heavy Metal? Part 1
Many consider Black Sabbath to be the first heavy metal band. Others say it’s Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin.
All three bands called themselves hard rock, not metal. Either way, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin are part of the metal story.
The same is true of Niccolò Paganini and The Beatles.
It’s a long story and no one’s sure how it ends, if it ever ends in our lifetimes.
Heavy metal is an amalgam of at least four genres.
First and foremost, it’s based on rock & roll, but it also has elements of blues, classical, and jazz.
Metal’s basic ethos and distorted guitars come from early rock & roll. Initially, distortion was created by turning the volume knob all the way up on the small guitar amps of the time. If more power is sent through the amp’s electronics than they’re designed to handle, the sound is no longer clean and clear.
It’s fuzzy and buzzy.
Rockabilly and surf guitarists like Link Wray and Dick Dale liked that sound.
Dale asked Leo Fender, whose company manufactured guitars, basses, and amps in California, to build a 100 watt amp.
In London, The Who’s Pete Townshend asked amp maker Jim Marshall for the same thing.
This massive (for the time) wattage overdrove the speakers creating a massive distortion and high volume, too.
The speaker cabinet Townshend used had eight ten-inch speakers. His road crew complained about how heavy it was, so he had Marshall make two cabinets with four speakers each and put one on top of the other, with the amp on top of that.
This was the beginning of the Marshall stack, which is now a familiar sight at rock and metal concerts. Its look was befitting a successful rock band, and its distortion and volume were mandatory.
Sometimes distortion was created accidentally by using a broken amp.
Later, musicians broke their amps deliberately. Dave Davies of The Kinks sliced his amp’s speaker cones with a razor blade to get the sound made famous on You Really Got Me.
The blues play a big role in both rock & roll and heavy metal, though in metal its influence is mostly in its repeating riffs and foreboding lyrics. When Screaming Jay Hawkins sings I Put A Spell On You, it’s easy to believe in his dark powers.
There’s a legend that bluesman Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for amazing guitar talent.
There’s some borderline evil in the blues.
In the 1960s, musicians in the UK were enamored of American blues.
Bands like The Yardbirds, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, and Cream were part of what became called the British Blues scene. When their music was slowed down by bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and the bass was turned up, the sound got heavier. Journalist Chris Welch said, “It’s when they learned to relax, really, I think that’s when bands began to become heavy.”
Jimi Hendrix came from a blues background and he added some psychedelic elements, feedback, effects pedals, whammy bars, and unusual chord voicings to create a new kind of guitar hero.
His innovative playing has long been copied in metal bands, but he considered himself a blues guy and earned his initial popularity in England, among the British blues rock guitarists and fans.
Let’s talk about the rock & roll front man.
Singers are usually seen as a band’s leader, whether he is behind the scenes or not. In rock & roll, it’s vitally important for the front man to connect with the audience. This can be through an everyman demeanor like John Fogerty, or a space alien persona like David Bowie, or really anything in-between. The front man must give the audience something to believe, whether it’s working as hard as they do, or feeling as isolated as they do, or providing the fantasy escapism they need.
Metal singers also need lung power and usually a high vocal range. This is where the influence of classical, and specifically opera, comes in.
Opera and heavy metal have a flair for the dramatic.
Breastplates and horned helmets fit both the opera and metal stereotypes, but so do extravagant and expressive singing, particularly in higher registers.
In metal today, virtuosity is as important in metal as it is in classical, so let’s talk about Paganini for a second.
He was a child prodigy violinist in the late 1700s, and played with such speed, dexterity, and perfection that people believed he sold his soul to the devil to get such talent. This is the same story people told about Robert Johnson two centuries later.
Another rumor was that Paganini had killed a woman, used her intestines as strings, and held her soul in his violin. Her screams could be heard in his playing.
It doesn’t get much more metal than that.
Rumors aside, Paganini‘s talent was indisputable.
He composed 24 caprices that push players to the limits of their abilities. Here is his extremely difficult Caprice 24 played by both classical violinist Hilary Hahn and metal guitarist Bernth. Each is remarkable for their dynamics, fluidity, precision, and the hours of practice required to get to this level.
The jazz influence on heavy metal comes in the form of swinging rhythm sections, particularly drummers. When John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and Bill Ward of Black Sabbath wanted to, they could swing as hard as Gene Kupra or Buddy Rich.
Metal and jazz also use something known colloquially among musicians as the “push.” It’s when you play a note early, and it’s usually part of the arrangement. Often, it’s when a new chord is played not on the first beat of the measure, but on the last eighth note of the previous measure. Pushing the chord change early (and without speeding up) adds excitement and variation to the song.
So, we can broadly define heavy metal as:
Aggressive, riff-based music with distorted guitars, virtuosic performances, exciting rhythms, and an out of control and possibly evil front man.
Black leather pants optional.
So how did all these elements come together?
In the post-Woodstock 60s, rock & roll lost its roll. It was no longer about cars and girls and dancing and surfing. It became more political, primarily in response to the Vietnam War, and it got more angry and direct. Musicians and writers made no bones about the failings of mainstream society.
If all society had to offer was getting a job or getting drafted, it was better to buy a motorcycle and hit the road.
We get the term “heavy metal” from Steppenwolf’s song Born To Be Wild.
The line “heavy metal thunder” may describe the sound of a motorcycle, but it also perfectly describes the sound of the song it’s in.
It describes the sound of other bands of the time, too.
Blue Cheer had the reputation of being the world’s loudest band. Their cover of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues is one of those songs often mentioned as the first heavy metal recording, though some argue that it’s The Beatles’ Helter Skelter.
Two cities are very important in this story. They’re both industrial towns, and the industries weren’t doing well at the time. Places like these, with poor economic outlooks, sometimes become incubators for creativity. Frustrated people find new ways to express that frustration.
These cities were Birmingham, England, and Detroit, Michigan.
They were working class towns with low wages and high crime rates. The peace and love movement of the late 1960s meant next to nothing in that atmosphere.
The members of Black Sabbath had been in various blues bands around Birmingham. They got together hoping to form a heavy blues band. They called themselves Earth until they found out there was another band with that name.
Their new name came from a marquee over a theater playing the horror film Black Sabbath.
They kept the film’s dark atmosphere in mind when writing their second song, also called Black Sabbath. It’s about flames and Satan and black figures and people running in fear, and its main riff includes the “devil’s interval.”
Also known as a tritone because its notes are three whole steps apart, the devil’s interval is so dissonant that people once believed the devil lived inside it. Naturally, it’s used in metal all the time now.
When The Yardbirds broke up, they were still contractually obligated to play a tour of Scandinavia. One of the band’s guitarists decided to put another band together, call it The New Yardbirds, and do the tour. Friends of friends suggested a singer and drummer from a northern blues group called Band Of Joy, and he got a bass player he knew from his session work.
That’s how Londoners Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones met Robert Plant and John Bonham.
They, of course, renamed themselves Led Zeppelin. Plant’s screech and Bonham’s muscle are pure Birmingham. But Led Zeppelin didn’t like being called heavy metal. They could be as heavy as any band around at the time, but they could be light and sophisticated, too. The same band that gave us Communication Breakdown gave us Black Mountain Side, next to each other on their first album.
Also in London, the first iteration of Deep Purple started up.
The band had many lineup changes over the years, and fans refer to the various lineups as Mark I, Mark II, Mark III, and Mark IV.
Mark I ran through 1968 and 69 as a hard rock and progressive band. When keyboardist Jon Lord and guitarist Richie Blackmore joined for Mark II, they went in a harder direction with some classical influences. Along with Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and Led Zeppelin’s second album, Deep Purple’s In Rock are often cited as instrumental in cementing metal’s characteristics, even though none of these bands thought of themselves as heavy metal.
Meanwhile in Detroit, bands were producing the fastest and loudest rock in the country.
“Flower Power was nice, but that wasn’t enough power.”Wayne Kramer of The MC5
He was talking about needing enough power to fix politics, but he could easily have been talking about amplification.
Honestly, they weren’t heavy metal. Though they would later be considered early punk, they were more interested in free jazz and put its spirit of anarchic improvisation and experimentation to use.
Iggy Pop & The Stooges were another Detroit band with incendiary live shows, and Iggy is sometimes called the godfather of punk. They’re not metal, but their stripped down, amped up, sound isn’t far off.
The MC5 and The Stooges are the two bands that get mentioned most when talking about Detroit rock. This isn’t due to record sales, but because they influenced so many other musicians that came later, mostly in the punk and metal scenes. It’s important to remember the other musicians from Detroit pushing rock harder: Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, the Rationals, Scott Richardson, Suzi Quatro, and Alice Cooper.
Alice Cooper, the person, began life in Detroit as Vincent Furnier but his family moved to Phoenix when he was in high school.
Alice Cooper, the band, started there, moved to Los Angeles, and then to Detroit. The Los Angeles rock scene, home of the Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter scene, didn’t understand his band’s theatrics.
The old Hollywood vaudevillians got it, however, and Cooper became close friends with Groucho Marx. That leads us to this story.
Once you get past the snakes and guillotines and hangman’s nooses:
Alice Cooper is a great songwriter.
Bob Dylan said as much. Hits like School’s Out, I’m Eighteen, and No More Mr. Nice Guy have memorable melodies and could easily be redone in a pop or country version. Versatility is the sign of a good song.
But none of these artists are necessarily heavy metal. Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and the rest could be considered hard rock or British blues or proto-punk, depending on the ear of the beholder. The first album that was heavy metal and nothing else came in 1980.
But for that:
We have to go back to Birmingham.
See you here next week.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Born To Be Wild
Kick Out The Jams (NSFW)
Scott Richardson SRC
Under My Wheels
The Red And The Black
Blue Ӧyster Cult
Stone Cold Crazy
Run With The Wolf
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