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:E8 – What Makes Heavy Metal, Heavy Metal ?
As I mentioned last time in Part 1, Deep Purple went through four lineup changes, known as Marks I through IV. When Ritchie Blackmore left at the end of Mark III, he started a new band called Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, which later shortened to just Rainbow.
Blackmore hired four members of Deep Purple’s opening act, an American band called Elf, though he soon fired three of them and kept singer Ronnie James Dio.
Dio would prove influential in heavy metal’s lyrical content, and would give us a hand gesture that symbolizes rock.
As a lyricist, Dio shared Black Sabbath’s interest in the underworld and used it as his starting point. Religion, and the light it shines on the good and evil within each of us, became one of his main subjects. Later bands would turn to Satanism, either seriously or as a joke or just to be part of the trend, but Dio looked at it as a metaphor.
We can choose the evil in us or we can choose the good, and Dio set those very human choices in a fantasy world to more starkly show the distinction. While outsiders don’t quite get metal’s fascination with castles and wizards and holy divers, fans know that these are morality tales. They’re warnings. We can learn from the bad choices of fictional characters.
So given his subject matter, it’s not entirely coincidental that Dio ended up in Black Sabbath after he left Rainbow and Ozzy Osborne left Sabbath. They were the right band for him, he was the right singer for them.
Ozzy had been known for raising both arms and displaying the peace symbol.
Dio wanted something of his own, so he took a gesture that his Italian grandmother used to ward off the malocchio, or the evil eye,
Raising an index finger and a pinkie has become known as the “devil’s horns.”
It went from meaning heavy metal to meaning rock, and then to meaning any enthusiastic approval. I’ve seen people put up the devil’s horns at business meetings.
Symbolism like this is important in rock music. A band’s image defines it nearly as much as its music. When you see a picture of a band in cowboy hats and denim shirts, you get the idea that they don’t sound much like bands wearing neon leotards.
Glam rock was as much about fashion as it was about music.
Marc Bolan of T. Rex is seen as glam’s progenitor, playing bluesy hard rock and wearing eyeliner, leopard print, and a lot of satin.
Glam’s heyday was through the early 1970s. And while its music was more pop-rock than metal, its flamboyant fashions would reappear in the late 1980s Los Angeles metal bands. We’ll get to them in a future article. That gives you time to get your spandex dry cleaned.
Bands like T. Rex, Sweet, and Mott The Hoople played hard rock with pop overtones and are known for their eye make up and extravagant clothes. David Bowie was considered part of glam, but he transformed himself so many times it’s hard to think of him as part of any single movement. Still, he was big in glam at the time.
And then KISS took it to another level.
KISS is one of those bands (Aerosmith is another example) who made their careers through touring rather than record sales.
The word of mouth about them was all about spectacle: the costumes, the make up, the pyrotechnics, and spitting fake blood.
Alice Cooper had the same sort of word of mouth but, in my subjective opinion, had better songs.
KISS was rejected by label after label until they were signed by the newly formed Casablanca Records, which would later become the leader in disco. The major labels thought KISS was a cartoon band, but kids like cartoons and were sure to see the band whenever they came to town. Their 1975 live album Alive! and its back cover showing a packed arena changed some minds.
(We found out later that the live album used a lot of studio overdubs, including the audience’s reactions. That’s a completely different story.)
Musically though, we have to include KISS in the heavy metal of the time. Songs like Strutter, Strange Ways, and Hotter Than Hell are riff-based metal bordering on hard rock. Musically, they’re not all that different from AC/DC or Ted Nugent.
The emergence of punk rock in the mid-1970s is usually seen as a reaction to the excesses of progressive rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but it was also a reaction to the excesses of histrionic stage shows like KISS’s. Punk replaced the elaborate costumes and guitar gods with ripped t-shirts and pure rock and roll energy.
One band combined that punk energy with the ethos of metal.
Motȍrhead started in London in 1975, went through several lineup changes, but ultimately settled into loud, fast, no nonsense heavy metal.
They had metal fans and punk fans, a consensus few other bands could pull together.
Motȍrhead also introduced the double bass drum set to heavy metal. It’s pretty much required these days. See their video in Suggested Listening below.
A London club called The Bandwagon Heavy Metal Soundhouse was managed by a DJ who would only play hard rock and heavy metal.
With a name like that, they weren’t going to play disco.
The DJ, Neal Kay, was given a demo of a song called Prowler and he liked it well enough to add to his rotation.
Like Motȍrhead, it mixed punk’s speed with metal’s power, though Steve Harris, the band’s leader, hated punk. He still hates punk. He’ll tell anyone who will listen that he hates punk.
The band was called Iron Maiden and Prowler’s popularity at The Bandwagon helped spread the word. The song became the lead off track on their self-titled, debut album in 1978. They’ve released 17 studio albums, the most recent in September 2021, and are one of the biggest live acts in the world. That first Iron Maiden album is very important in metal’s development.
However, the album that made all the difference to heavy metal didn’t come out until 1980, and part of that was a new fashion statement. The back cover of British Steel by Birmingham band Judas Priest showed them in black leather and chrome studs. They gave heavy metal its own look.
British Steel’s cover and the music it contained certified that Judas Priest could no longer be confused as a British blues or glam rock band, unlike some of their previous albums.
They were now proudly metal and wore it on their, well, not sleeves, but studded wrist cuffs.
Not only did Iron Maiden and British Steel help define heavy metal as a genre unto itself, they mark the start of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.
Often abbreviated as NWOBHM and pronounced “neh-WOB-um,” it includes bands like Diamond Head, Saxon, and Tygers Of Pan Tang. NWOBHM’s songs tend to be short and fast like punk rock, but deal with dark topics like earlier heavy metal.
All the blues and jazz elements were gone, replaced by the intricacies of classical and prog rock. Most bands had two guitarists, not necessarily to take turns soloing, but to play precisely arranged parts together. They filled the same roles as the first violins and second violins in an orchestra.
The twin guitar harmony sound was first developed by the Irish group Thin Lizzy.
They are sometimes considered a metal band and the metal story isn’t complete without them, but they were simply a hard rock band.
A very, very, good hard rock band.
It’s no wonder that NWOBHM became very popular in Europe as it stripped metal down to only its rock, punk, prog, and classical attributes. The subject matter was similar to Beowulf, Nordic folklore, and tales from Germanic heroic legend. All the characteristics of African American music were gone.
Like classical music before it, and to put it indelicately: heavy metal is our whitest music from our whitest continent.
Metal continues to be more popular in Europe than anywhere else, notably in Scandinavia. There are sizable followings in North America, Oceania, and, to a lesser extent, South America. Still, there are more metal bands per capita in Greenland than in the United States.
That’s not to say heavy metal is racist, though there are some underground nationalist elements here and there just like in the rest of society.
And it’s not really sexist either, though the audience is mostly male and the music’s aggression is something of a statement of masculinity. It did, however, have undercurrents of homophobia, which made Rob Halford’s coming out in 1998 all the more shocking.
The singer of Judas Priest? Gay? It was mind-boggling at the time.
Now, the general consensus seems to be a collective shrug.
As long as he can still sing and ride a motorcycle on to the stage, let’s rock. Maybe the subculture is growing like the rest of society.
NWOBHM lyrics are rarely political. Though some songs pine for the weekend and mention the broken economy of late 70s Britain, metal songs are more likely to talk about cars, motorcycles, dragons and hellfire.
So we have a nearly all white and nearly all male subculture that doesn’t appear to be racist or sexist or political.
How does that work ?
My theory is that metal is escapism.
No one really believes in dragons, but such ideas are a distraction from the larger culture.
It’s a good way to forget about your terrible boss and the unlikelihood of earning a better place in society.Musical and societal theorist Bill “Virgindog” Bois
As I said in the very first Theoretically Speaking, the first instrument was the voice, followed by percussion. The act of banging sticks or rocks together is at least a little violent, and you know one caveman or another got carried away and smashed his sticks into splinters.
Probably Trorck. That guy had no sense of decorum at all.
From Trorck’s broken sticks to Wagner’s bombast to Mastodon’s aural assault, there’s always been aggression in music. We currently think of heavy metal as the most aggressive genre, and rightly so, but we must remember:
That most of its fans are absolute pussycats.
Which begs the question:
Does aggressive music help release aggression, so that it doesn’t manifest itself in more destructive ways?
The answer is: yes.
Dr. Laurel Trainor, director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, says that heavy metal allows for the release of aggression in a safe environment.
“The sound intensity and the distortion tend to turn off conscious thought, so you’re turning off inhibition.”Dr. Laurel Trainor, Director: McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind
That allows listeners to headbang, mosh, scream, and generally blow off steam throughout an entire concert.”
And when they’re done, they go home content and can become pussycats again.
Come back next week for Part 3. We’ll pick up sometime in the mid-1980s.
Heaven And Hell
Breaking The Law
Am I Evil?
Don’t Touch Me There
Tygers Of Pan Tang
Race With The Devil
Break The Chain
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