Heavy metal is a genre that has been going strong for nearly five decades, has seen numerous evolutions and continues to inspire generation after generation.
But where did it come from? Let’s take a look at the history behind the music, and how the genre of heavy metal first started out.
The Blues Before the Metal
There are a few theories on how heavy metal started. The heavy sound started with bands like Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer.
Originally forming in 1966, Iron Butterfly were one of the first bands to create a sound that could be described as “heavy”.
1968 saw two releases for the band, “Heavy” and “In a Gadda Da Vida”. In a Gadda Da Vida would go on to become 4x platinum and be the biggest success of the bands career.
1968-1969 saw the band playing festivals and a national tour with Jefferson Airplane.
The following years up to 1975 saw 4 more releases, a breakup and a reunion, with none of their releases reaching the heights that In a Gadda Da Vida did.
Since 1975 the band has broken up and reformed several times, and have got through 59 musicians, not including their current line up.
In a Gadda Da Vida (named so, because they were too high to say “In The Garden of Eden), has the overdriven sound in the electric guitar and stylistically sets the tone for what Black Sabbath were about to do.
Check it out:
It was also referenced in this classic Simpson’s episode:
The band Blue Cheer had a notable cover (released in 1968) of Summertime Blues. You can hear the pounding bass and drums together, and the introduction of the overdriven guitars, but this is loud blues music, their sound was not yet heavy metal.
Forming in 1967, their 1968 debut album “Vincebus Eruptum” was their most successful release, reaching 11 in the US top 200.
After that, the band followed a similar path to Iron Butterly, with numerous personal changes, break ups and reforming of the band. Unlike Iron Butterfly, the band continued to release records up to 2007.
Disbanding in 2009 after the death, after founding member Dicker Peterson died from prostate cancer.
But heavy metal really came along with Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple; all three of which were English bands. Releasing debut records in 1968-1970, these three bands would form a definitive to the genre of heavy metal and everything that was about to come with it.
With a recording career that spanned only 4 years, Jimi Hendrix would become one of the most influential guitarists to live. Releasing 4 albums between 1967 and 1970, Jimi Hendrix set a new bar for virtuosity on the electric guitar.
His technical expertise and songwriting would become a strong influence in The New Wave of British Heavy Metal that was to follow.
Hendrix’s story reads like the start of several guitar heroes… but possibly the most extreme.
Jimi’s father and mother both struggled with alcohol, often fought when drunk, and struggled to find work, leaving the family living in poverty. Hendrix would sometimes hide in a closet in their home when they fought.
The family moved frequently, and his parents eventually divorced in 1951, when Jimi was 9 years old.
In the mid 1950s, Hendrix was attending elementary school. For a year, he developed the habit of carrying a broom handle with him, like a security blanket.
In 1957, Jimi was helping his father clear a garage and came across a ukelele with one string. Being permitted to keep it, he started figuring out Elvis Presley songs on his single string.
Age 15 saw Hendrix getting his first guitar – a cheap acoustic. The next few years saw him fired from bands for showing off, stealing cars, and joining the army to avoid jail.
An army discharge and a musical career as a hired gun saw Hendrix moving to New York’s Greenwhich village in 1966 and forming a band with future Spirit guitarist Randy California (whose song ‘Taurus’ would go on to ‘inspire’ Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven).
A collection of conincidences led to Jimi Hendrix getting signed to a management and production contract in September 1966, with a brief tour of France following in October.
November saw Jimi Hendrix playing a club in London, with big names from the music industry attending. They were mesmorised by his playing, and from that moment, he started to take the music industry by storm.
4 records and a legendary performance at Woodstock followed, before his untimely death on September 29th, 1970.
The Birth of Heavy Metal (1968-1970)
This excerpt from Black Sabbath.com says it best:
With their riff-based songs, extreme volume, and dark, demonic subject matter, Black Sabbath embodied key aspects of the heavy-metal aesthetic. Yet in their own words, Black Sabbath saw themselves as a “heavy underground” band. That term denoted both the intensity of their music and the network of fans who found them long before critics and the music industry took notice. In a sense, though they’ve sold more than 75 million albums worldwide, they still are a heavy underground band. Although they became eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, they weren’t inducted until 2006. The truth is, they remain one of the most misunderstood bands in rock history.
The Black Sabbath story began in Birmingham, England, where Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward were looking to escape a life of factory work through music.
Coming from Birmingham, Black Sabbath was originally made up of Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, Geezer Butler and Ozzy Osbourne. They were factory workers, and for them, music was a way to escape from the drudgery of working in a factory.
Their first two albums were recorded in mere days, with Black Sabbath and Paranoid both being released in 1970.
Black Sabbaths career was born, and 13 more studio albums, world tours and notable line up changes would follow over the years.
But one thing was certain – they were instrumental in the birth of heavy metal
Formed in London in 1968, with their first release (Led Zeppelin I) being in 1969, Led Zeppelin were slightly ahead of Black Sabbath on the timeline.
The first incantation of Led Zeppelin was actually as the band, The Yardbirds. Jimmy Page was lead guitarist in The Yardbirds, and the band was slowly coming to an end.
In order to fulfil touring commitments, and not play them, the band let Jimmy Page use the name ‘The Yardbirds’ and bring in other players to play the last few dates.
Those players were Jon Bonham, Robert Plant and Jon Paul Jones.
To cut a lot of history short, after completing the tour dates, the new Yardbirds continued to play together, but received a Cease and Desist order from founding member Chris Dreja.
After receiving the cease and desist, they changed their name to Led Zeppelin. Managed by former Yardbirds manager, Peter Grant, the band went to astronomical heights.
With a similar story to Iron Maiden and Alice Cooper; the combination of artist with savvy management team, appears to have been instrumental in Led Zeppelins success.
I found the origins of Deep Purple to be surprising, almost a series of chance events.
In 1968, a former drummer for The Searchers, by the name of Christ Curtis was looking to put together a super group called “Roundabout”. The idea was that the group would feature different players, joining and leaving the band, like a roundabout.
Curtis contacted a London businessman called Tony Edwards, who formed HEC (Hire-Edwards-Coletter Enterprises) with two business partners, to fund and manage the project.
Curtis then set about finding band mates to kick things off, and hired Jon Lord and Richie Blackmore. However, Curtis was unreliable from taking drugs (notably LSD), causingHEC to fire him. However, HEC did like what Lord and Blackmore were coming up with and kept them on.
A tough lesson learned in reliability.
Blackmore and Lord then searched for vocalists, trying out a few (notably Rod Stewart) until they settled on Rod Evans, who was playing in a club band called The Maze. Rod brought his drummer, Ian Paice with him.
After a brief tour as Roundabout, the band changed their name to Deep Purple.
Over the next 7 years the band had 10 studio releases, which is going some.
Hawkwind – Notable Mention
Forming in 1969 and continuing to the present day, Hawkwind have released an impressive 31 records.
Playing psychedelic space rock, and a career that has spanned several decades, Hawkind have created an impressive legacy for themselves.
While not metal, or heavy, their music has influenced a lot of metal bands since, and notably, they were an important part of Lemmy’s journey in forming Motorhead.
Summary of the Early Years of Heavy Metal
1968-1970 saw the formation and first albums from Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.
All three bands released multiple albums in this short time span, which really helped kick start the heavy metal movement.
Achieving fame with world tours and succesful albums, these progenitors of metal would have a profound influence on the next wave of metal that was to appear in the late 1970s – the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
The early years are sometimes referred to as the first wave of heavy metal.
Jimi Hendrix had risen to fame, taking technical virtuosity on the electric guitar to new levels. While his music was not ‘metal’, his playing would become incredibly influential with the next wave of metal bands, and importantly, metal guitarists wanting to take their playing to the next level.