Heavy Metal’s place within the taxonomy of music is as a subcategory of hard-rock, which in turn falls under the expansive denomination of rock. Heavy Metal – also just called ‘metal’ – is perhaps one of the most complex and controversial genres of music. The genre has simultaneously inspired die-hard fans and intense criticism, along with heaps of absurd and unbelievable stories. Metal is not a genre of moderation, but rather one of extreme excess, in terms of musical style but also in terms of the attitude, appearance, and the lifestyles of those who play it.
The impact heavy metal has had on the musical (and the social) landscape has been immense. Alongside the head-banging, heavy metal has also come to represent something deeper for many of its fans, something political even. But how did the heavy metal music revolution begin and what inspired it?
The Origins of Metal Music
Heavy Metal music originated from industrial, working class areas of the UK. Specifically in the midlands and northern England, where, coincidentally, there were a large number of factories processing actual metal, primarily steel. Members of some of the earliest metal bands have referenced the sound of the steel factories as a direct influence on their music: “You could always hear the steam hammers, there was always a steel mill within audible distance”, remembers Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest.
Other than listening to the sounds of metal foundries, the pioneers of metal listened to British blues rock bands. In the early 60s the genre included the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Yardbirds. Meanwhile, the chunky guitar riff in The Kinks’ song You Really Got Me, is said to have directly inspired Bill Ward (Black Sabbath).
Guitar legend Jimmy Hendrix also influenced the early development of the genre with the popularisation of lengthy, technically brilliant, highly distorted guitar solos, which became one of the defining a characteristics of metal music. Equally, Cream and the solos of Eric Clapton influenced the early sound of metal, perhaps even more so than Hendrix, because Cream also included repetitive riffs, heavy drums, and a psychedelic vibe, all of which would play an important role in early metal music.
Inspired by bands of the early 60s, heavy metal music began in its own right in the late 60s early 70s. By most accounts, the first metal band was Black Sabbath, with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple sometimes sharing the title. Nitpicking aside, these three bands shared a characteristic style: a mix of big, thick, dense, and intense sounds. Through the use of amplified, distorted guitars, heavy, loud drums, and a machine-like quality to the power chord driven guitar riffs, these pioneering metal bands created the genre.
DJ Neal Kay pinpointed the importance of the electric guitar and amplification to the genre when he said: “Heavy metal is all about, literally, the awesome power of electricity through guitar.” Indeed, it would be impossible to create the epic atmosphere present in songs such as War Pigs by Black Sabbath without the presence of the distorted electric guitar. Meanwhile, imaging Led Zeppelin without the ingenious electric guitar riffs driving the songs forward is simply impossible.
The overall loudness of metal music, caused by the need to balance each segment of the music with the booming amplification of the guitar, has become one of the genres defining features. One cannot play metal music quietly. Metal is always too much of everything to the point where ‘too much’ has become the genres mantra: too loud, too heavy, too powerful, and with guitar solos that, according to the critics, are too long!
And the frontmen of metal lived out the mantra of ‘too much’ in every aspect of their lives. They came to be seen as aggressive, macho, rebellious, outrageous, even dangerous…
Metal in the Mainstream
1970-1972 – In the beginning…
There was Black Sabbath! And thanks to Black Sabbath, metal music went mainstream almost instantly in the UK. Black Sabbath formed in Birmingham in 1968, comprised of Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass), Bill Ward (drums), and Ozzy Osbourne (vocals). As the archetypal metal band, Black Sabbath are without a doubt the most influential metal band in history.
After releasing their first record in 1970, the band achieved instant success. The record reached number 8 in the UK albums chart and, a few months later, reached number 23 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart in the USA. Yet despite its success (or perhaps because of it) music critics lambasted the album. It appeared the musical elite were not quite ready for heavy metal music. Fans, however, found it a welcome relief from the flower power pop of the 60s generation and appreciated the frankness of the sound, and of the lyrics, which focused on a range of social issues including the Vietnam war and drug use.
Black Sabbath paid no attention to the critics. The band returned to the studio just four months after the release of their debut album to record a second. The album was titled Paranoid and featured a song by the same name. The song was released as a single and reached number 4 in the UK singles chart. Boosted by the success of the single, the album reached number 1. Across the Atlantic, Paranoid reached number 12 and consequently the band went on tour in the United States in 1971. Despite receiving no radio airplay and being ignored or dissed by critics, Black Sabbath established themselves as one of the biggest bands in the world within 2 years.
Their success inspired many. Having begun as a progressive rock band, Deep Purple turned to a heavier sound in 1970. Consisting of four professionally trained musicians, Deep Purple added a technical element to metal that was not present in the simple compositions created by Black Sabbath. The shift towards a heavy metal sound resulted in instant success for the band. Their 1970s album, In Rock, reached number 4 in the UK, while the single Black Night got to number 2.
1978- 1982 – Leather and Studs
Both Black Sabbath and Deep Purple enjoyed considerable success throughout the 70s, but it wasn’t until 1978 that metal music entered a new era of development. This new era was brought into being by another Birmingham based band: Judas Priest.
Judas Priest combined the musical approaches of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple into one impressive sound. Dark, intense, complex, and melodic, the metal music made by Judas Priest ushered in a new era of heavy metal bands, but interestingly it wasn’t the music that defined them, rather it was the fashion.
During the first half of the 1970s, heavy metal musicians still looked much them same as 1960s blues rockers, a style we now refer to as the ‘hippy’ look. This all changed when Rob Halford, lead singer of Judas Priest, brought the leather and studs style he found in London’s Soho gay bars and nightclubs into the world of metal music. By introducing leather and studs, Judas Priest changed everything, forever. With its new image, metal became more than a musical genre, it became an identity.
Along with giving metal its iconic look, Judas Priest sold over 50 million records, produced 18 studio albums (the most recent was released in 2018), and earned 5 grammy awards, all of which has contributed to the establishment of metal as one of the most influential and widely enjoyed genres of music in the world.
1982-1986 – NWOBHM
In the 1980s a new wave of metal bands emerged. Once again, most of these bands came from the UK. The new generation of bands ditched the blues elements, that can be found in early metal music, in favor of a distinctly punk rock inspired sound. The songs were faster, intenser, and more aggressive. The era produced some of heavy metals most influential bands, including: Motörhead, Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Def Leppard.
This era of heavy metal has been called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), but the term doesn’t neatly described all the acts that emerged during the period. Metal bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal typically conformed to the punk/indie DIY ethic. Numerous independent labels formed and bands produced their own records. However, this can not be said of the eras most iconic and successful band, Motörhead, who had a recording contract early on and comprised members of formerly successful bands.
Despite the usual categorisation problems, metal bands in the early 1980s shared a distinctive, unique sound. What’s more, the bands introduced new lyrical themes to the genre by singing about fantasy and mythological topics, an aspect of metal music that would become central to later sub-genres. Equally important during this era was the development of theatrical stage shows. Together, these new elements sent the genre global.
1986-1990 – Hair and Thrash
During the latter half of the 1980s metal entered a new and, for many dedicated fans, disturbing period. A new group of bands situated on the West coast of the United States created a new form of music called Hair Metal. These bands took the theatrical aspects of early 80s metal to the extreme. For Hair Metal bands the performance was less about the music than it was about the style and the show. Mötley Crüe and Poison epitomised this outrageous subgenre of metal music, focusing their lyrics on women (Mötley Crüe’s song Girls, Girls, Girls), fast cars, and living large on L.A.’s Sunset Strip.
While Hair Metal was taking off in L.A., another brand of metal emerged that represented Hair Metal’s exact opposite: Thrash Metal. Drawing inspiration from NWOBHM bands and from classic metal acts, Thrash Metal became the hardest, loudest, and fasted version of metal played by anyone, anywhere. Those most influential bands of the era were Metallica, Exodus, Slayer, and Megadeth. Unlike their Hair Metal cousins, Thrash Metal bands maintained metal music’s historic attachment to politically conscious lyrics.
Metal Leaves the Mainstream
1990 – onwards – Era of the Extreme
While Hair Metal enjoyed considerable commercial success, the craze was short-lived. By the 1990s only Thrash Metal bands had survived, but their sound was too extreme for the mainstream. Apart from Metallica, and to a lesser extent Megadeth, Thrash Metal bands failed to (or avoided) breaking through to wider audiences.
Throughout the decade and into the 21st Century, the marginalisation of new metal music only increased as extreme forms of metal prevented the music having any major commercial, or mainstream appeal. The social themes once present in metal lyrics were replaced almost entirely with a combination of inward looking or mythological themes, or frankly incomprehensible vocals.
Metal took a backseat to Grunge music and alternative rock throughout the 1990s and has not returned to the mainstream since.
Controversy and Criticism of Metal Music and the Metal ‘Identity’
As a genre, metal has always attracted criticism and controversy. It has often been considered ‘anti’, anti-flower pop, anti-establishment, anti-war, anti-nuclear and so on, making it a rebellious genre of music. The wild antics of metal’s leading musicians has created a aura of unpredictability, insanity, and immorality about the genre. There was the time Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a live bat during a show, Lemmy’s well-known speed and alcohol addiction, Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson sex tape, the murder of Dimebag Darrell while performing onstage, and the wave of Nordic church burnings by members of Black Metal bands.
The genre has also attracted a reputation for homophobia and sexism, caused primarily by the macho culture surrounding the identity of metal fans who were almost exclusively male (as have been the bands). These accusations have alway been vehemently refuted by metal fans, but the image has persisted in the minds of the general public.
But metal is a complex genre. Despite the accusations, for many metal fans the genre still represents rebellion against a corrupt political system and a form of liberation from repressive social norms. To that end, metal music has become increasingly popular in countries with dictatorial regimes, including in Brazil, and several Middle-Eastern countries, as a form of protest and self-expression.
The Future of Metal | Contemporary Metal
Despite turning, in many ways, into a niche genre, heavily fragmented into an endless list of sub-genres, metal remains one of the quintessential genres of modern music. And for many, metal’s retreat from the mainstream was a blessing in disguise, allowing the genre to experiment and explore new and interesting directions. Continually evolving, metal is far from over. Who know when it will return from the shadows to dominate the mainstream once more.
Key Moments in the History of Metal Music
- 1970 – On Friday 13th of February, Black Sabbath released their self-titled debut album, Black Sabbath. The album reached no.8 on the UK albums chart and no.23 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in the USA. The releases the album Paranoid later the same year.
- 1970 – Deep Purple release In Rock. The album reaches no.4 in the UK.
- 1978 – Judas Priest release Killing Machine. When released in the US, the album is retitled, Hell Bent for Leather, in reference to the band’s iconic leather and studs look.
- 1980 – Judas Priest release British Steel. The album receives considerable commercial success and is regularly played on the radio. The album reached no.4 and the singles, Breaking the Law & Living After Midnight, both reached no.12.
- 1982 – Ozzy Osbourne bites the head off a live bat during a show in Iowa, USA.
- 1979 – Motörhead release Overkill, the band’s first album to enter the top 40 of the UK albums chart.
- 1983 – Mötley Crüe release Shout at the Devil. The album reaches number 17 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
- 1986 – Metallica release Master of Puppets. The album is considered the most influential thrash metal album ever made.
- 2004 – Dimebag Darrell is shot dead while performing onstage.