Why it’s called Heavy Metal

Easy Rider film, Black Sabbath Greatest Hits, The Human Machine by William Borroughs and patches and clutches by Zoa Sudio
Easy Rider film, Black Sabbath Greatest Hits, The Human Machine by William Borroughs and patches and clutches by Zoa Sudio

About a year ago we told you why rock’n’roll is called that (www.zoastudio.com/2019/01/20/rock-and-roll). Today, January 28th, we tell you why heavy metal is called in this way, starting from this particularly significant date.

Origin of the term

The term Heavy Metal was born today, January 28, 1968 because it coincides with the release of Steppenwolf’s album Born to be Wild. The song of the same name, included on the soundtrack of the famous film Easy Rider, features for the first time the phrase “heavy metal thunder”. The expression referred to the noise (for bikers a melodious sound to be honest) of the Harley Davidson twin-cylinder motorcycles.

I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder, racin’ with the wind

To learn more about the film Easy Rider we refer here: www.zoastudio.com/2019/07/14/easy-rider while if you are a Harley Davidson fan read here: www.zoastudio.com/2019/08/28/harley-davidson.

The term heavy metal was actually used a few years before 1968, but with different connotations than those given to the popular music genre in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1962 William Burroughs used the phrase “heavy metal kid” in his short story The Soft Machine. Two years later, he again used the terms in the novel Nova Express, where the words heavy metal are a metaphor for drugs.

The roots of Heavy Metal

Heavy metal took a long journey before making its grand entrance on the world music scene. This journey begins in the already appointed 1960s. The first half of the decade saw an unparalleled explosion of popular music.

Artists at the time very avant-garde, such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks, stand out as exponents of a rock and roll “different” from what was heard before (Elvis for example). Each of these groups contributed to the creation of the archetype “rock band”: strong, unpredictable, rebellious and even dangerous.

Beginning in the second half of the 1960s, the next generation of rock stars began planting the first Heavy Metal seeds. Inspired by their predecessors in blues and rock and roll, hard rock shows, such as those of Cream, Led Zeppelin and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, provide the soundtrack for a generation discouraged by the events of the time.

What differentiated these artists from their predecessors were the technological advances in sound, characterized by distorted guitars, pressing drums and scratchy voices. In addition, in addition to the much higher volume of rock, the artists counted among the first heavy metal producers are united by brutal lyrics. Let’s see who I am…

Heavy Metal takes shape

Now that we have clarified the origins of the term heavy metal and defined its prodromes, what can we consider the place where this musical genre is born?  Los Angeles, London, Chicago? No, it’s the English West Midlands, to be precise in Birmingham. If you want to get an idea of what was going on in Birmingham and the particular accent of its population watch the TV series Peaky Blinders https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peaky_Blinders.

Anyway, what happens when you have a generation raised in an economically depressed industrial city during an era of lost innocence? Well, the Black Sabbaths happen. The quartet is credited with forging a sound reminiscent of the noise of the steel mills (Iron Man) that dominated the landscape of their hometown.

Black Sabbath’s contribution

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Ozzy Osbourne recalls: “My house was extremely poor. My father worked the night as a tool repairman. (…) I slept in a bed with one of my brothers. We didn’t have the sheets. We had to use some old coats. (…) There was always a bunch of bread and potatoes to fill our belly. But money was in serious supply.”

Black Sabbath are credited with summing up rock ‘n roll first, blues and adding a hint of demonic that never hurts.  A completely new and unique musical journey, marked by the brooding guitar riffs of Tony Iommi, the intelligent lyrics and Geezer Butler, the pounding drums of Bill Ward and Ozzy Osbourne (on which there is nothing to add, the name speaks for itself). Ozzy himself remembers the incipit of everything.

We were rehearsing in a recreation center near Tony Iommi’s house, in front of a movie theater. One morning, Tony says, “It’s interesting. I was staring at the cinema.” They were planning something like The Vampire’s Return. “Don’t you think it’s bizarre that people pay to get scared? Maybe we should write music that’s scary.” That was the creative spark for “Black Sabbath.” And it changed my life, fuck it changed me.

From a musical composition point of view, Black Sabbath have openly addressed socially difficult topics to digest: from political corruption to recreational drug use to social ostracization. Compared to hard rock bands in the late 1960s, Sabbath’s compositions and performances were minimalist in form and performance. However, what lacked complexity was offset by Black Sabbath in terms of power and intensity. For all these reasons we can consider Black Sabbath as the first real heavy metal band.

After the Black Sabbath

The popularity of heavy metal plummeted during the golden age of disco music in the late 1970s. However, it was more successful than ever in the 1980s when Def Leppard, Iron Maiden and Saxon led the “new wave of British heavy metal” which, along with the impact of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, brought the genre back to life.

A wave of “glam” metal, with genre groups such as Thetley Crée and Ratt, emerged from Los Angeles in about 1983; Poison, Guns N’ Roses and hundreds of other bands move to Los Angeles in hopes of getting record deals.

But heavy metal had become a worldwide phenomenon thanks to bands such as the German Scorpions and other bands from Japan to Scandinavia. The most important musical influence of the decade was the adaptation to heavy metal of chord progressions, figuration and virtuosity ideals taken by baroque models, especially Bach and Vivaldi. Like Van Halen, guitarists such as Ritchie Blackmore (of Deep Purple), Randy Rhoads (with Osbourne) and Yngwie Malmsteen demonstrated new levels and styles of rock “guitar”, destroying popular stereotypes that they believed heavy metal as monolithic and musically simple.

Heavy metal fragmentation

As already mentioned, heavy metal fragmented into subgenres in the 1980s. This map should explain it well.

diagram on the evolution of heavy metal
diagram on the evolution of heavy metal

During this time an underground scene of tougher styles developed in opposition to Bon Jovi’s more pop-oriented metal, Whitesnake and glam bands. Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer are to be considered the pioneers of thrash metal, characterized by fast rhythms, “heavy” vocal and guitar timbres, aggressiveness and critical or sarcastic lyrics. The most widely popular styles of heavy metal practically took control of popular music in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, this period of “musical paradise” collapsed towards the end of the decade. Bands like Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana have attracted fans in different directions, and many have approached rap music (as they will have done not know, but better to have lost them!).

During the 1990s, many stars of previous decades, such as Van Halen, Metallica and Osbourne, continued to succeed, as did new bands such as Soundgarden. Gradually the name heavy metal is used less often to market these types of groups or to define their community of fans… Sigh.

Heavy metal from the 90s to the present

During most of the 1990s, heavy metal languished in obscurity as Grunge and Alternative Rock dominated the charts. Ironically, the declining popularity of heavy metal has actually been a blessing in disguise. Although heavy metal was abandoned en masse, avid fans remained as loyal as ever, eagerly anticipating the later evolution of the genre. Suffice it to say that the first edition of the Wacken Festival was in 1990.

As a result, fortunately, metal bands have been able to enjoy greater freedom in pursuing new and unconventional directions. Leaving to themselves, many original and avant-garde interpretations (often the synthesis of multiple subgenres) exploded on the scene: Symphonic, Folk, Melodic Death, Progressive Death, Technical Death, Groove Metal, Black Metal, Nu Metal, Industrial etc.

As a testament to the growing global spread of metal, the Nordic countries of Northern Europe have been the epicentre of this creative wave. Led by the Scandinavians In Flames, Opeth, Nightwish, Children of Bodom, Dimmu Borgir (I think we got an idea) heavy metal has moved to new heights. The collective success of these artists has reaffirmed the enduring appeal of heavy metal, driven by the loyalty of its angry fan base.

Perhaps this success has led some bands to various reunions: for example Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and even Black Sabbath, who regained the charts at various times during the 2000s. We wish all these bands to continue playing for another four to five decades, because of truly “heavy” there is the passion of a whole community of people who vent their anger by singing songs to the fore or making their hands bleed by force to play.



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