Flashback Friday: A History Of Heavy Metal

A fan’s perspective of the much-maligned music genre of heavy metal.
Flashback Friday: A History Of Heavy Metal
Lemmy of Motorhead/ High Times

For this edition of Flashback Friday, we’re republishing Elin Wilder’s ode to heavy metal from the June, 1988 issue of High Times magazine.

They’re using “Iron Man” to sell watches!!! What the hell is going on here? Using the Beatles to sell sneakers is bad enough, but heavy metal to sell watches? Heavy metal music has always belonged to the fans. After all, who’s kept it alive all these years? Not Madison Avenue, that’s for sure. And certainly not the rock critics, who trash it every chance they get. Think about it—they’ve been saying it was doomed from the start, right?

The roots of heavy metal go back twenty years ago, when the critics cracked all over Blue Cheer for playing “Summertime Blues” louder than any band had ever played before. But those guys had only 24 speakers hooked up to six amps! And then there was Iron Butterfly, who took flack for the first drum solo on “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” But that ended up as one of the biggest selling records of the sixties. Meanwhile, the MC5 played their first gig at the Fillmore East, and Steppenwolf was revving everyone up with “Born to be Wild.” It was the start of something.

Nobody really knew what to expect in 1969 when Led Zeppelin came out of nowhere with their first album; at the time “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies seemed destined to become record of the year. Critics wrote Zeppelin off as Britain’s answer to Grand Funk Railroad. (Is the criteria for becoming a critic stupidity, or what?)

The kids knew better. The album charted soon after its release, and Zeppelin’s first tour established them as one of the top live acts in the world.

Among fans and rock historians there is still a long-standing argument about which band was responsible for heavy metal: Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, or Black Sabbath. I’m not going to choose one over the other, I’ll just lay it out as it happened.

By mid-1969, Led Zeppelin had a hit on their hands and were in the process of creating another with Led Zeppelin II. Deep Purple had already established themselves in the States with three successful records, including Shades of Deep Purple, but back home in England, they were virtually unknown. During the summer of ’69 they decided to change that.

First off, Blackmore and company decided to make a few changes in their lineup: Ian Gillian (vocals) and Roger Glover (bass). The changes in Deep Purple’s style and sound was almost immediate. While the new band was still rehearsing, Jon Lord put together a concerto for rock and symphony orchestra, with a little help on lyrics from Gillian. The piece won them a standing ovation and the respect of several rock critics.

By the time the band completed Deep Purple in Rock (1970), they had become a force to be reckoned with. The band toured incessantly over the next two years, and bombarded their fans with records, while its members still found time to devote to outside projects (like Ian Gillian’s lead vocals on the Jesus Christ Superstar album). By the time Made in Japan (1973) was released, Machine Head had been on the charts for 66 weeks, and in the top ten twice. The only question that plagues me is: How did people learn how to play the guitar before “Smoke on the Water”?

So, while Deep Purple was getting their act together, and Led Zeppelin was jamming the charts with “Whole Lotta Love,” what was Black Sabbath up to? They were still calling themselves EARTH! It wasn’t until the Christmas of 1969, after watching a Boris Karloff flick, that Ozzy, Tony, Geezer and Ward decided to change Earth to Black Sabbath. They were decidedly the worst or best thing anyone had ever heard, depending on who you asked.

The critics hated them from the start, avoiding them in print and in person, but the fans couldn’t get enough, and the band charted the first time out with Black Sabbath. They were succeeding through word of mouth, and Ozzy Osbourne endeared himself to fans by making up in personality for what he lacked as a singer.

Then came Paranoid (1971), the album that put them over the top. With its two hits, “Paranoid” and “Ironman,” the album made the top ten within a few weeks after its release. Black Sabbath had three albums on the charts in the summer of ’71 when Master of Reality (with “Sweet Leaf”) joined the first two. That same year fans helped Sabbath rank third on the Cashbox poll for Top Vocal Group of 1971. The single version of “Ironman” was then released, followed by their fourth, Vol. 4. It seemed the group parents feared the most was here to stay.

In 1971, while Black Sabbath and Deep Purple were pulling up the rear, Led Zeppelin already had two gold records and were about to get their third with Led Zeppelin III. Then Led Zeppelin IV hit the charts, and calls for “Stairway to Heaven” burned up the request line, making Album Oriented Rock stations more of a necessity, and confirming Led Zeppelin’s place as Most Popular Group of the ’70s.

There were other notable changes between 1969 and 1971, including the glut of rock magazines being published, most of them attempting to cash in on the success of Rolling Stone. Many of them have since disappeared (Rock, Raves, Crawdaddy) and others still plugging away (Circus, Creem, Hit Parader). The closing of the Fillmores East and West marked the end of an era. Rock also moved from rock festivals to concert arenas, and arena tours became the way most heavy metal groups developed their followings, making it all the more important that bands not only get out there and play, but develop a real stage act.

Led Zeppelin was among those touring their asses off. They had appeared at most of the major festivals, including (believe it or not) Woodstock, and in the early ’70s headlined a series of sold-out shows. It was a year Led Zeppelin broke all previous records when they sold out a Tampa football stadium. Also breaking house records was Grand Funk Railroad, who found themselves playing to packed houses at Shea Stadium where the famous Beatles’ sellout performance took place only a few years before.

Yeah, Grand Funk Railroad. The same band that was considered a national health hazard by a consumer group because of their decibel range. They were considered the loudest band in the world, a power trio in the Blue Cheer tradition. Grand Funk Railroad was also one of the first bands to defy a lack of press and sell gold album after gold album from fan support alone.

Some people might say that Grand Funk doesn’t belong in an article about heavy metal. The fact of the matter is that they were one of the hottest bands around at the time, and one of the “heaviest.” Grand Funk also proved themselves to be honorable, and proved it by putting their careers on the line. (If only today’s rock groups held the same attitudes towards selling out…)

Management screwed with the group, trying to manipulate them into doing something they felt was a betrayal to their fans. The band fired their management, which led to a lengthy lawsuit that threatened to end their careers. It was rough going for a while. The band continued to meet their touring obligations despite financial hardship and harassment—management kept having the band’s equipment confiscated right before they were about to go onstage. The band stood fast and eventually won their case, but had to shorten the name of the band to Grand Funk. As it turned out, their career was revitalized when they struck back with “We’re an American Band,” their first number one single.

The year 1972 brought something new into our living rooms and lives; the TV show In Concert, which featured Alice Cooper as their first headliner when the group was peaking. No more ticket panic, just get out a six-pack and groove with the tube. That was quickly followed by Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Midnight Special. (Where was VHS when you needed it?) These shows featured successful bands of the day and became a showcase for up and coming stars of the future (i.e. Aerosmith and the Ramones). Often the bands performed live, without the aid of tape or lip-synch.

The popularity of these shows led to the first “made for television concert”: The California Jam (1974), featuring Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, among others. Little did we know then that the nightmare of MTV lurked only ten years away. But that’s getting ahead of things.

Heavy metal was riding the crest of a wave in 1973. Not only did established bands have mega-hits, but newer American and European bands were making their marks as well, proving that metal was a worldwide phenomenon. Golden Earring (Netherlands) had their first hit with “Radar Love,” Bachman Turner Overdrive was thumping out “Let it Ride” and Aerosmith’s “Dream On” was first released (it would be reissued and become a hit in 1976).

Meanwhile, Deep Purple was high with “Smoke On the Water,” Black Sabbath was turning heads with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin headlined three sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden in New York (footage of those shows was later used in the feature film, The Song Remains the Same).

Two bands that were making a lot of noise, but not a lot of headway, were Slade and Brownsville Station. The British group Slade was the more formidable of the two with six number one hits, five gold albums, while not one of their singles didn’t make the top twenty in the U.K. Both bands had the same problem—no one took them seriously. Maybe it was the way they dressed, or their album covers, or maybe it was just that no one got their jokes. Despite their image problems, the two bands have been rediscovered through cover versions of their material by ’80s bands. Quiet Riot cut new versions of Slade’s “Cum on Feel the Noize” and “Mama Weer All Crazee Now,” and Motley Crue re-recorded “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.”

Two other important heavy metal influences are The Pink Fairies and Hawkwind. The Pink Fairies are long since defunct, but their hard-to-find records are still considered classics by most heavy metal connoisseurs. It’s worth noting that Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead played on Hawkwind’s biggest hit, “Silver Machine,” and that, after 18 years, Hawkwind is still going strong.

Then 1974 floated in, bringing two seemingly unimportant events: the above-mentioned California Jam and Kiss. How could we have guessed then that underneath all that clown makeup these guys would still be ugly? Can’t imagine. By the end of 1975, Kiss was a band turning into a mega-corporation as they took the country by storm.

They changed the concept of a rock concert into a three-ring circus, complete with fire-breathing and flash pots. “Rock and Roll All Nite” became an anthem, putting Kiss over the top and everyone else under the seats. Before you knew it, there were Kiss dolls, patches, masks, lunch boxes, makeup kits, and finally, the Kiss Army (ugh!). Kiss singlehandedly took rock ‘n’ roll off the streets and into the stock market—an unforgivable act.

Heavy Metal on Wheels

With or without pyrotechnics, heavy metal has always needed the road to stay alive. Touring is the lifeblood of heavy metal. Bands have always had to depend on word of mouth and force of impact to beat the odds stacked against them by the standard lack of record company promotion and favorable press. By the middle ’70s, touring and merchandising were becoming big business. Concerts were more than a fan ritual, and the notion of fans making their own t-shirts and jackets to show their support was supplanted by pre-fab industrialized promotional materials—typified by t-shirts that itched and took on weird shapes after being washed.

Still, the middle ’70s were an exciting time for heavy metal fans. Everyone was out on the road—ZZ Top, Ted Nugent, Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper, AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, and UFO, to name just a few. Sometimes there would be three big concerts within days of one another. The packaging of tours also enabled lesser known bands to develop followings and reputations.

The string of tours seemed like an endless dream, but at times, these cross-country caravans would take on a nightmarish tinge. Live shows became big money, and one packed house was better than two almost-sold-out nights. General admission took on a whole new meaning as there were more tickets than seats. Scalping became a sideline for adults who had never heard of the bands before. And as heavy metal audiences went wilder and wilder over their music, bouncers and security people did too.

When a riot over Led Zeppelin tickets left the city of Boston with $30,000 worth of damage on their hands (1975), the mayor cancelled the show. (All that for nothing.) It took police from 17 different precincts to stop a bottle-throwing rampage when ZZ Top fans couldn’t get tickets in San Francisco (1976). It wasn’t until fans started getting seriously injured, and at one point, even killed, that anyone started thinking.

When eleven people died and another several dozen were injured during that infamous stampede for festival seating at a Who performance in Cincinnati, which hit front pages across America in 1979, general seating went out and alternative means for selling tickets was in. Elaborate ticket lotteries that guaranteed very few real fans would get tickets (how many teenagers have checkbooks?), and distribution of designated allotments of tickets to various locations all seemed designed to assure that the scalpers would benefit the most. Inflated prices, like $500 for front row during Rolling Stones tours, became the latest rock gossip.

As the ’70s wore on, the reported violence before, during, and after heavy metal concerts made things even worse. It became increasingly more difficult for bands to book venues that would allow them to play. Disco and soft rock were becoming more popular, and venue owners found those crowds more manageable and better behaved.

By 1979 pre-fab bands made up of studio musicians, like Toto and Foreigner, were topping the charts. It was also the year the infamous “World Series of Rock” show happened in Cleveland, which featured Ted Nugent, Thin Lizzy, and Aerosmith. Thirty people were robbed, two women were raped, and one person was killed.

Incidents like that one led to the practice of searching fans before they entered arenas, and even the use of metal detectors in some arenas. The use of plastic cups rather than cans or bottles also became a widespread practice.

The “punk” years (1976-1979), which introduced the Sex Pistols, Ramones, the Clash, the Damned, and the Dead Boys to the world, brought some unexpected surprises, including the origins of hardcore, thrash, speed metal. Everyone was so high on the notion of new wave that two of our best bands almost got swept away in the excitement.

No one knew what to make of AC/DC when they first showed up in Australia. They were wearing jeans and sneakers at a time when most heavy metal bands had gone glam. And a lead guitarist in a school uniform—what the #*@%?! It wasn’t until 1980 that AC/DC got their first gold album with Highway to Hell, but long before that there was “A Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock ‘n Roll” and it was—AC/DC had toured England in 1975, and were playing around Australia years before that.

Then there was Motorhead, another band who could never quite break through here in the States. When they first turned up in Stiff Records stable (which also included the Damned, Elvis Costello, and Lene Lovich), they were often mistaken for a punk band. It would take them a couple of years to straighten that out, and Motorhead became best-known for their style of execution, since termed speed-metal.

Two other bands emerged from California towards the end of the ’70s—The Dickies and Van Halen. The Dickies’ claim to fame is that they put out a version of “Paranoid” that was faster than any before it. They’ve continued to increase in speed over the years, but are hardcore heroes.

Van Halen, on the other hand, came out of the California bar circuit, where they’d been condemned to rot by local promoters. That is, until Gene Simmons of Kiss “discovered” them, and by that time they’d already been playing together for ten years. Initially it was Eddie Van Halen’s distinctive guitar sound that set Van Halen apart, but once they started touring it was David Lee Roth’s onstage attire and antics that brought them notice. Now, of course, he’s “rock’s reigning ego-maniac,” a crown littered with so many contenders it boggles the mind that any human being could actually claim the title.

In 1980, when Billy Joel sang “It’s Still Rock ‘n Roll to Me,” heavy metal fans were groaning as the metal music world was coming apart at the seams. There was a multitude of deaths and breakups that had critics crowing that heavy metal was finally dead. There was good reason to think it might be. Ozzy Osbourne, then Bill Ward, left Black Sabbath, Joe Perry split from Aerosmith, Gary Moore abandoned Thin Lizzy, Ritchie Blackmore left Deep Purple, Cozy Powell quit Rainbow, and finally, Peter Criss went home to Beth. But the biggest shockers were the deaths of John Bonham (and the subsequent disbanding of Led Zeppelin) and AC/DC’s lead singer Bon Scott at the peak of their careers. Also lost to us at this time were John Lennon and Keith Moon. Without them there would have been no heavy metal.

But by the end of 1980 something new was in the air. In Europe, a new breed of heavy metal was being unleashed. Metal For Muthas was the import album that signaled the beginning of the end of the old metal, ushering in a whole new sound and attitude. A sampler of what was then called the “New Wave of Heavy Metal,” it included what would become one of the hottest new bands, Iron Maiden, and others who would prove influential, like Samson, Preying Mantis, Budgie, and The Tygers of Pan Tang. Other bands that surfaced at this time were Def Leppard, Saxon, Krokus, Witchfynde, Accept, Angelwitch, Rock Goddess, and Girlschool, to name just a few.

But as the ’80s got into gear, a new animal was brought in to the zoo—MTV. Let’s face it, heavy metal has never been pretty. Sexist, raunchy and brash, yes, but good-looking? However, thanks to MTV, all that was changed. Bands that would have been blown off for being lightweight and cute found a whole new audience waiting for them—teenage girls.

It used to be that the only girls who used to show up at heavy metal gigs were dutiful girlfriends, who spent most of their time in the bathroom fixing their hair. Any other lone females in attendance could usually count on being called dykes. However, in recent years, the hordes of heavy metal princesses have increased considerably, helping Def Leppard and Motley Crue on the charts as well as their walls.

So that’s the state of heavy metal today. There’s a split between hardcore metal addicts (Motorhead spinoffs like Metallica and Megadeth, thrashing out speed metal), and “glam-metal” (played by pretty boys like Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, and Europe). Heavy metal has survived it all (PMRC hearings, consumer groups, parents, the PTA, disco, and even parodies like This Is Spinal Tap), but still it lives on, proving that the giant only sleeps. It never dies.

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