Was heavy metal invented by a single band? Was it dreamed up by a journalist? Was it born on a particular album, perhaps premature and deformed, denied by its parents and returned to live in an orphanage until it was adopted years later by a DJ, a journalist, a bunch of younger bands and some headbangers?
In the past decade, heavy metal has enjoyed a renaissance, with older bands being granted far more critical respect than any metal band has enjoyed since the beginning, featured in books and multiple documentaries including Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005), Get Thrashed (2006), Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2007), Anvil: The Story Of Anvil (2008), Iron Maiden and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (2008), Global Metal (2009), Until The Light Takes Us (2009), Slow Southern Steel (2010), Lemmy (2010), Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010), Last Days Here: Pentagram (2011), As The Palaces Burn (2014). Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen’s Banger Productions, who did several of the ones listed above, and the 11 part VH1 series Metal Evolution, is currently in post-production on a documentary about the undersung NWOBHM band Satan, who, like many metal bands, has enjoyed revived interest in recent years.
One of the latest books by the prolific Martin Popoff is particularly interesting for anyone who’s interested in the origins of heavy metal, a topic that has never really been thoroughly covered, and that includes the Metal Evolution series. While Who Invented Heavy Metal? kind of gives away the answer to its own question on the cover, a close-up of the spooky house featured on Black Sabbath’s debut album, released Friday the 13th, February 1970, it does offer a twist at the end that shows it’s up for debate, and covers a lot of ground, starting way back in 1250 BC! Organized as an oral history with quotes from 126 people, primarily musicians and others involved close to the business, it covers key recordings and events all the way through the end of 1971. It’s an impressive achievement, though because it’s organized by dates like a diary, it doesn’t have the narrative flow like other oral histories such as Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, which can attract and hold the interest of non-music nerds due to the name dropping and salacious tales of sex and drugs. Those books are fun, but also bug the shit out of me, because music is usually the last thing that the subjects ever discuss. For books supposedly about music (and there are many that copied the approach of Please Kill Me), that’s just bullshit.
With Popoff, there might be some tongue-in-cheek stuff, but certainly no bullshit on that obnoxious level. Consequently its appeal will be limited to the hardcore fans and nerds truly interested in the invention of the electric guitar, the origins of distortion, feedback, heavy amplification, and the riff. And a whole assload of songs and albums, some popular, most obscure, mapping the road from heavy blues rock to metal. I’ve had a keen interest in pre metal history for decades, and I still discovered over a dozen bands I had not listened to before due to this book, like Asterix, Bitter Creek, Blodwyn Pig, Cromagnon, Dragonfly, Electric Food, The Frost, Jeronimo, Odyssey, Stone Garden and The Velvet Haze. Now that’s digging deep! It also inspired me to dig deeper into the early recordings of Golden Earring and UFO that I hadn’t gotten to previously. It’s safe to say that if you think you know everything about the origins of metal and the evolution of heavy and hard rock, you probably don’t, and you need this book.
I enjoyed it cover to cover and recommend it as an essential document in pre-metal history and proto-metal. Despite that, there is a possibility that it asked the wrong question. Or at the very least, it’s only part of the story. The obsession with a singular origin is just as meaningless as the fruitless task of identifying the first rock ‘n’ roll song, or pinpointing when the term “heavy metal” was first used. For example, Steppenwolf is often erroneously (and stupidly, I have to say) included in the history of metal because of the use of “heavy metal thunder” in the lyrics to “Born To Be Wild,” which obviously were describing the sound of motorcycles on the highway. Steppenwolf have nothing to do with metal. In the context of writing about music, Sandy Pearlman used the term in a 1967 Crawdaddy review of The Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday. Again, in terms of what we know as the genre of heavy metal, that’s completely meaningless. Pearlman would try to milk his use of it to promote another band later on.
The Paternity Tests
So did heavy metal instantly exist just because a certain album in 1970 displayed many (though not all) of the elements that would characterize music in the genre years later? I have serious doubts. If heavy metal was born in 1970, then it was a premature, deformed bastard that no one would admit to parenting. It could also be argued that while the concept of heavy metal certainly existed by 1971 in at least a few brains, it was really a misnomer, and did not truly exist as a genuine musical genre and subculture until around 1977-78. How heavy metal is defined is also certainly up for debate, but I covered that pretty well a decade ago.
In Part 3 of Metal Evolution: Early Metal UK, Sam Dunn sadly sits in the office of Led Zeppelin’s manager where no one will talk to him, because the band did not want to be associated with metal. Indeed, as far as I can tell, they never encouraged anyone to label them as heavy metal. In the September 1984 issue of Musician magazine, Robert Plant addressed the matter directly regarding the band’s first album. “That was not heavy metal. There was nothing heavy about that at all . . . . It was ethereal.”
At 16:20, Dunn asks Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler, “To what extent did you consider yourselves a heavy metal band?”
Butler replies, “We just thought we were a hard rock band at the time. That’s what we liked. And the first I heard of being called heavy metal was somebody being derogatory about us. I read this review when we were on tour criticizing us, business as usual, and they said it sounded like heavy metal being dropped, not musically whatsoever.”
Dunn summarizes for the camera, “Black Sabbath clearly didn’t self-identify as a heavy metal band.”
At 25:34, Dunn interviews Roger Glover, Ian Paice and Jon Lord of Deep Purple. “At that time in the early 70’s period, did you see yourselves as a heavy metal band?”
Ian Paice: “We just called ourselves a hard rock band.”
Jon Lord: “Some people said we had a hand in early heavy metal, and I accept that we could be one of the godfathers. But I defy the parenthood, that wasn’t us. We weren’t the parents.”
Heavy Metal In Print
Of the writers who were credited with the early use of the term “heavy metal” in the context of music that could even remotely be considered metal, such as Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs at Creem, it was Mike Saunders who first used it consistently, first in a very derogatory way in a November 12, 1970 Humble Pie review in Rolling Stone.
“Safe As Yesterday Is, their first American release, proved that Humble Pie could be boring in lots of different ways. Here they were a noisy, unmelodic, heavy metal-leaden shit-rock band, with the loud and noisy parts beyond doubt… This album, more of the same 27th-rate heavy metal crap, is worse than the first two put together…”
More positively and appropriately, he used it in his May 1971 review of Sir Lord Baltimore’s Kingdom Come in Creem.
“ALL YOU TRUE blue Heavy fans, take heart. This album is a crusher. Sure enough, Sir Lord Baltimore is none other than a new heavy band discovered by Dee Anthony, Who Should Know (Joe Cocker, Free, Humble Pie); and while SLB’s degree of success hasn’t been determined yet, they’ve certainly got what it takes to rake in a million.
This album is a far cry from the currently prevalent Grand Funk sludge, because Sir Lord Baltimore seems to have down pat most all the best heavy metal tricks in the book. Precisely, they sound like a mix between the uptempo noiseblasts of Led Zeppelin (instrumentally) and singing that’s like an unending Johnny Winter shriek: they have it all down cold, including medium or uptempo blasts a la LZ, a perfect carbon of early cataclysmic MC5 (‘Hard Rain Fallin”), and the one-soft-an-album concept originated by Jimmy Page and his gang.”
Deep Purple cited MC5 as the primary influence for their harder direction on In Rock, as did Lemmy Kilmister when he formed Motörhead. But even more interesting is the fact that Saunders never once mentioned “heavy metal” in his September 1971 review of Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality for The Rag. He next used the term in an April 27, 1972 Rolling Stone review of a live Cream album, and two reviews of Machine Head in the May 1972 Phonograph Record, and “Breakfast of Champions: Deep Purple’s Machine Head,” Circular, May 29, 1972
“In recent years, Third Generation heavy-metal groups have gotten down to business and produced some fine heavy – metal rock. Cream were in large part an antecedent (sound-wise, at least) of the whole style, but it all seems so far in the past now – strange as it may seem, Black Sabbath’s concise efficiency makes the whole Cream era look as self-indulgent and ludicrous as it indeed was.”
“Well, let me tell you, Deep Purple came through. I wound up listening to Machine Head for two hours, which is the true test of a heavy metal album – the drone. And what a drone it is. Side One of Machine Head is simply a gorgeous unending twenty minutes of true heavily metal: four absolutely functional five minutes songs. ‘Highway Star’ and ‘Pictures of Leo’ both rock pretty well, but ‘Never Before’ is my favorite: heavy metal with melody! It’s what Derek and the Dominoes could have done had they been a thousand times better… ‘Space Truckin” which features an absolute destructo heavy metal riff and some banshee shrieks toward the end for effect.”
“Heavy Metal Wins Out
But when it comes down to selling a million records, a group gets down and does what they do best. In Deep Purple’s case it’s loud heavy metal rock. Their new album, Machine Head, is their best yet.”
“Deep Purple Vs UFO” in New Haven Rock Press, 1972.
“But no matter. In Rock was blistering hard rock save for ‘Child in Time,’ a play that drew a 5-yard penalty for taking too much time. But the rest was great, a landmark of the early heavy metal offense along with Led Zep II.”
Saunders’ review of Fanny’s Slaughter On Tenth Avenue in Phonograph Record, August 1972.
“And it hits home when you count up your current favorite groups. Aside from the Heavy Metal Wunderkind (Black Sabbath, Grand Funk, Led Zep, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Dust, Blue Oyster Cult), I find myself emotionally engrossed in the careers of only a few artists.’ Nils Lofgren, the Flamin Groovies, the Raspberries (serious!), Van Morrison and Fanny.”
It wasn’t until Sabbath had released their fourth album that Saunders used it in a piece exclusively about the band in “A Dorito and 7-Up Picnic with Black Sabbath,” Circular, September 25, 1972.
“7-Up and Doritos with the Dark Princes of Heavy Metal…
Of Demons, Wizards, Iron Men and War Pigs
As my talk with reigning kings of Heavy Metal rock continued, the whole moral here became quite clear; Black Sabbath are just a bunch of rock ‘n’ roll kids who happen to make music that, along with Grand Funk, is louder than anything ever created, and which, not incidentally, sends our older brothers off into shrieks of anguish and condescension concerning that viperous noise we’ve got on the record player.”
Then in a November 23, 1972 Rolling Stone review of Uriah Heep’s Demons And Wizards.
“Just what Uriah Heep’s style consists of, it’s hard to say. The vocals are psychedelic and quavering, the guitar and rhythm section is English heavy metal rock, and Ken Hensley’s organ is employed in a fashion faintly similar to Deep Purple. But then in places they sound a bit like early Procol Harum, and you forget about categories altogether. These guys are good. The first side of Demons and Wizards is simply odds-on the finest high energy workout of the year so far, tying nose and nose with the Blue Oyster Cult.”
In April 1973, Saunders decides to go all in and really make “heavy metal” stick through sheer force of will, eventually taking on the nickname “Metal” Mike Saunders. Ironically, in his Phonograph Record piece, “A Brief Survey Of The State Of Metal Music Today,” he’s basically saying that the creative drive of heavy metal is spent.
“A year later, the outlook has changed drastically. 1972 was not a good year for heavy metal. Dust were the first to bite it, with their infuriatingly uneven and pretentious album Hard Attack. Alice Cooper came next in the washout category, followed by Grand Funk’s abandonment of metal for mainstream rock and Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4, a disturbingly unpleasant and depressing effort. Topping it all off, Led Zep failed to show, a huge disappointment when their double album was postponed until this February or so. Nitzinger had a good debut album and Uriah Heep had Demons And Wizards, but both wiped out badly with their following releases. New groups have not arisen to replace all these aging stalwarts, mainly because record companies have just not signed many metal groups and don’t seem interested in changing this policy.
So the state of metal music today can be summed up in one word: stagnant. Outside of Blue Oyster Cult, The Stooges (whose stunning comeback is more than I’d dared even dream of), and hopefully Led Zep (their LP still not out as I write this), the field is simply in a state of outright decay. Many groups are either well past their peak or in a temporary slump – Grand Funk, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, possibly Alice Cooper, and particularly Black Sabbath, in whose case I really have extreme difficulty imagining any sort of viable future.”
In the Metal Evolution clip above, Dunn addresses how Zep, Sabbath and Purple began to shift their sounds away from their proto-metal blueprints. “I always wanted to know why these bands drifted away from their iconic aggressive sound.” He’s referring to the slight turn toward psych prog in Houses of the Holy, the experiments with ballads, funk and prog in Vol. 4, and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath including a collaboration with Rick Wakeman, and Purple’s forays into funk and other styles.
In the “A Brief Survey Of The State Of Metal Music Today” piece, Saunders goes on to predict that new bands will take heavy metal to the next step.
“… It all seems to point to heavy metal’s having been a transitional phase. A possible development might be the amalgamation of metal techniques into the three-minute pop form of the aforementioned current groups – such a trend could be quite incredible, making most of the old metal groups sound like dinosaurs. It’s my bet that such a style would come from a new generation of metal rockers, though. None of today’s metal groups seem capable of such a switch, with the possible exceptions of Led Zep and Blue Oyster Cult. Anyhow, it’s all speculation, and we know where that leads. Into the void.”
Not only is he right, but his articles could very well have been the catalyst for other journalists starting to pick it up and use “heavy metal” themselves. Dave Marsh references “Heavy Metal” in a Bob Seger profile of all things in Creem, May 1972. Ron Ross in a Bowie piece in Phonograph Record, October 1972 and Jon Tiven and Richard Cromelin in that same issue. In September 1973, New Musical Express‘ (NME) Keith Altham uses it in a Black Sabbath review. Then in 1974, Charles Charlesworth of Melody Maker, Nick Kent and Ian McDonald of NME, Wayne Robbins of Creem all used it. The next year saw Jon Tiven of Circus Raves, – Max Bell and Chris Salewicz of NME and Geoff Barton of Sounds using it.
Once heavy metal existed in beyond just the mind of Mike Saunders, which bands self-identified as metal? In Metal Evolution, it was Judas Priest who happily and proudly took on the identity as a metal band. Interestingly, Judas Priest had been around just as long as Black Sabbath, and was from the Black Country, not far from Birmingham, a dark, foreboding area that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor. It took Priest longer to develop their sound, and it wasn’t until their second album, Sad Wings Of Destiny (1976) that they had all the elements that would cement their status as a heavy metal pioneer. Or maybe it was Black Sabbath who nailed down a more modern metal sound on their sixth album, Sabotage (1975). And it’s still unclear when exactly Judas Priest truly started calling themselves a metal band. Despite their groundbreaking work, they really had little attention paid to them in the press until 1979. The earliest piece I could find was Phil Sutcliffe’s live review, “Judas Priest: City Hall, Newcastle,” in Sounds, May 21, 1977.
“Judas Priest were 47 short of the 2,000 capacity but I hope they won’t let the heavy metal kids worship overwhelm them or they won’t improve anymore and that would be fatal.”
However, I know that Geoff Barton had first interviewed the band in 1976, but cannot find it. Meanwhile, on February 16, 1974, Chris Charlesworth of Melody Maker, perhaps from the cue of Saunder’s piece, also threw Blue Öyster Cult’s name into the metal pile in “Blue Oyster Cult: Cult Heroes.”
“Black Sabbath, the archetypal perpetraters of heavy metal music, are as strong as ever; Grand Funk, mellowed slightly with the departure of Terry Knight, are still selling albums at the phenomenal rate they did when they sold out Shea Stadium, and Deep Purple’s absence from the concert circuit in America add mystery quality to the group rather than diminishing their popularity.
Also – and possibly more significantly – there’s a new wave of heavy metal bands on the way up, and the one most likely to wear the solid iron crown of heavy metal magnificence is a New York outfit called Blue Oyster Cult, who combine raw, riffy rock with a style and image that flirts loosely with the evils of the occult.”
By the next month, Blue Öyster Cult would pop up in articles by both Nick Kent and Ian McDonald in New Musical Express. From today’s perspective, most would agree that Blue Öyster Cult are clearly not metal. However in 1974, manager Sandy Pearlman seemed to have hopes that if he could establish the band as one of the founders of heavy metal, they could achieve the kind of commercial success of Deep Purple, if not Led Zeppelin. The bandmembers themselves, however, never seemed completely on board, perhaps even rolling their eyes as they let the manager do the talking, as illustrated in Kent’s piece from March 2, 1974.
“The band don’t talk too much, preferring to allow Pearlman to verbalise on their behalf, if only to outline the collective at work on the B.O.C. heavy-metal vision.
‘Hey, I invented the term “Heavy metal’ – did you know that? I was the first writer to use it. I was a scientist at college – graduated with tons of awards – and I used the terminology in my articles. I first used the phrase in a Byrds review in ’67. That was before the ‘Heavy metal thunder’ line in ‘Born to Be Wild’, even.'”
NME‘s Max Bell also reiterated Pearlman’s ideas in “Blue Öyster Cult: That’s Right, Another Bunch Of Neo-Fascist Heavies,” on February 15, 1975, as did Wayne Robbins in Creem in May.
“Pearlman had worked a new image on them, tough ‘n’ nasty, and had branded them the original heavy metal group (which is true).”
“THE BLUE OYSTER CULT have been heavy metal’s premier studio musicians.”
Other bands to emerge at the time were Kiss, who had an ongoing feud with BÖC, and fellow umlaut lovers Motörhead. Both bands, in different ways, put BÖC’s lack of excitement and heaviness in perspective. In his live review, “Blue Oyster Cult, Motorhead: Hammersmith Odeon, London,” NME, October 25, 1975, Nick Kent wrote:
“Heavy metal fatigue
Which is very simply that the Blue Oyster Cult at Hammersmith were very slick, very mechanical and pretty damn uninspiring in the grand tradition of a band whose ascent in terms of popularity has seemingly forced its members to become so severed from their original vision that they can ultimately only promenade about the stage like super-proficient robots cranking out heavy metal dementia to order.
In fact, Sunday night at the Hammersmith Odeon was very much yer connoisseur’s guide to rampantly uninspired heavy metal thunder, kicking off with Motorhead’s shocking performance which promptly prefaced the slickness to come with one of the most horrendous displays of H. Metal Savage incompetence possibly ever performed.
…The real let-down though is that here is a band we were all reliably informed would scrabble our brains – the supremo metal band who made all others in the field sound about as potent as zombies chewing oatmeal.
And the horrible truth is that basically the Blue Oyster Cult, despite all the power-pouts and insinuated proto-Nazi-dark-visions from-the-Twilight-Zone hoodoo, are really pretty tame.”
In “Motorhead: Running In,” Sounds, August 16, 1975, Lemmy shared his doubts with Geoff Barton that his band shares much in common with heavy metal, already distancing himself from the other bands of the era. Through the rest of his career, he would vehemently deny that they played anything other than rock ‘n’ roll.
“I think we have a good chance. I mean, all the bands who sort of hit you right there, like the MC5, have gone.
“I like good old 1965 rhythm and blues, some heavy rock and roll… or is it heavy metal? I don’t think there’s been much good music around since 1970, and I’d like to give the whole scene a kick up the ass.”
But along with hard rock bands like Trapeze, AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, Ted Nugent, Montrose, UFO, Kiss, Scorpions, Rush, Rainbow, Van Halen, Angel, Triumph, Whitesnake and even Queen and Sweet, Motörhead would contribute essential building blocks that would be used to construct the multi-headed beast that would become modern heavy metal.
The Fans: The Denim Brigade & Headbangers
All of these bands were seen on patches on denim and leather jackets worn by fans by at least 1978. When exactly it got started is yet another gap in heavy metal’s history that has been ignored for too long. Fans are a key component of what made heavy metal exist and flourish as a subculture, and later become the dominant market in rock music in the 80s. Without fans proudly displaying their devotion to bands on their jackets and later battle vests, following bands to multiple gigs and loyally buying their albums and merchandise, even sticking through the bands’ worst albums, heavy metal would not have existed, at least as we know it now. Rotting in some university is probably some unpublished cultural anthropology dissertation that documents the specifics of when and where rock fans started wearing band patches. Given the lack of media coverage (or respect), it’s a feat just slightly easier than studying the Homo neanderthalensis.
The media started noticing these fans at least by February 10, 1979, when Harry Doherty, writing about UFO for Melody Maker, commented on who Phil Mogg of UFO affectionately called “the denim brigade.”
“THE audiences at Blackburn and Ipswich weren’t surprising, except maybe that some of them were so young, affirming once again that hard rock is still the music of the masses, and overrides any big city fashion. They did what hard rock audiences do: shook their heads, played imaginary guitars, wore denims splattered with patches that affirmed support of Sabbath, Rush, Lizzy, etc., etc.“
In “Van Halen: Glory Or Rupture,” NME, July 7, 1979, Nick Kent wrote:
“This audience are virtually all one of a kind: predominantly male, hair at varying lengths over the collar and down the back, while the most striking characteristic is the jacket – either leather, or more usually denim, often with the arms sliced off, upon which are scrawled or else emblazoned via a mass of patches the names of V.H.’s kindred spirits – namely ‘Rush’, ‘Kiss’, ‘Quo’, ‘Zep’, ‘Ted’, right through to the more obscure likes of ‘Angel’ and ‘Godz’. These lads take their music seriously. Very seriously in fact.”
These audiences weren’t just in England, as UFO were also talking about the fans at the Chicago show where they recorded their live album, and Van Halen’s shows were in the U.S. Jon Young caught Judas Priest on one of their U.S. tours and reported in Trouser Press in June 1978:
“I DISCOVERED A GREAT pastime the other day that you’ve gotta hear about. It’s called headbanging.
Shrill supercharged heavy metal has never lost its grip on the youth of America, so the decline of the previous era’s heavies like Sabbath, Purple, and Heep has left a void which JP would like to fill.”
Judas Priest first started touring in the U.S. in July 1977, and had been gigging heavily in the UK since 1972. Here’s footage from an April 25, 1975 performance on “whisperin'” Bob Harris’ The Old Grey Whistle Test, showing how dramatic their change in sound and style was within the next year when they would come out with Sad Wings Of Destiny.
Another band to appear in 1975 was Iron Maiden. After their first gig at the Cart & Horses in Stratford, UK on June 9, 1976, they were off and running, gigging every week and never stopping since. There is some disagreement about the influence of the punk scene on the band. While the band’s founder Steve Harris, who came from a psych prog background, certainly was not a fan of the amateur musicianship of most of the bands, it’s impossible to deny that there was certainly a faster, more punk energy in the band’s music compared to other proto-metal at the time. Additionally, punk’s DIY (do it yourself) ethic of self-releasing their music rather than waiting to be signed by a label was a model used by Iron Maiden when they self-released The Soundhouse Tapes, recorded on New Year’s Eve, 1978 at Spaceward Studios.
A DJ, A Journalist, Three Bands and Some Headbangers Walk Into A Bar…
Iron Maiden were not even the first to put something out themselves, as Sheffield’s Def Leppard, formed in December 1977, recorded their self-titled debut EP at Fairview Studios in Hull, in November 1978, and released it in January 1979. Another band from Barnsley, South Yorkshire, who had been kicking around the whole decade under different names, most recently as Son of a Bitch since 1976, changed their name to Saxon in 1978 and recorded a three song demo tape that same year, and their eponymous debut album on May 21, 1979. It wasn’t very good, but suddenly finding themselves surrounded by many talented bands, they stepped their game up on subsequent albums. These bands include Newcastle upon Tyne’s Raven (1974), Nottingham’s Witchfynde (1974), London’s Praying Mantis (1974), Birmingham’s Quartz (originally Bandylegs, 1974), Girlschool (1975), Samson (1977) and Angel Witch (1977), who also had a 1978 demo, Hartlepool’s White Spirit (1975), Stourbridge’s Diamond Head (1976), Whitley Bay’s Tygers Of Pan Tang (1978), who self-produced their first single and released it on punk label Neat Records on August 24, 1979, Newcastle upon Tyne’s Fist (1978), Brockley’s Pagan Altar (1979), Newcastle upon Tyne’s Satan (1979) and Venom (1979), Bristol’s Shiva (1979), Stourbridge’s Witchfinder General (1979), Droitwitch’s Grim Reaper (1979), London’s Tank (1980), and another couple dozen lesser known bands like Blitzkrieg (1980) and later arrivals like Tokyo Blade and Chateaux (1981). Pretty much all of them are ably covered in the chaotically organized but entertaining Suzie Smiled…The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (2006) by John Tucker.
At first these bands mostly played at their local workingmen clubs and pubs. This would eventually change with help from DJ Neal Kay, who starting in 1975 hosted The Soundhouse, the first heavy rock disco at The Bandwagon nightclub in the Kingsbury pub Prince Of Wales, which boasted the loudest PA system in London. Kay relentlessly reached out to Geoff Barton, who, as mentioned above, had covered bands like Motorhead and Judas Priest for Sounds, to come check out the scene. When he finally did, he was impressed, and wrote about it in a piece called “Wednesday Night Fever” in the August 19, 1978 issue. He also convinced Sounds to start publishing weekly Top 10 Heavy Metal charts based solely on requests received from the regulars at the Bandwagon. So the longhair denim brigade, at one small club, were directly influencing coverage by one of the biggest music papers in the country. Starting with “Prowler” from Iron Maiden’s demo tape, Kay started supporting the new bands as they began producing demos, singles and eventually albums. Bands identifying themselves as heavy metal, promoted by a metal DJ and supported by metal fans and headbangers. That smells like the birth of heavy metal to me. It’s not a single band or person. It was a joint effort.
In November of that year, Tommy Vance took the metal to the masses on The Friday Rock Show on the BBC. The term New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), coined by Sounds editor Alan Lewis, was not used in print until May 1979, when Kay booked a gig at the Music Machine that included Samson, Iron Maiden and Angel Witch. “Deaf” Geoff Barton covered it in Sounds on May 19 with a double-page spread titled, “If You Want Blood (and Flashbombs and Dry Ice and Confetti) You Got It: The New Wave of British Heavy Metal.” If you want to get nitpicky, though, you may recall Chris Charlesworth of Melody Maker, writing way back on February 16, 1974, “there’s a new wave of heavy metal bands on the way up.” That’s awfully dang close.
The two hour long documentary, Iron Maiden and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (2008) does the best job of telling the story about a DJ, a journalist, three bands and some headbangers who walked into a bar and begat heavy metal.
And of course Part IV of Metal Evolution: The New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
The bigger bands like Def Leppard and even Iron Maiden were cagey about being associated with NWOBHM. They aspired to share the rarefied air of rock gods like The Who, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, bands that may have been associated with a scene or genre at first (mod, heavy blues and psychedelic rock), but transcended genres and labels and became brands in and of themselves. There’s something to be said for the fact that both Iron Maiden and Def Leppard basically achieved that goal, to the point where a big portion of their huge global audience weren’t even aware of NWOBHM. However, if you were an unknown band from a remote English village, it was a great opportunity for exposure. Other people have a problem with NWOBHM because the term was created by journalists. Well, duh. Obviously both heavy metal and NWOBHM came from journalists, as did many other genre names. And yes, of course the genre existed before it was named. In fact if it were up to me, I would simply call NWOBHM essentially the birth of modern metal as we know it. So, metal. First there was hard rock and proto-metal. Then there was Judas Priest out in the wilderness, the sole torch carriers of heavy metal, until they were joined by a shit-ton of other like-minded bands, with dedicated fans who adorned their logos on their battle vests. And then there was metal.
More Bands, More Books?
That’s certainly not the end to the story. There are plenty of other bands outside of the UK scene who contributed plenty to the development of metal in it’s early days, such as Germany’s Accept, who had been around since 1971 (!) and starting with their self-titled 1979 debut, could be honorary members of the NWOBHM club. Along similar lines are Twisted Sister, formed in 1972 in New Jersey, New York’s Riot, San Francisco’s Y&T, both formed in 1975, France’s Trust (1976), Germany’s Trance (1979) Denmark’s Mercyful Fate (1981), Japan’s Loudness (1981) U.S.’s glam metal Mötley Crüe, Ratt and of course thrash’s big three, Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax (all 1981) and many, many more.
And please, for the love of Satan and metal, would somebody please write about the fans?? Last week I wasted $10 on The Story Of Judas Priest – Defenders Of The Faith (2010) by Neil Daniels, with the hope that there would be something about how the band’s audiences changed over the years, and when exactly they first started self-identifying as metal, and when the fans became recognizable as “headbangers.” Not a single word. It was the typical tedious account of the album & tour cycle, with secondhand quotes from the band, and only managed to be a half step above third rate by managing some decent critical analysis of the band’s music. But while the band claimed to have started adopting their denim and leather look in 1976, I have seen no evidence in photos and videos of the band doing so until more like late 1978. Despite Rob Halford’s claims to being a pioneering trendsetter in metal fashion, I’m pretty sure there were fans who looked metal before he did. Ideal for the job of straightening this out would be someone like “Deaf” Geoff Barton, who was there at the time and covering heavy rock since at least 1975, and probably has access to a ton of notes and photos that would be a goldmine for a truly detailed metal history. Hopefully someone will do it before all the key participants are dead.
Despite my own strong opinions, it’s still certainly up for debate who invented heavy metal and when. Some whackadoos (heh) might say it was Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer or even Cream. Many agree it’s Black Sabbath’s first album, or perhaps not until their second, or sixth, or Deep Purple’s third album, or Judas Priest’s second. Perhaps Mike Saunders pulled it out of his ass or Sandy Pearlman’s. Or just maybe heavy metal didn’t exist until Neal Kay, Geoff Barton and a bunch of bands and their fans collectively made it into an actual genre and subculture. The fun part is diving into books like Martin Popoff’s Who Invented Heavy Metal? and documentaries like Iron Maiden and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (2008), and the Metal Evolution series, listening to the music and deciding for yourself! \../