Anyone that has unquestioning faith in the definitions in dictionaries, only needs to look up the entry Heavy Metal.
Webster defines Heavy Metal as follows: “Loud and harsh sounding rock music with a strong beat; lyrics usually involve violent or fantastic imagery.”
Merriam Webster defines Heavy Metal as : “Energetic and highly amplified electronic rock music having a hard beat.”
Dictionary.com defines it as “Aggressive and heavily amplified rock music, commonly performed by groups that wear spectacular or bizarre costumes.”
Oxford Dictionary: “A type of highly amplified harsh-sounding rock music with a strong beat, characteristically using violent or fantastic imagery.”
Cambridge Dictionary: “A style of rock music with a strong beat, played very loudly using electric guitars.”
McMillan Dictionary “A type of loud rock music that developed in the 1970s, played on drums and electric guitars.”
Collins provides this definition: “Heavy metal is a type of hard rock (they define hard rock as “a type of very loud rock music with a fast beat.”) characterized by violent, shouted lyrics.”
Since heavy metal bands’ songs, particularly their instrumentals, don’t always have violent lyrics and the band’s vocalists usually sing rather than shout the lyrics (except for some specific subgenres such as Thrash and Metalcore), this brings into question the trustworthiness of the Collins definition. We can also question McMillan’s and Cambridge’s definitions requiring electric guitars as there are a few lesser known groups that don’t include guitar and given the capabilities of electronic keyboards, there is no technical or musical reason why a heavy metal band requires a guitarist to competently and effectively play heavy metal.
If one considers heavy metal as a style of music, than lyrics and costumes become additive, and thus the Webster and dictionary.com definitions are problematic. Merriam Webster’s “Energetic and highly amplified electronic rock music having a hard beat.” is the most inclusive definition, overly-inclusive by a wide margin, and embraces many songs of hard rock, techno, 1980’s dance bands, progressive rock, jazz-rock, and on and on.
And what about ballads? Many well-known heavy metal bands often include one ballad on their albums, some of these songs being poignant, plaintive or wistfully reflective. These songs are neither loud nor harsh and though sometimes they are in fairly strict tempo, the beat is rarely the dominating component.
Given these definitions we don’t have a chance of identifying when the first heavy metal songs were written or what was the first heavy metal bands.
And if we go with various self-proclaimed experts on heavy metal we encounter a variety of viewpoints with many conflicts — some consider Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin heavy metal, others indicate they are not even close but are just hard rock groups. Some require heavy metal bands to have complex, classically-influenced musical material, but there is a problem with such a characterization when examining some of the groups or songs in various top 10 lists including this Rolling Stones’ readers’ poll of the top 10 metal bands of all time. It seems that if heavy metal has a definition, it should come from the fans and musicians.
So without a guiding definition, and having experienced first hand the evolution that took place from the early British Invasion rock groups through the advent of psychedelic rock, acid rock, hard rock, progressive rock and what are the first somewhat-agreed-upon (but far from consensus) heavy metal bands, I think I am as unqualified as anyone else to make a few observations.
We noted in an earlier post that “Hapshash and the Coloured Coat” included the term “heavy metal kids” in their 1967 album. This did not have anything to do with music but was borrowed from William Burroughs 1961 novel The Soft Machine’s describing the character Uranian Willy as “the Heavy Metal Kid” — a reference to the final stage of drug addiction, which in Burroughs’ words “is not so much vegetable as mineral.”
It’s also necessary to put into context the term “heavy metal thunder” used in Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” written by Mars Bonfire. Mars (Dennis Edmonton, born Dennis Eugene McCrohan) originally wrote this song as a ballad, perhaps when he was with the Sparrows, the group that more-or-less evolved into Steppenwolf in 1967. Steppenwolf, now without Mars as a band member, modified and recorded the song as an up-tempo rocker, but without any intent for the phrase “heavy metal thunder” to reference any genre of music. (“I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder, racing with the wind, and the feeling that I’m under.)
It’s possible that the use of the term heavy metal to identify a style of music had some connection to a recognition of the appropriateness of the name of Iron Butterfly and their equally appropriately named debut album, “Heavy” — with the “heavy metal” label solidified by the unabashedly unapproved, one-upmanship upgrade of Iron Butterfly’s name by Led Zeppelin. Or perhaps it was partly a nod to the metal strings of the electric guitar. Clearly the term “heavy” was in common use at this time and could mean either “profound” (“that’s one heavy concept, man…”), serious, or intense. Heavy metal, when considering its original meaning and usage, can arguably be interpreted to just mean “intense rock.” If one, even slightly, gives this definition some due, one must consider Jimi Hendrix’s first album, recorded in late 1966 and early 1967, and released in May of 1967, to have at least two heavy metal tracks with “Fire” and, what some people do acknowledge as the first heavy metal song ever, “Purple Haze.” Cream’s second album, recorded in May 1967, includes a couple of candidates also with “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and the generally melodic, but forceful “Sunshine of Your Love.” And there are notable heavy metal elements in the “Who Sell Out” including some of Pete Townshend’s guitar work, the use of power chords, and Keith Moon’s aggressive percussion technique.
All that said, there is no evidence that the term “heavy metal” was yet being used to refer to a style of music at the start or by the end of January 1968. Nonetheless, we do find bands recording in 1967 that specialized or focused on a harder, more aggressive sound, some of them blues-based, some of them more inventive and capable of greater range in their harmonic vocabulary. Generally these early bands were not very good. This reminds me of a conversation I had with a good friend who thought little of Led Zeppelin. “There’s a lot worse bands”, was my reply to his summarily dismissing the group. “That’s a scary thought,” was his reply. And, I guess, even scarier still, is that one can say that they are not too impressed by the debut albums of Californian bands Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly or Steppenwolf that were released in January of 1968, and my reply would be “there’s a lot worse albums” — and I would grant you the right to counter with “that’s a particularly scary thought” and have no more rebuttal than I had when my friend made that comment decades ago about Led Zeppelin.
Nonetheless, if one accepts the dictionary definitions of Heavy Metal we do find that these three albums released in January 1968, San Francisco’s Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum (quasi-Latin which I leave open for your interpretation as the best as I can make out is something like “The eruption’s conquest”), San Diego’s Iron Butterfly’s Heavy , and L.A. area band, Steppenwolf’s Steppenwolf, qualify as either early heavy metal or a predecessor to heavy metal music.
Of these three albums, the strongest and most musical is the Iron Butterfly debut. Unfortunately there is little of lasting interest in the self-titled Steppenwolf album, outside of the AM radio hit, “Born to Be Wild”, the respectable “Everybody’s Next One”, and the interesting, emphatic arrangement of Hoyt Axton’s “The Pusher.” Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum, mostly blues-based, also has some moments, particularly with the guitar work and drumming (which on the last track is much like a homage to how Keith Moon would sound leading a marching band.) With its rough, unbridled, and somewhat uneven musicianship, this Blue Cheer album serves well as a case-study of 1960’s garage rock as well a foreshadowing of punk, stoner rock and grunge.
But one thing was clear, with these three albums the heavy-metal genie was out of the bottle (Geniebus Eruptum, if you will) and bands as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and later groups like Metallica, Nirvana and Dream Theater would be beneficiaries of this first wave of higher atomic-numbered, more intensive rock.