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A Guide to the Roots of Metal Music: Before Heavy Meant Metal

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When painting a mental picture of what the late sixties and early seventies must have been like, we usually dream up some pretty gentle stuff: kaftan sporting hippies cavorting around without a worry in the world while the strains of the Grateful Dead or someone of their ilk wafted through the air like some soothing sonic balm.

If that is the case, where does the apocalyptic din of bands from the era such as Blue Cheer, Elias Hulk or The Gun fit into the mix? In their time, the sheer bombast of these units left most people dazed, but the fact they couldn’t really compartmentalize the sound confused them even more. Years later, these bands and their records would be considered the genesis of Heavy Metal – but back then – they were just considered Heavy.

Below is a list of these forsaken pioneers of the heavy sounds prior to it’s co-opting by spandex, hair spray and Satan; when all that mattered was the heft and essence of the music.

“Summertime Blues,” Blue Cheer (1967)

Armed to the teeth with enough Marshall amplification to deafen Godzilla and juiced to the gills on whatever pharmaceutical they could find, Blue Cheer’s crude sound and don’t-give-a-shit attitude personified what would later be called Punk, Heavy Metal and Grunge in years to come. Their first album from 1968, Vincebus Eruptum served as a blueprint for all three genres while their live shows were an early experiment in the deafening roar between pleasure and pain that defined the ‘louder is better’ aesthetic of Metal.

“Race with the Devil,” The Gun (1968)

Whenever you see or read a history on Heavy Metal from England, the High Wycombe based power trio The Gun is hardly ever mentioned for some reason. In 1968, the band scored a top ten single in their country with “Race with the Devil,” a song many consider to be the template for the British Heavy Metal sound. If you need further proof of the tracks’ impact, simply check out the covers by both Judas Priest and Girlschool.

“The Green Manalishi (With the Two Pronged Crown),” Fleetwood Mac (1970)

Yet another outline for the British Heavy Metal sound from what some might consider a very unlikely candidate. Before the Mac became the easy-going sound merchants of the mid-seventies, their founder and leader Peter Green laid out this crushingly dramatic statement on materialism and greed before quitting the band in 1970 to lead a narcotic fueled lifestyle that landed him destitute while the rest of the band went on to fame and fortune. Later covered by both Judas Priest (do I sense a pattern here?) and U.S Hardcore/Metal hybrids, Corrosion of Conformity.

“Lady of Fire,” Sir Lord Baltimore (1970)

This Brooklyn-based trio inspired Rolling Stone scribe Mike Saunders to first use the term ‘Heavy Metal’ when reviewing their 1970 debut LP, Kingdom Come and it’s with good reason. Their brainless thrust and excessive use of amplification – as well as the words ‘lady’ and ‘baby’ – make them the ultimate band when it comes to heads-down/volume-up American proto-metal.

“Come with Me,” Bang! (1971)

Philadelphia – cum- Florida trio Bang! were a little known secret among the most stoned and acne scarred youth of the early seventies, only selling a few records in their time. These days, they are a favorite among those in the heavy know and considered forefathers of the Doom Metal sound with their blunt ‘n’ crude riffing and bleak lyrical content.

“Love Fighter,” Crushed Butler (1969)

The 1969 recordings of London trio Crushed Butler were only released sometime in the ’90s, and although it is great to hear them, it’s hard not to listen and think of what could have been. If these tapes were released in their time, they would be considered the country’s equivalent to Blue Cheer. Now, they are a footnote among the nerdiest of the heaviest of collectors.

“Queen of Torture” by Wishbone Ash (1970)

Lend an ear to the dueling leads of Andy Powell and Ted Turner as well as the galloping rhythms of Steve Upton and it’s pretty obvious that members of Iron Maiden, Diamond Head and many other New Wave of British Heavy Metal types were scanning the early output of these British Rock titans for clues and riffs.

“Satori Part One,” Flower Travellin’ Band (1971)

Don’t for one second think the U.S and the U.K. had a lock on heavy sounds in the time of bell bottoms and bong hits. Japan were throwing down the gauntlet in those times with bands like Speed Glue & Shinki, Love Live Life Plus One and the Flower Travellin’ Band whose 1971 album Satori would send the heaviest, English-speaking rocker running and screaming to the hills.

“Nightmare,” Elias Hulk (1970)

When it comes to the hardest, hairiest and most Neanderthal of the British early seventies rockers, look no further than Elias Hulk. From its crudely drawn cover to its molar rattling contents, their sole LP from 1970, Unchained, is quite a stunner when it comes to brute, dense sounds from the land of tea and eel pie.

“Our Friend Owsley Stanley III,” Masters Apprentice (1971)

Australia also had its fair share of heavy rockers in the early seventies with the likes of the Coloured Balls, Buffalo and Masters Apprentice, a bubble gummy Psychedelic unit who decided to bring the sonic hammer down after experimenting with copious amounts of LSD. Hence the title of this track; an homage to the San Francisco based ‘scientist’ who kept most of the rock ‘n’ roll world at the time knee deep in hallucinogenics.

Tony Rettman is a freelance music journalist whose work has appeared in The Village Voice, Arthur, Swindle, Signal to Noise and Mean. His 2010 book Why Be Something That You’re Not: Detroit Hardcore 1979-1985, is a must-read for any fan of heavy music and can be purchased on Amazon.

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