Keeping the flame aliveBy Anastasia Pantsios
No genre has provoked more condescending dismissal, or fist-pumping devotion, than heavy metal. Overwrought and often silly, yet undeniably potent and affecting, this genre, born in the late '60s, has become one of the most enduring influences in rock music. More contemporary trendsetters like Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana have all acknowledged their debt to metal machines like Kiss and Black Sabbath. When Steppenwolf sang "I love smoke and lightning / heavy metal thunder" on their 1968 hit 'Born To Be Wild,' they unwittingly named an entirely new genre of music.
Though Steppenwolf (1968), Blue Cheer (1968) and Vanilla Fudge (1967) preceded them, Led Zeppelin is usually credited with launching the genre its 1968 self-titled debut. Bands like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience had earlier played with some of metal's essential elements, but Zeppelin tied them all together into one dazzling, grandiose package. It started with thunderous electric blues, driven by a lumbering rhythm section, then added the interplay of virtuoustic guitar and vocals. It featured lyrics that dealt either with urgent sexual needs or mystical/apocalyptic imagery. And it was wrapped in exaggerated stage poses and costumes that created, and mythologized, the rock star image. Zeppelin, it can be said, upped the ante for all popular music, effectively replacing '60s Beatles-derived pop with a harder-edged sound as rock's new currency. The over-amped, testosterone rush they offered was irresistible, particularly to their target audience: young, white, working-class males. While middle-class college kids were listening to the Grateful Dead or Joni Mitchell, beer-drinking, flannel-wearing construction and blue collar workers began to adopt metal as an expression of, and release from, their own feelings of restlessness, horniness and powerlessness. Metal quickly established a beachhead with bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Grand Funk Railroad. But by 1971, for the first (but not the last) time, the media declared metal dead.
And metal did have a low profile in the '70s, though some of its most influencial bands came out of that period. Some used their unfashionable status as a selling tool, none more brilliantly than Kiss. By decade's end, bands like Van Halen, AC/DC, Motorhead and Judas Priest stood in proud opposition to the hipper punk and new wave bands. They were punker than punk -- the bands that your parents/boss/government/anyone with power over you really hated. And, as new wave faded and punk fled underground, metal enjoyed a revival so overwhelming that by the end of the '80s, it absolutely dominated the industry, creating a parallel universe to pop artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. In
Metal's profile was again heightened by MTV (which debuted in 1981), by a slew of new genre magazines, and even by the vocal opposition of censorship forces, which allowed the now high-profile genre to maintain its rebellious mystique. Pop metal made strong inroads on the singles charts, spawning hits for bands like Ratt, Poison, Motley Crue, Mr. Big, Twisted Sister, Skid Row, and Bon Jovi. As those bands stretched the definition of metal into commercial territory, a metal underground of defiantly uncommercial bands emerged who thrived on excessive speed (or dirgey slowness), technical complexity and violent, horror-filled lyrics. By the late '80s, metal's numerous subgenres ranged from poppy glam metal (Poison, Ratt, Winger) to commercial hard rock (Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi) to blues metal (Tesla, Great White) to thrash metal (Megadeth, Exodus, Metallica) to underground genres such as death, grindcore and doom metal (Death, Venom, Slayer, Voivod, Godflesh).
By 1990, a huge percentage of
As blue collar, populist music, metal earns little of its support from traditional media and industry channels. Although pop metal bands had their era of airplay, metal bands are noted for their ability to survive without it -- Iron Maiden, and many others, were able to sell out arenas with little radio exposure. Because they didn't depend on radio singles for their success, metal bands tended to have greater longevity. Kiss, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Ronnie James Dio, and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant all continue to tour long after their initial debuts. While more recent versions of metal -- Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Creed, Korn, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails -- have enjoyed a tenaciously loyal fan base that places their albums high on the charts without significant radio exposure. Though certain factions will insist that only theirs is "real" metal, the movement remains more diverse than ever. And as long as there are fans who party hard on weekends to forget the dreary jobs they work all week, there will always be room for heavy metal.
Led Zeppelin I (
catalogue is metal's backbone.
Black Sabbath Black Sabbath (Warner Bros, 1970) Paranoid (1970)
Deep Purple Machine Head (Warner Brothers, 1972)
Other artists: Grand Funk Railroad, Steppenwolf, Mountain, Uriah Heap,
Alice Cooper, MC5
Judas Priest Stained Glass (
Kiss Alive (
Aerosmith Toys In The Attice (
AC/DC Highway To Hell (
Motorhead Ace Of Spades (Mercury,1980)
Other artists: Scorpions, Van Halen, Rainbow.
Iron Maiden The Number Of The Beast (Harvest, 1982)
Quiet Riot Metal Health (Pasha/CBS,1983)
Metallica Master Of Puppets (Elektra,1986), Metallica (1991)
Slayer Reign In Blood (Def Jam,1986)
Motley Crue Shout At The Devil (Elektra,1983)
Guns 'N Roses Appetite For Destruction (Geffen, 1987)
Other artists: Twisted Sister, Poison, Venom, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard,
Death, Anthrax, Queensryche, Ozzy Osbourne, Dokken, Whitesnake, Voivod,
Celtic Frost, Godflesh, W.A.S.P., Megadeth
Pantera Cowboys From Hell (Atco, 1990)
Rage Against the Machine Rage Against The Machine (Epic, 1988)
Other artists: Korn, Deftones, Soundgarden, White Zombie, Nine Inch