Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Genre developed from late-'60s blues progressions played by 'power trios' like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience: guitar-based rock with amplified guitar and bass reinforcing each other to create a thick, brutal wall of sound. The term was popularized by Steppenwolf, whose '68 hit 'Born To Be Wild' contained the phrase 'heavy metal thunder' from William Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch. USA's Vanilla Fudge used the Hammond organ, then associated with soul music; they provided the model for Deep Purple, arguably the most important UK HM group of the '70s, who aimed to be Fudge's UK equivalent and whose album In Rock '70 was seminal, with long tracks rarely capable of release on singles. US groups Grand Funk and Mountain were major practitioners, while Black Sabbath in UK practised the obsession with the occult and sword-and-sorcery imagery later adopted by Blue Oyster Cult. New Wave of British Heavy Metal (Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Saxon etc) sprang up because legendary groups named above had disbanded or gone into tax exile: HM (or 'Metal') relies on live concerts, where devotees ('headbangers') can interact; fans are often long- haired, with badges of allegiance on their jackets; Masters of Rock Festival held annually at Donington, East Midlands, was a celebration of all this. America's US Festival was usually dominated by HM. Fans tend to be working-class and surprisingly well-behaved; the tremendously loyal and regenerating audience is 90 per cent male due to the phallic imagery of guitars and rampant sexism, especially in the macho lyrics of bands like Whitesnake and AC/DC. Groups like Led Zeppelin (more trad. folk/blues-based) eschewed the HM label but were very influential; to outsiders the sheer loudness of many acts puts them in the same category: volume that damages hearing is unnecessary in musical terms, but HM is at the centre of the rock-concert-as-ritual, incl. the loudness which has unfortunately affected popular music in general. The loudness seems to be a way of getting the unsophisticated listener's attention; see entry for Black Sabbath for an apposite wisecrack from Charles Shaar Murray. 'Heavy metal is the basic rock and roll message,' said John Swenson, Rock World editor. 'It accepts everybody. The least sophisticated kid can get as much out of it as its dedicated followers.' This remark seems to admit that the message, er, isn't very complicated. There was a boom in US heavy metal early '80s, then a backlash; MTV reduced the number of HM videos broadcast and Twisted Sister vocalist Dee Snider blamed it on record companies: 'They oversigned metal bands, just like they did with disco and new wave bands.' An affinity with simple, loud, three-chord punk was expressed from late '70s by Mot"rhead and others; Testament have been around for a while. In the mid-'90s HM seemed to be on the run as 'alternative' rock and indie bands answered the need for phony rebellion, but if the albums don't sell the way they used to, Van Halen earned $30m on tour in '94 and AC/DC sold out 16,000 seats in Chicago in March '95. Newer bands include Sepultura (said to have Brazilian roots) and Korn, both on Epic; Fear Factory and Type O Negative (from Brooklyn) on Roadrunner; Meshuggah (Swedish) on Nuclear Blast; the Gathering (Dutch) and Emperor (Norwegian) on Century Media; White Zombie on Geffen; and Metallica on Elektra sold 15m copies of their eponymous '91 album. HM magazine Kerrang! is a spinoff from punk-oriented UK music paper Sounds.