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New Video Answers the Immortal Question of 'Who Invented Heavy Metal?'

Led Zeppelin live onstage at K.B. Hallen in Copenhagen, Denmark on the first night of their 1973 European Tour. © Jorgen Angel

It’s a question that will probably rage for all eternity, something that even the immortals can’t agree on: who the hell invented heavy metal music? Was it The Beatles with their mass murder-inspiring “Helter Skelter”? Was it Jimi Hendrix with his distorted, fedback guitar frenzies? Was it The Kinks with their power chord classic “You Really Got Me”? Or The Who? Or Cream? Or was it an earlier era? All these and more are contenders and like most music genre genealogy it’s up for fierce, fist-wielding debate, preferably late at night, terribly drunk while sat in the pub.

And it’s also the topic of a new video essay ‘Who invented metal?’ by music journalist and YouTuber Noah Lefevre (aka Polyphonic). As Lefevre notes, as a genre, heavy metal is both loved and vilified, and has spawned all number of subgenres. But it’s also a staple of modern music, as recognisable as country, electronic music, rock, pop, and all the rest.

Hendrix playing at the Woburn Music Festival, Woburn UK in 1968. © Barrie Wentzell

So to find out where the genesis of this demonic prince of a genre began is a tricky task. “No music exists in a vacuum,” Lefevre wisely muses. “Instead music growth is a slow-moving [hell]beast building on years and decades of development.” However, could there have been a flashpoint, one artist or song who created that new tangent, a tangent that broke away from rock and started headbanging down a new, infernal path of destruction?

To start off on this complicated chthonic journey Lefevre first looks at the early history of the genre, and goes beyond where most people can agree the genre originated from, the 1960s, and looks to the generation who influenced many of those 60s musicians. And those were the blues musicians, particularly the 1950s Memphis blues musicians, like Joe Hill Lewis and Pat Hare, who began experimenting with heavier distortions in their music.

The Who (Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon) photograohed at The Marquee Club in March 1967. © Ray Stevenson

Lefevre picks out the track “Cotton Crop Blues” by James Cotton as a good example of this. Along with the heavier sound, they also began writing lyrics on more morbid subject matters, which is also a trait of heavy metal.

Lefevre then traces the distorted sound of the Memphis blues musicians to the surf rock music of early 1960s America. One aspect this movement added to the heavy metal arsenal, was the use of fast-picked guitars. Then, after these foundations were laid, it was the later 1960s rock groups, many from the UK, that then started really building the demented, accursed path towards metal. As the video notes, many of these groups were inspired by the “grit of American blues.”

So, bands like The Who, with their fast tempos and heavy distortion in songs like “My Generation” and “I Can See For Miles”, the latter of which in turn inspired The Beatles to, legend has it, write “Helter Skelter”. And Eric Clapton’s band Cream and their songs were also a big influence.

Cream playing at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival in 1967. © Pete Smith

Yet there was a band of this era who made an even heavier song than what those bands produced. And that was Blue Cheer who, in 1968, released a cover of “Summertime Blues”, a cover which Lefevre calls “deep, dark, and loud” noting that “to this day many people consider [the track] as the first real heavy metal song.” He then goes on to note that one of the standout traits of the track is “how deep it is, sitting far lower in the audio spectrum than many of its peers. This is something that became a key part of metal as evidenced by the genre’s affinity for drop-tuned guitars and five or six string basses.”

1968 proved to be a seminal year for heavy metal, because other songs that came out the same year proved to be hugely influential, including Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”. Not only was it heavy metal in tone and form, it also featured the line ‘heavy metal thunder’. And so, a new genre had a name and more music could start to be classified under it, like another 1968 track, Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”—whose iconic vocals pretty much defined the standard for heavy metal singers moving forward.

The Beatles in London in 1967, a year before they released The White Album which featured 'Helter Skelter'. © Barrie Wentzell

But these 60s bands couldn’t be considered heavy metal themselves, rather they made individual songs that would influence the genre. It was when acts like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath came along that heavy metal could lay claim to having whole bands preaching the sound of Satan.

And it was one band in particular who can probably really lay claim to inventing the genre, if any individual band can. And that’s Black Sabbath who in 1970 released their debut self-titled album.

With their witchcraft and Satanism infused lyrics and tritone chords, it was then that heavy metal was well and truly born. It was an album, as Lefevre states, that “showed the world what metal was.”

Check out the video below for the full nefarious story. And check out more of Lefevre’s videos on his YouTube channel.

Rockarchive is delighted to be able to offer many iconic The Who, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Led Zeppelin images as limited edition photographic prints.

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