The ancient, hallowed halls of heavy metal are filled with grotesque statuary and portraits of the elders. They speak to us of a time long since passed when our religion was still just a cult. When Rock, Hard Rock, Acid Rock, Heavy Metal, and Rock and Roll were still somehow interchangeable. The sounds needed a name, a direction, and Heavy Metal was thus enshrined. Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Scorpions, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Aerosmith, Queen, Kiss….
Wait a bit.
Aerosmith? Queen? Kiss? No, they are not metal. Who calls them metal?
Actually, as one of the disciples of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, or Newebham as it ought to be called, I can recall a time when just about everyone did. Why? Because the term heavy metal fell into place as a solid identifier for a certain type of music right around the same time Judas Priest owned the US charts with “Living After Midnight” and “Breaking the Law.” Prior to that, any band that had a few songs where the distorted riffs were tightly repeated and the production was enormous was playing “heavy metal.”
In fact, many, many bands that were decidedly not metal made some of the best metal songs you can find. But because they were not, strictly speaking, heavy metal bands they get lost in the conversation, which is a pity. We don’t see it very much today, but from the late sixties to about the early 80’s bands were not heavily niched as they are now. Yes there were the Sabbaths, Priests and Purples, but there were a slew of excessive rock bands that wandered bravely into the halls of metal.
We can all think of a group like Led Zeppelin in this sense. They were obviously not heavy metal, but Whole Lotta Love, Back Dog and Communication Breakdown? Pretty metal. Rush, as well, and even Hendrix. John Lennon is said to have stated that “Ticket To Ride” was a heavy metal song – it was based on a repeating riff instead of a melody, see?
No, we don’t see. I love that song but it is not heavy metal. Lennon was often wrong about a lot of things, but certainly wrong about this. Heavy metal is something more than just a repeated riff. It has to be distorted, and a little dangerous or dark. It has to be crafted and tightly executed. It has to attack rather than meander. Ticket To Ride, is a jangly, meandering, melancholy and wonderful song, but it is nothing like heavy metal.
In this overlong article I will explore some of my favorite metal songs by non-metal bands. These bands have in my lifetime been called metal, because these songs are metal, I guess, but now we know for certain these bands were not. Just the songs. But the fact that these songs are so good means they need to be discussed and revered by modern metalheads. They are the equal of their true metal peer’s songs, and should be exalted as such.
Aerosmith had several songs that easily fit that bill. Most notably, a pair of game changers from the Toys in The Attic and Rocks records: “Round and Round” and “Nobody’s Fault.” These songs were not just very dark versions of other Aerosmith material, they were, both of them, pure Heavy Metal. No other term fits the sound. “Round and Round” was a natural follow through from their heftier take on “Train Kept A-Rollin” from Get Your Wings in that it had a cathedral sized production and hard hitting riffs. But it also had Sabbath pacing and hellish energy that made it unique among the proto metal sounds of the mid 70s.
That it never gets mentioned by modern metalheads I can only chalk up to its being tucked away on side two of the record that contained such paeans to copulation as “Sweet Emotion” and “Walk This Way,” so maybe no one takes it seriously. But it is serious. It’s a fucking monster, and it changes Toys from a directionless if energetic follow-up to a classic album into a classic album all its own.
“Nobody’s Fault” gets far more attention from metalheads, covered as it was on the mighty Testament’s The New Order album, sort of sealing it forever as a classic metal song. And it is. The grit and grime of the original could not be reproduced by a thrash band, however, regardless of their admiration. Aerosmith used this track as something of a linchpin on the Rocks album – a record that dances easily and entirely successfully between another collection of odes to fucking and something deeper. “Last Child,” “Rats In The Cellar” and “Sick As A Dog” saw the band confronting the disillusionment of hippie promises in real time, and “Nobody’s Fault” was very much the culmination – a kick to the balls for the hijacking of 60’s progressive momentum by shitty kids who just wanted get high and bang each other:
Sorry, you’re so sorry
Don’t be sorry
Man has known
And now he’s blown it
Upside-down and hell’s the only sound
We did an awful job
And now they say it’s nobody’s fault
So, yeah, Charlie and Moondancer, thanks for all the peace and love and the bay full of garbage choking the sea turtles to death, you fucking lame-assed hippie shits. Now get out there and be sure to vote for Reagan. Punk rock needs you.
The sounds of this song are easily the heaviest thing Aerosmith did. And just as easily some of the heaviest sounds from the 70s. Judas Priest may have had the riffs and attitude, but nothing they did prior to Killing Machine had the kind of actual aural heft this song’s production acquired. Which is not a slam on Priest or a kudos to Aerosmith, so much as a recognition that our heavy metal has as much to do with semi-metal acts like Aerosmith as it does with the more focused Priest.
Which brings us to Queen. Queen will forever be known as the band that brought actual opera to rock music. They will also be known as the band that could pull off both simplistic thumping rock and rollers like “Fat Bottomed Girls” and trendy but infectious discotequers like “Another One Bites The Dust.” Shit, Queen should also be known for being maybe the greatest post-Beatles rock band in history. And I write that actually despising half their catalog.
Queen were the rarest of rare bands that actually cannot be classified as anything but a rock band. They played literally every type of contemporary popular music at some point in their careers, including nascent heavy metal. As with Aerosmith, I want to focus on two songs in particular: “Stone Cold Crazy” and “White Man.”
The Sheer Heart Attack record is, for my money, the best Queen album you can own. Its one bona-fide hit, “Killer Queen,” is a great little ditty, though probably not the most memorable Queen single you can think of. But it is part of a record that, especially in the context of the time it was recorded, just destroys. Glam rock was the state of the art in the early 70s British music scene, and Queen were certainly glammy, but they were something more, and their ability to swing from dance hall to pub to arena within one side of one record shows this.
Already owning Roger Taylor, one of the best falsettos in Rock music this side of the ridiculously underappreciated Sweet, Queen also had a lead vocalist who could travel effortlessly from breathy lullaby to charming cabaret dazzle to coliseum smashing rock. But the way Freddie Mercury grabs hold of the lyrics to “Stone Cold Crazy” shows something more still – this guy had anger. And he used it like only the best heavy metal vocalists can. He weaves in and out of the melody, machine-gunning the words in a way that actually stings the ears, jumping off throaty whispers into a maddened kinetic rants as though he was reliving some childhood trauma, then allowing the band to smash the chorus across the listener’s face as only Queen could do, complete with a caroming newebhammy riff before there even was a newebham. This is power metal done by the world’s greatest glam band, and it smokes.
But for true heft you can’t get heftier than “White Man” from A Day at the Races, an album known almost exclusively for “Somebody to Love” and “Tie Your Mother Down,” and that is nothing to be fucked with. But “White Man” drifts in on a callback riff from the album’s opening flourish and it sets you up for a filthy, furious, flailing heavy metal battle hymn. It is a slow paced song, but a crushingly delivered number that uses Brian May’s crunchy guitar tone together with John Deacon’s “I can play rock, jazz, bossa nova, and probably reptilian, if there were such a music” bass and Roger Taylor’s Bonham-esque shattering percussion to stamp a Freddie shaped hole in your sternum.
A song about the mistreatment of Original Americans from the native’s point of view, it may be one of the greatest Mercury vocal performances that only true Queenophiles have heard. The anger I talked about above is let entirely loose here, but Mercury’s control never wavers, making his voice a melodic dam buster. When he reaches the final proper verse and defiantly declares…
Leave my body in shame
Leave my soul in disgrace
But by every God’s name
Say your prayers for your race
…you are looking for the nearest warpath. The song proper ends with May’s frantic, echo-plexed chords dying off one by one as though screaming out for every death in the American West. And when you catch your breath, there are Mercury and May quietly applying a final stone to the markers of the fallen.
Metal. As. Fuck.
As with Aerosmith, I am not in any sense calling Queen a Heavy Metal Band, but there is no way I will consider arguments that these are not Heavy Metal Songs – and some of the best ever recorded.
I feel I can speak for a few of you a bit: “Kiss…is a heavy metal band, doofus. Duh. As if. Whatever. Loser. Nerd. Creep. MURDERER.”
No, they aren’t. Or at least they weren’t. They were maybe the last great grasp by rock and roll puritanism for the brass ring of pure hedonistic spectacle. And to that end they made music that is very like heavy metal.
When I teach about evolution I will often talk about dinosaurs, because kids dig ’em, I dig ’em, and they are fantastic examples of things like radiation, speciation, specialized versus generalized niche competition, and all sorts of other evolutionary minutiae. When I ask students what their favorite dinos are I will normally get “pterosaurs” or “mosasaurs” – air and sea dwelling reptiles form the age of dinosaurs. But these, though very like and contemporaneous to dinos, were not dinos. More closely related to crocodiles, in fact.
Pedantic bullshit? Maybe. But as a biologist that shit matters. And as a… metal..osopher..ogist… what is and isn’t metal matters. And Kiss played some metal, but they were really rock and roll. They had a rock and roll ethic. They were not about the things that metalheads are about. They helped us all and we owe them a lot, and I would say that by the early-mid 80s they were as metal as most popular American metal bands, but when they really mattered musically, they were more akin to Slade, Sweet, or T. Rex than they were to Black Sabbath or Deep Purple.
They were excessive about their look and their sound. But the actual compositions have a lot of quality variation, and a lot of disappointing results, compared to a Priest, for example. Perhaps if they had committed to songs like “100,000 Years,” “Parasite,” and “Black Diamond” they could have ended up revered as a metal groundbreaker. But there were too many tunes like “Firehouse,” “Rock and Roll All Nite,” and “Strutter” for that to take. They were an excessive rock and roll band (and that is a great thing to be).
But I can see where people get confused. Especially after the 80’s LA metal glut which owed so much to Kiss, despite how much they wanted us to believe it was The Stooges. Kiss is almost the perfect transitional form – the Tiktaalik of extreme music. Not quite land animal, not quite sea animal – neither fish nor frog.
So choosing two songs that exemplify the not-quite-metal-but-brilliant ethos is a lot harder here. I am going with “She” and “God Of Thunder.” Not exactly bold or arcane picks, but these are definite and definitive heavy metal songs from this not actually definite heavy metal band.
“She” is a creepy song on a lot of levels. An ode to a seductress, the music wanders from the stated theme and into some truly dark territory, making the titular “She” almost a demonic presence instead of just the girl with a cute bum I never had the guts to ask out. Easily the best track from the forgettable Dressed to Kill snoozer, “She” finds its real identity on the Alive album, where Paul and Gene’s ganged vocals sound of possession and conflict while agreeing on the hotness of the lady in question. This is a sinful song about the failing of men in the face of feminine sexuality. It was undoubtedly penned as the man-in-charge anthem we are used to, but that is not how it greets us. This is the song Gollum sings to The Precious. It is a song of weakness, misplaced aggression, and frailty.
And the riff is a crusher. A funk octave bass line slowed to an undulating anacond-ian pace and drenched in Paul and Ace’s Gibsons, while Peter pounds out a tribal rhythm. And a guitar solo so iconic Pearl Jam gleefully aped it for their song “Alive” 15 or so years later. An all-around piece of perfect metal execution.
And, of course – obviously – “God of Thunder.” Gene was the demon, but Paul conjured this riff, and it is leviathan. Context matters I keep insisting, and the context in which I heard the album version of this song was ’77, 5th grade, friend’s house. Friend needed me to hear “Detroit Rock City,” and I loved it, so fine. I really loved “King of the Night Time World,” too. Then came “God of Thunder.” I had previously heard it on the Alive II record, and thought it was a cool enough song, but this was the first time I heard the studio version.
There are a lot of reasons this song consumed my intestines, but the main ones are the production, the songcraft and of course that riff. Said riff is a take on a sort of standard 70s funk lick, but as with “She,” it was de-funked, ground down, and given a slower, uglier flourish so that instead of sounding like sex incarnate it sounded like Satan incarnate. The main guitar sound is sort of a car horn on quaaludes, bleating and somehow darker than you expect from Kiss. It had muscle, and Paul and Ace’s interplay gave it even more of a horror feel. The riff is always important here, but the songcraft matters just as much.
What do I mean? If you listen to the middle eight, or what we now generally refer to as the solo, Kiss stops playing the song. Paul is still playing it but the rest of the band wander off into a monstrous cavern and just start throwing their sounds at each other. Peter’s drums drop off the planet, and it sounds like he is just beating them at random, but he catches himself right as the solo proper begins. Gene, one assumes, is just plucking the E string and spitting fire and blood and skanky panties and all the stuff that Terry Gross would one day regret inviting him onto her radio show for. Ace does some insane Robin Trower string bending spinning up into an actual recognizable melodic solo; his work here definitely sounds the way a summoned quasit would sound, dragged from the depths of a boiling cauldron, made to scream for it’s quasity life then pitchforked back down again. It’s fucking amazing. It’s utterly Slayery.
The production is just as insane. This song sounds like no other song I have ever heard. The instrumentation could not have been simple guitars and drums alone. You can hear something like a clavichord and perhaps even a banjo in there. And the format is daft as fuck.The closest in form is, and you are going to hit me for this, “Yellow Submarine.” Consider: both are delightfully playful ditties. “Yellow Submarine” is about living in a submarine with stoned millionaires; “God of Thunder” is about living in hell with a bunch of drunken millionaires. Both are truly designed for adult children: “Yellow Submarine” makes you want to clap your hands and maybe even dance a jig, whatever the hell that is; “God of Thunder” makes you want to stomp your feet and bang your head. And both make use of crazy, funny, even disturbing voices: “Yellow Submarine” has The Beatles and their buddies doing a submariney skit; “God of Thunder” has Kiss saying incomprehensible shit to each other on a sped up tape like the souls of muppets damned to hell.
Context again: to my 10-year-old ears, this was obviously meant to be playful, but it was also meant to be a little disturbing. Like a good horror movie, it was hokey but dangerous. But it was mostly catchy and inventive and heavy as a dead star. It put the kinds of visions only a ten year old boy raised to believe in at least two versions of hell and Sesame Street can have.
It is only later that I came to see it was just the Starchild writing about how the Demon thought of the Demon’s dick.
Whatever, it was on Destroyer, and that is fitting because it DESTROYS. And its inventive production, songcraft, and variations on its riff can be found in too many true metal songs to count.
You will notice the production comes up a lot here. Jack Douglas, Roy Thomas Baker, and Bob Ezrin had a lot to do with how these songs turned out. And true enough, when I used to go record hunting and found a band I hadn’t heard, I would first look at who produced it. Martin Birch? Tom Allom? Michael Wagener? Good bet you were getting a great metal record. I learned this from Aerosmith, Queen, and Kiss. Production mattered. It was how these bands got that metal sound, among the other sounds.
So there you have it. Metal from non- or not-quite-metal bands. And not just metal, some of the best ever made. When you walks the hoary halls of extreme music, have a care. Don’t forsake the darkened crypt of the others. Tarry a bit. Observe. Run your fingers over the 8-tracks, cassettes, reel-to-reels. There is great treasure here. Greater than many can ever know. But we know, you and I. We know. Now.