Popular demand is not a phrase that should ever be used to describe internet content. At best, your website has a healthy two dozen actual regulars. The rest just wander through and have next to no opinions on your content. So to suggest this article is due to popular demand is false. It is due mostly to me wanting to keep writing about the topic, but also due to a couple of well-wishing folks’ desire to see it become a regular occurrence.
Nevertheless, here, back by popular demand, is another proto-metal showcase. Popular with me, at least. This time I am going to creep into the 60s for some real proto-metal. Again I am going to hit three bands and come up with two songs apiece. Again these are heavy metal songs from bands that are not heavy metal in the modern sense. Again the writing will be iffy and the punctuation such that the editor will end up forced to change some of the language intended. Again it will frustrate me, but you won’t notice or care. Again, it’s all my own fault.
The 60s were not actually the 60s. We tend to think of bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks as “60s bands,” but all three made some of their best music in the early 70s. Regardless, we think we know what we mean by “60s music,” so I won’t quibble here. From ’64 to ’74 is how I see “the 60s”—the great movement from simple pop songs to actual bona fide hard rock. The was a 10-year period marked mainly by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but saw an explosion of bands and visions as rock expanded from teenaged shit-talking to ridiculous stoned college dorm freshman philosophy bitch sessions.
As far as heavy metal is concerned, the form was probably codified by Black Sabbath, though Blue Cheer might want to have a word with us about that. But music had been creeping in that direction for a while. Amidst all the hippie love peace shit, bands of all kinds had been slipping dark, powerful and disenchanted songs into their albums. Mainly riffing on American blues, artists introduced troubling topics and discordant sounds to make specific points with certain songs.
Even the almost absurdly positive Beatles found themselves churning out a few metallic beasts–not on purpose, but as part of their expressive journey toward acrimony and disillusionment with popular culture and each other. So let’s get their contributions out of the way right off the bat. I am going with a song so obvious it seems almost inevitable: “Helter Skelter.” But also something a little less obvious and maybe even difficult to defend as metal: “Taxman.”
First, let me see if I can justify “Taxman.” This is not a heavy “feeling” song, after all. But it does do some metal things, and that is why I chose it. For one thing, it is a very riff-based song, using another variation of the “Day Tripper”/”Drive My Car” lick the Beatles used so often. But here it is kept in E, and is darkened down with a lot of minor notes, including a less jangly rhythm punch from Lennon than the band previously used on songs like “She’s a Woman.” Here the chords are just slaps of sound laid across Paul and George’s riffing.
The subject is a far cry from typical Beatles fare, penned by George Harrison and filled with his dry sardonic wit. An angry rant about being heavily taxed – hence the name – the lyrics tread some punky snottishness, but the final verse dips heavily into metal territory, using death as a sarcastic punt to the yarbles.
Now my advice for those who’ve died
Declare the pennies on your eyes
It’s a brief foray into the symbolism of death to those of us stuck footing the bills, but combined with the minor motif and somewhat crunchy performance – and starkly virtuoso-tastic solos from young guitar god Paul McCartney (?!) – it takes this song from rock and roll through hard rock and into the land of metal. All the more impressive when you consider the lovely, gentle-minded songwriting that Harrison would reveal on later Beatles records and especially on his solo albums. And Paul, what the fuck?
Speaking of Paul what the fuck, “Helter Skelter” is a heavy metal song written by the least heavy metal rock star of the 60s. You hear it and you think “Lennon.” It’s pissed off about something, it has to be ironic and it makes almost no actual sense, instead sounding like an excuse to break shit for a while and still call it rock and roll.
But of course it is Paul McCartney, though the final product has more to do with the collaborative efforts of the band as a whole. If you listen to the demo version being worked through on the Anthology 3 set, you hear it begin its life as the same type of crawling soul tune that gave us “Come Together.” Slowly, and one believes a result of the mounting frustration with replaying the same thing over and over for an hour straight, the sounds gets louder, more refined and a lot more pissed off.
I have read that Paul’s inspiration for the song was reading a review of The Who’s “Magic Bus” single, in which the reviewer states the song is all chaos, energy and abandon. Then Paul heard the song, found it catchy, energetic and cool but not exactly what he had envisioned, and decided he wanted to record a song that was what he envisioned.
That is apocryphal but certainly would explain how The Beatles churned out one of the first and best heavy metal songs of all time. It’s a song about a slide in an amusement park; at least that is what McCartney says. It’s not about that, obviously. It’s about the tension involved with relationships and personalities coming into conflict. And it is a crushing hydra-headed monster of sounds. Beginning with the iconic stabs of declining accents and devolving into a mosh-worthy lyric, Paul spits the lyrics out like he hates them, channeling his love for Fats Domino and Little Richard to inform his delivery, taking it from belligerent singing to viscous wailing. Paul, contrary to what a lot of modern idiots say, was a fucking rock monster.
The riff is the thing, and here is one of the simplest of Beatles riffs laid on so thick and meaty you forget it’s The Beatles. Ringo is catching the ones, propelling the song forward through all the muck, only falling to his Mersey routine now and then to remind you where they come from. John is finding every possible way to play angry phrases he can manage, giving his unusually dexterous left had a hell of a workout. George’s slide guitar parts are more ambient than leading, but none of that matters. You can hear the band mashing everything, you can hear them not caring, and you can literally hear them losing their edge and just collapsing, with Ringo screaming “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!!”
One of the coolest things about this song is that it fails to end twice before it finally gives up. The band stops playing it where you might expect, then starts paying it again because fuck you. The song then begins to fade out–then fades back in because remember how it said ”fuck you”? It meant it. Finally it ceases to happen, probably from sheer exhaustion.
A quick note on the McCartney/Starr rhythm contribution to the song. Both are among the simplest work either ever did, and both are why the song is a classic metal song and not just some shitty jam song. If you listen to the radio recordings made for the BBC tapes early in their career, you will find two things: George Harrison was a fantastic live lead guitarist and Ringo Starr could do all the shit all the other, better regarded drummers could do…
…Well, except for Keith Moon. Keith couldn’t even do what Keith could do.
Ringo is much maligned for his style, but that misses an important point; it was his style. His style was to leave the floor open for the band to make their music. He was one of the greatest time keepers in rock music, but he chose to play that down in favor of keeping Beatles songs memorable and tight. So take your Starr-hating someplace where bass players don’t have to listen to it. We fucking know; you fucking don’t. The end.
“Helter Skelter” is usually the one song for which all metalheads make their exceptions. “I don’t really like the Beatles – except ‘Helter Skelter,’ obviously. Fucking killer song.” It stands out in their catalog, certainly, and it is unlike just about any other song at the time, though you can hear its echoes in everything from “Nobody’s Fault” through “Another Thing Coming” to even “Sarcophagus.” It is a true metal crawler and proof that even the Beatie Beat Beatles had to have a little iron in their diets.
Next up, a somewhat difficult case to make in The Rolling Stones. They were always the riff heavy pick in the Beatles/Stones arguments, but those riffs were almost always a take on traditional rock and roll constructions rather than the de-bluesed blues of true metal. But let’s look at a couple of songs that demonstrate their ability to get dark and powerful: “Paint It Black” and “Midnight Rambler.”
“Paint It Back” is another of their earlier songs that seems to take its cues from Beatles songs. The sitar is a giveaway. But at that early stage, the Stones were playing in a field the Beatles were building, so you expect to see some copy-catting going on. What made the Stones matter is that they took that field and ran it like they built it. Where “Norwegian Wood” used the otherworldly sounds of the sitar to create a dreamy effect, “Paint It Black” used not just the sound but the structure of Indian music to accent the minor scales Eastern music is built upon. They punched it with Charlie Watts’ cannon shot snare to build a twilight vision of loss and rage.
And Jagger’s lyrics, which so often acted as a tearing down of the Lennon/McCartney style of writing songs to get wealthy (something that both would come to resent, to one degree or another), here take a straight poke at the loss of a loved one, the impotence and emptiness of being the sole survivor in a relationship. Jagger was always at his best when writing something a little transcendent. For all his status and goofy charm, he took a lot of the blues he loved to heart, and it showed.
And if you need another demonstration of the blues writ gigantic by Jagger, look no further than “Midnight Rambler.” In fact, this song tip-toes along the line of traditional blues, rock and roll, and heavy metal so precariously I almost hate to use it.
But the thing is, this is a heavy metal song because of the lyrics. And that is not an easy thing to pull off. Granted, the guitar work in the bridge is fairly stunning, and the rhythm of the breakdown is a precursor to Zeppelin-style whisper/smash heaviness. And the build up is just heavy as fuck, period.
But in truth the musical aspects of this song are almost strictly blues and hard rock. You might say, and you might be right, that songs like “Live With Me” or “Jumping Jack Flash” share more musical relationship to heavy metal than this number. But this number is driven by the lyrical admissions of a serial killer, and THAT jumps it over most of the 70s and 80s and right smack dab into the thrash and death and grind genres.
Mind you, this is not about a serial killer. Many songs cover that territory. Blues masters over the years have very strongly written songs involving serial killers, making it something of a trope. This is by a serial killer. That conceit gives it a special sense of dread and even horror that pushes it into the heavier realms of music.
Jagger’s character in the song thinks of himself as sleek, superior, and even sexy, making his admissions disturbing on a level that goes deeper than its peers. He is narrating his escapade, reveling it, and expecting you to revel as well. This is Pig Destroyer levels of creepy in the middle of the Summer of Love.
I am willing to entertain arguments that this is not really heavy metal at all, but ever since I first heard it I felt it was as powerful, as dangerous, and as compelling as most actual heavy metal songs. Either way, I here make my argument. I would love to hear counters.
While there are good cases to made for the contributions of Cream, Hendrix and the Kinks to the proto-metal field, they each are worth more of a dedicated article, as their lines were very blurry–you could call a lot of their work simply heavy metal and not be wrong. The point here is to look for metal from bands that tended to be more non-metal.
The Who fall somewhere in between even the in-between bands. Coming to validity just after the first wave of the British Invasion, they wandered in and out of a lot of musical styles, never really finding a comfortable home until they hit upon the long-form style that has been come to be known as rock opera, allowing them to explore all their ideas inside a single framework, grounding them and forcing them to be disciplined enough to create some of the best rock music ever conceived. But the songs themselves are wildly independent beasts, including the two I am choosing to call proto-metal here: the live version of “Young Man Blues” and well, two more songs actually, “Cousin Kevin” and “Boris the Spider.”
Live at Leeds is almost completely a heavy metal record. But it was a live record as well, and live records of the time tended to lend bands that were not heavy by nature a thick, bombastic sound that made them heavy metallish.
In fact, compare the sound of Deep Purple’s Made in Japan, which is essentially a live version of Machine Head, to Machine Head itself, and you will find that the live Purple was a heavy metal demon, while the studio Purple was more staid, stuffy, and pressed. This was true of most heavy bands in the 70s. The massive sounds Jimmy Page got from his recordings were hard for other bands to match for a long time, but the live versions were innately heavy.
On record, The Who played around with some metal ideas, from the song topics to the actual wall of sound style they often achieved. But they were still in the pre-metal era for their nascent recordings. It’s easy to hear the rumblings of metal in some versions of “I’m a Boy” or “My Generation,” but it was the guy in the group who got the least amount of onstage attention that took them to the brink of metallocracy. John Entwistle was perhaps the first rock bass virtuoso. He made The Who work. Moon and Townshend would trade inspiration on a moment to moment basis, neither really knowing what the other would come up with. It was John that gloriously sewed the many threads together into coherent music, time and again.
He did it in two ways. First, he was a fantastic musician. He understood music so well that his bass playing literally made up for the insanity of the two lead players in The Who. Occasionally John was the only person on stage actually playing the songs. And yet they worked, every time. This is a stunning feat.
Secondly, his bass sound was the original heavy metal bass sound. He distorted it and compressed it and used exceedingly high-gain pickups to get a sound that could be a band in and of itself. I am using two of his songs here because one demonstrates the first aspect of his genius, and the other the second, and both make him a metal hero.
“Boris the Spider,” for anyone who has not heard the song, does two things that metal would take to heart. It used raspy, baritone vocals and it used a massive descending riff. Said riff has an almost Demilichian tonality and feel, and overpowers the guitars and drums at many points – the engineers had a tough time compensating for the power John created. The song, written by Entwistle, is a simple story of a spider that annoys John so he kills it with a book. It’s dead stupid, and yet incredibly fascinating in his hands. It’s all played for a laugh, but the sounds it creates are not.
The low vocal register chorus is meant to be charmingly spooky, and it is, but it also points to a time when vocalists would begin to eschew the virtuosity of pop and rock singers in favor of the disturbing punctuation of death and thrash vocals.
The devil-may-crackyourskull attitude of Entwistle’s lyrics really made an impact on the album Tommy, though. John wrote two songs, “Fiddle About” and “Cousin Kevin,” both of which are easily as twisted as anything Slayer ever dreamed of–mostly because they are about humans. “Fiddle About” is about child rape. You cannot get much darker than that. You can get grosser with the blood and gore and zombies, sure, but not darker.
But “Cousin Kevin” is also quite dark, having to do with bullying, and all the ways one might maltreat a deaf, dumb, and blind kid, were one about such depravity. But the thing that drives this song is the dynamics of the lyric/chorus interplay. The lyric takes a twisting descending lullaby and repeat disturbingly thoughtful lyrics.
We’re all alone, cousin, no one home cousin.
Let’s think of a game we can play,
Now the grown ups have all give away.
The chorus is a fine Entwistle-ian study in unexpected and unsettling chord phrasing while the band vocally harmonizes on the actual torture of Tommy.
Maybe a cigarette burn on your arm
Will turn your expression to one of alarm.
John’s heavy hand both with lyrics and bass punch the chorus directly into your empathy center. You get something of the pain and thrill and horror and hopelessness that almost reminds you when your own cousin sat on your chest, pinned your arms, and made you slap yourself.
Maybe that’s just me.
Finally, let’s take a good look at a heavy-metal-by-accident-recording. As I said, Live at Leeds is a massive record regardless of what you want to call the genre. The band were finally able to get the sound on stage that they had been after, and it was the same type of sound MC5, Mountain, and Ten Years After were getting, and that Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin were bringing to the studio. No song from that record exemplifies this better than “Young Man Blues.”
Pete’s Gibson SG was pumped through hot-as-hell Hiwatt heads and got a tube distortion that was equal parts Kurt Cobain and Tony Iommi. And he played with every volt of it. Never the most proficient of soloists, his lead work was based on chord phrasing and alternate fingering, and the completely Blue Cheered levels he obtained were perfect for his strum heavy neo-baroque-fuckall playing.
Kieth Moon’s drumming… can’t really be described. He was out of his fucking mind, and he knew it. He achieved it. He was actually a very – perhaps overly – bright person, but he found a way to just drop that off at the edge of the drum riser and play like a five year old who somehow hits every beat despite himself. He was doing mathcore in 1967.
I have already told you all about Entwistle, but suffice to say here he is the constant locomotive powering everything in this song, along with a newfound tubed distortion all his own. He is enormous, and all with the garbage equipment bass players in 1970 had to work with.
Finally at this point we come to what may be the greatest rock vocalist of the 60s. Roger Daltrey started out The Who with a sort of mid-register tough guy swagger that worked very well in the band’s early RNB days. As the band grew, however, into the more hippie-but-not-quite angry subculture heroes of the late 60s, Daltrey’s working man voice never quite seemed to fit.
All that changed with the Tommy tour. Daltrey found his voice and then some, and from that tour forward had one of the most insanely powerful voices in all rock music, and in fact became a launching pad for the chesty power metal vocalists we either love or hate today. Eschewing vibrato, his vocals tended to enunciate clearly and precisely, and he let the back end of the lyric be the launching pad for his wailing and screaming.
On “You Man Blues” he takes an almost ironically not-macho vocal by Mose Allison and blasts it into something every male who has ever had it up to fucking here with this bullshit can hear in their heads while they smash pallets with a crowbar having drank one or five too many Sapporos.
OK, just me again.
The net result of these players is a start/stop un-bluesed scramble with maybe 48 different tempo changes and a lack of self control that borders on gibberish – but never gets there. But it is the overall sound the band is working within that points to things to come. Every amp is hot. The mics are saturated. The players are saturated. And hot. And probably mad at each other. And so this song, and really this whole album, becomes a pivotal point in heavy metal history. A band playing pop and rock songs that come out heavy metal due to circumstance.
Which is, after all, the point of this. Not even Sabbath or Priest started their bands thinking about the term heavy metal. It befell them. The Beatles, Stones, and Who didn’t set out to write or record heavy metal songs. The songs befell them. And, as it with Aerosmith, Queen, and Kiss, this has allowed our metal to endure and engulf and morph and triumph. It started from a lot of places, so it has a lot of genes to evolve with.