Sunday, July 31, 2011

On the Origin of Heavy Metal

A few days ago I got an email from Brian Hickam, a librarian/archivist who is a very active figure in the heavy metal studies wing of academia. Brian asked me for some clarification of a passage from my book, This Ain't the Summer of Love, and upon responding I thought that our exchange would make a good blog post. So, with Brian's permission...

Brian wrote to me asking the following:

"On page 10 of your book you say: 'While many have traced the origins of metal back to the 1960s ... to the hyperdistorted sound of bands such as Blue Cheer, I contend that one cannot talk about metal as a genre before 1970, before it was aligned with the concert form that provided a suitable setting for such an oversized sound.'

"I don't necessarily disagree with you, but please comment on what bands in 1970 were doing different from what bands had done on stage in the late 1960s. That is, please expand upon what you mean by 'concert form.' For example, how do the stacks of Marshall amps used by Hendrix and then Blue Cheer factor in as a suitable setting for the 'oversized' sound. How do other factors, such as costumes, stage props, and stage maneuvers factor in?"

Here's what I wrote in return:

"First, I should say that the point I'm making there is in many ways a critical one, meaning that it's directed at other historians of metal who have tried to pinpoint the origins of the genre. I've never been convinced that metal originated with a set of isolated gestures (such as the two I name, the Kinks 'You Really Got Me' or the sound of Blue Cheer). That's not to say I don't think those earlier things contributed to the formation of metal, but in my understanding, a genre doesn't exist until there's enough of a critical mass of things that all seem related to each other that people start to perceive something to be there that wasn't there before. That critical mass didn't exist in 1965 or 1967 or even arguably in 1969, but to my mind it does start to come more to fruition right at the turn of the 1970s. The fact that the term 'heavy metal' doesn't appear in print in anything like its recognized form until 1970/71 only further proves the point for me. While I don't think one can ever definitively draw a line in the sand and say, this is the date after which metal clearly exists as a genre, I'm of the conviction that most of what precedes 1970 belongs to the prehistory of metal, not to the history of metal proper (but I'd be willing to make some exceptions for things like Led Zeppelin's first couple albums, both released in '69).

"Second, as to my specific claim about the importance of the 'concert form,' again, I'm talking about a critical mass of activity, not things that may have happened in isolation. The concert form in question is arena rock, and while it started to emerge in the last couple years of the 1960s, it didn't fully take hold until the new decade. Arena rock is to my mind, first and foremost a matter of venue (arenas and, on occasion, stadiums; there's no meaningful distinction between the two where rock concerts are concerned except for size). Secondly, it's a matter of economics - arena rock is a way of generating more profit through the concert economy, creating a new economy of scale for live music. Thirdly, it's a matter of adapting the aesthetics of concert performance to suit the new scale of the concert arena. Again, this process began in the later 1960s but it's after 1970 that it becomes standardized. Fourthly, and lastly, it's about crowds. Stacks of Marshall amps are one thing, but stacks of Marshall amps combined with 10,000 or more young enthusiastic fans are another, and part of my argument - the part that makes the case for Grand Funk Railroad as a key overlooked early 1970s metal band - is that a big part of what metal as a genre meant at the moment of its emergence was inseparable from what it meant to have 10,000 fans gathering in different arenas night after night from one end of the U.S. to the other. Rock festivals may have been bigger but they didn't happen so routinely. It's the routine character of arena rock, the fact that it's so big all the time, that makes it into something that seemed different from what came before; and the number of metal bands that took to the arena from early on and that seemed to have a sound so perfectly suited to the new concert form, gave metal a degree of coherence as a genre that it didn't have prior to that point."

Those wanting more elaboration can check out my book - follow this link to read the full text of the introduction, which includes the quote that sparked Brian's curiosity. Or leave a comment below, of course.

1 comment:

  1. I'm still wrestling with the chicken and the egg question when it comes to the significance of the arena, as much as I'm glad you've theorized it. Did the rise of metal contribute to the importance of the arena, not just for metal, but for pretty much any later rock group (Peter Frampton, Journey, etc.), or was the arena already operating (built up by some other force within the popular music industry) and certain groups simply tapped into it and then became linked to a sound that was subsequently labelled "metal"?

    In part, my wrestling has to do with the strange historiographical saga of GFR, and by extension, Black Sabbath. GFR is completely ignored in the contemporary metal imagination (c.f. Ian Christe) because they begat no recognizable metal offspring into later decades and by 1973 "We're An American Band" wasn't exactly "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath". So, while the press may have used "heavy metal" and "GFR" in the same sentence in the early 1970s, I find it hard to know what to do with that concept as a way of talking about a series of 1970s groups that also includes Sabbath, Purple, Rainbow, and Priest. Yes, all of those groups, like Zeppelin, thrived on the arena concept, but so did Aerosmith, and yet to our ears Aerosmith doesn't sound a thing like Rainbow. The 70s Aerosmith albums seem more about throwback 50s and 60s nostalgia (well, by the time of Rocks it's a drug-addled nostalgia and Tyler's voice is totally thrashed) than the careful arrangements and "medievalisms" of Rainbow.

    In many ways, my thinking pivots off your other great observation, in the NWOBHM chapter: that what made Venom stand out (and this applies to Maiden as well) was their insistence on being a "metal" band, in embracing that label to some extent. The more I think about it, the more I think the 1970s are too wishy-washy to be able to use the term "metal" in really describing anything usefully. I think we can point to certain musical things that get passed down to later artists (Dio's vocal style, double kicks, Low E chugging, guitar virtuosity, etc), but to really speak of a metal genre in the 70s is becoming more of a challenge for me, and perhaps puts us into a box that is hard to reconcile with what we know of metal's more "deliberate" historiography in the 80s. Even though "metal" is out there in the journalism and the marketing, it's sort of a grab-all without much internal consistency the way it would (sort of) become in the 80s.