Number One with a Bullet(belt)

If you’re my age, you discovered music on the radio. And, like me, you were probably listening on an AM Top 40 station; in the 1970s, Top 40 radio was almost exclusively found on the AM band. A glance back at the charts from that era reveals a pretty bizarre musical landscape; country music rubbing shoulders with soul and disco, hard funk fraternizing with soft rock, weepy ballads mixing with crunchy hard rock. A little bit of everything could be found on Top 40 radio in the 1970s… And if you were willing, as I was, to listen to 30 minutes of schlock in search of one hard rocking gem, the payoff was worth it.

Placement in the Billboard Top 40 in the 1970s was based on a combination of airplay and sales. Sales were largely driven by airplay; airplay was dictated by what appeared on the charts. Record company manipulation was also a major factor. But however dysfunctional these formulae were, this was the system many of us grew up with, and the way most of us found our music in the 1970s. This was how it was for me, and this is what I found…

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If we limit our look back to only the hardest and heaviest tunes ever to rough up the Top 40, there’s still a surprising number that make the cut. Let’s start with The Birth of Heavy, and Blue Cheer’s epic meltdown ‘Summertime Blues’, which peaked at #14 in 1968. This has got to be the heaviest song ever to feature in the Top 20. Also in ’68, Cream made the Top 10 with ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ (#6), Iron Butterfly hit #30 with ‘In A Gadda Da Vida’, and Mountain climbed to #21 in 1970 with ‘Mississippi Queen’. In 1969, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ made it to #4. Zeppelin continued to appear in the Top 40 into the early years of the 70s; ‘Immigrant Song’/’Hey Hey, What Can I Do’ hit #16 in 1970, ‘Black Dog’ reached #15 in ’71, and ‘Trampled Under Foot’ crept in at #38 in 1975.

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While Black Sabbath never achieved Top 40 status with any of their singles, they were there in spirit. Bloodrock’s ‘D.O.A.’ hit #36; a truly unsettling song (at it’s core, it’s a re-write of Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’), ‘D.O.A’.’ was banned from many radio stations due to it’s graphically gory lyrics and dark musicality… which only helped boost its popularity. Alice Cooper hit #7 with ‘School’s Out’, another song that radio stations banned. With its subversive lyric, including a line about blowing up a school, it’s doubtful that this song would even be recorded today. The Edgar Winter Group’s monster instrumental ‘Frankenstein’ topped the charts (that’s #1, kids) in 1972. Blue Oyster Cult’s 1976 masterpiece ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ (#12) may not qualify as ‘heavy’, but its epic middle section and morbid lyrics certainly do; the song caused a minor uproar when it was (correctly?) labeled a ‘pro-suicide anthem’. This was seriously heavy stuff, kids, and it was also considered pop music.

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Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ was only ever released as a single in the ‘double-A-side’ format, with the live version from ‘Made in Japan’ on the A-side and the studio version from the previous year’s ‘Machine Head’ on the B. Released in May of 1973, it climbed to #4; radio stations played both sides. Also in ’73, Rick Derringer’s kick-ass ‘Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo’ placed at #23, and Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz’ reached #5; Sweet would hit again in 1975 with ‘Fox on the Run’ (#5) and ‘Action’ (#20). Alice came back in ’73 with three Top 40 placings from the ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ album: ‘Elected’ (#26), ‘Hello, Hurray’ (#35) and ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ (#25), before a bizarre run of four consecutive Top 40 ballads. Not bizarre because the ballads were bad; bizarre because … he was Alice Cooper. And these were ballads.

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Aerosmith were a dominant presence in the Top 40 for a few years, but didn’t exactly play fair… ‘Dream On’ originally peaked at #59 in 1973, but after the success of the ‘Sweet Emotion’ single (#36), Columbia re-released ‘Dream On’ again in 1976, and the song hit #6. ‘Walk This Way’ has a similar history: when originally released in 1975, the single didn’t even chart. In 1976, it was re-released in between the ‘Last Child’ (#21) and ‘Back in the Saddle’ (#38) singles, and this time ‘Walk This Way’ would hit #10. Aerosmith’s last visit to the Top 40 in the 70’s would be with their cover of the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ (#23) in 1978, from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack. Aerosmith would re-appear as chart darlings a decade later, but as a drastically different kind of band (sob).

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The Hottest Band in the Land paid frequent visits to the Top 40. Kiss hit #12 in 1975 with the ‘Alive!’ version of ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’, with ‘Shout it Out Loud’ (#31) in ’76, and with ‘Calling Dr. Love’ (#16) and ‘Christine Sixteen’ (#25) in 1977. Two other Kiss singles charted just as high or higher; one was a ballad produced by Bob Ezrin (it worked for Alice). Neither single rocked, so they will not be acknowledged here. For about two years, Foghat were huge; ‘Slow Ride’ (#20), ‘Drivin’ Wheel’ (#34), and the live version of ‘I Just Want To Make Love to You’ (#33) were all over the radio. Heart showed up big with ‘Crazy on You’ (#35) and ‘Magic Man’ (#9) in ’76, and the absolutely awesome ‘Barracuda’ (#11), another solid candidate for the heaviest Top 20 song evah, a year later. Just goes to show: you can’t judge a 45 by its picture sleeve.

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I’ll round out our research here with a few more notable one-offs: The manic flute freak-out of ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus reached #9 in 1973, BTO’s ‘Let it Ride’ got to #12 in, and ZZ Top’s ‘Tush’ reached #20 in 1975. In 1976, Thin Lizzy broke big with ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ (#12), and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ topped out at #9. In 1977, Ted Nugent returned to the Top 40 (The Amboy Dukes’ ‘Journey to the Center of Your Mind’ hit #16 in 1968) with ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ (#30), and Ram Jam’s recording of the blues tune ‘Black Betty’ caused the NAACP to call for a national boycott. ‘Black Betty’ hit #17, which seems to indicate that the boycott failed…

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It sounds improbable today, but in the 1970s, the place to go to for hard rock and heavy metal was Top 40 radio. In 1978, the Top 40 format began migrating to the FM dial, where singles mingled with album cuts, diluting the power of the ‘Hit Single’. As touring became big business, the hard and heavy bands began working the road the way they had previously worked radio. It was the end of the era when the Top 40 ruled the AM airwaves.

…Until today. The Top 40 format rules the airwaves once again, although these days it seems as though there are only 5 or 6 songs ever aired on the radio, played over and over and over. Today, there is ZERO rock music on Top 40 radio. Kids are finding their rock and metal music on the internet, acquiring it for free, and deleting it when they tire of it. To a child of the 70s sitting on his bed, staring at his battery-powered radio, waiting for the DJ to play ‘Carry on Wayward Son’ (Kansas, #11/’77) again, the music culture of today would seem like pure science fiction.

(Let me know if you think I’ve missed anything; everything that appears here is based on my (subjective) opinion of what constitutes hard rock and heavy metal during this era. Besides the omissions specifically mentioned in the article, some Top 40 singles by Jethro Tull, Queen and Nazareth were left out because imho, they just didn’t ROCK to a sufficient degree.)

 

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Blue Cheer and the Metal Mindset

My favorite debate: Who was the First Heavy Metal band? I know I’m not going to settle that debate here. Nobody ever will. But there are opinions and there are facts. What follows is a little of both.

Blue Cheer’s debut album, entitled ‘Vincebus Eruptum’, was released in January of 1968, almost an entire year before Led Zeppelin would release their debut (Jan ’69) and more than two years before Black Sabbath would issue theirs (Feb ’70). There is no doubt in my mnd that ‘VE’ is the first Heavy Metal album ever released. Yes, Heavy Metal grew out of the British Blues Boom of the late 60’s, but that just makes it all the more amazing that this San Francisco band was so far ahead of that curve, melting eardrums way over here in America all by their lonesome and, not as part of an ’emerging movement’ happening overseas.
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Again, it’s well established that the seed of Metal took root via white musicians playing blues music through rapidly-developing amplification. Musically, ‘Vincebus Eruptum’ is all that, and more… Writer Carlos M. Pozo has called BC’s music ‘Caucasian Power Blues’. I can dig that. The material on the ‘Vincebus Eruptum’ includes songs written by (and fully credited to) blues giants Mose Allison and B.B. King, and the original material is psych-tinged, primitive power trio blues-rock; all of the songs are then transformed by excessive volume, intensity, and a truly Heavy Metal mindset.

It’s this last element that, to me, seperates ‘VE’ from the UK’s 60’s blues boom pack and firmly establishes not only that ‘Vincebus Eruptum’ is the first Heavy Metal record, but also that Blue Cheer were the first Heavy Metal band. Blue Cheer’s music was Heavy Metal long before it had any right to be. But ‘Heavy Metal’ is NOT ‘just’ a musical term; it is a philosophy, a perspective, an aesthetic. It revels in extremes; the louder/faster, the better. It is tension/release, it is volume-as-power, it is OTT for OTT’s sake. It’s Ian Gillan’s now famous line ‘(Make) Everything Louder Than Everything Else’ (since adopted by Motorhead). Blue Cheer possessed that mindset; even their manager, an ex-Hell’s Angel named ‘Gut’, said ‘they turned the air into cottage cheese.’ That’s Metal. You never heard this kind of shit from the Yardbirds.

Need more evidence? Submitted for your perusal: The first documented evidence of the Heavy Metal Mindset.
On March 19, 1968, Blue Cheer appeared on The Steve Allen Show. They were interviewed by Allen, and performed 2 songs from their debut, released 2 months earlier. The music performed played on Allen’s show has been released on CD (Live & Unreleased, Vol. 1: ’68/’74), but not so the absolutely priceless interview segments that were also broadcast. In the mid 80’s, CBS/Filmways confirmed that each episode of this show was only broadcast once, and any recorded copies of many episodes of this show were destroyed. The March 19 episode is gone forever. It’s a pity, as footage of this ‘counter-culture degenerates vs. shirt-and-tie network TV host’ would have been valuable as archival 60’s pop culture material; at the very least it would have found a permenent home on Youtube, where it could inform passing generations and would have perhaps rendered this debate moot long ago. 20140316_113919
Alas, the only hope of any record of this monumental meeting surviving to the present day was if someone out there recorded the audio live as it streamed from their TV, back in 1968… And as it happens, someone did just that. This audio recording was then copied and traded in underground tape trading circles for years; I acquired a copy myself back in the early 90’s. My copy of the tape starts after the band has been introduced by Allen as ‘the source of that annoying hum’, and then suggests they change their name to ‘That Annoying Hum’. He then begins playing around with the title of the band’s record:

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(SA) …maybe Sounds something like ‘Vin Scully was ill last night.’ (audience laughter)
What does that mean? ‘We shall be rocked’? or… What does it mean? Any folks from southern Italy in the room, or…? Anything at all? Anyone who went to a Catholic high school? Anybody who can help me with what this means? Lets ask them; hey, what’s it mean fellas? ‘Vincebus Eruptum.’

(band, barely audible) ‘Controlled Chaos’.

(SA) What’d they say?

(Others, repeating) ‘Controlled Chaos’.

(SA) ‘Control Chaos’? ‘Control the Chaos’?

(band, barely audible) Let us do it and you’ll know what it means.

(SA) What’d they say?

(others, repeating) ‘Let us do it.’

(SA) ‘Let us do it and you’ll know what it means’? (audience laughter) Just for that your not gonna do it. (audience laughter) One thing I cant stand is a Blue Cheer that has no respect for a normal piece of soap… (trails off, audience laughter) Anyway, they are the Blue Cheer, it’s on the Phillips label. Those are the milk of magnesia people. (audience laughter) And… (applause) I seem to be giving these guys a hard time, actually it’s a shame you’re not here with us because they have an unusual instrumentation, it’s ah 43 pieces, 3 human beings and 40 amplifiers. You’ll see that I’m not kidding in a moment, the stage is covered with amplifiers, at least it was earlier this afternoon when I was there. And um the members of the group are Dick Peterson, Leigh Stephens and Paul Whaley. And they have a new and different sound, seriously so please give them a warm welcome, here is, or, here are the Blue Cheer. (applause)

‘Summertime Blues’ is performed

(SA) Little strange, I’m ‘woo hoo’… Ah here we are talking once again, well, with ah the Blue Cheer again and speaking to them for the first time. Your name is?

I’m Dick.

(SA) You’re Dick. And you? Who?

Peterson.

(SA) Dick Peterson. And your name?

Paul Whaley. (repeats, louder) Paul Whaley.

(SA) What did he say?

He said Paul Whaley.

(SA) Oh Paul Whaley, yes. Then he said ‘scroodley boom’ with his drums. You are without question I would say the loudest musical abrogation, regardless of size, in the world, would you agree with that?

Yeah.

(SA) How many amplifiers have you?

Well we got 6 amps and like 24 speakers a piece.

(SA) I seem to count 6 here.

There’s 4 speakers in each.

(SA) 4 speakers in each. This is an amplifier…

This is a bottom, this is an amplifier.

(SA) This is the amplifier, I see, so 1,2,3 amplifiers and 24 speakers.

Yeah.

(SA) I see um, did you discover that 24 was louder than 18, or how did you arrive at that figure? (audience laughter)

Well, you know, more amps, you know the louder it is and the more amps you have the more speakers you have to have. We’re gonna get more.

(SA) Youre gonna get more? (audience laughter, dismay)

(SA) Ah, let me go over here for just a moment, ah I guess I’ll have to walk around Shadow Horn and come back on your station over here. And your name is?

Leigh Stephens.

(SA) Lee (sic) nice to meet all of you fellas, how long have you been uh playing together now?

About, about ah 4 minutes. (audience laughter)

(SA) I guess that adds up. The uh you know the old line about when people go to see a musical or a motion picture or play they say there are certain melodies that you walk out of the theatre whislting. Would it be safe to say that the number we just heard is not something you could walk out of a theatre whistling? I’m not putting it down, now, but I mean is that a safe assumption?

Yeah I think it’s true.

(SA) So youre not selling melody in other words; what are you selling?

Just It’s a powerful physical thing, to knock you over. (audience laughter)

(SA) Yeah! I’m glad you brought that up ’cause I got knocked over, and I got up but no, the reason I mentioned that is in order to appreciate the Blue Cheer, you have to be on the scene because the volume here is utterly undescribable. It is the loudest thing I have ever heard, except once when I had been in the army for about 4 days at Fort MacArthur in the 2nd World War and I happened to be looking down at the ground one day and in my near proximity they exploded a 12 mile long coastal cannon. I went ‘wowee’ you know… And I almost became a pacifist right at that moment but uh that’s the loudest thing I’d heard uh before this today. Unfortunately at home, you don’t get that. You know because we have to control the volume of it and everything comes out the same whether it’s a you know an atom bomb explosion or a harminoca solo or what it is, but you have to uh see these guys wherever theyre performing if they are in your neck of the woods, to really get that feeling. It has an effect on more than the ears wouldn’t you say?

Yeah.

(SA) It makes your belt buckle rattle? ( audience laughter) Your silver turns, you know your gold turns green? (audience laughter) Uh, is this a point of development to which you gradually uh, uh, reached or was it something you started right out with?

No we started out with it, we just went out and bought a bunch of amplifiers and decided to do it.

(SA) Uh do you create all your own songs?

No.

(SA) Where do you find them? The nearest boiler factory? (audience laughter) Or no really, where do you find your material?

Arsenals heheh…

(SA) Uh sort of old explosions. Just, now, what is this here on the floor? I don’t know if we can see that because I cant see it on a monitor.

Fuzz Face.

(SA) Fuzz face? And what function does the Fuzz Face fullfil? Try to say that five times fast.

It’s sort of like a preamp it makes the amps louder. (audience laughter)

(SA) It makes the amps louder. Well I’m glad to hear that, now what are you going to play for us now?

‘Out of Focus.’ (audience laughter)

(SA) (audience laughter) Dedicated to our cameraman ladies and gentlemen. Okay here are uh, is it are or is? (Laughs) Here they come, the Blue Cheer, run for your life!

‘Out of Focus’ is performed

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How Metal is that? These guys had an agenda: blow  people’s heads off. They compared their music to explosive devices, weren’t interested in melody, and were planning to further increase their ‘undescribable’ volume. The audience response to their performances, and even to some of the band’s commentary, is a mixture of nervous laughter and fear.  Context is everything; on that night in March of 1968, this monstrosity that called itself Blue Cheer was broadcast into living rooms all across America… Grandma and Grandpa must have been truly appalled. “Henry! These long haired cretins just said they wanted to knock me over!”

Lest we forget, this all happened 10 months before ‘Led Zeppelin’ was released… Two entire years before the ominously tolling bell that opens Black Sabbath’s debut… and thousands of miles away from the British Blues Boom, where an American band with a ‘new and different sound’ was taking blues music to violent extremes and mutating it into something new. You wanna talk about a ‘Boom’? Blue Cheer were the Ground Zero of Heavy Metal.
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*Thank you, Larry Boyd, for handing me that tape about 25 years ago. I still have every tape you ever gave me. This one’s for you. Rest in peace, comrade.