If you follow Metal’s timeline from its origins in the late ’60s, and continue through its classic early-to-mid ’70s heyday, you will eventually encounter something of a dead end near the end of the decade: The Punk era. Metal was at it’s lowest ebb near the end of the 70’s, as most of the giants had either gone missing (Zeppelin), broken up (Purple) or gotten seriously off-track (Sabbath), while their American ‘Second Wave’ counterparts (Aerosmith, Kiss, BOC) were ‘experimenting’ with Disco, Pop, or hard drugs. Enter: Punk Rock, to point out how tired, overblown and boring mainstream Rock music had gotten, and wipe the slate clean and make way for something new. The situation was so dire that in October of 1979, Creem Magazine ran a cover story entitled ‘Is Heavy Metal Dead?’
Of course, this standardized version of the history of that era is of course a gross oversimplification: Heavy Metal did not ‘die’ at the hands of the punks, only to be ‘reborn’ in the UK (with the NWOBHM) after punk self-destructed. The truth of the matter is that Metal continued to operate, albeit in a diminished capacity, throughout the uproar. The Punk Rock explosion posed the biggest threat in the UK, where its impact was felt as a genuine cultural phenomenon; Punk bands dominated the UK press, and Punk singles and albums charted high. Punk’s raison d’etre, to ‘Smash It Up’, with ‘it’ being Rock’s status quo, was a direct shot across the bow to the established UK Rock and Metal bands of the day.
Some HR/HM bands just starting out in ’76 wisely ignored Punk completely; Rainbow’s ‘On Stage’, released in the summer of 1977, raised the bar for never-ending, self-indulgent soloing, and Judas Priest released ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’, a record that helped shape the template for the HM genre, and then soldiered forth as the ailing genre’s standard-bearers. But most of the established UK HR/HM bands of the 1970s could mark the end of their ‘classic era’ right around 1976/77; aside from the aforementioned, consider Foghat, Uriah Heep, Status Quo, Wishbone Ash… all emerged from the fray mortally wounded, some searching for a new direction, some just sounding tired and obsolete, setting the stage for the NWOBHM.
As an example of just how drastically things changed in Britain’s music scene, consider Slade. After a long string of hit singles (a stunning seventeen consecutive Top Twenty hits, twelve of them Top Five, and six of those were Number Ones!), Slade headed off to try to break America in 1976. After returning to England in ’77, Slade quickly discovered that they were old news and nearly forgotten. Three of their next four singles charted at #53, #48, and #32; one didn’t chart at all. Their next six singles failed to chart at all in the UK. The title of their first LP after returning to England says it all: ‘Whatever Happened to Slade?’ It, too, failed to trouble the UK charts. In the space of 12 months, the single most successful Hard Rock band in Britain had been rendered irrelevant.
Other well-established bands responded, even if only by commenting on the fray through their music. ‘Lights Out’, UFO’s sixth record, came out in May of 1977. For the album’s title track, UFO’s lyricist, Phil Mogg, referenced the punk uprising through military imagery:
‘From the back streets there’s a rumbling
Smell of anarchy
No more nice time, black boy shoe shines
Pie in the sky dreams’
And of course, the title of the song/album is a direct nod to blackout regulations imposed during The Battle of Britain, aka ‘the Blitz’, where Londoners were urged to extinguish all lights to hamper German nighttime bombing raids:
‘Lights out, lights out in London, hold on tight till the end‘
UFO released ‘Lights Out’ just as the Sex Pistols’ 2nd single, ‘God Save the Queen’, hit #2 in the UK singles chart. Six months earlier, the Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single had climbed to #26. None of UFO’s 9 singles had charted in the UK. Mogg and his band, having seen Punk singles climbing the charts and the movement dominating the press, knew another Battle of Britain was underway.
Queen’s ‘News of the World’ came out in July of 1977. The title of the album is a reference to the British tabloid paper News of the World, an infamously trashy broadsheet that regularly featured the most scandalous and sensational national stories of the day. Here Queen were referencing the top UK music papers, such as Sounds and the NME, who were at that time thoroughly enamored with the Punk phenomenon; not only reporting on the musical and cultural shifts but also capitalizing on the sensational aspects of the movement by plastering ‘shocking’ headlines and ‘alarming’ pictures of punks in full mohawk & safety pin regalia.
The cover art for Queen’s 5th album also comments on the Punk movement. Queen are depicted as dead, having been killed by a giant robot as a panicked crowd below flees in terror. Inside the gatefold, the robot reaches for more victims. It’s not difficult to decipher the ironic message here: Monster destroys beloved band; you’re next. But the music on ‘News of the World’ also contains a few nods to Punk Rock, most obvious of which is the song ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, which is flat-out Punk. Roger Taylor said in 1991:
“It’s quite interesting, because we were making an album next-door to a punk band, the Sex Pistols, and it really fit into that punk explosion that was happening at the time, which was happening right then. It was actually better that it happened that it came out on the ‘News of the World’ album.”
On ‘News of the World’, Queen take on several forms of music: Salsa, Psychedelic Rock, Torch Balladry, the Blues, even football chants, so throwing in a take on Punk would not have been out of place in the least. But ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ is more than Queen showing their versatility; here, it’s cultural commentary. With lyrics like ‘Well you’re just 17 and all you wanna do is disappear/You know what I mean there’s a lot of space between your ears/I feel so ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-inarticulate’, it wasn’t hard to read exactly how lyricist Roger Taylor felt about the Punk Rock audience.
Interestingly, Taylor rights the scales on his ‘Fight From the Inside’, by taking on the point of view of a punk rocker and pointing the finger at the pop stars of the pre-punk era (I.e., himself/his band), and urging the listener to fight to change the status quo:
‘You’re just another picture on a teenage wall
You’re just another sucker ready for a fall
You’re just another money-spinner tool
You’re just another fool
You gotta fight from the inside
Attack from the rear
Fight from the inside
You can’t win with your hands tied’
Queen’s next album, ‘Jazz’ would include more commentary by Taylor on the transformation of the UK music scene and his band’s place in it. In the album’s final song, called ‘More of That Jazz’, Taylor seems to be complaining about being spoon-fed the same old thing:
‘If you’re feeling tired and lonely
Uninspired and lonely
If you’re thinking how the days seem long
All you’re given
Is what you’ve been given a thousand times before
Just more more
More of that jazz
More no more of that jazz
Give me no more
No more of that jazz’
The song winds up with several snippets from the album’s previous songs, edited together in a montage of the album’s highlights, in effect giving the listener more of ‘Jazz’… and implying that the album you just listened to is just ‘more of that jazz’. For Taylor, always Queen’s resident ‘punk’, the Punk movement clearly instigated some serious self-examination. Queen were at a crossroads during the Punk era; the band would survive the upheaval and move from strength to strength, but would never be the same.
With Punk Rock’s disdain for virtuosity and technical ability came the death of the guitar hero. One of the UK’s biggest was Robin Trower, who charted high in the Top 40 with his 3rd and 4th albums… Then the punk bomb exploded, knocking him down into the low 50’s and then off the charts completely for his 1978 album ‘Caravan to Midnight’. Robin who? His next record would be titled ‘Victims of the Fury’, in a pointed reference to his own diminished stature, and feature a stripped-down, earthy sound, with few overdubs and a renewed abrasive energy. The title track’s lyrics told the tale:
‘We were blessed as though in heaven
We were messengers of joy
There were angels all around us
There was none who dared destroy
Then the world collapsed around us
And the tables overturned
We were lambs before the slaughter
We were driven out and burned
Victims of the fury
Shadows in the dark
Victims of the fury
Arrows found their mark’
Pat Travers, a young Canadian guitarist who emigrated to the UK to seek fame and fortune, found it; he scored a record deal with Polydor and appeared at the Reading Festival before 35,000 in 1976, just before all hell broke loose. On his third album, ‘Putting it Straight’, he explains why he decided to hightail it to America in 1977, in a song called ‘Life in London’:
‘Life in London is bittersweet
Spray can slogans along the street
Some kind of revolution in the town
Razor blades and safety pins make you look like a clown’
Prog Rock gods Yes were an obvious target for Punk rockers’ derision, with their ‘pretentious’ this and their ‘self-indulgent’ that… But Yes’ success was unhindered by the advent of Punk, with their 1977 album ‘Going for the One’ reaching the top of the UK charts and it’s follow-up, 1978’s ‘Tormato’ going Top Ten. ‘Tormato’, however, contains some artistic commentary on the goings on of the previous 18 months, beginning with it’s cover, where a picture of man dressed in period clothing and using divining rods is pelted with a tomato. This can be interpreted as a blatant rejection of ‘the old ways’, or, if we view the man with the divining rods as employing ‘divination’, or searching for something using ‘magical’ methods… an artist following his muse, perhaps… Splat!
‘Tormato’ contains a song called ‘Release, Release’, which is as punk a song as Yes would ever be capable of. Its odd time signatures, multiple key changes, and super-busy arrangement prevent it from ever being confused with a Ramones tune, but its stripped-down rock and roll feel, up-tempo delivery and surprisingly direct delivery reflect the energy of the Punk phenom; also Jon Anderson’s spacey lyrics contain ample evidence of an awareness of the turmoil, and perhaps a plea for us to rise above the conflict:
‘Have you heard before, hit it out, don’t look back
Rock is the medium of our generation
Stand for every right, kick it out, hear you shout
For the right of all of creation
Power defy our needs, lift us up, show us now
Show us how amid the rack of confusion Power at first to the needs of each others’ days
Simple to lose in the void sounds of anarchy’s calling ways
Straight jacket, freedom’s march, is it all, far beyond
Our reason of understanding
Campaign everything, anti-right, anti-left Release, release, enough controllers’
At about 2:57, the song left-turns into that most dreaded of all arena-rock staples: a drum solo, played out over a recording of a cheering stadium audience. This self-deprecating gesture added a welcome touch of irony to the album, as the band that brought us ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’, perhaps the absolute pinnacle of Prog excess, struggled to find footing in a hostile musical landscape.
Love it or hate it, Punk Rock was a game changer. UK Heavy Rock’s response to Punk Rock made 1977 a truly fascinating year in Heavy music, forcing many of the established bands of the day to react artistically in one way or another, and giving us a handful of records that stand out as unique in the HR/HM canon. If they’re not your cup of tea, don’t forget: many Rock bands that didn’t face the Punk movement head on were instead ‘experimenting’ with Disco…