For the last seven years or so, I’ve been writing about the music, musicians, albums & songs that I love. Lately I’ve found myself hitting something of a roadblock when putting these articles together, usually when exploring a topic from the 1970s. Using the term ‘Heavy Metal’ in a 1970s context used to come naturally and feel completely appropriate to me; but lately I find myself questioning it’s validity in a 1970s context. I’m sensing some kind of shift has been underway in the historical understanding of Heavy Metal, and it’ troubles me. What gives? Why do I now frequently find myself musing, ‘wait, is it Metal, or is it Hard Rock?’ The answer to that question may well depend on when you were born.
My Heavy Metal fandom started in 1978; I was 14 years old. As I started to develop my tastes and buying records as they were released, I also started buying music that appeared before my Metal awakening. My own tastes and personal understanding of the genre led me to the conclusion that Metal became a ‘thing’ in 1968. If I had to pick The First Heavy Metal Band, I’d choose Blue Cheer; First Heavy Metal Album: Blue Cheer’s ‘Vincebus Eruptum’. I understand that the rest of the world seems to have settled on Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut as Ground Zero for Metal. And I totally get that.
In my view, 1978 was Heavy Metal’s tenth anniversary year. A lot of growth occurred in Metal’s first decade; we went from The Yardbirds’ version of ‘The Train Kept a’ Rollin’ to Judas Priest’s pulverizing ‘Hell Bent For Leather’. As a kid in ’78, the ‘heaviest’ record I had ever heard was Sabbath’s ‘Master of Reality’; possibly Van Halen’s debut. Maybe AC/DC’s ‘Let There Be Rock’? I, like many others, kept searching for records that would outdo those records on the Richter Scale. And as Metal evolved, we got our wish. Heavy Metal got heavier. And heavier.
That’s the thing about Heavy Metal; if things get stagnant or stale, it re-invents itself. I’ve been lucky enough to witness the birth of several new sounds, styles, and significant sub-genres in realtime, while following Metal’s twisted path, and if you’re my age, you have too: NWOBHM, Thrash, Death, Black… Ok, yes, also Hair Metal and Nu Metal. So after fifty years of steady evolution, today’s Heavy Metal (or, as it’s more commonly referred to today as simply ‘Metal’) is so far removed from the Metal of 1978 that the fourteen year old inside me is often stunned whenever I put the ol’ iPod on shuffle, and hear Nazareth segue into Napalm Death; Van Halen into Vader.
But can both Y&T and Carcass really inhabit the same genre? Well, yes and no. A funny thing happened on the way to 2020: As Metal evolved into new and different sonic and stylistic territories, it began to shed an entire era of it’s history; a significant chunk of what was inarguably considered ‘Heavy Metal’ in the 1970s is being re-labeled as ‘Hard Rock’, a change that minimizes much of the heavy music produced during the first decade of Metal’s evolution and would leave modern fans’ understanding of the genre and it’s history incomplete and seriously skewed.
Only someone who was a Metalhead in the 70’s would be aware of this subtle change in terminology. If you’re aged 40 or under, you’re probably unaware of this creeping category shift; to you, the Fast, loud, n’ hard music of the 70s is probably known to you as ‘Hard Rock’. The average 20-something Metal fan of today would laugh probably in your face if you referred to Aerosmith as a Heavy Metal band. But if you grew up in the 70s, you know that this was exactly how they were classified. Is Thin Lizzy Heavy Metal? Depends on how old you are. The truth is they were, but now, it’s suddenly debatable.
So what’s happening? Clearly, the Heavy Metal of the 70s is so different from the Metal of the new millennium, that modern fans couldn’t reconcile the two sounds falling under the same umbrella, and decided en masse that the genre boundaries needed to be re-drawn. Obviously Metal music of the 70’s hasn’t changed, only the category to which we might assign it. The sole exception seems to be Black Sabbath, who will probably never lose their Heavy Metal status, due to being widely regarded as the inventors of the genre, but other 70’s Heavy-weights still considered Metal today have begun sporting the ‘proto-‘ prefix before their descriptor. There’s been no coordinated plan, no petition, no agreed-upon date for this change; it’s occurring gradually, organically. For a student of the genre, it’s a fascinating phenomenon.
Ironically, we might consider 1980 and the rise of the NWOBHM to be the cut-off point. It seems as if, at some point after the turn of the millennium, most of the Metal bands of the pre-NWOBHM era (otherwise known as ‘The 1970s’) found their Metal cred in question. I say it’s ironic because the term ‘New Wave of British Heavy Metal’ implies that there was a previous wave of British Heavy Metal. And of course, there was; Queen, UFO, Budgie, Rainbow, Judas Priest all existed before the NWOBHM. But here again, most of these bands are being re-christened as ‘Hard Rock’. But the NWOBHM makes sense as new genre boundary, as after the passage of several generations, the era of the genre’s rebirth becomes regarded as the era of it’s birth.
Do I sound like an ageing fan with a fading memory? Are there readers out there who were born sometime in the 70s, or after, who are thinking ‘this guy is nuts; Hard Rock is Hard Rock and Heavy Metal is Heavy Metal!’ I’m here to tell you it wasn’t always that way. And I can prove it. No, I’m not going to refer you to the internet, where the vast majority fof the content was likely generated after this HR/HM shift began. No, to confirm this, we need access to a static, unchanging source of information, one contemporary to the time period in question: that old pile of Circus and CREEM magazines in my basement. Watch your head.
Some context: When I joined the party in ’78, and just before the NWOBHM breathed new life into the tired warhorse called Heavy Metal, the genre’s popularity was at it’s lowest ebb. Metal seemed spent, and was suffering an identity crisis after assaults from Disco, Punk Rock and New Wave. and the vast majority of Metal’s Heavy-weights chose to take the year off and release live albums. Metal fans were fewer in number but as dedicated as ever, but the rock press knew that the genre was in serious trouble. The situation was so dire that in May of 1978, a Circus Magazine cover blurb asked “Can Heavy Metal Survive the 70s?” music journo Robert Smith took the opportunity to wonder “Can Kiss, Queen, Led Zep and Nugent keep Growing?”
A year later, CREEM Magazine took this a step further, asking “Is Heavy Metal Dead?” in their October 1979 issue. In this article, which was described as a ‘eulogy’ in that issue’s table of contents, one of CREEM’s more irreverent writers, the legendary Rick Johnson, submitted a rundown of all the ‘relevant’ Metal bands of the era and provided his thumbnail assessment of each group’s worth. It’s a hilarious piece; Johnson’s sarcastic style was always entertaining. Looking back at this article, and at the Circus article from the previous year, provides a snapshot of which bands were widely considered Heavy Metal near the end of the 70s.
Here’s a round-up of the bands included in both the Circus article and the CREEM piece:
Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Kiss, Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Ted Nugent, Monstrose, Van Halen, Rush, UFO, AC/DC, Rainbow, Queen, Nazareth, Judas Priest, Whitesnake, Foghat, Thin Lizzy, Status Quo, Uriah Heep, Budgie, Bad Company, Boston, Pat Travers Band, Wishbone Ash, Heart, The Dictators, Molly Hatchet, Mahogany Rush, Starz, Angel, The Godz, The Runaways, & REO Speedwagon.
Sure, decades later, it’s easy to agree that many of the covered bands should no longer be considered Heavy Metal –the fact that REO was included pleads the case for their urgent re-classification; no way in Hell can REO Speedwagon reside within the same musical category that Slayer did a decade later– but at in 78/79, they did. It helps to remember the context: This was Metal’s first decade of existence, and at that point in time, it didn’t get any heavier than this, folks. Deep Purple did not exist in 1978/79, and Motorhead’s ‘Overkill’ record wasn’t released until May 1979, and when the CREEM article was published, it was virtually unheard outside of the UK and Europe.
CREEM’s October 1980 issue, one year after presiding over the death of Heavy Metal, CREEM took note of the NWOBHM and Metal’s rapid resurgence with another feature article by Johnson called ‘Heavy Metal: Back From the Dead’. In addition to many of the bands featured in the 1979 article, the 1980 rundown included Scorpions, Blackfoot, Gamma, The Joe Perry Project, Triumph, and Humble Pie, along with a smattering of NWOBHM bands (although the tag ‘NWOBHM’ was not mentioned in the article). Again, if it looks a little odd seeing this bunch of bands referred to as Heavy Metal (Humble Pie?), it is what it is; that’s they way that it was.
I also dug out a (coverless) Special Edition issue of Circus, cover dated Feb 1980, called Rock Legends. There’s an entire section of the mag covering Heavy Metal, and features articles on Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, and … Grand Funk Railroad. Was GFR a Heavy Metal Band? Circus Magazine, with sales and circulation in the 70’s second only to Rolling Stone, thought so. Apparently, Humble Pie met the 1980 criteria for Heavy Metal certification, before the goalposts started moving .
Somehwere around the dawning of the new millenium, Metal Nation collectively/unconsciously decided that much of the Metal of the 70s wasn’t really Metal at all, and began to re-assign it to the Hard Rock category, and undertook a major re-write of Metal history. Maybe it started back in the 90s, when Metal split into endless sub-genres and fans needed a scorecard to keep track. But it IS happenning; right under our noses, 70’s Heavy Metal is quietly getting demoted, downgraded… diminished. The term ‘Heavy Metal’ indicates a genre seperate from any other; ‘Hard Rock’ reads like a sub-category of ‘Rock’. Yawn.
I think genre tags, musical boundaries and categories are subjective and ultimately meaningless. That said, this shift will never be acknowledged by me as legitimate. I view Metal as a wide spectrum of sounds and styles. I can see no reason why any single ‘era’ of its history would need an etymological update. Perhaps I’m reluctant to see it change because I because I lived through it, I grew up with it; I’m emotionally invested in this era more than any other. So don’t drink the Kool Aid! If it was Heavy Metal then, it’s Heavy Metal now, dammit, it always will be and HEY YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN!