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Then & Now: Metal

“It wasn’t called ‘heavy metal’ when I invented it.” - Dave Davies

The Kinks’ lead guitarist has dispensed many gems over the years, but that ‘80s-vintage quote may be his best one of all. Part boast, part fiction, and in large part truth, Davies’ one-liner speaks to the enduring power of metal, a genre which—50 years after its inception—shows no signs of fading away anytime soon. As long as there are music fans hungry for the lower-bowel shock of crunching electric guitars, thunderous drums, and the subterranean thud of the bass guitar, there will be metal. Long may it reign.

If heavy metal has always been—well, too heavy—to make it to mainstream radio, it remains one of the most popular and relevant subgenres of rock music. It doesn’t belong to any particular class, political affiliation, age group, or even gender. While most classic metal acts boast all-male lineups, the world’s countless millions of female metal fans tend not to be shy about claiming the genre as their own.

What makes a genre that’s never conquered the charts so durable? Let’s look back at the last half-century of popular music for some clues.

From the Forge: The Origins of Metal

From the very first animal-skin drums to Beethoven’s epochal 5th Symphony, we humans have always been captivated by the impact of music on our bodies. The popularization of the electric guitar in the late 1940s brought this power into ordinary peoples hands; now anyone with the ability to play three chords could project their musical voice at increasingly greater volume.

Of course, there’d be no heavy metal without rock and roll. But Dave Davies had something on the ball when he claimed ownership of this new subgenre. The inescapable riff of the Kinks’ 1964 hit “You Really Got Me” was a turning point, in the words of one listener “The moment rock and roll became rock.”

The song’s impact was both immediate and deep, and there was seemingly no defense against its primal and distorted two-chord grind. Soon, musicians ranging from sub-competent guitar bashers like the Troggs (“Wild Thing”) to the most influential electric guitarist of all—Jimi Hendrix—would be in its thrall.

Strictly speaking, Jimi Hendrix’s music wasn’t metal, but his role in defining the genre’s boundaries was pivotal. By harnessing the raw power of feedback, distortion—and, not least, never-before-experienced volume—Hendrix created a sonic template that those who followed in many regards have merely colored in.

But Jimi Hendrix’s sound wasn’t his only gift to heavy metal. Equally importantly, he brought impeccable technical skill to the electric guitar, a quality budding metalheads took keen notice of. With few exceptions, metal in all its permutations would be distinguished by an emphasis on technique and execution for all its instruments, but most especially the electric guitar.  

It wasn’t long before emerging bands devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the pursuit of metal. In the United States, Blue Cheer released a sludgy, distorted and generally freaked-out version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, a group of rough-cut suburban misfits were hard at work fashioning what would become heavy metal’s definitive form.

Black Sabbath originally intended to chart a more standard hard blues-rock course, but taking equal inspiration from their love of horror movies and the desolate and blighted streets of their neighborhood, they distilled these influences and more into something both familiar and wholly original. “Serious” music critics tended to hate songs like “War Pigs” and “N.I.B.,” but the band’s music soon found a rabid and enduring worldwide audience. Metal was here.

Living Through the ‘70s, Surviving the ‘80s

Just as punk would spend much of the 1980s germinating and growing in the underground, metal would spend the following decade largely out of earshot of the general public. But that’s not to say it had disappeared. Propagated in large part via the burgeoning underground music scene, and drawing inspiration in equal parts from motorcycle culture’s leather gear, the trippy futurist sci-fi art of alternative publications—including highly regarded comics magazine Heavy Metal—and the shaggy, blue-collar look of hard-rock stars like AC/DC, heavy metal was developing a visual style all its own.

If commercial airwaves would never be quite ready for metal, its influence could be heard in hits by 60s holdovers like Led Zeppelin (“Immigrant Song”) and Deep Purple (“Smoke on the Water”) and younger bands like Van Halen—who made the connection explicit by covering “You Really Got Me”—and Rush, a Canadian power trio who put a proggy spin on metal’s raw power and became a massive underground success in the process.

Things would change in the 1980s, a decade that would see other underground genres like synth-pop permeating the airwaves. But unlike synth-led music—which many metalheads saw as their stylistic arch-nemesis—metal would rarely make it to the airwaves without major compromise. One exception was Judas Priest’s 1982 hit “You Got Another Thing Coming,” which made it to #4 on the Billboard Rock Chart.

Underground, it was another story. Metal was alive and well, and a bumper crop of young bands were taking the genre forward in new and inspired directions. With little commercial airplay or traditional promotion, Iron Maiden had been at the forefront of the “New Wave of British Metal” since the late ‘70s. And in the States, a host of metal (or quasi-metal) bands like Megadeth, Mötley Crüe and Metallica—according to Neilsen SoundScan, the third best-selling artist since tracking began in 1991—would become mainstays of the genre.

The genre had pulled off a neat trick, and one that defies comparison to any other style of music: Metal had arrived, somehow without appearing to have ever been absent in the first place.

The Genre Wars

Metal would go on to proliferate, mutate, and evolve over the course of the next decades. And a curious phenomenon would emerge: As the genre morphed over time, with some artists straining to take the style into the future while others looked to the past for more explicit inspiration, a fierce debate broke out over the question of what, exactly, constituted “metal.” Was it the heavy blues-based sound of early bands like Blue Cheer, Deep Purple and early Led Zeppelin? The fast, chugging riff-rock of AC/DC? The impossibly slow, hypnotic sonic sledgehammer of contemporary bands like Sleep? Or the hyperspeed blur of thrash bands like Anthrax?

All musical families have their subgenres, but the debate over what constitutes “true metal”—not to be confused with the genre “True Metal”—continues to rage with particular ferocity. This partisanship may be perplexing to onlookers, but others consider it a healthy sign that metal is far from dead. No matter where it’s heard, who made it and what their inspirations were, there’s a good chance that if you’re listening to any form of metal, you’ll know it. And while its sheer sonic power isn’t for everyone, there’s a very good chance that—like actual metal—the genre called “metal” will be around long after we’re gone.

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