Black Sabbath – Were They The First Ever Heavy Metal Band?

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Were Black Sabbath the First (Classic) Heavy Metal Band in history? Whatever your answer, it’s an important question, not only in the history of Heavy Metal generally, but also as a way to explain a bit further what you should expect to see on the Classic Metal Hawk blog.

What is Classic Heavy Metal??? That’s the question, and since it’s the raison d’etre for this blog, Classic Metal Hawk feels like we should set a few ground rules.

Give The Hawk a couple of minutes to set out his thinking and we’ll take it from there.

Explained – the Rules of the Classic Metal Hawk Game

If you want a full treatise on the wider question of ‘What is Heavy Metal?’ The Hawk recommends ‘A History of Heavy Metal’ by Andrew O’Neill, a book he’s mentioned a few times in the blog – and that’s because it’s so comprehensive. It can thus do far more justice to those fundamental questions than The Hawk could manage in a mere blog post. So go get a copy. And put aside a couple of weeks.

This article will just set out the ground rules for Classic Metal. Or maybe more like ‘guidelines’. The Hawk isn’t too picky what he writes about, as you’ll see.

First off, Classic Metal obviously means Classic Heavy Metal. Now, in spite of dancing round the question of what Heavy Metal is, like most fans, The Hawk has been involved in plenty of debates about that over the years. Though they often end up focussing more on what Heavy Metal is NOT. For example, as a younger bird, The Hawk’s gateway drug into metal was a fairy standard diet of rock music in the 1980s. Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, that type of thing. And conversations / arguments at school with non-metal-fans would always go exactly the same way.

Pop music fan: ‘What are you listening to?’

Classic Metal Hawk: ‘It’s the new Bon Jovi single.’

Pop music fan: ‘Ugh. Heavy Metal.’

Heavy Metal Fan (not part of the conversation, but with overwhelming urge to butt in): ‘Bon Jovi aren’t heave metal. They’re not even heavy rock. They’re soft rock.’  (Spits on the ground. )

Rinse and repeat.

So yes, some heavy metal fans can get quite heated about their music characterizations and categories. And don’t even get them started on their sub-genres. Whether something in Thrash. Or Speed Metal. Or Black Metal. Or Doom. Or Doom Thrash. Not to take the piss in any way – ats said, The Hawk has participated wholeheartedly in these debates over the years.

And it certainly warrants at least one article on the blog. 

So heavy metal then. Heavily distorted guitars. Thundering, fast rhythm section. Aggressive, big ranging, sometimes screaming vocals. Dark subject matter. That’s all usually a given.

The Start of Heavy Metal – a 3-way Shootout

The term ‘Heavy Metal’ seems to have first been coined via literature. The author William Burroughs wrote 2 novels in the early sixties, ‘The Soft Machine’ and ‘Nova Express’ that included characters like a ‘Heavy Metal Kid’, and ‘Heavy Metal People of Uranus’. (Burroughs lived a very up and down life himself – drug addiction, allegations of homosexuality, ‘accidentally’ killing his wife before going on the run. It’s quite a lively account – with all that going on, Burroughs would likely have been a heavy metal fan himself, had it been invented at the time.)

But the books weren’t talking about heavy metal as a style of music – the Heavy Metal Kid was nother nickname for Uranian Willy – it’s literally talking about a heavy kind of metal. On the music front, heavy metal started in the early 1970’s. And depending on your preference, the first heavy metals band was either Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin or all of the above.

Black Sabbath?

If you’ve already rushed out to purchase your copy of ‘A History of Heavy Metal,’, you’ll already know that author O’Neill plumps firmly for Black Sabbath as the first and only true heavy metal band of the 3, describing the others as important progenitors, but not themselves metal. Sabbath had the perfect combination of sound and subject matter, their gritty working-class upbringings in a bleak post-war Birmingham along with a penchant for horror movies and a keen interest and (alleged) practise of the occult making for some (ahem!) thought provoking numbers.

Led Zeppelin?

Led Zeppelin on the other hand charted a course starting clearly from pop and blues in the 60s. Jimmy Page was a session guitarist for a long while before starting a band of his own, and even then, it was The New Yardbirds. After that, the first Zeppelin line up of Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones came together with a massive amount of chemistry, and certainly a change of direction musically. They included sounds that are recognizably metal, but also others that are not. You might say they had the stereotypical attitude of a heavy metal band, with groupies and TVs being thrown out of hotel windows along with miscellaneous other acts of debauchery.

But in the end, they are somewhat of a mashup of styles and influences, with much sweetness and light thrown in to some of their subject matter, compared with Sabbath’s doom-laden offerings. Led Zeppelin themselves rejected the heavy metal label for themselves, unlike Sabbath, who embraced it. So they definitely have a weaker claim to be the First Heavy Metal Band compared with Black Sabbath.

Or Deep Purple?

What about Deep Purple? A rock band, certainly, and one that was starting to crank up the heaviness by the time the 70s came around (though they were well into their recording career by then). And of course, you have ‘Smoke on the Water’ from 1972’s Machine Head album – a track which, whether or not you consider it to be heavy metal, certainly contains one of the 3 guitar parts played by 100% of wannabe metal guitarists when they first pick up the instrument as kids. The others, being of course ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath, and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin, which brings up full circle.

Ritchie Blackmore is a heavy metal guitarist par excellence, as we saw with his Deep Purple career and also later on.

Anyway, whatever your view of O’Neill’s characterization of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin as the scene setters, with Sabbath then making it happen for real, Heavy Metal was now a THING musically in the 70s. Critics hated it at first, but fans were getting on board. Contemporaries like Judas Priest were given license to take the same ideas and go further, harder, heavier and faster. They didn’t need a second invitation.

Carrying It On

And that spawned, after a few more years, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) in the UK, the LA Glam scene in the US, the first thrash acts led by Metallica mainly on the US west coast.

That’s already a decent range and diversity of sounds and styles of play. So even skating over it quite quickly for a blog post, the question ‘Are they heavy metal?’ is a bit tiresome as far as Classic Metal Hawk is concerned.

Are Bon Jovi heavy metal? No. Are Black Sabbath heavy metal? Yes. Is the NWOBH heavy metal? Must be, right? Are Motörhead heavy metal, considering that they often sound heavy and grew out of the same era? Well, Lemmy always said no, he just fronted a rock n’ roll band. But it sounds at least as heavy as some other 70s and 80s contenders, so can we fans overrule Lemmy on this and call them heavy metal anyway? Sure, why not. It’s just a name.

At this point in the thought process, The Hawk throws his wings in the air and says screw it. This blog will contain articles about bands with heavily distorted guitars. Thundering, fast rhythm sections. Aggressive, big ranging, sometimes screaming vocals. Dark subject matter (or not). Maybe even a bit of light and shade. Probably some fans will see an article on a particular band, and revisit that well-trodden argument:

‘They aren’t heave metal. They’re not even heavy rock. They’re soft rock.’ Spits on the ground.

Well, bring it on. Classic Metal Hawk will be bringing a somewhat flexible definition of ‘heavy metal’ to the table and hoping readers will forgive him for that.

‘Classic’ Heavy Metal?

As for the ‘Classic’ part, that just means anything from those formative years in the 70s right through to the 90s. Because as anyone of the Hawk’s generation will agree, heavy metal just wasn’t as good after that. Grumbling about the younger generations with their new-fangled ideas is perfectly fine on here.

The Hawk’s Escape Route

So, those are the ground rules to what you can all expect to read about and listen to on here. Or the guidelines.

There again, one of The Hawk’s kids has persuaded him to go see an Evanescence gig later this year, so maybe there’s still time for the Hawk to embrace something (a bit) more modern. And then the guidelines will need to be amended again. Screw it – read the articles and hopefully there’s something you like.

Are Evanescence heavy metal? The Hawk doesn’t give a steaming one. But I’ll write a review of the gig for the blog, so watch this space.

UPDATE: Gig review is now available on the blog. Check it out here.

And now, here’s a random classic heavy metal video. Just because. It’s a taste of what’s to come, and The Hawk hopes y’all will be back for more.

Who was the first heavy metal band for you? Black Sabbath? Led Zeppelin? Deep Purple? Or someone else completely. The Hawk is totally open to nominations here, and will publish extensions to the article of there are some good suggestions.

Share yours in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.

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