The Story Behind Heavy Metal

From the American steel horse to the steel mills of Birmingham - the birth of Heavy Metal:

Origin Of The Term Heavy Metal:
In 1964, author William S. Burrow in his book NOVA EXPRESS introduced the characters "The Heavy Metal Kid" and "Heavy Metal People of Uranus", and may have even coined the term in a story written before his 1959 novel NAKED LUNCH, though in both cases, the term had no reference to music. Then in 1968, Steppenwolf released the biker-rock hit "Born To Be Wild", in which the lyrics describe a roaring motorcycle as "heavy metal thunder" (quite appropriate for Judas Priest later on...).  It is unclear whether Dennis Edmonton (aka Mars Bonfire) had ever read Burrough's work before writing the song Steppenwolf would cover and popularize, but again it is clear the term still had no reference to music, though it is the first use of the term in a song. But around that same time, it seems ROLLING STONE magazine critic Lester Bangs is credited with being the first to officially coin the term "Heavy Metal" in reference to a musical genre, with CREEM magazine critic Dave Marsh lending credence.

"The majority of the clues as to who coined the phrase 'heavy metal' points to [primarily] Lester Bangs and [secondarily] Dave Marsh."
-
Don Browne, "Origin Of The Term Heavy Metal Music", August 1997

In the mid '60s, free-love, flower-power, corporate pop rock was the sound of the American airwaves and UK hit charts, but hard rock was moving in on the territory. America seems to have the first dibs at the heavy metal title, with the Blue Cheer remake of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" in '68 being the first song believed to be called "heavy metal". And Alice Cooper's Spiders of the mid '60s has been acknowledged later on as possibly being the first heavy metal band ever. But were these true examples of heavy metal, as we know it? Both America and Britain had a musical uprising in the mid '60s fueled by "...heavy drums and bass, virtuosic distorted guitar, and a powerful vocal style that used screams and growls as signs of transgression and transcendence" (Robert Walser, RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL), as well as flashy outfits, elaborate stage and light shows and rebel attitudes that have all been a big part of the genre. But a quick comparison of history shows such bands to be better suited as "hard rock", "acid rock" and "power blues" than "heavy metal". Many of these bands also showed a marked distaste for the "heavy metal" moniker. But in the beginning of 1969, in Birmingham, Britain's second largest city, a doom band appeared on the scene with their experimental brand of shock-rock they dubbed at the time "scary music" (inspired by the observed attraction people had to horror films), that could truly and rightfully be deemed "heavy metal":

Historically, the term "heavy metal" refers to radioactive elements or powerful artillery units. While heavy metal music was not directly named to signify either of these traditions, the bands have always welcomed the associated imagery. Rock critics first began applying the label in the late 1960s, referring primarily to the British bands Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath. These three are considered to have laid the framework for the genre. Deep Purple brought classical influences, Led Zeppelin adapted and applied the African-American blues hook, and Black Sabbath lent an air of dark mysticism to their work. Each stressed the importance of distorted guitar sound and long guitar solos.
- St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, Gale Group, 2002

While other bands had been merely loud and rebellious, it was Tony Iommi's raw guitar tone and spellbinding riffs, Bill Ward's primal drum assault, Geezer Butler's titanic bass support and occult-meets-fantasy lyrics, and John "Ozzy" Osbourne's sinister vocal delivery, that helped Black Sabbath birth the true sound of heavy metal upon the musical landscape with their self-titled album debut in 1970.

And the term was so well-fitting to the "heaviness" of the music as it was to the "metal works" of the dark industrial area from which it came: the West Midlands - known also as the "Black Country", due to all the smoke and soot that covered the place from its many backstreet metal foundries...

Sabbath forged the metal, Priest sharpened the steel

It started many years ago, out of the black country
The seed became the embryo, for all on earth to see
- Rob Halford, "Monsters Of Rock", RAM IT DOWN, 1988

"Sabbath were without a doubt the very first heavy metal band to ever come into existence."
- Rob Halford, NATIVITY IN BLACK liner note, 1994

“...No doubt, the band that made me desire to play heavy metal would have to be Sabbath. You know, Sabbath came around in [1969], which is the first year Priest was created. I was born in ’52, so I was like 17 or something when I first heard Sabbath. Around that same time, bands like Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and Cream really moved me. The kind of stuff that started to shake me internally, though, was 100% Black Sabbath. There just wasn’t anything like it.”
- Rob Halford, EDGE magazine, May 2003

Black Sabbath had inspired a new genre in rock music, but it would be Judas Priest who would come along shortly thereafter to add the drama, speed and a leather makeover...