The Ten Heaviest Songs Before ‘Black Sabbath’
Heavy Metal as we know it was likely born on Friday the 13th January, 1970 and arrived from Birmingham, England. It came in the form of a former blues band originally named Earth who had been inspired by a 1965 Mario Bava film named Black Sabbath and decided on using that title as the name and basis for their new rock act. The simple concept of utilising music to frighten people, much like horror films, and the combination of distorted guitars and wailing vocals lead to heavy metal. Sabbath were not the first to experiment with heaviness, though, as evidenced by the mighty double impact of 1969’s first two Led Zeppelin records or from the pioneering distortion of both Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. However, most of these early bands hardly compare with the metal of today as the genre grew more fragmented and more extreme with each decade. Early riff rockers like ‘Satisfaction’ by The Rolling Stones and ‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix seem positively sedate in comparison to the death and black metal genres that they would unwittingly inspire. The purpose of this top ten is to focus on songs that were not just the heaviest for their time but also seem heavy when compared to what will evolve in the 70s. This is not meant to for readers to discover prototypical Judas Priest or some early thrash metal but rather some heavy and strange songs that may have paved the way for such future threats. It is also not intended to be comprehensive and is purely this author’s opinion but hopefully it will shine some light onto what other merchants of heaviness were pioneering, whether they were aware of it or not.
10. Helter Skelter – The Beatles (The White Album – 1968)
It seems somewhat bizarre to see the Beatles mentioned on any list supporting to be about “heaviness,” but the fab four were actually responsible for quite a bit of metal influence. John Lennon’s insistence in separating the bass and drum sound lead to both instruments finding more prominence in rock music and as a consequence both forming the bottom heavy rhythm sound that personifies most heavy music. The band was also highly progressive and changed their sound frequently, experimenting with multiple genres, including classical, as so masterfully displayed on A Day In the Life, the epic closer of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They also pioneered some heavy rock, utilising distortion that was only hinted at on previous songs and speeding it up. ‘Helter Skelter’ is a fast, deliberate track with a screaming vocal track and a level of heaviness that was far removed from any of the other British Invasion contemporaries. On the lyrical level it is still akin to the typical love song but the drum beat and blazing guitar work indicate aggression previously unseen in most rock music. In fact, the famous cover that Motley Crue provided on the Shout at the Devil record nearly sixteen years later was more or less the same sound.
9. The Nile Song – Pink Floyd (More – 1969)
The kings of the psychedelic realm are more known for spacier, more mellow material but had actually experimented successfully with heaviness early on. ‘The Nile Song’ was not far removed from the Sid Barrett era that highlighted the band’s most anti-commercial and abstract work. The song uses a heavy driving riff that prefigures a similar design later used on the track ‘Young Lust’, one of the many highlights of the essential The Wall album. Roger Waters’ harsh vocals on both tracks suggest an anger and intensity that makes one wonder if Pink Floyd could have succeeded as a straight up hard rock band. Despite, the band’s overall mellower sound, the band was always metal-friendly due to their dark and heavy lyrics and atmosphere that would influence (and has continued to influence) generations of musicians ever since.
8. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida – Iron Butterfly (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida – 1968)
Ah, an epic classic that remains one of the staples of the drug era and has been hailed in many circles as one of the first metal songs. According to legend the band was so stoned that they misinterpreted their own lyrics (“In the garden of Eden”) and instead became the title we know it as today. The heavy, slinking riff coupled with that menacing Hammond organ anticipate later works by Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, though few would prove to that that aura of acid-soaked menace that this original does and fewer still would bear the length which on the original cut nearly goes to over eighteen minutes.
7. Born To Be Wild – Steppenwolf (Steppenwolf – 1968)
The original biker classic is the song that also first uttered the magical words: “heavy metal,” forever making it part of the popular lexicon as well as branding this band with the mantle of “early metal,” which in my opinion, it does not deserve. At best, Steppenwolf were a product of their era and were never dangerous enough to escape the realms of psychedelia rock, opting more for keyboards than heavy guitars. It’s a shame, because vocalist John Kay had the right pipes and looks for the role of metal frontman and ‘Born to be Wild’s’ iconic riff and lyrics would influence every future road song from ‘Highway Star’ to ‘Hell Bent For Leather’, as well as seeming like the prototype for one of metal’s finest institutions, Motörhead.
6. Kick Out The Jams – MC5 (Kick Out The Jams – 1968)
As soon as lead singer Rob Tyner belts out that infamous expletive at the opening on this song, the rock world was turned on its head. This was ground zero for both punk rock and heavy metal as the MC5 delivered a full on heavy, distorted assault of rebellion and chaos, perfectly encapsulating the times from whence it came. There’s an energy and ferocity to this live statement that has never really been duplicated, especially as evidenced by this band’s lacklustre studio efforts, none of which capture the intensity and modern feel of this track or the album of its namesake.
5. I Wanna Be Your Dog – The Stooges (The Stooges – 1969)
Iggy and his Stooges hailed from the wilds of Detroit rock city and arrived with one of the most frenetic and distorted sounds of the day. They were drowning in sexual energy and armed with a high libido, soon to become part of a generation of rockers that were young, dumb and full of…something. This rock staple is straight and to the point with Iggy Pop (known than as “Iggy Stooge”) crooning a predatory tune about sexual gratification and animal magnetism, in a most literal sense, underscored by one of the heaviest tones of the day. The band would find heavier plateaus with their masterpiece Raw Power in 1973, but there’s still a primal, seductive quality about this oft-covered track that continues to fascinate decades later.
4. Race With The Devil – The Gun (The Gun – 1968)
Speed rocker with classic horn opening that is one of the first rock tracks to really openly discuss the threat of Satan and a hedonistic lifestyle, later evidenced in everything from Black Sabbath to Slayer. Stylistically speaking, the song does bear a resemblance to the sort of things that Judas Priest would come to perfect in the mid-70s, and it was no surprise that the band covered this as a B-side for the 1977 Sin After Sin album. The screeching vocals and wild laughter coupled with blazing guitar work and effective shredding places this firmly in the realm of a forgotten metal classic worthy of rediscovery.
3. Communication Breakdown – Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin – 1969)
The first “machine gun” riff is the precursor to the many speed metal anthems that would populate the genre in the next two decades, while also serving as a blueprint for the superior Paranoid by Black Sabbath, the following year. Zeppelin are the band most associated with founding the hard rock sound that we know today with the emphasis on the individual musicians, all world class, and the attention paid to heaviness, which far surpassed pretenders to the throne like the excellent but dated, Cream. Led Zeppelin have a dated sound on the first two albums as well, especially in comparison to Sabbath’s Paranoid album and Deep Purple’s In Rock, the following year, but there is just no denying the influence of tracks like this and slow bruiser, ‘Dazed and Confused’, along with the second album’s riff monster, ‘Heartbreaker’ and the anthemic, ‘Ramble On’. Robert Plant’s screeching vocals and Jimmy Page’s guitar work really highlight this particular track and it’s easy to see how this will be morphed and added to over the years.
2. Caledonia – Cromagnon (Orgasm – 1969)
This genuinely bizarre oddity from the end of the 60s is nearly indescribable. It’s part of that era’s experimental music phase and certainly has the required amount of trippiness to qualify it for period, but it also contains something else. This may be the creepiest song of the period as it develops a strange atmosphere which begins like a bad radio signal (think The Outer Limits here) and transitions into something that sounds almost mechanical, like early industrial, but also atmospheric enough to appear like early black metal. The drums are constantly pounding and the guitar is distorted and heavy but most alarmingly, the whispered vocals distinctively sound like what we associate with black metal. It’s raspy and creepy and only the bagpipes(!) remind us that we are not quite in Nordic land, though we certainly aren’t in Kansas anymore, either.
1. 21st Century Schizoid Man – King Crimson (In The Court Of The Crimson King – 1969)
The always bizarre King Crimson were the most constantly mutating of the early progressive rock bands with a rotating sound that could be described as both mellow and unexpectedly dangerous. This track is probably what best encapsulates the band’s worldview but also stands as the one that predates the structure and insanity that would dominate the new metal on the horizon. Despite, the use of horns and multiple instruments unknown to heavy music, it was the loud, heavy riff and the distorted, mechanical vocals that really make this thing drip with menace as Greg Lake’s voice exudes a mechanical feel punctuated by brutal lyrics involving war and man’s tendency for violence. Absolutely brilliant track from a band that would help influence and inspire the next generation of musicians who would seek greater and vaster spaces not yet dreamed of in those (purple) hazy days of the late 60s when the monster was being birthed. Black Sabbath were the ones that cemented what we know as metal but were from alone in conception of this most volatile and deadly of musical genres.
- Summertime Blues – Blue Cheer
- Voodoo Chile’ (Last Return) – Jimi Hendrix Experience
- Sunshine Of Your Love – Cream
- Monster – Steppenwolf
- I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – The Beatles
- Dazed And Confused – Led Zeppelin
- I Want To Change The World – Ten Years After
- Prodigal Man – The Amboy Dukes
- Don’t Push Me Away – Crank
- White Wall – The Bob Seger System (For real.)
- You Keep Me Hanging On – Vanilla Fudge (Recently on Mad Men!)
- Five To One – The Doors
- Shape Of Things – Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart!)