For those about to rock: A retrospective on the evolution of hard rock- Part 1

My first exposure to headbanging was while watching the film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. It was a comedy film about a dimwitted animal lover solving crimes. It was a Jim Carey movie, it was the 90’s, it was a comedy movie. I thought the scene where he goes into a rock club and the guy was “headbanging” to the rock music was obviously a joke, nobody actually did that, right? Little did I know it wasn’t a joke, it was a very popular thing.

Soon afterwards I would continue my exposure into the metal scene. I watched the pair of time traveling metal-heads Bill N Ted on their various quests. This was around the time I started to really question why on earth anyone would listen to this hard rock music. I wasn’t even sure what constituted hard rock to begin with. Not to mention I wasn’t even completely accurate on what people were calling rock music. My dad was an old time rock n roll fan and he would always correct me saying this band or that bands was not rock n roll, they were hard rock or heavy metal or something else. My dad wasn’t exactly an authority on rock music either, he just was sort of glued to his childhood favorites and dismissed the music of the youth. I wasn’t quite so dismissive, however I was more into dance music, electronic music, hip-Hop, disco, funk, and pop music. I was having a hard time determining not only what was hard rock, but what was the appeal.

Doing my research it appears rock n roll has it’s roots in soul music, bar music and blues. None of these were genres I was a particular fan of in my early days so I had to dig a little deeper. The earliest example I could find of a mainstream song that was the beginning of the hard rock sound was Helter Skelter by the world-renown Beatles. Having listen to this song a number of times during my research I can almost hear the start of what would become, what I considered, heavy metal, yet it still sounded really primitive to me. I didn’t spend a lot of time chasing down all of the obscure references, I stuck to the mainstream stuff like Born to Be Wild, I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, Dude Looks Like A Lady, and Smoke on the Water. None of these were too hard but they were often cited as the early examples of the scene.

As someone who has thoroughly studied the roots of techno, house and rap music, I can attest that different fans while share different tales of what lead from one sound to the next. The branching path of genres and sub-genres in rock music is just as complicated as the branching genres of the dance scene. To this day I can’t get people to tell the difference between Techno and House, whereas to me they are as different as night and day.

My earliest attempt’s at this included me creating a playlist of songs that one could follow from the old time rock n roll to modern day hard rock. Depending on what the end goal is determines which sub-genres or paths you cut off from the main path. For example, punk rock also has it’s origins in a lot of the same bands that metal does, yet punk eventually lead to alternative, grunge rock and ska, sub-genres I have more experience with than true metal. That didn’t stop me on my journey to find the path of least resistance.

I started with The Beatles.

Helter Skelter is such a different sound from anything I had heard by them up to that point. I don’t mean to sound as if I was around for it, I mean in the timeline. I do listen to Beatles but I was more into their early pop stuff not so much their later stuff.

When I originally did my digging I downloaded the various songs from iTunes and created a playlist when I did that I tried to see if the dots connected in a manner that made sense. I noticed there were a few missing links.

Admittedly I am missing a few sounds from some of the bands I know are often cited, yet I have no samples of their music to go off. Call me whatever name you wish, I have, to this day, never sat down and listened to a Led Zeppelin song, not one. If I have heard one of their songs, in passing I imagine or perhaps in a movie or TV commercial, I wouldn’t recognize it unless it was pointed out to me. So why am I writing this if I can’t call up the sounds of one of the bands often regarded as the fathers of metal? Sometimes you have to make do with what is available to you, also this is my journey so I wanted to discover this my own way. That being said, I have listened to bands that were described as inspired by or similar to Zeppelin so I can say that I am at least vague familiar with the sound they are attributed to.

Judas Priest

In my search I didn’t want to start entirely at the roots, I wanted to see how Beatles, Elvis Presley, Chuck Barry, Buddy Holly and others could morph into AC DC, Metallica, Iron Maiden, etc. I did pick up Alice Cooper’s School’s Out which I also cited as one of the bridge sounds, but Judas Priest was the first record I picked up that had a very prot-metal sound. In later years their music evolved more into the sound I always attributed as hard rock or heavy metal, depending on who you ask. I often used the term interchangeably with the understanding metal was the harder stuff. Now that I have done some more digging I discovered it’s even more complex than that. I placed Judas Priest at the earliest point of Heavy Metal on the timeline.

KISS

Specifically Destroyer and Alive but I dug through their entire catalog, first through their various compilations, beginning with Smashes, Thrashes, and Hits, and working my way back. KISS doesn’t have the hardest of sounds, they are more hard rock or even edgy rock n roll than metal, but they have the attitude and the look of what would become the signature metal theme, the dark medieval fantasy tones, some would describe as satanic but let’s not split hairs. Anyways they had the theatrics for sure but their sound was admittedly soft in comparison to what would follow. Still they are at the early point as well. They are also cited as a starting point for punk rock, but I won’t follow that path here.

Deep Purple

This is another one I place under the category of proto-metal. They have a very hard sound in some songs, but a very 70’s blue rock vibe. I did listen to more than one song, but the one that really matters is Smoke on the Water. This is another point where you can really start to hear a new sound emerging from the underbelly of American counter-culture.

Black Sabbath

Once you get into “the other Alice Cooper,” Ozzy Osborne and his ilk, things really start to get serious. By all rights you could make a case Sabbath and Ozzy are about as close to what would become Metal as it gets. If you follow them through the 70’s and into the 80’s, even after all the shake ups and restructuring, their sound is very much in line with what I would classify as heavy metal and hard rock at the very least.

Iron Maiden

This is the point where Metal begins to emerge as it’s own thing. By the time this band hits the scene it’s fully developed. It would be really hard to argue Iron Maiden isn’t heavy metal, and from what I have heard this is the goods through and through.

Now I could have spent more time on proto-metal bands like The Who, The Kinks, Zeppelin, or any number of others. As I did my digging though, I realized that while there are individual songs or even portions of entire albums that are recognized as having elements of what would become metal, they were still entirely different sounds in their own right. You could make a case that without the sounds of the Jackson 5, Hip-Hop wouldn’t be what it is today, but you could be hard pressed to make a case for Michael and the Gang being rap.

AC-DC

This is one of those transition bands you could argue is really just “hard rock” and that would be fine by me. Without getting into sub-genres I classify rock into the following top-level categories: rock n roll, rock, hard rock, metal, grunge, punk, ska, and alternative rock. For the most part there is a TON of overlap, I still try to avoid splitting hairs over what sound equals what genre. AC-DC is one of those bands I could firmly place under rock n roll, rock, or hard rock, but I would be hard pressed to call them full on metal and they certainly aren’t punk or ska. At least not as I understand them to be.

You will notice as I go through this series I don’t often stray from the general consensus, at least not up front. However as I discover more to this story I fully intend to give credit where due. As I looked into this it took on a life of it’s own. Consider this entry number one in a series where I take a deeper look at the origins of this music genre that I have found an affinity for, yet continues to boggle my mind and elude my sense of true understanding. Until next time keep on head banging friends.

 

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