Musicians and theorists have called the diminished fifth note, also known as the tritone, evil for hundreds of years, even going so far as to call it the Devil’s note. How apt that the song credited with launching heavy metal, Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath, revolves around the dissonance of that note. Containing apocalyptic lyrics reminiscent of the Book of Revelations, a melancholic peal of bells one might hear at a funeral, and gloomy aggressive guitar playing, Black Sabbath officially gave birth to a new sub-genre of rock in 1970. But as is always the case, new styles of music do not appear out of thin air. They are undoubtedly influenced by music that existed before. To that effect, I want to briefly highlight three songs that helped inspire and shape heavy metal, before it was a genre.
Pat Hare – I’m Gonna Murder My Baby (1954)
The heart of heavy metal music is indisputably the distorted power chord. Working out of the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, Hare’s wild and influential guitar playing can be heard on records by renowned blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, James Cotton and Muddy Waters. Before actually murdering his girlfriend, and also the investigating police officer, Pat Hare covered this Doctor Clayton song and changed rock music forever. Making significant use of distorted power chords, his version of I’m Gonna Murder My Baby displayed a gritty ferocity not heard before in blues or other music. That grit and aggression was and is the backbone of yesterday and today’s heavy metal music.
The Kinks – You Really Got Me (1964)
Ray Davies originally wrote this song, in early 1964, as a jazzy tune intended for the piano. When he shared the song with his brother Dave, the lead guitarist of the Kinks, the song took on a different style. Dave had been looking for harder-edged sound, so he decided to slice up his amplifier’s speaker cone with a shaving razor. The resulting sound was a fuzzy distortion that gave You Really Got Me a unique characteristic. The instantly recognizable guitar riff, played through the modified amplifier, became a landmark in music history and inspired many rock and rollers to come. It is one of the very first pop hits structured around a distorted guitar riff and has been cited as highly influential by artists like Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix and Eddy Van Halen.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Purple Haze (1967)
Opening with a pounding guitar riff, Purple Haze let the world know that Hendrix was the hot new guitarist in the world of rock. The song was important in the development of heavy metal for its significant use of the aforementioned tritone note, and also because it pioneered distorted guitar-processing effects. As this was the lead track on the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s eponymous debut, it was the first time many people had heard such a wild and exciting guitar sound. A defining characteristic of many heavy metal songs in the 70’s and after is the influence of classical and world music. The guitar solo in Purple Haze shows off the influence of eastern music and helped lay the groundwork for future guitarists to experiment with non-western modalities and scales.
Could I have included many other songs in this post? Of course! There are way too many bands to list that helped create heavy metal before 1970, like: Blue Cheer, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly and the Beatles. In fact, I could have even given Beethoven and Wagner a shout out. But I wanted to highlight a few songs that played very tangible and pivotal roles in developing the fundamental sounds of the genre. So please keep Pat Hare and the Kinks in mind when you hear distorted power chords and keep Jimi Hendrix in mind when you hear a lead guitarist fire off an exciting guitar solo. To all of my fellow metal heads, keep head banging and Happy Halloween!