–By Mike McPadden (@McBeardo)
The parameters of the heavy metal music have been expanding and evolving ever since the very earliest days when Black Sabbath set the general boilerplate, Led Zeppelin broke open new possibilities, and late-’70s upstarts on the order of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest defined and codified the genre’s look, tone, and feel.
Since then, of course, we’ve seen (and heard) thrash, hardcore, power metal, speed metal, doom metal, death metal, black metal, and so on up to an including subgenres known as pornogrind, Djent, and Nintendocore.
What places the bands in these various categories under the metal umbrella has much to do with loud guitars, wailing vocals, thunderous drumbeats, and dark subject matter, but perhaps even more to do with style, approach, verve, and above all, attitude.
How else to explain some of the unexpected (to say the least) bands and solo artists that have, one way or another, been branded “heavy metal” at some point in their careers?
Here now are 8 artists you won’t believe were once considered heavy metal.
Middle-of-the-road rock superstars Bon Jovi crossed over to Top 40 pop decades ago and in more recent years have successfully added a sizable country audience. However, upon the arrival of their self-titled debut in 1983, the Garden State’s best-selling non-Springsteen sons were only considered heavy metal.
It may have had more to do with the group’s spray-on spandex pants, sleeveless animal-print tops, and unholy heaps of hair-mousse than their actual sound, but Bon Jovi’s breakthrough hit “Runaway” certainly teeters far enough over to the hard side, as does the title of their follow-up LP, 7800° Fahrenheit (“The temperature at which vinyl melts,” claimed the ad campaign. Right).
Upon the smash 1986 release of Slippery When Wet, the L.A. Times even ran a feature titled, “Bon Jovi: A Messiah for Metal?” From there, Bon Jovi headlined England’s famously metal Monsters of Rock Festival in ’87 and, the following year, led the all-star hair-banger Moscow Concert for Peace, alongside Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Scorpions, and Skid Row.
So how, then, did Bon Jovi become so opposite-of-metal? Unlike other glam acts that donned flannels and grew goatees to keep up with grunge, the band took some time off, and returned in 1992 with Keep the Faith, a record that emphasized and built upon their pop-rock core.
After that, Bon Jovi just kept barreling forward, aging and mellowing at the same pace as their original devotees, right up to the point where numerous ’80s headbangers took to tuning in country radio in the early 2000s.
Journey commenced in 1973 as a conglomerate of ace San Francisco-based musicians who had recently departed existing hard rock combos. Lead guitarist Neal Schon jammed with Santana at Woodstock, while other members hailed from theatrical shock-rockers the Tubes, psychedelic adventurers Frumious Bandersnatch, and the backing bands of John Lennon and Frank Zappa.
Between 1975 and 1977, Journey Mach I released three albums of prog-fueled jazz-fusion and sold precious few records.
The band’s fortunes changed considerably when they added lead vocalist Steve Perry, adapted the arena-rock sonics of platinum-selling contemporaries such as Boston, Jefferson Starship, and Heart. The group also took to emblazoning their album covers with flaming feathers, faraway planets, Egyptian scarabs, cyborg space brains, and other metal-vibed imagery.
Up against new wave during mainstream music’s odd stretch between disco and MTV, Journey’s hard rock could be, and certainly was, taken to be heavy metal. Their FM radio staples “Stone in Love” and “Separate Ways” still pack metallic wallop, and even “Anyway You Want It” is very much in keeping with the hard rock party blowouts of the day played by Van Halen and Cheap Trick.
So inseparable was Journey from metal in the public’s perception in fact that, in 1989, readers of Kerrang! Magazine—England’s long-time headbanger Bible—ranked 1981’s Escape #32 among The Top 100 Heavy Metal Albums of All Time.
Even now the metal sticks—in one particular way. Journey is today most highly regarded for slow-tempo prom night anthems on the order of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Lights,” “Open Arms,” and “Faithfully.” That run of smashes represents the birth of that most uniquely ’80s of all heavy metal phenomena: the power ballad.
Watch: “Stone in Love”
Goo Goo Dolls
Hunky frontman Johnny Rzeznick has making housewives dizzy since the Goo Goo Doll’s 1995 breakthrough, “Name.” The group’s radio smash received nonstop airplay across every possible format at the time (and, in large part, it still does) from alternative rock to Top 40 to adult contemporary to even college stations.
The Goo Goo’s hit even huger paydirt two years later with “Iris,” the lush theme from the Meg Ryan romance flick, City of Angels. Ever since, the band has issued a steady succession of agreeably weepy soccer mom toe-tappers, including “Slide,” “Broadway,” “Black Balloon,” and “Stay With You.”
Now take a moment to appreciate how weird it is that the Goo Goo Dolls’ first five albums—including A Boy Named Goo, from which “Name” was the single—came out on Metal Blade Records.
Yes, the Goo Goo Dolls spent the first big chunk of their career as label-mates of Cannibal Corpse, D.R.I., Manowar, Sacred Reich, and the Metal Massacre compilation that first introduced humanity to Metallica.
Here’s how that happened. The Goo Goo Dolls started as a snarling snot-punk trash-thrash trio on par with the early, drunken Replacements and the more shambolic elements of Hanoi Rocks. They even occasionally displayed musical touches of the first-phase Mötley Crüe and, live, the band could conjure the mayhem of the most extreme hardcore combos.
With grunge and alt-rock bubbling under in the late ’80s, Metal Blade wisely expanded their hard-and-heavy roster, and thereby, snagged up their very own Nirvana (in the commercial sense, at least).
Watch: “Torn Apart,” live in 1987
REO Speedwagon wasn’t always “Take It on the Run,” or “Keep on Lovin’ You,” or even (especially) “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” In fact, the Champaign, Illinois-spawned power ballad masters began in the late ’60s as a heavy-stomp biker-boogie and blues-rock combo on par with the Jimi Hendrix and Cream. The group is also named for a literal hunk of heavy metal: a powerfully pioneering flatbed truck invented in 1915 by Ransom E. Olds (later of Oldsmobile).
REO then spent the 1970s building momentum with a series of FM-ready hard rock LPs. Like Kiss, though, REO finally caught on with the release of a live album, 1977’s Live: You Get What You Play For. Their hard-charging ’78 hit “Roll With the Changes” followed and subsequently set the stage for their multiplatinum 1980 monster breakthrough, Hi Infidelity.
That album’s succession of chart-topping singles and music videos in relentless MTV rotation launched REO to huge heights of rock superstardom. It also established the formula that the band would ride for the rest of the decade: pop-rock slow-dance numbers imbued with gently metallic guitar solos. For a long while, even their original Harley-riding fans couldn’t resist.
Watch: “Ridin’ the Storm Out”
Given their propensity to adorn album covers with swords and medieval-looking rings (sometimes in space), Toto always came across heavier than they sounded, let alone how the groovy-dude band members even looked. Nonetheless, the group’s prog-rock technical virtuosity and the blunt edges of their first few singles did, early on at least, get them misfiled in many a record store’s metal section.
Established in 1978 by ace studio players, Toto broke out with the relatively intense hits “Hold the Line” and “I’ll Supply the Love.” They then scored a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist (only to lose it to disco duo A Taste of Honey).
Toto then rather quickly distanced themselves from the hard stuff, even though their definitively lite-rock follow-up hit “99” was inspired by George Lucas’s extremely metal-in-spirit 1971 sci-fi mindblower, THX 1138. In a similarly paradoxical vein, Toto also supplied the soundtrack to David Lynch’s 1984 movie version of the space fantasy novel Dune, which had been developed in the ’70s to have songs by Pink Floyd and Magma.
While the band will forever best be remembered for the adult-pop classics “Rosanna” and “Africa,” in 2013, Toto honcho Jeff Porcaro told the website RadioMetal: “When I come back, I wanna come back as a heavy metal guitarist. It’d be the most fun thing in the world to do that!”
Watch: “I’ll Supply the Love”
Molly Hatchet’s metal status has been a mistake since track one of their self-titled debut album, and it’s all about imagery. To be exact: it’s all about the cover of Molly Hatchet, which showcases the the supremely metal painting “Death Dealer” by hard-and-heavy pulp artist extraordinaire, Frank Frazetta.
Consider what “Death Dealer” depicts. Astride an armored black stallion sits a faceless, red-eyed warrior in a horned-helmet holding a shield with a bird of prey crest in one hand and a hooked, bloody battle axe in the other. They’re obviously back from slaughtering, and vultures fill the smoky sky behind them.
Now consider that it appears on a 1978 album under a banner bearing the name “Molly Hatchet,” a mythical prostitute said to have dismembered and beheaded her customers. With that in mind, it’s impossible to imagine how the band was not considered metal—until somebody put on the record.
Molly Hatchet, the album, is straight-up Southern rock akin to Lynyrd Skynyrd, .38 Special, and Black Oak Arkansas. The same holds true for the follow-up LP, Flirtin’ With Disaster, the cover of which features “Dark Kingdom” by Frank Frazetta, a depiction of an equally metal Viking lunging forward with more weaponry. 1980’s Beatin’ the Odds made it a trifecta by incorporating Frazetta’s self-explanatory painting, “Conan the Conqueror.”
Alas, countless ’70s Southern rock fans were also heavy metal fans and vice versa, so given Molly Hatchet’s full-tilt boogieing and triple-axe guitar attack, nobody spit up any Jack Daniel’s in protest over the blurring of genres.
Watch: “Flirtin’ with Disaster,” live 1979
Coming out of Chicago’s 1960s tumult, Styx rapidly generated a quartet of prog-rock long-players between 1972 and 1974 that were marked by fuzzy guitars, funkadelic basslines, jungle percussion, acrobatic keyboards, and soaring vocals.
If those initial Styx records aren’t metal, they’re close enough, particularly given their time of release, plus the fact that the band is named for the mythical river that separates the world of the living from Hell.
The band’s hard rock inclinations continued after they signed to a major label, producing energetic FM perennials on the order of “Lorelei,” “Blue Collar Man,” and the spaceship-to-Heaven abduction anthem, “Come Sail Away.”
The 1979 #1 power ballad “Babe” endeared Styx to female listeners and they stayed along for the next series of multiplatinum endeavors, each of which veered further away from heavy metal.
Ironically, then, anti-rock organizations up to and including Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center charged Styx with that most heavy metal of sonic transgressions: including a backmasked Satanic message on their 1981 smash, Paradise Theater.
The group responded with their (in)famous 1983 concept album Kilroy Was Here—yes, the one with “Mr. Roboto”—about a fascist government that bans all music. One number addresses the backward message brouhaha most pointedly: “Heavy Metal Poisoning.”
That song represented the last, most outwardly metal moment for the original Styx lineup. They issued one more single, a wrongheaded attempt to go new wave titled “Music Time,” after which frontman Dennis DeYoung departed and sort of remade himself as an adult contemporary rock Liberace.
Watch: “Heavy Metal Poisoning”
Billy Joel may have begun and ultimately ended up as the Piano Man, but he took a couple of weirdly entertaining turns between those two points, one of which is so metal it’s literally ridiculous.
First, Joel played keyboards on two albums as a member of the soulful psychedelic tunesemiths, the Hassles. Among the other Hassles was Howie Arthur Blauvelt, who went on to co-found hard-rockers Ram Jam of “Black Betty” fame.
Joel split from the group with his fellow Hassle, guitarist Jon Small, to form the blazing psych-prog-acid-metal organ-and-axe duo, Attila.
The pair’s lone album is a self-titled wonder, the cover of which is a photograph of Billy and Jon in full barbarian warrior gear, holding their helmets amidst multiple hanging sides of meat, somewhere out in the woods. Remarkably, the music lives up to the promise of the picture.
Amidst song titles such, “Tear This Castle Down,” “Brain Invasion,” and the nearly eight-minute “Amplifier Fire (Part I: Godzilla/ Part II: March of the Huns),” the Atilla album is nonstop fire-breathing madness, with Small pounding out power chords and lightning-speed solos while Joel bombards his keyboards and sings of … you know, crazy heavy metal stuff.
Long cited as a colossal blunder and even dismissed as “psychedelic bulls—t” by Joel himself, Attila does have their fans and making it through the album is an experience any adventurous heavy metal fan should risk a few million brain cells on to hear.
Watch: “Wonder Woman”