The Dawn Of The Heavy: 20 Proto-Metal Hard Rock Pioneers

[caption id="attachment_315173" align="aligncenter" width="615"][Photo: Getty Images] [Photo: Getty Images][/caption]This month, heavy metal turns 45 years old. The unofficially official birthdate is Friday, February 13, 1970. That’s when the band Black Sabbath released its first album, Black Sabbath, which opened with a terrifying first song titled “Black Sabbath.” But alas, Black Sabbath (and Black Sabbath and “Black Sabbath”) didn’t just come from nowhere. Rock-and-roll had been branded “the devil’s music” from its roots up, as embodied by the myth of 1930s blues shaman Robert Johnson obtaining his guitar powers from Satan “down at the crossroads.” That same infernal spirit carried on through Chicago blues blazers such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters before Screamin’ Jay Hawkins explicitly combined horror and heavy sounds, most famously in 1956’s “I Put a Spell on You.”

Upon the 1960s, the primordial ooze that begat Black Sabbath bubbled furiously by way of, among others, corpse-paint innovator Screaming Lord Sutch, The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” and the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” on various blistering efforts by the likes of Jeff Beck and the Who. Other groups, as well, produced unmistakable proto-metal: hard and heavy sounds driven by virtuoso musicianship, sludge-feast riffs, ride-the-lightning solos, wailing vocals, and subject matter that veered often from the taboo to the downright scary. Some pre-Sabbath vets evolved quickly enough into all-out metal acts, most notably Alice Cooper and Deep Purple. Others still got close, but never quite went the full-on leather and hellfire.

To those who lit the cauldron from which heavy metal burbled up fully formed, we now salute you.

Jimi Hendrix

“Killing Floor” at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967)

Rock’s eternal guitar god supreme, Jimi Hendrix electrified the blues as no one else has before or since, amplified rock’s hardest elements to their loudest and most rolling extremes, and sprayed psychedelic majesty all over the universe out from the right-hand Fenders and Gibson he played upside-down and left-handed.

Amidst a radio landscape dominated by Lulu, the Association, and the Monkees (for whom he infamously opened), the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s literally infernal performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival blew flower power to sonic smithereens and lit up a before-and-after line in rock when the frontman set his guitar ablaze. Less than two years later, Hendrix upped that infernal ante with his bombastic deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock.

If Jimi Hendrix did not invent heavy metal proper, he unquestionably invented the manner in which to play the genre’s most crucial instrument. All metal riffs and all metal solos, not to mention extreme metal stunts like flawlessly wailing behind your back or picking strings with your teeth, come directly and exclusively from Jimi Hendrix.

Hearing what Hendrix did with jazz, blues, rock, funk, pop, and psychedelia makes his 1971 death at age 27 all that more tragic: just imagine what he might have done with full-blown heavy metal.


“Sunshine of Your Love” (1967)

Rock’s original, definitive, and still champion power trio, Cream assembled Eric Clapton of the Yardbirds on guitar, Jack Bruce of the Blues Breakers on bass, and Ginger Baker of the Graham Bond Organization on drums. Each had known and played with one another in and out of those groups, and each was possessed by superhuman powers and abilities on their individual instruments that, when combined, combusted into Cream.

Over the course of four albums in three years, Cream blasted out a uniquely commanding compound of muscular blues, psychedelic exploration, and sheer percussive might. When playing live, the band stacked amps in hope to stand as the loudest group on the planet. It worked. So, too, did one signature riff after another that subsequently laid out a vocabulary for heavy metal composers and players to both aspire to and borrow from going forward.

Try to conceive of heavy metal without Cream’s pre-existing “Sunshine of Your Love” alone: it would be ugly—but not in the good, metal sense of the term.

Vanilla Fudge

“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (1967)

Acid rock turned way heavy way early on via Vanilla Fudge, a feverish four-piece that’s no less proto-metal for being keyboard-driven than are their contemporaries Deep Purple—but they’re definitely more bizarre.

With Stonehenge-weighted guitars, crushing bass, the aforementioned orgiastic organ, and future metal champ Carmine Appice on drums, Vanilla Fudge specialized in beefing up and drawing out pop hits into loud, brutally combative, mesmerizingly molasses-paced epics of fire-brained intensity.

The group’s biggest hit, for example, is a nearly seven-minute transformation of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On” from an upbeat Motown anthem of romantic liberation into a hyper-psychedelic beat-down of desperation and agony that builds slowly… into more slowness.

Where Vanilla Fudge takes Donovan’s already spookadelic “Season of the Witch,” then, achieves a frozen ferocity that borders on nigh indescribable.

Blue Cheer

“Summertime Blues” on American Bandstand (1968)

Of all proto-metal bands, the one that comes closest to full-on headbanging execution and dynamics is San Francisco power trio named for their favorite strain of LSD, Blue Cheer.

Vincebus Eruptum, Blue Cheer’s 1968 debut album, suddenly and irretrievably launched rock into previously unimaginable realms of fuzzed-out freakiness, deafening volume, and thunderous forward propulsion.

Blue Cheer put out two more killer collections before effectively imploding (but not quite breaking up) in 1969 and if they never topped their first long-player, so what? Drop the needle anywhere on Vincebus Eruptum and what leaps forth is the electric ooze of primordial metal, but also punk, doom, grunge, stoner rock, and, undoubtedly, new variations on extreme sounds we’ve yet to properly label.

Blue Cheer not only saw the future, they rocked it into being.

Grand Funk Railroad

“Sin’s a Good Man’s Brother” (1970)

For a brief, deafening moment, Grand Funk Railroad stood as the biggest rock band on planet Earth—and arguably the closest to playing heavy metal.

Initially a power trio taking hard and heavy cues from the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Creem, Grand Funk blasted out of Flint, Michigan in 1968 and broke through two years later when their third album, Closer to Home, got so popular it propelled their first two efforts into gold sales status. By the end of 1970, Grand Funk Railroad sold out Shea Stadium, shattering an attendance record set by the Beatles.

Critics despised the band (another earmark of heavy metal yet to come) so maniacally that snooty rock have historians successfully managed to force the group through the cracks while other hard rock acts on their level—Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, ZZ Top—were allowed to flourish.

However enjoyable it is to hear “We’re an American Band” and/or “The Loco-Motion” on classic rock radio now, there is so much more to Grand Funk Railroad than just those tracks. Headbangers are especially advised to explore them.

Iron Butterfly

“In-A-Gada-Da-Vida” (1968)

To have been born since 1968 is to know the elemental riff of “In-A-Gada-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly like its part of your own DNA. That is, of course, what should be expected of a group so heavy they named their debut album just that: Heavy.

Still, it’s “In-A-Gada-Da-Vida” that defines Iron Butterfly and rightly so. The seventeen-minute psychedelic masterpiece is reportedly named for a band member’s intoxicated attempt to pronounce “In the Garden of Eden,” and, in every aesthetic sense, the song lives up to the group’s own moniker. It’s a living creature of pure heavy metal that takes flight upon deceptively light, frantically fluttering wings.

Countless listeners and musicians have hopped on the back of “In-A-Gada-Davida” and let its experience take them wherever it would. For no small amount of adventurers, that destination was heavy metal.

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

“Fire” (1968)

“I am the god of hell-fire,” a decidedly ungodly voices roars, “and I bring you… FIRE!” So goes the opening moment to “Fire,” an unlikely (and unduplicated) 1968 hit by hard-and-heavy hallucinogenic freak-out inducers the Crazy World of Arthur Brown.

As the frontman, Mr. Brown himself wore a helmet that blazed with actual flames while he performed, and he always appeared decked out black-and-white face-paint that was very directly adapted by Alice Cooper, Kiss, King Diamond, Marilyn Manson, and Northern Europe’s amorphous nation-state of black metal church-burners. The craziness of Arthur Brown’s world was undoubtedly not lost on Gwar, either.

As if the shock rock theatrics and mayhemic make-up weren’t metal enough, consider the titles of the non-“Fire” singles to come off The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s self-titled debut album: “Devil’s Grip,” “Nightmare,” and “I Put a Spell on You.”


“Born to Be Wild” on Beat Club (1969)

Others may have gotten there first and still others may have pushed the whole concept further, but Steppenwolf, and nobody else, coined the term “heavy metal” in their signature 1969 smash, “Born to Be Wild,” the hard-and-heavy guitar-blasting theme song from the generation-defining film, Easy Rider.

“I like smoke and lightning,” frontman John Kay sings, “HEAVY METAL THUNDER!”

In addition to spelling it out so exactly, the loud-and-rowdy psychedelic blues-rock sounds and outlaw biker look and feel of Steppenwolf laid out numerous heavy metal tropes to come. Plus the group’s name is German for “coyote.”


“Let Me Swim” (1969)

Consisting at its molten core of Vanilla Fudge’s rhythm section, Long Island’s Cactus was to initially incorporate blistering fret-wizard Jeff Beck on lead guitar. That rock dream died hard after Beck injured himself in a car accident. What a bummer.

Nonetheless, drummer Carmine Appice and bassist Tim Bogert soldiered on with other players to beget a quartet of classic albums, beginning with 1970’s self-titled glory-stomper of a debut and culminating in 1972’s ’Ot ‘N’ Sweaty, a live album every bit on par with the greatest concert records of the decade, many of it directly influenced and inspired—and still does.


“Black Sabbath” (1969)

You may have heard this one before: amidst Woodstock-era peace-and-love vibes worldwide, an occult-obsessed band with a frightening named released a debut album that begins with a song titled “Black Sabbath.” The group also features a musician named Oz Osborne.

Okay, here’s the kicker: the band in question is not Black Sabbath, it’s Chicago demon-lovers Coven, who beat England’s most evil to vinyl by a full year with the template-setting LP, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls.

Although not nearly as heavy in sound as Sabbath, Coven is infinitely more up-front and way over-the-top in its dedication to the darkest arts. On vocals, ice-queen sorceress Jinx Dawson sings anthems such as “The White Witch of Rose Hall,” “Dignitaries of Hell,” and “Pact With the Devil” (a title that, hilariously, was initially printed as “Pack With the Devil”). Side two of the record is just a recording of a black mass. Jinx also appears fully nude in the album’s gatefold, serving as the human sacrifice atop an unholy altar.

A few year’s later, Coven scored a major pop hit with “One Tin Soldier,” theme to the drive-in classic Billy Jack. It’s a scathing tale of hypocrisy among the righteous but, still, to hear it is to be taken aback by the notion that the woman singing “One Tin Soldier” is the same one who, in essence, invented satanic rock.


“I Wanna Be Your Dog” (1969)

Punk rock’s indebtedness to the Stooges is endlessly well documented. However, punk’s indebtedness to metal oftentimes gets sold short. Just consider that, inspired by Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” Joey Ramone wrote “I Don’t Care,” his first Ramones composition, by rearranging the three basic chords of “I’m Eighteen” by Alice Cooper. Then consider that Johnny Rotten successfully auditioned to be the Sex Pistols’ lead vocalist by belting out that exact same all-time metal anthem. The punk-metal connection was always there and, truly, the world first felt that seismic blow in the form of Detroit madmen the Stooges.

More directly, heavy metal’s Stooge roots emerge just as loud and clear in Ron Acetone’s ravaging guitar, brother Scott Ashton’s demolition drum beats, the fat, filthy bass lines of Dave Alexander and, of course, the unparalleled extreme antics of Iggy Pop gnashing and wailing and bashing and slashing himself out front—literally.


“Kick Out the Jams” (1969)

Fronted by mega-afro’d Rob Tyner and positively assaulting audiences with a monster rock twin-axe attack via guitar maestros Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, the MC5 revolutionized extreme music in a very real sense: the band’s hardcore left-wing philosophy combined with their innate superb musicianship and mesmerizing stage presence got the MC5 repeatedly investigated as enemies of the state by the FBI.

Putting music before politics, the MC5 had no bigger booster than their fellow hyper-amplified Detroit rabble-rouser, Ted Nugent. Describing his experience of seeing band live for the first time, Nugent said, “I thought I was a badass guitar-slinging motherf---er. No way. Not against the MC5. They came out and it was … stupefying!

Humble Pie

“Bang!” (1969)

In 1969, the blues-thrashing British supergroup Humble Pie united vocalist and guitar player Steve Marriot from the Small Faces, with lead guitar ace Peter Frampton from the Herd, bassist Greg Ridley of Spooky Tooth, and 17-year-old upstart drummer Jerry Shirley.

Volcanic sparks flew immediately, spawning one of the most monstrous live acts ever along with a series of classic albums and a handful of rock’s all-time great boogie-stompers, including “30 Days in the Hole,” “Black Coffee,” “Hot ‘N’ Nasty” and a smoldering cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Come On, Everybody.”

Humble Pie is best served when considering them the bruising, boisterous link between the Rolling Stones, the first superstar hard rock band, and Led Zeppelin, heavy metal’s ultimate superstar band. On an even more purely metallic side note, drummer Shirley went on to play in Fastway alongside Motörhead guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke and UFO bassist Pete Way.

Frijid Pink

“House of the Rising Sun” (1970)

Frijid Pink emerged from the same late-’60s Detroit kettle of metal that also whelped forth Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, the Stooges, and the MC5. Something must have been in the water of that auto-manufacturing mecca in those days. Oh, yeah, there was: heavy metal.

Although Frigid Pink best remembered for a hit cover of “House of the Rising Sun,” the three albums issued by the group’s original lineup between 1970 and 1972 are ass-kickers enflamed by raucous guitars, heavy-psych keyboards, and wall-of-destruction bass and drums.


“Mississippi Queen” (1970)

Mountain frontman and guitar shredder extraordinaire Leslie West comes by his nickname honestly: not for nothing did fans and friends call the 300-pound human wrecking ball of hard rock “the Great Fatsby.”

Backed by Felix Pappalardi on bass and Corky Laing on drums, Mountain’s 1970 debut Climbing! kicks off with the rock radio staple “Mississippi Queen” and barrels through nine tracks of proto-metal perfection. Also of note are the haunting ballad, “Theme for an Imaginary Western,” which was inspired by Cream going out on tour, and “For Yasgur’s Farm,” a tribute to Woodstock, where Mountain wowed the assembled unwashed throngs in what was just their fourth gig as a cohesive live unit at the time.

More great Mountain albums followed from there, and metal masters have paid tribute ever since. “Mississippi Queen” alone has been covered by Ozzy Osbourne, W.A.S.P., Ministry, and Sam Kinison.

Black Widow

“Come to the Sabbat” (1970)

Overtly enamored of Satan and all his evil works, English occultists Black Widow hit the rock scene chanting and incanting on their 1970 debut, Sacrifice. Emblazoned with devilish cover imagery and containing song titles on the order of “In Ancient Days,” “Conjuration” and “Attack of the Demon,” both the band and the record are best remembered for “Come to the Sabbat.”

Black Widow’s signature tune is a five-and-a-half minute spelunk in demonic proselytizing marked by black mass recruitment lyrics, trippy keyboards, rumbling drums, breezy saxophone, and pure Jethro Tull flute antics.

As with the whole album, “Come to the Sabbat” is metal in spirit if not in sound, but the group made enough of an ongoing impact to warrant the 2000 disc, King of the Witches: Black Widow Tribute, where extreme metal acts such as Death SS and Church of Misery add newfangled savagery to the spookily mellow originals.

Sir Lord Baltimore

“Kingdom Come” (1970)

Brooklyn’s original metal hipsters (just kidding, headbangers), teenage power trio Sir Lord Baltimore broke out of New York City’s County of Kings with the regal 1970 long-player, Kingdom Come.

The album relentlessly pile-drives ten flawless slabs of stoner rock that so unmistakably arise from a new musical movement that Creem magazine writer (and future Angry Samoans vocalist) Mike Saunders described the Kingdom Come’s sound and feel as “heavy metal.” From there, an entire genre had a perfectly functioning new name.

After opening for Black Sabbath at the Fillmore East, Sir Lord Baltimore’s self-titled follow-up was a step down and the band imploded in a mess of rock-and-roll excess and youthful folly. Kingdom Come, however, will rock on until… kingdom come!


“DOA” (1971)

A weirdly successful heavy psych combo from Fort Worth, Texas, the now almost entirely forgotten Bloodrock landed five albums on the Billboard charts between 1970 and 1972, and also scored one of the most insane and inexplicable pop hits of all time with “D.O.A.”

The seven-minute diatribe “D.O.A.” alternates spooky goth noodling with pure doom power chords as the lyrics recount a gruesome airplane crash from the point-of-view of a young passenger who’s now lying on a morgue slab, dripping with “something warm” while begging “God in Heaven, teach me how to die!”

Really. “D.O.A.” was a 1971 Top 40 radio hit. That, in itself, is ludicrously metal.

Leaf Hound

“Freelance Fiend” (1971)

London hallucinogen enthusiasts Leaf Hound made their interest in psychedelically transcendent vegetation perfectly clear in both their own moniker and by titling their first, enormously influential 1971 album Growers of Mushroom.

The group also backed up their heavy-trip ambitions by way of the LP’s sonic garden of gloriously mud-toned stoner rock that still smokes most modern attempts to reach such musical highs (pun most definitely intended).

Growers of Mushroom is alleged to have been recorded in a mere eleven hours. However frenzied that session must have been, though, the record sounds huge, solid, and erected upon a bedrock of pure heavy metal. Tune in, turn on, Hound out.


“Suicide” (1972)

True story: in 1972, four teenage mooks from Flatbush, Brooklyn record a fully realized doom metal masterpiece that sells a half-million copies, but shortly thereafter the group has to break up because their parents won’t let them drop out of high school to go on tour. So goes the sad, funny, only-in-New-York, only-in-the-’70s saga of the band Dust.

Hard Attack, the Dust album in question, is noteworthy not just for its monstrous hard rock onslaught as typified by the underground metal classic “Suicide,” but also for being the first album to employ cover imagery by pulp artist and fellow Brooklyn boy Frank Frazetta. The lush, action-packed painting, “Snow Giants,” showcases a threeway Viking battle-axe brawl atop icy mountain peaks, and thereby established metal’s endlessly formidable devotion to depictions barbarians being barbarous.

Even more amazing, though, is that Dust drummer Marc Bell would later go on to play for Richard Hell and the Voidoids before reinventing himself as punk legend Marky Ramone. Gabba-gabba-hey—how about that?