Recalling the good times on heavy metal’s birthday

As the genre celebrates its 50th birthday, we reflect on half a century of eardrum-perforating music

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (Photo by  Jay Dickman/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
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In the history of recorded music, no genre has earned more controversy, sparked greater outrage or scared more parents than heavy metal. From decapitated bats and onstage self-mutilation, to offstage accusations of coded Satanic messages and devil-worshipping, for five decades metal has hounded the upholders of morality across the globe, while attracting covert fascination from mainstream music fans. Because for all the gore, blood and muddle, metal’s most popular practitioners – such as Metallica and Iron Maiden – rank among the bestselling bands ever.

Fans will continue to debate where hard rock ends and heavy metal begins – and wars will rage for evermore between the music's multitude of scary-sounding subgenres, such as extreme, doom, death and black metal – yet few observers can deny that the genre sprouted its first furtive roots in the latter stages of 1968. Which means it's high time to throw popular music's most persistent party crasher an almighty birthday bash.

Scholarly observers have long placed thanks and blame at the feet of a trinity of bands credited with kick-starting all that was heavy and metallic to come: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, three British monoliths who were each at a pivotal crossroads in late 1968. First off the blocks were Deep Purple, whose debut single Hush peaked at No 4 in the US charts in late September, ensuring the band's place in the pantheon.

After a period of sonic experimentation, Purple's subsequent output would do much to define the "pure metal" sound, with influential LPs including In Rock (1970) and Machine Head (1972), the latter spawning perhaps metal's most enduring crossover anthem Smoke on the Waterwritten about a fire at a Frank Zappa concert in Montreux, Switzerland.

Also in September 1968, a newly formed Led Zeppelin played their first show, then-billed as The New Yardbirds – a short-lived reincarnation of the seminal blues-rock act that helped launch the career of Eric Clapton (who quit in 1965 and would soon form proto-metal power trio Cream). Slowhand's second six-string successor was Jimmy Page who, following The Yardbirds' implosion, drafted in singer Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham to play a few final contract-filling gigs in Scandinavia.

Within a month, this soon-to-be-seminal quartet were rebranded and in the studio recording a self-titled debut LP that would tear up the rock rule book and expound many of heavy metal's musical principles – chords were largely dispensed with in favour of tectonic riffs, played in unison on guitar and bass, while Plant preferred a scream to a croon. The unsettling, chromatic descending riff of early anthem Dazed and Confused would prove a key influence on metal's shackle-less harmonic approach. And while Zeppelin would go on to be remembered as the archetypal hard-rock band, Page's freaky flirtations with occultism – which included an unhealthy fixation with the works of Aleister Crowley and widespread reports of devil worship – ensured the band would be spiritually intertwined with metal.

Such supernatural silliness found an early rival in quintessential heavy-­metal act Black Sabbath, who did more to define the genre's gloomy image and outsiders' ethos than anyone before or since. Sabbath also laid down their roots in late 1968 when, following the collapse of an earlier band, guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward enlisted the talents of bassist Geezer Butler and a certain Ozzy Osbourne on vocals.

Recorded a year later, Sabbath's self-titled debut might be considered metal-proper's first LP-length entry, setting many of the genre's thematic tenants and cliches to come, such as Iommi's trudging power chords, later played on a heavily detuned guitar. The slow, raging, opening title track chillingly employs the tritone interval – otherwise known as the flattened fifth and outlawed in medieval times as "the Devil in music" – more subtly introduced into rock music three years earlier with Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze. This ear-unfriendly clash, which essentially places the two least-related notes on the keyboard next to each other to create a jarring disharmony, was to become an overused and much-parodied shorthand to instantly characterise heavy metal's unnerving undercurrent.

Sabbath's iconic quartet of early albums – rounded out by Paranoid (1970), Master of Reality (1971) and Vol 4 (1972) – also established metal's preoccupation with internal and external desolation alike, with Butler's doomy lyrics detailing nihilistic cynicism, apocalyptic imagery and geopolitical themes – notably on anti-conflict anthem War Pigs.

Taken together, the pioneering heaviness of this trinity embodied much of what metal was to become, laying a path from notable successors Judas Priest and Motorhead all the way to the feted but short-lived "new wave of British heavy metal" (or NWOBHM), which birthed bestsellers Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Saxon in the late 1970s.

Next came America's answer: thrash metal, spearheaded by the "Big Four" of Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax – itself an answer to the MTV-driven glam/hair metal of Motley Crue, Poison et al. Recent decades have seen countless regional interpretations and stylistic permutations – notably chilly Scandinavia's introspective black metal and the punk-influenced metalcore – until we arrive at the myriad different subgenres that constitute metal today.

The end? Not quite. While it's difficult to overstate the role played by Zeppelin, Sabbath and Purple – and the millions of eardrums they perverted – this pervading origins myth is perhaps too clean for such a murky genre. Every good tale needs strong lead characters, but let's not forget the supporting roles: such as Jeff Beck, the guitar virtuoso who proceeded Page – and succeeded Clapton – in The Yardbirds. Going solo in August 1968, Beck's debut Truth set many of the hallmarks of metal – including big, fuzzy, guitar riffs played in unison, and wailed vocals, courtesy of a young Rod Stewart – months before the competition, but the relative obscurity, and fast evolution, of its author saw the LP only retrospectively anointed.

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As important as the trinity were in defining the iconography – and popularity – of metal, it's important to remember that experimenting with uncomfortably distorted sound was relatively commonplace by the late-1960s, with guitarists increasingly eager to replicate the experiments in feedback of Hendrix and, to a lesser extent, The Who's Pete Townshend. Indeed, by September 1968, even The Beatles were turning up chronically overdriven amplifiers to record Helter Skelter, released as part of The White Album two months later – and somewhat disturbingly taken up as a manifesto by serial killer Charles Manson.

Then there's the small matter of etymology. The term "heavy metal" might (and I stress, might) have been coined by counterculture writer William Burroughs, who introduced "Uranian Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid" in 1961 novel The Soft Machine. But it was America's Steppenwolf – first among a list of overlooked stateside bands who might also claim a pioneering role in our metal gestation myth, alongside Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer – who first used the term in song, famously prophesising of "heavy metal thunder" in headbangers' and bikers' anthem Born to Be Wild. Wherever they heard the term first, even that band of hairy, leather-clad outcasts could have had no conception of the beast that they were conjuring.