Styles & Forms | Heavy Metal | Rock

The term ‘heavy metal’ came from the controversial US Beat Movement novel, Naked Lunch, in which the author, William Burroughs, talked about ‘heavy metal thunder’. This phrase was used in Steppenwolf’s 1968 single ‘Born To Be Wild’, and helped christen an emerging sub-genre of hard rock.

The origins of heavy metal are heard in the hard rock bands of the late-1960s and early 1970s such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin and Cream, and in the strident guitar playing of Dave Davies in The Kinks and Pete Townshend in The Who in the mid-1960s. The difference between hard rock and heavy metal is rather subtle – and for many listeners the terms are interchangeable. However, heavy metal is generally more brutal, louder and without the blues influence heard in hard rock, and often the lyrics have satanic, black magic or fantasy overtones. It’s a male dominated style of music, and popular with angst-ridden adolescents. There’s also a strict dress code – denim, leather, and perhaps most important of all, long hair. Needless to say, music critics hate heavy metal.

The defining albums are Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin II (1969), particularly the bombastic ‘Whole Lotta Love’, and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid (1971). While Zeppelin moved onto new musical pastures, Sabbath continued to plough the same furrow. Guitarist Tony Iommi came up with some of the style’s most memorable guitar riffs such as ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Iron Man’, while singer Ozzy Osbourne added his trademark nasal whine. Other prominent exponents include Judas Priest with singer Rob Halford’s trademark semi-operatic vocals as heard on British Steel (1980), and Motörhead (Ace Of Spades1980) is a prime example of their fare) who claimed to be so heavy that if they moved in next door to you then your lawn would die!


Dead lawns notwithstanding, a younger generation of British musicians was inspired by the hard rock and heavy metal bands of the 1970s, spawning the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, or NWOBHM for short. The NWOBHM included Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Saxon, Samson, Venom, Diamond Head and many others.

Of all the NWOBHM bands, the most successful were Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. Maiden’s trademark galloping rhythm and lyrics about fantasy or the Devil has changed little over the years. The Number Of The Beast (1982) marked a commercial breakthrough with little compromise in their sound. Def Leppard consistently strove to develop their sound and produced the best-selling Hysteria (1987), an expertly produced and painstakingly composed piece of pop metal.

The NWOBHM had a profound impact on drummer Lars Ulrich, who later formed Metallica, the most successful of the big four so-called thrash metal bands, the others being Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax. As Metallica’s sound developed they smoothed off their brutal edges and became a heavy metal band, with Metallica (1991) becoming one of the best-selling metal albums.


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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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