Sunday, 29 March 2020

Mix Tape


At my work leaving do last Summer, I fell into conversation about music with two friends and colleagues. The beer had been flowing and I was cracking on about rock music again. I was waxing lyrical about the variety and depth and bombast and subtlety and light and shade and emotion and power of heavy metal in particular.  Jenny and Naomi looked at me blankly. They were steadfastly unconvinced. This was clearly not how they saw the genre. 

I said would come up with a playlist that would demonstrate the evolution of hard rock and heavy metal; and highlight the sweeping variety and complexity of the best of the movement.

It’s only taken me 9 months and a worldwide pandemic. And they will almost certainly have forgotten that conversation. But I've been on a mission. Here at last is a post about the origins and growth of hard rock and heavy metal as it matters to me. An electronic mix tape of 29 tracks.

Forgive me a nerdy note, before we go further. For definitional purposes, this list includes both heavy metal and hard rock. This is bold step. Purists the length and breadth of the land will be sucking their teeth and shaking their heads in bemusement. This is because hard rock and heavy metal are traditionally regarded as having different roots. The former comes through a twisted lineage of Afro-American blues to spawn electrified boogie and swaggering rhythms from the likes of Led Zep and Deep Purple to AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Heavy Metal is regarded as having a classical source, taking scales and structures typically found in classical music to create power, drama, changes of pace and theatrics, evidenced by bands from Judas Priest and Iron Maiden to Metallica and Tool.

The reason I’m lumping together these two sub genres of the all-encompassing ‘rock’ beast is that they have more in common than they have in contrast. Take Black sabbath, widely (and rightly) regarded as the first true heavy metal band, are on record as saying they evolved their sound through the blues. Or take Motorhead who played loud, fast, aggressive, in-your-face music redolent of the finest heavy metal: Lemmy always regarded his creation as ‘just a rock n’ roll band’. This is the point. Stylistically they are tied together by a reliance on loud, distorted guitars, built on chunky riffs, underscored by driving and dense rhythms.

Having argued the rationale for creating a generic theme for this mix tape, I’m now gonna pull it apart and highlight various constituent elements and trends. This is a personal journey towards enlightenment for non-believers. As such, I don’t expect these ramblings to go unchallenged.

Origins

The Kinks – You Really Got Me (1964) 
What better jumping off point can there be? This catchy 2-minute-15-seconds wonder with its chant-like chorus was a smash hit and launched a long career. Ray Davies wrote the song, but the most important element for our story is the riff. Ray’s younger brother Dave created it by slicing up the speaker cone of his Elpico guitar amp and poking it with a pin. The resulting dirty, fuzzy and raw sound was the birth of that bedrock of hard rock and heavy metal, the beautiful powerchord. And we are away.

Jimi Hendrix – Purple Haze (1967)
Hendrix was a true original. His indelible stamp on popular culture covers many facets. For this list, we are most concerned with the way he took the guitar to places it had never before been taken. By making feedback, distortion and wah-wah exciting; and by putting his amps through the wringer to play at terrifying volume, Hendrix booted open the door to new music. This was not yet hard rock or heavy metal – Hendrix was far too diverse to be constricted by such narrow concepts. But he had shown the way.    

Blue Cheer – Summertime Blues (1968)
American rockers Blue Cheer, fresh out of San Francisco played thunderous, psychedelic, LSD-inspired blues rock. They have been credited with pioneering the heavy metal sound. Though in my view, they provide important stepping stones along the way rather than the fully formed medium we have all come to know and love.



The pioneers

Led Zeppelin – Heartbreaker (1969) 
Zep’s second album is where things really come together. It is an intense and gritty slab of hard rock. Moving up a gear from their debut, Jimmy Page introduces a compelling riff on ‘Heartbreaker’ that twists and burns in the second half of the track. Robert Plant’s cacophonous, spine-tingling vocal became the new benchmark for rock frontmen. The band went on to scale the heights with a series of million-selling albums, but this remains their heaviest work. 


Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970) 
Birmingham, June 1970 : The moment that Heavy Metal was born. Thunder, rain and the tolling bell in the first few moments of this seminal track give way to Tony Iommi’s colossal, ground-breaking riff and doom-laden lyrics, to which the incomparable Ozzy Osbourne gives life and death. These were defining moments in rock ‘n’ roll and I make no apology for the verbosity. Though nothing is ever truly original. The time changes on this masterpiece echo a classical composition and some of those bass runs and drum weaves are drawn from a jazz/blues inspiration. But never mind all that. Just luxuriate in the thick-as-treacle opening notes.



Deep Purple – Speed King (1970) 
Purple had been trotting out prog rock fodder that might not have created too many waves until a double line-up change presaged a new direction. Perhaps sniffing what was going on in Birmingham, new recruits Ian Gillan on vocals and Roger Glover on bass, added to Richie Blackmore’s guitar pyrotechnics to create the ‘In Rock’ masterpiece. The riff/rhythm that kicks ‘Speed King’ into life just after the organ intro is electrifying. And yet the track brings a more polished, more accomplished sound in comparison with Zep or Sabbath. Nevertheless, together, these three bands became the unholy trinity of British hard rock and heavy metal. This band's legacy runs deep, as we will see. 


Queen – Stone Cold Crazy (1974)
OK, Queen had many more strings to an impressive bow than mere hard rock. But there is no doubting the crunchy, distorted, driving guitar and theatrical delivery of much of their early work. On this track, Roger Taylor is properly shovelling coal behind the drums, giving traction to Brian May's express riff. The energy is electrifying and plenty have cited this as a touchstone for thrash metal that came 10 years later. When you have spare 2m16secs, check out Metallica’s cover of this. On discovering Queen’s early work a few years after its release, I found my erstwhile missing link between pop and metal. 


Rainbow – Stargazer (1976)
Richie Blackmore, having left Deep Purple at the height of their powers, formed a new band with the diminutive, leather-lunged singer Ronnie James Dio. Rainbow, with Dio’s influence, cast a new hard rock sound, often featuring ambitious musical passages, orchestration, classical influences and lyrical themes of mysticism, magic and fantasy. Dungeons and Dragons for rockers. Later incarnations of the band took a more commercial sound. ‘Stargazer’, however, weighs in at a hefty 8 minutes and 26 seconds and is from their early and best period. It is a predictable choice for this list, but simply too good to exclude. The track features the most thrilling drumming I’ve heard on any rock track, bar none. Cozy Powell was a genius.  


AC/DC – Overdose (1977)
The legendary Aussie rockers have been cornerstones of hard rock for generations. Flying in the face of punk, it was 1977’s ‘Let There Be Rock’ album that solidified their powerful, raw, infectious, boogie-hard rock. The band is currently a pale imitation of this period, dishing up  thin material and pantomime renditions of the classics. To remind ourselves of the vitality and thrills of this band at their best, indulge in the razor sharp barbs of guitar on the intro, giving way to a simple, dirty, electric riff so tight it constricts your breath. 


Motorhead – Overkill (1979) 
The embodiment of hard lived, hard played rock ‘n’ roll. Motorhead delivered uncompromising, high-octane music played at a furious pace and maximum volume. Fronted by anti-hero Lemmy and his hoary vocals; and powering the band with distinctive bottom-end bass tuning, there was no mistaking their sound. No-one else has come close to the swagger and swing produced on cuts like this. I agonised over which track to pick. 'Ace of Spades' is the one everyone knows and loves. Indeed it would be my funeral song choice. 'Overkill' gets the nod here because its not so obvious and yet beautifully captures their sheer relentless approach. I loved ‘em. 

Judas Priest – Screaming for Vengeance (1982)
The metal genre – however imprecisely defined – was spawning myriad bands who were regularly puncturing the actual charts with sonic mayhem. 1982 saw Judas Priest perfecting their sound around screaming guitars, superfast rhythms and ear-shattering vocals that - however extreme - was finding commercial success. The approach inspired a host of others who went on to establish speed and power metal. The incomparable Priest had already proved more than influential in creating the outrageous leather-and-studs image of heavy metal that stuck like clich├ęd superglue for decades. This track is typical of their hypersonic mid-80’s output. Pin back your lugholes.  


Melodic hard rock

If British acts had set the early metal and hard rock pace, by the mid-70’s US acts had picked up the baton and splintered it into new sub-genres. Alice Cooper, Kiss and Aerosmith were leading a groove-laden, image-rich brand to whom later glam metal bands owed a significant debt.

Down towards the border, Southern rock made its first appearances, spilling out of Allman Brothers musical territory to fuse metal, boogie and a sprinkling of country to produce rich, bluesy chugs. Blackfoot, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Mollie Hatchett were the ring-leaders. Stateside also pioneered the AOR sound at the softer end of the rock spectrum with pop-infused soaring melodies gloriously laid down by class acts like Boston, Journey, Styx, Foreigner (only half American!) and many others. But these are sub-genres that my mix tape can’t embrace. Mainly because it’s my list and I get to choose.

One sub-genre that easily makes the list is melodic hard rock which peaked in the 70’s and 80’s with a clutch of bands forming a solid backbone of classic hard rock.

UFO – Pack It Up (And Go) (1978)
UFO are my favourite band of all time. Flying slightly below other bands who achieved greater commercial success, UFO typify the genre and were the band that opened my eyes to the boundless energy, emotion and drama of brilliantly constructed and delivered classic hard rock when I was nothing but a snotty-nosed kid. ‘Pack It Up (And Go)’ is spikey, unpredictable and ahead of its time. And just listen to Schenker’s lead guitar work here, spraying shards of rock dust across everything. A genius at the peak of his powers. 


Whitesnake – Fool For Your Loving (1980)
Another Deep Purple link, of course. David Coverdale fronted the band after Ian Gillan’s departure and then left himself to form Whitesnake. Coverdale has re-invented the band many times, but this track comes from their breakthrough album, ploughing a fertile furrow of heavy blues rock. Coverdale's vocal is rich and mellow. Guitar twins Micky Moody and Bernie Marsden cook up a sumptuous sound. Ignore the soulless remake of this from 1989 with different musicians. This one is the real deal.


Thin Lizzy – Thunder and Lightning (1983)
This lot were torch-bearers for classic/melodic rock with a string of hits and a distinctive sound based around twin-lead guitars. This track comes from their final studio album and wouldn’t be many people’s pick as a classic Lizzy tune. But I love the energy that new guitarist John Sykes brought to the band at this point in their career. It’s also heavier and more dense than anything they had previously recorded, and yet still 24-carat Thin Lizzy with a lush keyboard undertow and brilliant, precise vocals from the incomparable Phil Lynott. 

The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal

Old rockers like me cling on the vitality and youthful zest brought by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) like old punks hang on to the raucous anarchy of gigs at The Music Machine. Punk was partly responsible for NWOBHM. Disaffected working class young white males were throwing together underground bands to play metal injected with a new aggression and intensity.

So many bands and great music came out of that period, which ultimately heralded hard rock/heavy metal’s most sustained commercially successful period.  The big hitters are those that inevitably make this mix tape, given the brief I’m working to. Nevertheless, honourable mentions go to Samson (there at the very start), Raven (uncompromising), Tygers of Pan Tang (whose debut album ‘Wildcat’ is a massively underestimated work of bristling power), Diamond Head, Angel Witch…too many others to mention. 

Iron Maiden – The Number Of the Beast (1982)
Iron Maiden swept all before them with a string of top-selling albums in the 80’s. Driven by Steve Harris’s vision and hitting a settled line-up, 1982’s Number of the Beast brought a polished sound harnessed to the band’s dynamic energy. It paid dividends with big hits in the singles chart without losing authenticity. NWOBHM had entered the mainstream.  This was an exciting time to be alive.


Def Leppard – Rock! Rock! (Til You Drop) (1983)
Sheffield’s biggest export since electroplated steel makes the list because of their first three albums and not for very much afterwards. ‘Pyromania’ was the turning point and its massive sales in America prompted a further shift towards an overwrought lush sound. The follow up album ‘Hysteria’ went ballistic, but left me cold. In amongst the radio-friendly melodic stuff creeping in on Pyromania, there are a few nuggets that remind us where the Lepps came from. ‘Rock! Rock! (Til You Drop)’ remains a great track. 


Saxon – Princess of the Night (1981)
Even Barnsley’s finest had a wobbly bit when they tried to embrace melodic rock and then had a go at power metal for a while. Thankfully, there is oodles of their driving, raw, monster-riff heavy material with which to keep ourselves pumped. ‘Princess of the Night’ is the opening track on ‘Denim and Leather’. They played this when I saw them live last year for the first time in about 15 years. They still deliver the goods like they mean it. Authenticity is everything, especially when you are smashing out an anthemic chunk of powerhouse metal laced with nostalgia for a train. Who says there’s no sentimentality in heavy metal?   


Thrash

If this list has been unashamedly biased towards Brit metal thus far, there’s no doubt that the next seismic shift was led by the US. Thrash metal was taking hold. Whilst the sub-genre owed a debt to NWOBHM, as well as punk and British stalwarts like Motorhead and Judas Priest, thrash was a Stateside game changer. In fact the UK has not been at the forefront of hard rock/metal innovation ever since.  Thrash was a pimped up ride along an extreme highway, typically dealing in ramped up aggression, fast tempos, percussive rhythms, down-tuned guitars and supersonic shredding solos.  

Thrash bred a whole extended family of derivations embracing doom, death, black, speed, avant-garde and all points in between.  I’d moved to London by this time and was to be seen down the Marquee Club on many a Friday night soaking up a mixed bag of the thrash family with increasingly ridiculous names like Testament, Carcass, Obituary and Deicide. Infact I almost hogged the spotlight one night during a Bolt Thrower gig whilst attempting to stage dive. Jo-Anne Bench, the band’s bassist, had to stop playing to help haul my inebriated self on to the stage. An eventual stylish swan-dive into the pit did nothing to restore my credibility.

Metallica – Welcome Home (Sanitarium) (1986)
First, last and always. Well may be not the very first, but Metallica were breakout thrashers and the only ones to achieve sustained global mainstream success. Their early albums, whilst suffering some lightweight production, can lay claim to definitive early thrash sounds rich with time changes, dramatic pauses, acoustic segments and drama alongside the crunching riffs. ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ comes from ‘Master of Puppets’, one of the greatest thrash albums of all time. I saw them on this tour shortly before bassist Cliff Burton died. A virile Anthrax were the support band. My life and my hearing were never the same again. 


Anthrax – Medusa (1985)
I saw lot of  Anthrax and Metallica back in the day and loved their live shows. Anthrax never quite mastered the depth of Metallica’s material and their later flirtation with hardcore rap was a cul-de-sac I wasn’t prepared to follow them down. The first clutch of albums were really technically strong though, and very tight. ‘Medusa’ from ‘Spreading The Disease’ was a live favourite.

Megadeth – Sweating Bullets (1992)
Dave Mustaine established Megadeth as the vehicle for his music and explosive guitar playing after he was kicked out of the founding Metallica line up. The output is patchy, but the band’s influence cannot be denied and so they make this mixtape. ‘Countdown to Extinction’ is a later album and ‘Sweating Bullets’ is a more sophisticated offering.


Glam and sleaze

At the same time as thrash was hitting its high water mark, glam metal was sweeping all before it. You might hear the term ‘hair metal’ to describe this period. It was never a term used at the time and is an after-the-fact media invention with no validity.

Against my better judgement I’m gonna have to include some glam in this list. Simply because in it was everywhere. Alice Cooper, Kiss, Van Halen, Bon Jovi and their kin have a lot to answer for. Glam metal’s flashy clothing, ridiculous hair, misogynistic/over-sexed lyrics and focus on style over substance stuck in my craw. Some of the music was a bit shallow and the brand kept getting re-invented and watered down. And yet some of the music, when the image noise can be filtered out was, let’s face it, catchy, fun and, well, OK.  

Quiet Riot – Cum On Feel the Noize (1983)
History pretty conclusively shows that the movement really began with Quiet Riot’s Metal Health album – the first Metal collection to top the Billboard Hot 100. The single ‘Cum On Feel the Noize’ secured massive rotation on MTV and ushered in a whole new era of video-powered sales. In a neat touch of symmetry, this single is of course a Slade cover, the original Glam kings from 1972. 


Motley Crue – Smokin' in the Boys Room (1985)
Motley Crue were the undisputed loud, rude, hedonistic and vaguely androgynous leaders of the Glam Metal circus. They lived larger than life: manslaughter trials, celebrity girlfriends, dodgy home movies and frightening amounts of chemical abuse. They started out as metal, but by ‘Theatre of Pain’ had pretty much set the glam template. 


Guns N’ Roses – Nightrain (1987)
Often lumped in with glam, Guns N' Roses actually had a very different vibe. They were a gritty and raw band and the music was refreshing, harder and bluesier in comparison with glam. Guns N’ Roses had dirt under their finger-nails and sleaze in their veins. In Slash they had a brilliant guitarist and in Axl Rose, a compelling front man. The band were full of energy, rage and frustration. Ingredients for powerful hard rock that connecting with people. They burned so brightly, had legions of dedicated fans and we thought they were the future. The freewheeling ‘Night Train’ comes from their incandescent album ‘Appetite for Destruction’. The band was never this good again. 


Grunge

Crawling out of Seattle and given wings by the Sub Pop label, grunge wiped glam and sleaze off the charts. Grunge is ostensibly a hard-wired distortion of metal and punk, shot through with fuzzy indie tones to keep things mysterious. Lyrically, there was a lot of navel-gazing going on: social isolation, disaffection, betrayal. Grunge was commercially successful. Nirvana, led by the troubled Kurt Cobain captured the mood of a generation. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots all found success with variations of the same zeitgeist.

The sounds hit a sweet spot for me and a high water mark was Nirvana’s set at Reading in August 1992. Cobain donned a blond wig to lead the band though a wild, explosive set whilst we were spattered in the mud and rain. Mudhoney, Nick cave and L7 also made a significant contribution to an outstanding, memorable day. That was Nirvana’s final gig in the UK. Less than 18 months later, Cobain ended his life with a shotgun shell.  

Nirvana – Breed (1991)
Nirvana's Nevermind hit number one in early 1992 and suddenly Guns N' Roses looked pretentious, impressionistic and flabby. Built around a warped, wired riff this is Nirvana’s sound at its scary best. In the spare lyric, Cobain is expressing fears about starting a family.


Mudhoney – Let It Slide (1991)
Less commercially successful than other bands around at the time, ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’ was nevertheless at the heart of the grunge sound. ‘Let It Slide’ was a perfect three-minute advert. I have it on limited edition mud-coloured vinyl. A collector’s item. Probably worth at least a fiver.  


Pearl Jam – Last Exit (1996)
By 1996, Pearl Jam had diversified their sound and ‘Vitalogy’ has an eclectic mix of material. Vocalist Eddie Vedder had begun contributing guitar as well and this gave the album a different dynamic. Tracks like ‘Corduroy’ and ‘Whipping’ were typical of their early canon; whereas the immediate ‘Spin The Black Circle’ and the selection here with its scintillating, insistent drum beat giving way to a grinding riff are more direct and punky. Great album. Great band.


21st Century metal

By the turn of the century, grunge had pretty much had its day. With a couple of notable exceptions (step forward Pearl Jam), bands had broken up or faded from view. However, their influence can be seen in some of the acts that followed: post-grunge bands like Creed and Nickelback; and the newly christened nu metal, shorn of indulgent solos, such as Korn and Limp Bizkit.

And the scene has subsequently fragmented more than ever. We see myriad spiralling and cross-over influences that have given rise to even more sub-sets. Metal and hard rock loves its labels and pigeon-holes, but where do you go next after neo-classic, alt, nu, industrial, groove, stoner and sludge?

I’m an old rocker and as this mix tape reaches 2020 it is running in to a sandbank of fusion and hybrid sounds that I can’t always dig. Linkin Park have been one of the biggest metal bands on the planet for a good few years this past decade, with their fearless blending of rock, metal, hip-hop and electronic themes. But I just don’t like ‘em. So they don’t make my list! 

Nevertheless, here’s a trio of bands that have made their mark over the last 20 years. I’m not under the skin of the genre like I used to be, when as a teenager I’d be twitching with anticipation at every new twist. So there’s no deep analysis here, just a recognition that through bands like this, metal and hard rock has the power to reinvent itself, quicken the pulse and keep connecting.

Slipknot – Duality (2005)
A band that keeps pushing the boundaries with their nine-musician (count ‘em) line up bringing turntables, switch-hit vocal styles and aggressive, discordant power plays.


Rammstein – Rammlied (2009)
Combining elements of industrial, techno and gothic metal, Rammstein harness booming, operatic vocals with grindingly heavy guitars, sweeping keyboards and a massive rhythmic drive. All Till Lindemann’s vocals are in German, adding a layer of harshness to the mix. Live shows are an epic pyrotechnical extravaganza. I saw them at Wembley Arena ten years ago,  sat several blocks back from the firestorm on the stage. My eyebrows have only just grown back. 


Alter Bridge – Dying Light (2020)
Let’s hear it for classic metal. I’m a big fan of this band. Myles Kennedy is a gifted vocalist and Marcus Tramonti an underrated axe-smith. Together they have created some powerful, layered, intense, soaring, heavy, hard (and soft) music. The future is safe.



That's a wrap!

The 80’s and early 90’s were the golden age for the metal and hard rock. NWOBHM progressively became just BHM and those fledgling bands joined older, more established hard rock and metal acts who were still shifting mega units and packing venues. Old school metal, hard rock, mainstream thrash and glam metal was lacing the charts and filling the airwaves. Every set from the 1990 Castle Donington Monsters of Rock festival headlined by Whitesnake was broadcast live on Radio 1. It’s impossible to think of this happening now. Grunge re-invented the genre at the start of the 90’s and the groovy times rolled on. We had never had it so good. 

In the consciousness of non-believers, we’ve fallen away from those glory days of 25 years ago. But that suits me, really. I’ve always quietly revelled in thought of rockers as outsiders, bucking the popular trend, swimming upstream…There is a clan feeling amongst us. As Johnny from Rock Candy magazine puts it, “We had so much in common. We talked the same language. And it didn't matter what you looked like. Everyone was welcome if you loved the music. It was a natural home for outsiders and misfits.”

So there we are. Long live rock n’ roll.  And outsiders n’ misfits. And kebab n’ chips.

Jenny & Naomi, I hope you made it this far. Twenty-nine tracks. This is my metal and hard rock journey, but it’s your mix tape. 

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