Cultural Influences of British Heavy Metal
The 1960s was a period in time during which rock music began to take hold on its listeners and develop as a powerful and influential music genre. By the end of the decade, a new form of rock music known as heavy metal began to form in Britain. This genre of rock, which was generally more aggressive and of a more serious tone than other types of music, gained popularity in England and in many other countries. Heavy metal evolved and grew throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and continues to thrive in the current music industry. The bands that performed this revolutionary music did not develop their style in a vacuum. Rather, their country of origin influenced most of their sound. Life in Britain during the 20th century, English historical events, and British cultural works are manifested in British heavy metal music and noticeably influenced heavy metal musicians' styles. Musically, these bands also drew on the influence of other genres of music.
The influence of life in England during the 20th century can be seen in British metal music. This genre of music, and all rock and roll music of the time, was generally associated with the working class. Most early rock bands came from the working class, from a generation that had been through World War II and through Britain's economic depression. (Cole and Trubo 13). It was during this era that the band Black Sabbath formed, a group of young boys from the Birmingham region (Szatmary 206). The city of Birmingham was the hometown of many music artists, including Robert Plant, John Bonham, The Move, and the Moody Blues (Rosen 21). As Bill Ward, Black Sabbath's drummer, states, "This was not a rich place at all. Most people were just regular factory workers and they got by and made do. I sensed they were a prideful people" (21). More specifically, Black Sabbath was a product of the village of Aston, England:
"[It was ] a place both tender and tough, a city buried beneath the explosives of German bombs, and a place steeped in a tradition dating back over 500 years...this suburb of Birmingham was a community factory-filled and populated by the people working in them. Home values were stressed, but if you didn't belong to a gang, the chances were you were in store for a daily thrashing (Rosen 20).
Britain's poor economic state at the time was a direct result of the destruction and costs of World War II (Marwick 130). Things were worsened as the United States ended the Lend-Lease Act with Britain, canceling an essential source of loans (130). Although the great change in culture is noted in Britain from the years 1959 to 1973, its true cause was economic change (167). Even renowned Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne, who later had a prolific solo career, claimed, "I don't profess to be a messiah of slum people, but I was a back-street kid, and that little demon is still in there, shoving the hot coal in" (Szatmary 206). This lifestyle even had a direct impact on the sounds of the music itself. Guitarist Tony Iommi lost two of his fingers in a factory accident, prompting him to change the way he wrote and performed music; this led to his signature guitar-playing sound (Rosen 55-56). Black Sabbath was not the only band with a connection to the working class. By the late 1970s, a group of similar British metal bands emerged, causing the era to be known as the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, or the NWOBHM (Christe 41). Bands like Raven, Judas Priest, and Saxon began their careers in workingmen's clubs, houses of beer and entertainment for the working class (32). Diamond Head, one of the most influential leaders of the NWOBHM, also formed in a town in the Birmingham region, in 1976 (Szatmary 321). Another NWOBHM band, Motorhead, exuded a gruff and crude image, with an abrasive sound to match (323). Unlike similar bands, Motorhead rejected themes of politics and history, but instead represented the unrefined culture they came from (Christe 30). Much of the attraction for metal to British fans was its "speed, roughness, and volume" (Arnett 66). Szatmary simplifies the condition, claiming the situation involved "poor British youths with no apparent future... [who] formed bands to express their frustration by means of a violent, explosive sound" (321). The rough and unpolished life of the working class in Britain, with its lack of optimism, was a significant, contributing factor to the creation of many similar metal bands.
In addition to the economic forces of the time, heavy metal formed as a reaction to the political and cultural pressures of the time. As psychologist Jeffrey Arnett notes, a significant portion of heavy metal songs portray feelings of alienation or other grim emotions (56). Indeed, early British musicians reflected the "militant mood" of their times (Szatmary 206). The names of many heavy metal bands of the NWOBHM indicated a type of "dark militancy" (Szatmary 321). Eponyms such as Angel Witch, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Venom illustrate Szatmary's assertion. Dissatisfaction with the government and society was a prime source of alienation. The despair of the Vietnam War and the constant threat of a nuclear disaster were sources of inspiration for early Black Sabbath songs such as "War Pigs" ("Paranoid" 1) and "Electric Funeral" ("Paranoid" 5). British students voiced their opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam on March 17, 1968: In Grosvenor Square, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign launched a protest which had violent results (Marwick 176). The Black Sabbath song "Into The Void" expresses the rebellious sentiments of the generation:
"Rocket engines burning fuel so fast / Up into the black sky so vast
Freedom fighters sent out to the sun / Escape from brainwashed minds and pollution
Leave the earth to all its sin and hate / Find another world where freedom waits..." ("Master" 8).
In developing the mascot for NWOBHM band Iron Maiden, artist Derek Riggs fashioned the figure "Eddie" to look like one of the "wasted youth" of society at the time (Christe 72). In the late 1970s, England faced the worst economic problems since World War II; unemployment and inflation were rising alarmingly (30). British then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was known for her conservative politics, and was ridiculed on the cover of Iron Maiden's "Sanctuary" single (36). Appropriately enough, the musical sound of heavy metal bands reflected their emotions. Scales in a minor key are most effective at expressing a grim feeling (Arnett 56). A study of 115 typical metal songs shows that 91% of the songs make use of a minor scale in the melody, as opposed to 9% that use a major scale exclusively (46). As Arnett puts it, "the heavy metal concert is the sensory equivalent of war" (66). Like the hippie culture of the 1960s, metal bands expressed dissent from the culture from whence they came and developed a musical style to express it (Szatmary 166).
Lyrically, heavy metal bands placed a significant emphasis on British history. No one single era in English history encompasses the lyrical interest of these bands. Rather, the topics and interests are scattered around discographies almost as much as British history itself. Events of the medieval Period seem to pique the interest of British metal bands. Arnold claims that the Dark Ages of Britain is a subject that evokes intrigue by many, perhaps due to its mysterious nature (157). Dan Beehler of Exciter [Magazine] suggests the battles and the uncertainty of the medieval days were some things that metal was all about (Christe 67). Heavy metal bands often revolved their lyrics around medieval themes, such as the popular Dungeons and Dragons game and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien; ironically, Tolkien is a native of Birmingham (67). Indeed, Ronnie James Dio epitomized this theme. Dio, a former member of rock acts Elf and Rainbow, also had a distinguished solo career (68). His fantasy and medieval lyrics were inspired by his love for Arthurian legends and British authors like Sir Walter Scott (68). Iron Maiden, one of the most popular heavy metal bands, produced music that was thought-provoking and often based on mythology (Arnett 43-44). As Christe claims, "England embraced Iron Maiden because the band loved its country" (41). Iron Maiden's ubiquitous, grim mascot "Eddie" was not only modeled on the youth of the 1970s, but also propaganda from both World War II and the Vietnam War (Christe 72-73). Iron Maiden, famous for its elaborate stage shows, evoked British memories of the medieval elements of the Tower Of London in their performances (Christe 35). Additionally, the Norman Conquest of 1066, a "major disruption in British history", continues to hold the imagination of the British (Arnold 157). The Normans were the last in the line of victorious invaders in Britain's long history (Briggs 50). Some historians downplay the role of the Norman invasion, and Markham's History of England even suggests that Saxon blood and culture still dominated England after the invasion (50-51). The pride in the ancient heritage of the early British is evident. Iron Maiden's anthem "Invaders" expresses a negative view towards the Normans ("Number" 1), and the band Saxon exude a sense of warrior pride reminiscent of the early Saxon people (Christe 40). From about 1550 to 1650, England was engulfed in a witchcraft frenzy. Dozens of people were executed for black witchery, a capital crime (Briggs 121). Fascination with the witchcraft craze remains with British society (121). Indeed, NWOBHM band Witchfinder General referenced this dark time in the creation of their band's moniker (Christe 40). Additionally, Iron Maiden's classic song "Hallowed Be Thy Name" sings of a prisoner's last thoughts before being executed on the gallows, another reference to the Puritan witchcraze ("Number" 9). Both Iron Maiden and Judas Priest criticized British colonization of the North American continent, in their songs "Run To The Hills" and "Savage", respectively (Christe 68-69). Britain's deep entanglement with World War I and World War II formed the basis of many Iron Maiden songs; the classic song "Aces High" gives the essence of the band's lyrical prowess, while making reference to the Second World War:
Bandits at 8 o'clock move in behind us / Ten ME-109's out of the sun
Ascending and turning our Spitfires to face them
Heading straight for them I press down my guns.
Rolling, turning, diving... / Run, live to fly, fly to live, do or die...
Won't you run, live to fly , fly to live, Aces high ("Powerslave" 1).
Iron Maiden's "Where Eagles Dare" ("Piece" 1) and "The Trooper" ("Piece" 5) also tell similar tales of British warfare.
British popular culture as important to heavy metal artists as the influence of British history. Art, literature, and popular culture were all manifested in the lyrics of early metal bands. George Orwell's 1984 was an important work of fiction that spoke of an absolute totalitarian regime. Though not openly stated, Judas Priest's "Electric Eye" makes a clear reference to this dominating governmental regime ("Screaming" 2). Judas Priest's seminal album Sad Wings of Destiny included musings on the works of Shakespeare (Christe 20), and even Iron Maiden took some of the great bard's influence in their stage show (35). Iron Maiden's epic masterpiece "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" sings an accurate rendition of the poem of the same name by Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge ("Powerslave" 8). Interestingly, Jimmy Page, guitarist of hard rock act Led Zeppelin, once owned the former home of Aleister Crowley, a British poet infamous for his occult beliefs (Cole and Trubo 9). The origin of Black Sabbath's name is also related to the occult. Some cite Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward's affinity to The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley, while others believe the band's name may have come from a 1935 Boris Karloff movie called Black Sabbath (30). The dabbling in these strange religious beliefs hearkens back to the British Dark Ages, where religious practices consisted mainly of oriental mysteries and native cults (Arnold 143). Overall, the literary and artistic influences on heavy metal bands were eclectic and varied. These bands were drawn towards works that were thought-provoking and represented a new point of view. Historical and cultural influences added a new and intellectual dimension to heavy metal music.
Musically, British heavy metal bands were influenced by other artists, generally focusing on blues-based music and classical compositions. The influence from blues music, especially American blues, is clear. In fact, early heavy metal was a "loud, explosive blues unfettered by psychedelia" (Szatmary 206). Led Zeppelin filled the emptiness of the then-diminishing blues rock scene, and brought it to a new level (Cole and Trubo 36). Black Sabbath, who invented the brooding sound of heavy metal, originally formed as a jazz band called Polka Tulk and then as a blues band known as Earth (Rosen 25). The British metal bands that came out during this time based their sound on blues rock, but stripped the sound down to a more powerful and speedier arrangement, incorporating many elements of the British punk movement (Szatmary 321-322). Judas Priest perhaps introduced the fusion of classical music, creating "heavily composed" songs with technical mastery (Christe 20). Similarly, hard rock contemporaries of the time introduced classical music into their melodies (16). Christe claims that metal musicians idealized the creativity and perfection of the classical composer (353). London-based Deep Purple even experimented successfully with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Szatmary 207).
British heavy metal was provoked and influenced by a great number of factors, but most of these factors were from within the British isles themselves. Conditions of the working class of the 20th century, social alienation of the British youth, English historical events, and British cultural events all provided a stimulus for a new genre of music. Additionally, the role of music from within Britain and from other countries shaped the sound of heavy metal. These influences contributed in some way to the sound, lyrical message, and the culture of heavy metal. The early British metal bands clearly exhibit these qualities what they produced.
Arnett, Jeffrey. Metalheads. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.
Arnold, C.J. Roman Britain To Saxon England. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press,
Black Sabbath. Master Of Reality. Warner Brothers Records, Inc., 1971.
Black Sabbath. Paranoid. Warner Brothers Records, Inc., 1970.
Briggs, Asa. A Social History Of England. New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1983.
Christe, Ian. Sound Of The Beast. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc, 2003.
Cole, Richard and Trubo, David. [i]Stairway To Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored. New York,
NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.
Iron Maiden. Number Of The Beast. Sanctuary Records, 1998.
Iron Maiden. Piece Of Mind. Capitol Records, 1983.
Iron Maiden. Powerslave. Sanctuary Records, 1998.
Judas Priest. Screaming For Vengeance. Columbia Records, 1982.
Marwick, Arthur. Britain In Our Century. New York, NY: Thames And Hudson, Inc., 1984.
Rosen, Steven. Black Sabbath. London, United Kingdom: Sanctuary Publishing, 1996.
Szatmary, David. A Time To Rock: A Social History Of Rock 'N Roll. Upper Saddle River, NJ:
Schirmer Books, 1996.
Guest article disclaimer:
This is a guest article, which means it does not necessarily represent the point of view of the MS Staff.
This is a guest article, which means it does not necessarily represent the point of view of the MS Staff.
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