Metal’s origins go much deeper than the handful of bands credited as being a pioneer of the genre.
Heavy metal owes a heck of a lot to Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and perhaps most notably, Black Sabbath. The so-called unholy trinity were arguably the first generation of true heavy metal, but the narrative we’re used to hearing – that they singlehandedly forged the genre on a diet of blues and rock – is not the whole truth. It’s the sort of watered-down simplification of events that makes it easier to skim over everything pre-1969 when writing a feature or introducing a documentary on the genre, but whilst it’s not exactly untrue, it conveniently sidesteps a host of bands whose influence on all things heavy has been lost to the ages.
Metal has no ground zero, it was not born out of nothingness in 1970 like God creating light. Nor is it quite as simple as Jimi Hendrix > Cream > Vanilla Fudge > Blue Cheer > Steppenwolf > Grand Funk Railroad > Sabbath. Like all genres, it has its influencers, and it took time to fully take shape. One could even argue that metal wasn’t a true entity until NWOBHM came into being. Indeed, the question of who gave life to the first fuzzed-out heavy riff has no discernible answer, and in truth, what qualifies as metal here is somewhat subjective. Regardless, though, it’s indisputable that towards the tail-end of the ’60s, the initial blueprints for metal and its seemingly endless list of subgenres were forged. Amongst this time, a host of bands played around with the heavy rock that would become metal, helping to push it ever so slightly closer to its hellish final stop.
Many of these bands have been lost in the mists of time, so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to uncover some forgotten pages of rock literature to uncover some of metal’s forgotten pioneers.
Metal has boasted a ton of offshoots throughout its storied history, but one of the earliest was the movement known as downer rock. Fuelled by Quaaludes and an adoration for Black Sabbath – the subgenre’s originators – downer rock took on a life of its own, and is perhaps best summarised by the moody musings of Texas band Bloodrock. Forming in 1969 and achieving some success throughout the 70s, the band were about as metal as you could be before metal was its own distinct genre, bearing heavy riffs and a nihilistic sonic palette – not to mention that their greatest hit was an eight-and-a-half-minute track about air crash victims bleeding to death.
Famous for rock radio hit ‘Mississippi Queen’, covered by Ozzy Osbourne, W.A.S.P., Ministry, and Sam Kinison, Mountain’s energetic strain of proto-metal owed a lot to guitar maestro Leslie West. Their debut, Climbing!, was unleashed in 1970, and unlike others on this list, they would go on to achieve more success with future albums, even if they did break up in 1972 only to reunite a year later, the first of many reunions until the band’s most recent live show in 2010.
In truth, it’d be a sin to call Iron Butterfly “forgotten”, given that the band will go down in history as the first to achieve an RIAA platinum album award, but when discussing metal’s history, their name is too often omitted. Formed in 1966, the San Diego band are most famous for legendary hit ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’, taken from their 1968 album of the same name. The track took up a whole side of the record, surpassing 17 minutes and comprising swirling twin guitars that flirted with the sort of heaviness that would become synonymous with heavy metal. In a world that has since birthed more extreme variations of the devil’s favourite genre, they would seem rather tame, but to some, the band are the true forefathers of heavy metal.
Sir Lord Baltimore
One of the earliest bands to be described as “heavy metal” – then not so much a classifier as a way of describing the sound and feel of the music (often derogatively) – Brooklyn trio Sir Lord Baltimore formed in 1968 and emerged in 1970 with debut LP Kingdom Come, an album spear-headed by roaring guitars and a psychedelic edge that teetered on the boundaries of stoner rock. The band could not replicate such power on the follow-up, however, and imploded soon after, with members citing drug abuse as a factor. The experience would presumably put them on a more straight-edge path, as their 2006 reunion took a lyrical turn towards overt Christian themes.
Formed in London in the late ’60s, Leaf Hound are more famous for their contributions to the stoner rock genre, but their riff-based sound would prove an early indicator of the rock world’s movement into heavier realms. As its title suggests, their debut album Growers Of Mushroom borrowed heavily from psychedelic territories, melding these influences with hard rock to carve out a style that would be imitated for years to come. The album would prove the original line-up’s only studio recording, but frontman Peter French put together a new iteration of the band in 2004, who would go on to release new full-length Unleashed. Despite the 33-year hiatus, 2007’s Unleashed proved a critical success, and is well worth your time.
This Brooklyn four-piece released an early metal masterpiece in 1972’s Hard Attack, one that flirted with textures that would become key aspects of the doom subgenre, but were forced to break up when – get this – their parents wouldn’t let them drop out of high school to tour. Indeed, the band’s story is pretty funny, but at least drummer Marc Steven Bell would still make a name for himself in the music world, later reinventing himself as a punk legend operating under the name Marky Ramone. Bizarre, but true.
A trend amongst many of the bands on this list is just how short their careers turned out to be, but South Africa’s Suck exemplify this more than most. The group formed in 1970 and lasted just eight months, recording one LP in the process. Though Time To Suck featured just one original song, ‘The Whip’, amongst covers of King Crimson, Deep Purple, Grand Funk Railroad and more, the band showed real promise, and helped kick-start a wave of hard rock in South Africa. Most notably, they were an early indicator that metal would branch out from its British origins and become a global force.
Flower Travellin’ Band
An early sign of metal’s enduring capabilities as a channel for political narratives, Japan’s Flower Travellin’ Band had strong links with ’60s counterculture. Forming in 1967, the band’s Cream and Hendrix-inspired mix of proto-metal with psychedelic and progressive strains of rock saw them attain critical acclaim, but struggle commercially. The band would disband just three years into the 1970s, but they retain an enduring legacy amongst those who’ve had the pleasure of discovering them. The band actually reunited back in the tail end of 2007, but permanently broke up after the death of vocalist Joe Yamanaka in 2011.
Bridging the gap between the hard rock of the late ’60s and the heavy metal of the ’70s, Josefus embraced Led Zeppelin’s bluesy stylings to help pioneer the sort of Texas hard rock with which ZZ Top would soon yield success. The band have rather harshly been forgotten to the ages, with some not untruthfully suggesting that they ultimately lacked the songwriting ability needed to keep them around for the long haul. Intermittent reunions have come about since they originally disbanded in 1970, with their most recent release being a 2004 live album.
Coven’s well-documented occult lyrics and proclivity for guitars make them an obvious candidate for influencing metal, but as a band whose imagery and sound were outdone by Black Sabbath in 1970, they too are often omitted from metal’s history. Older readers may be surprised to see a name like Coven listed among “forgotten” artists, but as a young metal fan, this writer can attest that there are plenty who’ve probably never even heard the name. The band have even been credited as the origins of the devil horns, a title that seems to often go to Ronnie James Dio, who helped popularise the gesture in metal.
Another band whose credibility as a “forgotten” artist is perhaps only relevant for young fans, Black Widow’s first LPs came a year before Black Sabbath’s studio debut. The two bands are often compared, but in truth these contrasts are somewhat superficial, and, like Coven, Black Widow were simply outdone by Sabbath in terms of both sound and imagery. The band will no doubt feel a little hard done by given just how big Ozzy and co. became with a similar aesthetic, but the band actually started to move on from their occult imagery in 1971. Perhaps things would have gone differently had they not, but regardless, their legacy as an early inspiration on metal’s dark, occult imagery remains, even if their proggy, jazzy take on rock would prove too tame to ever be considered metal.
As you may expect from a band who were discovered by Tony Iommi, Necromandus’ strain of proto-metal began to shape the genre into the riff-obsessed form that would soon birth doom. The band’s story is a tragic case of what could have been, as despite things looking up for them when they recorded their debut and began opening up for Sabbath in 1973, Vertigo shelved the album when guitarist Barry Dunnery left the group. Orexis Of Death would not get a proper release until 1999, but just last year, a newly formed iteration featuring sole surviving original member Frank Hall released a self-titled second album.
One of few on this list who managed to survive past their first couple of releases, German rockers Lucifer’s Friend played a particularly heavy blend of early metal and prog rock. They’ve been cited as an early influence on doom metal, with an acclaimed 1970 debut that remains their heaviest outing, its dark lyrics also helping to cement their place as metal pioneers. Though their later records would take on a jazzier form, their 1981 album, Mean Machine, saw them revert back to a metallic entity worthy of their hellish name.
The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown
A major inspiration on the likes of King Diamond, KISS, Peter Gabriel, Marilyn Manson, Rob Halford, and Alice Cooper, the god of hellfire is often left out of the conversation of metal’s origins. His psychedelic theatrical rock bares little resemblance to metal, in truth, but his early shock-rock stage shows would go on to inspire the genre’s macabre image. Given his contributions to rock and the idea of a stage show, not to mention the musicians he would directly influence, it’s not inconceivable to suggest that heavy metal may be a very different beast were it not for Arthur Brown and his crazy world.
Initially a new project from Jeff Beck and the ex-Vanilla Fudge rhythm section of Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice (a goal that would later be realised on Beck, Bogert & Appice), Cactus would continue without Beck after an ill-timed car accident left him out of the music scene for a year, recruiting frontman Rusty Day from The Amboy Dukes and guitarist Jim McCarthy from The Buddy Miles Express and Mitch Ryder’s Detroit Wheels. The band’s blues-ridden hard rock featured some blistering guitar work that wouldn’t be out of place on a metal album, and their work between 1969–1972 remains some of the finest proto-metal the era had to offer.
Blending seriously loud guitars with heavy psych keyboards and a suitably raucous rhythm section, Detroit’s Frijid Pink are most remembered for their cover of The Animals’ ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, which proved a heavier rendition of the rhythm and blues classic. The band were the first rock outfit from the Motor City to have their debut LP break into the top twenty on the Billboard Top Albums chart, but they would undergo major personnel changes after their second album. As a testament to how early the band were conjuring their noisy racket, Led Zeppelin once opened for them at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom.
Words: George Parr (@GeorgeJParr)