…those born of the underground had found the massive financial rewards of their commercial success overwhelming, and misspent the better part of the music’s artistic currency. That failure of nerve had simply and tragically reduced rock’s practical power to the power of business.
– Fred Goodman, The Mansion on the Hill
(Though largely absent from the airwaves, the original Black Sabbath changed the face of rock.)
Social unrest and abhorrent popular culture spin a number of musical experiments into full-blown movements during the 1970s. Although metal, punk, reggae, and other styles can be traced back to the 1960s – and will achieve greater popularity in later decades – those genres reach recognizable forms as rebellions against the smooth sedation of mainstream ‘70s music.
That’s not to say that artists who pursue those styles won’t be popular in this decade. Some – KISS, Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and the like – will sell out arenas and move millions of albums throughout the decade. As far as the “mainstream” is concerned, however, such music still occupies a disreputable “underground.” When the Sex Pistols reach the #1 sales-slot in England during 1977, for example, the BBC refuses to acknowledge that fact, and clubs across England ban the group from performing. In future decades, this era’s “underground” will epitomize the decade in the public imagination. In reality, though, a kid growing up in the ‘70s could go through most of the decade without ever hearing songs like “Ace of Spades” or “Stairway to Heaven.” This author knows that for a fact, because I did.
It’ll be hard to imagine in the eras of YouTube and MTV, but a large segment of the music business remains more or less unheard by the masses in the 1970s. Unless you know the “right” radio stations to listen to, or read the appropriate magazines, the guardians of popular culture keep metal, punk, and so forth “left of the dial” – that is, restricted to the playlists of FM stations and the budding field of college radio. The occasional “hard” artist like Alice Cooper scores a hit, occupies heavy rotation for a few weeks, and then fades off the airwaves even as his records move gold or even platinum numbers. Things are better in England, but for American kids music from KISS and the Ramones music becomes initiatory, spoken of in whispers between classes or scribbled into notebooks when the teacher isn’t looking. Until Saturday Night Live appears in 1975, you’d be hard-pressed to see artists harder than Sonny and Cher on American TV. Don Krishner’s Rock Concert plays a wider variety of artists, but usually hits the airwaves after midnight. And so, while adults dance their nights away in smoky clubs, ‘70s kids become the true gatekeepers of musical intensity… which, in a way, just adds to the forbidden mystique of glam, reggae, punk… and, of course, metal.
Originally referencing toxic high-gravity minerals, the term heavy metal gets name-checked by the heroin poet William S. Burroughs and the biker hippie band Steppenwolf several years before critics graft that phrase onto the slack-tuned moody blues of Sabbath, Zeppelin and similar bands. Grafted or not, the name fits the sound. Fueled by testosterone rage, drenched in comic-book wickedness, and often coked out of its motherfucking skull, metal stomps out of the industrial wastelands where mechanical drudgery and polluted surroundings make music a do-or-die proposition. Other bands have been loud, and other artists have flirted with diabolic imagery. Still, the self-titled hammer-blows of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath stamp out a dark new territory. By the early 70s, that ground is thick with sinister wizards: Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Judas Priest, Blue Öyster Cult, and so forth.
Metal galvanizes an adolescent alchemy of shock value, instrumental prowess, staggering volume, and theatrical occultism. Whether the diabolical symbolism is serious (Coven, Zeppelin), playful (Alice Cooper, BOC), or deliberately absurd (Sabbath, KISS), metal artists cultivate an infernal mystique. Soon enough, this image will bite many artists in the ass (and in the wallet). During its early years, however, the metallic deviltry is more theatrical than real.
Like the blues from which it comes, heavy metal brims with demonic folklore: misty mountains, black dogs, wizards and demons and faeries wearing boots. Bloody Sabbaths, ladies in black, temples of Syrinx and courts of the Crimson King remain the order of the day for decades to come, with endless album covers featuring ominous symbols, brawny barbarians, thunderstruck mountains, and satanic figures spreading their wings. For most metal fans and artists, that hellish backdrop is a theatrical metaphor, epitomized in later years by Iron Maiden’s cartoon mascot, Eddie. Since the average metal fan feels like a monster to begin with, it’s not surprising that the music feels monstrous too. (The word’s root, monstrum, means both “warning” and “that which is revealed,” and so the connection seems especially apt.) A few people, though – some fans, a handful of artists, and a whole lot of outraged authorities – take metal waaaaaaaaaaay too seriously. Despite the obvious cartoonishness of bands like Judas Priest and KISS, bonfires soon start burning for heavy metal… most of them kindled by moral watchdogs, a few ignited by extreme fans.
Metal’s best days wait ahead, in the 1980s and beyond. Even so, this grinding ‘70s vanguard sets the gold (or perhaps the steel) standard for later bands and movements. Hated by critics, despised by parents, and hungrily embraced by fans, Sabbath and Zeppelin are eventually considered two of the most influential bands in rock, with plenty of Priests, Thin Lizzies, Rainbows and Scorpions in their wake.
Metal’s obnoxious cousin sneers at such pretentions. The term “punk rock” gets thrown around by Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs around the same time – early 1971, roughly two years after Bangs referred to the MC-5 as “punks on a meth power trip,” and slightly before a tiny New York club called CBGB opens its stage to ratty local artists. Most of these bands will appear a few times and fade away as most bands do. A handful, though, will literally rock the status quo for generations to come: Television, the Talking Heads, Blondie, Patti Smith, and the take-no-prisoners Ramones.
In the tailspin of the previous decade, the gender-fucking antics of Bowie, Pop, Cooper and so forth catch the militant spark following the Stonewall riots of 1969. The gay community is sick of being thrust into closets and jail cells, and as the sexual revolution of the previous decade reaches beyond the counterculture, a new counterculture of sexual revolt arises. Where the hippies tried to transform society, certain “mutants” strive to transform identity – usually through copious sex, drugs, and campy decadence. Whether the artists and audiences are actually gay, bisexual, transgendered, inspired or simply opportunistic, the flamboyant outrageousness cultivated in drag clubs spills over into punk’s older, smarter sibling: glam rock.
Where heavy metal recalls Gothic graveyards, glam evokes decadent science fiction. With Bowie as its leper messiah, this sleek trash overload summons Diamond Dogs and Spiders from Mars on a search-and-destroy mission through city streets and yawning suburbia. Like metal, glam’s fans and artists recreate themselves as monstrous shock-troops; the bridge between the two camps can be seen on the transgender warpaint of Alice Cooper, the Runaways, the New York Dolls, and KISS. But where early metal remains a testosterone playground, glam and punk throw machismo through the nearest window and slam-dance on its skull.
Together, punk and glam seize the rebellious spirit of the ‘60s, wrap it in the tacky trash of the ‘70s, and rip convention like a cheap pair of fishnets. Make-up, glitter, postmodern art theory and primal-scream libido surge through the gutters of New York, London, Berlin and Detroit, fighting, fucking, and fusing into proudly alien designs. It’s rough magic, but magic nonetheless.
Meanwhile, another outlaw music style rises from Jamaica. Rooted in a short-lived “rude boy” craze called rocksteady, the mystical revolution of reggae combines spiritual discipline, political consciousness, psychoactive smoke, ecstatic dance, and a vast musical stew.
Drawing from an array of African and Caribbean singing styles, American folk and blues-rock elements, alternating guitar-and-percussion lines, and insistent rhythms that suggest sea waves wearing away the land, reggae carries a messianic vibe. Salvation, not sedation, is its creed. Washed in biblical iconography (Babylon as the white world, Zion as the African Promised Land), evocative names (Burning Spear, Wailing Souls), and religious symbols (the Lion of the Tribe of Judah), this is music with magical intent – crafted to build bridges and bring down walls. Its militancy ranges from Peter Tosh’s army fatigues to Bob Marley’s quiet anger, but is never entirely absent. Contrasting with the adrenaline punch of rock, however, reggae (couched deeply, though not exclusively, in the Rastafarian faith) advocates non-violent solutions to misery. “Reggae,” says Bob Marley, “is a music dat ‘as plenty of fight. But only de music should fight, not de people.”
(The fact that Marley himself had been a street fighter, eventually forced to flee Jamaica by attacks against his family and himself, usually gets lost in a ganja-hindsight haze.)
Like rock, reggae comes of age in the mid-‘60s. By the early ‘70s, folks outside Jamaica have begun to notice. Eric Clapton’s remake of Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” becomes a radio hit in 1974… an ironic hit, too, in light of Clapton’s coke-fueled racism at the time. An influx of high-end recording technology and an outflow of immigrants refine reggae from its rambling beginnings to a potent cultural force, driven in large part by Lee “Scratch” Perry’s sonic wizardry and Bob Marley’s divine charisma.
As usual, reggae soon gets appropriated by American hippies and British punks. But while few hippies understand Kingston’s deprivation, kids from the slums of London and Brighton catch that vibe. Race riots and police crackdowns sharpen reggae’s righteous edge. By the mid-‘70s, white Brits and Jamaican refugees groove, brawl, torch barricades, and make beautiful music together.
(Coming next: British punk, techno, and more…)
[This article is the eighth part of a series of excerpts from my book-in-progress POWERCHORDS: MYSTIC RHYTHMS. All rights retained by the author. (c) 2014 Satyros Phil Brucato. Linking with attribution explicitly permitted. Reproduction or republishing without attribution by any party other than the Author, without written permission, is explicitly prohibited. Thanks!]
The rest of this series can be found below: