Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Scene of the Past: Metal Albums 40 Years Back

Among the seemingly endless listicles and galleries the VH1 website regularly churns out, one caught my eye a week or so ago -- finding its way into my Facebook stream, if I remember rightly -- a gallery that takes us back into the years before metal becomes a self-conscious movement, and has yet to extricate itself from the closely aligned and still more vague genre of "hard rock":  20 Classic Metal Albums Turning 40 in 2015.

Perhaps it's because I'm myself near to the midpoint of my own 40s that this retrospective -- among so many others -- got me ruminating as I clicked through the albums picked out by the VH1 writers.  I can say that my friends and I quite literally grew up as teens with classic metal in the 1980s, and became excited in  our childhoods by bands in the 1970s we didn't even realize might form part of a broader and deeper musical movement -- formative years for sensibilities and imaginations.  Of course, our generation could have that experience precisely because an earlier generation had been over the previous decade gradually feeling their way -- some more deliberately and consistently, others almost by happenstance or experimentation towards sounds that embodied and incorporated elements that would turn out to be central in later metal music.

The List of 40-Year Old "Metal" Albums

How many of these can we cay were really "metal," though? And perhaps more interestingly, why are they metal?  To what degree are they metal?  In order to know what we're asking about, we need to look through the list VH1 provides.  Here it is:
  • Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti
  • KISS - Alive
  • Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic
  • Rainbow - Rainbow
  • Black Sabbath - Sabotage
  • Bad Company - Straight Shooter
  • Blue Oyster Cult - On Your Feet or On Your Knees
  • Queen - A Night at the Opera
  • Alice Cooper - Welcome to My Nightmare
  • Lynard Skynard - Nuthin Fancy
  • Rush - Fly By Night
  • Scorpions - In Trance
  • ZZ Top - Fandango
  • Ted Nugent - Ted Nugent
  • UFO - Force It
  • Thin Lizzy - Fighting
  • Deep Purple - Come Taste The Band
  • AC/DC TNT (really, this should be High Voltage)
  • KISS - Dressed to Kill
  • Foghat - Fool For The City
This is, to be sure, a somewhat eclectic list, when you get down to it -- but overall a decent one, for a starting place.

Are all of these bands metal acts?  No, that's clearly not the case.  Are all of these albums metal albums (after all a band that's not really a metal band could do a metal album - perhaps analogous to to the disco phase that managed to corral or, to some, corrupt solid bands who'd made their rock bones, like KISS or the Rolling Stones!)?  No, that's not the case either.  But. . . I will admit that for the most part, the people who put the list together did manage to capture something of the cultural connection and diffusion, and the manifold of musical sensibilities within which early metal played itself out.  If metal will come to have a sharper edge and some relatively clearer (though generally contested) lines of demarcation than its related genre, "hard rock," it's true that there was always a lot of overlap -- and not just in the 1970s -- precisely because both metal and hard rock tended to be played together.  There's a lot more to be explored about what that means, I think.

Looking At the List More Closely

So. . .  what can we say about this list -- or rather its components -- straight of?  The bands and their albums can be separated out into several different main groups.

Let's call the first group "No Doubt About It Metal Bands" -- these are the acts that come to be recognized by metalheads as definitely metal.  And these records (in the 70s) or cassettes (in the 80s) became part of any serious classic metal collection.  Now, some of the bands that I'll set under this rubric -- AC/DC supplies a prime example -- might have declared themselves not to be metal bands, but just to be doing hard rock or "rock and roll," but they really do belong in this group.  Who would be in there?

Black Sabbath is a no-brainer.  Sabotage showcases some now-classic Sabbath tracks that maintain the bite and heaviness of their earlier albums.  So should be the Scorpions -- In Trance is some really solid early metal, showing that by then they'd found the foundation for their first main metal sound.  KISS Alive was one of the first albums that the boys in my neighborhood were fascinated by -- both for the pageantry of the costumes, and the grittiness of the music -- we'd listen to it over and over up in my friend, Jeff VanMeter's bedroom.  Dressed to Kill adds some classic tracks as well. Rainbow and UFO for anyone who knows his or her metal are also entirely unproblematic.  I'd even say Ted Nugent also fits this type.

Should Deep Purple get in there?  Certainly, they're a proto- and early metal band of absolutely central importance.  I think one can make a case that Come Taste The Band is somewhat less metal overall than some of the earlier records, but then again, the standards that we have to use for the early to mid-70s are a bit more forgiving that kind of musical experimentation.  So they fit into the second category, "Sure We'll Count Them as Metal Bands." I'd put another key proto-metal band, Led Zeppelin, into that group as well.  I'd place Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper, and Thin Lizzy in there as well.  All these bands have some heavy tracks, do have arguably metal guitar (or other instrument) solos -- and most importantly, they get listened to a lot by people who also listen to metal bands (and often tour with such bands as well), and they end up influencing quite a few metal artists. 

Then there's the bands that aren't really metal, but do have a kinda metal sound on some tracks, and again, tend to have songs that get played a lot in conjunction with genuinely metal songs -- on hard rock or AOR stations, back in the 70s and 80s.  Foghat is a great example of this, as is Bad Company.  I'd even place Aerosmith in there (side note:  I thought it was hilarious that people were calling RATT an "Aerosmith clone" when they first made it big).  Most of these are more hard rock with definite bluesy leanings.  Rush would fit in here as well, but represent a very different, prog-rock, kind of connection.  Let's call these the "Fellow Travelers of Metal."

And last, we have those bands that make you say:  "What?  Who told you these are metal bands?"  So, let's call these the "No Way! Maybe Good, but Not Metal!" bands.  Queen does have some cool, heavy stuff.  But, no, they're not metal.  Even if we start talking later genre metal, and we point towards other bands that strike one as being a bit more about a showtune sensibility than a metal one (I'm looking at you, sadly, what became of a once great Savatage!), Queen isn't metal.  Nor, for different reasons, is ZZ Top.  And Lynard Skynard?  Nope.  You can only stretch the "well, I listened to all of this stuff in the back of plenty of leather- or jean-jacketed dirtbags' cars while we smoked or drank or ditched class" line so far -- it has to have what we might call some "initial could-be-metal plausibility," and Skynard just does not have that.  It's quite good Southern Rock, I'll grant, but not metal.

Who Deserves To Be In The List.

Are there any important bands that would have made it into a better-researched, more fully informed list? Certainly -- 1975 was not a bad year at all for heavy stuff! Could we come up with three other albums that could have a better claim to represent the best of the metal that year had to offer than the three I've declared aren't actually metal at all?

Well, consider these four solid contenders:

Budgie - Bandolier
Montrose - Warner Brothers Presents Montrose
Nazareth - Hair of the Dog
Moxy - Moxy

One might want to argue that those bands might be classified more as hard rock than heavy metal proper.  But, if one balks about these, one ought to be equally uncomfortable with including AC/DC, Bad Company, or Foghat in the earlier list.  If we take Budgie's tracks on Bandolier for example, some of them are not any less heavy than Judas Priest would be in RockaRolla a year earlier (or in Sin After Sin in 1977) or Diamond Head will be in 1980's Lightning to the Nations.  The Montrose album also does seem to be metal. . . or at least metal-esque.  And, if there's any album of Nazareth that does deserve to be considered metal, it's that one (the rest, at least those I've given a listen to, prove rather disappointing). Moxy's self-titled debut perhaps has a better claim than these other three bands, if only because of the guitar work.  But all of them can be legitimately called "metal," in the understanding that we're talking about the metal of 1975.

There's other bands that do fit into the classic metal or proto-metal spectrum, but whose 1975 albums go off in different directions.  Even with Lemmy still on board (until he gets kicked off on the tour), it would be tough to make a case that Hawkwind's Warrior on the Edge of Time is metal.  I have a similarly tough time interpreting Uriah Heep's Return to Fantasy as a metal album.

I think there's likely quite a few other acts that I've simply not listened to or heard of who would also be better representatives of 1975's metal scene than Queen or ZZ Top -- and I'm hoping that readers will chime in with their own recommendations about who deserves to be incorporated into the list.  If we can get it to 25 --  or even 30 -- metal albums from 40 years back, that will be fantastic!