WHO INVENTED HEAVY METAL?, MARTIN POPOFF (2015)
Toronto, ON: Power Chord Press, 256 pp.,
ISBN: 9780991896356, p/bk, $36.00 (CAN), $34.00 (US), $43.00 (INT)
Reviewed by Andy R. Brown, Bath Spa University
Martin Popoff was the co-founder and editor of the hard rock and metal magazine, Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles (1994-2008), chief consultant on Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2005) and the Metal Evolution cable-TV series, and is author of numerous band biographies and illustrated coffee-table tomes. However, his main claim to fame is to have written more reviews of metal albums than any other journalist, the vast majority of which are contained in his Collector's Guide to Heavy Metal series, which began as a single book (1997), containing 3700 reviews and was then expanded (and divided) into separate by-decade volumes (2003, 2005, 2007, 2011). The title of the series echoes (intentionally or otherwise) that of veteran 'Dean of American Rock Critics', Robert Christgau's Consumer Guides (originally weekly columns, then edited into decade-length volumes). However, while Christgau's choice of 'Consumer' was intended to celebrate the 'intelligence' of 'paying customers [who] thumbed their noses at cultural panjandrums' (1998: 3), Popoff's choice seems bent on claiming a cultural legitimacy for metal as 'art', as well as product, worthy of chronology and informed criticism.
What both guides have in common is a 'ratings system'--Christgau's run A+ ('an organically conceived masterpiece the repays prolonged listening') to E- ('an organically conceived masterpiece the repays repeated listening with a sense of horror in the face of the void' (1982: 21-22), whereas Popoff's run 0 ('0s make me miserable and actively repulsed') to 10 ('10s are quite possibly blinding perfection [...] without a doubt in my obviously twisted mind, Art of the Highest Order') (1997: 5-6). Christgau graded Black Sabbath's (1970) debut an E ('E records are frequently cited as proof that there is no God' (1982: 21-22), whereas Popoff (in)famously graded two of Def Leppard's biggest-selling platters '0' (Hysteria (1987): 'high-tech, tasteless and devoid of all life whatsoever' and Adrenalize (1992): 'A heaping pile of chemical and bacterial-hospital smells') (1997, 118).
Like maverick 70s rock critics, Lester Bangs and Metal Mike Saunders, and 80s 'Klassic' Kerrang! writers, Malcolm Dome and Xavier Russell--who his style most resembles--Popoff is an autodidact, combining a journalistic attention to chronology, fact and quotation with a fannish-enthusiasm for detail, conjecture and coincidence, all of which is loosely held together in a writing style that is part stream-of-consciousness pondering, part bar-room-quiz-night provocation and part colloquial camaraderie--peppered with slang and apostrophes of omission: all aimed at a street-smart style that will achieve a consensus in the mind of the metal-fan-as-imagined interlocutor.
Framing the content and layout of the book around the question of the 'invention' of heavy metal: which bands were the originators or creators--although not necessarily the conscious designers (?)--of something that had not existed before their sound (or rather the capturing of that sound on record) is one that is sure to resonate with metal fans who, as Popoff is well aware, endlessly debate this question. Indeed, the net is awash with bloggers, journalists and (self-appointed) 'metal experts' who also frame the issue in this way.(1) Not surprising then that Popoff's book 'arose from years of debating this question with [such] people, as well as talks I've given on the topic at university conferences'.(2) In the wake of this, the book claims to offer the definitive answer, of the 'who' it was 'that made the long-playing LP that is the first heavy metal album' (65). For the author, this is a:
monster undertaking, comprising quotes from 126 different speakers (mostly the metal-makers themselves [...] blasted at you with much of my own contextualizing over 120,000 words of oral history, strict and detailed timeline, obsessive philosophizing, punctuated by more than 250 graphics [...] the result being a massive arrangement of all the salient arguments, in a weighty tome that ends in 1971!
The 'massive arrangement' or rather arrangement of the mass of quotes and facts is organized via a pseudo-periodic table or metallurgy: Trace Elements: 1250 BC--1966; Lead: 1967-69; Steel: 1970 and Titanium: 1971. The 'trace' elements are 'war music, dramatic classical music, dark and evil sounding classical music, the birth of the blues (and maybe, just maybe, the birth of rock 'n' roll) as well as the birth of the electric guitar' (22), all of which is covered in 53 pages, with the first few entries concerned with music and war, examples being the fabled fall of the Walls of Jericho and 'Turks, Greeks and Romans', circa 250 BC, putting on the first 'wild rock n roll shows' and by 50-96 CE, a 'big chunk of The Bible is written' (11-12). The single entry for the tenth century is concerned with 'Viking music and singing' and the twelfth century, the 'Notre Dame organum, which was designed to fill gothic cathedrals with swirling sound, just like the immersive Leslie-driven technique of Jon Lord' (of Deep Purple) (13). 1547-89 is concerned with the development of the theorbo (or bass lute), which first creates 'a form of power chords' (13). 1702 records the first usage of the term 'diabolus in musica' and in 1703 J.S. Bach 'enters the work force, as the first virtuoso composer' (14), who would be a major influence on Ritchie Blackmore and Yngwie Malmsteen. Predictably we also find entries for Beethoven who embarks on a 'world tour' in 1796, the 'tapping technique' of violin virtuoso Paganini, Berlioz's 'Requiem Mass' (1837), the premiere of Liszt's 'Faust Symphony' (1857) and Wagner's 'Twilight of the Gods', all works 'for which metal has had kinship' (16).
Many of these brief entries are supported by (very) long quotations from recorded interviews with authors, such as Jonathan Pieslak (on music and war), Christopher Knowles (The Secret History of Rock 'n' Roll) and 'musicologists' Suzanne Cusick and Gavin Baddeley, as well as a host of hard rock and heavy metal musicians, and 'Blue Oyster Cult producer and musicologist Sandy Pearlman', who offers a summary argument for the baroque and classical music period: 'I think any long piece on heavy metal should actually pay serious attention to its roots in 19th century European Romantic music' (17). A good point (Walser notwithstanding) except that such 'root' arguments tend to confuse as to which direction the artistic traffic is moving in.
What is notable about the more detailed entries for the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960-66 are the illustrations for guitars, such as the Telecaster, the Gibson Les Paul and the Hammond B3 organ as well as singles and Album covers, including Johnny Burnette's version of 'The Train Kept A-Rollin', which Popoff declares as:
the world's first heavy metal song, containing electric guitar licks, chugging, machine-gun propulsion, a driving 4/4 beat kept bluesy only by the walking bass line, distortion, menace, histrionic vocals to the point of tortured screams [...] and a repeating three-note minor key signature not part of the original. (27)
What is initially surprising about Ch. 2 Lead, covering the years 1967-69, is that it is by far the largest section (96 pages). The reason for this is that 'within the timeframe of this chapter, full-length records are released that many scholars of this stuff thumbprint as the first heavy metal album' (65); more specifically, 'lots and lots of smart people believe that heavy metal is invented by either a certain band in 1968, or one of two bands in 1969' (ibid). It would have been instructive here to identify some of these writers and their claims (although some of this is contained in the interview material that follows particular entries). It is also here that Popoff fully elaborates the criteria for judgment:
heavy metal gets invented not by a piece of technology, a song, live performance, a scream, a trace of mania or craziness, a shocking album cover or stage prop, but by sustained heavy metal over the course of most of a full-length album. (65)
Clear enough, although the late entry of such key criteria does tend to undermine the purpose of the preceding 60-odd pages. Contenders for 1967 are Cream, The Yardbirds, The Velvet Underground, Vanilla Fudge and most of all Jimi Hendrix's debut, 'Purple Haze' and Are You Experienced, who dominate the year. 1968 has debuts by Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, Spooky Tooth, Jeff Beck's Truth, Gun and Blue Cheer, who follow debut Vincebus Eruptum with Outsideinside, in the same year. 1969 has the MC5, The Stooges, Grand Funk Railroad, Golden Earring, Sea Shanties, King Crimson, Deep Purple (recorded live with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) but the decade begins and ends with Led Zeppelin and II.
However, it is not until the Recap section that ends the chapter that we get the criteria of judgment applied: neither of Zeppelin's seminal albums have enough metal numbers on them to make one fully metal album. Although Mountain are heavy, the heaviest records, those containing more power chords and distorted guitars, are the MC5's Kick Out the Jams and The Stooges. But there is a problem here: 'a sense or a clue that the "metal" from these bands is from a whole different philosophical tradition' (138). Or rather that many critics, including most obviously writers at Creem magazine, see both bands as garage rock or proto-punk, rather than metal. (3) Popoff resolves this dilemma by judging that neither of these albums had much influence on the metal that follows, so retrospectively they cannot be the inventors. The same applies to obscure albums, like High Tide's Sea Shanties and Golden Earring, in that they were not heard widely enough to be influential.
All of which, of course, clears the way for the real contenders. For Popoff, it is a three-tank race between Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep's Very 'Eavy, Very 'Umble, Deep Purple's In Rock and Sabbath's follow-up platter Paranoid, released in September 1970. But, unsurprisingly, it is a contest that is rigged, in that Black Sabbath have to win because they are the most influential band in the history of metal, so it follows that they must be the inventors, right? What is surprising here (although not if you have read Popoff's reviews [1997,2003] of these seminal records) is that Heep's debut and Purple's entry (4) into the metal sweepstakes are seriously considered. (5) Even more surprising is that Popoff, despite declaring Black Sabbath 'the first heavy metal record', argues that the band cannot be considered undisputed inventors of the genre until the release of their 1971 'fully metal' album, Master of Reality. This is because both of Sabbath's 1970 albums do not fully meet Popoff's criteria in comparison to Heep's debut and, especially, Deep Purple's In Rock. The problem is that although there are some bona fide heavy metal tracks on their first two albums, there is also more than a trace of blues and jazz styling (although more blues-metal and jazz-metal) on some tracks and even the hint of 'hippy jams'! Whereas, the majority of the tracks on Very 'Eavy, Very 'Umble are pioneering 'modern heavy metal', especially in terms of the production. (6) In the case of In Rock, there is no contest since six of its seven tracks are bona fide 'gleaming' heavy metal songs with powerful production, with only 'Child in Time' too slow and overlong. (7) This leads Popoff to the qualified judgment that, 'if In Rock had been released concurrently with Black Sabbath, Deep Purple would have been deemed the inventors of heavy metal, given how much faster, riffier, and heavier more often, Purple's record is' (183).
Popoff's solution to this dilemma, and the rationale behind having a final 'Titanium' chapter, is to examine the consistency of metallic purpose into 1971. This involves Heep's follow-up releases (Salisbury and Look At Yourself, both '71), but most crucially, Purple's Fireball: 'had Fireball been even heavier and flashier and riffier and more future-forward than the already highly inventive In Rock, then Black Sabbath, with their two records, might have been surpassed. It isn't and they aren't' (233). Also, Salisbury, with its progressive rock suite leans towards Purple's concerto of 1969, although Look at Yourself, despite its 'prog' aspects, fairs better with a number of heavy tracks. Indeed, Popoff argues that the 'production values' of Heep's three albums achieves a 'muscular' pageantry over Purple's, with the exception of the sound the latter achieved on Machine Head (1972). But the final killer-clincher is the release of Sabbath's Master of Reality, which Popoff describes as 'a bulldozer and house-wrecker' of an album, that 'triple-underscores' the titanium credentials of the band that are the true inventors of heavy metal. Despite the inclusion of two 'tossed-off mellow instrumentals', every other track on the album, as regards 'production, riffery, even vocals and arguably lyrics, is of a heavier metal than this band had crafted in 1970 or would ever craft in all the years' (236) that followed.
In many respects, this further test could also be said to be heavily rigged in favour of the perceived consensus, in that Purple's follow-up platter, in spite of the storming opener 'Fireball', is widely viewed as under-whelming, by fans and critics alike. Coincidentally, the year ends with an entry on the fire that engulfed the Montreux Casino venue, on 4 December, which not only formed the subject matter of the heavy metal anthem, 'Smoke on the Water' but also the decision to record the 'undisputed metal classic' (8) Machine Head, rather than a live album.
One of the visual pleasures of this and the other chapters is how the entries are arranged around vintage record-company adverts for album releases, culled from the archives. As Popoff notes (7), the language of these adds invites further study in comprehending the times. As for example, an ad directed at record stores that highlights the growing popularity of Sabbath in the States describes their in-the-know fans as 'Your freaky-looking customers' (168). The interview extracts and author commentaries that follow the majority of the entries work less successfully, mainly because they are often too long and seem collated rather than edited for relevance. And this takes me to my major criticism of the book, broadly entertaining as it is. Why Popoff sets it out in the way that he does, as a 'timeline with quotes project' (7)? His rationale is that assembling a 'stack of facts and figures and trivia' loosely correlated to a timeline is more of 'an academic exercise' because it offers 'lots of substance' as opposed to 'fashioning everything into one paragraph that flows to the next and creates some sort of entertaining "story"' (7). As a reader (and I hesitate to say, academic), it is surely the latter model that is the most 'academic'? I do not say this to be pedantic, as I did enjoy some of the trivia and some of the quotes were informative, but the lack of editing overall means that the book lacks a clear narrative organization, and this is especially the case when it comes to the author's own voice and evaluative points. Put plainly, there just is not enough argument guiding the timeline and the titular question. It also has to be said that much of the interview material that features here also features in other Popoff books, as well as the arguments made in the first two volumes of metal album reviews. Indeed, it could be argued that Popoff makes a more rounded job in those reviews of suggesting that heavy metal is 'invented' by Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Uriah Heep in 1970.(9)
Brown, A. R. (2015),'Explaining the naming of heavy metal from rock's "Back Pages": A dialogue with Deena Weinstein', Metal Music Studies, 1:2, pp. 233-61.
Christgau, R. (1982), Christagau's Rock Albums of the 70s, London: Vermilion.
-- (1998), Grown Up All Wrong, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Popoff, M. (1997), Collector's Guide to Heavy Metal, Burlington: Collector's Guide Publishing.
-- (2003), Collector's Guide to Heavy Metal, Volume I: The Seventies, Burlington: Collector's Guide Publishing.
-- (2005), Collector's Guide to Heavy Metal, Volume 2: The Eighties, Burlington: Collector's Guide Publishing.
-- (2007), Collector's Guide to Heavy Metal, Volume 3: The Nineties, Burlington: Collector's Guide Publishing.
-- (2011), Collector's Guide to Heavy Metal, Volume 4: The 00's, Burlington: Collector's Guide Publishing.
(1.) Although, invention arguments (like etymology claims) suggest there is a traceable point of origin when the genre emerges 'dazzling from the hands of a creator or in the shadowless light of a first morning' (to quote Foucualt).
(2.) Most notably as part of a panel assembled for the Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference (Bowling Green State University, 2013) and a keynote talk at the Modern Heavy Metal conference (Helsinki, 2015).
(3.) Although writers like Bangs, Saunders, Fletcher, Marsh and Kent seek to define early heavy metal as part of or a return to this sonic style, while rejecting later examples. See my 'Explaining the Naming' piece (Brown 2015).
(4.) In Rock is actually their fifth release.
(5.) I have to say that I have been deafened by the silence on these seminal bands, as opposed to the constant references to Sabbath, in Metal Studies.
(6.) There is a problem with Popoff's praise for the quantity of fully metal numbers on Heep's debut, since one of them 'Bird of Prey' is actually the opening track on second album Salisbury, switched for the US pressing, which muddies the waters on both fronts.
(7.) Many would argue that 'Child in Time' is the standout track on the album, certainly a live favourite with fans down the years. It also could be pointed out that the anti-war theme of the song, referencing Vietnam, also connects to Heep's Salisbury suite and Sabbath's War Pigs.
(8.) These are Popoff's words from his review (1997: 115).
(9.) Although this, more satisfactory, conclusion opens up a number of further issues. For example, the role of the 'lead organ' in forging the sound of early metal in both Purple and Heep.