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Up To 11: The Songs That Inspired Heavy Metal

From heavy blues outings of the late 60s to pioneering anthems from the early 70s, we bring you just a few songs that inspired heavy metal.

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Blue Cheer
Blue Cheer - Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

From heavy blues outings of the late 60s to pioneering hard rock anthems from the early 70s, we bring you some of the heaviest proto-metal songs that inspired heavy metal and today’s headbangers…

Cream: Spoonful (from Fresh Cream, 1966)

If you were a guitar-toting teenager in 1966 and ’67, you were one of the luckiest people on the planet, especially if you were in London and into the blues. The two best power trios ever formed, Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, decimated their competition in the blues clubs of the day. The former threesome – Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker – never made it clearer that heavy metal came from the blues than with their searing, amped-up version of this Willie Dixon song.

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The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Purple Haze (from the US edition of Are You Experienced, 1967)

What was the lumpen, stomping riff that opened “Purple Haze” – and who was the madman who delivered this dissonant racket to the masses via an upside-down Stratocaster? We know now that it was James Marshall Hendrix, sometime US Army serviceman and session musician, discovered in New York and transplanted to London for a short but vivid life revolving around acid and a completely new guitar sound. At the time, though, Jimi seemed like a being from another dimension.

The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then

The Beatles, Revolution (single B-side, 1968)

Ask any given Beatle-ologist which of the Liverpool quartet’s songs most inspired heavy metal, and the answer you will likely get is “Helter Skelter,” helped along by that song’s grim Charles Manson connotations. Ask any guitarist the same question and you’ll hear a different answer – because the core of any heavy metal song is the guitar tone. No Beatles song has as fuzzed-out an overdrive sound as the single version of “Revolution” (note, not the “White Album” version, which is much mellower).

The Beatles - Revolution

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Steppenwolf: Born To Be Wild (from Steppenwolf, 1968)

It’s a bit of a cliché to remind ourselves that the line “Heavy metal thunder” from Steppenwolf’s most famous song was the first time that the term had been used in a song. Still, let us not forget the impact that “Born To Be Wild” had on its release. Its bludgeoning guitar sound was among the most uncompromising of the class of ’68, and the wailing organ that underpinned John Kay’s throaty vocal was satisfyingly dissonant compared to the vacuous chart pop of the day. The Cult covered it successfully in ’86; Slayer murdered it 16 years later still.

Blue Cheer, Summertime Blues (from Vincebus Eruptum, 1968)

It’s pronounced “Win-kay-bus,” headbanger! That, however, was as cerebral as the San Francisco blues-rock band Blue Cheer ever got, specializing as they did in thumping great guitar riffs and barked vocals. Their version of Eddie Cochran’s 1958 youth anthem “Summertime Blues” throws in a bass solo and a shrieking lead guitar in place of the comedy baritone of the original, no doubt inspiring later versions by rockers including The Who, Van Halen, and Rush.

Summertime Blues

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MC5, Kick Out The Jams (from Kick Out The Jams, 1968)

Back in ’68 it wasn’t exactly common to begin your latest pop disc with a swear word, but that’s exactly what the Michigan rockers MC5 chose to do with “Kick Out The Jams,” one of the most enjoyably unreconstructed counterculture anthems ever written. Then again, most popular music back then didn’t feature vocals like a football crowd shouting at the referee, or a stack of guitar tracks of mesmerizing density. It’s little wonder that guitar music only got heavier and heavier in the wake of songs such as this one.

Iron Butterfly, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (from In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, 1968)

It means “in the Garden Of Eden,” see? In 1988, when LA thrashers Slayer covered Iron Butterfly’s finest moment for a single B-side, few of their fans knew what the hell it meant. On looking back at the original cut, it’s revealing to note the finesse with which the San Diego outfit played the song: it features spiraling organ, a slick bass part, and a near-operatic vocal performance from frontman Doug Ingle. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” may have inspired the metallers of the future, but they were no mere three-chord trick.

Deep Purple, Hush (from Shades Of Deep Purple, 1968)

British rock ruled the international airwaves in the late 60s to a degree that is hard to imagine these days, with Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath the three most influential – and, coincidentally, all Midlands-formed – rock acts. Of these, Purple were out of the blocks first, and while their Mk I line-up, fronted by the long-disappeared Rod Evans, never reached the commercial peaks of the Mk II band, this single was a song to treasure. Never mind that Britpop also-rans Kula Shaker later covered it: Purple inspired dozens, perhaps hundreds, of bands to metallic heights.

Deep Purple - Hush

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Led Zeppelin, Communication Breakdown (from Led Zeppelin, 1969)

What greater evidence of “Communication Breakdown”’s importance to the heavy metal world can there be other than the fact that it inspired Black Sabbath’s best-known song, “Paranoid”? Yes, as Sabs songwriter (and godfather of heavy metal) Tony Iommi has often admitted, “Communication Breakdown”’s simple, guitar-heavy arrangement contributed much to his later composition. We’ll think of it as a homage – a tribute, if you will.

Uriah Heep, Gypsy (from … Very ’Eavy… Very ’Umble, 1970)

What many people have forgotten all these years after the fact is that Uriah Heep, humble Londoners to a man, were absolutely massive in the late 60s and early 70s, storming through America on private jets and limos and headlining enormous arenas. “Gypsy” was one of many early Heep tunes that encouraged the rock fans of the world to come on board, and though it’s less progressive and ambitious than the band’s later epics, it still packs a serious punch.

Grand Funk Railroad, Shinin’ On (from Shinin’ On, 1974)

There must be something special about Flint, Michigan, given that it spawned Grand Funk Railroad (later Grand Funk), one of the biggest hard rock phenomena to emerge from middle America in the mid-70s. Though brontosaurus-like vocals, a piledriving stack of organ and bass parts, and Hendrix-level solos were par for the course for GFR, they also applied a soulful edge to their songwriting that was never more evident than on this career-best tune.

Shinin' On (Remastered 2002)

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  1. J Boss

    March 18, 2017 at 1:25 am

    King Crimson ….in the Court of Crimson King ? 21 Century Schizoid Man ?
    Thanks for mentioning Uriah Heep

  2. Mickt

    March 18, 2017 at 3:39 am

    Yo J Boss influence “heavy metal”
    If you thought The Court of the Crimson King influenced heavy metal you did some good shit back then.

  3. Kasper "Putz" Kjærsgaard

    March 18, 2017 at 9:41 am

    Link Wray and his work from the late 50′ are a clear giveaway.
    Loud, High cranked amps and the most basic riffs and chords.
    Listen to “Rumble”, “Jack the Ripper” and “Rawhide”.
    This IS heavy metal.

    • Chuck Nyren

      March 14, 2018 at 11:31 pm

      I was looking for Link on the list. Glad you mentioned him.

    • CajunMark

      May 29, 2018 at 3:57 pm


    • Pheet

      April 7, 2019 at 10:17 pm

      Dick Dale was a pretty heavy player for his day, too. “Miserlou” was as heavy as it got back in those very early ’60’s recordings, and his fast picking and use of Mideast and Eastern European folk tunes for his melody lines predated the metal movement by at least six years.

  4. Drummist

    March 18, 2017 at 3:32 pm

    The Kinks- You Really Got Me. Came before any of these.

    • Neil

      March 19, 2018 at 3:33 am

      This song was a revelation for me as a kid – and then there was Whole Lotta Love from Led Zeppelin

  5. Pavel

    March 18, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    Wghat about SIR LORD BALTIMOR? They were the best….

  6. Joe Skocz

    March 18, 2017 at 8:22 pm

    Studio version of Spoonful is very un-metal-like and not one of their better songs. Live “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is by far their most heavy metal song (“Live Cream vol II and Cream box set). Check it out on YouTube, I highly recommend it.. I was privileged to see “the two greatest power trios” live, and those two shows had the greatest impact on me of any.

  7. Jnlnyc

    March 19, 2017 at 3:27 am

    Blue Cheer formed in 1968, Summertime Blues was already a part of The Who’s set list in 1967….Blue Cheer didn’t influence The Who’s version.

  8. Ståle Årthun

    March 25, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    Regarding born to be wild. Story goes that Zodiac Minwarp was so unsatisfied with the Cult’s version that even though he didn’t like the original he had to record a cover to give it justice. To show how it really should be played. And in my opinion it probably is the best version. To be found on tattooed beat Messiah from around 1988-89.

  9. Rich Curtis

    April 2, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    I don’t understand why Black Sabbath is not included here. Like, “Iron Man”. Better yet, their self-titled song on their debut album – “Black Sabbath” or “The Wizard”.
    Or, some of the stuff by Mountain.
    “Mississippi Queen” or “Never in My Life” or “Blood of the Sun” or “You Better ,Believe It”
    “The Hunter” by Blue Cheer.
    Atomic Rooster – “Break the Ice”
    “Dazed and Confused” or “How Many More Times” by Led Zeppelin

    • Ed

      March 18, 2018 at 11:17 am

      Can’t help you with the others but Black Sabbath didn’t influence heavy metal, they “are” heavy metal.

  10. Keu

    July 28, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    Rich Curtis, that’s possibly because Black Sabbath is considered by many to be a metalband, although their first album indeed might not quite fit into that category.

    ‘Hush’ was actually written by Joe South I think not by Deep Purple,

    • Harrold

      August 23, 2017 at 2:17 pm

      You are correct, sir. “Hush” was written and recorded by Joe South. Purple just gave it the treatment… quite successfully!

    • E. Slavick

      May 29, 2018 at 12:20 am

      Hush was first recorded in 67 by Billie Joe Royal, 2 yrs before Joe South

  11. lia

    March 17, 2018 at 3:19 pm

    janis joplin pretty much influenced every rock singer that came after her, starting with robert plant

    • Del

      March 24, 2018 at 6:01 pm

      Robert Plant in his auto biography cites the early Delta Blues artists as being his major influences. I don’t recall him mentioning Janice Joplin.

  12. Honeyman

    March 17, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    Missing from this list and from greatest tri list is Mountain. Even heavy metal players say Mountain was a big influence. ( Leslie West, Corky Laing, Felix Papalardi)

  13. Ken

    March 17, 2018 at 5:51 pm

    Jeff Beck Group: “You Shook Me,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Shapes of Things,” “Rice Pudding.”

    And “Stroll On” by the Yardbirds, during the short-lived Beck and Jimmy Page dual-lead lineup.

  14. David Fields

    March 17, 2018 at 9:44 pm

    No Black Sabbath? Gotta be kidding! Listen to Master of Reality album for one.

    • Barish

      March 19, 2018 at 7:06 am

      It’s a list of songs that led to the inception of Heavy Metal, not a list of Heavy Metal songs, that’s why there’s no Sabbath.

  15. jbelkin

    March 17, 2018 at 11:37 pm

    Yeam Kinks had the first hit that hinted at metal. Don’t forget DEATH (Detroit band)

  16. Leigh

    March 18, 2018 at 9:04 pm

    I love Grand Funk Railroad (particularly their earlier, pre-pop material) but ” Hendrix-level solos” ?? I don’t think so.

  17. jim

    March 19, 2018 at 12:32 am

    I can’t believe you missed Vanilla Fudge, surely the closest thing in the 60s to HM, Keep Me Hangin’ On

  18. Ronnie

    March 21, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    Where’s the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”?! Next to Link Wray’s “The Rumble”, the biggest omission here…

  19. SL

    April 21, 2018 at 8:28 pm

    I always liked Over Under Sideways Down by the Yardbirds as a song that seems to fit here. And, of course, Helter Skelter as previously mentioned.

  20. steve

    May 31, 2018 at 9:33 am

    None of these is as influential as the Stones 1st album: Carol, Mona, Can I get Witness, etc and all their singles made before any of your selction got going. And don`t forget the KING of RnR
    CHUCK BERRY! Come on! Wake up at the back there!

  21. Frank

    June 13, 2018 at 5:10 am

    Revolution was a good choice but i think you forgot about Helter Skelter. What say you?

  22. John

    February 18, 2019 at 6:41 pm

    Hmm, Where’s Humble Pie and Steppenwolf?

  23. Ernie

    February 18, 2019 at 8:33 pm

    The Witch – The Sonics (1965)
    The Yardbirds – Happenings Ten Years Time Ago (1966)
    Oh Well – Fleetwood Mac (1969)
    Beggar’s Opera – Raymond’s Road (1971) – Ricky Gardiner went on to Iggy Pop and David Bowie

  24. CL

    March 18, 2019 at 10:19 am

    Strikes me that a number of songs here can probably be extrapolated from and will end up in either heavy rock going on to punk, indie, grunge etc. or prog genres rather than metal. What surprises me most is that The Kinks Songs ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘All Day and All of the Night’ I thought had universally been accepted as the grandfathers of all heavier varieties of rock and metal with Black Sabbaths eponymous song being the undisputed father of metal.

  25. lee

    March 18, 2019 at 6:26 pm

    it sounds like easy,gentle pop now but nothing sounded more aggressive than the(as it turned out fake i.e. put together by the American label) YARDBIRDS-FOR YOUR LOVE THE PURPLE LP I AIN’T DONE WRONG would be the song i would present to this jury deciding this matter

  26. Keld Trærup

    March 26, 2019 at 11:47 am

    Where is Black Zabbath. They started all of it!

  27. Larry Wechsler

    May 3, 2019 at 9:25 pm

    Peter Green’s “Green Manalishi” belongs on this list. Especially the live version recorded on “Live at the Boston Tea Party” in 1970 just before he left Fleetwood Mac. I have heard that the song is so identified with Judas Priest, who recorded it 14 years later, that many think it’s their song.

  28. Anthony Volpi

    May 4, 2019 at 10:31 am

    Ritchie Blackmore always said that he believed that “You Really Got Me” & “Al Day & All Of The night” by The Kinks were the first heavy metal song he ever heard.

  29. Johnny Quest

    July 9, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    Queen – Stone Cold crazy ’73
    Queen – Sheer heart attack ’73

    Those are way more metal precedents than any of the list. Bush my opinion.

  30. Gelmann

    April 11, 2022 at 12:51 am

    “Beck’s Bolero” is a rock instrumental recorded by English guitarist Jeff Beck in 1966. It is Beck’s first solo recording and has been described as “one of the great rock instrumentals, epic in scope, harmonically and rhythmically ambitious yet infused with primal energy”. “Beck’s Bolero” features a prominent melody with multiple guitar parts propelled by a rhythm inspired by Ravel’s Boléro.

    The recording session brought together a group of musicians, including Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, John Paul Jones, and Nicky Hopkins, who later agreed that the line up was a first attempt at what became Led Zeppelin.

    “Beck’s Bolero” was not released until ten months after recording and then only as the B-side to Beck’s first single. When it finally received greater exposure on Beck’s debut album Truth in the latter part of 1968, it was still considered quite advanced even though it was over two years old.

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