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Up To 11: The Songs That Inspired Heavy Metal

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From heavy blues outings of the late 60s to pioneering hard rock anthems from the early 70s, we bring you the 11 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.

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, ‘Revolution’ (single B-side, 1968)
Ask any given Beatle-ologist which of the Liverpool quartet’s songs most influenced 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).

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, specialising 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.

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 mesmerising 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 spiralling 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.

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.

24 Comments

24 Comments

  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.

  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!

  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…

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