In the late 1960s, the British industrial city Birmingham was a blue-collar factory town with limited options for young people. In the early 1970s, the economic growth that Britain had seen after World War II began to slow, and unemployment started to rise. This period of economic decline continued into the late 70s and early 80s, marked by inflation, labor strikes, and general economic decline.
Black Sabbath, arguably the first Heavy Metal band, sprang from Birmingham and gave voice to this experience of desolation. As Andrew L. Cope writes in Black Sabbath and the Rise of Heavy Metal Music, “One cannot dismiss simply as coincidence that the dark, angry and serious forms of music evident in the early work of Black Sabbath seem to correlate to the . . . dead end, working-class factory life of the industrial Midlands.”
As have many other forms of Rock and Roll, Heavy Metal reflected the mood of disenfranchised youth on the margins of society. Metal in Britain grew out of the same conditions as Punk; speaking in a simlarly anti-establishment voice, both could be considered a form of protest music. But over time, Heavy Metal evolved into a musical movement that embraced escapism and fantasy in a way that Punk did not.
Musically, Heavy Metal has deep roots in the Hard Rock of the 1960s, and by extension in the Blues, as filtered through the work of such bands as Led Zeppelin and Cream. (It could be said that the factory life influenced the musical sound of Heavy Metal as well as its general tone: Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi’s thick, grungy sound was the result of a factory accident in which a machine sliced off the tips of two fingers on his right hand. To compensate for his injured fingers, Iommi loosened the strings, resulting in a darker sound.)
While taking cues from Hard Rock, Metal took its musical ideas into new territory, where an emphasis on volume and distortion came to represent a vision of power that resonated deeply with Metal’s overwhelmingly male fan base. In this lesson, students will investigate the musical and social roots of Heavy Metal, using their findings to write reviews of early Metal performances.