The American Roots of Heavy Metal

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I was pretty excited this past week to hear that Sam Dunn's long awaited 11-part documentary series Metal Evolution was finally out. (actually it had been released in November, but I'd just finally caught the wordDunn-Cooper). I love Sam Dunn and his documentary films, and if you haven't heard of him, it's my pleasure to introduce him to you in this weekend's Jukebox. Sam loves heavy metal and all his films so far have been on that topic, and all are good. It all began with Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, which was followed by Global Metal. After the broad success of these two films, Dunn was able to live out absurd childhood fantasies by filming Iron Maiden on a world tour, captured in the film Iron Maiden: Flight 666, and hanging with Rush while filming a documentary on the band metevolutionseriescalled Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. Many people told Dunn that they'd wished his first film Metal had been 10 hours long (so true!), and thus the newest series Metal Evolution was set into action.

Dunn received a BA in  anthropology, plus an MA in social anthropology, and he brings this sensibility to his films, creating what from my perspective is a very integral filmmaker. He's particularly good in including themes and influences from all four-quadrants, and he looks at the role of religion, class, culture, technology, cultural and historical context, sexuality, violence, gender and much more in the evolution of heavy metal music (and its precursors). Watching all these themes interact in the evolution of the genre makes for very rich viewing and this new series Metal Evolution does not dissapoint. In Canada you can watch them all for free at MuchMore music here, and in the US at VH1 here. Outside of North America I'm not sure, I hope it's accessible through these sites or others.

What I've chosen to do in this particular Jukebox is just follow the thread of one single episode in the series ('Episode 102'), highlighting a couple of things here and there while playing some killer tunes. This episode focuses on the American roots of heavy metal, and there's some pretty interesting precursors in thesurferchoicecover lineage, especially when seen through these broader contexts.


Dunn begins with the influence of surf music and the surf guitar, which he says "was heavy for its time" with its "intense and shredding sound", and he visits the legendary surf guitarist Dick Dale. Dale says that critics described his music as sounding like "the metallic galloping of two trains coming together crashing". I love how Dale describes his playing style- "I don't consider myself a guitar player, I don't know what an augmented 9th or 13th is, and I don't care. I just bang on that thing and I make it scream with pain or pleasure, and I get sounds of mother nature". Just gettin at it, getting down to it, bangin on it, making sparks happen. Dale was also a notoriously loud player and says he was influenced by the jazz drummer Gene Krupa, famously wild and energetic and noisy himself.





    The next genre that would influence the future of heavy metal is garage rock, and there was an explosion of garage rock in America in the later half of the 1960s. Dunn focuses on the Detroit band The Amboy Dukes, which featured notable guitarist Teg Nugent, who describes the vibe and ethos of their music like this: "The Amboy Dukes were the quintessential garage band. We had all the flailing karang outrage, the uninhibitedness, the ferociousness of my Chuck Berry, Bo Didley dreams, which was as raw and unrefined as possible". gritty. noisy. do it yourself. guitars. raw. Garage rock. "Come along if you can".

(the guitar riff at 2:21 of this song is worth the whole thing, and to me really begins to herald the metal future with its ballsy fuzzed out hugeness).






Steppenwolf. Born to Be Wild. Obvious, we've heard it a million times. But put it back in its context. It's the surfacing of becoming, the heavy sounds of the new. It pops with a gallop and noise that are actually still pretty badass and big if we hear it again anew. And this chorus, what was this all about, especially amid the upheaval of the sixties. What's it saying, what's it calling for, where's the highway going? - "Like a true natures child, I was born, born to be wild".





Next up, Blue Cheer.  They start to up the ante. Things get gnarly and noisy, mean and eruptive. But also psychedelic! They were a San Francisco band that were absorbing the field/context they were submersed in. In the episode the guitarist says their music was a mix of "folk, rock, and psychedelic". But Geddy Lee of Rush opens up another layer when he says, "In many ways they were the first metal band, but they didn't think in terms of metal, it was volume that they were all about. And fury". Blue Cheer.


The legendary MC5. They were radicalized by the events of the 1960s, the Vietnam War and the protests. "There was a sense of urgency to finding a militant position to take to oppose the disastrous direction things were going in". They were working in factories and were responding to their environment. "We weremc5-kick-out-the-jams-album-cover-12476 all influenced by the industrial base of Detroit. This idea of metal, and the noise, showed up in the music". "I think the music really more then anything else was a reaction to the industrial nature of Detroit". "Every night, clubs would be full of workers...There was a lot going on for a musician". The MC5 played loud, vital, electric. Even Ted Nugent, not exactly given to humility, reports that when he saw the MC5, "I thought I was a bad motherfucker on the guitar. I thought the Amboy Dukes were bad motherfuckers, had the James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave shake goin on. Then I saw the MC5...[pauses] was stupefying". Kick out the jams indeed motherfucker.


And lest we forget where this river one day flowed to, here's Metallica in Russia in 1991. The wall had just come down. freedom. energy. militance. violence. chaos. vitality. metal. evolution.


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  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 20 February 2012 02:35 posted by Chris Dierkes

    nice piece dude. The Blue Cheer is awesome. It made me think of another psychedelic band that I think could be thought of as grandfathers of metal (maybe great-uncles): Vanilla Fudge.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Monday, 20 February 2012 17:54 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    ya, I'd agree that the Fudge fits in the lineage. You can feel things getting heavier, grungier, clangy, starting to fray a bit at the edges.

    This choice reminded me of Iron Butterfly and In a Gadda Da Vida.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 20 February 2012 19:24 posted by Chris Dierkes

    I have a good story about that one. About 8 years ago our church got this huge new organ. One of the deacons here (a big 60s/70s rock fan) keep trying to get our organist to play In a Gadda Da Vida on the thing. Our organist was classically trained in England so he didn't actually know the song :). So this goes on for sometime. We had a birthday party for the organist a few years back up in the church. And so he got together a band--including a member of the church who used to be in BTO of all things. And then he they played the extended version, the whole thing. It was surreal. One of the servers got candles out of the sacristy and we had lit candles waving to the music.

    It was something like this, except way heavier:

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