Heavy metal grew out of the hard rock music of the late 1960s and 1970’s and originated in Britain. It shares elements of hard rock but is manifestly more aggressive and faster. It is played with drums, electric guitars and electric bass.
There are also hints of punk music and blues. The elements of punk music are revealed in the fast pace of the songs and the rebellious and often violent tendency in the music. The bands involved in heavy metal rock created music that was characterized by distortion, guitar solos and loudness. The lyrics and performances often aggressive and outlandish.
Britain in the late 1960s was now at the end of the post war economic boom. This decline would continue through the 1980’s. With high unemployment there were few options for working class kids, especially in the working- class towns in the North of England. Time would be idled away with many a day spent at the local jackpot casino.
From Birmingham, in the north of England, in 1968 came the band, Black Sabbath, generally thought of as the first heavy metal band. Also formed in 1968 were Led Zeppelin formed in London and Deep Purple, another British band. Heavy metal was heavily influenced by the hard rock sounds emerging in the 1960s, bands like Cream.
The band, Black Sabbath, coming from the poor working town of Birmingham, spoke to the youth of the time, living on the edges of society with few prospects for the future. It spoke to their experiences as an excluded group. It was, like punk music, anti-establishment and angry.
The sounds and ideas reflected in the music reflected the life of the factory and unemployment. But it also had a quality of escapism and fantasy which drew the youth in.
The guitarist in Black Sabbath, Toni Iommi, was himself involved in a factory accident, and actually lost the tips of his fingers. This influenced the sounds he could produce on his guitar by needing to loosen the strings.
Heavy metal music has gone through many different stages and influences. Many really popular groups have grown out of the heavy metal genre creating many sub-genres. Groups like Deep Purple in 1969, with their hugely popular Speed King and their incredible ballads. The band, Judas Priest known for their leather!
Heavy metal soon became an internationally recognized genre and groups, particularly on the West Coast of America became known for their showmanship and musical simplicity. This is the time when we first saw the hair metal bands. Many of these were more pop-oriented bands.
Metallica grew out of this genre in the 1980s. This group also had the hair and glam elements but represented something completely different. It is rather a thrash metal group.
Thrash metal is an extreme sub-genre. Its overall language is generally more aggressive and has more elements of punk rock and hardcore punk.
However, Metallica really became part of popular culture and this helped to bring heavy metal into the mainstream in the 1980’s. They were very successful and produced three albums that reached number one.
The heavy metal genre lost some of its grit during this time. Pop music in the 90s used heavy metal imagery to promote their sounds and by the 90s and 2000s , rap and hip hop had usurped heavy metal’s bad boy image.
Heavy metal music is often criticized for its themes and language. It represents ideas like sex, drugs, fun and all things enjoyable but at the same time focuses on much darker things like death, pain and destruction. Both themes are viewed as problematic.
Heavy metal’s lyrics were heavily criticized for being too demonic and violent and encouraging the use of drugs and other dangerous substances. There were instances where heavy metal bands were actually sued as being responsible for the death by suicide of a number of young men.
One involved Ozzy Osbourne’s track from Black Sabbath, “Suicide Solution”. They suggested that the messages given over in these lyrics were causing actual harm and were irresponsible.
In the 1980s, a petition was made to US Congress to regulate and control the lyrics in Heavy Metal Music. A sticker was produced to appear, and still appears, on some music suggesting ‘parental guidance’.
The majority of fans of the heavy metal are white male but there is a growing number of female fans with the introduction of glam metal. The popular term used when referring to member of this group are metalhead or headbanger.
Heavy metal music’s main fan base is in North America and also in Northern Europe. It is growing in popularity in African and Latino groups and there are a number of really successful artists like Nigerian born, Tosin Abasi.
Metal music has developed into a very distinctive and specific culture. Membership is mainly masculine and is defined by expressions of authenticity and particular fashion and accessories. They would not be considered part of the mainstream.
Metalheads can be easily identified by their leatherjacks, long hair, tattoos and body piercings. Attendance at concerts, buying albums and being involved in forums on the internet with other fans where they can discuss all the latest news and albums. This demonstrates their authenticity as metalheads and shows their true allegiance to this sub-culture.
However, Metal music can be found everywhere today and it has to some extent entered the mainstream culture with some popular bands, like Metallica, and their successful album Black Album in 1991.
Suicide and Heavy Metal
Heavy metal music has been the subject of much controversy. The music and culture have been accused of being responsible for the increase in the suicide of young people. The use of overtly dark lyrics in heavy metal and themes around violence, suicide, and societal chaos have been used to promote this argument. So much has been written about this but no real link has been found that confirms that listening to heavy metal music might lead to suicide.
Heavy metal fans are known to have higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse. And they do indulge in a lot of reckless behavior.
However, because they have higher rates than other groups, and these are some of the known factors leading to suicide, it is not possible to say emphatically that heavy metal music is the cause. Those looking for a cause to this serious problem are likely to look in places where they have little understanding and where it may seem that the answer is obvious.
Young people are always searching out ways to express themselves. They are looking for subcultures and don’t want to be part of mainstream society. Many young people feel they don’t belong and feel alienated from their peers and families.
They are often drawn to heavy metal themes that speak to these feelings and allow them expression. Feelings of isolation may encourage young men to become involved in heavy metal culture because of its hyper-masculinity and themes which include domination of women and sexual power.