[Friday Playlist] Proto Metal Oddities

Photograph by Terry Richardson

Text by Adam Lehrer

It’s funny how in music, maybe more so than other mediums, if not all out complete musical ineptitude then a general lack of self-awareness is what pushes the art form into new and interesting realms. Lou Reed inspired legions of harsh noise acts by releasing five tracks of atonal skree on Metal Machine Music. Why? Though Reed argued that it was because he liked it, many have said the record was a ruse to get released by his label.

And then you have Black Sabbath, a band that sets the precedent for every doom, stoner, and sludge band that ever followed. But Black Sabbath (initially called Earth, which I’m sure was what Dylan Carlson was thinking of when he named his doom drone project Earth the same name) was a blues band with a Pink Floyd-inspired penchant for gobbling oodles of psychedelic drugs when they started. It was Tony Iommi’s loss of his middle and index finger on his fretting hand that resulted in his simplistic, rumbling, down-tuned, and low E chord-favoring guitar style that resulted in the pervasive feeling of evil that lurked in the band’s sound. The band’s viewing of Boris Karloff’s 1963 occult film Black Sabbath inspired the name change, and they had found a magnificent synergy in their sound and aesthetic. Would they know that they’d become one of the 5 or 6 most influential rock n’ roll bands ever Doubtful, they just played the way that they could.

And yet Black Sabbath didn’t emerge onto the scene without a precedent already being set by forebears and contemporaries. As long as the hippie scene was in motion there were bands that negated the ideas of free love and psychedelic visions of bliss. One out of every two trips is, let’s face it, fucking awful. So perhaps it was this, or just a lesser control over their instruments, that resulted in all these awesome proto-metal oddball records that came out in the late ‘60s and the late ‘70s. These bands, like their more famous psych contemporaries, were essentially blues bands, but freewheeling hippie-dom was replaced by growled and screamed vocals, feedback, and volume. These bands, most of which were shunned by rock press when they were around, have influenced hoards of music both good (doom metal, grunge, noise rock) and (depending on your taste of course) bad (hair metal, hair metal, and hair metal).

San Francisco-based late ‘60s Blue Cheer are often credited as the original heavy metal band and whether you think that’s true or not they really prove that heavy metal, unlike punk which stripped rock n’ roll of its basic form, is really just playing blues licks and amplifying them until your ears hurt. The band’s first two LPs, Vincebus Eruptum and Outsideinside, really hold up. They are the perfect band to play at a summer barbecue at like 6 pm, when everyone starts realizing they are really wasted and things are on the edge of getting out of control. There’s a recklessness to their sound. Aesthetically, the band was really conscious of their look, and their graphics are sort of a grittier version of the San Francisco psychedelia popular at the time (I had a Blue Cheer t-shirt at one point that I was wearing daily for a good while in college).

London-based The Groundhogs were attempting blues, but failing. But that failure is generally what made them interesting. The band sounded like they were falling apart much of the time, but making some interesting use of volume. Though most would align them with proto-metal, the band’s chaotic structure is more akin to the thrills of noise rock. I would listen to Groundhogs in a similar mood to when I want to listen to something like Sightings (a weird mood, to say the least).

Before you were able to throw a rock down some block in Bushwick and hit a black metal guitarist in the head, there was but one “heavy metal” band. They were Sir Lord Baltimore. Though the band had a drumming lead singer (I hate that, personally) their down-tuned but up-tempo feedback-heavy approach to psychedelic music is very audibly the precursor to stoner rock. The bands that are very clearly high and listened to Black Sabbath but don’t want to play as slow as your Electric Wizard’s and your Boris’s. There is a party vibe to Sir Lord Baltimore that I find attractive, a quality I also find attractive in the stoner rock bands of the ‘90s like Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, Monster Magnet, and the massively misunderstood Clutch. Sir Lord Baltimore is the godfather.

I am also going to include Mott the Hoople here; because I believe Ian Hunter and his band were misbranded as “glam rock.” I feel like Mott is often thought of as the lesser version of T. Rex. But unlike T. Rex who were a band that filtered rock through funk and dance music, you can’t really dance to Mott the Hoople at all. But you can certainly thrash to it. Need proof? Watch Leo Romero’s skateboarding part in the Emerica Made in Emerica video. He is absolutely ripping in that video, skating scary fast and defying death in every sequence. He is doing it to scorcher Mott the Hoople track ‘Thunderbuck Ram.’ To me, Mott the Hoople was less Bowie and more Guns n’ Roses, but recording in the wrong era.