Best of 2020: The common consensus is that Black Sabbath were the first heavy metal band. And maybe they were. But that doesn’t mean they wrote the first heavy song.
Because while Ozzy and co. certainly took the concept of intense, sinister music played by evil-looking dudes to new sonic and visual heights, there were plenty of unnerving sounds designed to scare the bejesus out of listeners being created well before Tony Iommi’s deathly Black Sabbath tritone riff signaled the end (or the beginning?) of the musical world as we know it.
So lean back, strap in and take a trip back to the prehistoric age (the mid to late 1960s, for the most part) as Guitar World unearths some pre-Sab heavy metal thunder (and yes, that tune is on the list) with the 20 heaviest songs before Black Sabbath.
1. The Troggs - Wild Thing (1966)
Wild Thing was originally recorded in 1965 in a folky vein by American act The Wild Ones, but in British band The Troggs’ hands the following year it turned into a proto-garage-punk rave-up with a bashing, three-chord motif, hyper-sexualized vocal and, um, ocarina solo.
This version became the template going forward, from Jimi Hendrix’s fiery (literally, he set his Strat ablaze at the climax) feedback-laced performance of the song at the Monterey Pop Festival in ’68, to The Runaways’ and X’s punky takes, to Bruce Springsteen’s stomping, arena-shaking live renditions.
The song is so bulletproof, and the riff so undeniable, that even comedian Sam Kinison’s raunchy hair-metal mock-up couldn’t ruin it - not entirely, at least.
2. The Beatles - Helter Skelter (1968)
As the legend goes, Paul McCartney was inspired to write Helter Skelter after reading an interview with Pete Townshend in which The Who guitarist called his own band’s I Can See for Miles the “dirtiest, filthiest” song they’d ever recorded.
Paul managed not only to out-dirty Pete on this one, but also to anticipate and inspire decades of heaviness to come in the song’s distorted, dissonant guitars, thudding bass and shredded vocals.
It’s become a go-to for evil dudes ever since, from Mötley Crüe to Rob Zombie to Marilyn Manson (and, of course, Manson’s namesake, Charles). What’s more, The Beatles’ alternate Second Version / Take 17 recording, unearthed for the 50th anniversary White Album release, is an even wilder ride. As Paul says on the track, “Keep that one. Mark it ‘fab.’ ” You’d best listen to what the man says.
3. Led Zeppelin - Communication Breakdown (1969)
Let’s be honest: Any number of tunes - Whole Lotta Love, Dazed and Confused - could occupy the Zep spot on this list. But for sheer bone-crushing intensity, we’re going to give it to Communication Breakdown, whose machine-gunning stun riff not only served as something of a template for a zillion speed metal bands to come, but also sounds a whole lot like the one Sabbath fashioned for Paranoid a year later.
Furthermore, while Zep weren’t the only late-Sixties act pushing blues into a heavier realm, with this tune they just did it better - and, not insignificantly, faster - than their contemporaries.
4. MC5 - Kick Out The Jams (1969)
Really, Rob Tyner’s opening salvo to “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” would be enough to land this proto-punk anthem a spot on the list. It doesn’t hurt that what follows is no Tiptoe Through the Tulips.
Rather, it’s two and a half minutes of the most raucous and rip-snorting riffage and electric-shock soloing - courtesy of Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith - ever put to tape. As for that expletive, it managed to get the album (recorded live at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom) both censored and pulled from shelves. And, really, what’s more metal than that?
5. Steppenwolf - Born To Be Wild (1968)
It wasn’t the first-ever use of the words “heavy metal,” but for most music fans, this is where the term was born. Plus, singer John Kay follows it up with the word “thunder,” which only makes it even more badass.
That said, the title refrain is pretty metal in and of itself, and even though Steppenwolf were never that “heavy,” per se, this tune brought it all together with a chugging low-E string riff, raspy vocal and shout-it-out-loud chorus that presaged the sort of road-dog rockers that bands like Judas Priest and Motörhead would ride to glory years later.
6. The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Voodoo Child (Slight Return) (1968)
Voodoo Child opens with a nimble, wah-wah-ed guitar line that is swiftly firebombed by Jimi’s massive, earthshaking riffs and howling leads, which seem to rain down from the heavens and leave nothing but a smoldering wasteland in their wake.
The sheer sonic force of the song is overwhelming, and an early demonstration of just how far out a rock artist could take the blues - which, in a sense, and a much different way, is what Black Sabbath also set out to do in their early days.
7. The Stooges - I Wanna Be Your Dog (1969)
Even today, more than a half-century after it was first released, I Wanna Be Your Dog sounds impossibly tough, dirty and downright dangerous.
From the dark, descending chord progression to the buzz-saw guitar of Ron Asheton (who, along with his brother and drummer, Scott, were once referred to by head Stooge Iggy Pop as “the laziest, delinquent sorts of pig slobs ever born”), the song is one big drone-y, dirge-y death-rumble and perfectly encapsulates Iggy’s demented take on the blues.
And the lecherous lyrics, one-note piano trill and, err, sleigh bells only add to the perverse proceedings.
8. Iron Butterfly - In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (1968)
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is commonly regarded with a smirk, but as most any metal band worth its long hair, leather and pointy guitars can tell you, people often mock what they don’t understand.
Forget that it’s an unnecessary 17 minutes in length. Forget that the title is a drunken interpretation of In the Garden of Eden. Forget, even, that the band playing it is named Iron Butterfly. The song absolutely crushes, and the combined guitar-and-organ riff is as dark, menacing and downright groovy as anything laid down by Deep Purple, Uriah Heep or any other keys-drenched heavy act. Don’t believe us? Then ask Slayer, who contributed a ripping take to the soundtrack to 1987’s Less Than Zero.
9. Deep Purple - Mandrake Root (1968)
The first part of this early Deep Purple epic is pleasantly heavy enough, at least in that standard late-Sixties British blues-rock way. But Mandrake Root really gets going in the middle instrumental section, where drummer Ian Paice and bassist Nick Simper whip the tempo into a frenzy and lay the groundwork for Ritchie Blackmore to finish out the proceedings with some full-on psych-metal licks, growls and howls, as well as throw in a bit of neoclassical flair for good measure.
How heavy was it? Heavy enough to be one of the very few early Purple cuts to be performed by the classic Seventies-era MkII lineup. And those versions, if you care to dig one up on YouTube, are a beautiful, instrument-abusing sight to behold.
10. The Pretty Things - Old Man Going (1968)
The first 40 seconds of acoustic strumming in Old Man Going basically sounds like Pinball Wizard before Pinball Wizard (and indeed, the concept album from which it hails, S.F. Sorrow, has been credited as an influence on The Who’s Tommy, even if The Who have disagreed).
But after that, Old Man Going blooms with proto-Sabbathian beauty, most notably in Dick Taylor’s doomy power chord riffing and most, most notably in Phil May’s vocal, which, upon the song’s release in 1968, any listener would have quickly deemed incredibly Ozzy-like - save for the fact that Ozzy, at least as we know him, didn’t actually exist yet.
11. The Kinks - You Really Got Me (1964)
The two-note power-chord riff alone would have been enough to inspire legions of heavy rockers to come. But the minute Dave Davies took a razor to the speaker cone to his Elpico amp, all bets were off.
From then on, it’s arguable whether a power chord played without at least some dirt applied to its tone was really much of a power chord at all. In this respect, You Really Got Me is where heavy metal begins - a belief that is clearly shared by Davies, who wrote in a recent Facebook screed about his band being left out of the Met’s Play It Loud guitar exhibit, “I invented heavy power chord distorted LOUD guitar on records like You Really Got Me.” We agree, Dave, we agree!
12. Screamin' Jay Hawkins - (1956)
Far be it for Guitar World to champion a song that doesn’t have much guitar in it - and, what’s more, to champion it for its heaviness. But I Put a Spell on You is a special, scary thing indeed, with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ grunts, growls and, at times, guffaws, still capable of making grown men shake in their boots - so just imagine what hearing it in 1956 would have felt like.
That Hawkins eventually started performing the song by rising out of a coffin and surrounding himself with snakes, smoke and skulls, while wearing a tusk through his nose, only adds to the shock-rock splendor of it all.
13. Blue Cheers - Summertime Blues (1968)
Numerous high-profile acts, from the Beach Boys to The Who to Rush, have tried their hand at Eddie Cochran’s teenage angst classic, Summertime Blues. But none of them, Cochran included, laid waste to the tune like San Francisco heshers Blue Cheer.
Guitarist Leigh Stephens plows through the riff with the trashiest tone known to man or beast, while Paul Whaley beats his drums into submission and frontman/bassist Dickie Peterson howls the lyrics with heavy-lidded agitation. Stephens’ squiggly guitar fills and mid-song solo (if, in fact, his freak-fuzz emissions can be labeled such) are a thing of filthy, acid-damaged beauty.
14. Bitter Creek - Plastic Thunder (1967)
Not much is known about Bitter Creek beyond the fact that they existed in the late Sixties, may - that’s right, may - have hailed from Atlanta and contributed this awesome track to a compilation called Psychedelic States: Georgia in the 60s.
Several years ago a fan uploaded Plastic Thunder to YouTube with the title The First Heavy Metal Song Ever Made, and while some people on this list might disagree (we’re lookin’ at you, Dave Davies!), the tune is undeniably heavy, propelled by busily thudding drums and rumbling bass, and topped with crushing chords and sinewy, saturated lead lines. Plus, the repeated chanted outro of “thunduh!” inspired AC/DC decades later on their own “Thunderstruck.” Well, not really… but maybe?
15. Pink Floyd - The Nile Song (1969)
You could always expect the unexpected from Pink Floyd, but The Nile Song was pretty unusual even for them. Dropped into the film soundtrack More, their first recording following Syd Barrett’s exit, the song trades arty psychedelia for compact, riff-centric hard rock, with David Gilmour, Roger Waters and Nick Mason in full-on power-trio mode, no keyboards necessary (sorry, Richard Wright).
The band keeps the intensity at a high by continually modulating the key upwards, with Gilmour finally taking the reins for an explosive song-ending solo. This one was later tackled by, among others, the Melvins and Voivod, both of which make perfect sense.
16. Blind Willie Johnson - Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground) (1927)
Sure, it consists of nothing more than acoustic guitar and voice, but this is one of the heaviest, most intense tunes ever put to tape. Johnson plays a recurring motif in open-D tuning, his piercing slide guitar lines matched by his severe moaning and humming.
The powerful, wordless vocalizations are commonly believed to be his attempt to convey the anguish of Christ before his crucifixion, while Jack White once told Guitar World that Johnson’s playing is “the greatest example of slide guitar ever recorded.” Plus, he supposedly did it using a knife for a bottleneck.
17. Cromagnon - Caledonia (1969)
A pre-industrial, proto-black metal curio, Caledonia combines doomy guitars, freak-out soundscapes and bagpipes (?) into something so undeniably whacked out, trashy and evil sounding it could have come from Scandinavia in the 1980s… but was actually recorded in New York City in the late Sixties.
So raw and unformed it feels as old as the period from which the experimental band took its name as much as it does a transmission from some futuristic - and frickin’ scary - land.
18. Cream - Sunshine Of Your Love (1967)
Jack Bruce Reportedly was inspired to write Sunshine of Your Love after attending a Jimi Hendrix concert (and indeed, Hendrix later covered the song) but Cream’s spin on heavy blues rock here was all their own.
From Ginger Baker’s toms-heavy, tumbling drums to Eric Clapton’s chewy, saturated guitar (check out that woman tone) to Bruce’s almost operatic vocal approach, it’s like proto-doom and -stoner metal, albeit wrapped up in a decidedly statelier package. Whatever the case, it’s undoubtedly some of the darkest sunshine we’ve ever experienced.
19. The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown - Fire (1968)
There’s no guitar - or even bass - on Fire, but damn if the song isn’t a full-on five-alarm rager. From Arthur Brown’s opening declaration, “I am the god of hellfire,” to the pulsing organ and bleating brass, the song is a bad acid trip (or maybe a great acid trip?) come to life.
Extra points for Pete Townshend’s production, which includes the sound of a wind from hell in the final seconds, and, of course, Brown’s donning of a burning helmet during live performances.
20. King Crimson - 21st Century Schizoid Man (1969)
The first song on King Crimson’s first album is monolithic in every sense - epic in length and scope, built on a lumbering, ominous guitar riff (doubled by, of all things, alto saxophone) and specked with all manner of end-of-days imagery, from iron claws and funeral pyres to death seeds and napalm fires.
What’s more, the completely bonkers middle section, Mirrors, is the sound of prog-metal being birthed. The actual 21st century may have still been a ways away, but with Schizoid Man, King Crimson were offering us mere mortals a glimpse of music’s future - and it was undeniably heavy.