Pop Culture 101 for Pastors–The History of Rock & Roll Part 6

Posted: February 17, 2011 in Uncategorized

Heavy metal did not fall out of heaven or, as some argue, spring out of the bowels of hell but was the product of a confluence of various strands of 1960’s music filtered through an industrial accident.  The streams that created heavy metal included: the British blues revival; the rise of the guitar hero; the advent of distortion pedals utilized with skill by The Kinks on “You Really Got Me” and The Rolling Stones “Satisfaction”; the driving drums of virtuosos like Keith Moon (The Who), Ginger Baker (Cream and Blind Faith) and John Bonham (Led Zeppelin); the invention of amplifiers that could fill an entire stadium with sound and the competition among bands for attention that drove artists like Jimi Hendrix and The Who to over-the-top theatrics like smashing up the stage or setting a guitar on fire.  All of these streams arguably created “hard rock,” which was mastered by one of the greatest rock & roll groups of all time–Led Zeppelin.    Heavy Metal, however, still needed something to be born and that event was an industrial accident in Birmingham, England. 

Tony Iommi was the guitarist for the jazz-blues fusion group Earth until he cut off the tips of several fingers from his left hand while working in a machine shop.  Iommi refused to give up on his dream of becoming a professional musician and experimented with using candle wax to melt false fingertips on his left hand but playing was still too painful.  Iommi still refused to give up.  He downtuned his guitar to lessen the tension and thereby the pain, which shot through his left hand.  The result was a new sound that his fellow band mates, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward dug.  Butler suggested changing the band’s name to Black Sabbath, after a Boris Karloff movie.  The sound of Black Sabbath is like a dinosaur slowly plodding through a forest.  It was the birth of heavy metal.

Black Sabbath sold millions of albums in the 1970’s despite the derision of critics and virtually no radio airplay.  Sabbath’s fans were overwhelmingly male.  Metal bands would later incorporate more melody into their songs in order to attract more female fans but it continues to draw more males than females.  Why?

The music has undeniable power.  Thanks to the influence of bands like Sabbath, as well as early metal bands like Judas Priest, the music retains the flavor of the rough industrial towns that spawned it.  The music sounds like it was written and performed amidst heavy machinery, hence the name “heavy metal” as applied to it by the late rock critic Lester Bangs (who had picked it up from Steppenwolf who used the term to describe Harley Davidsons who had picked it up from writer William Burroughs).  The feel of a driving rhythm section, distorted guitars and growling vocals are masculine.  

Heavy metal is one of the few forms of music that has survived the whims of culture.  Punk movements come and go but metal has remained a mainstay for more than 40 years now.  Metal has survived despite the best efforts of influential thinkers and personalities to feminize the culture and that’s because men will always crave that which speaks to who they truly are more than who they are expected to be.

The church can learn a lot from heavy metal.  The church is often accused of being too influenced by the surrounding culture whether it be its unwillingness to confront tough issues or its propensity to overlook materialism but it has also given in on the feminization as well. 

Mark Driscoll has been one of many that has pointed out how the church has become unduly female oriented.  For example, it is not uncommon to walk into a church building and see light blue walls decorated with big yellow bows and asking for volunteers…for the nursery!  Sermons typically focus on being nice rather than being brave.  Programs center on entertainment and fellowship rather than risk. 

Heavy metal has survived and thrived over the last 40-years because many males will desperately seek out something raw, dangerous and…well…manly.  The church would not only be well served to do the same but it would also be Biblical!  Jesus was not just gentle but brave.  When the Gospel of Luke says that Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” the image is of a soldier marching into certain death in order to win a great victory.  

Metal is male oriented and there is nothing unChrisitan about that.  The church can learn a lot from heavy metal.       

PS–a lot of people single out metal as “the devil’s music” but, in fact, if you read the lyrics of songs by bands like Sabbath you discover that the early metal bands were really hippies.  It is also notable that many leading metal musicians are professing Christians like Alice Cooper, Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, Nicko McBain of Iron Maiden, etc.

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