Hard rock and its primary stylistic offshoot heavy metal have proven to be among the most enduring sounds in classic rock. The fact that the reunion of only three-fifths of the original Guns N’ Roses can fill stadiums is proof enough that hard rock is here to stay and thriving in 2016. But just how and where did that sound first emerge?
Though hard rock had earlier antecedents – elements of it can be heard in some 1950s rockabilly and urban blues and later the mid-’60s work of the Rolling Stones, Kinks, Who and other bands as well as the era’s garage rock – it began to coalesce as the 1960s came to a close. And these 10 albums are all significant benchmarks in the birth of hard rock.
Some highly influential albums and artists, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream most significant among them, must be acknowledged though their releases didn’t have the same direct impact as those below. These are all albums on which you can hear hard rock gathering steam and becoming a mighty metallic music machine.
Other early high-profile acts that helped spread the sound soon after include Grand Funk Railroad and Kiss. In the 1970s hard rock became ubiquitous on the classic rock menu. The 1980s saw its hair metal offspring become particularly adept at scoring singles and heavy MTV video play. Then came Gn’R and Nirvana and onward…. Here’s where it all came from, in an order that’s partly chronological and also weighted by influence.
10) Vanilla Fudge (1967)
Such hard rock elements as volume, touches of bombast and a hard-edged sound mark the debut album by the New Jersey act that was a popular dance band and also backed touring girl groups before they signed with Atco Records. Their formula of covering pop hits by acts like the Beatles (“Ticket to Ride” and “Eleanor Rigby”), Curtis Mayfield (“People Get Ready”), the Zombies (“She’s Not There”) and most significantly the Supremes (whose “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” the Fudge transformed into a #6 hit) in a slowed-down, hard-hitting fashion made the band a hippie-era staple. Drummer Carmine Appice went on to work with such other hard rock progenitors as Jeff Beck and Ozzy Osbourne. Three of the original four members released a new Fudge album in 2015, Spirit of ’67 (see our review here), that was quite a nifty return to form.
9) Vincebus Eruptum by Blue Cheer (1968)
The San Francisco power trio made claim to being the world’s loudest band, and a best-of album is even titled Louder Than God. But their volume is just one aspect of Blue Cheer’s creation of some very hard rock. And like Vanilla Fudge, they were a link between psychedelia and an emerging harder rock attack. Rush’s Geddy Lee says they might well have been the first heavy metal band. Their thunderous version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” a #14 pop hit, handily supports that contention.
8) In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly (1968)
Okay – anyone who wants to make fun of hippie-era silliness has all the fuel they need in this album’s title, also that of the group’s #30 hit song of the same name (a just under three-minute edit of the 17-minute album track). The band’s stature as hard rock progenitors is underscored by the title of their previous album, Heavy, and big worldwide sales of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida certainly helped spread the sound.
7) Steppenwolf (1968)
Tagged as a “biker band” back in the day for their million-selling #2 single “Born to Be Wild” on their self-titled debut album, this group that was born in Toronto, Canada, and coalesced after moving to California, was the first to use the term “heavy metal [thunder]” in a song. With global sales of 25 million and five other Top 40 hits, Steppenwolf isn’t just a hard rock progenitor; Harley-Davidson should have given “Born to Be Wild” writer Dennis Edmonton, aka Mars Bonfire, royalties for all the song did to popularize motorcycles.
6) Climbing! by Mountain (1970)
Sadly overlooked by history and too many music fans today, this group formed by guitarist/singer Leslie West and Cream producer/bassist/singer Felix Pappalardi played Woodstock but were not shown in the movie or featured on the first edition of the festival’s live album. But many rock buffs do fondly remember “Mississippi Queen” from the band’s debut album (West preceded it with a solo album titled Mountain), which reached #21 on the Hot 100. With West’s snarling guitar and the band’s syncopated pummeling, it sure sounds like much of the hard rock that followed. Bonus points for not more but just the right touch of cowbell on the intro.
5) Shades of Deep Purple (1968)
Founding Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore admitted the influence of a band cited above, saying in a 1991 interview with Guitar World magazine, “Initially we wanted to be a Vanilla Fudge clone.” That approach can be heard on their #4 cover version of Joe South’s “Hush,” whose intro is like an introductory hard rock blast. Purple, who were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016, would go on from this debut album to become one of hard rock’s most durable and influential acts.
4) Paranoid by Black Sabbath (1970)
Coming a mere four months after the band’s self-titled debut, this album codified much of what became hard rock and heavy metal. You can hear a lot of all that came to follow on the album’s title track as well on as such Sab classics as “War Pigs” and “Iron Man.” Now, 46 years later, Ozzy, Geezer and Tony are saying farewell with one of this year’s biggest international tours. Shot heard ’round the world indeed.
3) Truth by Jeff Beck (1968)
The weight, heft and the wailing in rock music got amped up to the max with Jeff Beck’s first solo – but (pardon the pun) in truth, group – endeavor after leaving the Yardbirds. And what a lineup the first Jeff Beck Group was; in retrospect, quite the supergroup: A young raspy singer with a cockatoo hairdo by the name of Rod Stewart and a guitarist turned bassist from a London band called the Birds, Ron (then, now Ronnie) Wood. They reshaped the Yardbirds classic “Shapes of Things” into what many consider proto-hard rock/heavy metal.
2) Live at Leeds by The Who (1970)
You want your rock damned hard? We’ve got it right here. On what is acknowledged as one of classic rock’s greatest live albums, the Who played it heavy, loud and furiously. For comparative purposes, the Leeds take on “Summertime Blues” serves as a lesson in lineage, like this list.
Related: Keith Moon, rock’s greatest drummer
1) Led Zeppelin (1969)
The debut album by Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham signaled hard rock’s arrival as a major musical and commercial force. And what a way to announce that in the song below, “Good Times Bad Times,” the lead track on Zep’s debut album. It may have only reached #80 on the Hot 100, but it was the first blast on a cannonade of an album that signaled the rise of countless bands to follow and the final arrival of what became a primary rock sound from that point onward.
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