The Golden Age of Rock ’n Roll: The Dark Side

Part 1: Heavy Metal: Emphasis on Heavy, Not Metal

Glam rockers Mott the Hoople said it best: The Golden Age of Rock ‘n Roll wasn’t the ’50s it was 1966-76.

Okay, I admit it. When it comes to music, I’m firmly retro. The music I grew up with is still the best, says I and every other generation since time began. I truly believe I was blessed to grow up in The Golden Age of Rock ’n Roll, to quote Mott the Hoople. And all that crap they call music now… “You’re sounding like an old fogey,” I hear you saying. Fair enough, but let’s put it another way: Read your history and you’ll soon realize that there are eras when there are brilliant individuals and other eras when an entire generation is brilliant. We are now firmly in the former category—an age so starved of originality in its rush to conform that musical geniuses arise despite, not because of it.

As many other angrily greying hipsters on YouTube have commented, why has ‘classic rock’ become so formulaic it simply replays the same 50 bands over and over again, from the same 50 or 100 albums? Once again marketing has reduced everyone to morons in the assumption we couldn’t possibly grasp more than that number of songs. This is the marketing genius that failed to sign an artist like Eva Cassidy because she couldn’t be pigeonholed. That same advertising acumen would have lost us Nick Drake if he hadn’t had someone looking out for him. And it now consigns to oblivion great heavy metal prototypes like Uriah Heep from the Golden Age of Rock ’n Roll.

Uriah Heep even had a lead singer with the same last name as 19th century Romantic poet Lord Byron.

These guys were heavy metal with the emphasis on heavy, not metal. That stuff came later. This was the cradle, along with Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Okay, so maybe some of them overreached themselves conceptually. Certainly their live extended jams could be indulgent. But if you pay attention to what each musician is doing within that heavy wall of sound, what wonders emerge! These people were masters of their instruments in a way that had never been heard before. In its day, ‘heavy’ meant something deep and rich, not loud and overbearing. A profound thought could be described as ‘heavy.’ In that sense the Stones were certainly heavy, with their bold forays into the dark side, even naming an album Their Satanic Majesties’ Request.

The Stones circa Their Satanic Majesties Request and Beggar’s Banquet.

I was weaned on the Stones. They were the shadow side to The Beatles. How fascinating that the culture fostered these two groups at the same moment in history. Probably it says something of my melancholy nature that I found myself gravitating toward the Stones as a boy rather than The Beatles. Sympathy for the Devil remains to me 40 years on one of the most complex, resonating songs of that great age. “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ when after all, it was you and me…” Now that’s heavy! Jung would have approved of the confluence. The ancient archetype, articulating itself in the great gust of creativity that was the 1960s and ’70s. It was the exactly relevant response to “All you need is love.” It forced us to examine our own shadow.

But then as Nick Lowe sang, “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” The easy cynicism of those who took Jagger’s Satanic leer literally led us all to the brink of corporate, cultural and environmental disaster. It takes work to love, to be good. Being evil is the lazy way out. But if you’re addicted to results, then the virtuous path may not be seen as the ideal investment of your time. Lennon was also right: “Instant karma’s gonna get you.” Nobody gets in for free—we all pay a price for our choices. And indeed, “we all shine on” after we’re gone, for good or ill.

And what was so wrong about a generation of gifted musicians exploring a utopian vision? They could hardly do otherwise given the temper of the times, swept as they were by torrents of change. And why content yourself with sappy love songs, when you can explore more interesting themes? Why skim from the top when you can draw deep from the cultural well? In the heavy metal prototype realm we had epic albums like Uriah Heep’s Demons and Wizards (1972) and The Magician’s Birthday. (One of my all-time favourites remains their earlier album, Look at Yourself—a breathtaking tour de force of instrumental virtuosity.) In the prog-rock realm we had Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, with Foxtrot and Selling England by the Pound. Even the much-reviled Emerson, Lake and Palmer produced some fascinating material in this vein on Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery. But maybe you really did have to be there.

‘The Magician’s Birthday’ explored the classic Faustian theme. Courtesy Wikimedia

From a lyrical point of view, Heep was never really demonic or even ironic. Their stroll into the dark side was always done on the assumption that the guys in the white hats would come out on top. (Or should I say white robes?) Joseph Campbell would probably say they were exercising the classic archetype, the battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ for a person’s soul, the Faustian conundrum. No yin without yang. It certainly spoke in an allegorical way to the forces tearing at society—do you join up and fight in Vietnam? Or renounce your homeland to avoid having to kill people in some foreign country? Of course real life is almost always more tragic than art, so we’ve managed to recreate the demonic bargain with the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq. Only with considerably less interesting music on the atrocity soundtrack this time.

Even Black Sabbath was more camp than demonic. The most overtly ‘Satanic’ album was Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, though more in the artwork than the lyrics. (Ozzy lost the irony as time went on, turning into a caricature of himself.) Once again we’re hearing a group of virtuoso musicians at their peak, seemingly capable of anything. Hell, even the Eagles dabbled in Anton LaVey’s brand of hip West Coast paganism with Hotel California. As always, one must listen closely for the tongue in cheek. Or if one is more cynical, the ring of cash registers. And always keeping one ear to the ironic—artists are compelled to probe the deepest shadows yet almost to a person are idealists. Not too many I know are in the basement sacrificing their cats to various and sundry demons.

I won’t get past the cradle of heavy metal because frankly I never liked what it became. It was as if nobody got the joke. The bands that followed took it all as gospel and that made it all the more camp somehow. There’s a reason Spinal Tap was made—cautionary tale, maybe? I can almost see the guy on the sidelines, whispering big: ‘It’s an allegory, dude. You know, like a fable?’ And if in the process the allegory turns up some interesting facets of human existence, all the better. Just don’t take it all too seriously, man.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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