The untimely passing away of rock drummer legend Neil Peart last week had me mourning and reflecting on the immeasurable influence Peart and his Rush bandmates had on an entire generation of music lovers in the 70s and 80s, many of whom went on to become acclaimed musicians in their own right. Tributes flowed from the members of Black Sabbath, KISS, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Dream Theater, Styx, Foo Fighters, Grateful Dead, Skid Row, Sepultura, etc.
This led me to reminisce about my own introduction to the music of Rush and how that represented one of the many milestones in my evolution as a fan of rock and metal. Until I started college, I only listened to contemporary pop (primarily the synth-pop of the British New Wave) and was in fact, rather intimidated by the prospect of listening to rock and metal, finding the repetitive guitar power chords, heavy drum beats and the screaming vocalizations inaccessible compared to the simple, catchy rhythms and melodies of Top 10 chart music.
Sharing accommodations with other students who collectively had a wide repertoire of music tastes gave me ‘free’ access to virtually every genre and sub-genre of popular music. This quickly opened my mind and my ears to the magic of rock and metal, ranging from the classic rock of the 60s to the thrash metal of the early 80s which soon evolved into hair metal in the late 80s.
So, I decided to try and recall the key albums which shaped my musical tastes over the past 30 years and surprisingly, even after all this time, it wasn’t that difficult to pinpoint the one album that made me fall in love with and want to explore a particular genre. As with all lists, this is subjective and personal; other lovers of rock may identify other albums that set them off on their personal music journeys.
1987, introduction to ‘modern’ hard rock via Def Leppard’s 1987 album, Hysteria: This one album woke me up to the fact that there was more to life than listening to Michael Jackson, Madonna and Duran Duran. It was impossible not to be hooked by the vocal harmonizing on this album (a vocal style Van Halen had already had success with), combined with the simple synthesizer-enhanced rock chords and punchy percussion from their one-handed drummer, Rick Allen. With lyrics squarely targeting the red-blooded adolescent male, all six songs from Side A plus the title track from Side B were big hits as singles. Although I can revisit this album any time (and sing along with all the songs), I didn’t become a fan of their other albums from before or after. Even now, all I own is a “Best of” collection, which is like owning Hysteria plus bonus tracks!
This Def Leppard album (and Van Halen before them) effectively kick-started the era of ‘pop metal/rock’ and ‘hair metal’ (which is covered as a separate genre in a later post) but I choose to classify them here as ‘modern hard rock’, as Hysteria led me to explore the back catalogue of other contemporary hard rock bands like Aerosmith, Van Halen, Scorpions, KISS and Whitesnake. Almost all these bands experienced their heyday (or resurgence for the older bands) in the mid-80s, riding the wave of mainstream popularity that hard rock enjoyed in those years. Aerosmith made a comeback in 1987 with Permanent Vacation, one of the best hard rock albums ever. Van Halen’s early years with David Lee Roth on vocals featured harder music, but they progressively moved towards pop rock starting with 1984 and especially during the Sammy Hagar years, starting with 5150 and OU812. KISS always had a very accessible style of hard rock and I first heard their music with their 1987 album Crazy Nights (great title track)…I discovered their 70s hits much later. And as for Whitesnake, they too had a number of accessible hard rock albums in the 80s culminating with 1989’s Slip of the Tongue, which for me is very special because it features virtuoso guitarist Steve Vai performing some amazing pyrotechnics on lead guitar (more about him too, later)!
1987/88, introduction to ‘classic’ hard rock via Jethro Tull’s 1971 album, Aqualung: It’s probably a disservice to classify Jethro Tull as ‘classic rock’; in reality it’s difficult to pigeonhole their music into any specific sub-genre of rock, covering everything from folk to prog rock and ironically winning the inaugural Grammy for Best Heavy Metal band at the expense of shoe-ins Metallica in 1989 (with a pretty good “synth-rock” album Crest of a Knave that has really stood the test of time). Besides the title track, the Aqualung album contains classics like Cross-Eyed Mary, Hymn 43 and Locomotive Breath. There were so many “Best of Jethro Tull” bootleg tapes floating around college (including tape transfers of their 20 Years of Jethro Tull boxed set released in 1988, which contained 60+ tracks) that over the next three years, I got to listen to all their best music. I was fortunate to see them live in concert in the early 90s in Chennai. As much as I love all their music, I only own two albums of theirs…my favourites from their ‘folk rock’ period of the late 70s – Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses.
In due course, I reached out for other bands which originated during the heady days of the 60s. Although I don’t listen to all of them quite as much these days as I used to, the music of Wishbone Ash and Uriah Heep remain evergreen. The twin guitar attack of Wishbone Ash is as sweet a sound as can be heard in rock and Argus is my top album. Uriah Heep had so many good songs, but I suppose Wizard from the 1972 album Demons and Wizard ranks as the most timeless. I had heard of classic rock bands like Mountain and Blue Oyster Cult, but it wasn’t until the late 90s that I was able to immerse myself in their music. Ditto for Jimi Hendrix, who surprisingly wasn’t such a big deal in college, but is now one of my all-time favourites.
And of course, how can one not talk about Deep Purple and its spin-off, Rainbow. Deep Purple owns perhaps the best-know riff in hard rock from Smoke on the Water from their 1972 Machine Head album. That song and Highway Star from the same album were staples of any college dorm party. Having said that, my top Deep Purple album is in fact 1984’s Perfect Strangers by their reformed, classic Mark II line-up and I’ve never warmed up to their classic stuff from the 70s. On the other hand, I’ve really enjoyed all the music of Rainbow the band formed by Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and fronted by Ronnie James Dio and subsequently Joe Lynn Turner.
1987, introduction to classic heavy metal via Black Sabbath’s 1970 album, Paranoid: Eschewing speed and virtuosity and instead, doubling down on heaviness and intensity, further amplified by dark lyrics, it’s no wonder that Black Sabbath are considered one of the fathers of Heavy Metal. When I first listened to songs like War Pigs, Paranoid and Iron Man from their 1970 album Paranoid, I was unable to appreciate how heavy these songs were, as much as I did when I revisited the album in recent years…particularly when Iron Man was featured in the eponymous Marvel comics movie. No wonder these guys inspired a whole generation of heavy metal bands. In the 90s, I was introduced to another classic song from this album, Planet Caravan, when it was performed as a cover by Pantera. For all its influence, I don’t own any albums by Black Sabbath and for a period of time, I was in fact a bigger fan of Sabbath front man Ozzy Osbourne’s solo albums (particularly Blizzard of Ozz and Bark at the Moon).
Simultaneously with Black Sabbath, I discovered other classic heavy metal bands birthed in the late 60s, many with strong blues influences – Iron Butterfly, Cream and Led Zeppelin (although one could argue that Cream and Led Zeppelin are more rock than metal). By far the most commonly played band in college dorms was Led Zeppelin, although I was not a big fan of their music, especially not Stairway to Heaven. I’ve come to appreciate their music more in recent years, with Kashmir and Immigrant Song among my favourite epic tracks, as well as the reggae-rock track D’yer Maker.
Although formed much later in 1982, I think of Dio in the same “space” as the classic metal bands. Band frontman Ronnie James Dio was Black Sabbath’s lead singer for their classic 1980 Heaven and Hell album and its follow-up Mob Rules. He brought that ‘slow and heavy’ sensibility over to his own band and they produced classics like Holy Diver, The Last in Line and All the Fools Sailed Away through the 80s.
In the next part of my post, I will cover albums that introduced me to hair metal, thrash metal and progressive rock.