While heavy metal is a badge of honor these days, that may not have always been the case, and according to Geezer Butler when Black Sabbath first were bestowed with the claim of being a “heavy metal” band, it was not meant in a positive light.
It’s not uncommon for words or phrases to be adopted by a culture or movement and change meaning. Just think about that the next time someone talks about the bad man playing the sick riffs. And likewise, Butler tells Eddie Trunk when they first were labeled “heavy metal,” it was viewed as more of a “sarcastic” jab.
Speaking on Trunk’s podcast (as heard below and transcribed by NME), Butler stated, “When we were on tour in America – I think it was the second tour in the [United] States – I read this review, and the guy said, ‘This isn’t music; it sounds like a bunch of heavy metal being smashed together.’”
He then added, “Somehow that got over to England, and from then on it was like the sarcastic thing they used to apply to us – ‘this isn’t music, it’s a load of heavy metal being smashed together.’ And for some reason we got stuck with it.”
As we’ve seen over time, musical movements often get labels that the pioneers don’t exactly care for. Members of the Seattle scene of emerging bands rankled at the term “grunge,” while Jonathan Davis of Korn hasn’t really embraced the term “nu metal” either.
While Black Sabbath may be one of the first acts dubbed heavy metal, the term started popping up in the early ’60s, used in a pair of early ’60s books by author William S. Burroughs, picked up for the 1967 album title Featuring the Human Host and the Heavy Metal Kids by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat and referenced in the 1968 song “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf.
As for who coined the term regarding the style of music, that remains up for debate. Some have pointed to critic Lester Bangs, who had written about Black Sabbath in a review, but did not actually use the term while comparing “War Pigs” to Burroughs’ Nova Express. He did however use it in taking a shot at Guess Who’s album Canned Wheat, stating, “With a fine hit single, ‘Undun,’ behind them, they’re quite refreshing in the wake of all the heavy metal robots of the year past.”.
Others point to Creem and Rolling Stone critic Mike Saunders, who in a 1970 article for Rolling Stone described Humble Pie as “a noisy, unmelodic, heavy metal-leaden shit-rock band, with the loud and noisy parts beyond doubt.”
Either way, “heavy metal” was not necessarily always viewed in a positive light, but has been embraced by fans of the style of music over the years and treated with more positivity and respect.
And while heavy metal has often been shunned by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Black Sabbath are one of the bands from the genre that has been inducted, making the Rock Hall in 2006 with Metallica’s James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich providing the induction speech.