My night with a dead Russian and the origins of heavy rock!7 months ago
Few would deny that the genesis of rock music was with the blues. Its evolution with added amplification by the likes of Zeppelin and Hendrix lead us down a glorious path.
Lemmy once said, “There would have been no Motörhead without Little Richard, and there would have been no Little Richard without the blues!” And as most good historians will tell you, Lemmy was rarely wrong!
And yet, in this absolute certainty comes a dissenting voice: Mine!
I believe that the origins of heavy rock go way back beyond the blues. Way, way back! And my epiphany was at London’s iconic Albert Hall in the mid 70s, at the hands of a dead Russian composer, a full orchestra and cannons!
It was Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s greatest hits night and it was my first ever ‘live’ gig. For much of the evening, my interest ebbed and flowed as the music swayed from the romantic glory of Romeo and Juliet, to the tip-tapping novelty of the Nutcracker Suite. But then the 1812 Overture arrived and quickly reached an ear-shattering crescendo with cannon, yes, real cannon with blank shots that stained the ceiling! It was awe inspiring, and I wondered just what the delicate ears of 19th Century music fans would have made of such a racket. It was, after all, the heavy metal of its day!
Russian composers like Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin were the children of regimental influence. Consequently - unlike many of the romantic composers of earlier days who prose was mostly quixotic – their music frequently included deafening sonic extensions, played out with military bombast and orchestral explosions.
Elsewhere, other composers dabbled in another early heavy metal signature: the augmented fourth or diminished fifth, also known as the tritone, or to fans of Bill Bailey, The Devil’s Chord. Black Sabbath loved it. George Harrison used it in Beatles’ songs, and Jimi Hendrix frightened parishioners with it in Purple Haze. Classical music was influencing everywhere.
Some might say that classical music’s greatest influence was on prog rock; those lengthy orchestrated rises and falls through light and dark synonymous with Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. But to do that would be brand it, ‘Nerdy music for middle-aged men’.
These days we’ve got the thrashing guitar chords of Slayer, but classical music often delivered the same rage, even if the equivalent of Kerry King’s B.C. Rich was, at times, a harpsichord, or a flute.
As if to prove my point further, in 2014, Adrian North, a professor at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh conducted research into the comparisons between classical and heavy metal music fans. “Metal fans, like classical listeners, tend to be creative, gentle people, at ease with themselves. We think the answer is that both types of music, classical and heavy metal, have something of the spiritual about them — they're very dramatic — a lot happens."
Rock music, whether heavy metal, or a myriad of other nonsensical handles, is the child of a musical revolution that began, not on Robert Johnson’s dusty crossroads, but several centuries ago when sticking your middle finger up to the musical establishment may have got you pilloried, at best! And it’s no coincidence that the classical composers who dared to be different were musical outcasts in their day, but considered genius today.
What they would have made of Lemmy or Ozzy Osborne is a story for another time!
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