Metal Evolution - "Early Metal UK"

Metal Evolution - "Early Metal UK"
Sam Dunn
VH1 Classic

All Access Review: A-

Demo in hand, Jim Simpson shopped Black Sabbath’s first recordings to 14 record labels, and not one of them had the foresight to sign this fearsome foursome. Not one to hold grudges, especially all these years later, Simpson understood their reticence. As he tells filmmaker Sam Dunn in the “Early Metal UK” episode of the “Metal Evolution” documentary series, why would any A&R representative with a cozy job at some British record label jeopardize his or her career by signing somebody who sounded like that? There was nothing on the charts that sounded anything remotely like Sabbath, recalls Simpson. And, as Simpson points out, label executives have never really gone out of their way to seek out fresh, new sounds. They want something safe, something marketable that bears some resemblance to songs they know will sell. The A&R representative who likes his or her job and wants to keep it will then, predictably, not risk it on four soot-stained lost souls from an industrial hellhole like Aston, Birmingham whose ghoulish sonic menace couldn’t possibly sell more than a handful of records.

Impenetrably dark and truly demonic, Sabbath was playing the devil’s music, even if the charges of Satanism leveled at Sabbath would never stick. Just when it seemed that nobody loved them, along came Olav Wyper. Working for Phillips Records, Wyper saw something in Sabbath, and signed them to the recording giant. One of the unsung heroes of heavy metal, Wyper shepherded Sabbath through the maze of Phillips subsidiaries, finding them a nest at Vertigo. And the rest is history, thanks to Wyper … and Simpson, too. After all, were it not for Simpson’s diligence as manager in the service of his client, Sabbath might have returned to the factories and labored in obscurity until death.

Wyper and Simpson are not exactly Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. The guitar legend and the golden god turned down requests for interviews for “Metal Evolution” because they felt Led Zeppelin was no more a heavy metal act than The Rolling Stones. And maybe they’re right. Producer and sound visionary Eddie Kramer, famed for his work with Jimi Hendrix and Aerosmith, agrees when discussing the matter with Dunn during “Early Metal UK.” Though undoubtedly pioneers in the realm of heavy music and hard rock, Zeppelin’s expansive oeuvre encompassed so many genres – including a strong foundation in the blues – that pigeonholing them in a box marked “heavy metal” would be a sin. The presence of Page and Plant are not required, however, for Dunn and his partner, Scot McFayden, to craft an engrossing, informative and curious study of the role such bands as Zeppelin, Sabbath and Deep Purple – not to mention the contributions of glam-rock upstarts Sweet and T. Rex – played in the development of heavy metal in the early to mid 1970s.

 With eyes wide open, Dunn, fresh off exploring the impact of American bands like KISS on early U.S. metal, seems giddy about the prospect of meeting rock icons from Sabbath and Deep Purple, two sides of the British proto-metal triangle. After a brief, but detailed, study of the British blues boom – with John Mayall sharing his memories of the scene’s explosion and vintage black-and-white live footage of the Yardbirds’ slamming through “Train Kept A-Rollin” – and how slowing things down, as Cream so vividly illustrates during a particularly heavy, psychedelic reading of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” onstage in rich video unearthed from the vaults, led to a U.K. metal awakening. Zeppelin’s transformative reinventing of the blues and its influence on metal is thoroughly debated (Dunn makes it into the offices of Plant’s manager, but that’s as close as he gets to him), before Dunn runs headlong into Sabbath, who, as Kramer says, is the definitive metal band.

Heady, punishing live footage of Sabbath pounding away in concert gives way to Bill Ward and Geezer Butler talking about the barren, dismal and violent existence of Birmingham, England in the ‘60s. Of keen interest is Ward’s discussion of how his drumming helped thicken the gloomy atmosphere of the title track to Black Sabbath – in particular, it was the funereal march of his toms that did the trick, the vintage live performance of the track providing the incontrovertible evidence of the fact. But, it’s how deftly Dunn pieces together the story of Sabbath’s early search for a record label, stringing together segments of Butler humorously relating the story of A&R reps abandoning a Sabbath gig two songs in and Wyper’s incisive initial impressions of the band, that speak to the respect he and McFayden show for the material and their ability to communicate it in interesting ways. The fact that Dunn spends so time with Wyper and Simpson, without dwelling on their contributions too long, is indicative of his willingness to go the extra mile, and it is appreciated.

Sharing top billing on “Early Metal UK,” Deep Purple and its metamorphosis from progressive-rock hopeful to proto-metal force of nature – as told by Roger Glove and Ian Paice – is dealt with on a scale equal to its legendary status. Def Leppard’s Phil Collen indulges in a bit of Ritchie Blackmore worship as he recounts seeing Purple live as a defining moment in his young life. An in-depth assessment of Deep Purple In Rock follows the touchy subject of Purple dispatching of singer Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper in favor of Ian Gillan and Glover, respectively – Paice reiterating that it was a necessary housecleaning that had to take place for Purple to become the powerful, muscular rock engine that would drive such classic LPs as In Rock, Machine Head and Fireball. Of course, Deep Purple would fracture due to internal friction, most of it having to do with Blackmore. Gillan and Glover departed eventually, their shoes filled by the soulful tandem of David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes.

The transition was a rocky one, as Paice tells it. Though Coverdale and Hughes bonded instantly, Blackmore, as has been told time and time again, wasn’t on board with the more R&B-inclined direction of Purple and disavowed Mark III’s first foray, Stormbringer. All of this makes for great drama and fodder for Dunn, as he ties together the seemingly disparate histories of all versions of Deep Purple and shows how all of it did, indeed, shape the future of heavy metal. And that includes Mark IV.

Sabbath’s deterioration is dissected without pity, as Dunn digs into the disastrous Rick Wakeman experiment and the band’s prodigious drug use. Purple was also savaged by substance abuse, creative differences and personnel shuffling. Then along came glam. England was reeling from economic despair and labor unrest, and with the working-class heading to the pubs for a good time, bands like Sweet stepped into the void. The Zeppelins, Sabbaths and Purples of the world had become unapproachable millionaires – and their work was suffering, although in the case of Zeppelin, it was John Bonham’s tragic death that did them in – and the people wanted something different. “Early Metal UK” chronicles the fall of metal’s birth parents and glam-rock’s glittery stomp to the top with aplomb. Always easy and relaxed, but with the inquisitive restlessness of a detective obsessing about a cold case, Dunn and company again weave richly filmed, incendiary period live footage with wide-ranging interviews. And though they play a small role in “Early Metal UK,” the recollections of Simpson and Wyper are essential to Sabbath’s story, and they provide some of the most fascinating commentary of the series. They may not be stars, but Dunn has elevated their level of importance to metal’s growth, and it’s one of the gratifying surprises that Dunn and company plant throughout “Metal Evolution” as if they were Easter eggs, even if some of the stories and photography aren’t always of the rare and never-before-seen variety.

-        -   Peter Lindblad

Metal Evolution - Early Metal UK
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