Heavy Metal music has a bad reputation. People who don’t know much about it automatically associate it exclusively with Satanism. They remember the big brouhaha over Ozzy Osborne biting the head off of a bird, and something about backward messages on the old vinyl records our kids used to listen to, and of course, the now ubiquitous number 666, which was popularized by the song, ‘The number of the Beast’, by Iron Maiden.

Apart from those things, the average John and Jane Q. Public don’t know much about Heavy Metal. However, its origins go deep into the fabric of working class English society, originating in Birmingham, England in the late 1960s, and early 1970s. At this time, Birmingham, just like all of England, was going through rapid decline. The British Empire was in the process of being dismantled in the wake of WWII, and Britain was finding itself losing a lot of its former colonial markets as outlets for investment, and exchanges in goods and services.

Birmingham had been a huge industrial centre, especially for iron and steel-making, and particularly for the arms industry, and had been a symbol of Britain’s former Imperial might. With its decline, the emerging generation of young people growing up in that city, found themselves with little hope for the future, with factories and mills shutting down all around them, and the landscape blighted with pollution and ugliness.

Four of these youths, amongst them Ozzy Osborne, were bored and restless, and needed to find an outlet for their restlessness and frustration, seeing the world as it unfolded before them. On the one hand they saw a generation striving more than ever for peace, while at the same time, a world full of atomic bombs. While in California, where the weather was nicer and the people more prosperous, people were being exhorted to ‘Go to San Francisco, and put flowers in your hair’, this didn’t seem to make sense to these four lads, stuck in the grinding dead end of poverty in the back streets of Birmingham. They had a rather much more apocalyptic world view of the situation.

So eventually they started a band, and called it something suitably dark, such as ‘Black Sabbath’, which summed up their view of things quite succinctly. They started writing songs about the end of the world, about men choosing evil over good and paying the price by going to hell, about Vietnam veterans being disillusioned with the world and turning to heroin as an escape. All throughout their song writing there remained however, a clear message: That Satan was the prince of evil, and that he tempts us by appealing to our innermost desires for wealth, and power, and that if one gives in to such temptations, one will pay the ultimate price. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of old Beelzebub, if you ask me.

However, the political and military establishment in the west latched onto this dark element of their song writing, and accused them of Satanism, especially since many of their songs were critical of the military establishment’s longstanding tradition of waging war at all cost. This prompted Black Sabbath to pen their now-famous anthem ‘War Pigs’, which is essentially a song about thermonuclear Armageddon, which calls the military establishment: ‘Generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at Black Masses, evil minds that plot destruction, sorcerers of death’s construction.’

This didn’t exactly go over well at the White House, much less the Pentagon. Accusations started flying, lawsuits ensued throughout the years and the whole controversy over Heavy Metal was well underway.

Ozzy Osborne eventually left Black Sabbath in a typically dramatic drug-filled controversy over personalities and creative differences with his band-mates. He started a very successful solo career in 1981, and has never looked back.

His first solo album ‘Blizzard of OZ’ sold very well, and included such anthems as ‘Crazy Train’, ‘Revelation (Mother Earth)’, and ‘Goodbye to Romance’. In ‘Crazy Train’, he deplores the world as it is today, that ‘Crazy, but that’s how it goes, for millions of people, living is woe. Maybe, it’s not too late, to learn how to love, and forget how to hate. I’m going off the rails on a crazy train.’ In the second verse, he deplores western capitalist civilization’s obsession with the idea of…’to rule and to grow, the media sells it and you live the role’. In ‘Revelation (Mother Earth), Ozzy is in fact easily thirty years ahead of the whole ‘save the planet’ curve. In this song, the narrator paraphrases the words of Christ at the crucifixion, when he looked up to heaven and said to his Father, of the people who were doing this to him, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’. In the case of this song, the narrator addresses his prayer to Mother earth, and says ‘Mother please forgive them, for they know not what they do’, referring to humanity’s despoiling of creation.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the glamour of evil either I should say.

Then there’s Iron Maiden. These are another group of English lads who acquired great wealth, fame and fortune, and not a little controversy, with their music. First of all, their mascot, or thematic character, which adorns the cover of most of their albums, called Eddy, stirred up more than a little controversy, since it looked like a macabre, zombie-like creature, often dressed in different shocking types of garb.

Secondly, in 1982, they shocked the world by putting out an album called ‘The number of the Beast’, which essentially single-handedly helped to popularize the number 666 from the book of Revelation. Everybody thought that the song was a glorification of Satan, until I actually listened to the story recounted in the song and finally understood what they were talking about.

Essentially, the song ‘The Number of the Beast’ is a quintessentially English or Edgar Allan Poe-style macabre recounting of a young man’s accidental encounter with a group of people conducting a Satanic ritual one dark evening, while he was walking in a field in the countryside. He stumbles accidentally onto the ritual while it is in full swing with worshipers maniacally chanting ‘666 the number of the beast’ and bearing lit torches lighting up the dark night sky. End of story. I think Poe would be proud of these young lads’ macabre story-telling abilities, if you ask me.

Another one of their songs is called ‘Aces High’ and recounts the heroism of the Hurricane and Spitfire pilots who defended London during the Blitz of the battle of Britain in WWII. Definitely diabolical. Brave men defending the last bastion of democracy and freedom in Europe against a Fascist megalomaniac. Surely the work of the devil.

Another one of their songs is called ‘Two minutes to Midnight’, and is a scathing social critique, relating to the nuclear clocks that exist in our scientific establishments which measure how close we are to Armageddon, based on the level of nuclear security that exists at the present time in the world. In the song, the band essentially takes the war-mongers of this world to task for waging war for economic gain, and for keeping the rest of the planet in a state of economic servitude so as to keep the military-industrial complex humming.

Another of their songs is called ‘Power Slave’, which recounts the story of how the ancient Egyptian rulers duped their subjects into thinking that they were man-Gods, and forced them, using military coercion, to bow before them in subjugation. In the song, the narrator is the spirit of one such of these rulers, who, as he is dying, is now faced with his own mortality, and feels the cold grip of everlasting death creep over him, realizing now that all of his life he was a ‘power slave’, and a ‘slave to the power of death’, and that now everlasting death will be his lot. Very chilling.

And lastly, to top it off, this same merry bunch of English lads, who named their band after an iron ball that used to be chained to the legs of prisoners so that they wouldn’t escape, went ahead and took Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem ‘The rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and put it to music! Not too shabby for a supposed bunch of devil worshipers, if you ask me, right?

In the final analysis, Heavy Metal is a mixed bag of all sorts of stuff. You have blatantly Satanic stuff which is categorized as ‘Brutal Death Metal’, and you have the other extreme such as Australian evangelical Christian heavy metal, which is anti-drugs and anti-alcohol, with everything else you can imagine in between.

So the next time you see some kid with some weird T-shirt and a skate board and some earplugs stuck in his ears, don’t be so quick to judge. Ozzy Osborne may have bitten off the head of a bird to get our attention, but hey, he got it, right?

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