What Did Metalheads Do Before the Invention of Heavy Metal?

There was plenty of heavy shit to do before Sabbath

Heavy metal is easy to take for granted. It just seems like a natural part of the universe—like fire or crime. Metal is the musical equivalent of adrenaline and the only good reason to get up every morning and crack that first beer. But heavy metal wasn’t always around. So what did metalheads do back before Satan summoned Tommy Iommi out of his old man’s balls?

Music Before Metal

The inception of heavy metal is widely considered to be the release of Black Sabbath’s debut in 1970 (you can make an argument to the contrary if you are the type of person that likes to annoy anyone within sneezing distance). If you were alive in the sixties, you could’ve gotten some proto-metal kicks by listening to the heavy rock and blues styles of Hendrix, ‘Helter Skelter,’ Cream, and the Yardbirds: stuff that laid the foundation for generations of heaviness to come. As you cranked Iron Butterfly’s ‘In A Gadda Da Vida’ on your turntable, you would’ve tucked your stringy, long hair behind your ears, ignited a joint of skunk weed that was practically oregano by today’s standards, and muttered, “I think there’s something heavy on the way, maaaannnn.”

In the fifties, however, you would’ve been fucked. You would’ve sported a freshly cropped crew cut – a decidedly un-metal look and literally the only men’s hairstyle that existed then. Elvis Presley was the template for Danzig and he pissed a lot of parents off, so that would’ve been cool. But no metal.

The first half of the twentieth century would’ve sucked even worse: not a distortion pedal or pentagram tattoo in sight. The Great Depression happened – so you might’ve gotten a couple kicks just from marveling at the heaviness of that. Your best pre-metal music choice would’ve been early blues with heavy themes and emotions: there’d be no Shout at the Devil if it weren’t for blues icon Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to Satan while he laid the foundation of rock and roll.

antonio vivaldi

Classical composer Antonio Vivaldi was fond of boasting that he invented the breakdown

Classical music was the heaviest shit prior to the twentieth century; that’s why metalheads like Page Hamilton and James Hetfield consider classical a primary influence on metal. Dudes like Wagner and Bach loved metal stuff including epic string sections, self-indulgent virtuosity, and hairstyles so gaudy they’d make Rikki Rockett blush. If you’ve ever seen Amadeus you know that Mozart was quite the cocksman, so that’s pretty metal, but let’s face it: classical music sucks. Music that has copious oboe but no guitar is like a pizza topped with Alpo instead of mozzarella.


Since music before metal was so lame that pre-metalheads would’ve had to get their fix of heaviness by doing heavy things. Obviously, the heaviest thing to do in any era is to indulge in some good, old fashioned Satanism.

If you were around in the medieval days of pagan druids, you could’ve had a sacrificial altar and a cloak made of the hide of something you’d strangled. Or, if you were around in Salem circa 1692, you would’ve been practicing witchcraft with Winona Ryder. However, this era would’ve been a pretty supreme bummer due to the noose-related fatal injuries that befell witchcraft practitioners of the time.

But late-17th century Salem wasn’t the only era during which engaging in Satanic practices could result in heinous consequences. After Nikki Sixx dabbled in devilry, the knives and forks in his house allegedly started flinging themselves off of tables and upwards into the ceiling (according to Crüe bio The Dirt). In the heavy metal oral history Louder Than Hell, former Pentagram member Joe Hasselvender claims that Satanic artifacts from the Salem witch trials caused a “poltergeist outbreak” in his house, and that some of these artifacts even caused Cliff Burton’s death while they were in his possession. So maybe think twice before you set up that Facebook invite for your first séance/ritualistic grave desecration.


Vikings were basically a black metal band without the shitty logos/music. Like black metal, Vikings originated in Scandinavia and made a name for themselves by attacking religious institutions (the 793 A.D. Viking raid on the Lindisfarne monastery is considered the dawn of the Viking Age). Probably the most metal occupation of all time was to be a Viking berserker: a warrior who entered battle in a rabid rage-trance that was so intense that “neither fire nor iron had effect upon them.” Legend has it that some Berkserkers ate mushrooms to enter the berserk zone – kinda like that time in ninth grade when Craig Wieckowski came to school on shrooms, got in an argument with Mr. Beall, then gave Mr. Beall a black eye and sprinted out of the building screaming.

All historians agree that Vikings invented tailgating. The Viking equivalent of drinking Bud tallboys in the parking lot of a Van Halen concert was hanging out on your longship while drinking mead (basically honey-based Viking moonshine) on the eve of a successful raid. Also, Vikings believed in dragons. Just like Dio.

Braveheart Dudes

The heavy metal moshpit gimmick called the ‘Wall of Death’ is also known as the ‘Braveheart’ because of the battle scenes in the Mel Gibson movie. The ‘Wall of Death’ is when a few hundred Exxon attendants at a Lamb of God concert separate into two opposing teams, stare each other down, and then rush at each other in a burst of French kissing.

braveheart battle

An Australian bigot leads a ragtag band of Scotsmen to failure

If you had been a warrior in the real war for Scottish independence, you would’ve engaged in the most metal activity ever: losing. These dudes won some battles in a Scottish quest for independence that was ultimately futile, and Scottish people still hate independence. Being a huge loser is a time-honored metal tradition, so this would’ve been a great pre-metal activity.

Pro tip: don’t ever do study abroad in Scotland because you think the chicks are going to be as hot as Braveheart’s wife in the movie. They are not.

The Plague

If you aren’t into doing heavy stuff like being a Viking or sacrificing virgins to Beelzebub, you could’ve at least lived in a time of heavy circumstances. Scientists agree that the bubonic plague pandemic of the Middle Ages was the single biggest bummer in history (followed closely by the Great Depression and season two of True Detective). This was a very heavy time to be alive – that’s why there are contemporary metal bands called Plaguebringer, Winds of Plague, and Plague Omelette (okay I made up the last one).

death leprosy

Above: Photograph of central Paris circa 1350.

In 14th century Europe, the plague spread along the Silk Road via rats and fleas, and soon everyone was puking up toxic blood. Within months, the whole European continent looked like a scene from the Dawn of the Dead remake (except without the mall and Mekhi Phifer). According to some coroner dude, the pneumonic strain of the plague worked like this: over a 4–7 day period, “your lungs essentially just liquefy, and you’ll cough ‘em up and die.” Fuckin heavy! The plague was more apocalyptic than every Ed Repka album cover combined.


Life before heavy metal had a variety of pros (no Nickleback) and cons (no picklebacks). But metalheads would’ve been in despair without their precious life blood, and the inconveniently long stretches of plague/genocide would’ve been a buzzkill too. Sure, if you Marty McFly’ed yourself back in time, there was some heavy shit to do and see, but the soundtrack sucked ass. So the next time you toss your favorite band’s mediocre new record over your shoulder with a hearty “meh,” remember that metal is a gift that should not be taken for granted.

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