12 Of The Most Metal Artists From Before Rock'n'Roll Existed

Here are 12 musicians whose darkness, debauchery, and talent was brutal before rock music was even a thing.

12 Of The Most Metal Artists From Before Rock'n'Roll Existed
Robert Johnson Photo:
Opencooper, via Wikipedia

The beauty of heavy metal is that the genre's emphasis on epic, timeless songs extends beyond the simple boundaries of when it existed. Certain historical events or figures may be thousands of years removed from Iron Maiden and Anthrax, but their massive scope and impact inherently bring them into the fold. Joan of Arc? Totally metal. The Black Death? None more black. In this way, we can acknowledge that though metal remains a relatively young form of music, its central ethos has been around since the Big Bang.

With this in mind, metal fans are often able to appreciate artists from before even basic rock music was established on the basis that they are as rad as any modern heshers. Cultural gatekeepers will rewrite history making them out to be sublime poets tripping the light fantastic, but make no mistake: if these musicians were in the game in 2020, they would be streaming to Twitch, betting online, and selling merch off their Bandcamp with the rest of our favorite artists. For this inherent humanity, they earn our respect, and remain close to heavy metal's ironbound heart even though they probably wouldn't enjoy metal if they heard it.

Here are 12 artists who defended the faith when rock'n'roll was still a gleam in Hendrix's eye…

Robert Johnson

While modern metal fans see the arch satanism of bands like Mayhem and Belphegor as the ultimate in sonic blasphemy, the devil in rock music was undoubtedly summoned by the legend surrounding Robert Johnson. The story goes that Robert, a young black guitarist from Mississippi looking to become a great blues musician, went to the crossroads at midnight, where he met the Devil in the form of a huge black man. Satan tuned his guitar, played a few songs, and gave it back to Robert, bestowing upon him blues prowess in exchange for his soul.

While the legend has been reinterpreted and obviously disputed, the fact is that Robert Johnson was in many ways the ultimate Delta blues guitarist. His steely, melancholy sound is for many the backbone of the blues, and made him a legend among early rock guitarists in America and the UK (who, it’s believed, perpetuated the satanic myth around him). The only real documented devil in Robert’s life was hard living; the guitarist was allegedly killed by drinking liquor given to him by the jealous husband of one of his conquests. This is why you have tour managers.

Franz Liszt

One doesn’t usually think of a 19th-century concert pianist as being metal as hell, but Franz Liszt was an iconoclastic rebel in his time. The Hungarian piano player and composer was known for revolutionizing the use of harmony, performing from memory in profile to the fury of classical traditionalists, and whipping his hair -- long and wigless, sweaty and unkempt -- during his concerts.

The result? Arguably the birth of fanatic groupie culture. When Franz performed, women would physically fight over his damp handkerchiefs and cigar butts, whipping themselves in Dionysian ecstasy. There were even times when female fans would tear at his hair and clothes when encountering him in public. Driving your fans to lustful frenzy with a guitar solo is pretty killer, but doing so with a piano concerto has a certain level of insane paganistic power to it.

READ THIS: 10 times metal artists collaborated with classical musicians

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Before Alice Cooper, GWAR, and Slipknot pioneered the genre now known as shock rock, there was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the ultimate blues maniac. Not only did Screamin’ Jay deliver his music in a frantic, unhinged warble, he did so in elaborate outfits of leopard print and colored leather, and eventually rocked a smoking skull scepter and a coffin he’d pop out of onstage (a trick eventually used by Rob Zombie). Jay's big single, I Put A Spell On You, was an explosion of unhinged drunken fury, and would later become a hit for Marilyn Manson, who covered the track on 1995's Smells Like Children.

Of course, many -- including Jay himself -- found his “cannibal voodoo” persona exploitative, playing on the idea of the black “wild man”. The singer didn’t particularly care for the "Screamin’" qualifier, and didn’t love being rock’s boogieman. That said, his theatrical work undoubtedly coined the idea of a rock show and a haunted house working brilliantly together, and his vocal delivery would inspire furious rock frontmen for decades to come.

Roy Smeck

Guitar legends like Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen have gotten a lot of praise in their time, but Leroy “Roy” Smeck deserves ample lip service in terms of establishing the techniques those guys used, as well as the very concept of a guitar god. Roy's abilities on the guitar, banjo, and ukulele earned him the nickname “the Wizard of the Strings”, and made him a widely respected vaudeville performer (he was even endorsed by Gibson).

Not only that, but he pioneered a lot of the showboating behaviors of later guitar heroes to overcompensate for being unable to sing. He played his uke with his teeth pre-Hendrix and used a violin bow behind his back before Jimmy Page. He even invented his own instruments, designing and perfecting the Vita-Uke. So the next time you head up to the front row and waggle your fingers at an expert axman, know that you owe everything to a banjo player from Reading, Pennsylvania.

Hildegard von Bingen

Where to begin? Maybe the furthest from rock’n’roll’s birth of anyone on this list (she was born in 1098), Hildegard von Bingen, also known as St. Hildegard and Sybil Of The Rhine, had it all going for her. She was a mystic and visionary, who was the mother of both German natural history science and what we now consider standard liturgical chanting. Basically, our entire understanding of haunting, traditional church music almost certainly comes from her work, meaning that every goth and black metal band owe her a sage nod.

An interesting side note: something else Hildegard came up with was her own alternate alphabet, which acted as an intellectual secret code. This was called the Lingua Ignota, Latin for unknown language and later the stage name of Kristin Hayter’s scathing solo project. Sure, Hildegard was a 11th-century abbess, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t metal as all goddamn fuck.

Cab Calloway

The look and feel of Man’s Ruin-style rebel swing stems to a huge extent from Cab Calloway’s work. He was the godfather of scat singing, most notably in his big hit Minnie The Moocher. The track was one of the numbers that got Cab featured in Bettie Boop cartoons, rotoscoped as a ghost with his pants down or a spectral walrus. That, plus his flamboyant style and unique dance moves made him a cultural icon, though some of his collaborators weren’t pleased by his grandstanding (Dizzy Gillespie once stabbed him onstage).

Interestingly enough, Cab Calloway had a notable impact on goth music. Oingo Boingo frontman and famed composer Danny Elfman made his name performing Cab Calloway routines during his early years. In fact, Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas is flat-out based on him. It may not make sense on paper, but watch those old Bettie Boop cartoons and you’ll see a distinct darkness to them that remains part of goth and metal culture to this day.

Gustav Mahler

Nothing sounds quite like the yawning mouth of the void as does the work of Gustav Mahler. Though sweet and romantic in parts, the Austrian composer’s symphonies are sprawling explorations of emotion, full of gripping melancholy and overwhelming shadow. The sweeping power of these works baffled many critics and classical purists during his heyday (his Third Symphony caused one critic in Vienna to say, “"Anyone who has committed such a deed deserves a couple of years in prison”), but can be heard distinctly in funeral doom and long-form prog metal acts like Tool. Meanwhile, his frantic, intense movements as a classical doncutor helped inject a sense of panicked power into the music of the time.

But it wasn’t just Gustav's work that was an emotional battlefield. The composer’s life was full of scandal and woe; his early years earned him the reputation as a lothario, and when he finally did marry, his wife Alma and he lost one of their daughters to scarlet fever. He composed his many symphonies in secluded shacks out in the woods, and constantly fought to have them respected against the anti-semitic high society of his day. In that respect, Gustav will always be classical’s answer to extreme metal’s most infamous figures, a tortured soul whose looming music reached for an abyss where he might finally belong.

Billie Holiday

Trigger warning. If you want to find the string connecting jazz to funeral doom, look no further than Billie Holiday. For some, Billie was just an incredible singer, whose powerful vocal delivery and improv skills helped give jazz much of its character and panache. But the truth is that though her versions of numbers like Stars Fell On Alabama and He’s Funny That Way are sweet, Billie's dark and mournful stuff gets about as dark and mournful as possible, and expresses a childhood that involved sex trafficking and an adulthood plagued by heroin addiction.

The most brutal song in Billie’s repertoire was Strange Fruit, a 1939 musical version of a poem by Abel Meeropol. The track is a stark lament over southern racism, depicting lynched black metal as fruit growing on a tree -- 'Pastoral scene of the gallant south / Them big bulging eyes and twisted mouth / Scent of magnolia, clean and fresh / Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.' The song's name was utilized by Zeal & Ardor in their album title Stranger Fruit, obviously referencing the band’s use of slave spirituals in their experimental metal. While modern fans may like to portray Billie Holiday as just another brilliant wailer, the darkness at her core puts her more in touch with extreme metal than it ever would with someone like Sinatra.

READ THIS: Into the void – How Myrkur and Zeal & Ardor are changing black metal

Spike Jones

If eyebrows could kill… Spike Jones’ face was so distinct he was eventually used as the basis of a Dick Tracy villain. More importantly, Spike is credited as almost single-handedly creating comedy and novelty music, leading a band that performed elaborate but zany versions of everything from swing to classical numbers. He was also a master percussionist, using drums, rattles, and bells to convey cartoonish impact and outrage in his music.

But perhaps the most metal thing about Spike Jones is that he gave Hitler the finger. In 1942, he recorded a version of Oliver Wallace’s song Der Fuhrer’s Face, a track mocking Hitler and his followers as the shitty little wieners they were. The recording was later used in a Walt Disney film of the same name, in which Donald Duck experiences life in Nazi Germany; the cartoon eventually won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. Calling out the Nazis is always noble; doing so with raspberry noises and tubas is as rad as it gets.

Igor Stravinsky

Today’s metalheads won’t listen to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring and think it’s worth taking a swing at someone over. But the Russian composer’s dissonant, moody orchestral work -- which would later help redefine rhythm and influence the gestating jazz scene -- not only caused a riot when it was first premiered, but did so alongside a ballet depicting a human sacrifice.

Igor’s big Paris premiere went down on April 2, 1913, in the newly constructed Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, accompanied by a ballet by Vaslav Nijinsky featuring a springtime ritual in which a young girl is selected for sacrifice and dances to her death. Almost immediately, his strange, unorthodox bassoon work elicited catcalls from the audience; not long after, people were screaming so loud that the dancers couldn’t hear the orchestra, and soon people were throwing vegetables at the musicians and punches at each other. With 40 concertgoers ejected from the theater and critics in an uproar, it’s safe to say that Igor caused the kind of chaos that Watain could only dream about.

Louie Bellson

You may have read about drum legend Louie Bellson on Kerrang! before. The percussionist, best known for his work with Duke Ellington, was famous for his speed, dexterity, and hard-hitting sound. A Bellson drum solo had a racket and a panic to it that other drummers weren’t quite getting, making his accompaniment less about a beat and more about an attitude.

But perhaps Louie's most notable addition to heavy metal’s sound was double-bass drumming. The style, involving two bass drum pedals played simultaneously or alternating between them, made his music extra furious, and eventually became the backbone of death and black metal percussion. Without that tank-tread steamroll sound, there wouldn’t be extreme metal drumming as we know it, and for that, Louie gets our undying respect.

Milton Berle

Look, Milton Berle’s music, public persona, and general attitude weren’t exactly metal. Sure, the dude was a multi-instrumentalist and a born entertainer, but so were plenty of public figures who you wouldn’t associate with death and brutality. There’s almost no reason he should be on this list…

…except his penis was massive. Yes, the general consensus around Hollywood during Milton’s heyday was that he had a dick the size of Texas, to the point where random people would ask to see it when they met him. Apparently once in a steam bath, Milton was challenged by a stranger to compare lengths, to which Jackie Gleason yelled, “Go ahead, Milton, just take out enough to win.” For member-obsessed metal acts like Mötley Crüe, W.A.S.P., Jackyl, and GWAR, Milton forever set the bar (and might have been the bar, apparently).

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