How did Birmingham’s Polka Tulk Blues Band turn what was once just “rock music”, into today’s nightmare complexity of sub and yet more sub-genres.
Polka Tulk’s bass guitarist and singer, Geezer Butler and Ozzie Osborne, were taking a break outside their rehearsal space opposite a cinema in Birmingham’s run-down Aston district. This was the summer of 1969, and they were watching people lining up to see Mario Bava’s horror film “Black Sabbath” starring Boris Karloff. Butler thought it “strange that people spend so much money to see scary movies.”
Sensing a commercial opportunity, they wrote the song “Black Sabbath”.
Their newly realised aim was to write the musical equivalent of horror movies – and so enjoy Karlovian queues outside their gig venues. This also solved their band name problem.
Drawing on witchcraft author Dennis Wheatley for lyrical inspiration, they also employed the medieval ‘tri-tone’ in the songs riff, a resonant discord known as the Devil’s interval once banned by the Church. The sinister (and slightly sharp) bell is a master-touch.
It’s hard to imagine today, that this could have caused such controversy as to be called “probably the most evil song ever written”, especially by a fellow rock musician (Judas Priest singer Rob Halford). These days we have bands gleefully writing songs about every evil imaginable, and singers who deliberately make themselves sound like the Devil in the movie Exorcist.
The top 100 in 1969 was eclectic – from Elvis, Dean Martin and Sinatra, to the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women”- the initial raunchy salvo in the battle that would create the “Americana” genre,
…and the Beatles’ twee little Apple-rocker “Get Back”.
But this was the old and the new worlds over-lapping. In the UK charts, the Hollies, Herman’s Hermits and Cliff Richard still knocking out old-style pop songs, and Glenn Campbell and Clodagh Rogers were doing country and folk; alongside the new-wave rock and pop bands like The Who, The Move, Jethro Tull and David Bowie.
Black Sabbath’s horror-film-rock caused an enormous stir. My only claim to fame in any of this was as the bass guitarist of a three-piece band which supported Sabbath at a gig at one of the more (then) left-wing university Students Union gigs. They were suitably wasted, and a good time was had by all.
I now need to mention the Kinks. They recorded “You Really Got Me” back in 1965 – the song that undoubtedly started off all the heavy rock and metal genres that are so strong today.
They’d failed with two previous singles – both unremarkable cover songs and were about to be dropped by Pye records.
The first version of “You Really Got Me” was slower, and too nice as record companies liked pop songs to be. Singer Ray Davies refused to let it be released, demanded a retake which Pye refused, so their manager Shel Talmy paid for a session at IBC. “You Really Got Me” was recorded in two takes, and reached UK number one and USA number 7. And so it came to pass that heavy rock and metal were born.
The Kinks also developed the Brit penchant for on-stage violence, so much so that their drummer nearly killed Ray Davies with a cymbal stand (requiring 16 stitches), after being insulted. Then – it’s said after one of them punched a stroppy US television company employee, they were given a four-year ban from the USA. And so The Who very ably took up the mantle – as in this typical USA television performance.
But my point about the Kinks is that despite “inventing” heavy rock, they remained a pop band writing a wide variety of different types of songs. “See My Friends”, written after a stop-over in Bombay, was the first song to have Indian musical influences, predating the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood and the many Indian psychedelic-type songs that would ensue from this.
All the rock bands of that time were equally varied in what they were doing – except for Black Sabbath who stuck to their new horror-rock. Then in 1968 Led Zeppelin emerged from the ashes of various other bands playing very distinctive, blues-based heavy rock. They were to push rock music on into ever more musical (and excessive) cycles reaching their zenith with the song “Kashmir”.
Ray Davies continued writing evocative songs in the vein of his masterpiece “Waterloo Sunset”.
And the point of this article is that unlike back then, in today’s music, genre is everything… Bands, like authors, are now pigeon-holed into specific racks of the notional record shop; which is nonsense as so few of us buy our music from actual shops. And these genres are very specific – a bewildering array of sub-sub-divisions which only a few brave artists dare to cross-over.
This is doubly mad as there are now also specific cross-over genres.
So this blog includes my nostalgic baby-boomer request that we return to thinking just about music – without making it conform to genres. This makes complete sense from the perspective of internet development, which has almost reached the level of detail for which algorithms can notify us of new tracks, artists and music irrespective of genre – which we individually wish to hear.
This would be a world of infinite genres, no limitations, in which we have just music. I wish…