The Birth of Heavy Music: How Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Free and more ditched the 1960s and changed the course of music forever

Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore and Paul Kossoff
(Image credit: Jimmy Page: Michael Ochs Archives | Tony Iommi/Ritchie Blackmore: Chris Walter | Paul Kossoff: Brian Cooke )

At the start of 1968, rock’s original prime movers were flagging, and another generation of bands were ready to step into their shoes and crank their amps way up. When they’d finished, a whole new genre had been born.

The revolution began on 12 January 1969 when Led Zeppelin released their first album, and reached its crescendo on 22 October that year when they released the follow-up, Led Zeppelin II. During those days and weeks in between, the foundations of hard rock and heavy metal were laid by such visionaries as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Free, Humble Pie and more. 

It was a very British revolution, starting in pubs and clubs across the land before going on to conquer the stadiums of the world. By the time the dust had settled, nothing would be the same again. 

As far back as 1967, the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Cream and The Who had turned rock upside down, redrawing the boundaries of what could be done within music. But by 1968 all three found their creative juices becoming increasingly sapped by the demands of endless touring, especially in America.


Ian Paice (Deep Purple): “It started in the mid-1960s with Cream, Hendrix and The Who. Those three switched all of us on. When The Who started making their presence felt, rock’n’roll went to a different level. The volume leapt up incredibly. Cream took the musicality of the thing and made that a speciality. And then Hendrix opened up a whole range of new possibilities.”

Waiting in the wings were two former Yardbirds guitarists with big plans. One was Jeff Beck, whose eponymous Group released their debut album, Truth, in August 1968, laying down the template for what was to come. The other was Beck’s old oppo, Jimmy Page, who was putting together his new band, initially dubbed The New Yardbirds.

Mick Box (Spice/Uriah Heep): “When Jeff Beck’s Truth came out, that’s when everything started to change. Them and Led Zeppelin. I saw Zeppelin at the Cooksferry Inn in Edmonton. I sat in front of John Bonham’s huge drum kit, which was so massive they could barely get it on to the stage. Plant wasn’t in front of it, he was by the side. They were very, very exciting.”

Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin): “I wanted the group to be a marriage of blues, hard rock and acoustic music with heavy choruses – a combination that hadn’t been explored before. I’d originally thought of getting Terry Reid in as lead singer and second guitarist, but he had just signed with Mickie Most as a solo artist in a quirk of fate. He suggested I get in touch with Robert Plant, who was then in a band called Obbs-Tweedle."

Page and Beck weren’t the only ones standing on the edge of a revolution. As 1968 progressed, a groundswell of bands at the lower end of rock’s food chain began to turn up their amps. In London, members of Black Cat Bones and Wilde Flowers joined forces as Free, while in Birmingham a little-known blues band called Earth started to toughen up their sound.

Andy Fraser (Free): “The first night we got together to audition each other, we knew we had it. There was just no doubt. So we weren’t afraid to go up against anyone. We would tour with The Who, Small Faces, Family, anybody, and we were still confident in each other.”

Mick Box: “I saw Free in their very early days, at a pub in Wood Green. Their simplicity and energy blew me away.”

Andy Fraser: “Robert Plant came to see us play in Birmingham. He came back to the hotel afterwards for a jam, which people did a lot in those days, and told us he’d just been offered a gig with the New Yardbirds, on a good wage.”

Jim Simpson (Earth/Black Sabbath manager): “I had started a blues night, Henry’s Blues House, in Birmingham in September 1968, which Tony Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne joined as members. They came along most weeks and we chatted about their band, which was called Earth, and I ended up managing them. They were a blues band, but they were looking for a new direction and, even then, Ozzy was absolutely mesmerising on stage.”

Ozzy Osbourne (Earth/Black Sabbath): “I went to the same school as the guitarist, Tony Iommi. He was in a band called Mythology with Bill Ward, the drummer. I was in a group called the Rare Breed with Geezer Butler. I didn’t like the band. The fucking guitar player was a bully. Geezer agreed and we decided to leave. I put an ad in a music shop in Birmingham and Tony and Bill turned up. We called ourselves Earth.”

Tony Iommi (Earth/Black Sabbath): “It was very difficult doing what we did, because it was all soul clubs and blues clubs.”

Led Zeppelin were already way ahead of the curve compared to other bands. They had recorded their debut album the previous September, and the buzz around them was growing in Britain and America thanks to some sledgehammer live shows. Led Zeppelin I was released on 12 January 12 1969. It peaked at No.6 in the UK and No.10 in the US. The balloon had gone up

Jimmy Page: “The first album came together really quick. It was cut very shortly after the band was formed. For material, we obviously went right down to our blues roots. I still had plenty of Yardbirds riffs left over.”

John Paul Jones: “We never listened to the same music. I’ve always maintained that Zeppelin was the space between us. Bonzo was into soul and Motown, I was into jazz and classical, Jimmy was into rockabilly, blues and folk, and Robert was into blues and Elvis. Nobody on the outside of the band could believe this, but we considered it valuable.”

Edgar Broughton: “I remember the uniqueness of the music, and having to accept that I’d never heard anything like that before. It was the incredible guitar playing and the violence of the drums that did it for me. And they’d managed to capture this huge heavy rock sound in the studio, which was quite a rare thing in those days.”

Andy Parker (Hocus Pocus/UFO): “I was a huge fan of The Who, Cream and Hendrix, but Zeppelin’s first album made me go: ‘Jesus!’ All of a sudden the music took on this new heaviness.”

Zeppelin’s first album proved to be a catalyst for another band who were key to the development of the new, heavier sound. Humble Pie were formed at the beginning of 1969 by Small Faces frontman Steve Marriott and ex-The Herd guitarist Peter Frampton.

Peter Frampton (The Herd/Humble Pie): “At the end of 1968 I was in Paris, working on a Johnny Hallyday album with the Small Faces. They went back to do a New Year’s Eve date at Alexandra Palace, and I stayed on in Paris with our producer, Glyn Johns. Late on New Year’s Eve, Glyn says: ‘Let me play you this album. We recorded it in ten days. It’s this new band, Led Zeppelin.’ I heard it and my jaw just hit the floor. 

I just loved Jimmy’s playing and the singing, but the thing that really floored me was John Bonham’s incredible bass drum sound and feel. Then Steve Marriott actually rang me in between side one and side two of the Zeppelin album. He had walked off stage at Ally Pally, and he says: ‘I’ve had it. I’m finished with this band.’

Jerry Shirley (drummer, Humble Pie): “We never saw ourselves as a heavy metal band. We were a really powerful hard-rockin’ blues band. We were trying to be Dylan’s backing group, The Band, but Mk II. There’s one track on their first album called Chest Fever which is pretty heavy stuff, not metal, but heavyweight.”

Dave Black (Kestrel): “North East soul bands changed into rock bands in 1969. They still had brass sections, but started rocking it up and doing songs like Sunshine Of Your Love. It was the first time bands started writing songs based on riffs.”

Edgar Broughton (Edgar Broughton Band): “It wasn’t like prog was coming up over there and metal was over here. It was more like this big musical stew, and you’d just stick in a spoon and have a taste. I don’t think any of us really knew what we were doing. There was a sense that if you had an idea and reckoned you could see it through, then just do it. 

"Also, amps and speakers were getting more powerful. Suddenly you had that big bass speaker flapping away. It was almost physical, it made your shirt flap. People were starting to make that heavier sound, because they could."

In the final week of January, Cream released their farewell album, Goodbye. Peaking at No.1 in the UK and No.2 in the USA, it represented a changing of the guard.

Eric Clapton: “We started a ball rolling which I don’t like being responsible for. People say we started the heavy metal thing. Which is quite an indictment.”

John Bonham (Led Zeppelin): “I was influenced by Ginger Baker. He was the first to show that a drummer could be a forward thing in a rock band, not just stuck at the back and forgotten about.”

Ginger Baker (drummer, Cream): “People say Cream gave birth to heavy metal. If that’s so, we should have had an abortion.”

Jack Bruce (bassist, Cream): "I still don’t take the blame for inventing heavy metal. Hang that one on Led Zeppelin.”

Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin): “There was such a difference, even on first hearing, between us and Cream. There was an intense difference. There were groups in the country other than us who could have filled Cream’s place more specifically.”

Geezer Butler: “Zeppelin paved the way for us. Obviously, we used to get compared to them – they were the heaviest thing, up until we came along. They very much started the genre, and we cashed in on it.”

Deke Leonard (Man): “I liked Led Zeppelin. Especially when they were proto-heavy metal. We liked hard driving music, something with fire in its belly, not wishy-washy Moody Blues crap. Jethro Tull and Deep Purple, I thought they were tripe.”

As the summer approached, it was hard not to sense a change in the air. For Deep Purple, this meant restructuring themselves to adapt to the new scene. In June, as the band released their third album, singer Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper were replaced by Ian Gillan and Roger Glover of North London outfit Episode Six. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had initially approached Terry Reid for the frontman’s job, only for Reid to politely decline.

Roger Glover (Episode Six/Deep Purple): “I think Episode Six had 13 or 14 singles out, none of which made it. I had visions of my doing a one man, one guitar thing. Then I heard Led Zeppelin and that changed all my ideas musically. I suddenly realised that I wanted to be in a heavy band.”

In July 1969, Birmingham’s Earth learned that at least one other band had the same name.

Jim Simpson: “We were all making suggestions of the new name, but none of them seemed right until Geezer said Black Sabbath, which he’d got from the title of an old Boris Karloff horror movie.”

Ozzy Osbourne: “It was a different angle. At the time, it was all bells and flowers and hippies.”

Tony Iommi: “That’s when it all started to happen. The name sounded mysterious, it gave people something to think about, and it gave us a direction to follow.”

On August 30, as legions of flower-painted camper vans parked in serried ranks for the second Isle of Wight Festival, the rechristened Black Sabbath played their very first gig under their new name, at the Malvern Winter Gardens.

Jim Simpson: “There was no band as heavy as the Sabs. We had a strap-line on our adverts, which was: ‘Makes Led Zeppelin sound like a kindergarden house band’. That’s the flag we sailed under.”

Tony Iommi: “A couple of years before, in the factory where I worked, I did sheet metal work, and the cutter came down on my fingers, took the ends of my middle and ring finger off.”

Geezer Butler: “Tony tuned down to make it easier to grip the strings. He made himself plastic fingertips.”

Tony Iommi: “Before the accident, I could play in the normal way, using full chords and everything. But after the accident, I had to think and play differently. I came up with these fatter chords that I could play with less fingers.”

The equipment the bands used was key to this new sound. Amps were getting bigger and more powerful. Bass strings were becoming fatter and more resonant. Conversely, drugs played a minimal part in the development of many bands’ sound.

Jim Simpson: “The relationship between Sabbath’s equipment and their music was much more important than it was for a ska band or a pop band. If Tony saw someone with a stack of speakers taller than his he would spit blood.”

Peter Frampton: “We were playing Gretschs, then Steve and I switched over to a Gibson Les Paul. The Les Paul offered a heavier sound. If you looked at metal bands, well Ritchie Blackmore always played a Strat, Jimmy Page played a Les Paul.”

Ken Hensley: “One competitive area was who had the most Marshall stacks on stage. When you consider we were coming out of an age of The Beatles and Cliff Richard, suddenly everyone wanted to turn everything up to eleven.”

Al Atkins: “Me and [future Judas Priest bassist] Bruno Stapenhill were invited to a Marshall exhibition in Birmingham. Deep Purple played there, and they were so loud they just blew us away. Right away I knew I had to have a band like that – to do something really, really loud.”

Edgar Broughton: “When we first started recording at Abbey Road all the technicians in their lab coats would start looking concerned whenever the needles went into the red. Just a year later needles were constantly going into the red and everybody had got used to it. While there was camaraderie between some of the bands, many others operated in a vacuum. There may have been a revolution going on, but in part it was an accidental one.”

Andy Fraser: “We weren’t really aware of bands like Black Sabbath. I was more likely to be playing the new Gladys Knight single to the other guys in the band, or Paul would rush in and play something by Otis Redding.”

Geezer Butler: “Zeppelin were our favourite band by that time. It was all we listened to. And I used to know Planty and Bonham from Birmingham, so we were glad that they’d finally done something. That’s who we used to get stoned to together – lying down on the floor, smoking our dope and listening to Zeppelin.”

On October 16, Black Sabbath entered Regent Sound Studios in London to record their debut album. It took them eight hours and cost a grand total of £600.

Geezer Butler: “We went into the studio, set up our equipment and recorded it as a live gig. Tony did a couple of overdubs, solos and things, and that was it.”

Jim Simpson: “By letting them just be Sabbath, producer Roger Bain got the best out of them. All he did was record it faithfully. Roger’s only real masterstroke was adding thunder and lightning to the start of the album, which gave it a great atmospheric opening. When I took the finished album back round all those record companies again, it got rejected. 

"At the last minute, I got a call from a guy, Olav Wyper, at a newly set up label, Vertigo. Olav had been at CBS when I took the album there, and said he’d now like to do a deal. This was only because, for Vertigo’s second tranche of three releases, someone had failed to deliver masters for VO6. So they signed Black Sabbath as a makeweight, because we had finished masters which could be delivered in a hurry.”

Tony Iommi: “I remember we got a poxy £400 for signing, and a crap royalty rate, but we really weren’t bothered about the money, because we didn’t have any money anyway.”

On October 22, nearly 300 days after their first album, Jimmy Page and co released Led Zeppelin II. Both heavier and more textured than their debut, it far outstripped the success of its predecessor. Their label, Atlantic, received advance orders of 400,000 copies – nearly 10 times as many as Led Zeppelin. It peaked at No.1 in both the UK and the US. The musical revolution they had started had now officially gone worldwide. 

Jimmy Page: That album captured the energy of being on the road. That’s what I like about it. That record and the period around it seems like a tidal wave now.

Robert Plant: “That was the album that was going to dictate whether or not we had the staying power and the capacity to stimulate. It was still blues-based, but it was a much more carnal approach to the music and quite flamboyant.”

Charlie Watts (the Rolling Stones): “I call that tour [the Stones’ Winter 1969 US tour] the Led Zeppelin tour, because it was the first time we had to go on and play for an hour-anda- half. I blame it on Jimmy Page. Led Zeppelin had come to the States, and they would do a twenty minute drum solo and endless guitar solos.”

Freddie Mercury (writing to his flatmate in 1969): “Just heard Zeppelin II LP and it’s a knock-out. Saw them at the Lyceum and they were really great.”

In the wake of Zeppelin’s success, a growing army of new bands began picking up their lead. In Birmingham, singer Al Atkins formed Judas Priest. In London, fledgling band Hocus Pocus changed their name to UFO. Hard rock, heavy rock, heavy metal – call it what you will, but it was here to stay. Music had changed forever.

Al Atkins: “Our bass player, Bruno Stapenhill, came up with the name from the Bob Dylan song The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest. I was never a fan of Heep or UFO. I didn’t play in bands with keyboards. Black Sabbath was the style that we wanted to go in, writing bigger and bigger riffs.”

Neil Warnock: “As 1969 went on, the heavier bands started to take off in the Marquee in Soho, the Greyhound in Croydon, the Wake Arms in Epping… We all know that this kind of music is all about the blue-collar working man having a beer and a bit of sound. That’s where it found its audience. By the end of the year, if one of those emerging heavy bands came out of a gig with £100 they’d think that was a result. But it was those bands, Sabbath, Deep Purple and their like, that provided my core income in the next decade.”

Mick Box: “I don’t remember hearing the term ‘heavy metal’. It’s just a term used by journalists – no offence. Okay, things got heavier, but to me all of it was good rock music.”

Ken Hensley: “It felt like we were part of something that was very exciting. A real energy was building, not just among the bands, and we spent time with Purple, Sabbath and the rest on tour. We also did many shows with Led Zeppelin – but with the kids as well. It was that post-Vietnam time when everyone was looking for something new and different. It all combined to make the thing like an unstoppable train.”

Edgar Broughton: “I was aware that this heavy music was attracting its own cult following. And there was a bit of a ‘them and us’ thing about it as well. Some of them wouldn’t listen to anything else. A lot of the bands that came up under the Led Zeppelin thing were just buying into a formula, really. You know, playing certain chords because they knew it would get a reaction.”

Ian Paice (drummer, Deep Purple): “It was a breakaway from what was acceptable and normal, that’s for sure, but within a year it had become the norm. Every kid looked like that and listened to the same form of music. It’s amazing how quickly fashion can take hold of public taste to be adapted by a whole generation.”

Mick Box: “If I’m perfectly honest, it really was that good. It was a vibrant, wonderful time. There were venues aplenty, the fashion thing was going on… I thank God I was born at just the right time to be a part of it.”

Additional Sources: NME, Sounds, Q, The Concert File by Dave Lewis and Simon Pallett. Black Sabbath: Symptom Of The Universe by Mick Wall is out now on Orion Books.

This feature was originally published in Classic Rock #193, published in January 2014.

Johnny Black

Johnny is a music journalist, author and archivist of forty years experience. In the UK alone, he has written for Smash Hits, Q, Mojo, The Sunday Times, Radio Times, Classic Rock, HiFi News and more. His website Musicdayz is the world’s largest archive of fully searchable chronologically-organised rock music facts, often enhanced by features about those facts. He has interviewed three of the four Beatles, all of Abba and been nursed through a bad attack of food poisoning on a tour bus in South America by Robert Smith of The Cure.