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Music

How The Beatles gave the world heavy metal's 'Sign of the Horns'

@josephtaysom

It’s hard to argue against The Beatles being the greatest pioneers in music history. Their pop sound was just one piece of their charge to stardom. A band who helped introduce the world to the magical realm of pop music – and the encompassing world of screaming teens it brought with it – successfully managed to change culture forever in the process of their creativity. However, one genre of music on the surface that they aren’t intrinsically linked with is creating heavy metal and the culture surrounding it, but here’s why this needs to change.

The aficionados among us may well point to the band’s track ‘Helter Skelter‘ as a link between the Fab Four and the thunderous genre that took root in the seventies and eighties — on top of this John Lennon, once branded ‘Ticket To Ride’ as “the first heavy metal record”. Whether that is the first-ever metal record is a debate for another day, but that’s not where Lennon’s links to metal culture end and the former Beatle was the first prominent figure to use the notorious hand action known as heavy metal horns or ‘Sign of the Horns’.

The Fab Four and heavy metal seem like chalk and cheese. With their beautiful signature melodies and wonderful harmonies being a world away from the industrial world of heavy metal, it wasn’t until Lennon’s comments in 1980 about the band pioneering the genre that people would start examining the subject. Lennon was undoubtedly not the first person to use the horns sign, but he was photographed making the gesture back in 1966 and back then, nobody had done it in popular culture. An animated version of Lennon was later seen holding up the sign on the cover art for ‘Yellow Submarine’ and helped spread the hand gesture as a sign of rebellion.

The heavy metal horns wouldn’t become popular until the late Ronnie James Dio joined Black Sabbath in 1979 and populated most of his press shots with the sign of the horns — but Dio never claimed to be the sign’s inventor. He claimed his Italian grandmother used it to ward off the evil eye, and as his predecessor, Ozzy Osbourne, used the peace sign at concerts, Dio decided to use his own hand gesture. Following this tour, metal fans worldwide then appropriated the sign, and it has been synonymous with the genre ever since.

Bizarrely, KISS’ Gene Simmons claimed he created the sign and even filed a claim with the U.S. Patent And Trademark office on June 16, 2017. He stated that he first used the hand gesture in November 1974 and was therefore entitled to file an ownership claim. However, he swiftly dropped the case after it emerged that he clearly didn’t invent the sign with the likes of Lennon using it years before Simmons.

Dio commented in 2001: “I doubt very much if I would be the first one who ever did that. That’s like saying I invented the wheel, I’m sure someone did that at some other point. I think you’d have to say that I made it fashionable. I used it so much and all the time and it had become my trademark until the Britney Spears audience decided to do it as well. So it kind of lost its meaning with that. But I was in Sabbath at the time. It was a symbol that I thought was reflective of what that band was supposed to be all about.

“It’s NOT the devil’s sign like we’re here with the devil. It’s an Italian thing I got from my Grandmother called the “Malocchio”. It’s to ward off the Evil Eye or to give the Evil Eye, depending on which way you do it. It’s just a symbol but it had magical incantations and attitudes to it and I felt it worked very well with Sabbath. So I became very noted for it and then everybody else started to pick up on it and away it went. But I would never say I take credit for being the first to do it. I say because I did it so much that it became the symbol of rock and roll of some kind.”

Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler held up the sign on a one-off occasion in 1969, and he is an unapologetic Beatles fanboy, which suggests Lennon was his inspiration. “I loved The Beatles, still do,” he explained to the Daily Express in 2020. “They changed the world. Lennon’s lyrics were so different to anything that had come before. Unlike previous bands and singers in Britain, they didn’t try to sound American. Their sound was totally British. Theirs was the first music I could truly relate to.”

The sign has origins in different cultures across the world, such as in Italy, as Dio acknowledged, and Buddhism and Hinduism. Its links with Eastern religions is likely to be where Lennon first saw the gesture and then brought it into popular culture. Dio’s Italian links mean that he would have done the sign anyway in 1979, and he did popularise it within the metal community, but Lennon was the first to use it in the wider cultural sphere.