Heavy metal, or just metal, is a strange genre in the sense that we don’t know exactly where it came from. Much like punk, the genre derived from a wide variety of influences that over time coalesced and merged together to create something new, with no definitive starting point. Some posit that Link Wray’s 1958 classic ‘Rumble’ was where it started to germinate, and others claim that it started with the psychedelic rock movement of the ’60s with bands like Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, 13th Floor Elevators and Coven and that their loose similarities were tied together under one concise banner the moment that Steppenwolf frontman, John Kay, sung the words “heavy metal thunder” in 1968’s ‘Born to be Wild’.
The topic remains an interesting debate because it’s so multi-faceted. Other commentators argue that it was bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, the ‘unholy trinity’ of heavy metal, who actually, as a group effort, helped to proliferate the new genre. Then, on the peripheries of the argument, you have more niche opinions that wager that it was artists such as Arthur Brown, those with a penchant for the macabre and theatrical that first set foot in the dark side.
Objectively, we’d argue that all those mentioned created heavy metal, as nothing in music is ever definitive. It’s a loose, fluid discipline that has always had an all-encompassing, outward-looking perspective, culminating in it being the most accessible of the creative arts. There’s something about music’s inherent dexterity, which has made it able to recreate itself time and time again, outliving societies and individuals. Going right the way back to classical music, it has taken from other places and augmented itself, creating invincibility that will never wain. If you briefly think about how rock and pop have changed over the past 60 years, you’ll heed our point.
Metal is undoubtedly a bi-product of rock and pop, however, we’d argue that it was first Jimi Hendrix who laid down the sonic blueprint of what would become heavy metal in 1967. He took what came before him, adapted it, and sent rock down a harder and more visceral path. Whilst the going assertion is that Hendrix started heavy metal with tracks such as ‘Purple Haze’ on 1967’s Are You Experienced, I’d argue that it was on that year’s ‘Spanish Castle Magic’ from Axis: Bold as Love, where he really created the genre.
Heavier than anything anyone had heard at the time, it pushed Hendrix’s sound to the limits. We hear him play similar licks on ‘Voodoo Chile’, but this was undoubtedly the heaviest Hendrix ever got. It’s a shame that he never made it past 1970 because it’s sure he would have tread new ground in terms of brain-splitting riffs in that decade. His hard soloing, punishing riff, and guitar tone set a precedent for metal moving forward on ‘Spanish Castle Magic’, and for a track recorded in 1967, it remains mindblowing.
Where you can really hear how pioneering the song was is on the 1969 Olympic Studios version. It hits you like a punch in the face. The middle part is effectively a breakdown, and in terms of song structure, you can hear this all across metal in its different forms today. It builds up to a crescendo that drags you back in for another barrage of licks.
One of the highlights of the track is that the bass used was an eight-string Hagström bass. Played by original Experience bassist Noel Redding after being offered the model whilst the band were touring Sweden, never before had the low end on a track sounded so ominous. Showing just how ahead of their time they were by using the instrument, it was only the seventh H8 model ever made. Whether you listen to the Axis: Bold as Love version or the Olympic Studios version, our point is clear. Strangely, you can hear flecks of sludge and stoner metal in the track, showing just how ahead of the curve Hendrix was.
There’s a power to ‘Spanish Castle Magic’ that was miles ahead of any of the other heavy rock music that was out at the time. Hendrix and Co. pushed the boundaries of rock, and in doing so, created the blueprint for metal, and many of its other offshoots.
Listen to the Olympic Studios version of ‘Spanish Castle Magic’ below.