Like most genres of music, heavy metal is a tricky style to pinpoint its exact evolution. While it’s generally agreed upon that late 1960s acts like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and especially Black Sabbath, were responsible for the formation of the genre, metal music has transformed into so many subgenres and styles that it’s almost impossible to track where they all started and eventually split off.
For any fans of black metal or death metal, the death growl is an essential component of any vocalist’s performance. By channelling the very depths of one’s voice, singers can reach maximum impact by pitching their voice extremely low and letting out an ungodly rumble. It’s been parodied to death, but it also remains present in a ton of modern-day metal bands.
It’s hard to say where exactly the death growl started, but by the mid-1980s, death metal began to take shape thanks to bands like Possessed and Death. These bands used death growls in their music, but where were the origins of that particular vocal style? Well, as strange as it may seem, it appears as though The Who‘s John Entwistle may be the man most responsible for starting the death growl.
That’s because Entwistle used a similar vocal effect on the 1966 single ‘Boris the Spider’. Although Pete Townshend was The Who’s main songwriter and Roger Daltrey was the band’s main singer, Entwistle took up both duties on occasion, contributing memorable tracks like ‘My Wife’ and ‘Heaven and Hell’ to the band’s setlists. In the UK, ‘Boris the Spider’ was a B-side to the song ‘Whiskey Man’, and both tracks appeared on the American version of the album A Quick One, rearranged and retitled Happy Jack by Decca Records.
Written by Entwistle to evoke the same atmosphere as horror movies, ‘Boris the Spider’ found the bass player using an incredibly deep vocal rumble in the song’s chorus to invoke the titular creepy-crawly character. Entwistle’s voice becomes noticeably growly, and a clear connection can be made to the similarly styled death growl that took over in the heaviest forms of heavy metal.
The connection might not be all that strange after all: The Who were one of the heaviest and most aggressive rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s, and it would make sense that future heavy metal musicians would be listening to them when they were growing up around that era. For all the innovations that The Who can claim in popular music, inventing the death growl just might be their most influential.