10 Artists Who Were Heavy Long Before Metal


Even though things have been rough the last few years, I think we can all take a moment and be thankful that we at least have heavy metal! There’s a lot of debate about when metal first came into being and bicker endlessly about it, but if you ask me, the release of Black Sabbath‘s self-titled album in 1970 marks the genre’s true starting point.

That being said, Sabbath’s fellow English bands Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin also had huge pioneering influence on the birth of metal as well. Ireland’s Thin Lizzy is another one of the greats. Hopefully, everyone here is already aware of the massive debt owed to Jimi Hendrix, whose debut came out in 1967. We wouldn’t want to neglect to mention that Steppenwolf’s 1968 classic “Born to Be Wild,” with the line “Heavy metal thunder, racing in the wind…”

That said, heavy and depressing music has always existed simply because life has always been nasty, brutish, and short. There’s no shortage of classical composers, for example, who could provide the perfect soundtrack for even the most debauched night of partying.

Enjoy our list of heavy artists who came before metal. Although the timelines of the careers of some of our picks overlap with the era of metal, these creators still beat headbangers to the game.

Niccolò Paganini

Born in 1782, Niccolò Paganini was known as “The Devil’s Violinist.” At the time, the violin was considered by some to be the devil’s instrument. Furthermore, Paganini’s talent was simply too shocking to believe — clear proof that he sold his soul! It would be hard to name another classical musician whose existence gave birth to so many ghastly rumors. For example, it was thought that Mr. Paganini murdered a woman and used her intestines as violin strings. Hence, it was claimed that female screams could be heard issuing from his instrument during shows. Supernatural sightings were reported at his concerts as well. “The Ensouled Violin” is an especially good fiction story about Mr. Paganini by the otherwise intellectual fraud known as Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891). You will notice that listening to Paganini’s work is a bit of an erotic experience. After all, the virtuoso was a great Casanova, gambler, and drinker. His music sounds great on guitar as well, very metal indeed. Yet, we’ll spare you the agony of the nerdy videos.

Modest Mussorgsky

The Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky was the genius behind the opera Boris Godunov among other masterpieces. Even now, Mussorgsky’s daring work grabs us with special force. His music was especially emotional, robust, and feels way ahead of its time. Mussorgsky lived from 1939 to 1981. He tragically died of alcoholism. Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain has been reinterpreted by Accept at Wacken and also by Accept’s guitarist Wolf Hoffmann.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven was the ultimate rockstar. Although he has been covered by groups like Rainbow, such efforts become a bit embarrassing because no one can touch his brilliance. Beethoven’s dramatic compositions continue to arouse a host of unholy feelings in listeners. As evidenced by A Clockwork Orange, Beethoven is even irresistible to sociopaths. The 1971 film is obviously a little different than the 1962 book by Anthony Burgess. Director Stanley Kubrick applies the following description, which Burgess actually wrote for a fictional piece of music, to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9: “Oh bliss, bliss and heaven… a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship…” Burgess states that the troubled protagonist Alex also loves Bach, Handel, and Mozart.

Richard Wagner

It’s too bad that contemporary directors have turned Wagner’s epic operas into epic failures. For example, it was highly agitating when the Metropolitan Opera’s amateurish vision for Die Walküre led to two different performers falling off a giant machine on two separate evenings. Sadly, too few artists nowadays are capable of interpreting Wagner. It is unfortunate that Lars von Trier didn’t end up directing Der Ring des Nibelungen as planned for the Bayreuth Festival in 2006.

As far as metal bands go, Therion attempted to take on Wagner and others on their live album The Miskolc Experience (2007). However, it would have been much better if they had realized their limits and refrained. Therion also made an atrocious yet successful cover of a song by the last artist on our list.

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash, dubbed “The Man in Black,” is beloved by the metal community and has been covered by many of its artists. In 2002, the country singer won over younger listeners when he reimagined “Hurt” by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails. Cash, who started his career in the ‘50s, sadly passed away the following year, 2003. Here’s “Cocaine Blues” from Live at Folsom Prison (1968) —

Marlene Dietrich

Sizzling with dark sexuality, Marlene Dietrich was an iconic singer as well as a famed actress. This fierce femme fatale with nymphomaniacal and egomaniacal tendencies just might have been more hedonistic than many of the metal musicians active today.

It is worth noting that the German band Eisregen is one of the metal outfits to have reimagined the song “Lili Marleen.” Although this classic was originally performed by Lale Andersen, Marlene’s version also remains quite historically significant.

Hank Williams Sr.

Hank Williams, famous for songs like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” is regarded as one of the most important country music legends. One of Hank Williams’ biggest hits was a cover of Leon Payne’s “Lost Highway”: “I’m a rollin’ stone. All alone and lost. For a life of sin, I have paid the cost.”

Hank Williams’ pessimism expressed in “I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive” is something that certainly strikes a chord with us metalheads. Tragically, the legend passed away in 1953 at the young age of 29.


The late French icon Barbara was a queen of melancholy. She recorded her first single in 1957, yet her work still retains a timeless charm. The film Barbara premiered in 2017 and features the renowned actress and singer Jeanne Balibar. Barbara sadly passed away at the age of 67 in 1997.

Maria Callas

Known for her fiery temperament, Maria Callas was the definition of metal. In fact, I’d even call her an unexpected gateway drug to the genre. The opera diva’s intensely emotional, and often abrasive, performances could be as brutal or as beautiful as humanly possible. Listen to this 1955 recording that captures Maria in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

Serge Gainsbourg

The controversial and multi-talented Serge Gainsbourg experimented with a wide range of musical styles. He released his debut album in 1958. It would be difficult to recount all of this provocateur’s scandalous moments. Not to mention, that wouldn’t quite feel respectful to this great cultural hero. So, we will just let the art speak for itself. Pardon the French and the sex noises as you enjoy the following hot and heavy song; this version of “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” which was released in 1969, was quickly banned in several countries —

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