Note: This post is part of a collection of analyses based on the compilation New Wave of British Heavy Metal ’79 Revisited, an album put together by Lars Ulrich and Geoff Barton that is not only a significant account of a particularly important period in the history of heavy metal by two people who helped shape that scene, but may also be a revealing window into the influences and musical raw materials that Ulrich drew from when he founded what became the most successful metal band in history, Metallica.
The band Vardis was a threesome who originally began playing together in 1977 under the name “Quo Vardis.” The band had dropped the first word in their name by the time they released their first album, 100 MPH, in 1980. Unlike most debut albums, Vardis chose to compile their first record from live recordings. One of these songs, “If I Were King,” was recorded in a studio the same year and released on a compilation titled New Electric Warriors (1980). This studio recording is the version which appears on NWOBHM ’79 Revisited.
“If I Were King” is an interesting song for a number of reasons. The first is that the Verse section of the song doesn’t really have the kind of catchy, distinctive riffing we normally hear in heavy metal — the guitars hold a powerchord built on D for 7 beats, and then play a C powerchord for one beat before going back to D. This kind of movement (I-bVII-I in D) is very common in earlier non-metal rock music.1
At the end of the Verse there is a refrain that has two different chords, but still no riffs. In fact, the only riff in the whole song comes between the sections of vocals, starting for the first time at 0:31.
When this Riff finally arrives, we notice that it, too, uses a common rock chord progression: I-bIII-IV in D.2 And I can’t help but notice that the lyrics right before this Riff are “If I were king, if I were king, I’d rock and roll!” The way I hear it, the word rock and roll refers to the riff which follows. This perpetuation of rock language and harmonic conventions is a key part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Unlike later generations of metal which keep their distance from early rock conventions, many NWOBHM artists seem to have one foot in late 60s and early 70s rock. Vardis’s “If I Were King” could almost be a cover of a Rolling Stones song. Vardis definitely plays with more distortion, and plays more frequently in minor modes, but I think the similarity between their music and earlier rock is pretty clear.
Coincidentally, Vardis actually did cover a Rolling Stones song the next year on their EP All You’ll Ever Need (1981). Vardis’s version of the Stones song “Jumping Jack Flash” is a bit faster, and definitely noisier, but still recognizable as rock music; in other words, whatever metal stylizations are in the song, they do not stray very far from earlier rock traditions. Other Vardis songs also showcase some stereotypical patterns from earlier rock music. For example, the second song of their first album has a clear example of 12-bar blues, although it’s been “metallized” with a minor key and a heavy backbeat in the drums. (The second song begins at 2:55 in the video below.)
Vardis is not unique within the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. It’s worth keeping in mind that Chuck Berry’s career was barely 20 years old, and that simple early rock patterns and song forms had come dramatically back into fashion during the UK punk explosion of ’77. Quite a lot of NWOBHM lyrics reference rock music and conventional rock topics, and many songs contain elements of rock style that would have been orthodox by 1979.3 Many NWOBHM songs also have simple verse/chorus song forms. While Vardis is perhaps the band that sounds the most like earlier rock music among the groups on NWOBHM ’79 Revisited, it is clear that many NWOBHM bands were heavily influenced by the rock music of earlier decades, especially by heavier bands such as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.
- Nicole Biamonte’s article “Triadic Modal and Pentatonic Patterns in Rock Music,” in Music Theory Spectrum Vol. 32, no. 2 (Fall 2010), is an excellent place to read more about normal harmonic patterns in rock music. [↩]
- Nicole Biamonte also mentions the I-bIII-IV progression. [↩]
- If Led Zeppelin could write a nostalgic song about “Rock ‘N Roll” in 1971 featuring many of these same basic rock patterns, they were certainly traditional by the end of the decade. [↩]