An acclaimed book on the evolution of heavy music from the 1960s onwards by University of Huddersfield journalism teacher John Moores has been longlisted for the prestigious Penderyn Music Book Prize.
Electric Wizards: A Tapestry of Heavy Music has earned glowing reviews since it was published in September 2021, and now it is one of 14 books nominated for the UK-based award dubbed as ‘the Mercury Music Prize for books’ by the NME.
John veered into music journalism “as a distraction” while completing a PhD on 18th century history around a decade ago, and now shares his knowledge with music journalism students at the University.
In John’s opinion, heavy music began when The Beatles released Helter Skelter on what became known as ‘the White Album’ in 1968. Later covered by U2 and Siouxsie & The Banshees, it was light years away from She Loves You or A Hard Day’s Night, but it was actually inspired by another legendary band from the British Explosion of the 1960s.
“Paul McCartney read an interview with The Who’s Pete Townsend, where he said that The Who had just recorded ‘raunchiest, loudest, most ridiculous rock ’n’ roll record you’ve ever heard’,” says John. “This got McCartney’s creative juices flowing, and Helter Skelter was the result.
“I am being slightly facetious when I say that Paul McCartney invented heavy music with Helter Skelter but you have to start somewhere. There are similarities between Helter Skelter and a lot of Black Sabbath’s output from only a few months later, and there is even a krautrock vibe to it as it gets quite abstract in the middle. Nirvana producer Butch Vig says it’s the first grunge song.”
But what is heavy music? For John, it was a move away from the virtuoso-led music of guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Green and Jimmy Page or the more whimsical psychedelia like The Beatles’ own Sgt. Pepper album towards an emphasis on feel and a ‘thicker’ sound.
“‘Heavy’ is a very broad church, there is no one way to define it,” says John. “In the book I say that ‘it is a combination of sonic power and sincere emotion of all kinds, and in various different genres, formed by those who value texture and density of sound above conventional technical prowess.’
“You did not have to be a technically-adept guitar god to create heavy music. A lot of the bands I cover revel in their simplicity, partly due to my own tastes. It is supposed to be the beginning of a conversation – it is not gospel.
“Some bands think they are heavy but when they get into the studio, it does not come out as heavy as they hoped. I touch on that struggle to catch that heaviness in the studio, compared to the concert hall with their chests out and the amps turned up to 11.
“The history of heavy music had not really been done before, heavy metal had been written about many times but not heavy music per se,” adds John. “Reaktion Books were looking to expand their music books, and my editor Dave Watkins really backed me and helped thrash the idea out. I took books by Julian Cope, Bob Stanley and Rob Young as my inspiration for a similar exploration of the this kind of music.
“I am flattered, honoured and delighted to be longlisted. You put a lot into a book, get it out there and you don’t really know how it is going to resonate or be received. I had some very nice reviews, and then this nomination really is the icing on the cake.”
And heavy music is very much alive, kicking and playing with its amps turned all the way up to 11. John saw Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs in a pub in York in 2018, but the Newcastle band’s modern take on predecessors like Black Sabbath, Hawkwind and Motörhead has seen them make the leap to a first US tour this year followed by UK dates in much bigger venues. “Pigs x7 have a broader audience than just metal heads, and I am trying to work out why,” adds John. “Their shows are very inclusive and a bit tongue-in-cheek. They are a fun night out.”