Heavy metal traces its origins back to such classic rock groups of the sixties and seventies such Led Zeppelin, Cream and Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath came along in 1970 with their eponymous debut album and really codified the sound, themes, and attitude. So while this time period certainly had its share of talent musicians and groundbreaking songs, I can't help but examine the genre's history and conclude 1980 to be heavy metal's most memorable and rewarding year. Disco was dead. The big hair and pop style of the eighties had yet to take hold, and several bands hit their creative and commercial peaks in 1980. Two were making comebacks after losing their front men, two were establishing themselves as legends, and two more were making their debuts with arguably their greatest works.
Coming into 1980, AC/DC was on a roll. With Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Let There Be Rock, and Highway to Hell behind them, they looked unstoppable. Then tragedy struck. Singer Bon Scott was found dead in a friend's car on Feb. 19, a night of exorbitant drinking resulting in acute alcohol poisoning. The band soldiered on. With new front man Brian Johnson, the band recorded Back in Black, a tribute to Scott and the group's biggest success. When I saw band live in January 2009, half the songs were from the Bon Scot era, and the other half were from the Brian Johnson period. Of the Johnson half, they performed "Hells Bells," "Shoot to Thrill," "Back in Black," and "You Shook Me All Night Long." Those four titles should tell you just how well the album holds up.
AC/DC wasn't the only band in need of a replacement singer, albeit for different reasons. By the end of Ozzy Osbourne's tenure, Black Sabbath was in a rut. Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die came off as tired and unenthusiastic, and drug abuse was also taking its toll, particularly on Ozzy. In 1979, he was fired. Enter Ronnie James Dio, formerly of Rainbow. Dio injected the fresh blood Sabbath needed, and the result was 1980's Heaven and Hell. Gone were the slow, chugging riffs of the early Ozzy era, and in their place were fast, intense cuts that matched anything other groups were doing at the time. Standouts include the title track, "Neon Knights," "Lonely is the Word," and "Children of the Sea." While there's no denying Ozzy's haunting wail is the voice of metal, Dio's clearly was the better singing voice, reaching a power and clarity Ozzy couldn't.
But Ozzy wasn't out. Ozzy went solo, finding a brilliant young guitarist in Randy Rhoads. Blizzard of Oz screamed to the world that Ozzy was back with a vengeance. Go to any sports arena, and you'll hear "Crazy Train." It's a metal song even non-metalheads acknowledge as great. Let's not forget "I Don't Know," "Mr. Crowley," and the short, surprisingly tender solo "Dee." While I rate the followup Diary of a Madman as superior, Blizzard was Ozzy's declaration that he was a force to be reckoned with.
Another new band emerged when Iron Maiden released its self-titled debut album. Maiden was part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which ditched the earlier blues influence of heavy metal for something faster, harsher, and more punk-driven. At this point, Bruce Dickinson had yet to join the band; the lead singer was Paul Di'Anno, and he has a more guttural, less refined voice than Dickinson. Instead of the fantasy epics of Maiden's glory run, this early work is grittier and more street gang-like. The songs, save for a couple of slower ballads, are shorter and more aggressive, the kind of music people itching for a fight listen to. While not the best album in the band's canon, it's an important first step.
1980 also saw two other New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands solidify their spot at the top of the mountain: Judas Priest with British Steel and Motorhead with Ace of Spades. Both groups had already released several albums and been together for some time, but these were their breakthrough successes. Judas Priest, more so than any other band, codified the look, feel, and spirit of heavy metal: the leather and chains, the industrial sound, the sense of rebellion, and the go-to-hell attitude. Sabbath pioneered metal, but Priest entrenched it. Everyone knows "Breaking the Law," but such classics as "Metal Gods," "Rapid Fire," and "Living after Midnight" offer an excellent crash course on the sound and appeal of heavy metal.
With Ace of Spades, Motörhead brought together heavy metal, punk, and classic rock into one blend. The sound is metal, the attitude punk, and the rhythm rock. Lemmy does not have a good singing voice, but it's the perfect fit for Motörhead. The title track, "Love Me Like a Reptile," "(We are) The Road Crew," and "Shoot You in the Back" are not sappy love songs to croon. Lemmy rasps and growls fast, intense, merciless rockers that shake you to the core. This is the album to listen to when downing alcohol at a rundown bar where everyone looks ready for a fight. There's never been any question about Motörhead selling out. The band is a force of nature: unstoppable and unchangeable.
So there you have it, my reasons for why 1980 was the greatest year for heavy metal. These bands, like the genre, had their ups and downs, but everything gelled in 1980. The sound, the look, the feel, the attitude, and the success aligned. I'm sure there are other groups I've left off, but right here, these groups represented the cream of the crop at this time .