Rock retrospect: Don Felder’s “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)”

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The animated adventure, “Heavy Metal” demonstrated a series of imagined worlds, including a New York City of the future. What was more engaging to some viewers was the soundtrack. Chief among the standout tracks is the theme song, “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)” by Eagles’ guitarist, Don Felder.

Guitar stylings of Don Felder

Felder was the lead guitarist for seminal rock band The Eagles from 1974 until 2001. While various albums demonstrated slightly different soundscapes, what was unmistakable were Felder’s heavy, searing, yet nuanced, guitar playing. Even though Felder’s guitar stylings varied, it was always rock and roll.

In the 1970s, the sound of The Eagles stood out. Few people will dismiss the artistry found in all aspects of “Hotel California.” Felder not only played guitar on the track, but shares a writing credit with fellow Eagles.

 

Enter the year 1981

The year 1981 was a time of development throughout popular music. All the major genres audiences know of today had been developed. Music videos became a staple for media consumers. Punk wasn’t really dead–it merely morphed into subgenres, like “alternative,” “hard core,” and “college rock.” Heavy metal experienced a shift from its years of domination by bands from the 1970s, such as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, to giving way to a glitzy American version. Which is not to say that all American metal bands were glam, but the style was quite popular.  As far as hard rock genres were concerned, it was glam metal that would dominate music videos throughout the early 1980s.

Still, in 1981 rock acts that either were just straight ahead rock and roll, or that were considered hard rock also received airplay. Heavy metal, as it moved away from its 1970’s roots, was in need of definition perhaps for audiences and artists.

Heavy metal ethos

As far as I know, no mainstream song about heavy metal could actually be classified that way. There are many songs about “metal” by metal bands, but they aren’t exactly mainstream. Even Felder’s song isn’t exactly heavy metal, but it is hard rock, and that’s close enough.

Rock and roll has a history of teaching audiences about its cultural contexts. During the genre’s inception, songs about dancing (so, how to move to the new music), songs about cars and clothing (consumer products important to the world of the target audience), and songs about cars that are really songs about women, and songs about the staying power of rock music, all taught fans and critics alike about the new music.

A similar thing continued into the heavy metal ’80s. Sammy Hagar also had a song called “Heavy Metal” that was released in 1981. The lyrics include lines such as: “Get your one-way ticket to midnight/Call it/heavy metal/Higher than high/feelin’ just right…” From a handful of lines, listeners know that heavy metal is not for the faint of spirit.

Don Felder’s “Heavy Metal”

The soundscape is atmospheric for a few seconds at the beginning. Some listeners might miss that element. A heavy guitar line shoots through while the vocals make their way to the chorus. Then, that same guitar cries and soars. The phrase “heavy metal” is sung by backing musicians. The song’s drums sound like rhythmic thuds. The rhythm is four-four time, and all the elements are there for telling audiences what heavy metal involves.

The lyrics consist of cars and women referred to almost interchangeably. The language used to describe “a sweet Corvette” slides easily into the language of interpersonal passion.

It is unfortunate that this song isn’t played on some rock radio stations. All the elements are there to make “Heavy Metal” a self-referential rock classic. Even outside of the movie for which it provides a theme, “Heavy Metal” has its own relevance. Listening to it, audiences learn, or have reinforced, the idea of the world of heavy guitars, thundering drums, lacerating vocals, and a persistent midnight where rock and roll dreams come true.

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