Ah, the “Metal Horns”… The beloved hand-gesture of Heavy Metal fans everywhere!
The gesture itself is quite ancient. The earliest known usage of it comes from India, where it was known as the Karana Mudra… a gesture used to ward off negativity and evil. In Italy it was (and still is) used to ward off negativity in the form of “Malocchio”, the “Evil Eye”. The same gesture is used in other cultures around the world for similar purposes.
But do you know how this simple hand-gesture came to be associated with Heavy Metal?
Good guess… but “no”.
First, a little Heavy Metal History…
It is generally accepted that the first Heavy Metal band was Black Sabbath (consisting of Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward and, of course, Ozzy Osbourne). Their debut album “Black Sabbath” which opened with the song “Black Sabbath” was recorded in late-1969 and released on Friday, February 13, 1970. It’s considered a Heavy Metal classic!
BUT Black Sabbath wasn’t originally a “Heavy Metal Band”. In fact, they formed in Birmingham, England in 1968 as the blues-rock “Polka Tulk Blues Band”. (Yeah… I agree… it’s a pretty crappy name!) They performed for a bit under that moniker before switching their name to “Earth” - the name under-which they recorded their first demo. In 1969 they learned that there was another English band already using that name, and they had to change their name yet again. They settled on “Black Sabbath” - in honor of the 1963 Boris Karloff film… and decided to switch to using horror themes in their music.
But still no Metal Horns. Where do THEY come in?
Well, believe it or not we have to go back a little bit before Black Sabbath… and we have to leave England and head to the American midwest. It was there that a singer named Jinx Dawson (yes, that’s her real name) formed a band with her friends Chris Neilsen, Rick Durrett, John Hobbs, Steve Ross and Oz Osborne (Yes… that’s right… I said “Oz Osborne”. And “No” it’s not the same Ozzy Osbourne from “Black Sabbath”).
The band these friends formed was called “Coven”. It was HEAVILY based on horror and Satanic themes. At the time they were considered to be “underground rock” or “psychedelic rock”.
Now remember - “Coven” was formed and was performing their music in America before “Black Sabbath” even existed!
Coven’s shows were quite unique for the time… and Jinx Dawson would open and close every performance by giving the audience - that’s right, you guessed it - the Sign of the Horns. (Meanwhile - over in England - the “Polka Tulk Blues Band” was happily performing their blues-rock songs).
Coven got a recording contract with Mercury Records and, in 1969, they released their debut album “Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls”. The album opened with a song called - that’s right, you guessed it - “Black Sabbath”. The entire album consists of songs with diabolical themes… in fact, the album ends with a 13-minute-long recording of a Satanic Black Mass. The album’s interior artwork included a photo of the band giving the “Devil Horns” salute around a Satanic altar consisting of a nude Jinx Dawson. Skulls and inverted crosses are, of course, also present.
So here’s a band - “Coven” - making “diabolical music” and using the “Metal Horns” hand gesture in the United States BEFORE “Black Sabbath” even existed!
To be fair, the music of "Coven" was not what we would consider to be "Heavy Metal" - far from it. Yet in a sense they laid the foundation for bands like Black Sabbath and the symbolism and style of what would become Heavy Metal.
One year after “Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls” was released, “Black Sabbath” released their debut album. How do the two albums compare? Well… they don’t. In fact it’s not even close… “Black Sabbath” wins the war - and goes on to spark and lead the Heavy Metal genre.
And what about Ronnie James Dio? Was he your guess as to the origin of the “Metal Horns”? Most people credit him with “inventing” the gesture. (Most people that is, except for Gene Simmons of the band “KISS” - who claims that HE invented the gesture… even though he didn’t start using it until much, much later). Well, it definitely IS true that Ronnie James Dio is the person who single-handedly (no pun intended) made the “Metal Horns” synonymous with Heavy Metal. When he replaced Ozzy Osbourne as Black Sabbath’s singer in 1979 he used the hand-gesture as his trademark… and the fans noticed. It wasn’t long before fans started using the “Metal Horns” at Heavy Metal concerts everywhere.
But Ronnie James Dio never claimed to have invented the gesture. In fact in a 2001 interview with Metal-Rules.com he had the following to say about the gesture:
"I doubt very much if I would be the first one who ever did that. That's like saying I invented the wheel, I'm sure someone did that at some other point. I think you'd have to say that I made it fashionable. I used it so much and all the time and it had become my trademark until the Britney Spears audience decided to do it as well. So it kind of lost its meaning with that. But it was.... I was in Sabbath at the time. It was a symbol that I thought was reflective of what that band was supposed to be all about. It's NOT the devil's sign like we're here with the devil. It's an Italian thing I got from my Grandmother called the "Malocchio". It's to ward off the Evil Eye or to give the Evil Eye, depending on which way you do it. It's just a symbol but it had magical incantations and attitudes to it and I felt it worked very well with Sabbath. So I became very noted for it and then everybody else started to pick up on it and away it went. But I would never say I take credit for being the first to do it. I say because I did it so much that it became the symbol of rock and roll of some kind."
So there you have it. The history of Heavy Metal, the Metal Horns and how the two met.
Up the Irons! \m/
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