The U.K. metal scene has produced some legendary bands over the years. Many of those bands, including Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, have achieved huge success around the world. However, despite their global popularity and reputation as pioneers of heavy metal music, not all British metal bands have enjoyed comparable levels of success in America. A quick glance at the most successful British metal bands reveals that they all have one thing in common: they’re all singer-songwriters who write lyrics about coming from modest beginnings and overcoming struggles to achieve their dreams. From this insight, we can infer that there are two key elements to succeeding as a British metal band in America, affirmation of working-class values and narratives, and an emphasis on lyrical content above musical complexity or production value, which we’ll explore further later on in this article.
Judas Priest was formed in the industrial town of Birmingham, England in 1969. The band members were heavily influenced by the Black Sabbath sound and were determined to make a name for themselves by creating music that was as heavy and dark as possible. It took several years for the band to build its reputation through live performances, but its popularity soon skyrocketed as a result of its second studio album, “British Steel” (1980), which has since become one of the best-selling British metal albums of all time. The song “Breaking the Law,” which is the lead single on “British Steel,” has become one of Judas Priest’s most popular songs and is often used as the go-to example of the band’s sound. It’s important to note that “British Steel” and the band’s earlier albums were recorded before Judas Priest was widely considered a British metal band, as the term “British metal” had not been coined at the time. There is an argument to be made that Judas Priest’s popularity in America may have contributed to the creation of the subgenre and its subsequent adoption as British metal.
Iron Maiden was formed in London in 1975 and like Judas Priest, was heavily influenced by Black Sabbath. Iron Maiden’s initial rise to fame was slower than that of Judas Priest, but the band’s first breakthrough came in 1980 when it was asked to be the opening act on a tour with punk band The Sex Pistols. Although Iron Maiden’s music had little in common with that of The Sex Pistols, the band’s energetic live performances helped it to build a large fan base and become a household name. Iron Maiden’s first two studio albums, “Iron Maiden” (1980) and “Killers” (1981), were not particularly successful and did not receive much critical acclaim. However, the band’s third studio album, “The Number of the Beast” (1982), was a commercial and critical success and is widely recognized as the album that propelled Iron Maiden to global recognition. “The Number of the Beast” is also the album that was responsible for introducing the subgenre of British metal to the world. The album’s lead single, “The Number of the Beast,” is one of the most iconic British metal songs ever recorded.
Black Sabbath is one of the most successful and influential British metal bands ever. The band was formed in Birmingham, England in 1968 and has gone on to release 16 studio albums, each of which has gone on to become either critically or commercially successful. The band also holds the record for having the most consecutive albums on the U.S. Billboard chart with 23, after its first eight studio albums reached the Top 20. Although Black Sabbath was already a successful band before the emergence of British metal, it was the band’s fifth studio album, “Paranoid” (1970), that helped to kickstart the subgenre and make the band a household name. The single “Paranoid” is widely considered to be the best-known British metal song of all time and is widely credited with helping to create the genre.
Led Zeppelin was formed in London in 1968 and went on to become the most commercially successful and influential band in British rock history. The band’s sound combined elements of blues, hard rock, and folk and its lyrics often referenced themes such as mythology, fantasy, and the supernatural. Led Zeppelin is widely credited as being one of the pioneers of heavy metal music and has sold more than 200 million albums worldwide. The band’s eponymous debut album, “Led Zeppelin” (1969), has become one of the most critically and commercially successful British rock albums of all time. The singles “Whole Lotta Love,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Bring It on Home,” were all massive commercial successes and received widespread critical acclaim. The album’s most famous song, “Stairway to Heaven,” is widely considered to be one of the greatest British rock songs of all time and is the band’s most successful single, having sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
British metal bands are renowned for their heavy, distorted sounds and often dark lyrical themes. The following bands are among the most successful British metal bands ever and have sold millions of albums worldwide. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Black Sabbath all became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, while Led Zeppelin and Metallica achieved success in the 1980s and 1990s.