Germanic Iconography in Early Heavy Metal & Hard Rock

Updated on May 1, 2018
Allison Golden profile image

Allison is a writer living in Birmingham, Alabama. She graduated from the University of Montevallo in 2014 with a B.A. in English.

Heavy metal is a subculture that deals in extremes. Since its genesis in the 1970s, the genre has been characterized by a fascination with the darker side of humanity—violence, death, destruction, warfare, and similar themes. Visual elements like logos and album artwork often serve as a way to showcase these themes and, in turn, project a band’s desired image and attitude.

One country in particular has inspired much of the imagery in early heavy metal and hard rock: Germany.

Germanic stereotypes of power, brutality, militarism, and menace are influenced by several eras in history, including:

  • Ancient Teutonic tribes such as Vikings, Saxons, and Franks.
  • The 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, which led to the establishment of the German Empire.
  • Anti-German propaganda in World War I, which often portrayed them as cold, callous villains.
  • Nazi Germany during World War II.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973). Artwork by  Drew Struzan. Copyright of Vertigo Records.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973). Artwork by Drew Struzan. Copyright of Vertigo Records.

Blackletter

Black Sabbath, widely recognized as the pioneers of heavy metal, were also among the first to flirt with Germanic imagery. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath introduced the use of blackletter script to the genre.

Blackletter is characterized by heavy, angular lettering that resembles dark ink on a page (hence the name). Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’s title is rendered in a stylistic version of the font, while the name of the band itself is printed in a more standard form at the bottom.

The album's artwork, rife with satanic elements, is menacing enough on its own. But the use of blackletter really drives the point home. The typeface's association with traits like intimidation and darkness stem from its Germanic origins.

Close-up of the Gutenberg Bible, one of the first printed books in Europe.
Close-up of the Gutenberg Bible, one of the first printed books in Europe. | Source

German pioneer Johannes Gutenberg, credited with the invention of the printing press, introduced blackletter to Europe in the fifteenth century. The script was a common choice for early printed texts throughout Europe, but it flourished the longest in Germany.

By the end of the Renaissance period, most countries had largely abandoned the font in favor of more legible roman typefaces. Germany, however, continued to use blackletter in local texts up to the end of World War II. Roman fonts were generally restricted to foreign texts. These distinctions were part of a nationalistic effort to preserve German history and bolster the perception of blackletter as the superior, representative type.

For Germany the typeface wasn’t just a set of letters—it was a symbol of national identity and culture.

German Nazi poster circa 1939-1945.
German Nazi poster circa 1939-1945. | Source

This symbolism reached an apex when Adolf Hitler rose to power. The Nazi Party rejected roman fonts altogether and upheld fraktur—a form of blackletter central to Germany—as the true font of the country. Fraktur pervaded propaganda and publications of the time, including the cover of Hitler's Mein Kampf. This would come to form the modern-day association of blackletter script with extremist ideology and controversy.

Ironically, the Nazi regime withdrew support for fraktur in 1941, denouncing it as “Judenlettern” (”Jewish letters”) in an official edict. Even so, blackletter remains synonymous with Nazism in popular culture today.

Whereas the font has mostly fallen out of favor with the general public, the metal scene has embraced it as an visual trademark of the genre. It's easy to see why. Blackletter looks imposing enough on its own, but with historical context it’s elevated to a totem of a dark, powerful past. Its stigmatization in the public eye only adds to its appeal.

Left: On Your Feet or On Your Knees (1975). Right: Let There Be Rock (1977).
Left: On Your Feet or On Your Knees (1975). Right: Let There Be Rock (1977).
Clockwise from top-left: Rising by Rainbow (1976); Sad Wings of Destiny by Judas Priest (1976); Don't Break the Oath by Mercyful Fate (1984); and Holy Diver by Dio (1983).
Clockwise from top-left: Rising by Rainbow (1976); Sad Wings of Destiny by Judas Priest (1976); Don't Break the Oath by Mercyful Fate (1984); and Holy Diver by Dio (1983).

Graphic designer Gerard Huerta designed blackletter-styled logos for two legendary metal bands: Blue Öyster Cult on their 1975 album On Your Feet Or on Your Knees and AC/DC on 1977 release Let There Be Rock. In an interview, Huerta describes the logos as having “Gutenberg inspired lettering." He also acknowledges the style’s influence within the genre: “…I did this lettering for the Blue Öyster Cult album, which kind of became the look of heavy metal.”

Indeed it did. In the decades following Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, many other early heavy metal and hard rock groups embellished their logos and album covers with blackletter, including Motörhead, Rainbow, Judas Priest, Dio, Angel Witch, Mercyful Fate, and Venom.

At the same time, another Germanic trend was emerging within the genre: the aesthetic use of umlauts.

Source

Umlaut

The umlaut—those two tiny dots that sometimes appear over letters—was first given its name by poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock in the 1770s. However, the term didn’t come into widespread use until the 19th century when Jacob Grimm, one half of The Brothers Grimm, further defined and promoted it as a diacritical mark.

The word umlaut roughly means “sound alteration.” In Germanic languages the mark appears over the vowels ä, ö, and ü to signify a change in pronunciation. For a quick demonstration of this change, listen to the pronunciation of the word schon (meaning “already”) next to that of the word schön (meaning “beautiful”).

In the English-speaking heavy metal scene, these dots take on an entirely different meaning. They aren’t there for phonetic purposes—they’re propped over letters simply to make names look cooler. The trend started with Blue Öyster Cult in the early 1970s and trickled down to other bands, most notably Motörhead and Mötley Crüe.

Motörhead logo.
Motörhead logo. | Source

The decision to use umlauts is not always necessarily a conscious nod to historical German stereotypes, but its prevalence in metal music branding is no coincidence. There is a reason we don’t see other, non-German accents—the tilde (~) or the cedilla (¸), for example—decorating metal band logos nearly as often.

Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe fame explicitly cites the umlaut's German heritage as a reason for using it:

“We didn’t think about its proper use. We just wanted to do something to be weird, and the umlaut is very visual. It’s German and strong, and that Nazi Germany mentality — ‘the future belongs to the youth’ — intrigued me.” [source]

On the other hand, Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister had a simple explanation for adding the accent: “I thought it looked mean.” [source] BÖC vocalist Eric Bloom made a similar statement, remarking that the diacritic “made the band’s name look cool in a way.” [source]

Secret Treaties (1974). Copyright of Columbia Records.
Secret Treaties (1974). Copyright of Columbia Records.

More often than not, bands brandishing the umlaut could be seen engaging with German imagery in other forms as well. Motörhead has two songs relating to Germany during WWII: “Bomber” (1979) and “Marching Off to War” (1983). Blue Öyster Cult’s 1974 album Secret Treaties depicts the band posing with the Messerschmitt Me 262, a German fighter aircraft used in WWII.

Coinciding with the artwork is the track “ME 262,” which is sung from the perspective of the eponymous aircraft’s pilot:

Göring's on the phone from Freiburg
Says: "Willie's done quite a job"
Hitler's on the phone from Berlin)
Says: "I'm gonna make you a star"

My Captain Von Ondine is your next patrol
A flight of English bombers across the canal
After twelve they'll all be here
I think you know the job

This Is Spinal Tap (1984) poster.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984) poster.

The 1980s saw a wave of other heavy metal and hard rock bands wielding the double-dots, including Queensrÿche, The Accüsed, Znöwhite, Insidiöus Törment, and Infernäl Mäjesty. The accent would eventually be subject to parody, most notably in the 1984 mockumentary This Is Spın̈al Tap. For added absurdity, the titular band uses the umlaut over a consonant (the “n”) rather than a vowel, which completely goes against its linguistic rules.

In a way, gratuitous umlauts parallel heavy metal subculture itself: both are defined by a rejection of cultural norms and a commitment to unorthodoxy.

Lemmy's collection of WWII memorabilia.
Lemmy's collection of WWII memorabilia. | Source

Function in Heavy Metal & Hard Rock

In a 2004 interview, Lemmy is questioned on his interest in Nazi fashion. He answers:

“I’ll tell you something about history. From the beginning of time, the bad guys always had the best uniforms. Napoleon, the Confederates, the Nazis. They all had killer uniforms. I mean, the SS uniform is fucking brilliant! They were the rock stars of that time. What you’re gonna do, they just look good. Don’t tell me I’m a Nazi ‘cause I have uniforms.”

This statement encapsulates the nature of Germanic iconography in heavy metal. In casting Nazis as “bad guys” and “rock stars,” Lemmy minimizes their actual ideology, instead viewing them through a purely stylistic lens. He borrows just enough historical context to identify them as "the bad guys,” but this phrasing makes them sound more like cinematic villains than a real regime.

Lemmy, pictured with his trademark Iron Cross necklace.
Lemmy, pictured with his trademark Iron Cross necklace. | Source

The end result is something between reality and fiction: a simplified depiction of history altered for another purpose. This is how Germanic elements manifest in heavy metal and hard rock. The archetypes they evoke have a basis in history, but they aren’t there to educate—they’re there to secure a place in metal subculture.

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    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 2 weeks ago from Kaufman, Texas

      You've a terrific eye for detail, and gosh, I don't know if I'd have ever in my life noticed the things you did, and thought to find the proper origins and names for them. Great work!

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