The Osmonds meet Led Zeppelin: A secret history of Mormon heavy metal

For a brief, blaring onslaught in the early 1970s, Utah’s most famous musical Mormons proudly put themselves in league with Satan. That’s right: the Osmonds went heavy metal.

For two albums—1972’s “Crazy Horses” in 1972 and the following year’s “The Plan”—the devoutly religious, relentlessly clean-living Brothers Osmond transformed from the Jackson 5’s white bread R&B competition into legitimate hard rockers, unleashing thunderous riffs, smoking grooves, and bombastic sonic firepower on par with the era’s heaviest begetters of the devil’s music—to the point that the Osmonds’ metal moment even won them converts among no less an infernal cabal than the mighty Led Zeppelin.

Hearing is believing. Check out the title track of “Crazy Horses.” It’s a berserk, whinnying, boot-stomping rave-up driven by a vast, crushing guitar walls and frenzied vocals baying out an anti-fossil-fuel message (the “Horses”, you see, are cars: “there they go/what a show/smokin’ up the sky!”).

The song (and most of the album) was obviously a mad leap away from the group’s expected sounds, making it impressive that it hit #14 at a time when they routinely topped the charts. “It was our version of hard rock,” Merrill Osmond said, “We gave them their music with our lyrics.” Adds Donny: “It was a very serious song.”

In the years since, “Crazy Horses” has endured as a rite of passage for extreme musical adventurers to cover (it’s not easy). Among the myriad versions are tracks by Butcher Babies (groove metal), the Sensational Alex Harvey Band (glitter rock), Tank (New Wave of British Heavy Metal), the Mission (post-punk goth), Lawnmower Deth (thrash), KMFDM (industrial), and Electric Six (Detroit dance punk).

The Osmonds have always embraced even the most outré “Crazy Horse” covers, but what truly mattered was whom the song impressed at first. “It was the influences of Paul McCartney and the Beatles that caused us to write the kind of music that we did,” Merrill noted. “The only other band that had that much effect on us was Led Zeppelin.”

The most direct evidence of Zep’s bearing on the Osmonds occurs on “Crazy Horses”’ album opener, “Hold Her Tight.” Many note that the song’s bass line is a direct copping of “The Immigrant Song” from “Led Zeppelin III”. That’s likely no coincidence. “Wayne really took to Jimmy Page,” Merrill said. “He harnessed that energy and came up with the riff to ‘Hold Her Tight.’ That was the heaviest thing we ever wrote.”

After “Crazy Horses”, Led Zeppelin returned the affection. “When we were on tour in Europe, Led Zeppelin invited us on stage for one of their big events,” Merrill recalls. “Later we hung out backstage and talked about how we really dug their entire music concept.” Zep’s madman drummer John Bonham also brought his young son Jason to an Osmonds show and met with them afterward. “Yes, Dad did take me to see the Osmonds,” Jason says. “They started with ‘Crazy Horses.’ They were on these wires and they came out across the audience back then, so Bon Jovi wasn’t the first guy to do it.”

The Osmonds relished the validation, as Jimmy Osmond has said: “It is really cool for us to know that people from top groups like Led Zeppelin have raised their hands and said, ‘Isn’t that a great riff’ or ‘They really did have amazing musical talent’.”

Emboldened by “Crazy Horses”, the Osmonds sought to pop their bubblegum image even more profoundly via “The Plan,” a massively ambitious concept album based on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“The label hated The Plan,” Merrill says, “but I consider it our ‘White Album’.”

To convey the universal nature of Mormonism, “The Plan” hops song-by-song between as many music genres as can be contained on single vinyl long-player. Each massively mounted number is performed with cosmic commitment by hyper-charismatic Tiger Beat superstars at the peak of their combustive powers.

“The Plan” has it all: from the eerie instrumental opener “War in Heaven” to the thunder-riff acid jag of “Traffic in My Mind” to the evil retro-Weimar cabaret of “Music in My Mind” to the traditional Osmonds white-tooth soul of “One Way Ticket to Anywhere” to the bluesy doom of “The Last Days” to the show biz razzmatazz closer, “Goin’ Home.”

“The Plan,” perhaps not surprisingly, actually qualified as a hit only in England, where metal and progressive rock were hulking out in massive growth spurts. Stateside, the Osmonds reconvened with Donny stepping out on his own more often, and sister Marie scoring some sticky-sweet monster solo hits. Soon enough, they’d pair for the TV variety hour, “The Donny and Marie Show.” There, every week—amidst showgirl ice skaters, goofball comedy sketches, and rapid-fire pop music medleys—Donny would look straight in the camera and remind the world, “I’m a little bit rock-and-roll!”

Led Zeppelin, for one, knew that all along.

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