Buyers’ Guide: NWOBHM
Geoff Barton’s pick of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal…
Looking back, the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal kinda snuck up on you. In 1979, when this amazing musical movement began, I – along with thousands of other music fans in the UK, I’m sure – was obsessed by the giants of American rock. Punk had driven the British metal scene so far underground that its battered, bullet-belted body had been discovered in Australia. Alright, so the likes of Judas Priest were still doing the rounds – and successfully, too – but overall a depressing cloud had settled over everything be-denimed and be-leathered in Britain.
America was largely unimpressed by the UK punk phenomenon; over there, rock behemoths still roamed loud and free: Aerosmith, Kiss, Ted Nugent… even Boston. These guys had mythical qualities us Brits couldn’t match.
This was before the ‘information age’, remember. News about these far-distant US bands was hard to come by, and lightweight American rock mags like Hit Parader were no good at all. So the American groups took on legendary, heroic status in the UK. And on their occasional forays over here they were greeted like conquering heroes. They had super-slick shows; their PAs were louder than fuck; their light shows made the aurora borealis look like a 40-watt bulb.
But in Britain suddenly it all changed. All-new heavy groups inspired by punk’s do-it-youself ethic began to meander out of the metalwork. Prior to punk it was inconceivable for a British rock act not to have A Major-Label Record Deal, A Stage Show On Ice, or A Country Mansion On A Ley Line. Sod all that. Because of punk, young long-hairs suddenly understood that they could record and press up their own singles, book their own gigs… and subvert people’s senses in a brand new way.
From Sheffield came Def Leppard with their Getcha Rocks Off EP on their own Bludgeon Riffola label. Iron Maiden made a self-financed start with The Soundhouse Tapes. And indie label Neat Records started signing bands left, right and centre: The Tygers Of Pan Tang, Venom, Raven, Fist and many, many more.
The NWOBHM was a remarkably fertile time in UK rock history. It’ll likely never be repeated. And while it’s true that the NWOBHM ultimately spawned only two truly world-class bands (Maiden and Leppard), the same could be said of thrash (Metallica and Slayer) or grunge (Nirvana and Pearl Jam). Whatever, more than 25 years after its inception, there is endless interest in the NWOBHM. It’s still coming on strong. (Geoff Barton)
ESSENTIAL – THE CLASSICS
Is Iron Maiden’s debut album also their best? Even today you could make a strong case for saying so. In comparison with the sleek prog-metal machine the band evolved into, Iron Maiden sees them as a bunch of scruffy East End herberts with a powerful point to prove. That signature Steve Harris bass sound is there from the start, and singer Paul Di’Anno is on prime form. Bruce Dickinson might try his damnedest, but songs such as Prowler and Charlotte The Harlot just aren’t the same without Di’Anno’s growl. Much has been made of Maiden’s punk influences, but in truth Iron Maiden is just an aggressive metal album, and as raw as an open wound.
Welcome To Hell
The first – and possibly only – truly ground-breaking album to come out of the NWOBHM, no one had heard anything like Welcome To Hell before. And after a single listen, most people never wanted to hear anything like it again.
Flanked by his depraved and despicable helpers Mantas (guitar) and Abaddon (drums), Venom bassist/vocalist Cronos recreated the sound, smell and insufferable heat of Hades itself in a scabrous studio in north-east England. “We’re possessed by all that is evil,” they gargled. And no one argued with them. Songs like In League With Satan and Witching Hour defined the genres we know today as thrash and black metal.
SUPERIOR – THE ALBUMS THAT BUILT THE GENRE
People used to accuse Saxon of jumping on board the NWOBHM battlewagon. Certainly they had been around for some years, touring under the name Son Of A Bitch, before it all kicked off. Indeed such was the lack of interest in the band that they were forced to release this album on an unknown French disco label.
A precursor to their career-defining Wheels Of Steel album, Saxon’s self-titled debut still has plenty to recommend it. Despite its occasional prog leanings, it’s a great initiation into the world of the NWOBHM. And singer Biff Byford’s call to arms – ‘Stallions of the HIGH-WAY-HEE-AAY!’ – remains utterly irresistible.
Like the guys in Saxon, guitarist Paul Samson was an old stager. But there’s an argument to made that Mr Rock’N’Roll by Samson (the band) was the first bona fide NWOBHM single – it certainly predated Def Leppard’s Getcha Rocks Off EP.
Survivors is a sprawling record on which Samson were clearly trying to find their niche. Most people will point to their second record, Head On, as being better, but in terms of nascent NWOBHM-ness Survivors has the edge. It’s hard to resist an album that contains a song called I Wish I Was The Saddle Of A Schoolgirl’s Bike. The vocals of Bruce Bruce, later to become known as Bruce Dickinson, are very impressive.
Lightning To The Nations
Happy Face, 1980
The original versions of this album are massively collectible: 12-inch vinyl records that came in plain white sleeves signed by members of the band. Some had all four signatures, others didn’t, so who knows how many variations there were.
Lightning To The Nations is a real tour de force, and is probably the most professional and well-rounded of all the early NWOBHM releases. Guitarist Brian Tatler nonchalantly plucks classic riff after classic riff out of the air, and vocalist Sean Harris sounds like Robert Plant with a Gro-Bag attached to his bollocks. The refrain ‘Am I evil? Yes I am!’ still resonates. Just ask Lars Ulric
Give ’Em Hell
“Satanic metal, right?” you might say. Well, you’d be wrong. Despite all the Devil-horned imagery, Witchfynde’s debut album presents a mature and musicianly take on the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal genre.
I remember being disappointed with this record the first time around, when I described it as being as scary as Casper The Friendly Ghost. But Give ’Em Hell has improved over the years. The quality of the mysteriously named Montalo’s guitar playing and songwriting is first class, and the band are as at home on epics such as The Divine Victim (about Joan Of Arc) as they are on sleazier stuff like Pay Now, Love Later.
GOOD – WORTH EXPLORING
TYGERS OF PAN TANG
In line with Saxon and Survivors, Wild Cat may not be the Tygers’ best album. But if you want to explore the roots of the NWOBHM it’s a super place to start. (And let’s not forget that it reached the heady heights of No.18 in the UK chart.)
The Whitley Bay band released a series of fine singles on the independent label Neat Records before MCA snapped them up. Wild Cat was singer Jess Cox’s swansong for the band (he was replaced by ex-Persian Risk frontman Jon Deverill for ’81’s Spellbound). Unlike later years, when MCA emaciated the Tygers’ sound, Wild Cat is a raw but effective release that still leaves scars.
Some might baulk at the inclusion of Girl under the ‘Worth Exploring’ banner, but what the hell. Girl bucked the trend by being preening poseurs from London instead of warty oafs from Wigan.
With not a hint of ‘dues paying’ they came outta nowhere and scooped a deal with Jet Records. Further disapproval followed when singer Phil Lewis (later of LA Guns) started shagging actress Britt Ekland when everyone else was shagging Motorcycle Irene. But Girl really upped the ante on Sheer Greed, and songs such as Hollywood Tease put them at the forefront of the NWOBHM (in this case meaning New Wave Of Big-Haired Metal).
Rock Until You Drop
Here’s another acronym for ya: Raven (along with Venom, The Tygers Of Pan Tang and no end of other bands from Newcastle and the surrounding area) were more than NWOBHM, they were part of the NENWOBHM (North East New Wave Of British Heavy Metal).
A classic power trio comprised of brothers Mark and John Gallagher (guitar and bass/vocals respectively) and Rob ‘Wacko’ Hunter on drums, Raven were so breathless and fast-paced they dubbed their music ‘athletic rock’. Rock Until You Drop storms along with tracks like Hell Patrol and Don’t Need Your Money, and it paved the way for a big-time deal with Megaforce Records in the US.
On Through The Night
It may have got to No.15 in the UK chart but Def Leppard’s first album – which was hotly anticipated at the time – turned out to be a damp squib. On Through The Night gave no hint of the greatness to come in ’81, when producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange coaxed the magnificent High’N’Dry out of the band. That’s not to say ‘Colonel’ Tom Allom, who produced On Through…, did a bad job, it’s just far too smooth and glossy. Leppard sound sanitised, and a lot of the songs (Hello America, Wasted, Getcha Rocks Off, Overture) had been available before the album’s release. Catchy tunes abound but they’re too watered down to make much of an impact.
The NWOBHM is a minefield. It spawned scores of bands and we’re sorry if we’ve omitted your favourite (even if your favourite is Toad The Wet Sprocket). It’s true to say that groups such as Jaguar, Trespass, Paralex and Holocaust, plus numerous others who sounded somewhat useless first time around, have grown in stature as the years have gone by. It’s equally true to say that for an authentic NWOBHM dose you should seek out the very early singles. But if you can’t afford bids on eBay, a compilation should do it. Avoid those creaking old Metal For Muthas albums in favour of Castle Music’s brand new Lightnin’ To The Nations: NWOBHM 25th Anniversary Collection. Or if you scour the bargain bins you might find New Wave Of British Heavy Metal: ’79 Revisited. This two-CD set (originally a double vinyl album) was assembled ages ago by Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and Classic Rock’s Geoff Barton. However, there’s no Silverwing on it. The compilers also failed to exhume Mythra, whose Death & Destiny EP is the NWOBHM at its finest.