Cult Heroes No. 31: Angel Witch
This week we take a look at a one-album wonder. Angel Witch might have had a career that goes back to 1977, carries on to this day and includes five studio albums, but as far as most are concerned it’s all about their debut. Check out all the previous Cult Heroes.
Words: Malcolm Dome
There’s probably no more fertile ground for cult bands that the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal – and do they come more worthy in this sense than Angel Witch? I’d argue that they’re right up with Diamond Head when you consider influence and the vagaries of history.
Yet, for Angel Witch it is all about the period from 1979-1981, and just one album. Whereas at least Diamond Head can probably stretch the roots of their reputation to three albums and 1983. But in recent times, many in the metal underground have come to appreciate what Angel Witch achieved for such a brief period.
Starting out in 1977, under the name Lucifer, by the time I first saw the South Londoners they were already calling themselves Angel Witch (a sort of Heaven & Hell name, eh), and had the classic line-up of Kevin Heybourne (guitar/vocals), Kevin Riddles (bass/vocals) and Dave Hogg (drums). They played regularly at the good old Music Machine in London, a slightly run down venue, with catacombs instead of corridors. Located right next to Mornington Crescent tube station on the Northern Line (and now the altogether more plush Koko), this is where Soundhouse guru Neal Kay held regular, and famed, nights, showcasing both established talents and also young hopefuls.
Occasoonally playing on the same bill at The Music Machine were Angel Witch, Iron Maiden and Samson. Each took it in turns to open and to headline. Yet, despite what history might tell you, at the time Angel Witch were possibly the most popular of the three. So much so that, according to legend, when EMI Records initially expressed an interest in getting ‘One of these NWOBHM bands’ under contract, it was Angel Witch to whom they first turned. But the night the A&R swarm turned up to check out the Witch, the trio got so drunk they were abysmal. Maiden, meantime, swung through with a sparkling performance…and the rest is history.
“I think we might have been nervous, knowing that EMI were coming down to see us,” admitted Heybourne years later. “So we went to the pub to have a few drinks to settle those nerves – and probably had a few too many.”
EMI executive Ashley Goodall told me several months after the gig that, yes it was Angel Witch the label had first wanted to sign. “But we quickly realised there’s more international potential in Iron Maiden”.
At that time, Angel Witch could be devastating live. They were playing what would effectively be the songs on their first album. While there was a lot of Sabbath about what they did, you could also hear something else – a darkness that hinted at Atomic Rooster and became part of the blueprint for – ulp! – black metal.
But if the music was stunning and powerful, then the trio looked like the most unlikely teaming you could imagine. There was the angular, almost skeletal Heybourne, with his long blond locks and stage movements which appeared to be those of a Buddhist monk on acid. He hardly spoke onstage.
On bass was the giant, affable Riddles. A right old barrow boy charmer. He dressed as if he’d just spent far too long trying on the clothes his grandmother wore when she’d played a gypsy fortune teller at the local church bazaar. But he had a great sense of humour and clearly didn’t take all the Dennis Wheatley mumbo jumbo at all seriously. It was rather like having Sid James play Dracula.
Behind the drums, Hogg cut a rather scruffy almost insidious character. The sort who looked like he’d probably nick the ice cream off a kid and stuff it down the trousers of a pensioner, and then swipe their zipper frame for fun. Not that he was actually like that in person. But that was the impression he gave: moody yobbish and sinister.
How on earth these three managed to co-exist in the same band is one of life’s mysteries. But it worked. Heybourne was the true musician, Riddles was the carnival barker and Hogg…well, he hit things.
During the rest of 1979, I started to get to know them quite well. I loved what they did, and really did feel they were gonna be one of the foremost bands in what was fast becoming a massive metal movement. By the end of the year, I was writing for Record Mirror (RIP), and managed to sneak in a live review of the band. In December of that year, they appeared at the Lyceum Ballroom in London, on the same bill as Praying Mantis, Girlschool and Budgie. It was the night of the Witch. Truly it was. So many people seemed to be there for them, rather than the other three bands, and the reaction was enormous. I think I might have predicted in that review that Angel Witch were destined for great things in 1980. Ho hum.
Anyway, in February 1980 the band appeared on the celebrated Metal For Muthas compilation. Their song Baphomet nestled alongside contributions from Iron Maiden, Praying Mantis and others of a similar ilk. To be honest, it was one of the stand-out tracks on the record, and I managed to get this spun at the rather austere BBC Radio London – on a Sunday afternoon. As far as I can recall, Mike Sparrow (one of the DJs at the station) had asked me on his programme, to talk about this incredible musical phenomenon called NWOBHM and had let me choose three tracks to play from Metal For Muthas.
The look on his face as Baphomet kicked in was priceless. I think he believed he’d just discovered Satan throwing up in the kitchen sink. But fair play to him, he played the whole damn song, despite his producer making the sort of faces in the control room that you’d only usually expect to find at a gurning competition involving those who’ve had the bones removed from their faces.
Sadly, this wasn’t quite the springboard to fame and fortune some might have expected for Angel Witch. They did put out a single, Sweet Danger, on EMI. It had the distinction of charting at number 75, weighed down by the biggest anchor in music history. With this commercial flop went any chance of the band getting a proper deal with the giant company. Instead they signed to Bronze, home of Uriah Heep, Motorhead… and Sally Oldfield. The result was to be the remarkable, self-titled debut album.
It was produced by Martin Smith, and it’s at this juncture I think we should really meet Ken Heybourne. As the name might suggest, he was Kevin’s dad. Lovely man. Salt of the earth. Honest, hard working and really passionate about the band. Yes, Ken was all of this, as well as being utterly clueless about the music industry. You see, he had no background. While Iron Maiden had Rod Smallwood and Andy Taylor, and Def Leppard were represented by Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein (all of whom knew how to play the game – and win), poor old Ken was hopelessly out of his depth. As with Diamond Head (managed by vocalist Sean Harris’ mum and her boyfriend), what Angel Witch desperately needed was to be represented by someone who could command the respect of label bosses and other managers. Ken was not it.
I think he might have seen this, but just didn’t know how to let go. And because of his inadequacy to fully do the job, he began to interfere with what others tried to do. For instance, attempting to tell Smith how to produce the album, and how he thought things should sound. It was all so totally wrong. And slightly silly. The problem was that Ken genuinely cared and thought he was doing the right thing for the band – how could you turn round and tell him to stop making a fool of himself?
I always felt that Ken didn’t have to be pushed out. What he needed was a partner who understood the devious workings of the music business. Ken was too straightforward. For him a handshake was a binding agreement (if only…). With someone sensible to guide him, he’d have been fine, because he was not an idiot. Just an ingénue in this jungle.
The result was that Smith always felt put upon, and perhaps didn’t do the job he might have been able to do without the interference. However, the album was still a cracker. One of the best in a year when there were so many great records. Sadly, though, I seemed to be on my own in the rock media in giving it any sort of credence. Almost everyone else at the time laughed at the record – and the band. I gave it five pluses (the fullest possible rating) in Record Mirror, however the album wasn’t a roaring success.
Still, the live scene was going well for them. In London, they were put on bills to help sell tickets. And it usually worked. The chaps played early in 1980 at The Electric Ballroom in London. Special guests to Saxon just before Wheels Of Steel came out. It’s no word of a lie to say that the place was very busy for the Witch and more than half the crowd left before Saxon came on! They opened for both April Wine (yes, the melodic Canadians) and Krokus, again coming close to blowing these headliners offstage.
Later in 1980, the band appeared at the inaugural (and so far only) Heavy Metal Barn Dance at Bingley Hall in Stafford, headlined by Motorhead. And were on the bill for the Reading Festival the same year. But they clearly didn’t have the same momentum as Leppard, Maiden, Saxon, Girlschool.
By the end of the year, they’d fired Hogg and replaced him with the experienced Dave Dufort. Elder brother of Girlschool’s Denise, Dufort had played with a lot of bands in his time, including Screaming Lord Sutch and The EF Band (the Swedish entry into the NWOBHM annals). But it didn’t work out. One single, Loser, came out in 1981. But within a few months, the band had split up.
OK, the band did re-form and the story carries on to this day; they’ve just brought in Carcass/Firebird/Gentlemans Pistols guitarist Bill Steer, expanding the line-up to a four-piece. But, in all honesty, this is where most people’s interest in the music ends. Reissued in various forms and formats, that debut album is now seen as hugely important in the way that metal developed over the years. So many extreme metal heroes worship what the trio did back then. Vindication!
Of course, it’s highly unlikely we shall see the three ever playing together again (although never say never). But what we have is that one record which, with all its production warts, has a sting. And everyone still chortles when the navvies’ chorus on the song Angel Witch itself kicks in.
Right, enough of this misty-eyed nostalgia, on with the music.
Find out more at www.myspace.com/youranangelwitch
Tags: Angel Witch, April Wine, Atomic Rooster, Bill Steer, Black Sabbath, Budgie, Carcass, Dave Dufort, Dave Hogg, Def Leppard, Denise Dufort, Diamond Head, Firebird, Gentlemans Pistols, Girlschool, Heaven & Hell, Iron Maiden. Sean Harris, Kevin Heybourne, Kevin Riddles, Krokus, Motorhead, Neal Kay, Praying Mantis, Sally Oldfield, Samson, Saxon, Uriah Heep