NWOBHM feature for Uncut (August 2009)
Thirty years ago, a bunch of "old-fashioned, shit-kicking hard rockers" caused an unlikely revolution. The bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal made dry ice in kettles, crossed the M1 in old butcher's vans, got lost behind the scenes, and splattered their fans with fake blood. But, before long, DEF LEPPARD, IRON MAIDEN, TYGERS OF PANTANG and even SAXON, were international superstars. How did it happen?
It’s July 1981, and Diamond Head – the perennially underachieving kings of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal – have just played a routine gig at south London’s Woolwich Odeon. A 17-year-old Danish-American kid muscles his way backstage and explains that he has saved up years of pocket money to fly half way around the world to see his favourite band, one that he’d followed in California through air-mailed copies of the British music weekly Sounds.
“We were impressed that he’d come so far,” says Diamond Head’s guitarist Brian Tatler, in his doleful Brummie tones, “and rather shocked that he didn’t have anywhere to stay. He ended up kipping on my floor in Stourbridge for a week, in me brother’s old sleeping bag, and then spent a month with the singer Sean. He was a lovely kid, bursting with enthusiasm, freaking out and playing air drums while me and Sean wrote songs together…”
That kid, of course, was Lars Ulrich, and a few months later he was back in California leading a Diamond Head covers band called Metallica who, by the end of the decade, would be one of the biggest rock bands on Earth. For Lars and thousands like him, Diamond Head seemed to have it all. They had a good-looking lead singer – a cocky Steve Tyler look-alike called Sean Harris – and they wrote ten-minute rock anthems that welded together hook-laden punk energy, prog precision and metal abandon.
Unfortunately, an almost comical run of bad luck put paid to these ambitions. Diamond Head sent the master tapes for their first album to a German label, which promptly lost them. It took them years to get a deal with MCA, and when they did, around 20,000 copies of their “difficult” third album were rendered unlistenable by a pressing fault. They were offered representation by the mighty Q-Prime Management but they turned it down to be managed by their singer’s mum. They supported AC/DC on tour in January 1980 and were declared “facking great” by AC/DC’s frontman Bon Scott, but when he invited them as special guests for his end-of-tour party the next day, they got lost. “We didn’t have an A-to-Z,” says Tatler, “and we couldn’t find this house he was staying in. So it was back up the M1 to Birmingham, for a bottle of cider and a game of Monopoly. Bit of a shame that we missed that party, because Bon died a week later…”
More than any other band, Diamond Head seem to sum up the pulse-quickening excitement, brilliance, bathos and idiocy of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. Thirty years on from its humble beginnings in scabby working men’s clubs and clubs across England’s ravaged industrial heartlands, the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal – the acronym of which is ALWAYS pronounced “nuh’wobbum” – seems to attract fanatical devotion from some of the world’s biggest rock bands. Metallica and Megadeth worship at the feet of Diamond Head and Saxon; members of Green Day, Muse, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters will happily reel off their favourite Iron Maiden album tracks and Parallax b-sides; while Anthrax, Slayer and countless other thrash metal bands owe their existence to Newcastle’s faintly ridiculous Spinal Tap lookalikes Venom, who used to lead their crowds with the chant “FUCKING BLACK METAL!” while waggling their tongues.
“NWOBHM is one of those polarising terms,” says Tatler. “People are either raving about it as the greatest music movement ever, or they’re laughing at it. There doesn’t seem to be any room in between!”
It’s certainly attracted its fair share of ridicule. The Comic Strip’s 1983 film “Bad News Tour”, featuring three-quarters of the Young Ones quartet, was a spoof rockumentary of an inept east London NWOBHM band (“I learned ‘Stairway To Heaven’ when I was 12,” says Bad News’s lead singer, Vim Fuego, played by Adrian Edmondson. “Jimmy Page didn’t write it till he was 24. I think that speaks volumes”). It was followed a year later by Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, which lampooned countless heavy rock archetypes; legend has it that Iron Maiden angrily marched out of the film’s premiere, believing it to be a personal attack on them. Actually it was their NWOBHM stablemates Saxon who were the prime source material for Spinal Tap’s Harry Shearer.
“The fella who played the bassist in Spinal Tap [Shearer] apparently came on tour with us as part of his research,” says Saxon’s frontman Biff Byford. “And, in hindsight, you could tell that he probably did model his character [Derek Smalls] on our bassist, Steve Dawson. Like him, Dawson had the tight striped trousers, the handlebar moustache, and he would pluck the bass with his right hand while raising his left fist aloft.”
There’s even a rumour that Samson inspired the Spinal Tap scene where the band get lost trying to find the stage. “Oh, we got lost backstage loads of times,” sighs Byford. “Every band does. Often you crawl through miles of corridors, get onto the stage, salute the audience and realise that you’re facing the wrong way…”
Not that NWOBHM needed much exaggeration to take it into comedic territory. Samson, who featured a pre-Maiden Bruce Dickinson, had a drummer called Thunderstick who would wear what he described as a “rapist’s mask” while drumming in a giant cage (sometimes the cage was guarded by circus strongmen). Early Iron Maiden gigs saw the band trying to create dry ice in a kettle and trying to create horror movie effects with a giant papier mache head and a fish-tank full of stage blood; when their first lead singer, Dennis Wilcock, put a fake-blood capsules in his mouth and pretended to slash his face with a sword, he did it so convincingly that people would sometimes faint at their early gigs.
The NWOBHM label encompassed a variety of working-class heavy rock bands united mainly by chronology. Most formed around 1977 while in their late teens, most released their first (independently pressed) records in 1979; many appeared on Sanctuary’s era-defining compilation Metal For Muthas in February 1980; some were signed by major labels later that year, and a lucky few were hitting the arena circuit by 1982. But the term lassoes together a host of quite distinct outfits. Def Leppard, Tygers Of Pan Tang, Praying Mantis and Girl, for instance, all had a slightly funky edge and a melodic sensibility that served as a bridge between glam rock and hair metal, while Girlschool tended to play a particularly brutalised, uptempo form of the blues.
But the defining sonic characteristic of most NWOBHM bands – Iron Maiden, Samson, Saxon and Diamond Head in particular, and also the Black Sabbath copyists like Witchfynde and Angelwitch – was that they tended to subtract any traces of blues from the heavy rock template. Where the holy trinity of hard rock’s “first wave” – Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath – all emerged from the 1960s Brit-blues revival, their disciples in the NWOBHM came with no such blues baggage. Iron Maiden’s twin-guitar frontline, for instance, might have been a nod to Wishbone Ash and Thin Lizzy, but Maiden’s guitarists would perform a highly metrical, ultra-fast series of hammer-ons and pull-offs that utterly eschewed the blues.
“We didn’t particularly like the blues that much,” says Brian Tatler of Diamond Head. “Not at the time, anyway. You’ve got to remember that we were just teenage kids at the time, and although we appreciated bands like Zeppelin, we weren’t that interested that they’d stolen their riffs from the likes of Willie Dixon or whatever. We just picked up on the faster, heavy sounding things, rather than the slow, bluesy things. And, crucially, we upped the tempo. That’s the only way you’re gonna get some surly, bored-looking biker in a Glasgow club to uncross his arms and listen to you.”
“Someone like Jimmy Page was playing in an environment in which he was indulged to play the blues,” says Biff Byford. “That’s great, and I’m glad he was, but we didn’t have that luxury. We had to impress people quickly to win over an audience. When you’re an unknown band, playing to a working men’s club or a rowdy pub to a crowd who don’t give a shit who you are, you rely on factors like speed, aggression and volume.”
A circuit of small venues quickly developed for these bands. The Soundhouse, the backroom to a now-demolished mock-tudor pub in Kingsbury, north-west London, had been home to a heavy rock disco since 1975, and soon became the epicentre of the NWOBHM scene under the aegis of its charismatic DJ Neal Kay. Other London venues included the Bridgehouse in Canning Town and the Ruskin Arms in East Ham; around the country you had the Retford Porterhouse (in between Nottingham and Sheffield) and the Spread Eagle in Birmingham. Bands would then graduate onto the Mecca promoter’s circuit of Mayfair and Locarno nightclubs, each hosting late-night gigs to around 1500 punters. And, by 1980, not only had heavy rock commandeered the Reading Festival, but Rainbow’s promoter Paul Loasby had set up the rival Monsters Of Rock festival in the grounds of the Castle Donnington racetrack in Leicestershire.
Period photographs of the bands and the audience at those gigs will tell you that it wasn’t just the blues that had been divested from the heavy rock scene; NWOBHM bands jettisoned any vestiges of hippy counterculture from the rock code. Paisley, loon pants, big collars, open-neck shirts and waistcoats were out; skin-tight jeans, t-shirts and lots of black were in. The tousled hair-dos of the 70s rockers were replaced by straight, dark locks; the new denim-and-leather role models came from biker culture (via Motorhead) and the S&M scene (via Judas Priest’s Rob Halford). There were a few handlebar moustaches on the scene – courtesy of Lemmy, Robb Weir from the Tygers, and Steve Dawson from Saxon – but, by and large, facial hair was a no no.
And, for all heavy rock’s latent “Smell The Glove” misogyny, NWOBHM wasn’t so much sexist as avowedly sexless. Iron Maiden's Steve Harris dismissed love songs as “wimpy”, while Diamond Head’s key songwriter Sean Harris tended to write about love only when dignified through classical allusions. “We never wrote love songs,” says Biff Byford, “we leave that to the likes of Bon Jovi.” NWOBHM bands took this asexual, boy’s-own mentality into macho extremes, singing about ritualised aggression (war, tribalism), fantasy (wizardry, magick) or both (images of Armageddon, the occult).
“In honesty, women were largely incidental in this world,” laughs Enid Williams, bassist from Girlschool. “Which probably accounts for a lot of the sword-and-sorcery lyrics! Even when we played gigs, I’d say less that five per cent of the audience were women. And that surprised and disappointed me, to be honest. Nowadays, of course, we get loads of women in rock saying that we were a big inspiration – funny that it took 30 years for that to happen!”
The NWOBHM tag was first used in a Sounds feature in May 1979 and coined by the paper’s editor, Alan Lewis. It accompanied a review of a triple bill featuring Samson, Iron Maiden and Angelwitch written by “Deaf” Geoff Barton, one of the paper’s few champions of what Lewis describes as “old-fashioned, shit-kicking hard rock”.
“Obviously, the ‘New Wave’ bit was intended as an ironic nod to punk,” says Alan Lewis. “The bread-and-butter of Sounds at the time was post-punk, and our pages were dominated by often very serious figures like Paul Weller and Joe Strummer and Bob Geldof. But, purely from a journalistic perspective, I could see why heavy metal made good copy, which is why I was also happy to run long, on-the-road pieces on larger-than-life figures like Ted Nugent or Aerosmith. And the style of writing was very different from the analytical, post-punk journalism pioneered by highbrow writers like Jon Savage and Jonh Ingham – it was playful, jokey, laddish, enthusiastic and used lots of imagery from comic-books – ‘SPLAT!’ ‘POW!’ ‘KER-PLATZ!’, ‘KERRANG!’ and so on.
“I wouldn’t say that the NWOBHM bands were quite as politically incorrect as, say Ted Nugent, but they certainly took some pleasure in overturning the more po-faced comments that you got from the punk bands. They made for good copy, because they were colourful and apolitical and hedonistic, and we knew that they would wind up readers. They certainly wound up most of the staff!”
NWOBHM bands had a complex relationship with punk. Iron Maiden’s bassist and main songwriter Steve Harris, for one, was a dedicated prog-rock enthusiast who was highly critical of punk’s lack of musicianship, and was furious when an A&R man in 1978 offered to sign Maiden on the condition that they cut their hair and repackaged themselves as a punk band. But even this was complicated by the fact that Paul Di’Anno, the singer who fronted Maiden’s first two albums, was a former skinhead and punk fan who would occasionally front the band in wearing a pork-pie hat.
“In the early days,” says Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, “I probably made some comments about punks being bad heavy metal musicians. But in actual fact I loved punk. I could easily have ended up singing in a punk band.” And it’s important to remember that the supposedly strict punk/metal barrier was, in reality, rather more porous. Saxon once played support to The Clash at the Manchester Bellevue (Byford recalls The Clash playing a version of Saxon’s “747” in the dressing room); Def Leppard recorded sessions for John Peel; Motorhead, who formed in 1975 but had become leading lights in the NWOBHM scene by 1980, were comfortable playing on punk bills with The Damned.
But it was Motorhead’s labelmates Girlschool who had probably the most interesting relationship with punk. In their early days they shared a flat with the UK Subs, in the early 1980s their bassist Enid Williams collaborated with Sham 69, while the band often found themselves playing on punk bills.
“Me and Kim [McAuliffe] first started making music in 1975 in a band called Painted Lady,” says bassist Enid Williams. “And by early 1978 we’d mutated into Girlschool. You have to remember that 1975 was a completely different world from 1978, for women especially. In 1975, with the possible exception of Joan Jett and The Runaways in the States, you simply didn’t find all-female rock bands. By 1978 absolutely everything had changed. You had The Slits, The Raincoats, The Modettes, the Dolly Mixtures and dozens of others. Even though few of them lasted more than an album, it was refreshing and hugely liberating. Remember that we only formed an all-girl band because boys didn’t want to play with us!”
There was even a suggestion that Girlschool could have progressed as a punk outfit. “We were definitely borrowing from the more leftfield stuff like XTC, Wire and Bebop Deluxe, especially on tracks like ‘Furniture Fire’ and ‘Future Flash’. And there were a few explicitly feminist lyrics on the first two albums – the kind of thing you were more likely to find on punk records than metal ones.
“I tended to be more feminist than other members of the band,” Enid continues, “but I think that their approach – which was to keep your head down and ignore it – can actually be a very healthy way of doing things. Otherwise it would have driven you made. To give you one example, I remember when we were supporting Uriah Heep in 1980 – we were sitting in the soundcheck, watching them rehearse, and the security guards started dragging us off – they thought we were groupies!”
One distinctive punk characteristic that was embraced by the NWOBHM bands that did take hold was its DIY ethos. Many NWOBHM bands self-released their first singles and EPs, pressing up small vinyl batches of unmixed demos (like the Def Leppard EP or Maiden’s The Soundhouse Tapes) and selling them at gigs or by mail order. Others went through small indie labels: Hull had Ebony Records (home of Grim Reaper and Samurai), Wolverhampton had Heavy Metal Records (home of Witchfinder General, Quartz and Cloven Hoof), but the Rough Trade of NWOBHM was Newcastle’s Neat Records, releasing seminal singles and albums by Raven, Venom, Fist, Jaguar, White Spirit and Tygers Of Pan Tang.
NWOBHM bands tended to operate as kibbutzim, sharing houses, buying communal vans, even building equipment together. Biff Byford recalls all members of Saxon visiting a Barnsley library together to study how to make speaker cabinets; as well as purloining screen-printing gear from a local art college to print up the band posters. He also remembers how the band clubbed together to buy their first tour van, which had previously been used by a butcher selling “speciality meats” (“we painted it matt black, but the paint faded and you could clearly read the words ‘Sid Smith: Tripe Dealer’ on the side”).
“We did everything together,” says Robb Weir from Tygers Of Pan Tang. “The band even lived in the same house, like The Beatles! And when our first singer, Jess Cox, left the band, he even stayed on in the house while the second singer, Jon Deverill, moved in!”
There was a certain camaraderie among the bands. Were Pete Frame to write a detailed Rock Family Tree for NWOBHM, for instance, it would be an intricate, three-dimensional and constantly mutating piece of calligraphy, with Iron Maiden, for instance, exchanging members with Samson, Praying Mantis, White Spirit and Urchin; Def Leppard featuring members of Girl; and members of both getting into NWOBHM “supergroups” like Gogmagog and The Entire Population Of Hackney.
“Leppard always got on well with everyone,” says Joe Elliott. “We were great mates with Girl – of course, their guitarist Phil Collen later joined us – but in the early days they used to kip around my mum’s house when they played in Sheffield. Me mum used to complain that ‘there’s make up all over the sheets! They’re wearing mascara!’ I also remember we all piled down to the Retford Porterhouse when Maiden were playing there. We had a laugh – they were trying to play practical jokes on us: one pissed in a pint pot and Steve Clark nearly drank it.
“The only person I didn’t get on with in that whole scene was Biff from Saxon. I was good mates with their drummer Pete Gill, he’s a great bloke, but Biff was a funny one. Blanked me twice. Dunno why.”
After facing off a volley of bottles at the 1980 Reading Rock festival from disgruntled fans, Leppard seemed to bail out of the NWOBHM scene, recorded a string of albums with soft-rock producer Mutt Lange that would make them massive in America.
“There’s so much Spinal Tap stuff attached to the term ‘heavy metal’,” says Elliott. “Which is why we’ve never really wanted to have anything to do with it. All the sword and sorcery, dungeons and dragons bollocks, all the ‘get on your knees, bitch’. Good luck to all these bands, but we don’t want to be playing NWOBHM revival shows on the festival circuit in Finland, or playing to a bunch of Polish builders in leather jackets.”
It’s a harsh rebuke, but one with a grain of truth. Leppard conquered America and sold 65 million albums, Maiden shifted 70 million units and can still sell out football stadiums from Bogota to Bangalore, while Saxon can still rack up a healthy living on the arena circuit. But none of their NWOBHM rivals had anything like the same success. Most continue in some form today, with one or two original members, playing modest-sized UK venues and metal festivals around Europe and North America. And yes, large sections of their audiences were born long after the golden age of NWOBHM.
“I wouldn’t get too pretentious about it,” says Robb Weir from the Tygers Of Pan Tang. “NWOBHM still has a following because it is just bloody good, honest-to-goodness music for working people. Simple as that. We’d get people from the shipyards, or miners, or people working in heavy industry, labouring for 8-to-10 hours a day, before they came to our gigs. It was a release. You knew you were going to have a few beers, you could see all your mates, it was loud, you know, you’d be walking out of the place at two in the morning, half cut, your ears still ringing, with fantastic memories to go back to work on a Monday to talk about. That’s what NWOBHM was all about.”