Exploring the glory days of 1980s British metal and the bands who made it what it was.
The variable pleasures of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal – henceforth referred to as ‘NWOBHM’ – might best be summed up by Mrs Reprobate’s response to the new three-CD collection from Cherry Red. When I opened the package, she was pretty excited and insisted that we put the album on immediately. Within six tracks of the first disc, she had gone from nodding approve to “what is this shit?” to insisting that the playback to immediately curtailed. As someone with an appreciation of metal music but pretty much no familiarity with the NWOBHM, she seemed to be a good testing ground for what I already knew from back in the day: at its best, the scene was edgy, innovative and powerful, but at its worst, it was a collection of hangers-on, bandwagon jumpers and bands continuing the worst plodding aspects of the 1970s rock scene.
I’ve said before, and will doubtless say again, that NWOBHM was a more authentic and vital voice for dispossessed youth than punk. Punk was awash with fashionistas and poseurs, disinterested in the music and disdainful of the working-class kids who were attracted to it – just look at how quickly they all abandoned punk to become New Romantics, where there was no nasty guitar music to get in the way of the peacocking. Heavy Metal was as uncool as you could get – there was no artifice, no pandering to fashion, no pretence to be anything other than what it was; just unashamed bombast, kids in denim and leather jackets, growing their hair as long as they were allowed to by parents or employers. It was the music of the factory worker and the teenage misfit, and both the bands and the fans were looked down on – often with undisguised class contempt – by the music press and its readers, radio and television. This was the true outsider music of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
But of course, a lack of artifice has its bad side – for every band that was pushing HM forward, with (no matter how much some will deny it) punk-influenced speed and aggression, there was another trying to pointlessly copy dull old bands like Budgie, attempting to be melodic without either the musical chops or the writing ability to create actual melodies… and as the scene took off and bands like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard Saxon and others became big names, there were plenty of bands who either climbed on the bandwagon (including opportunist punk acts who suddenly reinvented themselves as metal bands) or were temporarily elevated above their station – acts that didn’t deserve to get past gigging in the back room of a local pub were given short-lived record deals. Others would sell out as quickly as record companies demanded that they become ‘more commercial’, and others needed no prompting to abandon their roots and their fans in search of global success. So it is with every musical movement, I guess – the wheat rises, but it usually drags a lot of chaff with it briefly into the limelight, and sometimes, that proves the death of it. Because NWOBHM was never fashionable, it lasted longer than most musical movements – depending on who you ask, the ‘new wave’ was still going long after it stopped being remotely new – but then, what do you call British traditional metal bands who emerged in the mid-Eighties? NewerWOBHM?
It’s an issue that pops up briefly on NWOBHM Thunder, which includes one track from a debut album released as late as 1986 – it is, admittedly, by Paul Di’Anno’s Battlezone, and so acts as a substitute of sorts for Iron Maiden, who are clearly the biggest act to emerge from the NWOBHM scene and still be a legit metal act (we’ll disregard Def Leppard) – and who are conspicuously but expectedly absent from this collection. But it also shows that, while the music press needs labels (the sheer number of increasingly idiotic and desperate labels the NME came up with for minor variations on musical trends is quite hilarious), the people buying the records probably couldn’t care less – or, more to the point, the sort of people who were buying NWOBHM records couldn’t. If an artificially created scene is driven by fashion, then, of course, the record buyers will slavishly follow it until the point where it stops being cool; but the permanently uncool metal kids were just buying NWOBHM albums alongside the new releases from long-established acts without even thinking about labels.
The NWOBHM Thunder collection opens with Saxon’s Heavy Metal Thunder, which seems all sorts of appropriate. Saxon was hugely popular for a few years – certainly giving Maiden a run for their money – and had hit singles as well as albums that were cranked out with indecent haste, frequently two a year; frontman Biff Byford even appeared on Michael Parkinson’s chat show. But there was something charmingly naff about Saxon – their awkward Top of the Pops appearances, the fixation on writing songs about heavy machinery – ships, aircraft, trains – and the almost desperate desire to be the cheerleaders of a movement (as well as this track, they recorded Denim and Leather, a somewhat cynical and unsuccessful attempt to provide the scene with an instant anthem). But there was a sincerity to Saxon too, and the very title of this track harks back to the roots of the genre – Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild. No one could accuse the band of being afraid of the HM label, unlike a lot of acts of the time (we should always remember that Black Sabbath and Ronnie James Dio were both vocally disdainful of the label in the early Eighties, insisting that they were ‘hard rock’ or something similarly noncommittal). And for a brief moment – say 1980 to 1982 – the band cranked out a series of blistering tracks like this one that arguably positioned them at the top of the scene; but there was precious little quality control, the production was often lacking and the band seemed a little too keen for success, ultimately leading to a terribly-conceived reinvention to appeal to American glam metal fans. If there was one thing that Saxon wasn’t, it was glamorous.
Girlschool had been around since 1977, and never quite fitted into the metal scene – they were more a ball-out rock ‘n’ roll band, as It Could be Better – barely produced and all the better for it – on this collection shows. it’s no surprise that Lemmy saw their (musical) potential and took them under the Motörhead wing, something that proved to be a two-edged sword in the end. The band never quite shook the suspicion of the music press and radio DJs- a real collection of sexists if ever there was one – that they were simply being carried, even though the music should’ve spoken for itself. Like many a band, Girlschool eventually lost their way in an attempt to break America (like Saxon, they were ill-suited to the glam metal world) but those early recordings are magnificent and the band should be seen as one of the greats of British music, genre be damned.
There’s a degree of pandering to commercial requirements scattered across the collection. Sometimes it was the band’s own idea, sometimes forced on them by record labels – though you have to wonder why any band would agree to go along with it, given how much confidence it showed by the label. The Tygers of Pan Tang were another of the big names of the NWOBHM scene, though it always felt as though they were riding a wave – their songs were decidedly nondescript, and had MCA Records not been desperate to sign up their own metal band, they might never have made it out of the North East. As it was – and perhaps symbolic of a movement rapidly running out of steam in the eyes of the industry – by the time they came to record their fourth album in 1983, they were under firm instructions to deliver something commercial. A series of cover versions were released as singles, polished within an inch of their lives by producer Peter Collins and released as picture discs and coloured vinyl editions, but it still wasn’t enough. The band split to escape their contract. Of the covers, a belting version of Lieber and Stoller’s Love Potion No. 9 was the best, and gave them a minor hit, but it must have felt like a bittersweet success given how little control the band had over their destiny at this point.
Beyond this, the NWOBHM scene mixed bands who had some ambition – for American success, if not at home – and those who just wanted to belt out rough ‘n’ ready metal. In the former camp, you might put Praying Mantis, who might have been another Def Leppard if they had both the breaks and the songs, but neither was forthcoming (their bland entry in this collection, Flirting with Suicide, is melodic only if you consider several melodies colliding to be tuneful). Or you might consider Scottish band Heavy Pettin’, who wanted to be famous – and American – so badly you could almost smell it. I saw them supporting Kiss, and they were unbearable. Love Times Love, included here, is seriously appalling.
On the other hand, Demon seemed to be unsure of their own abilities for a while. The band were as far removed from the bulk of the NWOBHM scene as you could imagine, sounding more like a Seventies hard rock band – more Purple or Dio than Maiden, perhaps. And their debut album was a literally mixed bag – one side of occult and horror songs, one side of swaggering cock rock, a compromise reached because they didn’t know if a full LP of horror rock would be too much for people. A full supernatural conceptual piece followed, and then the band seemed free to follow their progressive rock leanings with a series of interesting albums. Demon had a knack for a catchy tune, and while they were not doing anything especially innovative – at least in the early days – they were a lot better than you suspect they thought they were. The band has long left the metal world behind, but they remain one of the more interesting acts, doing their own thing without paying any attention to anyone else.
Demon was unusual. As this collection shows, the NWOBHM scene was soon flooded with bands who were interchangeable, often riding the coattails of the trailblazers from a year or so earlier. A lot of this stuff is anonymous and forgettable, lacking the catchy hooks, eccentric excess or brain-splitting brutality that will make a band stand out. There are too many Rob Halford falsetto shrieks, too many band names that then fail to deliver the goods – I want more from a band called Demon Pact or Blitzkrieg, frankly.
And then there are the desperately over-hyped and the shameless bandwagon jumpers. Most shameless – and most unnecessary in this collection – is Pauline Gillan, whose only justification for making a record was being the sister of Ian Gillan, and who somehow qualifies for this album based on a 1985 track that sounds like a Poundland Pat Benatar. Barely heavy rock, let alone NWOBHM, this is shameless nepotism that was hardly acceptable at the time and now seems an unforgivable intrusion (and was, unsurprisingly, the point that Mrs R.’s enthusiasm for the collection went downhill). A more credible act who suffered from overblown expectations was Rock Goddess, who’s Satisfied Then Crucified was the B-side of the cringe-worthy Heavy Metal Rock and Roll – has there ever been a more calculated and desperate to please the fans song title? Rock Goddess was a solid enough combo, but they were never going to live up to the ridiculous hype that surrounded them, as a trio of teenage girls in a scene still very male-dominated and blighted by unfair accusations (from people who had no love of metal) of sexism, racism, homophobia and the rest. The band were signed to a frankly ludicrous ten-album deal that was clearly never going to be fulfilled, and once the novelty of their gender wore off – which it did quickly as a bunch of other women entered the metal scene – they were never going to get beyond the second division.
None of this is unique to NWOBHM of course. Let’s be honest – 90 – 99% of anything is sub-standard, which is why we all remember the good stuff. It wasn’t simply luck or good management that made Iron Maiden what they were – they had the songs. in the end, no matter what the genre, acts will rise and fall on how many people like their music. Most NWOBHM bands simply didn’t have what it took to stay the course or to stand out from their peers to an audience that all too often did not have limitless supplies of money to spend on records. This is the first time that I’ve heard some of these bands, but I can’t say that anything that was new to me stood out as something that I felt I’d been missing out on. But that said, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to finally catch up with some of the names only previously seen in early Eighties editions of Kerrang! as being the new kids on the block. As such, this collection is a decent snapshot of an era rather than a genre – because even now, I’m not sure that NWOBHM was ever really a thing beyond the fevered imagination and promotional clout of Sounds writer Geoff Barton.
Part of the problem in defining what NWOBHM was is the fact that metal wasn’t a new thing, but simply a sound that had faded from popularity for a few years. If we wanted to be narrow, we might see the NWOBHM sound as the fast, hard-edged, Judas Priest inspired metal of Maiden and Saxon, but if we just see it as a movement of new bands emerging at the end of the 1970s, then there’s surprisingly little connection between bands. There’s the bluesy, boogie shuffles of Samson (with future Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson) or Vardis, the glam stylings of Girl, the Led Zeppelin style bombast of Diamond Head (who might have hit the big leagues had they not been coming up from the rear and only starting to release records when the scene was already saturated), the LA cock rock of Tokyo Blade or the technically crude sounds of Raven and Venom – the latter of whom, of course, would become one of the most important bands in metal history as the genre fractured into ever more niche sub-divisions. If you’d told the music press that Venom would launch whole sub-genres and influence hundreds, maybe thousands of bands, they would have laughed in your face, much as they relentlessly scoffed at the band back in 1980/81. Music journalists, eh? What do they know?