NWOBHM, depending on your point of view:
“.. was a nationwide ground-breaking phenomenon from which sprang such heavy metal legends as Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Saxon and Diamond Head.”
— Kerrang! NWOBHM supplement (1989)
Or it was:
“... crude, poorly produced and played by musicians with rudimentary talents.”
— Joel McIver, Justice for All: The Truth about Metallica (2004)
Well, I agree with both of these statements: it was, in my opinion, a magical coming of age for heavy metal which will never be bettered. The term NWOBHM was conjured up at the time by journalists to conveniently package the rock and metal bands which had embraced the DIY punk ethic; speeding up what went before, toning down the blues influences and turning it up to 11. The genre reached its peak in the UK in the early 80s when the charts were packed full of Maiden, Priest, Motorhead, Saxon and loads of other excellent metal bands. It was also a period where the numerous subgenres of metal were slowly starting to define themselves.
The excitement was compounded for me as I lived literally five minutes away from the legendary Neat Records. This indie label was so prolific during the NWOBHM era that there was even talk in the press of a splinter movement called North-East New Wave Of British Heavy Metal – or NENWOBHM, based on the output of just one label alone! You’ll see a few of the bands from the Neat stable in the mixtape.
What a lot of newcomers to the genre fail to realise is that it was never about multi-billion dollar sales, global tours and huge highly polished production. If a band achieved any of these then transcended what NWOBHM was all about. Some of the groups on the mixtape got signed to major labels, some supported some big name bands who are still selling out venues today, but for a variety of reasons all of these bands never made the leap into mega-stardom; they were the contenders, the might-have-beens, the we-fell-out-with-the-label-because-of …..., and if-only-Jupiter-had-aligned-with-Venus-when-we-toured-with-Saxon-we-would-have-made-it bands.
The star of NWOBHM (and NENWOBHM) burnt brightly but had largely fizzled out by the late 1980s. I personally felt that this led to a bad time for metal in the 1990s, especially for underground bands. Not only had a lot of the more traditional styles of metal died but those that remained were starting to move away from what made them excellent in the first place. I hope that the songs on this mixtape will help to recapture some of the spirit of that era.
And in their own ways each of these songs are “classics”. By “classic” I either mean these bands laid the foundations for metal to spin off into a variety of different directions or they mean something to me personally. My selection are all songs that have staying power: I constantly return to these and play them to people who aren't familiar with the genre in the hope they discover them for the first time and love them.
To create this mixtape I've plundered my extensive vinyl collection, dusted off my tapes from the loft (tape trading formed a huge part of my teenage years; that's how new bands got heard in the days before the interwebs was invented, kids) and I've subjected these songs to a complex sifting and filtering algorithm, ie my ears and my admittedly hazy memory of when I last listened to them circa 30 years ago. I've then digitised them and here are they are!
Note that you’ll not find the likes of Iron Maiden in the mix, who went onto bigger and better things after violating several of the ‘101 Rules of NWOBHM’, and in any case:
“Iron Maiden after Killers is not NWOBHM."
So, dust off your bikers and denim jackets adorned with patches, pop this "tape" in your Binatone double cassette deck and be prepared to play the air guitar until your fingers bleed.
The selected track, ‘On the Rocks’, is the B-Side to Avenger’s first single Too Wild To Tame. This has superlative solos which Megadeth would still be happy to play today. Avenger was formed by past-members of Blitzkrieg and other seasoned NWOBHM veterans and for a brief period of time in my youth I considered them to be Newcastles version of Metallica, something which excited my teenage metal mind no end. After this single they swapped vocalists with Satan, a move which confused me and many of the fans at the time. Their first album, Blood Sports (1984) blended seasoned NWOBHM with proto-speed metal. Sadly it was criminally ignored probably because that although these songs were definitely at the harder and heavier end of NWOBHM spectrum it just wasn’t thrash metal, which was in the ascendency around this time. The album also came out too late as by 1984 NWOBHM was on its last legs. Had this album been released in 1981, well … Avenger may well have been the UK version of Metallica that I had hoped for. Listen out for the magical production values from the Neat studios, by magical I mean it sounds like a demo track recorded in a giant biscuit tin, but this complies with a key rule of NWOBHM:
“Bad production values are a MUST, if it’s highly produced, it’s not NWOBHM.”
And, perhaps more importantly, this just makes me love it all the more. The band reunited in 2005 and still plays the occasional gig.
The next track is ‘Alone in the Dock’ by Satan taken from their 1983 album Court in the Act. Now, this lip-smacking effort is NWOBHM played at its upper limits before you would call it thrash (which was only just emerging as a viable genre at this point). As an aside I believe the perfect blend of NWOBHM and thrash was created by Metal Church (check out albums such as The Dark to hear what I mean). So, Satan took the NWOBHM genre to the very brink, then the Big Four pushed the sound over the edge in their own slightly different ways. The ability of the band and riff work on display is similar to but more complex than say Kill Em’ All. I can image the young Metallica lads at the time listening to this album, then looking at each other and crying about how much they still had to learn. The commanding vocals worship at the temple of Halford while the album itself really defines what could be done within the constraints and conventions a particular genre without actually creating a new genre. Fast-forward to today and Satan have just released a new album to much critical acclaim and are playing this years Bloodstock.
Virtue released perhaps one of the best ever proto-Power Metal NWOBHM singles back in 1985, ‘We Stand to Fight’, despite the fact that the genre was practically dead at this point. To be fair to the band this wasn't really about Virtue procrastinating until it was too late, rather it was about just how young they actually were. As late as 1984 were still getting turned away at the clubs they were booked to play for being underage. When you listen to the musicianship, and especially the guitar duels, on this track reflect that the guys involved were barely out of school - it literally blows your mind! The single was so impressive it even had the mighty EMI sniffing around, but alas nothing went passed the planning stages. The band cut some demos for an unreleased EP which show the band moving into thrasher territory: extremely complex guitar work and drumwork is prevalent, for example the track ‘Seek and Destroy’ (not a Metallica cover) features an awesome guitar showdown which wouldn’t be out of place on Megadeth's Hangar 18! By the mighty Gods of metal, Virtue wherever you may be I demand thee to you reform!
Digging through my ancient copies of Kerrang! from the early 1980s I noticed that Vardis seemed to feature rather a lot. Fronted by barefoot, bare chested and blonde-haired Steve Zodiac (who featured in Sounds Magazine best 15 rock guitarists of 1982) they were frequently described as part Slade and part Motorhead and had a style which veered wildly between pub rock and balls to the wall metal that ripped the guts out of your speakers. Vardis had been kicking around for a few years before jumping onto the NWOBHM band wagon and took the unusual decision to release a live album as their debut. Great idea as the relentless performance of the trio is probably a cut above what they could’ve achieved in the studio.
Perhaps their finest moment came at the 1981 Heavy Metal Holocaust festival, sharing the stage with Motorhead, Ozzy and Triumph with 30,000 heavy metal fans in attendance. Briefly poised for the big time they created a lot of heat and light which burned passionately but quickly faded and was extinguished, seemingly forever. However, Vardis are back! They’re headlining day three of the 2014 Brofest and I for one can't wait to see them.
Next is Battleaxe, a band from my neck of the woods, Sunderland, UK. The main claim to fame Battleaxe had was the God awful cover art on their scrumptious debut album Burn This Town. Questions abound: why is Kevin Keegan riding the motorbike? Where has the other handlebar gone? What’s with the furry outfit - I mean if its synthetic fur then and you're going to “burn a town to the ground” then isn’t this a health and safety risk? Also how is the burning going to be initiated? Does he have some matches in his pocket? And I’m not going to mention the logo (oops, too late). The cover art on the French release of this album was no better as it has drawing of a handsome, mysterious man on an orange background which looks like it was copied out of a 1970s European post-apocalyptic comic. One last word on the artwork, the re-release of the album made amends for these crimes against art and all is now forgiven.
The raw energy and lack of fully formed songs on offer propels you through Burn This Town. Read No Sleep ‘Till Saltburn for a full account of the formative years of this band, it is both heartwarming and hilarious in equal measures. In mitigation the guys were young and inexperienced and their second album made quantum-leaps in terms of musicianship. As is routine in these cases it all went pear shaped on the eve of a major appearance at Hammersmith Odeon, London in support of Saxon on their Crusader tour, just while some A&R guys from Atlantic Records were showing interest. Amazingly after 30 years Battleaxe are just about to release that “difficult third album” and are appearing on day one of Brofest.
‘Night Of The Blade’ is the title track from Tokyo Blades second album. This is the title track and not only is it one of the best tunes on the album, practically approaching a thrash metal level of intensity and speed (listen out for the pummeling kick-drum). Production values are sleek and reverb thick but nonetheless it shows just how heavy this band could actually be.
Thinking back, I always thought that Tokyo Blade sounded like Iron Maiden trying to copy the playing style of Y&T. For a few albums at least it appeared that they would emulate Def-Leppard in terms of career progression. They also had some of the coolest album covers of the period too, with an airbrushed Ninja in various menacing poses and situations (perhaps it was their version of Eddie?). Definitely one of the more polished bands to emerge from the genre.
Yet another Neat band, Jaguar, who had a style which blended traditional 1980s metal with raw speed, power and a sense of terrifying urgency. This track, ‘Dutch Connection’, is from their 1983 album Power Games (it has bloody awful cover artwork by the way, which looks like something I would’ve submitted for my o-level art homework). I vaguely recall that when this album dropped it has a ripple effect throughout the local metal scene and was a must-listen for all young thrashers, as I was at the time. I really like the loose and unpolished sound of the guitars which blend well with the basic nature of the song. Sadly, the follow-up Jaguar album was a masterpiece in fan alienation, changing their style to try to attain commercial success. Naturally, we “the fans” switched off in droves ultimately allowing Jaguar to sweetly embrace musical oblivion (or so it seemed). Jaguar are still going strong to this day, releasing albums in both 2000 and in 2003. These were pretty decent efforts and I’m looking forward to seeing the group play day 3 of Brofest 2014.
Hailing from Bristol, Shiva was a power trio who created a pleasing progressive /NWOBHM blend, even down to the vocals sounding a little like Geddy Lee. The band were always at the upper end of the musical skill and capability range within a genre which prided itself on a just pick it up and play mentality. The one album they made, Firedance, is a slab of excellence that was literally years ahead of its time; it still sounds fresh today after 30 years. Sadly, Firedance got lost in the wilderness due to a lack of promotion and appeal to their would be fanbase. The main problem was that Shiva combined NWOBHM’s uncompromising basic rock sensibilities with the attitudes of Rush and Yes. The result was something that didn’t quite attract the day-to-day metal fan nor did it please the prog rock aficionado who delighted in bloated overblown song structures, something with isn’t evident here. Add the fact that they never released a substantial body of work all conspired to regrettably send Shiva the way of the dodo.
Formed in 1977 Angel Witch were the softer, more effeminate side of NWOBHM and while they claimed to dabble in the occult, they probably summoned the Dark Lord in a rather polite, pleasant manner. After being dropped by EMI they were picked-up by Bronze who released their far-from-critically-acclaimed debut album, Angel Witch, in 1980. This track, ‘Angel Witch’, shows that while the vocals don't have the sheer power of say, Halford or Dickinson, the riffs and melodies are good enough to have been repeatedly cited as massively influential to a host of other bands who followed. What I noticed when I re-listened to this album with my 2014 metal ears was that there is a level of energy in each track which cuts through the terrible production. It’s in this infectious energy that you can hear the genesis of spin off genres such as thrash. However, what separates good bands from great? The ability to go on making awesome albums year-after-year and this was something which unfortunately eluded Angel Witch, despite a revolving door of new members.
I confess to having a soft spot for Raven having seen them live twice before. They still manage to put on an aggressive, energetic, crazy show despite being 50-something years old. This song is the title track of their third album All For One, a record which they took on tour back in 1983 with a little known support band called Metallica (who later admitted they had learnt a lot from Raven in terms of how to put on a fearsome stage show). In fact this particular tour name blended together both albums being promoted and was called Kill 'Em All for One. This was Raven at their peak and they took the leap on to a major label for their next album. As you can probably guess this shot at the big time didn't go well for the band and in later years they ran out of creative steam. Still Rob “Wacko" Hunter and the Gallagher brothers deliver the goods here, somewhat bizarrely being supported by Udo Dirkschneider from Accept. Its all very over the top, with fast riffs, insane solos, simplistic song structures, thundering basslines and thudding drums but that are what Raven are all about. Enjoy.
So to conclude, the 1980s were an awesome time to be a teenager and I doubt there will ever be any other decade like it, in terms of metal. Ultimately, the handful of tracks presented here really only scratches the surface. There are hundreds of other bands which I could’ve included and indeed I could’ve selected different songs from each of these bands too. Think of this as a tiny primer into an all too short but hugely important chapter of musical history.
When I was researching this post I couldn't believe there were so many bands which I’d forgotten about who were still actually releasing music and gigging after all of these years. To me, this highlights the fact that big labels will continue to shovel crap onto the general public who are happy to buy it, while 99.9% of the truly awesome bands who created superbly influential songs sadly fail to make a living from doing what they love. That said, I think we all have a part to play in trying to prevent the any further regression. Support artists of today and yesteryear, support the small record labels that are still willing to release (and re-release) metal, support the record stores and websites that still stock and sell metal, support the bloggers dedicated to publicising both new and old metal, support the pubs, clubs and venues still willing to book metal. In short, support metal!
Did you like this post? What did I miss? What should I have included? What did you make of this genre? Leave a comment below: