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10 NWOBHM albums you should definitely own

Iron Maiden, Praying Mantis and Cronos from Venom
(Image credit: Virginia Turbett/ Fin Costello/Getty Images )

Looking back, the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal kinda snuck up on us. In 1979, when this amazing musical movement began, I – along with thousands of other music fans in the UK – 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.

But in Britain suddenly it all changed. All-new heavy groups inspired by punk’s do-it-yourself ethic began to emerge out of the metalwork. 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.

The NWOBHM was a remarkably fertile time in UK rock history – one that’s unlikely to ever be repeated. And even now, many years after its inception, there is endless interest in the NWOBHM. It’s still coming on strong.

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Iron Maiden - Iron Maiden (EMI, 1980) (opens in new tab)

Is Iron Maiden (opens in new tab)’s debut album also their best? You could make a strong case for it. Compared to the sleek prog-metal machine the band evolved into, Iron Maiden (opens in new tab) sees them as a bunch of scruffy East End herberts with a powerful point to prove. That signature Steve Harris (opens in new tab) bass sound is there, and singer Paul Di’Anno (opens in new tab) is on prime form. 

Bruce Dickinson (opens in new tab) tries 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.

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Diamond Head - Lightning To The Nations (Happy Face, 1980) (opens in new tab)

Original versions of this album are massively collectible: 12-inch vinyl records in white sleeves signed by band members. 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 probably the most professional and well-rounded of the early NWOBHM releases. Guitarist Brian Tatler (opens in new tab) nonchalantly plucks classic riff after classic riff out of the air, and vocalist Sean Harris sounds like Robert Plant (opens in new tab) with a Gro-Bag attached to his bollocks. The refrain ‘Am I evil? Yes I am!’ still resonates. Just ask Lars Ulrich (opens in new tab).

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Witchfynde - Give ’Em Hell (Rondelet, 1980) (opens in new tab)

“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 NWOBHM genre.

I remember being disappointed with this record at first, 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 such as Pay Now, Love Later.

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Tygers of Pan Tang - Wild Cat (MCA, 1980) (opens in new tab)

In line with Saxon (opens in new tab) and [Samson’s debut album] 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 Neat Records before MCA snapped them up. Wild Cat was singer Jess Cox’s swansong before being replaced by ex-Persian Risk frontman Jon Deverill for ’81’s Spellbound. Unlike later releases, when MCA emaciated the Tygers’ sound, Wild Cat is raw, effective and still leaves scars.

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Girl - Sheer Greed (Jet, 1980) (opens in new tab)

Some people may baulk at the inclusion of Girl in this section, 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 got signed to Jet Records. Further disapproval followed when singer Phil Lewis (later of L.A. Guns) started seeing actress Britt Ekland when everyone else, uhm, wasn't. 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).

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Vardis - 100 M.P.H. (Logo, 1980) (opens in new tab)

Never was an album more aptly named. This Wakefield trio never let a good song get in the way of a rampant, high-speed guitar solo. Led by six-string maniac Steve Zodiac (a Johnny Winter (opens in new tab) lookalike who played barefoot), Vardis released a series of breathless singles – including If I Were King and Let’s Go – before this frankly bonkers album hit the streets. 

Vardis’s finest hour came when they played the Heavy Metal Holocaust Festival (opens in new tab) in 1981 alongside Ozzy Osbourne (opens in new tab) and Motorhead (opens in new tab).

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Venom - Welcome To Hell (Neat, 1981) (opens in new tab)

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 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.

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Praying Mantis - Time Tells No Lies (Arista, 1981) (opens in new tab)

The Mantis were always at the more melodic and thoughtful end of the NWOBHM spectrum. Unfortunately their all-time classic song, Captured City, isn’t on here, but there’s still plenty of good stuff (Rich City Kids, for instance), all wrapped up in an excellent Rodney Matthews sleeve. 

The band briefly attracted the attention of manager Peter Mensch, but he opted for Def Leppard (opens in new tab) instead. There was supposed to be a version of Russ Ballard’s I Surrender on here, but Rainbow (opens in new tab) nicked it.

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Raven - Rock Until You Drop (Neat, 1981) (opens in new tab)

Here’s another acronym: Raven (along with Venom, The Tygers Of Pan Tang and no end of other bands from the Newcastle area) were more than NWOBHM, they were part of the NENWOBHM (North East New Wave Of British Heavy Metal).

A classic power trio 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 races 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.

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Fist - Back With A Vengeance (Neat, 1982) (opens in new tab)

Like The Tygers Of Pan Tang, Fist were another Neat Records band to get a contract with MCA. They released 1980’s Turn The Hell On, before returning to Neat for this. Despite the presence of drummer Harry ‘Hiroshima’ Hill and bizarrely named bassist Norman ‘Pop’ Appleby, Fist were an anonymous-looking bunch. But their songwriting was of the highest standard, as dole-ful epics such as SS Giro proved.

Fist are still active today, and in 2005 released a third album, Storm, which featured excellent new versions of two of their classic tracks: You’ll Never Get Me Up In One Of Those and Name, Rank & Serial Number.

Geoff Barton is a British journalist who founded the heavy metal magazine Kerrang! and was an editor of Sounds music magazine. He specialised in covering rock music and helped popularise the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) after using the term for the first time (after editor Alan Lewis coined it) in the May 1979 issue of Sounds.