12 obscure but excellent 80s rock and metal bands who should have been massive

Obscure but brilliant 80s bands
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If there is one decade that has to come to define the excesses of rock stardom, its the 1980s. From the colossal chart-topping, stadium-filling success of hair metal to the birth of hardcore and rise of thrash in the underground that would lay the seeds for countless extreme subgenres from black and death metal to grindcore, the 80s were a time where it felt like anything could happen.

Rock and metal had finally hit the big time, behemoths like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden coming into their own while Ozzy Osbourne proved there was life after Sabbath. But what of those bands that didn't get their time in the spotlight? 

For all the 80s bands that became superstars, there are plenty of stories of pioneering, brilliant bands that just never managed to break through (even if they were setting the seeds for future generations to succeed in their stead). That in mind, we've picked out 12 obscure but brilliant bands who never got the recognition they truly deserved. 

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Holy Moses

While the US's Big Four took the biggest chunk of the thrash pie in the 80s, there was no shortage of neck-threatening thrashers to tuck into on a global scale, and Germany's own Big Four added their own flavour of nastiness to the thrash mix. Less celebrated - but certainly no less vicious - were Aachen's Holy Moses.

With their 1986 debut Queen Of Siam, Holy Moses adopted a similar sense of extremity that had made Kreator and Sodom internationally revered, while Sabina Classen's frantic howls, growls and shrieks helped her smash extreme metal's glass ceiling early into the genre's development. 

Sadly, such innovation never truly got the recognition it deserved and Sabina departed the group after the release of their sixth album, Reborn Dogs in 1992. A new, Sabina-less line-up recorded 1994's decidedly more hardcore/grind flavoured No Matter What's The Cause before falling into an extended period of hiatus. 

Sabina resurrected Holy Moses in 2001 and has been the only consistent member since, upholding their legacy for teeth-gnashing thrash-flavoured extremity. The band's upcoming 12th studio album Invisible Queen is set to be their last, the closing chapter in a band criminally overlooked for too long.  


Best known for their 1980 debut album, 100 M.P.H., a live record which boasted “GUARANTEED NO OVERDUBS”, Vardis - fronted by vocalist/guitar hero Steve Zodiac - were one of the most highly-rated New Wave Of British Heavy Metal acts, and played alongside Ozzy Osbourne and Motörhead at 1981’s semi-legendary Heavy Metal Holocaust festival. 

In their earliest years, Vardis served up a full-tilt metal ’n’ roll sound best described as ‘uncomplicated’, but by 1982’s third album, Quo Vardis, the group were collaborating with UK ‘piano man’ Jools Holland (Later… / Squeeze), and chucking saxophone, bagpipes and mandolins into the mix. 

Ultimately, the band were fucked by a two year break in the mid-’80s due to legal hassles, and, though he emerged victorious from this stramash, a disillusioned Zodiac quit the music business in 1986. Fans of Motörhead and ‘Frantic Four’-era Status Quo will understand why they could have become a household name.


Grunge might have exploded in the 90s, but its roots could be traced right back to the start of the preceding decade. Formed in 1977, Wipers' brand of moody angst took elements of punk and post-punk, but refused to fit squarely into either camp.

Wipers' debut Is This Real? arrived in January 1980 and heralded the arrival of the 80s alternative underground that would later host the likes of Husker Du, Replacements and The Minutemen, albeit with a sense that Wipers were already shirking current trends by resolutely avoiding hardcore and instead sticking to a classic strain of punk rock more in keeping with late 60s garage rock. 

Active throughout the 80s and 90s, the band released nine studio albums before entering a period of extended inactivity after 1999's Power In One. In almost two decades, the band had produced a macabre, almost gothic vision of punk that would serve as an enormous formative influence on the grunge scene, with bands ranging from Hole and Melvins to Nirvana and Mudhoney citing them as an influence. 


Yes, yes - we know you know who Anvil are... now. But the whole point of Sacha Gervasi's iconic 2008 documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil was to point out just how criminally overlooked the Canadian heroes have been in the annals of rock and metal history. Despite influencing musicians including Lars Ulrich, Slash and Tom Araya, Anvil's stock remains criminally low even after the band won over the hearts of metal fans the world over with the aforementioned doc. 

With a NWOBHM-ish strut, the band made their debut in May 1981 with Hard 'n' Heavy, songs like At The Apartment tapping into the same effortlessly slick vibe that would later give Judas Priest their first major success in America on You've Got Another Thing Comin'. By 1984 the band had earned enough acclaim to headline events like Japan's Super Rock Festival alongside the likes of Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and Scorpions, but major commercial success still somehow eluded them. 

The band's closest brush was on 1987's Strength Of Steel, which broke into the Billboard 200 and peaked at number 191. Unfortunately, like so many others, Anvil's fortunes took a decided dip in the 90s and  their post-documentary comeback still hasn't elevated them to the top tier position they so richly deserved, though it certainly hasn't stopped them rocking for half a century without interruption. 

Agent Orange

Long before Bad Religion embraced melody and while Green Day were still in school, Agent Orange's offered a surf-infused new vision for where punk could yet go. Alongside bands like Adolescents (with whom they briefly shared key member Steve Soto) and Descendents, Agent Orange were a key influence on the 90s punk revival that saw it hit new commercial peaks. 

Sadly, such commercial peaks weren't open to Agent Orange in the early 80s, though there's a sense the band wouldn't have pursued them anyway. With their 1981 debut Living In Darkness, Agent Orange side-stepped hardcore in favour of buzzing surf rock, adding the massive vocal melodies that would later become a staple of pop punk. 

1986's This Is The Voice further showcased their capacity for massive punk anthems, but the band remained relatively obscure throughout the 80s. An Offspring cover of Bloodstains helped raise their stock in the early 90s before the band start popping up on soundtracks ranging from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater to Grand Theft Auto and Freddie Got Fingered, helping establish a presence that has kept the band as a beloved cult sensation. 


Black Sabbath and Judas Priest helped build heavy metal in the 1970s, and in the late 80s fellow Brummies Napalm Death would further cement Birmingham's claim to be the Home Of Metal. But between those two monoliths stand the lesser-explored pillars of metal/punk crossover history, chief among them extreme metal forerunners Sacrilege. 

Formed in 1984, the band's early demos exhibited the hardcore punk/proto-thrash stylings of UK82, but by the time they recorded their 1985 full-length debut Behind The Realms Of Madness they had graduated to proto-grind levels of nastiness. The record's mix of down-tuned chugging riffs, globally conscious lyrics (albeit strained through a fantasy filter) and Lynda Simpson's barked vocals had an impact that could be felt in later Midlands denizens Bolt Thrower and Napalm Death, who covered the band in 2012. 

Yet, for the praise heaped on the bands they helped inspire, Sacrilege still remain an all-too-often overlooked part of extreme metal history. The band's 1987 follow-up Within The Prophecy took an even deeper dive into the realms of metal with its thrash-tastic solos, while 1989's Turn Back Trilobite drifting more towards a classic heavy metal sound before the band split. A 2015 re-issue of Behind The Realms Of Madness leaves some hope we haven't heard the last of Sacrilege. 

Mission Of Burma

Mission Of Burma got off to a solid start when their debut EP Signals, Calls and Marches sold out of its initial run of 10,000 records in 1981. Between their anthemic choruses and odd time signatures, Mission Of Burma seemed able to embrace widespread appeal and anti-commercial values at once.

Unfortunately, the band burned bright and brief. Legendarily loud performances worsened guitarist Roger Miller's tinnitus, and shortly after the release of their debut album Vs. the band split up. Over the next 20 years, bands ranging from Foo Fighters to Pixies, Husker Du to Fugazi cited Mission Of Burma as an influence, while the likes of Moby, R.E.M. and Graham Coxon all covered their songs. 

In 2002, Mission Of Burma re-united, albeit without original member Martin Swope. The band subsequently released four more albums, ending with 2012's Unsound. In 2020, it was revealed they had quietly parted ways again after a European tour in 2016. While the split wasn't acrimonious, it remains dubious whether the group will ever re-unite (again). 


Girl had big balls. Megastars in their own heads from the moment they formed, the cocky London glam rockers might never have posed a serious challenge to Iron Maiden as the NWOBHM’s ‘Most Likely To Succeed’, but no band made failure look like such fabulous fun. 

Inspired by the Stones, Aerosmith, New York Dolls, Queen and Thin Lizzy, the group’s charmingly ramshackle debut album Sheer Greed had verve, personality and stadium anthems-in-waiting (the sleazy Hollywood Tease, the quirky Strawberries, the fizzing What’s Up), but went ‘Gold’ only in Japan. 

Still, they burned bright, dated models and actresses, put all the right noses out of joint, and had a riot while it lasted: vocalist Phil Lewis went on to front LA Guns, and guitarist Phil Collen has done alright for himself too, with a little band called Def Leppard.


While Black Flag's My War is often cited as a key influence on both grunge and sludge metal, San Francisco punks Flipper could also share that claim. Their 1982 debut beat Black Flag to the punch by two years, offering a sense of atonal horror that left everything covered in a layer of thick, downtuned muck. Henry Rollins once described Flipper's live shows to Esquire,  stating "it wasn't just a band playing some songs. It was like getting mugged, inhaling a box of detergent, or speed-reading Last Exit to Brooklyn". 

This goes some way to explain the band's enduring appeal, their punishing sound serving as an influence to bands ranging from Melvins and Nirvana to Jane's Addiction and Unsane. The original incarnation of the band would only record one more album - 1984's Gone Fishin' - before falling apart, bassist/vocalist Will Shatter dying of an overdose in 1987. 

A new version of Flipper surfaced briefly in the 90s to record 1993's American Grafishy, but disappeared again shortly after, with more members succumbing to addiction and overdoses. The surviving members of Flipper reunited in 2005 to play shows in support of legendary punk venue CBGB's, and would later embark on subsequent tours with guest musicians including Nirvana's Krist Novoselic (with whom they recorded a new album, 2009's Love), Jesus Lizard's David Yow and Minutemen's Mike Watt.


Thanks to bands like KEN Mode and Unsane, the lines between noise rock and metal are increasingly blurred. But long before those bands unleashed their yields unto the world, Killdozer were hammering eardrums with a sense of industrialised nastiness. Killdozer's 1984 debut Intellectuals Are The Shoeshine Boys Of The Ruling Elite brought a sense of snarling, sarcastic intellectualism that was used to caustic effect, backed by jazz-like instrumentation that seemed to coalesce from the void. 

By 1987's Little Baby Buntin' they had become a fully industrialised beast, exhibiting the same punchy post-hardcore sensibilities that would make Helmet so vital in the early 90s. For such a devoutly uncommercial band, Killdozer did get a brief brush with success - namely on 1989's Twelve Point Buck, the Butch Vig-produced album reaching number 16 in the UK independent albums chart. The album was supposedly also the reason Kurt Cobain enlisted Vig as producer on Nevermind

Sadly, the band didn't stick around to enjoy their success - they initially split in 1990, reformed briefly in 1993 to record two more albums (albeit too late to take advantage of the post-grunge boom). In 2006, the band reunited to play a show celebrating the 25th anniversary of label Touch And Go Records, and toured in 2008, but have since remained quiet. 

Head Of David

After departing Napalm Death in the late 80s, the multi-talented Justin Broadrick entered into a fruitful creative partnership with Midlands' industrial metal group Head Of David. Formed in 1986, the band already had an EP and full-length record out by October that year, a howling cacophony of nail-down-chalkboard guitar tones, queasy basslines and drums that sounded like a malfunctioning industrial press. 

Less than a year later, the band's second album Dustbowl was dialling back on their most abrasive tendencies, their sound now closer resembling the insidious darkness of US underground heroes Big Black. Amidst the album's more visceral fare was anthem-in-the-making Dog Day Sunrise, which would later be covered by Fear Factory on 1995's Demanufacture

Unfortunately, by that point Head Of David were no more: Broadrick departed at the start of the 90s to focus on his own industrial project, Godflesh, and bassist Dave Cochrane also left to work on his band God. Band founder Stephen R. Burroughs pulled together a line-up for one last album - 1991's Seed State, which has shades of early Therapy? - before quietly disbanding later that year.  

Bam Bam

Grunge was a long way off in 1983, but the seeds were already being set in Seattle by early grunge pioneers Bam Bam. Fronted by Tina Bell and featuring future Soundgarden/Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron, Bam Bam formed in 1983 and their mix of angsty darkness and fragile, beautiful melodies served as a direct forerunner for the likes of Nirvana and Alice In Chains. 

Unfortunately, the band never managed to get off the starting blocks: Bam Bam recorded an album's worth of material at Reciprocal Recording studio (later used by Nirvana for Bleach and Incesticide), but only released their debut EP Villains (Also Wear White) in 1984. Later that year, the band also released a lengthier demo under the title Bam Bam House Demo '84

Although active throughout the 80s, the band had begun to lose members as the decade wore on, leaving singer Tina Bell as the only consistent figure. Frustrated, Bell moved the band to Europe in hopes of finding greater success. Unfortunately, it never came: the band were eventually deported from the Netherlands back to the US, and by 1990 Bam Bam were done. 

As grunge exploded and Seattle became a hotbed of activity, Bam Bam were left almost entirely forgotten - a combination of mental health and drug issues ensured its former members were in no position or state to stake their claim on the grunge pie they had helped create, while Bell was almost entirely erased from grunge history despite being a pioneering black woman in a predominantly white male scene. 

Thankfully, accounts of Bell's contribution to grunge - and rock history as a whole - have become more commonplace in recent years, CBS airing a short documentary about Bam Bam in 2021, while Seattle musicians including Ayron Jones, Eva Walker, Shaina Shepherd and Matt Cameron hosted a tribute concert for the pioneer. 

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token. 

With contributions from