“I made a rock n’ roll sin when I tried givin’ in” - All Men Play On Ten
If heavy metal is all just some extravagant alpha-male pissing contest to see who is the loudest and heaviest in the land – and it pretty much is – then Manowar are the undisputed King of Metal, now and forever. They are so sure of it they invented the term “false metal” to call out any band that’s not as heavy as they are, which is basically every other band. When we’re all dust and bones and the only survivors of the plagues, robot risings and mass extinctions around the corner are Mad Max-esque desert-trash motor-psychos, they will march into battle blasting Manowar, I’m sure of it.
Nobody understood the magnificence and absurdity of heavy metal as well as Manowar, and no one ever will again. And it would be heresy to suggest that they ever blew it or (god forbid) created any False Metal themselves, but we have to talk about Sign of the Hammer nonetheless, because its opening tracks are so hilariously out of character and so close to glam I can almost smell the hairspray.
But first, let’s give the legends their due. Manowar are the heaviest band that has ever existed and Black Sabbath are the first true heavy metal band, so it makes perfect sense that they formed in the looming shadows of Sabbath. In 1980 original Manowar guitarist Ross the Boss – of NYC proto-punks The Dictators – was in Shakin’ Street, who were opening for Sabbath on their Dio-fronted Heaven and Hell tour. Bassist Joey DeMaio was handling the pyrotechnics on those shows and hit it off with Ross. After the tour, they formed the band. Black Sabbath and explosions. That’s how that band was forged, and that’s how the band sounded.
The first few albums established a pattern of mixing chugging biker rock with proto-power metal epics. 1982’s debut Battle Hymns was basically a metallized rock’n’roll album littered with story-songs about battle-damaged Nam vets and heartless lady killers, but by their landmark follow-up Into Glory Ride in 1983, their crazed excess-is-best template was set. They wore loincloths like cavemen and sang seven-minute songs about Viking funerals and wrote anthems about how metal they were right down to their fucking gloves and boots. There was no going back for these dudes. They were taking this shit all the way.
Hail to England was released in early 1984. Manowar had planned to tour the UK – British rockers were nuts about them – but the tour fell through, so they basically wrote the record as an apology. But regardless of wacky origins, it was a stunningly heavy and intense album. The entire B-side is basically a bloodbath. They could’ve just ridden the year out on Hail, but ten months later they returned with the incredible Sign of the Hammer, perhaps the most gonzo metal album of the 80s.
I’m not even going to dive too deeply into this record, but DeMaio’s bass solo Thunderpick is a jaw-dropper, Mountains is essentially an eight-minute self-empowerment anthem/power-ballad doom-metal dirge, and just when you think things couldn’t get weirder, album closer Guyana (Cult of the Damned) is about the 1978 mass suicide of 500 men, women and children at the behest of cult leader Jim Jones. They drank poisoned Kool Aid. Manowar wrote a song about it with lines like “Be good to the children and old people first/Give them a drink, they’re dying of thirst”. All with leather-lunged lead singer Eric Adams treated the whole sordid affair like it was a night at the opera.
So already, you know, completely fucking nuts. But not as nuts as the album’s openers, All Men Play On Ten and Animals. First of all, O gods of metal, I mean no disrespect when I say this, but All Men Play On Ten is kind of a rap song. It is. It’s not like there wasn’t a precedent for NYC rockers to try their hand at rapping in the 80s – see Wendy O Williams, Dee Dee Ramone and Debby Harry for prime examples – so it’s not out of nowhere, but still, writing a song about how they’ll never change their sound and then changing their sound in that very song is some serious next-level shit.
And Animals is straight-up horny teenager glam metal. No way around it. It’s a fantastic wad of mid 80s bubblegum for sure, but “true metal” ? That might be a stretch, even for the Kings of Metal.
But I mean, that was it. Right after it was back to head-chopping business, and they never looked back. Europe discovered them and exalted them as gods and they spent the next thirty years living up to their reputation. The only remnants of their flirtation with mainstream glam are two goofy-but-great songs in 1984 and a handful of regretful beefcake photos they took around the same time dressed in skin tight strips of leather, glistening with battle-sweat.
Incidentally, Manowar recently announced their swansong tour. It’s almost over, so if you haven’t seen them yet, it’s your last chance. Don’t blow it.
Oh, and PS: death to false metal. Except for Animals. That one gets a pass.
Next week: Southern-fried and finger lickin’