Guitarist Ross ‘The Boss’ Friedman and bassist Joey DeMaio met in 1980, at a Black Sabbath show at Newcastle City Hall. They were both native New Yorkers, both enthralled by tales of epic fantasy, and both invigorated by the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal at the height of its powers. They resolved to create the ultimate heavy metal band: Manowar.
“We wanted to look like something never before seen in heavy metal,” Ross affirms, audibly beaming down the line from the States. “We wanted to be wilder than just denim and leather. What would be wilder? Animal fur!”
Debuting with 1982’s Battle Hymns, followed by 1983’s Into Glory Ride, the loincloth-clad quartet’s first years were marred by label hassles and indifference in their native US. Other European countries later took the band to their hearts, but it was us lot who first heeded Manowar’s call to arms, inspiring the title of 1984’s Hail To England.
“Our first shows were in England!” enthuses Ross, explaining the bonds of affection Manowar feel for our rainy homeland. “There were all these bands from England, the NWOBHM – Saxon, Diamond Head, Samson – a lot of bands were underground, then suddenly they weren’t underground anymore. Judas Priest always flew the flag of heavy metal high, and still do. Metal just became the language of that generation. It exploded, and it was a great thing.”
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Even the UK rock media were on Manowar’s side at this early stage, although not everyone was convinced by these beefcake Yanks in catskin pants. “A lot of the English critics ripped the shit out of us,” stresses Ross. “They thought we were...” he drops his upbeat New York patter to perfectly channel a downbeat British sneer: “‘Fookin’ bollocks and fookin’ shite!’ But the great ones like [journalist] Malcolm Dome and others championed the band. That’s why we named the album Hail To England.”
Reaching No.83 in the UK album chart, Manowar resolved to hit this territory hard with 1984’s Spectacle Of Might tour, playing scattered shows on the continent before storming 11 dates across England, blowing the roofs off such unlikely true metal hotspots as Bournemouth, Middlesbrough and St. Albans.
One bizarre rumour claims that Manowar began the tour as support band for Mercyful Fate, but the billing switched when Manowar garnered the best audience reaction. Ross is happy to shoot this down in flames, with garrulous New York intensity.
“We were always gonna be the headliner,” he says. “What happened was, Mercyful Fate were our special guests. We got to England, and we had all of our brand new equipment – we called it the Wall Of Voodoo. It was so huge, and so new, it was gleaming like a brand spanking new battleship! And they walk into the venue and go, ‘Can we play through that?’ and we go, ‘Er, can we fuck your wife?’”
Ross falls silent and waits for Hammer to stop laughing. “I mean… no! Y’know? We bust our asses the last few years to get to this point, we’ve spent record advances and expenses and stress, and we’re just gonna turn over our Wall of Voodoo? Joey said, ‘Go get every piece of gear you got, and play through that.’”
After playing one show with scaled- down production, Ross says, Mercyful Fate never turned up again. “They never called us to say they were quitting, they never told the agents or promoters, they just fucked off the tour after that first night. This is the damn truth. And they said - they said,” emphasises Ross, still sounding genuinely astonished, 36 years on, “we denied them lights and sound. That was a bad thing to say, because every writer in England was at that first show, and they said ‘That’s bullshit! We were there! You had full lights and full sound, they just didn’t hand you the accolades of their audience.’ Which was none of their business. You gotta earn it.”
Drawing breath, Ross’s tone softens. “I have nothing against them, I love that band,” he says. “I’m friends with the two guitar players, [ex-band member] Mike Denner and Hank Shermann, they’re great guys. I asked them ‘What happened to you that night?’ They’re like, ‘Oh, I dunno…’ Yeah I know. That’s OK, we know…!”
This ‘Wall Of Voodoo’ was clearly very special; this was the superpowered stack that saw the band enter the 1984 Guinness Book Of World Records for the world’s loudest performance, superseding The Who’s 1976 record. “Right!” exclaims Ross. “Our onstage cruising volume was something like 135 decibels. We called the sound that we produced ‘Divine Wind’. But it’s very clean and clear, unlike the Motörhead sound; theirs was very distorted, everything’s in the monitors. The only thing in our monitor system was vocals and drums. No guitars or bass, they were too frickin’ loud!”
One of the most important songs on Hail To England, Army Of The Immortals was Ross’s ode to Manowar’s growing legion of fans, already developing the sort of passionate commitment that would later manifest as the cult of the Manowarrior. There was a richly motivational, unifying fervour to the tune, exemplifying Manowar’s philosophy of making a disparate and scattered fanbase feel part of a worldwide brotherhood.
“We said no matter what country you’re from, whatever colour or race, if you’re into Manowar, we are united in blood, united in metal,” he explains. “The whole genre is like that now. There are bands in Africa, there’s Mongolian metal, we’re all brothers and sisters, and we preached that at our concerts. Metal is the thing that binds us all together; Manowar definitely was the first to say that.”
Although the band’s first two albums were no slouches, Hail To England was the breakthrough, finding the band at their manliest and heaviest. Ross is keenly aware of how influential this album has proved over the years. “We invented this thing and they called it power metal,” he observes. “All those musicians that followed Manowar from the beginning, they all became successful. Amon Amarth, Hammerfall, Blind Guardian, Sabaton – Sabaton, my God, they worship us, I mean worship!”
Sabaton’s Joakim Brodén bought Hail To England based on its cover, and it didn’t let him down. “I had never heard the band before, but damn, how heavy and mighty it seemed to me,” he says.
There’s a pride and gratitude in Ross’s voice as he fondly recalls the potency of this unit (rounded out by singer Eric Adams and drummer Scott Columbus). Now touring in his eponymous solo band, Ross just got back from touring Australasia, playing Hail To England in its entirety.
“It’s a top metal album, one of the top metal albums ever,” he enthuses. “Those first six records are untouchable; I don’t think a metal band will ever do it like that again.”
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