NWOBHM: The Survivors

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For a movement that was over almost as soon as it began, the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal has propagated more column inches than most. Burning brightly and briefly, even some of its key players and most ardent fans are reluctant to call it a movement at all, preferring instead to view British metal’s halcyon days as an accident of birth afforded inflated importance by a music press relentlessly searching for the next big thing.

Stylistically, the NWOBHM was a very broad church, taking in everything from borderline AOR, boogie and proto power metal to the Neanderthal noise of Venom. It has, however, acquired mythical status among old-school metal cognoscenti and come to embody a spirit of innovation and independence which many believe has never been surpassed. Unfettered by the vanities of rock’s 1970s royalty – Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd et al – the NWOBHM relied on guts and sheer determination to escape a groundhog day of unemployment and social exclusion, cutting some damn fine records along the way.

Like most legends, the story of the NWOBHM has become suspended in time, its wild romance set in stone, its hard truths glossed over or distorted. Of the bands who stoked its fires with blood, sweat and beers, the myth canonizes the fallen and shackles the survivors to a rose-tinted past. Prise open the ‘where are they now?’ file, however, and there’s a wealth of great music still being made. Passion, not fashion, fuelled the scene and, roaming beneath the mainstream radar, the NWOBHM lives on.

They won’t be playing Twickenham Stadium any time soon, but behind the picket fences and net curtains of suburbia, bands such as Raven, Diamond Head, Tygers Of Pan Tang, Blitzkrieg, Avenger, Demon, Elixir and Bitches Sin are proving that they’re still fit to boogie more than a quarter of a century down the line.

As one of the most successful second-tier acts, Raven’s story is typical of the NWOBHM. Having released three barnstorming albums on the Neat label, the Geordie trio were picked up by Atlantic Records who immediately began to drive them in a more commercial direction. When this policy failed, the band were hung out to dry and left to pick up the pieces at a time when mainstream metal had moved on. The offending album – 1986’s The Pack Is Back – was a messy compromise which pleased neither band, fans nor label.

“It’s like, ‘Let’s make these guys this type of band’, instead of asking why we got popular in the first place,” laments bassist/vocalist John Gallagher. “‘You got to level A so in order to get to level B you have to put on a clown outfit and start shitting yourself on stage. Can you do that for me?’”

With their ambitious and progressive third album Canterbury, Diamond Head had perhaps unwittingly brought enormous commercial pressure upon themselves, as guitarist Brian Tatler ruefully recalls.

“[Producer] Mike Shipley put us through the mincer. He’d worked with Def Leppard and was used to perfection. We weren’t quite ready for it at that stage. It’s partly what split the band up. It seemed such a long way from being friends back in Stourbridge.”

Diamond Head aside, the Tygers Of Pan Tang were probably the most commercially viable NWOBHM band never to achieve major success. With show-pony guitar ace John Sykes and ex-Persian Risk frontman Jon Deverill joining the ranks for album No.2, Spellbound, the band looked set for stardom. Ultimately, they too were undermined by their label’s apparent greed. The fourth album The Cage, although a hit, was too slick by far.

“_The Cage _was very Americanised,” agrees guitarist and sole remaining original member, Robb Weir. “We used outside songwriters, but I felt we could write as well if not better. The first two albums proved that. [Debut] Wild Cat went into the British charts at 18 ahead of Michael Jackson.”

With dole queues doubling between 79 and 80 and the winter of discontent still fresh in the memory, money – or lack of it – dogged the NWOBHM from beginning to bitter end. With limited funds available, the labels backed a handful of hopefuls at the expense of the rest. They didn’t always get it right and as Diamond Head, Raven and the Tygers famously proved, signing with a major label was no guarantee of fame and fortune.

“Three big bands got signed in the same period,” Robb Weir recalls, “The Tygers, Leppard and Maiden. Leppard signed to Phonogram and got a £250,000 advance, Maiden signed to EMI and got £100,000. We signed to MCA – the biggest record company on the planet – and got 25 grand. That’s not a level playing field.”

London’s Elixir, whose self-financed 1986 debut The Son Of Odin is the last classic NWOBHM album, arrived at the party late, having struggled for years to secure suitable backing.

“CBS saw us a couple of times but didn’t want to sign us at that time,” said guitarist Phil Denton back in 1986. Today, he views this lack of investment as pivotal. “If we could’ve got some money invested in us and done a really professional album, we could’ve gone a lot further than we did.”

Having bloated the scene with an indiscriminate feeding frenzy in which most established labels scrambled to sign their very own NWOBHM band, the big money was soon diverted in the direction of the American invasion which was gathering pace by 83. UK indie Music For Nations, for example, licensed debut albums by Metallica, Megadeth, Manowar and Ratt, to name but a few. The NWOBHM, suddenly starved of both cash and coverage, simply had no answer.

As part of the Newcastle scene which included Raven and Venom, Avenger were in good company. When the media lost interest in the NWOBHM, however, even having an American axeman wasn’t enough to save them.

“Metallica gripped everybody’s imagination,” recalls vocalist Ian Swift. “We got left out. British bands weren’t the in thing.”

Although their debut full-length Predator emerged in 82, Cumbrian outfit Bitches Sin would wait a further six years – by which time they’d already split up – to see their second, and by far best, album Invaders get a UK release. By then, of course, it was much too late…

“We were straight off the street, no money, just jeans and t-shirts,” says guitarist Ian Toomey. “There was no way we could compete with the American metal bands.”

With Night Of The Demon and The Unexpected Guest, Staffordshire’s Demon cut a pair of classics still held in high regard today. When the NWOBHM gave up the ghost, the tag would forever haunt them as they battled on gamely through both glam and then grunge.

“I hated it in the mid-80s,” complains frontman Dave Hill. “After the NWOBHM died, having that label was like having a huge boil on your arse. It was awful.”

As the excitement and edginess of the over-sexed and in-your-face US bands swept away the chips and gravy of regional UK rock, parochial attitudes – particularly to the importance of effective management – further sabotaged the British scene.

“I wish we’d been managed by Peter Mensch!” laughs Brian Tatler. “We supported AC/DC in 1980, and we had a little chat to him in the dressing room. He gave us the benefit of his wisdom for half an hour. In hindsight it would’ve been nice if our management – who got us to a certain point – had backed away and said what we need now is a world-class management team.”

Robb Weir agrees. “We really needed a big-time manager to come in and go: ‘You’re gonna get in my car now. You’ve been driving around in a Mini and I’ve got a Jag.’”

“We never had a manager as such,” adds Ian Swift. “If you have someone like Maiden’s Rod Smallwood behind you, you’re on a winner straight away.”

Despite having endured their fair share of disappointment and disillusionment, most of the NWOBHM’s hardened road warriors are refreshingly free of the bitterness one might expect. Brian Ross, the leather-clad frontman of genre institution Blitzkrieg, puts the situation into perspective.

“I’ve done a lot of stuff over the years that I’m very proud of and the only point I ever say ‘if only’ is when I look back at 1981 when Blitzkrieg originally split up. A tour with Saxon was on the cards and Carrere Records were gonna do an album. I think if we’d signed the contract, done the album, toured with Saxon – what could we have done? And then I think to myself: ‘Well, there wouldn’t have been a Satan album for a start’.” [Ross joined Satan, later briefly known as Blind Fury, after Blitzkrieg split.].

“It’s easy to say: ‘Yeah but you never became huge’,” continues Brian Tatler. “And yet how many great bands never made it? I’m not bitter about all that. There’s only a handful at the top of the tree.”

“We didn’t end up with EMI like Maiden did,” says Dave Hill, “but we’ve got a worldwide cult following, and we still believe we turned out good music.”

“You’re always gonna have something go wrong,” reflects John Gallagher. “It’s pure fate. Metallica opened for us in 83 and if anyone told me then they’d be a global phenomenon I’d have laughed my ass off.”

“We always kept our day jobs,” says Phil Denton, “and I think it was the right decision at the time, but whether it held us back… I don’t know.”

As the 80s rushed headlong into a glittering future of shoulder pads, leather ties and MTV, vast swathes of the NWOBHM moth-balled their guitars and headed for civvy street. The occupations favoured by retired 80s rockers such as painting and decorating, van driving and re-stocking fag machines in pubs were naturally taken up en masse by NWOBHM casualties. Some, such as Phil Denton – now working in security – also spent the 90s raising a family. Bitches Sin guitarist Ian Toomey – a former chemist and latterly with the nuclear industry – recently quit his job to once again pursue music full time. Without a family to support, he’s in an unusual position. Brian Ross, a civil servant in the child benefit office, remains philosophical about the realities of life away from stage and studio.

“It’s just something I gotta do to pay the bills,” he concedes. John Gallagher, now an export manager, found himself literally stranded in America and lugging boxes of vegetables at an airport after Raven’s deal with Atlantic imploded. “I was in upstate New York with 15 bucks in my pocket. You do what you gotta do to get through. There’s no shame in hard work.”

Dave Hill, originally a butcher by trade and later a record shop owner after Demon too fell foul of fashion, wholeheartedly agrees. “If you love music you tend to do anything to keep you going unless you hit the big one.”

Brian Tatler, a mechanic before Diamond Head took off, hit the so-called ‘big one’ long after his band had fallen apart. “I was pretty much living off Metallica royalties,” he says of his years in the wilderness. “When Garage Inc. came out – which had all four Diamond Head covers on – our Christmasses all came at once. Without those covers I don’t think we’d have re-formed again.”

But paying their dues to society and living the quiet life was never really on the cards. Often when they least expected it, the bug would bite once again. The call of the wild, the need for speed, the joys of noise call it what you will. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of promoters, webmasters, boutique record labels and a small but dedicated global fan base, literally dozens of NWOBHM bands have come out of retirement and embraced the brave new online world which refused to let them rest in peace.

“How much easier would it have been if we’d had the internet in 1980?” marvels Brian Ross. “The big reason Blitzkrieg split in 81 was because Jim [Sirotto, guitar] would’ve had to quit his teaching job to go out on tour and we didn’t really know if people appreciated what we were doing. If we’d had the Internet, we would’ve known.”

“Your website is your fan club and your point of contact,” says Brian Tatler. “You can seemingly disappear without it.” “It’s been a great link for us,” agrees Dave Hill. “A band at our level – a lot of people wouldn’t know what we’re doing. Over the last five years the Net has made a difference.”

On their own comeback trail, Elixir enjoyed a very direct benefit of the Net. “It was through the Internet that Cult Metal Classics tracked us down,” reveals Phil Denton. “Their re-release of The Son Of Odin got us re-started.”

Bitches Sin, meanwhile, use the MP3 format to market their music online. Ian Toomey: “It’s been invaluable. We’re getting 2,500 unique hits a week. In the old days you’d be sitting there with your double cassette deck – if you were lucky – copying demos.”

Rip-offs and rock’n’roll go together like denim and leather, and as the NWOBHM’s popularity grew, so the sharks began to circle. For every tanned executive promising the world, there were a dozen chancers in sheepskin coats hustling for a fast buck.

“Hey, don’t worry, I got this little job for you in Hendon next Tuesday and you might get paid then!” laughs John Gallagher. “We’ll have you doing Wembley Stadium next year!”

Avenger – whose debut single Too Wild To Tame is pretty much the archetypal NWOBHM seven-inch – saw nothing from a “bitter and twisted” wrangle over royalties until their back catalogue was reissued in 2002.

“One thousand and one bands from the early 80s will tell you: ‘No, you didn’t sell anything,’” says Ian Swift, “and then you find out in later years it sold quite well.”

Fast forward to 2008, and money matters are handled very differently indeed. By returning to financing and controlling their own music and merchandise, the bands are reviving a business model ideally suited to the 21st Century but one which was ill-designed to compete with the corporate behemoths which dominated the industry during the 70s and 80s. Even the legendary indie labels which helped define the NWOBHM – Neat, Heavy Metal Records, Ebony, etcetera – were largely unable to develop the careers of their best-selling bands, watching helplessly as they were poached by majors with little understanding of their hapless protégés.

Today, the DIY approach is back with a bang. Favouring licensing deals and partnerships in lieu of conventional contracts, the fruits of these fresh labours are not inconsiderable, and if you haven’t bought a NWOBHM album since the days of Thatcher and her iron handbag, a bit of online shopping may be in order.

Despite having split with original frontman Sean Harris on less than amicable terms, Diamond Head have re-grouped behind current vocalist Nick Tart, releasing the critically-acclaimed All Will Be Revealed and What’s In Your Head albums and touring extensively, including a support slot on Megadeth’s 2005 UK tour. The Tygers Of Pan Tang’s latest Animal Instinct recently garnered an impressive 810 rating in these very pages, while Bitches Sin’s recent UDUVUDU album has been aired on Bruce Dickinson’s radio show to warm words from the man himself. Blitzkrieg, meanwhile, continued an impressive run with last year’s Theatre Of The Damned and only the most churlish would remain unmoved by Elixir’s corking comeback efforts The Idol and 2006’s Mindcreeper.

Raven, who have just completed a new album, aptly titled Walk Through Fire, are playing UK dates in October having kicked copious amounts of arse at both Bloodstock and Hard Rock Hell in recent times, while Demon’s back to basics Better The Devil You Know! from 2005 features some of their best material in years. Avenger, although currently unsigned, have new tunes in the bag just waiting for the right opportunity.

If the NWOBHM is to remain a dynamic force, it’s vital that its bands don’t simply drift off into the sunset with their ageing fans. Fortunately, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the high-energy, street-ready sounds that rocked the nation all those years ago are reaching a new generation, and not just via the Internet. Anyone who’s attended the British Steel Festival – run by none other than Elixir’s Phil Denton – or travelled to one of the many exclusive continental festivals such as Keep It True or Play It Loud, will attest to the modest but swelling hardcore of fresh-faced kids in search of honest, heartfelt, trend-free heavy metal. Nostalgia plays its part, of course, but for music born from a break with the past, misty-eyed reminiscing must never hold sway. The bands deserve better than that.

“There are festivals which bring back NWOBHM bands that haven’t played for 20 years,” explains Dave Hill, “and I think the first thing that they realise about today is the standard of playing, especially the American bands. People aren’t daft, especially the Germans. They’ll soon suss you out. If you’re doing it from the heart and it doesn’t sound particularly good, they’ll put up with that. Everyone can have an off day, but if you’re not very good, they’ll let you know.”

“There was a guy at the British Steel festival who used to be down the front at the Royal Standard,” says Phil Denton. “It was great to see him again, but we’re building up a following of new fans.”

“Kids have had years of thrash and doom and whatever and they haven’t heard any of the older stuff,” reckons Ian Toomey. “Then they’ve started to discover their parents’ record collections and there’s been an upsurge in this type of straight rock with a bit more melody. The feedback we’ve been getting is great.”

“There’s a whole cadre of young people listening to metal and going: ‘This is alright, but where did they get it from?’,” adds John Gallagher. “They start digging back. There’s a younger audience coming out to a lot of rock shows. I’ve seen that in England and I’m definitely starting to see it in the States. The old guard are still there but they’re bringing their kids.”

“It’s vital to get young kids into it,” says Brian Tatler. “MySpace helps with that. It’s great getting kids coming down the front and enjoying it as much as the old die-hards.”

“The future of British metal doesn’t lie with me, it lies with young people,” states Brian Ross. “If there aren’t any, it’s gonna die.”

It ain’t the drugs, it ain’t the birds and it sure as hell ain’t the cash – so just what is it that keeps these battle-scarred stagers cranking it out?

“At the end of the day I’m a kid, I’ve not grown up,” laughs Ian Swift. “It’s every kid’s dream – if you’re into metal – to be in a band and bang your head. I’ve got more enthusiasm now than I’ve ever had. It’s rejuvenated everything. What more could I want? Apart from a nice record deal!”

“We’ve all gone through drinking yourself into oblivion and taking whatever comes your way,” admits Brian Ross, “but then you come out the other side and the whole point of doing this is the music. You’ve gotta do it for the pure enjoyment of it first and foremost, because that’s what you did it for originally. For that brief time when I’m on stage, I’m 18 again. You still get the same buzz. I met one of my old school friends in a shop about three years ago and he said: ‘I owe you an apology. At least you’ve come damn close to realising your dreams’,”

“It’s better than golfing or fishing!” laughs Phil Denton. “I enjoy playing live more now than I did back in the 80s. Back then we had something to prove. We were young and wanted to try and make it professional. It was a pressure we were putting on ourselves. It comes across on stage and you can see we enjoy ourselves more now.”

“It’s electric when you’ve got a band with chemistry like the three of us,” says John Gallagher. “We play loud, jump around and have a good time.”

“We’re still moving, looking good and people are turning out in their droves,” adds Robb Weir. “We’re obviously doing something right. The new album is the best thing we’ve ever done and the reviews have been fantastic. I’m 101 per cent confident that we’ll give anyone a good run for their money.”

If there was ever a time when playing in one of these bands seemed like an easy escape from everyday life, the years of living how the other half live has shown the opposite to be true. Playing heavy rock music is what these guys do; the rest is just killing time.

“The only thing I can do is play guitar and write songs,” says Brian Tatler. “Guitar playing’s a skill and I’ve spent years learning it. It’s my craft and it’s what I do best.”

“I’m enjoying it more than I ever have,” enthuses Ian Toomey. “It’s a life experience. I didn’t play my guitars for years and I thought I might as well sell them. I actually put them in their cases and took them downstairs but I couldn’t do it.”

The NWOBHM didn’t wait for orders from headquarters. Gritty, gutsy, feisty and fearless, these bands took metal to the masses one shitty town at a time. In 2008, they’re a living history of a unique period in time. “Music is my life,” concludes Dave Hill. “It’s a great thrill that things written in two minutes in your garage 20 years ago mean so much to so many people. To be greeted by people singing them still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I’ve been stood there in tears. You could give me a million pounds but that moment could not be bettered.”

NWOBHM - A QUICK-FIRE HISTORY

• As a reaction to the various excesses of both punk and prog, a grassroots movement of fledgling UK bands with a determinedly DIY ethic forged a new strain of high-energy metal by stripping away the self-indulgence and pomposity which had dominated the 70s.

• The precise starting point for the NWOBHM is debated, but the May 8 1979 issue of music paper Sounds put the term in the public domain for the first time.

• Both Def Leppard and Samson released singles in 1978 with Iron Maiden and Saxon following suit in 79. Saxon and Samson also issued their debut albums in 79 with Maiden, Leppard, Diamond Head and a host of others hot on their heels in 1980.

• 1980-1982 were the key years and saw the likes of Saxon, Maiden, Leppard, Diamond Head and the Tygers Of Pan Tang achieving considerable UK chart success. Many more including Raven, Angel Witch, Samson, Demon, Praying Mantis, Holocaust, Witchfynde and Tank also rode the wave.

• From Ace Lane to Zorro, the NWOBHM encapsulated well over 400 bands, most releasing at least one single.

• The demise of the NWOBHM is also hotly debated, but by 1983, it had begun a steep decline as its most successful acts went their own way and those left behind struggled vainly to compete with the emerging threat of glam and thrash.

• The 1990 retrospective album NWOBHM ’79 Revisited, compiled by Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and Classic Rock’s Geoff Barton, generated renewed interest in the scene which gained further momentum following the explosion of Internet access.

FIVE OBSCURE BUT WORTHY NWOBHM RELEASES

These hardly get mentioned, but are in some cases are better than the high profile records. Warning: they could set you back a few pence if you wanna buy copies.

CHATEAUX – Chained And Desperate [1983 album]

The cheery Cheltenham chaps had a lot of primitive punch, but also a neat line in massive melodies. This album, their debut, had Steve Grimmett of Grim Reaper on vocals to add a touch of clas. Check out Spirit Of Chateaux here.

DEDRINGER – Sunday Drivers [1980 single]

A real road anthem…well, if you’re from Leeds like this lot. The first single by the Ded’ boys, and it races along with scarcely a look in the rearview mirror. Listen to it here.

TRIARCHY – Save The Khan [1979 single]

A cantankerous caterwaul from Kent, it might have graced a Dio era Rainbow album if the production had been of a more epic nature. But despite a budget that would barely feed an anorexic budgie for two days, there’s a disarming charm about this song. Stream it here.

SARACEN – Heroes, Saints & Fools [1981 album]

The Derbyshire dervishes were influenced by Uriah Heep and Lone Star, and made a brave effort to come up with something of which Magnum could be proud. Studio naivete is very obvious, but it’s on a par with what White Spirit were doing at the time. Listen to the title track here.

SILVERWING - That’s Entertainment [1982 single]

The band who conquered Congleton and slaughtered Sandbach - titles of two official bootlegs - were attempting to emulate Kiss, Angel and Starz. They had the attitude, if not the financial clout, to make their dayglo dreams come true. The B side of this single was Flashbomb Fever, with lyrics by a certain Geoff Barton. Perhaps the greatest song Kiss never quite wrote. Check it out here.