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The 10 best NWOBHM bands, by the man who gave the movement its name

NWOBHM patches
(Image credit: Future)

Who would have thought it? The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal – a mouthful of a term invented on a whim and a prayer by Sounds music weekly; a phrase much more awkward and cumbersome than ‘punk rock’, ‘nu-metal’ and even ‘alt.country’, fer Chrissakes – has stood the test of time. 

Yep, the NWOBHM – as we shall refer to it from here on in; it’s pronounced ‘ner-wobbum’, by the way – has proved to be more long-lasting than an industrial-sized gobstopper, more influential than a battalion of political spin doctors, and more fearsome than a body builder with a bucketful of steroids. 

How did it happen? How did a motley selection of juvenile British longhairs, cheap guitars in their hands and tubes of Clearasil in their back pockets, somehow inspire the formation of modern-day metal titans Metallica

How come NWOBHM originators Iron Maiden are still going strong, and still have the pulling power to headline mega-festivals such as Download? How did Def Leppard learn to thrive and survive, having suffered the traumas of their guitarist Steve Clark dying from heroin addiction and their drummer Rick Allen losing an arm in a road accident? Why, as if one Saxon wasn’t enough in the NWOBHM’s early days, was there a period when there appeared to be two of them? 

To sidestep into reggae-dom for a second (and to paraphrase Johnny Nash), there always are more questions than answers. But one thing’s for sure. At the tail end of the 70s, when it all started going off, this writer would never have predicted that the legacy of the NWOBHM would have turned out to be so significant, so far-reaching and so all-Goddamn-powerful. 

At this point we should give grateful thanks to the phenomenon known as punk rock. Because without punk, there would likely – very likely – have been no NWOBHM. 

Let’s travel back to late 1976 or thereabouts. Babylon is ablaze and a new breed of spiky-barneted, saliva-sputtering yob is causing the conflagration. There is, in short, anarchy in the UK. The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, et al are sweeping the old guard away – and they’re using broomsticks tipped with barbed wire. 

Behemoth supergroups such as Emerson, Lake And Palmer are being consigned to the dumpster. The carcasses of Led Zeppelin and Yes are being pecked at by scavenging crows on the local council tip. Waste containers marked ‘progressive rock albums, please deposit here’ are appearing on street corners alongside glassand newspaper-recycling units. 

No doubt about it, punk rock spat in the face of the establishment and upset old Colonel Blimp living next door. But how, you may ask, did punk provide the inspiration for the NWOBHM? Well, it was the straightforward idea that it was possible for someone – anyone – to pick up a guitar, sit behind some drums, grab a mic, record some Godawful racket and release it without mega-bucks record company backing. 

This struck a chord with thousands of disaffected young rockers. But unfortunately, we’ve only got room for 10 of them here.

Saxon

Classic Line-up: Biff Byford (vocals), Paul Quinn (guitar), Graham Oliver (guitar), Steve ‘Dobby’ Dobson (bass), Pete Gill (drums). 

Saxon made a controversial high-profile return to the public eye this year when they were featured in the programme Get Your Act Together With Harvey Goldsmith on Channel 4. In the show, Goldsmith – the veteran concert promoter and showbiz entrepreneur – attempted to resurrect Saxon’s supposedly ailing career. But to die-hard fans the band’s appeal has never waned at all.

In truth, Biff Byford and his cohorts were relatively old guys even before the NWOBHM began. After years in the South Yorskhire wilderness labouring under the moniker of Son Of A Bitch, the renamed band burst forth in big-teasing style from Barnsley in 1979. 

Saxon’s self-titled debut album was issued that year but – like that legendary 747 – their career really took off with the release of the follow-up, the still-magnificent Wheels Of Steel, in 1980. 

Saxon played the inaugural Castle Donington Monsters Of Rock Festival and composed the song And The Bands Played On in celebration. Albums such as ’81’s Denim And Leather continued to strike massive chords with the UK rock fraternity. That’s ‘chords’ as in ‘powerchords’, natch. But things had to go pear-shaped eventually; and they did so with the dreadful Crusader album in 1984. 

Saxon toured with a balsa-wood castle stage set to promote the record and for the first time, people chuckled rather than cheered. With Byford looking a little like Saruman The White out of Lord Of The Rings these days, and with guitarist Paul Quinn having at long last eschewed his syrup for a headscarf, Saxon are still alive, touring and making records. 

Recommended album: Wheels Of Steel (Carrere, 1980)


Iron Maiden

Classic Line-up: Bruce Dickinson (vocals), Dave Murray (guitar), Adrian Smith (guitar), Steve Harris (bass), Clive Burr (drums). 

Maiden’s history has been so well documented it seems pointless to try and boil it down into a pithy sentence or two. Gypsy’s Kiss, Smiler, Ruskin Arms, Neal Kay, The Soundhouse Tapes, Rod Smallwood, record deal with EMI… it’s all part of a familiar, wildly successful tale. 

This writer has great affection for Maiden’s early lineup with Paul Di’Anno on vocals when they plied their trade as an aggressive punk-metal band. But to succeed around the world, the Irons really did need that one-man air-raid siren known as Bruce Dickinson, in tandem with an increasingly overblown, theatrical approach to their live shows. 

Like Def Leppard, Iron Maiden became a massive act with global appeal. They remain one of the mainstays of the NWOBHM. The return of vocalist Dickinson to the band in 1999 (replacing Wolfsbane man Blaze Bayley, whose best shot wasn’t quite good enough) gave Maiden renewed international impetus. 

The great thing about Maiden is that they’ve always stayed true to their cause and have rarely, if ever, been forced to compromise. 

Recommended album: The Number Of The Beast (EMI, 1982)


Vardis

Classic Line-up: Steve Zodiac (guitar, vocals), Alan Selway (bass), Gary Pearson (drums).

Vardis were a boogie-tinged power trio from Wakefield fronted by six-string maniac Steve Zodiac, who took his name from the lead character in the Gerry Anderson puppet show, Fireball XL5. The band hit the ground running with the hyperactive 100MPH single in 1979 – a pristine copy is now worth a cool £500! 

Zodiac himself gained a degree of notoriety due to his resemblance to Johnny Winter and his penchant for playing barefoot. Never a band to let a good song get in the way of a blistering guitar solo, Vardis signed to Logo Records and released three albums: 100MPH, The World’s Insane and Quo Vardis, by which time they had lost all sense of direction and were utilising instruments such as saxophone and piano. 

The latter release was Vardis’s last for Logo; two more albums followed in 1983 (The Lion’s Share) and 1986 (Vigilante) and then it all went quiet until an unexpected sixth album, Red Eye, arrived in 2016. 

Recommended album: 100 MPH (Logo, 1980)


Raven

Classic Line-up: Mark Gallagher (guitar), John Gallagher (bass/vocals), Rob ‘Wacko’ Hunter (drums). 

Raven were the self-proclaimed hyperactive bastions of ‘athletic rock’. Debut single Don’t Need Your Money was a pulsating rock’n’roll nugget packed into tight Lycra shorts, and the song’s a capella section – “Don’t want no rich fat daddy trying to change my life when I just want to relax” – was a genius touch. 

After a series of similarly manic releases on Neat Records, Raven tied up with US label Megaforce and then signed to Atlantic – but like many NWOBHM acts, a major label deal was to be the band’s undoing as they misguidedly adopted a more mainstream approach. 

Raven made several brave attempts to crack the American market (Metallica being an early support act of theirs) and they even went so far as to hire out Judas Priest’s Screaming For Vengeance stage set for a US tour in the mid-80s. 

After a fair time spent floundering, founder members the Gallagher brothers returned to basics with Pentagram’s Joe Hasselvander replacing the semi-legendary Rob ‘Wacko’ Hunter on drums in 1987. Hasselvander suffered a heart attack in 2017 and was replaced by Fear Factory drummer Mike Heller. A new album, Metal City, is due in September.

Recommended album: Rock Until You Drop (Neat, 1981)


Diamond Head

Classic Line-up: Sean Harris (vocals), Brian Tatler (guitar), Colin Kimberley (bass), Duncan Scott (drums). 

Touted as the biggest prospect in heavy rock since Led Zeppelin, seeing Diamond Head live inspired a budding Danish drummer called Lars Ulrich to form a certain band called Metallica

When this writer first met Diamond Head in 1979 the band members’ average age was just 19. Nevertheless they had a wealth of mature – but far from mellow – material that belied their tender years. Riff-heavy songs such as Am I Evil? were as monstrous as they were magnificent. For a while Diamond Head were the jewel in the NWOBHM’s crown, and the band secured an MCA contract in 1981. 

Despite a creditable start with Borrowed Time, Canterbury, Diamond Head’s second album for the label, was overly ambitious and they lost momentum. The band broke up in 1985, guitarist Brian Tatler going on to form Radio Moscow and singer Sean Harris linking up with guitarist Robin George for the short-lived Notorious project. 

After the release of their 1993 comeback album, Death And Progress, the band were invited to open a huge Metallica show at Milton Keynes Bowl. But any prospect of a revival was blighted by Harris’s decision to appear on stage at the Bowl fancy-dressed as the Grim Reaper. Nevertheless DH are still active and their latest album, The Coffin Train, featuring vocalist Rasmus Bom Andersen, was released last year. 

Recommended album: Lightning To The Nations (DHM, 1980)


Praying Mantis

Classic Line-up: Tino Troy (guitar/ vocals), Bob ‘Angelo’ Sawyer (guitar/ vocals), Chris Troy (bass/vocals), ‘Handsome’ Mick Ransome (drums). 

It’s been tough choosing the candidates for this NWOBHM round-up. In truth it could’ve gone to any one of many deserving candidates: Fist, Witchfynde, Girl, Mythra, Jaguar, Silverwing, Paralex, Sledgehammer, Gaskin, Trespass, Blitzkrieg, Hollow Ground, Sweet Savage, Witchfinder General, Holocaust… the list goes on. And on. The NWOBHM was an extraordinarily fertile period in British rock history. We shall probably never see its like ever again. 

Praying Mantis were always at the more tuneful end of the NWOBHM. They played sophisticated US-style melodic rock and have one all-time classic song to their name: the spectacular and evocative Captured City. You can find the best of many versions of the track on the 1980 NWOBHM compilation Metal For Muthas Vol 1

The band briefly attracted the attention of mega American manager Peter Mensch, but he opted to sign up Def Leppard instead. Nevertheless Mantis nabbed a major deal with Arista and released their debut album, Time Tells No Lies, in 1981. 

After a chequered career, and a short-lived label-shift to Jet Records, the core of the band linked up with ex-Iron Maiden drummer Clive Burr’s Escape (later known as Stratus). However the Praying Mantis name was revived for some celebratory NWOBHM shows in Japan and the core of the band – the Troy brothers, Tino and Chris – are still plying their trade today. Their most recent album is 2018’s Gravity. 

Recommended album: Time Tells No Lies (Arista, 1981)


Def Leppard

Classic Line-up: Joe Elliott (vocals), Steve Clark (guitar), Phil Collen (guitar), Rick Savage (bass), Rick Allen (drums). 

Backtrack to a bloody long time ago. After much phone-call badgering, Leppard vocalist Joe Elliott enticed this writer up to his (that Elliott’s, not mine) hometown of Sheffield in June 1979. Elliott met me at the train station in a white Ford Escort van and drove me to see a formative Def gig at the exotic Crookes Workingmen’s Club in Mulehouse Road. 

I was immediately bowled over by this young band; they put on a hugely impressive performance for the cap-wearing, ferret-bothering crowd. A subsequent double-page feature in Sounds music weekly (plus other factors, such as strong support from local station Radio Hallam) helped secure Leppard a contract with Phonogram. 

The band’s debut for the label’s Vertigo imprint, the Wasted single, was released in November 1979; it superseded a three-track EP on their own Bludgeon Riffola label earlier in the year. 

What happened next? Megastardom, pure and simple – although tinged with tragedy (the death of guitarist Steve Clark) and trauma (drummer Rick Allen losing an arm in a car crash) along the way. 

In truth, once producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange got behind the controls for 1981’s High ’N’ Dry album there was no stopping the Def-sters. Lange’s final significant outing with the band was 1992’s Adrenalize. Credited as executive producer (with the day-to-day production being handled by Mike Shipley), Lange inspired a No.1 album on both sides of the Atlantic. 

It’s true to say that, following Lange’s departure for production pastures new, Leppard’s career went into a slow but steady decline – although as a live attraction they remain second to none. On the 1996 album Slang the band made an ill-advised attempt to modernise their sound, so they brought back Lange to help out in a limited capacity on 1999’s Euphoria

They tried again on 2008's Songs From The Sparkle Lounge before scheduling conflicts scuppered the partnership, but 2015's Lange-less self-titled album showed they could make it work without the Mutt-man. 

Recommended album: Hysteria (Vertigo, 1987)


Tygers Of Pan Tang

Classic Line-up: Jess Cox (vocals), Robb Weir (guitar), Rocky Laws (bass), Brian ‘Big’ Dick (drums)

The Tygers were named after a band of warriors in Stormbringer, a book by science-fantasy scribbler Michael Moorcock. They began working the north-east heavy metal circuit in 1978 and soon signed to Wallsend-based Neat Records. Their single Don’t Touch Me There (catalogue number Neat 03) was the very first of a host of essential metal releases on the influential indie label. 

The Tygers signed to MCA but singer Jess Cox was ousted after the raw-sounding Wild Cat album. Jon Deverill (ex-Persian Risk) was brought in for the slicker Spellbound, which also featured a young John Sykes on guitar, later of Thin Lizzy, Whitesnake and Blue Murder. 

The Tygers tried to adopt a more mainstream, pop-metal sound on subsequent releases and it proved to be the wrong approach. They called it a day in 1987 after the release of Burning In The Shade

Like many of the old NWOBHM bands, the Tygers are still in existence today, albeit with a radically different line-up to the original one. Guitarist Robb Weir is the only surviving founder member and the band even have an Italian vocalist, one Jacopo Meille. The band's most recent album, Ritual, came out in 2017.

Recommended album: Wild Cat (MCA, 1980)


Samson

Classic Line-up: Bruce Dickinson (vocals), Paul Samson (guitar), Chris Aylmer (bass), Thunderstick (drums). 

Samson released arguably the first ever NWOBHM single: 1978’s Telephone b/w Leaving You, now a much-sought-after collectors’ item. After time spent as a workaday blues-rock-oriented three-piece with Clive Burr on drums, the band caused a ripple of controversy by replacing Burr with Barry ‘Thunderstick’ Graham, who had a penchant for wearing a rubber rapist’s mask on stage. 

Later they acquired the services of singer Bruce Bruce and recorded the fine Survivors album. Bruce Bruce, of course, soon became known as the more familiar Bruce Dickinson. Samson’s career was building nicely but it stalled alarmingly when Dickinson was nabbed by Iron Maiden as the replacement for Paul Di’Anno. 

Despite the valiant efforts of Dickinson’s successor, Nicky Moore, Samson’s time in the limelight began to fade. Band leader, guitarist Paul Samson kept plugging away and involved himself in a wide variety of projects, regularly resurrecting the Samson band name along the way, before his untimely death due to cancer in August 2002. He was only 49. Further tragedy was to follow: Samson bassist Chris Aylmer died in 2007 following a battle with throat cancer. 

Recommended album: Head On (Gem, 1980)


Venom

Classic Line-up: Cronos (bass/vocals), Mantas (guitar), Abaddon (drums). 

Probably the most influential NWOBHM band of them all, Venom unwittingly created the genre of music known as black metal. Probably death metal as well. Maybe even thrash metal. But probably not prog rock. And definitely not AOR. 

When Venom’s debut single In League With Satan hit the streets in 1981, it did so with the sickening force of a coked-up city trader plummeting from the top of Canary Wharf tower. ‘Venom are totally corrupt,’ ran the review in Sounds music weekly. ‘This piece of demon-riddled canker makes the best listening… since Iron Man by Black Sabbath.’ 

Venom went on to greater glory before a massive falling out between the original trio of Cronos, Mantas and Abaddon put the mockers on proceedings. Tony ‘The Demolition Man’ Dolan was brought in to fill Cronos’s festering Doc Martens for a while. The founder members made various half-hearted reunion attempts but no one could ever see eye to eye. 

In 2006 Cronos returned with his brother Antton on drums and Mykvs on guitar, and released a new Venom album Metal Black. A further line-up change complicated things further before Stuart "La Rage" Dixon and Danny "Dante" Needham arrived to settle things down again, with 2018's Storm the Gates the most recent in a run of four albums featuring the same trio.

But life is never simple. In 2015, in the other black corner, former members Mantas and Demolition Man hooked up with Abaddon to form Venom Inc., who released their debut album Avé in 2017. Abaddon left the following year.  

Recommended album: Black Metal (Neat, 1982)