1988: Thrash It Up!

A while back I posted a piece here about the live album phenomenon of the late 70’s, specifically the amazing fact that during the 12-months between January 1978 and January 1979, no less than ten notable Hard Rock/Heavy Metal bands released live albums. I declared 1978 the ‘Year of the Gatefold’, as during that time period, it was impossible to walk through a record store without tripping over a double live LP. Well, my friends, I’m about to make another declaration: I hereby declare that within the Thrash Metal genre, 1988 shall henceforth be known as: ‘The Year of the Cover Version.’

 

The phenomenon we’ll explore here didn’t make quite the impact that that live album cluster did, as it occurred within a relatively new sub-genre of rock music: Thrash Metal. By 1987, Thrash Metal was breaking out of the underground and into the Heavy Metal mainstream, pushed forward by the massive success of Metallica and their ‘Master of Puppets’ album, and the anointing of Thrash Metal’s ‘Big Four’, Metallica/Slayer/Anthrax/Megadeth as Thrash’s standard bearers. And as Thrash began to break out into the mainstream of Metal, an interesting phenomenon occurred: Virtually EVERY Thrash band of note released a cover version between January 1988 and January 1989, tallying almost TWENTY covers that year.
First, let’s go back a few years. Metal bands have recorded covers since the very beginning of the genre; the debut albums from both Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer, two records generally credited with birthing Heavy Metal, contained covers. This move is useful for several reasons; perhaps a band was short on songs, or maybe they had an interesting take on someone else’s material. Or… maybe the record company felt they had a chance at getting the band some extra attention (or airplay) with a cover of an established song. No doubt, covers have featured on Hard Rock and Metal records throughout it’s long history.
Now let’s look at Iron Maiden, one of the biggest bands to emerge from the NWOBHM. For Maiden, recording covers was an opportunity to celebrate their heroes, and they began recording covers for the B-sides of their singles during their ‘Piece of Mind’ sessions in 1983. Maiden were paying tribute to their influences, putting a NWOBHM spin on some choice ’70s hard rock and prog songs while also educating their fans on some of the music that inspired the band. They continued this practice for the next 25 years.
Now we’ll skip ahead just a few years to 1984, when several emerging Thrash Metal bands included covers on their debut albums. NY’s Anthrax included a cover of Alice Cooper’s ‘I’m Eighteen’ on their 1984 debut. Metal Church’s ’84 debut included their version of Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star’. And in 1985, New Jersey’s Overkill included ‘Sonic Reducer’ by the Dead Boys on their debut. At year’s end, Metallica stood as the emerging genre’s leaders, and were very much following the Maiden template toward runaway success. When they released their ‘Creeping Death’ single in November, they backed it with two covers: ‘Blitzkrieg’ by Blitzkrieg and ‘Am I Evil?’ by Diamond Head. As with Iron Maiden, the practice of using covers for B-sides became the norm with Metallica for decades.
After Metallica’s next release, ‘Master of Puppets’ was certified Gold without the aid of radio play or an MTv video, every record company wanted their very own Metallica. A feeding frenzy ensued, with labels the world over snapping up any band wearing bullet belts and denim vests. And so second and third tiers were established within the Thrash genre, with Metallica leading the way, and the rest of the aforementioned ‘Big Four’ following close behind. And where Metallica went, the rest of the movement followed…
Metallica’s ‘The $5.98 E.P.’ firmly established the recording of covers as a standard practice for Thrash bands. The E.P. was comprised of thrashed-up renditions of other bands’ material, and the record once again served as a tribute to the band’s early influences. But because much of the material covered was unknown to a large portion of the band’s fan base, it worked as fresh Metallica material while the band continued to get their shit together after the tragic loss of their friend and bassist Cliff Burton. And, having reached #28 on the Billboard charts, the record was a ‘hit’. Now, for all record labels and bands within the rapidly evolving Thrash universe, there was another reason why recording a cover version was a good idea: Metallica did it.
Which brings us to 1988. Thrash was now a firmly established Heavy Metal sub-genre, and Metallica was arguably the biggest/hottest band in Metal. The bands following in their wake wasted no time in following the example Metallica had set the previous year with ‘5.98’. Thrash’s ‘Year of the Cover’ kicked off in January with Megadeth’s cover of the Sex Pistols’ punk anthem ‘Anarchy in the UK’ in January, which was also the lead-off single released from the band’s third album ‘So Far, So Good… So What!?’ Just as an aside: when the first single is a cover, it may be an indication that the band/label is lacking confidence in the strength of the original material on the album…
Second tier (third?) Thrash band Death Angel recorded a cover of Kiss’ ‘Cold Gin’ for their sophomore effort ‘Frolic Through the Park’, released in March of ’88. It’s a little goofy, but not completely out of place on an album that also includes the ultra-goofy ‘I’m Bored’. As a young thrasher myself, I was of the opinion that this kind of throwaway filler was perfectly fine as a B-side (see: Anthrax, Maiden. Metallica), but as an album track, I felt it was a waste of space. I wanted to hear another original, not junk like this.
May of ’88 brought us two covers: Testament delivered a version of Aerosmith’s ‘Nobody’s Fault’, and Flotsam & Jetsam rolled out Elton John’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fightin’. Okay, I can believe that Aerosmith was an influence on Testament, and their take on ‘Fault’, a contender for A-smith’s heaviest song, is solid. But it’s more than a bit of a stretch that The Flots were inspired by the music of Sir Elton. But hey, what do I know. A great song is a great song, but Flotsam seem to be playing this one for laughs. Sadly, I see this one as yet another wasted album track.
Nuclear Assault’s second offering, ‘Survive’ was released in June, and ended with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Good Times, Bad Times’. The Nukes wisely decided to place the song at the end of the album’s running order, so it doesn’t feel like an intrusion, but on an album with a run-time of 30:15, another original song (or two (or three)) would have been more than welcome. The song was released as a single along with some live stuff, and another ‘cover’, their version of the theme from the ‘Happy Days’ TV show, which amounts to a never-ending three minutes of awful. Sadly, both of these covers are throwaway tracks.
I feel compelled to introduce the term ‘sophomore slump’ here; it refers to the phenomenon where a band has years to write the songs for their debut, but only months to put together songs for their second, almost guaranteeing that record #2 would be short on high quality material. That said, four of the last five covers outlined above appear on each band’s sophomore album; not as B-sides, but as album tracks. Just sayin’.
Voivod concealed a short but suitably skewed take on the ‘Batman’ theme at the end of their ‘Dimension Hatross’ album in June. At 1:14, does this count this as a ‘Thrash ’88’ cover? Sure. Coming out of nowhere after the listed songs end, it’s neither an album track nor a B-side; it’s an enigma… just like Voivod. A month later, Slayer placed their take on Judas Priest’s ‘Dissident Aggressor’ on their ‘South of Heaven’ album. Vocal concessions are made, but otherwise Slayer play it straight, and illustrate just how far ahead of it’s time this song was. It’s a rare example of a ‘Thrash ’88’ cover that actually works exceedingly well as an album track; fitting into the context of the album around it perfectly and complimenting the album as a whole. Bravo!
Metallica gave us two more killer covers in August: ‘Breadfan’, their second Budgie cover, and their third Diamond Head cover, ‘The Prince’. I myself was not a fan of Metallica’s ‘…And Justice for All’ album, but I loved these two recordings; basically anytime Budgie gets props, I’m thrilled, and also there’s a couple of bass guitar breaks in ‘The Prince’, and you can actually hear the bass! Truth be told, I’ve actually enjoyed Metallica’s covers more than their originals since the ‘$5.98 E.P.’, what can I tell ya.
In September, Anthrax released three covers, and one of them became arguably their biggest song. ‘Antisocial’, originally by the French band Trust, was recorded as an album track on fourth album ‘Sate of Euphoria’, and became that record’s second single. Arguably, ‘Antisocial’ was the song that broke Anthrax through to the Metal mainstream, but the lion’s share of the credit goes to Trust, as the song is simple, melodic, and catchy, with a chant-worthy chorus. During the later third of ’88, the video for the song (highlighting Anthrax’s …questionable wardrobe choices during that era) was all over MTv’s Headbanger’s Ball show, and the single even crept onto the UK singles charts, peaking at #44.
The two B-sides to the ‘Antisocial’ single were a cover of the Kiss klassic ‘Parasite’, and yet another Trust song, ‘Le Sects’. The Kiss cover is fun, but where ‘Antisocial’ translated exceptionally well into the Anthrax attack, ‘Le Sects’, not so much. The dark, angry lyrics about Jim Jones and mass suicide clashed with Joey Belladonna’s vocal approach; try as he might, Joey just cannot sound convincingly angry and mean. Best that this one was relegated to a B-side.
October brought us Sacred Reich’s sophomore (!) release, the ‘Surf Nicaragua’ E.P., and a cover of Black Sabbath’s epic ‘War Pigs’. Thankfully, it’s a sturdy take on a absolute classic, and the drums in particular are nuts, but I was glad this showed up on an E.P., rather than taking up over six minutes on an album proper. The E.P.’s title track contains brief snippets of ‘Wipe Out’ and the ‘Hawaii Five-O’ theme, but we’re not gonna include that song on this list, as we have to have some standards in place, don’t we?

 

Original Bay Area Thrashers Exodus were a little late to the party, but just made this list with a pair of covers recorded for their ‘Fabulous Disaster’ album, released on January 30th of 1989. Their version of War’s ‘Low Rider’ made the album (it shouldn’t have), while their take on AC/DC’s ‘Overdose’ was used as a bonus track later on. ‘Overdose’ works well, as Zetro’s voice exhibits a strange similarity to Bon Scott’s, and the band lay back in the ‘DC groove and really crunch it up. If a cover needed to appear on ‘Fabulous Disaster’, it should have been this one, with the cheesy ‘Low Rider’ relegated to ‘bonus track’ status.
Now then! Let’s do the math: SIXTEEN covers in just over a year! In the relatively small stable of bands inhabiting the Thrash genre, this is a ridiculously large number, and certainly qualifies as a phenomenon. Again, covers have always featured in Rock and Metal music, but this was something more: clearly, in Thrashworld, recording covers were not merely an option, it was a requirement. Simply put, Metallica were blazing a trail to major mainstream success, and their peers were following the path very closely.
I’m thinking this list would make a pretty cool mixtape/CD comp/playlist; this pile of tunes is a very mixed bag, a bit uneven in consistency and quality, but gathering them together provides a snapshot of a brief but curiously interesting period in Thrash Metal’s evolution. Oh! And if you want to add a few bonus tracks for that imaginary CD comp, we need only look to the burgeoning German Thrash movement, and include Kreator’s slamming interpretation of Raven’s ‘Lambs to the Slaughter’ from their ‘Out of the Dark…’ E.P., and Sodom’s ‘Mortal Way of Live’ album for their live cover of Motorhead’s ‘Iron Fist’… which would then bring our total to EIGHTEEN covers by Thrash bands of note between January 1988 and January ’89. Wow.
Interesting side notes: Iron Maiden actually covered themselves in 1988; re-recordings of both ‘Prowler’ and ‘Charlotte the Harlot’ appeared on the B-side of their ‘The Evil That Men Do’ single. As Maiden were not a Thrash band, we won’t include them in our overall tally here, although Maiden themselves certainly racked up a slew of covers over the years. If you include those two self-covers, plus versions of ZZ Top’s ‘Tush’ and Thin Lizzy’s ‘Angel of Death’ that were recorded for B-sides during the ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ cycle, but never used, Maiden’s cover count totals a whopping 23. Metallica still has them beat, with a running total of 32 covers. But the undisputed kings of the cover are Anthrax, who have cranked out a grand total of 42 (forty-two!) covers.

 

So far.

Crazy Like a Tyger

When Jess Cox had just quit his gig as guitarist with Wild Willie and the Werewolves, he had no idea that in just a few short months he would be the lead vocalist on a UK Top 20 album. The British music press was hyping a new ‘phenomenon’ they dubbed the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, or NWOBHM for short, and Cox’s new band, the Tygers of Pan Tang, had been swept up into the whirlwind and signed to a major label. Suddenly Jess Cox was a pop star. Hopefully he savored every moment…

Tygers Of Pan Tang - Wild Cat

…Because for Cox, fame was fleeting. Cox was fired in 1981 before he could record a second record with the Tygers, and was replaced by someone who could actually sing. Truth be told, Cox was a godawful vocalist, with a severely limited range, who talk-sang his way through the Tygers’ debut album ‘Wildcat’. Cox’s voice is somehow endearing in all its limitations, and the record did become among the highest charting NWOBHM debut albums (‘Wildcat’ peaked at #18; Iron Maiden beat the Tygers by reaching #4; Angel Witch’s debut, held in much higher regard than the Tygers’, peaked at number 88 that same year). But presumably the band and/or MCA wanted more.

Cox went on to form Lionheart with Dennis Stratton (ex-Iron Maiden) and Frank Noon (ex-Def Leppard). Due to the recent history of most of its members, Lionheart was billed as a NWOBHM supergroup. Perhaps this was a bit of an overstatement, as the band, in its original form, lasted exactly one gig. Lionheart’s 1981 debut performance at the Marquee in London was a disaster. The press absolutely destroyed Cox the following day, and, once again, he was fired and replaced by a proper vocalist. After one gig. He was that bad.

In 1983, Cox returned once again with the boldly-named Jess Cox Band, who released 2 (terrible) singles and one (awful) LP for Neat Records. Neat had released the Tygers’ debut recording in 1979, a 3-song E.P. that is widely acknowledged to be the very first NWOBHM release. Neat Records was NWOBHM’s ground zero, a hugely important element in the origins and development of the genre. Beyond the Tygers’ first release, Many pivotal NWOBHM singles were released on Neat by Venom, Raven, Jaguar, Blitzkrieg, Fist, Persian Risk and many others. It made perfect sense that Cox had found a home at Neat.

raven-dont-need-your-money-1980

But that’s not all he found. After a short-lived attempt at starting a band with ToPT guitarist Rob Weir (Tyger Tyger) went nowhere, Cox retreated from performing completely. But not from the music business… After attending college, Cox planned to become a music journalist, and in 1987 went down to the old familiar Neat offices to interview the new owner of the label. Cox was offered a job as a press agent for Neat, and accepted, and over the next few years, he dedicated himself to learning how the business worked. By 1992, Jess Cox was co-owner of Neat Records.

By the early 90’s, Neat had followed America’s lead and moved into more commercial areas of hard rock. Cox was determined to bring the label back as a heavy metal force, and scoured the Neat archives for unreleased material to jumpstart a new offshoot, owned by Cox himself, called Neat Metal. Unreleased albums by Blitzkrieg, Cronos and Nasty Savage were languishing in the Neat vaults, and Cox polished them up and released them on his new label. Neat Metal also signed (or re-signed) some of the bands that had been part of the NWOBHM heyday, like Holocaust, Savage, and Shy.

Cox continued to expand his own brands, while the original Neat wavered near bankruptcy. He started a black metal label, and a label set up specifically to release archival material from the Tygers of Pan Tang, all the while financially propping-up Neat. All of Cox’s labels were doing better than Neat proper, of which he still co-owner. Cox and his partner finally opted to split up and sell the failing Neat to Sanctuary Records in 1995. Cox retained ownership of all of the labels that he himself had started. The Sanctuary deal sealed it: Cox had reinvented himself as an independent label mogul.

Jess Cox’s true masterstroke, though, was gradually positioning himself into a position to control many of the movement’s most historically important properties. While doing so, he was able to purchase exclusive rights to the entire catalogue by the Scottish NWOBHM band Holocaust. This move turned out to be one of Cox’s biggest triumphs. Why? A Scottish band known only to only the most hardcore NWOBHM aficionados, Holocaust has nonetheless cemented its place in heavy metal history, not through the quality of their records but rather through one of the bands they influenced: Metallica.

HOLOCAUST-Live-Hot-Curry-Wine-LP-7-LTD-BLACK_b2

In 1987, Metallica covered a track from Holocaust’s 1983 album ‘Live — Hot Curry and Wine’ entitled ‘The Small Hours’ on their ‘The $5.98 E.P.’ Metallica were on the brink of becoming the biggest band on Earth, and every move they made influenced legions of rock fans and other bands worldwide. Cliff Burton alone was responsible for sparking international interest in obscure comic book punk band the Misfits, and thereby providing lead singer Glenn Danzig his entire post-Misfits career, just by appearing in photos wearing Misfits T-shirts. Several bands benefitted from the exposure a Metallica cover version afforded. However, while any Holocaust records still in print probably would have enjoyed an upsurge in sales after Metallica’s E.P. hit, there were no records to be found, and the band’s tiny, self-run label wasn’t able to capitalize on any of the hoopla. When Jess Cox picked up the rights to the Holocaust catalogue, which he purchased “for a few hundred pounds”, the Metallica ship had sailed, and the property was considered worthless.

By 1998, Metallica are the biggest band on Earth. Their ‘5.98 E.P.’, out of print for years, was revamped and expanded into a 2-CD release called ‘Garage Inc.’ ‘Garage Inc.’ hit #2 in the Billboard Hot 100, eventually selling 6 million copies (the original E.P had only sold 1 million copies before falling out of print). Not only did the new version include Holocaust’s ‘The Small Hours’, but also ‘Blitzkrieg’, originally recorded by Neat alums Blitzkrieg, which Metallica had covered in 1984. This time someone was able to reap the benefits of Metallica’s magic touch: Jess Cox, sole owner of Blitzkrieg’s current label, and sole owner of the Holocaust catalogue. When Cox was quoted in the early 2,000s as having made “a quarter of a million pounds” on the Holocaust acquisition, he was referring to the ‘Metallica Effect’. I’m betting all of those bad reviews from the NWOBHM era are a bit easier for Cox to read nowadays.

Today, Cox has consolidated his labels under the Metal Nation banner, and continues to capitalize on his NWOBHM properties. Jess Cox’s main strength was always his belief in the music of the bands who made up the NWOBHM. After all, he was once IN one.

tygersband

*Disclaimers:

1. I love the Tyger’s debut album, ‘Wildcat’. Coming across as a rough and tumble combo of Status Quo and Sweet, it’s packed with all the youthful exuberance and punk rock energy of the best of the NWOBHM. It’s the only Tygers album I own (everything after this was too polished; too generic), and I consider it to be one of the 3 best debut albums of the NWOBHM.

2. I love the vocals of Jess Cox. When held to ‘rock singer’ standards, Cox fails completely, but his voice has a street-level, average Joe appeal that’s both awkward and charming. Unique and instantly recognizable, Cox’s tuneless drone fit the post-punk, garage-y feel of the Tyger’s early music perfectly. That all adds up to awesome in my book.