Meanwhile, Back in the States…

Iron Maiden. Angel Witch. Tygers of Pan Tang. Saxon. Def Leppard. All great bands. Each contributed at least one genre-defining album to the NWOBHM, a movement that revived and revitalized the lifeless carcass of Heavy Metal after the Punk Rock explosion near the end of the ’70s. Or… were they simply in the right place at the right time?

“NWOBHM was a fiction, really, an invention of Geoff Barton and Sounds. It was a cunning ruse to boost circulation. Having said that, it did represent a lot of bands that were utterly ignored by the mainstream media. Because of that it became real and people got behind it.”
-Bruce Dickinson

Time and place were crucial, as the media-driven music culture of the UK was waiting for the next ‘thing’ after the Punk furor died out in just a few short years (when the look and sound of Punk became a ‘look’ and a ‘sound’, it was already over). So a random sampling of new (and unsigned) Brit metal bands were exposed to the general public in one of the biggest music weeklies on the continent, and a new musical movement was born. Of course, Metal bands had been forming and breaking up all over the world, as they had been for a decade… just not under the white hot spotlight of the British music press.72de789a455668f93acea7ac5ac4cf12

At the same time in America, Circus Magazine published an article entitled ‘Will Heavy Metal Survive the 70’s?’, while Creem Magazine had basically declared Heavy Metal dead just by asking the question, ‘Is Heavy Metal Dead?’ on the cover of their October ’79 issue. Having not yet been clued into the burgeoning NWOBHM, Circus and CREEM surveyed the post-Punk Metal landscape and found it wanting. Zeppelin, Sabbath and Purple were all MIA, and the ‘second wave’ of mostly U.S. bands had just dropped a bunch of duds: Aerosmith with ‘Night in the Ruts’, BOC’s ‘Mirrors’, KISS’ ‘Dynasty’, Nugent’s ‘Weekend Warriors’. Something needed to happen, and quickly… Enter the NWOBHM.

According to the popular media on both sides of the Atlantic, it would appear that the NWOBHM really did save HM. And once the press got the ball rolling, it seemed like something exciting was once again happening in the UK. Young metal bands with a new streamlined sound were popping up all over Britain, breathing life into a tired genre. The US Rock press jumped on board in 1980, further validating the movement as a legit musical phenomenon. NOWBHM bands got some US print exposure, and the young British bands started to gain some notoriety across the pond. Metal’s UK resurgence went global. Day: Saved.

But did it actually need saving? As mentioned previously, most established U.S. stadium-fillers were experiencing a serious slump, although Van Halen and Rush managed to put out successful albums during the NWOBHM years. Where these two bands strong enough to carry the American fire? Was there nothing else metallic happening in the good ole’ USA between 1979 and 1981?

To answer that question, we have to duck under the radar just a bit, and also widen the net to include Canada. Yes, several classic albums (and some worthy obscurities) came out of while the NWOetc monopolized Metal Nation’s attention. Most of these North American bands endured the Punk Era only to find that everyone’s attention had instantly shifted to the UK Metal scene, so let’s all pause for a few to pay them a little attention.

Here ya go: a run-down of 12 notable records released by North American bands during the NWOBHM that you may have missed, by year:

Sammy Hagar / Street Machine 1979
After searching for a solid direction on his first 3 post-Montrose solo albums, Hagar becomes the Red Rocker for real on his 4th studio album ‘Street Machine’. What took him so long? Hagar and band kick into high gear with a set of all-original material (his previous solo efforts were peppered with covers) that showcase his guitar playing, his amazing band, and his ballsy R n’ R attitude. Hagar was clearly on a mission here, as ‘Street Machine’ was the first album of material written and produced solely by Sammy himself. ‘Trans Am (Highway Wonderland)’ and ‘This Planet’s on Fire (Burn in Hell)’ are highlights. Hagar would do one more record in this direction (1980’s uneven ‘Danger Zone’) before signing with Geffen and becoming an AOR star.

St. Paradise 1979mi0003247544
Put Denny Carmassi, drummer on all 4 Montrose albums and 2 of Sammy Hagar’s solo records, together with Derek St Homes and Bob Grange, half of the band that made Ted Nugent’s first 3 albums, and what do you get? Well… With John Corey on keyboards, this ‘supergroup’ signed to Warner Bros. and recorded a classy, radio-friendly hard rock record… at the worst possible time. It was great to hear St Homes’ voice again (guy should have been a mega-star) and this record is far better than the Whitford/St Homes album from 1981; but nothing, and I mean nothing happened, and the band barely lasted one year. Curiously includes a ‘cover’ of Nugent’s ‘Live it Up’, a song that St. Holmes co-wrote and sang for Ted’s ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ album in 1977. ‘St. Paradise’ is hard to find but worth it.

Pat Travers Band / Live! Go For What You Know 1979
Canadian Pat Travers solidified his backing band in 1977, adding Tommy Aldridge and Pat Thrall, and hit paydirt with the essential ‘Heat in the Street’ in ’78. For ‘Live! Go for What You Know’, recorded in the US during the ‘Heat’ tour, Travers changed his moniker to ‘The Pat Travers Band’, and rightly so; this line-up kicks serious ass. Thrall and Travers were a match made in heaven, raising the late-70s shred game by several notches, all the while backed by a rhythm section unparalleled in 70s Hard Rock. Wisely held to a single album of faves from Travers’ 4 studio albums, it’s a tight, powerful statement by a band that must have been an intimidating opening act. Non-single ‘Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)’ was a welcome blast of amped-up axework on American radio during the summer of 1979.

The Rods/ Rock Hard 1980rods-the-rock-hard
The Rods were a scrappy 3-piece from NYC who played hard-as-nails, meat and potatoes street metal, with the occasional harmony vocal and catchy chorus. In 1980, the band put together some demos and self-released their first LP ‘Rock Hard’, limited to 1,000 copies. Packed with simple, driving hard rock, with bar band chops and dum-dum lyrics, ‘Rock Hard’, um… rocks hard. This is what we’d always hoped the Godz sounded like. (Godz/Rods? Hmmm…) ‘Rock Hard’ was an underground hit, and was picked up by Arista, remixed, re-sequenced and re-released with a Ramones-like cover pic in 1981 as ‘The Rods’. Guitarist/vocalist David ‘Rock’ Feinstein is the cousin of one Ronald Padavona, and played on the first Elf album in 1974.

Gamma / Gamma 2 1980
Montrose (the band) ended after two mediocre post-Hagar records, and after releasing an excellent instrumental solo album (‘Open Fire’), Ronnie Montrose updated his sound with a new band: Gamma. Featuring the very latest in synthesizer technology, Gamma sounded hi-tech and thoroughly modern. Montrose’s guitar sound and playing style had also evolved, and as the techno-flash 80s arrived, Ronnie was ahead of the game. Gamma had achieved the impossible: synthesizer-heavy hard rock. It was a daring move for Montrose, and this new sound worked best on ‘Gamma 2’. Album openers ‘Meanstreak’ and ‘The Four Horsemen’ pack a serious punch, While ‘Cat on a Leash’ and ‘Skin and Bone’ stretch the band’s sound boldly into the future. One of the coolest album covers ever. Rest in Peace, Ronnie.

Blackfoot / Tomcattin’ 1980
Blackfoot had been kickin’ around for a few years before the NWOBHM arrived, releasing albums on Island and Columbia before moving to Atlantic and cranking up the crunch on their third, ‘Strikes’. ‘Strikes’ is probably the ‘go-to’ Blackfoot record for many, as it contains ‘Train, Train’ and ‘Highway Song’, two radio hits that earned the band their first ‘Gold’ record. But ‘Strikes’ at a very short 33 minutes and contains only 5 original tunes… Might I suggest the follow-up, ‘Tomcattin’? A solid southern ass-whoopin’ from start to finish, Rick Medlocke and gang power through what is probably the hardest southern rock album ever, leaving Molly Hatchet and their ilk in the dust. Medlocke leads the way with a confident swagger, and the guitars are 10 feet tall. A much more satisfying record than ‘Strikes’.

Y&T / Earthshaker 198152283045_1
Y&T were the missing link between Montrose and Van Halen; in fact, the mighty VH used to open for them. After two promising albums as Yesterday and Today, the band signed to the majors (A&M), shortened their name to Y&T (A&M… Y&T…!) and finally nailed their sound. Earthshaker roars out of the speakers, a powerhouse of crunchy SoCal party rock honed in countless California dive bars. Earthshaker’s winning balance between power ballad harmonies and scorching hard rock would prove very influential as the 80’s progressed. Y&T broke through to the 80’s Metal mainstream with their next two albums ‘Black Tiger’ and ‘Mean Streak’, but their true breakthrough was ‘Earthshaker’…a record that could only have been made by an American band.

Riot / Fire Down Under 1981
Despite hailing from New York, Riot were awarded ‘honorary’ NWOBHM status due to the UK underground’s embrace of their first two indie albums ‘Rock City’ and ‘Narita’, their frequent appearance on DJ Neal Kay’s metal playlist in ‘Sounds’, and their obvious musical inspiration to many young UK bands of the era. All of this led to their appearance at the first Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donnington, on of the key events in the development of the NWOBHM. But their popularity with the movement was a double-edged sword… The story of ‘Fire Down Under’ is a tragic one, and I’ve written in-depth about the record here: https://wordpress.com/post/mayobat.wordpress.com/726, but if you are inclined to check out any of the records discussed here, start with this one. ‘FDU’ is not only Riot’s finest album, it is one of the greatest American metal albums of all time, with only Montrose’s debut keeping it out of the top slot.

Frank Marino / The Power of Rock and Roll 1981
Yes, this is Marino’s 8th album, it’s also his most straight-ahead metal record. It’s Marino’s first with out the ‘Mahogany Rush’ tag, first with brother Vince on 2nd guitar, and most of the jazz noodling and Hendrix influence, so prevalent on previous albums, is now largely absent. But it’s the presence of one specific track, ‘Ain’t Dead Yet’, that demands attention here; not just because Marino rips through the song with an urgency and fluidity that is seriously scary, but the song’s lyrics answer CREEM Magazine’s ‘Is Heavy Metal Dead?’ headline and encapsulates the frustration and futility felt by many North American bands that survived the Punk era, as well as the hope for a resurgence fueled by the NWOBHM:

All around we hear the sound the voices in our ears
They try to bring our whole world down playin’ on our fears
Designing rules, deciding who, they’re gonna give the chance to
And all the while, the phony smile, they just want to romance you
It’s time that we fight now
The timing is right now
Well did you hear what they said?
They’re tellin’ us rock is dead
Well we ain’t dead yet!’

So there’s your proof! A handful of solid listening from an oft-overlooked time period in American Hard Rock/Heavy Metal history. How do they stack up against the records released at the same time by the young upstarts across the pond? Well… any comparisons wouldn’t be fair, because most of the records highlighted here were made by seasoned veterans; the youthful energy and freshness inherent in the NWOBHM’s best records make them hard to beat. But there’s a lot of worthy music here that has been unfairly ignored and neglected. Frank Marino was right: American Metal wasn’t dead during the NWOBHM… Maybe on life support, but not dead. Tell it, Frank!

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Swords, Tequila, and Sammy Hagar

After leaving Montrose and two historically ass-kicking albums behind him, Sammy Hagar went solo. Sammy’s early solo career was managed by Ed Leffler, who had previously handled the soft rockers like The Carpenters and The Osmonds, so Hagar’s style took an abrupt turn away from hard rock and toward a more FM radio-oriented sound. But Hagar’s three middle-of-the-road solo albums had failed commercially, and by 1979 it was time to take the Red Rocker back to his hard rocking roots. Ed Leffler was smart enough to make sure Hagar secured young, hungry and hard-rocking bands to open his shows and assure ticket sales. New York City’s Riot was one of those bands.

Riot had opened for Sammy on the Texas dates of his 1979 US tour. Texas, specifically San Antonio, was a Riot stronghold, and Leffler was aware that Riot was selling most of the tickets. When it came time for Hagar to take his harder-edged act to the UK later that year, Leffler learned that the NWOBHM was erupting there, and that Riot was featured on some of the most important radio playlists at the epicenter of the current heavy metal explosion. Riot was just the thing Hagar needed to establish some cred with UK rock audiences and, again, to sell some tickets. It seemed like Riot was once again in the right place at the right time.

Riot had recorded and released 2 self-financed records by 1979, ‘Rock City’ and ‘Narita’, although the latter had not been released in the US. Leffler brokered a record deal for the band with Capitol records, a deal that included the provision that the band do the UK tour with Hagar. No problem, thought Mark Reale. We’re signed to Capitol records, we’re touring the UK where we’re red-hot; we’ve made it!

Not so fast, Mr. Reale. The young guitarist quickly learned that his band had to ‘buy-on’ to the Hagar tour, meaning they had to use a significant portion of their meager recording advance to pay for the privilege of participating in the tour that they were now contractually obligated to take part in. And whom did they have to pay that money to? Why, who else but Sammy Hagar’s manager, Ed Leffler.

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After the UK tour, Reale contacted Capitol A&R to talk about the promotion of their first release through the label, ‘Narita’. As it turns out, their were no plans. ‘Narita’, a record that had already been recorded, and had been paid for by others, and cost Capitol almost nothing to release; Capitol followed that up by spending nothing to promote it. By this point, Reale and the band had figured out that the Capitol deal was only about ensuring the Hagar tour’s success; that Riot were nothing more than part of Sammy Hagar’s promotional budget, and that the band were probably going to be dropped at any minute. One has to wonder about the nature of Leffler’s relationship with Capitol records…

Reale used the remaining advance money from the Capitol deal to hire every independent radio promotions rep in the country to get Narita airplay. Radio charts from the era show that the plan was successful; Riot was looking like Capitol Records’ hot new up-and-comer on Billboard’s ‘Radio and Records’ chart. Reale hoped to show Capitol that they had a viable property, and that the label would not drop them but instead finance a new record.

The gambit worked… kinda. Capitol picked up the option for a new record; dropping a band that had had such success on US rock radio and on the road overseas just wouldn’t look right. The record company gave the band half the mandated advance to begin recording another record, and promised the other half upon approval of the completed album. Reale and the rest of Riot got to work making the best album possible to seal the deal with Capitol and convince them that sticking with Riot would be in their best interest. That record was ‘Fire Down Under’.

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Riot had delivered a stone cold American metal classic. But still, even when presented with this masterpiece of radio-friendly hard rock, Capitol’s plan continued to unfold… The label refused to accept the record on the grounds that it was ‘not commercially acceptable’. The label never paid the band the second half of the recording advance, and would not drop them because now they owed Capitol for the first half… and an unreleased album would garner no sales to pay the label back the moneys advanced. Capitol’s machinations had progressed beyond simply not spending anything to promote Riot; now they had worked it out that Riot actually owed them money.

Riot were trapped in record company hell. Still under contract with a major label, unable to sign with another label until the debt they owed was paid; unable to pay the debt without releasing the album they had recorded, which the label had shelved. All of this to ensure Sammy Hagar had a successful UK tour. As far as the Leffler/Capitol alliance was concerned, Riot had served their purpose, and now needed to disappear.

Then some cool stuff happened. Fans picked the offices of Capitol records. Thousands of fans signed a petition for the label to release Riot from contractual limbo (among those who signed: Ronnie Montrose). Kids spray-painted cars owned by Capitol Records executives. UK music journalists wrote about Riot’s plight in the big music papers. Smarting from all of the bad publicity, Capitol relented and let Riot go. Tom Zatout and Cliff Bernstein convinced their bosses at Elektra Records to sign the band and pick up the record, and the rest is history. FDU cracked the Billboard Hot 100 and firmly established Riot on US rock radio and on the international Heavy Metal scene.

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Karma took a while to catch up with Ed Leffler. Due to his relationship with Sammy, Leffler went on to become manager of Van Halen, and presided over the band’s business during their most successful period (four consecutive No 1 Hagar-era albums). But: while on tour with VH, Leffler was badly beaten by an unknown assailant in a hotel elevator in Dallas in 1986, putting him in the hospital for weeks. Ed Leffler died at the young age of 57 of thyroid cancer in 1993.

Riot started shedding members during the year after the release of ‘Fire Down Under’, and would never again release an album at such a high level of excellence. Because for FDU, Reale and his band set out to make an album that couldn’t be ignored, and they succeeded, on several levels. Calling this record ‘commercially unacceptable’ is a joke of cosmic proportions. Quite simply, FDU is a landmark in the history of American metal, and belongs right up there beside the Hagar-fronted Montrose debut…