Ninety-Two Minutes to Midnight, Part 1

When Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris stated in a 2015 interview that ‘Supper’s Ready’, the early Prog Rock epic that takes up all of Side Two of Genesis’ ‘Foxtrot’ album, was his favorite piece of music of all time, it shouldn’t have raised many eyebrows. Harris has made no secret of his love of classic Prog, and there’s ample proof in the grooves; Maiden has covered songs by Prog giants like Jethro Tull and Nektar, just to name a few. But the fact that ‘Supper’s Ready’ clocks in at over 23 minutes hints at a troubling trend in Iron Maiden’s music… You see, for decades, ‘Arry has been suffering with a severe case of the Creeping Epics.

It should also come as no surprize that, as a young Prog fan, ‘Arry hated Punk Rock, but his band (and the entire NWOBHM) absorbed it’s furious energy and in-your-face aggression and channeled it into their own music. It was Iron Maiden’s potent mix of Punk and Prog what set them apart from most of their peers; while most of the Punk-inspired NWOBHM movement was mining the catalogues of Thin Lizzy, UFO, Judas Priest and their ilk for inspiration, Steve Harris was reaching beyond mere rock and metal and toward the expansive creativity and technical complexity of his beloved Prog heroes: ELP, Yes, King Crimson, Focus, and of course the aforementioned Jethro Tull and Genesis.

sanctuarycover

 

The undeniable Punk attack of Maiden’s 1980 debut album is accented by several elements borrowed from Progressive Rock: elevated technical skill, complex arrangements, and fantastical subject matter. The clearest example of this unique formula is the mini-epic ‘Phantom of the Opera’. After it’s cryptic opening, ‘Phantom’ blazes across several different movements, twisting and turning through seven minutes and two seconds of neck-breaking tempo changes and intricate instrumental passages. While a song of this length was a bold move for a debut album, Maiden packed more excitement into the 7:02 of ‘Phantom’ than most BHM bands could muster for an entire album, ensuring that the song never overstays its welcome. ‘Phantom’s extended length works to make it the album’s grand statement, ground zero in Maiden’s punk/prog presentation.

The obvious Prog moment on Maiden’s second album ‘Killers’ was ‘Prodigal Son’, a lush, acoustic guitar-laden tune that stands out from the rest of the record with its breezy Wishbone Ash feel and plaintive lyric. As with ‘Phantom’, the song with the strongest Prog influence is also the longest on the record, at 6:05. Maiden would continue to balance creative finesse and snarling aggression on ‘The Number of the Beast’, but by this point, the band’s Punk edge had begun to fade. Their Prog leanings remained, evident in the melodramatic sprawl of album closer ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’. Another mini-epic, ‘Hallowed’ was, at 7:08, longest song the band had ever recorded… Although a few more albums down the line, 7:08 run-times would be commonplace.

On ‘Piece of Mind’, the band’s progressive side was clearly gaining strength, as nearly every song includes that extra bit of complexity, depth and flair, culminating in the final track ‘To Tame a Land’. ‘Land’ is a work of art, miles outside of conventional NWOBHM songwriting standard, snaking through exotic sonic territories as yet unexplored by Maiden. Here, for the first time, Iron Maiden have stepped squarely into the land of Progressive Metal. There were other signs related to ‘Piece’ as well; Jethro Tull’s ‘Cross-Eyed Mary’ was recorded for a B-side, and Bruce Dickinson’s ‘Revelations’ speaks for itself. Several songs on ‘Piece of Mind’ passed the 6-minute mark; ‘Tame’ tipped the scales at 7:28 to become the new Longest Maiden Song Ever. ‘Piece of Mind’ was also the Longest Maiden Album Yet, at 45:18.

Are we seeing the trend? As the Prog in Maiden’s music becomes more evident, so do the song lengths expand…

On ‘Powerslave’, Maiden strike the perfect balance of NWOBHM attack and adventurous songcraft. Top-notch writing and spirited performances easily obscure the Prog-creep, with 2 songs at 6 minutes-plus, and one at 7:12… That is, until the mammoth final track, Harris’ adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’. Worry not, for ‘Rhyme’ is a Maiden Masterpiece. While the adapted lyrics might be a little over-stuffed, the underlying arrangement is exceedingly well-constructed. ‘Arry was approaching ‘Supper’s Ready’ territory with ‘Rhyme’s 13:45 run time, but the cinematic sweep of it’s middle sections renders any question of ‘prog excess’ moot. After somehow squeezing another 2 songs onto Side Two, ‘Powerslave’ was the Longest Maiden Album So Far, pushing the limits of vinyl mastering with its 51:12 run time.

‘Somewhere In Time’ is a major mis-step. Steve Harris also wrote three of the 8 tunes on ‘SIT’ himself, and his prog mojo is in full effect here, though this time it doesn’t quite work. Each Harris composition is needlessly long and overwritten; the album’s lead-off track runs 7:22, immediately signaling that something’s up, and there’s really no reason why a straightforward tune like ‘Heaven Can Wait’ should last for 7:24. It must also be said that ‘Arry’s ‘Alexander the Great’ is a failure; at 8:35, it’s an uncharacteristically tough slog through ancient history. These three over-long excursions push the total run-time of the album to 51:18, six seconds longer than ‘Powerslave’, and Maiden’s new Longest Maiden Album. The guitar synths that adorn the album push the Prog Metal envelope even further… or reveal a desire to hide the fact that the band are struggling for inspiration.

Maiden’s average song length had almost doubled over the course of six albums; on ‘Killers’ it was around 3.72 minutes; on both ‘Powerslave’ and ‘Somewhere’ it was 6.37. Album lengths had steadily expanded from the admittedly short 37:35 of their debut to ‘Somewhere in Time’s 51:18. Ironically, Maiden would make some wise adjustments to the excess on their next album, restraining their tendency for epic sprawl while, at the same time, raising the stakes thematically.

Iron Maiden’s seventh album, ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’, is quite a rebound. IMHO, It’s their last great album, and a Prog Metal masterwork. The songwriting this time out was a much more collaborative effort, with Bruce Dickinson garnering several credits, where on ‘Somewhere’ he wrote contributed nada. It’s a concept album (how Prog is that?) that succeeds both musically and thematically. The music still contains plenty of fire & brimstone, and there’s a feeling that the band is once again firing on all cylinders. Song lengths had been paired down to more concise lengths, with one exception: the excellent Harris-penned title track, which works as the centerpiece of the album at a whopping 9:52.

iron-maiden-seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son-vinyl-record-lp-emi-1988-[5]-40552-p

Fans of the early NWOBHM-era Maiden bemoaned the use of synths, the commercial-sounding first single (‘Can I Play With Madness?’) and the slick production. But Steve Harris said, in Mick Wall’s band bio, “I thought it was the best album we did since ‘Piece of Mind’. I loved it because it was more progressive… ‘cause that’s the influences I grew up with.’ Like it or not, the axe-wielding, Thatcher-stabbing, Devil-beheading Iron Maiden was long gone; Eddie was no longer a shadowy figure lurking in dark alleys, he was a time travelling clairvoyant cyborg… Maiden had gone Full Prog. Where to go next?

The average length of a Maiden song had grown by almost 3 minutes, album capacities were being stretched to the limits of manufacturing standards, the epics on each record had gotten even more …epic, the lyrical themes more grandiose. But so far, Iron Maiden had more or less successfully balanced Steve Harris’ Prog Rock tendencies with their NWOBHM roots to become the biggest Metal band on the planet. That delicate balance is the defining element of classic-era Iron Maiden. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll look at how (if?) that balance is maintained during the 1990s and beyond…

Advertisements

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!

NWOBHM: Year One

Punk Rock was the best thing that ever happened to Heavy Metal. Like the comet that struck the earth killed off the dinosaurs, Punk’s impact destroyed the status quo and wiped the slate clean for rock music to reinvent itself. Punk slayed the arena gods of the 70’s, and demanded that you didn’t have to be a musical genius to express yourself musically; anyone could form a band, and everyone should form a band.

Ultimately, Punk rock’s success doomed it to failure, as it eventually assimilated into the very thing it was programmed to destroy: the mainstream. Of course, during Punk’s brief reign, the Metalheads were still out there, both fans and bands, biding their time, awaiting their moment. Punk didn’t kill Heavy Metal; it just drove it underground. In one such underground haven, a hall called The Bandwagon, Metal had found a place to weather the Punk rock storm. Attached to the side of the Prince of Wales Pub at Kingsbury Circle, London, this unlikely setting would become Ground Zero for the Rebirth of Heavy Metal.

2933849_884e324dc8

Neal Kay was a true believer. As the DJ at the Bandwagon, he created and cultivated a haven for Metalheads, giving them a place to gather and listen to the music they loved through one of the loudest PA systems in London. The Bandwagon was always packed to the rafters, and Kay knew he could make it even more popular with the support of the press. So Kay began calling Sounds writer Geoff Barton, the paper’s resident hard-rocker, and inviting him down to cover the bandwagon.

Barton finally paid the Bandwagon a visit, and was stunned by what he saw. Heavy Metal was alive and kicking in at least one place in Punk-ravaged Britain. He wrote a piece on the scene called ‘Wednesday Night Fever’ which ran in the August 19, 1978 issue of Sounds, one of the UK’s leading music papers. Kay also convinced the weekly to publish a Heavy Metal chart, solely based on requests the DJ received from the regulars at the Bandwagon. Most of what appeared on the chart was music by bands from the pre-Punk era: UFO, Priest, Rush, Scorpions, Rainbow. Suddenly the Bandwagon, and Heavy Metal in general, was receiving coverage by one of the most important music papers in the country.

sounds-05_05_1979-cover

It can’t be a coincidence then, that in November of ’78, the BBC began airing the Friday Rock Show. Hosted by Tommy Vance, The Friday Rock Show would do basically the same thing that Kay was doing at the Bandwagon, but on a much larger scale: give the metal masses a destination to hear their music. Vance played current HM singles and album cuts, but also plundered the BBC archives for songs recorded exclusively for the Beeb. Archival recordings by Cream, Hendrix, Deep Purple, UFO, Uriah Heep, Led Zeppelin, and many more featured regularly on Vance’s show. Metal was now receiving regular national exposure through two of the nation’s biggest media outlets. But thus far, no new metal bands had arrived on the scene…

In London’s East End, a band called Iron Maiden was struggling to secure gigs outside of their own neighborhood. The band hoped that recording a demo would help them widen their reach. Four songs were laid down on New Year’s Eve, 1978 at Spaceward Studios in Cambridge. The members of the band were Bandwagon regulars, and eventually they handed a copy of the tape to Neal Kay, not in the hopes that he’ll play it, but hoping it might help them get gigs in the area. Kay is floored by the tape, and begins playing the track ‘Prowler’ regularly. The Bandwagon regulars eat it up. ‘Prowler’ debuts on the Sounds HM chart at #23, but by April 21st, the song tops the chart. Iron Maiden receive national exposure for the first time.

Underground Heavy Metal bands all across the UK take notice. This new breed of Metal band adopts an important element of Punk Rock’s DIY ethos: they make their own records and sell them at gigs or via mail order. Even the music is influenced by Punk, with shorter, more immediate songs and a brash, in-your-face intensity. During the 12 months between Maiden’s appearance on Kay’s chart and their debut album’s entry into the UK charts in April of 1980, British Metal gradually emerges from exile and evolves into a true musical movement. ‘Ere’s ‘ow it ‘appened:

Defleppardep

April 1979: Iron Maiden’s ‘Prowler’ demo tops the Bandwagon HM Soundhouse chart in Sounds. The band play their first gig at the Bandwagon.

May 1979: Neal Kay books the three biggest bands from the emerging scene: Angel Witch, Iron Maiden, and Samson, for a gig at the Music Machine. Angel Witch opens; Samson headlines. Geoff Barton covers the show for Sounds with a double-page spread titled ‘If You Want Blood (and flashbombs and dry ice and confetti) You’ve Got It’. The article’s subtitle, ‘The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal: first in an occasional series by Deaf Barton’, contains the first known use of the term “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal”.
Def Leppard release a self-financed EP on their own record label. BBC DJ John Peel gives the track ‘Getcha Rocks Off’ repeated airings, and the 7″ sells well enough for legit labels to take notice.

August 1979: Def Leppard’s gig at the Paris Theatre in London is recorded and Broadcast over BBC Radio.
The Tygers of Pan Tang release their own self-produced EP on Neat Records. It is the fledgling label’s third release, and its first Metal record. Important singles from White Spirit, Raven, Venom and Blitzkrieg would follow in the next few months. Neat emerges as the most important independent label of the NWOBHM era.

September 1979: The still un-signed Def Leppard open for Sammy Hagar at the Hammersmith Odeon.

October 1979: Def Leppard record an in-studio session for Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show. Def Lep also secure the opening slot on the UK leg of AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ tour. Leppard are now widely regarded as the NWOBHM’s ‘next big thing’.
Iron Maiden appear on the cover of Sounds; the band begin negotiating with EMI days later.
Trespass release the self-produced single ‘One of These Days/Bloody Moon’; Praying Mantis Release their self-produced ‘Captured City/Johnny Cool’ single, and appear on Vance’s Friday Rock Show.

November 1979: Samson record an in-studio session for The Friday Rock Show.
Iron Maiden, still in the process of closing a deal with EMI, press three songs from their demo tape onto 7″ vinyl, and release ‘The Soundhouse Tapes’, named for Neal Kay’s Bandwagon. The EP is available via mail order only; the band sell through 5,000 copies in just a few weeks.
Def Leppard sign with Phonogram. The UK leg of the AC/DC tour ends in November, with four nights at the Hammersmith Odeon; Rick Allen celebrates his 16th birthday on stage at the Hammy O. Leppard release 2 demo recordings as their first single for Phonogram, ‘Wasted’/Hello America”. It peaks at #61.

December 1979: Iron Maiden record an in-studio session for The Friday Rock Show. They finalize and sign their EMI deal.
Sounds publish their annual year-end issue, which features a comprehensive round-up of NWOBHM bands.

Soundhouse

February 1980: Iron Maiden release their first single, ‘Runnin’ Free/Burning Ambition’. The sleeve art marks the first appearance of Eddie; the single peaks at #34.
Neal Kay assembles a compilation of bands he has championed called ‘Metal for Muthas’; the album is released through EMI and features 2 Iron Maiden songs. Angel Witch, Samson, Praying Mantis, and others also appear. Several notable NWOBHM bands (Saxon, Tygers of Pan Tang, Def Leppard) are not featured on the record, as all are already signed to or in the process of signing deals with other labels. A 3-week ‘Metal for Muthas’ tour follows, featuring Maiden, Diamondhead, Praying Mantis, and Raven.
Def Lep releases their second single, ‘Hello America’/Good Morning Freedom’. This one hits the Top 40 (#34).
Iron Maiden support Judas Priest on the UK leg of their ‘British Steel’ tour.

March 1980: Diamond Head releases their self-produced single ‘Shoot Out the Lights/Helpless’.
Angel Witch record an in-studio session for the Friday Rock Show.
Def Leppard release their debut album ‘On Through the Night’, on March 14, making Leppard the first NWOBHM band to release an album. The album debuts on the UK charts at #15.

April 1980: Iron Maiden release their self-titles debut album; it enters the UK charts at #4.

Heavy Metal was back with a vengeance. With two NWOBHM debuts in the UK Top 20, the inevitable major label feeding frenzy soon followed. Metal bands begin regularly appearing on BBC TV’s ‘Top of the Pops’. Sounds launched Kerrang!, a monthly magazine that covered only HM. The rising Metal tide lifted all boats, and stalwart bands like UFO, Judas Priest, Scorpions, Black Sabbath, and all 3 Deep Purple offshoots were rewarded with revitalized careers and Top Twenty albums.

The magic lasted until around 1982, making the NWOBHM’s brief lifespan about as long as Punk’s. Metal had by then become mainstream in the UK, and several successful NWOBHM bands set their sights on the lucrative US market, where money changes everything. But that first year of the NWOBHM, from April of ’79 to April of ’80, when a new breed of Metalhead applied the DIY ethic and independent spirit of Punk rock to their own genre, was one of most important years in the history of the genre. It was the year that Heavy Metal was reborn.

See? Punk Rock was good for something after all.

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.

 

Karaoke Krokus

Lots of bands sound like AC/DC. In fact, during the 80’s, so many bands blatantly copied the Aussie’s primitive, stripped-down approach that AC/DC’s sound became its own genre of music. It’s understandable; their massive success was bound to spawn imitators, and the dope-slap simplicity of their music made it easy to imitate. Musicians everywhere said ‘I can do that!’ and many did.

Some of the more high-profile suspects: Def Leppard paid a visit to DC for their sophomore lp ‘High and Dry’. Having Mutt Lange produce the record helped, but the material also leaned heavily toward AC/DC. Angus and Malcom’s nephew Stevie Young played rhythm guitar for Starfighters, who’s album ‘In Flight Movie’ sounds like ‘Back In Black’ with a different vocalist; the drum & guitar sounds are so similar that to this day I still search the liner notes looking for Lange’s name. The Cult’s ‘Electric’ album was built on foundation of AC/DC mimicry. The Angels, Rhino Bucket, Jackyl…  The list of bands who have ‘borrowed’ from AC/DC is endless.

1980_mrv_15_japan_ep_longplay

Probably the list should start with Krokus. Let’s get one thing straight here and now: critics and musicians alike politely talk about borrowing from, about paying homage to, about being influenced by, but when we talk about Krokus, we’re talking about downright stealing. Blatant thievery. Grand Theft ‘DC.

Only the seriously hearing-impaired would miss the multiple steals on Krokus’s first 4 Marc Storace-fronted albums. Musically, these guys weren’t  borrowing from, or paying homage to, or being influenced by, they were lifting riffs, solos and songwriting tropes wholesale and using them in their own songs without alteration. Hell, they stole an entire song by changing the lyrics to ‘DC’s ‘Go Down’ and calling it ‘Down the Drain’. The funny thing is, while they were doing this, they outright admitted it in the press. The band publicly acknowledged changing their sound after seeing AC/DC in 1978. Chris von Rohr described their “One Vice at a Time” album as “the album AC/DC never made”. This is the musical equivalent of walking into a bank and robbing it in broad daylight, and then admitting to it on the evening news.

Maybe plagiarism is legal in Switzerland? Have they not heard of identity theft up there? Krokus not only hijacked riffs, but also lyrics. Here’s my favorite example.

The first verse of AC/DC’s ‘Ride On’:

It’s another lonely evening
And another lonely town
But I ain’t too young to worry
And I ain’t too old to cry
When a woman gets me down

 

And the first verse of Krokus’s ‘Shy Kid’:

It’s a lonely evening
In a lonely town
Ain’t too young cry now
When a woman gets me down

Truth be told, AC/DC aren’t the only band to have been shamelessly stolen from.

Here’s the chorus in Bad Company’s ‘Rock Steady’:

Turn on your light
And stay with me a while
And ease your worried mind

Turn on your light
And stay with me a while

And ease your worried mind
and rock steady

Here’s the chorus in Krokus’s ‘Rock City’:

So close your eyes
And stay with me
In rock city
So close your eyes
And stay with me

And ease your worried mind
In rock city
 

The lyrics to ‘Shy Kid’, by the way, cannot be located on any of the hundreds of lyric websites clogging up the internet. The words to every other song on that album are available everywhere, but not that particular lyric. Hmmmm…. Also interesting is the fact that “One Vice at a Time”, the record where Krokus came closest to actually becoming AC/DC, is the only Krokus album not available on iTunes. Even their second album, 1977’s pre-Storace ‘To You All’, which few outside of Switzerland have ever heard, is available there; “Vice…”, which reached #58 on the Billboard Hot 100, is not. Hmmm….

At least these guys had good taste. I guess if you’re gonna steal, then steal from the best. On their “Hardware” album, they lift a section from from Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’ for the solo section of ‘She’s Got Everything’. ‘Fire’, from “Metal Rendezvous” contains Fernando von Arb’s version of the ‘guitar-as-cello’ move that Ritchie Blackmore made famous on Purple’s ‘Fools’. On “One Vice…”, Von Arb plays the best Blackmore-clone solo since Janick Gers in ‘To The Top’… And just listen to the drum intro of their song ‘Rock and Roll’. Kinda reminds me of another song called ‘Rock and Roll’… There’s so many more I may need to build a spreadsheet.

But here’s the thing: I never held this against them. I love this band. I never let the unabashed unoriginality keep me from enjoying the records as a whole. “Metal Rendezvous”, “Hardware”, and “Head Hunter” anyway*. Sure, all the riff robbery indicates a lack of creativity at best; at its worst, a lazy willingness to rip-off another band and cash in on a sound and style not of their own making. But even so, I think there’s enough great non-pilfered stuff on those records to show that they were, or at least had the potential to be, a pretty great rock band. There are maybe 4 or 5 solid Krokus-as-Krokus songs on each album, and they kick serious ass. At their core, Krokus actually had a valid and unique sound that was well worth exploiting. And don’t they deserve some credit for duplicating AC/DC’s sound and spirit so well… ? It really was kinda fun playing the Swiss version of ‘Name That Tune’. Mrs. Snider might not be there just yet, but Krokus: I forgive you.

*Sorry, I can’t bring myself to recommend “One Vice at a Time”. Shoulda done time for that one.