1977: Love Guns vs. Sex Pistols

If you follow Metal’s timeline from its origins in the late ’60s, and continue through its classic early-to-mid ’70s heyday, you will eventually encounter something of a dead end near the end of the decade: The Punk era. Metal was at it’s lowest ebb near the end of the 70’s, as most of the giants had either gone missing (Zeppelin), broken up (Purple) or gotten seriously off-track (Sabbath), while their American ‘Second Wave’ counterparts (Aerosmith, Kiss, BOC) were ‘experimenting’ with Disco, Pop, or hard drugs. Enter: Punk Rock, to point out how tired, overblown and boring mainstream Rock music had gotten, and wipe the slate clean and make way for something new. The situation was so dire that in October of 1979, Creem Magazine ran a cover story entitled ‘Is Heavy Metal Dead?’

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Of course, this standardized version of the history of that era is of course a gross oversimplification: Heavy Metal did not ‘die’ at the hands of the punks, only to be ‘reborn’ in the UK (with the NWOBHM) after punk self-destructed. The truth of the matter is that Metal continued to operate, albeit in a diminished capacity, throughout the uproar. The Punk Rock explosion posed the biggest threat in the UK, where its impact was felt as a genuine cultural phenomenon; Punk bands dominated the UK press, and Punk singles and albums charted high. Punk’s raison d’etre, to ‘Smash It Up’, with ‘it’ being Rock’s status quo, was a direct shot across the bow to the established UK Rock and Metal bands of the day.

Some HR/HM bands just starting out in ’76 wisely ignored Punk completely; Rainbow’s ‘On Stage’, released in the summer of 1977, raised the bar for never-ending, self-indulgent soloing, and Judas Priest released ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’, a record that helped shape the template for the HM genre, and then soldiered forth as the ailing genre’s standard-bearers. But most of the established UK HR/HM bands of the 1970s could mark the end of their ‘classic era’ right around 1976/77; aside from the aforementioned, consider Foghat, Uriah Heep, Status Quo, Wishbone Ash… all emerged from the fray mortally wounded, some searching for a new direction, some just sounding tired and obsolete, setting the stage for the NWOBHM.

mi0001448346As an example of just how drastically things changed in Britain’s music scene, consider Slade. After a long string of hit singles (a stunning seventeen consecutive Top Twenty hits, twelve of them Top Five, and six of those were Number Ones!), Slade headed off to try to break America in 1976. After returning to England in ’77, Slade quickly discovered that they were old news and nearly forgotten. Three of their next four singles charted at #53, #48, and #32; one didn’t chart at all. Their next six singles failed to chart at all in the UK. The title of their first LP after returning to England says it all: ‘Whatever Happened to Slade?’ It, too, failed to trouble the UK charts. In the space of 12 months, the single most successful Hard Rock band in Britain had been rendered irrelevant.

Other well-established bands responded, even if only by commenting on the fray through their music. ‘Lights Out’, UFO’s sixth record, came out in May of 1977. For the album’s title track, UFO’s lyricist, Phil Mogg, referenced the punk uprising through military imagery:

‘From the back streets there’s a rumbling
Smell of anarchy
No more nice time, black boy shoe shines
Pie in the sky dreams’

And of course, the title of the song/album is a direct nod to blackout regulations imposed during The Battle of Britain, aka ‘the Blitz’, where Londoners were urged to extinguish all lights to hamper German nighttime bombing raids:

‘Lights out, lights out in London, hold on tight till the end

UFO released ‘Lights Out’ just as the Sex Pistols’ 2nd single, ‘God Save the Queen’, hit #2 in the UK singles chart. Six months earlier, the Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single had climbed to #26. None of UFO’s 9 singles had charted in the UK. Mogg and his band, having seen Punk singles climbing the charts and the movement dominating the press, knew another Battle of Britain was underway.nmecover_july2_1977

Queen’s ‘News of the World’ came out in July of 1977. The title of the album is a reference to the British tabloid paper News of the World, an infamously trashy broadsheet that regularly featured the most scandalous and sensational national stories of the day. Here Queen were referencing the top UK music papers, such as Sounds and the NME, who were at that time thoroughly enamored with the Punk phenomenon; not only reporting on the musical and cultural shifts but also capitalizing on the sensational aspects of the movement by plastering ‘shocking’ headlines and ‘alarming’ pictures of punks in full mohawk & safety pin regalia.

The cover art for Queen’s 5th album also comments on the Punk movement. Queen are depicted as dead, having been killed by a giant robot as a panicked crowd below flees in terror. Inside the gatefold, the robot reaches for more victims. It’s not difficult to decipher the ironic message here: Monster destroys beloved band; you’re next. But the music on ‘News of the World’ also contains a few nods to Punk Rock, most obvious of which is the song ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, which is flat-out Punk. Roger Taylor said in 1991:

“It’s quite interesting, because we were making an album next-door to a punk band, the Sex Pistols, and it really fit into that punk explosion that was happening at the time, which was happening right then. It was actually better that it happened that it came out on the ‘News of the World’ album.”

newsoftheworldOn ‘News of the World’, Queen take on several forms of music: Salsa, Psychedelic Rock, Torch Balladry, the Blues, even football chants, so throwing in a take on Punk would not have been out of place in the least. But ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ is more than Queen showing their versatility; here, it’s cultural commentary. With lyrics like ‘Well you’re just 17 and all you wanna do is disappear/You know what I mean there’s a lot of space between your ears/I feel so ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-inarticulate’, it wasn’t hard to read exactly how lyricist Roger Taylor felt about the Punk Rock audience.

Interestingly, Taylor rights the scales on his ‘Fight From the Inside’, by taking on the point of view of a punk rocker and pointing the finger at the pop stars of the pre-punk era (I.e., himself/his band), and urging the listener to fight to change the status quo:

‘You’re just another picture on a teenage wall
You’re just another sucker ready for a fall
You’re just another money-spinner tool
You’re just another fool 

You gotta fight from the inside
Attack from the rear
Fight from the inside
You can’t win with your hands tied’

Queen’s next album, ‘Jazz’ would include more commentary by Taylor on the transformation of the UK music scene and his band’s place in it. In the album’s final song, called ‘More of That Jazz’, Taylor seems to be complaining about being spoon-fed the same old thing:

‘If you’re feeling tired and lonely
Uninspired and lonely
If you’re thinking how the days seem long
All you’re given
Is what you’ve been given a thousand times before
Just more more
More of that jazz
More no more of that jazz
Give me no more
No more of that jazz’

The song winds up with several snippets from the album’s previous songs, edited together in a montage of the album’s highlights, in effect giving the listener more of ‘Jazz’… and implying that the album you just listened to is just ‘more of that jazz’. For Taylor, always Queen’s resident ‘punk’, the Punk movement clearly instigated some serious self-examination. Queen were at a crossroads during the Punk era; the band would survive the upheaval and move from strength to strength, but would never be the same.

With Punk Rock’s disdain for virtuosity and technical ability came the death of the guitar hero. One of the UK’s biggest was Robin Trower, who charted high in the Top 40 with his 3rd and 4th albums… Then the punk bomb exploded, knocking him down into the low 50’s and then off the charts completely for his 1978 album ‘Caravan to Midnight’. Robin who? His next record would be titled ‘Victims of the Fury’, in a pointed reference to his own diminished stature, and feature a stripped-down, earthy sound, with few overdubs and a renewed abrasive energy. The title track’s lyrics told the tale:

‘We were blessed as though in heaven
We were messengers of joy
There were angels all around us
There was none who dared destroy

Then the world collapsed around us
And the tables overturned
We were lambs before the slaughter
We were driven out and burned

Victims of the fury
Shadows in the dark
Victims of the fury
Arrows found their mark’

Pat Travers, a young Canadian guitarist who emigrated to the UK to seek fame and fortune, found it; he scored a record deal with Polydor and appeared at the Reading Festival before 35,000 in 1976, just before all hell broke loose. On his third album, ‘Putting it Straight’, he explains why he decided to hightail it to America in 1977, in a song called ‘Life in London’:

‘Life in London is bittersweet
Spray can slogans along the street
Some kind of revolution in the town
Razor blades and safety pins make you look like a clown’

Prog Rock gods Yes were an obvious target for Punk rockers’ derision, with their ‘pretentious’ this and their ‘self-indulgent’ that… But Yes’ success was unhindered by the advent of Punk, with their 1977 album ‘Going for the One’ reaching the top of the UK charts and it’s follow-up, 1978’s ‘Tormato’ going Top Ten. ‘Tormato’, however, contains some artistic commentary on the goings on of the previous 18 months, beginning with it’s cover, where a picture of man dressed in period clothing and using divining rods is pelted with a tomato. This can be interpreted as a blatant rejection of ‘the old ways’, or, if we view the man with the divining rods as employing ‘divination’, or searching for something using ‘magical’ methods… an artist following his muse, perhaps… Splat!

tormato_cd_germany_booklet0‘Tormato’ contains a song called ‘Release, Release’, which is as punk a song as Yes would ever be capable of. Its odd time signatures, multiple key changes, and super-busy arrangement prevent it from ever being confused with a Ramones tune, but its stripped-down rock and roll feel, up-tempo delivery and surprisingly direct delivery reflect the energy of the Punk phenom; also Jon Anderson’s spacey lyrics contain ample evidence of an awareness of the turmoil, and perhaps a plea for us to rise above the conflict:

‘Have you heard before, hit it out, don’t look back
Rock is the medium of our generation
Stand for every right, kick it out, hear you shout
For the right of all of creation

Power defy our needs, lift us up, show us now
Show us how amid the rack of confusion Power at first to the needs of each others’ days
Simple to lose in the void sounds of anarchy’s calling ways

Straight jacket, freedom’s march, is it all, far beyond
Our reason of understanding
Campaign everything, anti-right, anti-left Release, release, enough controllers’

At about 2:57, the song left-turns into that most dreaded of all arena-rock staples: a drum solo, played out over a recording of a cheering stadium audience. This self-deprecating gesture added a welcome touch of irony to the album, as the band that brought us ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’, perhaps the absolute pinnacle of Prog excess, struggled to find footing in a hostile musical landscape.

Love it or hate it, Punk Rock was a game changer. UK Heavy Rock’s response to Punk Rock made 1977 a truly fascinating year in Heavy music, forcing many of the established bands of the day to react artistically in one way or another, and giving us a handful of records that stand out as unique in the HR/HM canon. If they’re not your cup of tea, don’t forget: many Rock bands that didn’t face the Punk movement head on were instead ‘experimenting’ with Disco…

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

Van Halen: The Ramones of Heavy Metal

OK, calm down… Allow me to explain.

Punk Rock was a largely a reaction to the excessive, overblown rock music of the 70’s. Bands like Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer, with their orchestrated side-long concept pieces, and the endless improvisational ego trip jamming of bands like Deep Purple and King Crimson. Tales from Topographic Oceans… Need I say more? Actually, Johnny Rotten’s “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt said it all. Punk cleared away everything that came before it and re-set the table with a new aesthetic, new ethos, new rules (or no rules). No matter how you feel about it, it was a fresh start for rock n roll, and a sorely needed one.

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This new aesthetic crystallized in the form of the 1976 debut album by the Ramones. The Ramones used elements of the music they grew up with as a template, specifically the surf, bubblegum and girl groups of the 50’s and 60’s, and stripped rock music down to its basic elements while adding a primitive, just-the-basics delivery. The resulting record, simply titled ‘Ramones’, is a masterpiece of economy and raw intensity. The longest song on the record clocks in at an epic 2:35; the brevity of the songs maximized their impact. There are no guitar solos anywhere to be found, in a deliberate attempt to distance the band from the hard rock guitar wizards of the day. Guitars were placed on the right channel; the bass on the left, adding to the street level, bargain basement vibe. The ‘Ramones’ version of rock and roll was a slap in the face to the mid-70’s status quo; it reminded us all of what was great about rock and roll, and how far away from that it had evolved.

Heavy Metal was out of gas toward the end of the 70’s. The punk rock explosion had changed the rules, drastically changed the landscape, and generally shaken things up in a major way for most of the hard rock and heavy metal bands that had dominated the scene in the early 70’s. Most of metal’s standard bearers had either gone the way of the dinosaurs, or drastically lost their way; Led Zeppelin was MIA, Deep Purple had imploded, and Black Sabbath had forgotten how to be Black Sabbath. Once-mighty hard rock bands became… confused, and reacted in interesting ways to being knocked off the throne. Ian Gillan was fronting a jazz-rock combo. Several bands had given in and ‘gone disco’; others tried to maintain credibility by dabbling in the punk ethos themselves (if Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” from their 1977 album ‘News of the World’ isn’t a direct response to the Ramones, then I don’t know what is). Lyrically, the impact was also evident, as in Robin Trower’s ‘Victims of the Fury’, or the entire concept of Pink Floyd’s “Animals”, or the title of Rush’s 1977 album, “A Farewell to Kings”. Many young metal fans (like me) were waiting for a new band to emerge and end the meandering experimentation, and re-invent, redefine, re-energize heavy metal music.

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Blasting out of nowhere in 1978, Van Halen’s debut album did all of that and more. A true wake-up call to the metal faithful, ‘Van Halen’ blew the doors off of the hard rock scene and rewrote the rule book for a new generation of metal bands. VH took the music they grew up with, mainly early metal, AM top 40, Soul and Funk, placed it all in a hard rock context by playing it with the basic guitar/bass/drums instrumentation, and created a sound and style that changed the course of rock music forever.

Like ‘Ramones’, the sound of ‘Van Halen’ was itself a reaction to the played out, unfocused hard rock produced in the years just before its release. If ‘Ramones’ was a slap in the face, then ‘Van Halen’ was a swift kick in the ass. The collection of short, powerful songs explodes with a dynamic intensity. The production is stark, sounding like four guys playing together with minimal overdubs, guitar on one side; bass on the other… Hmmm… but the performances are jam-packed with excitement. Van Halen didn’t invent heavy metal on ‘Van Halen’, but rather re-invented it for a new generation. The record single-handedly jump-started the metal movement on the US side of the pond, just as the NWOBHM (itself a reaction to Punk) would on the UK side. Simply put, it was a game-changing debut, and one that “reminded us all of what was great about heavy metal, and how far away from that it had evolved.”

Oh, and, uh, contrary to the Ramones’ debut, there are a few guitar solos on the VH debut… So yes, musically, the differences between these two records are obvious, but the level of impact and influence they had on their respective genres is equal and enormous. Punk Rock’s seismic shockwave had crossed genre borders and had taken root in the realm of Heavy Metal (or, what Creem Magazine once called ‘Dinosaur Music’ in 1977), where its impact would manifest itself in a young upstart band from California that would itself shake up a complacent and confused Metal Nation. Thus, Van Halen became the Ramones of Heavy Metal. Need I mention Track 2, Side 2?