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.

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Sometimes being a professional musician is all about compromise; specifically, about how much of your art you’re willing to compromise toward success in the business of music. Being a fan is about loyalty; and sometimes that loyalty is pushed beyond tolerance by the compromises a musician makes.

Many a rock fan’s loyalties were tested in the 80’s. With the advent of MTv, suddenly what you looked like was at least as important as what you sounded like (and in some cases, maybe more important). Many metal bands that had started in the 70’s but had yet to break through to a mainstream audience saw MTv as a way to do just that. And so we lost several bands to the siren song of mass appeal and mainstream success. All that was required was a greater focus on the image or look of the band, and a slavish adherence to a limited musical template that boiled down to either a) overwrought power ballad, or b) super-dumb rock anthem. Scorpions had virtually invented the power ballad in the mid-70’s, and sadly, made the transition easily. NWOBHM heroes like Krokus, Whitesnake, and Saxon (who actually fired their bass player, who didn’t have ‘the look’) all climbed on board the bandwagon, all hoping to ‘break’ in the states. Perhaps the poster boys for this type of sell-out were the already-image conscious Twisted Sister, who’s debut album was actually a straight-up metal record, but who quickly transformed into bizzarro drag queen cartoons on MTv. In an ironic twist, Kiss, kings of the super-dumb rock anthem, actually had to take make-up OFF to partake in the festivities. But the greatest disappointment had to be The Beast That is Priest.   

I will never forget the first time I heard ‘Turbo’ by Judas Priest. A co-worker had an advance cassette, and let me hear the first song, without telling me who it was I was listening to. After a solid minute I still couldn’t identify who it was, even thought I was listening to a band I had followed for the last 8 or 9 years. When my friend broke the news to me that I had been previewing the new Judas Priest record, I was angry. Not disappointed. Angry.  

Like a lot of metal fans, I take this kind of thing personally; always have. I am tremendously loyal, I invest my time, my money and my passion in the music that I love and in the musicians that make it. Fans aren’t interested in the business that goes on behind their favorite music, they only care about the music, and are grateful to the musicians who make it. For me personally, when an artist makes a calculated business decision to move away from the sound I have committed to, the aesthetic I invested in, I feel betrayed; I’m offended and insulted. And sometimes, shocked; I truly never expected that Metal’s Ambassadors to the world, a band that represented the Heavy Metal genre in much the same way that Metallica would later; would be capable of such silliness.

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Back to ‘Turbo’: Sequencers, synthesizers, over-processed guitars, predictable hair metal riffs and inane pop metal lyrics, all wrapped up in a cover that looks like a magazine ad for nail polish. This is not what I signed on for. Gone were the ominous pseudo-religious sci-fi lyrics. Dave Holland’s hard hitting, no-nonsense drum sound was replaced by computerized canon fire. And don’t even get me started on KK’s perm. This was a monumental moment in heavy metal history; one of the heaviest bands of the 70’s had sold out and cashed in.

Judas Priest referred to themselves as a Heavy Metal Band when it was very uncool to do so. They had almost single-handedly carried Heavy Metal through its weakest period in the late 70’s; after the old guard had died out, they flew the flag proudly during the punk rock and new wave revolutions, and led metal music straight into the NWOBHM and metal’s resurgence in the early 80’s. And while they had toyed with camp ever since 1979’s ‘Hell Bent For Leather’, they’d successfully navigated the fine line between tongue-in-cheek and parody on several records, right up to ‘Defenders of the Faith’, where production concessions revealed a willingness to go with the 80’s flow. That album worried me; ‘Turbo’ confirmed my fears. 

So Priest decided they no longer needed me as a fan, and had apparently made the calculation that so many other bands of that era made as they entered the MTv era: they’d likely gain more new fans than the number of old fans that would walk away. They were probably right. So: good business decision; bad artistic decision. Very bad. Embarassingly so. Priest eventually tried to self-correct, and spent the next few years chasing trends until a new breed of metal bands rendered them irrelevant. Their iconic image, legendary status and landmark early releases ensured they’d be able to maintain a career for another 2 decades, but after ‘Turbo’ they had lost all credibility with much of their original fan base. ‘Defenders of the Faith’ my ass. Thank God for Thrash Metal.

Speaking of Trash Metal, Metallica was another band that, after years of pioneering, groundbreaking, and breathtaking music, succumbed to the numbers and decided to no longer allow artistic concerns to guide their career path. Correctly deducing that, with just a few ‘minor’ changes, they could go from being the biggest band on Metal to one of the biggest bands on Earth (a much more lucrative position), they hired Motley Crue’s producer and made the transition from being uncompromising standard-bearers to arena rock’s heaviest band.

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I hold a special kind of animosity towards Metallica for ‘Metallica’, aka ‘The Black Album’. For metal once again, change was on the horizon, and bands like Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, and Soundgarden made music that was appealing more and more to metalheads every day. Grunge and Alternative music was everywhere, and some of it was downright metallic, but… It was very much like 1976/77, when punk rock took off and metal’s heavy hitters became… confused. Started experimenting. Made lousy records. What Metal Nation needed badly at the dawn of the 90’s was a band to put an end to the mass defection to Seattle. A band to remind everyone how and what great heavy metal was. What better band to do just that than the mighty Metallica?

Metallica, however, had other ideas. Rather than creating a record that could have led metal through the alterna-grunge swamp and onward toward a new era of global domination, Metallica instead sat out that fight and re-launched their brand, simplifying their songwriting and overall sound, recasting themselves as a Top 40 arena rock band. The singles/videos came one after another, signaling a new willingness to market themselves in ways they had resisted for years. Where once they had led, they now chose to conform. Metallica turned their backs on their art and their fans and made their deal with the devil, becoming megastars while leaving the door wide open for Nirvana and the Alterna-Grunge contingent to further dilute metal’s already fractured fan base.

Yes, dumbing-down their music was a smart career move… if you measure success in dollars and cents. Yes, ‘Metallica’ would not only become Metallica’s biggest-selling album, but one of the biggest selling albums of all time. But these facts speak nothing of its artistic value. I’m aware that, for many reading this, ‘Metallica’ was their first exposure to Metallica, and therefore seen by millions as their defining moment. To understand what a left turn that album was for their original fan base is difficult for those who jumped on the bandwagon after all of the challenge and confrontation was removed from their music. It takes a certain perspective to see this record as the betrayal that it truly was. For us, ‘Metallica’ was a slap in the face; a Fuck You to myself and my friends who had seen them at the Rathskellar in Boston in 1983; who had watched them steadily grow from strength to strength, without radio, without MTv, and without mainstream press, right up to the multi-platinum ‘Master of Puppets’, all without compromising their art. one. single. bit.    

At least with ‘Metallica’ they hadn’t changed their look to conform to the commercial trends of the day. That would come a little later, with their next studio album, the aptly-named ‘Load’.  

Musicians, of course are free to make whatever decisions they wish in the service of their careers. Hopefully they’re aware of how transparent these moves are, no matter how they try to spin it, and how these kinds of moves rightly invoke the wrath of their most fervent fans– although it’s clear that this kind of fan doesn’t factor into the equation when bands do the Devil’s Arithmetic. The bottom line here is that both of these albums suck, and pale in comparison to the records that were made by these bands before potential superstar status was part of the bargain. I understand that surviving in any business requires compromise; ‘evolve or die’, I get it… But, as Stephen King wrote in ‘Pet Sematary’, “Sometimes dead is better.”