Denim And Leather: Celebrating 35 Years Of The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal
Band Photo: Iron Maiden (?)
This month marks thirty five years since one of the most important terms in heavy metal history was coined. After a show featuring Iron Maiden, Angel Witch and Samson, Sounds writer Geoff "Deaf" Barton wrote a review of the concert in which a phrase was used that still stands strong today. It was the time when head banging public was introduced to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The term was arguably created to cause a stir amongst fans who would argue that heavy metal bands in Britain was nothing new and that the likes of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest had been packing out large venues and appearing on such television shows as Top of the Pops for the last few years, despite the dominance of punk rock. However, these bands were different. They possessed the energy of punk but had the look and volume of the early metal bands before them. They took heavy metal away from the grandiose indulgence which some bands had become embroiled in and brought it back to the common man.
It was truly an exciting movement, full of high quality bands which would go on to influence hundreds more and in some cases, become superstars themselves. More or less every metal fan will be able to tell you that Iron Maiden was one such NWOBHM band, with a slightly smaller number being able to point to Def Leppard as another group from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal who went on to stardom after the release of their excellent self-titled EP and debut album, "On Through the Night," following which they shifted direction to the band we know today.
Cult favourites aren't short in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal either, with Saxon and Diamond Head in particular being recognised by many bands which formed in the 1980s, mostly from those in the thrash scenes, for which Venom and Raven were also hugely important. Not to mention the bands which were unable to achieve much success but still play like audible treasure when uncovered such as Angel Witch and Tank.
The New Wave of British Heavy Metal, as noted before, really took off in 1979, a year in which Saxon released their first album, Iron Maiden released the legendary demo, "The Soundhouse Tapes" and Def Leppard released their first EP. By the next year, Saxon had released two more albums, Iron Maiden’s first full length debuted in the top five on the British album charts and several others were also releasing their first albums. It was a time when great bands would often join forces for shows, many of which were relatively cheap in terms of ticket prices. Neat Records, a label in the north east of England signed a number of young metal bands and did a huge amount to spur on the scene by releasing albums by such bands as Jaguar and the Tygers of Pan Tang. The NWOBHM was also notable for being the stomping ground for a number of guitarists who went on to join huge bands. John Sykes of Tygers of Pan Tang would go on to join Thin Lizzy, who he undoubtedly helped reached a level they had not enjoyed for years, White Spirit, a band from Hartlepool, also in the north east, released a self-titled album in 1980, before their guitarist Janick Gers went on to join Gillan and eventually, Iron Maiden, and a small Welsh band named Persian Risk featured among their ranks a guitar player named Phil Campbell, who joined Motorhead in 1983, where he remains to this day.
Unfortunately, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was fairly short lived, with many bands breaking up due to the record company pressure, internal fighting or the lack of success which they had been promised. The scene was also eventually replaced by thrash metal, a genre which owed an enormous debut to the NWOBHM, one it acknowledges gracefully. Many bands of the time have reunited at some point, with many putting out new albums. There were also those who never gave up and have been going for over thirty glorious years.
Luckily for metal fans across the globe, hearing these bands has become much easier thanks to the internet, with many full albums being available on YouTube and other such websites. If you’re looking for a band you may have missed or a newcomer that doesn’t know where to start, then allow me to give you a helping hand with my own personal choice of the top ten New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands…
10. Witchfinder General
We start our countdown with a band whose slow riffs and Black Sabbath worship set them apart from many others in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Witchfinder General’s unique sound makes them a real treat when unearthing the bands of the time and they can certainly be regarded as one of the most important bands in the history of doom metal, if not one of the first. Though their original run lasted only two albums, "Death Penalty" and "Friends of Hell," both are excellent works of metal music which should be owned by anyone who enjoys a walk on the slow side. The band did reunite for a short time in the 2000’s, releasing a third album, "Resurrected," though the name has now been rested once more.
Witchfinder General - "Death Penalty"
9. Angel Witch
It might surprise some of our readers to see Angel Witch this low on my list, but the New Wave of British Heavy Metal featured some of the best metal bands Britain ever produced and so places in this list are hard to come by. Angel Witch's self-titled debut album is reason enough for their inclusion, as it is quite frankly one of the best albums of the movement. From its anthemic, opening title track to the brilliant "Sweet Danger" to the closing, "Devil’s Tower," Angel Witch’s eponymous album hardly puts a foot wrong. The problem the group faced however was that lineup issues stopped them from achieving their true potential. Their second album, "Screamin' 'n' Bleedin'" came a full five years after their debut, by which time the momentum and hype built up had faded away, as indeed has the NWOBHM itself. A third album, "Frontal Assault" followed in 1986 and the band are now trying to reclaim their position as one of their times greats by performing live regularly and releasing their first new album in 26 years, "As Above, So Below," in 2012.
Angel Witch - "Sweet Danger"
8. Diamond Head
Quite frankly, any top ten list of New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands just isn’t complete without Diamond Head. Again, some of you may be a little surprised that a band of their influence isn’t higher on the list, but once more, it’s down to the fact they were unable to fulfil their potential. Diamond Head were hailed as the successors to Led Zeppelin by a number of rock publications. They certainly seemed to fit this grand compliment, being a four piece from the Midlands who wrote memorable tunes, featured a guitar hero in the shape of Brian Tatler and a mesmerising singer named Sean Harris. Singles were a big part of the NWOBHM and Diamond Head released a memorable one in 1980 named, "Shoot Out the Lights," which featured one hell of a b-side in, "Helpless." That same year, they released "Lightning to the Nations," another must have album for any fan of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. "Borrowed Time" followed in 1982 before a third album, "Canterbury" was released the following year, to disappointing feedback. They reunited in the early nineties to perform with Metallica and Megadeth, two band who have cited Diamond Head as huge influences numerous times, at the Milton Keynes Bowl, as well as recording a new album, "Death and Progress." They soon folded once again before reuniting a second time in 2002. Since then, the band has released two more studio albums and continues to perform live, including a trek across North America last October.
Diamond Head - "Lightning to the Nations"
7. Sweet Savage
The first band on our list to form outside of England, Northern Ireland’s Sweet Savage are a classic case of a band not receiving the praise they deserved, rather than those who gained respect but not commercial success (see the last two entries.) Formed in Belfast in 1979, the group are perhaps known for featuring guitarist Vivian Campbell, who would go on to play in Dio, Whitesnake and Def Leppard, as well as the song, "Killing Time," which was famously covered by Metallica. Shortly after forming they were able to support the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Motorhead and Thin Lizzy amongst other rock royalty. Although they were able to spread their name with such performances and the blistering single "Take No Prisoners" as well as some high quality demos, they broke up without releasing an album, though this was finally rectified in 1996 with "Killing Time," which was made up of re-recorded old songs. The band is still going today and can put on a live show to rival any of the young guns.
Sweet Savage - "Eye of the Storm"
As we saw with Angel Witch, it can take only one album for a band to cement their place in the annals of metal history, something Tank certainly did in 1982 with "Filth Hounds of Hades," unquestionably one of the best albums of the era. It was very much like Motorhead in the way that it was a streetwise metal album that also appealed to punks. A second album, "Power of the Hunter" was released the same year, with a third, "This Means War" coming in 1983, the latter of which was also well received. Tank drifted into a more power metal oriented direction as their career went on and eventually disbanded in 1989, though frontman Algy Ward brought the name back eight years. Later, there are currently two incarnations of the band, one featuring former Rainbow singer, Doogie White on vocals who released the albums, "War Machine" and "War Nation" in recent years and another consisting solely of Ward, which released the album "Breath of the Pit" last year.
Tank - "(He Fell in Love With a) Stormtrooper"
Before bands such as Warlock and Holy Moses hit the stage with a female singer, four women from London got together to kick ass and bang heads. Girlschool are an important group not just in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but metal music in general, helping to break down stereotypes of how hard women can rock. They released their first single, "Take it all Away" in 1978 and followed it with a full length album, "Demolition" in 1980 after supporting the likes of Motorhead, Uriah Heep and Budgie. The album hit the UK charts and spawned a successful single in the shape of, "Race With the Devil." Another solid album, "Hit and Run" was released in 1981 before the group began gearing towards the American market with "Screaming Blue Murder." Unlike many of their contemporaries, Girlschool never called it a day and continue to perform and release new music to this day.
Girlschool - "C'mon Let's Go"
The Midlands traditionally produces excellent metal bands and London had their own stalwarts, as we’ve seen with Angel Witch and Girlschool, however the North East of England also produced some of the NWOBHM’s best bands, as well as the label Neat Records, which released some of the movements greatest records, of which one of the firsts was a single called "Don’t Need Your Money" by Newcastle natives, Raven. Raven were undoubtedly one of the biggest influences on the young American thrash bands and carried with them a live energy matched by no-one of the time, something which they impressively have retained to this day. Their first album, "Rock Until You Drop" is another must have, containing the aforementioned single as well as such outstanding tracks as "Lambs to the Slaughter" and "Hard Ride," as well as being the first album released by Neat. "Rock Until You Drop" is a classic album and so were the succeeding albums, "Wiped Out" and "All For One," the tour for which gave Metallica their first taste of life as a support act. They scored a minor hit with "On and On" from the 1985 album, "Stay Hard" and continue to perform live as only they can, which is commendable given an accident in the early 2000s where a wall fell on guitarist, Mark Gallagher. The band recently supported Fozzy in the United States and is currently working on a new album.
Raven - "Crash Bang Wallop!"
Speaking of influential Geordies, where would metal be today without Venom? The trio’s reluctance to be lumped into the heavy metal category due to lighter bands being slapped with the tag is responsible for the coining of almost every sub-genre we know today. Black metal, death metal, power metal… these were all terms which Venom liked more than heavy metal and which we now recognise as legitimate fields. Their first album, "Welcome to Hell" was reportedly recorded as a demo, though the three day effort was eventually unleashed as their debut full length, with a second, "Black Metal" coming in 1982. "Black Metal" is one of the most important albums in metal music and surely a top five selection for any fan of the era. The title track, "Teacher’s Pet," "Buried Alive," "Countess Bathory"… these were all songs from the album that remain fan favourites, amongst many others. Over the years the group has experienced an array of lineup changes, with frontman Chronos the sole original member in the current formation. They are expected to release a new album this year.
Venom - "Welcome To Hell"
2. Iron Maiden
What? A list where Iron Maiden aren’t at the top? Yes, you read that correctly. They’re damn close though, not least for becoming the most successful New Wave of British Heavy Metal band, selling well over eighty million records across the globe, as well retaining their place as one of the genre's most popular bands. It took Iron Maiden years to get the widespread recognition they enjoy today however, fighting against the punk explosion, lineup changes and more before they released "The Soundhouse Tapes" in 1979, which caught the ears of headbangers across the world. Their self-titled debut album was released in 1980 and immediately hit the top five in the United Kingdom, securing them supporting slots with Kiss and Judas Priest and pushing them to the front of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a position which they were arguably never dethroned from. They weren’t always as the top of the pile, that distinction once belonged to another band, this one from the Yorkshire city of Barnsley, who may not have led the wave for long but sit at the top of our tree…
Iron Maiden - "Running Free"
Some bands represent their genre, others go further and live it and there are those who simply are. Saxon are heavy metal. No bones about it. They were the first band of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal to release a full length album, the 1979 self-titled effort and created works of sheer metal, including two albums in 1980, "Wheels of Steel" and "Strong Arm of the Law," both of which had classic title tracks as well as crowd pleasers such as "Motorcycle Man," "747 (Strangers in the Night)" and "Dallas 1PM." Their fourth album, “Denim and Leather” says it all about heavy metal at the time, the uniform which would spread to the thrash scene and fans all across the world for decades to come, not to mention the title track, which is perhaps the greatest anthem of heavy metal unity ever written. Like the other bands to make the top five, Saxon had a never say die attitude and never called it a day, even when they were unable to reach the dizzying highs many expected them to. They still write, record and perform music now and they’re still are a high quality live act, capable of blowing away their contemporaries, the bands they influenced and even the bands they grew up idolising.
Saxon - "Wheels Of Steel"
So there we have it, this writer’s personal top ten bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but it wasn’t easy choosing only ten. Many of you may have noticed that Def Leppard are missing from the list, chiefly because after their first album, "On Through the Night," the band switched direction noticeably, something which also kept Praying Mantis from the list. If we were to expand the list to eleven bands then Tygers of Pan Tang would certainly be included, as they were another band from the English north east which influenced many and were a favourite of the American thrash bands. Blitzkrieg and Scotland’s, Holocaust were two other bands that were of very high quality, both of which also had songs covered by Metallica. Other bands well worth your time include Witchfynde, Satan, Trespass, Samson, Atomkraft and Jaguar. Some of whom can be heard in the video below:
And so this feature paying tribute to the heroes, known and unsung, of this incredible movement comes to an end. But remember there’s no shortage of NWOBHM acts to discover and in this case, the internet is your friend. Horns up, heads down and happy listening!
Ollie Hynes has been a writer for Metal Underground.com for four years and has been a metal fan for ten years, going so far as to travel abroad for metal shows.
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