Surfing the Waves of British Heavy Metal

The below is not a comprehensive history of heavy metal, British or otherwise. Those of you who would like to read such a thing, though, can do no better than Ian Christe's Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, from which all quoted sections below are taken unless otherwise noted. This is an overview only of how I've come to organize the information based on my own interactions with it over the years.

I've previously raved about Chuck Klosterman's Fargo Rock City, a memoir of "growing up metal" in North Dakota, but I'd also like to recommend Seb Hunter's lesser-known Hell Bent for Leather: Confessions of a Heavy Metal Addict, which is a little like the British version of Fargo Rock City, making it perhaps more appropriate for this particular blog.

As I'll be using the term repeatedly, a good place to start would be to ask the obvious question: Qu'est-ce que c'est le "heavy metal?" 

William S. Burroughs named a character in his 1964 novel Nova Express 'Uranium Willy, the heavy metal kid.' The critic Lester Bangs later applied the term to music. Before them, heavy metal was a nineteenth-century term used in warfare to describe firepower and in chemistry to designate elements of high molecular density. When 'Born to Be Wild songwriter John Kay howled about 'heavy metal thunder' in 1968, he was describing only the blare of motorcycles.

My own first association with the term came via Saxon, whose song "Heavy Metal Thunder" is still what erupts across my mental HQ whenever I read or hear the term. But we'll be spending plenty of time with Saxon towards the end of this blog, so we'll put the lads from Sheffield aside for now.

The term acquired its current meaning with the arrival of Black Sabbath, universally recognized as the godfather of the genre.

Still an amazingly creepy and atmospheric cover.

Without Sabbath, the phrase was an accident of poetry, the empty prophecy of a thousand monkeys hammering on typewriters in search of a Bible. (...) Emerging like the monolith in Kubrick's 2001, Sabbath was as irreducible as the bottomless sea, the everlasting sky, and the mortal soul. There was no precedent - and no literal explanation of their power was needed. Their gloomy tones were a captivating siren call to a deep unsatisfied void within modern consciousness. The rumbling sludge of heavy metal was inevitable, lying in long wait to be introduced by Black Sabbath in 1970 and adored by the massive human sprawl. (They) remain the bedrock, the heavy stone slab from which all heavy metal rises.

That description is pretty metal itself! I would place Sabbath at the forefront of what I'll call the FIRST WAVE of British Heavy Metal, alongside such luminaries as Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, UFO, and of course Led Zeppelin. (Zeppelin more or less comprises a category-of-one.) The British rock scene of the late 60s and early 70s incubated a variety of genres that all had their roots in "rock and roll," essentially, and by the end of the 70s, you had a variety of divergent directions from that common starting point. But as far as what we mean when we say "metal," Sabbath is a good catch-all answer. And still is. As Bill Ward told Guitar magazine around the time of the Reunion tour: "Today it seems like heavy metal replaced what the blues was (when we were starting.) Everybody gets up and does "Paranoid" instead of the old blues stuff."

And "Smoke on the Water," of course, which as we all know is the first riff everyone learns on an electric guitar. Ritchie Blackmore, by the way, left metal behind in later years to become a Celtic troubadour, allegedly because he grew tired of the charge that all metal was based on "stealing the blues" and wanted to showcase British music's much older roots.

While their music isn't my cup of tea, the set-up is very metal.

Back to Sabbath: I'm baffled by the variety of answers given out there in internet-land on what Sabbath's best album is. The answer is obvious; it is Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath (1973.)

There should be no confusion on this topic, yet disagreement abounds.
With uncredited keyboards by Rick Wakeman - prog rock and heavy metal would diverge many times after 1973, but it was all of a piece at one point in time.

Ozzy stole the spotlight at the 2002 White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington D.C. - taking tremendous applause from the political elite as President George W. Bush sang the praises of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," oblivious to the fact that Ozzy was once arrested for urinating on the Alamo.

Of the other bands I mentioned, UFO might be the second most influential. Outside of a couple of tunes, I'm unfamiliar with the bulk of their work, but their twin-leads sound is an oft-mentioned influence for bands who came in their wake. (Indeed, Maiden - who expanded the twin leads concept to three leads starting with Brave New World, as covered elsewhere, covers UFO's "Doctor, Doctor." Blaze sings on that, not Bruce.) You could just as easily say Thin Lizzy for the twin-leads sound, but UFO probably gets mentioned more.

Another First Wave band that casts a longer shadow than its popular success might indicate is Budgie.

Cover by Roger Dean. Another Yes connection! 
They definitely had an interesting approach to album cover design.
I knew "Breadfan" and "Crash Course in Brain Surgery" from Metallica's versions of those songs, but I'd never listened to the source material until just last week. I dig it. It's easy to hear their influence on later bands (from Van Halen to Alice In Chains and Soundgarden.)

Although I've never seen them referred to as such, I'd say the MID-WAVE of British Heavy metal is best exemplified by three acts, two of them ongoing, one deceased: Ronnie James Dio, Motörhead, and Judas Priest.

On first glance, Dio might seem out of place on that list. For one thing, he's not British. Fair enough, but he came to prominence as the lead singer of Rainbow, once Blackmore split from Deep Purple, and eventually replaced Ozzy in Black Sabbath itself. By the time he started a solo career in the 80s, he was already metal royalty, pretty much. Dio, whom a friend once referred to, respectfully, as "the Neil Diamond of heavy metal," passed away in 2010.

His legacy lives on in Bulgaria.
I had the chance to see Dio when his band toured with Maiden in 2003. Great show. The opener was Motörhead.

We arrived to the concert hall just as the show was starting, and as we were waiting in line, we heard the show start. My friend said "Oh great, we're missing 'Ace of Spades.'" Turned out, tho, we didn't; it's just that, like the Ramones, the opening strands of a great deal of Motörhead's catalog can be mistaken for "Ace of Spades." (My other anecdote from that show: the guy two rows behind me kept screaming - loud enough to be heard over the sonic assault from the stage - "MAKE MY EARS FUCKING BLEED! MAKE 'EM BLEED!" He was carried out by paramedics before Motörhead even finished their set. Metal.)

Motörhead has released a ridiculous amount of albums over the years and is still kicking, though for how much longer is anyone's guess. Like Keith Richards, Lemmy's continued survival remains a source of much speculation and bemusement. He had to cancel last year's European tour on account of illness, but he appears to be on the mend

(EDIT 12/30/2015: Lemmy passed away on Dec. 28. RIP loudly!)

Two tidbits from those articles: 1) Lemmy mentions "my friend Slash." Slash is friends with everybody, seriously. (Well, except Axl.) Whatever six-degrees-of game all these metal guys belong to, Slash is the Kevin Bacon of the bunch. And 2) (from the second) "Lemmy says he worries about the future of his beloved rock and roll as his generation eases past middle age into retirement or worse. He sees few younger artists committed enough to the tradition to carry it into the future. "'There's nobody now,' he says. 'There is going to be a huge hole, and nobody to step into it." You can see the concern on his face. 'I think it's important music. It's the constant music of this generation and the last one and the last one.'"

In non-metal circles, Judas Priest is probably best known for the movie Rock Star, based on the real-life story of Ripper Owens, or for being gay. Or for "You've Got Another Thing Coming," which has been used in commercials, movies, tv, video-games, etc. All of these things are noteworthy, of course, but this only scratches the surface of their legacy. I'm not even going to attempt to do so here, but take my word for it, when it comes to metal legends, Priest is on anyone's short list.

At one point, they were my favorite band, hands-down.

I remember being asked at the bus stop in 7th or 8th grade what my favorite song was, and I answered "Turbo Lover."
The confused looks I received in response confirmed what I already suspected: the music scene in my new home of North Smithfield, Rhode Island, was a whole lot different than it had been back in Sprendlingen and Weiderstadt in Hesse, Germany.

They got a lot of flak for "selling out" with Turbo (MTV videos, keyboards, etc.) and seemed to get self-conscious about it, as all subsequent releases got heavier and faster and, to my ears, less tuneful. I lost interest somewhere around Painkiller, although I remain tickled pink that they released an album named Jugulator - that title is too damn funny. From their back catalog, Defenders of the Faith is arguably their high point, but British Steel is a start-to-finish metal classic. Totally underrated.

Priest headlined the last day of the 1983 U.S. Festival and played to over 600,000 people. That is a staggering amount of concertgoers, especially for a concert on U.S. soil. Normally, numbers like that (though hardly ever over half-a-million; that is singular) are reserved for South American tours.

Such was the loyalty inspired by Judas Priest that impressionable new bands from abroad chose their names from every song but one on the masterful 1979 live album Unleashed in the East - Excited, Running Wild, Sinner, Ripper, Green Manalishi, Victim of Changes, Genocide and Tyrant. Only "Diamonds and Rust," a Joan Baez cover, did not inspire a namesake.

I can't recall the first time I read or heard the expression NEW WAVE of British Heavy Metal (or as it is commonly abbreviated NWOBHM) but of the three waves discussed, here, it is the only "official" one. It was created to distinguish the bands that began appearing in the wake of punk around the United Kingdom. Its two most famous alumni are Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. (Their sound became about as un-metal as you could get as the 80s wore on, but you can definitely hear the NWOBHM influence on their first album and even more on their demo EP, particularly "Getcha Rocks Off." It's still there on High and Dry and Pyromania, but that's pretty much where Def Leppard got off the NWOBHM train for good.)

I liked Maiden and Leppard pretty much from the go. At the time, I remember a few friends trying to get me into Venom.

In a scene as diverse as the NWOBHM, there had to be a place where all the despised grit and filth collected. That was unlikely Kerrang! * darling Venom, who catered to more aggressive appetites with militant Satanism and a "They want bad? We'll give them bad!" philosophy. Indebted to Kiss for inspiration and to deviant Roman emperor Caligula for execution, Venom played fast, distorted muck for the sake of speed, then sprinkled on occult imagery to scare off critics. 

* Kerrang! is the Cahiers du Cinéma / Sight and Sound of the metal world.

Venom peaked in 1984 with At War with Satan, an album featuring a 17-minute track by the same name. Indulging every excess of its considerably crazy career, Venom raunched through the complete saga of Hell's minions assaulting Heaven. In the irony-laden storyline, demons invade Heaven and toss out the angels, who then regroup in Hell and return tainted with wrath to disrupt and destroy the demonic victory party.

"Taking up an entire album side with this deranged concept was commercial blasphemy from a band with little hope of radio play."

Though it was inconceivable at the time, Venom would become of the NWOBHM's most influential bands. Their comically evil act was routinely discounted by writers and fellow musicians, but they fascinated fans. Venom could not keep a consistent tempo, their mixes were drenched in reverb and distortion to hide the ineptitude, and songs like "Poison" and "Live Like an Angel, Die Like a Devil" dissolved into howling noise by the finish.

Sounds a little like punk in that description, but no one would confuse their sound with anything but the blackest, doomsiest metal. I'd say Venom more than any other band save perhaps Witchfinder General -

Not to be confused with Witchfynde, mind you!

is the obvious prototype for the "doom metal" movement that lives on today in Norwegian death metal and the thousand-and-one subdivisions to which various bands lay claim. Venom, it should be noted, had their tongues firmly in cheek; that aspect of it seems to be missing from later doom-metal incarnations.

The ultimate platitude was reached earlier than all of these, actually, with the band Satan. I mean, that's pretty much the last stop on that train, right? You can't out-Satan Satan.

Call black metal's dress code and arcane semantics an addictive power fantasy for rejects, but it required a special rarefied sensibility for fans to don shirts depicting giant blazing pentagrams and memorize long lyrical lines of barely audible blasphemy. Constant shout-outs to Satan were distracting and distressing to the unassimilated ear, but like most youth ideologies, mock devil worship merely expressed the desire to smash societal restraints and carve a special place for unfettered fun. Or, in the words of Possessed's Larry Lalone: If you believe in all of this Satan stuff, you have to be stupid.

Then there was Grim Reaper. "Wasted Love" and "Night of the Vampire" are probably their best known tracks, but when I need an instant shot of metal hilarity, I personally go for:

I'd like to say "not at their expense, of course," but... maybe a little bit. This stuff is so powerfully ridiculous that it's hard to figure out if it wasn't parody of some kind. If you're the sort to get a kick out of such things, it doesn't get much better than "Rock You To Hell." The first candidate to make this his or her campaign song gets my vote for all eternity. Bombast metal at its silly best. 

Before moving on, I sometimes wonder if the complete lack of humor in so much of the black metal to come is in response to stuff like this. I mean, Satan comes across as kind of a goofy dude in these things. The legacy of "Rock You To Hell" lives on better, perhaps in something like Little Nicky.

"The Prince of Darkness should have a sort of distinguished look to him, and let's face facts, I'm no George Clooney..." I know a lot of people hate this movie, but practically every joke in it lands with me. And I blame bands like Venom and Grim Reaper for that.

The nearest miss of the NWOBHM era was Diamond Head. Its landmark Lightning to the Nations was recorded in 1980 and released in a plain white sleeve decorated only with the four members' autographs. The songs were also clean and modern, jammed with a fast, antiseptic heaviness that fled the dark alleys of Iron Maiden for the gleaming skyscrapers and groceries of the unborn New Britain. Though they helped define the NWOBHM with their power chords and optimism, they became disembodied observers of their own doomed career. Diamond Head was like an ethereal ghost, damned by Led Zeppelin comparisons and incapable of discovering salvation.

I'm not too familiar with Diamond Head, outside of "Am I Evil," which, of course, every Metallica fan knows start-to-finish. Ditto for Mercyfyul Fate, although of course I am passing familiar with King Diamond. No self-respecting metal fan couldn't be.

If thrash metal someday engendered a Las Vegas casino show, King Diamond would be the fake-blood-drinking emcee - wearing his black top hat and waving his trademark bone cross mic stand like a showman's cane.

Before we get to my other favorite of the NWOBHM era, a few words on Tygers of Pan Tang, who like Budgie, I'd often heard of but never listened to until only a week or so until very recently.

Good stuff. If you like Maiden, you'll enjoy Tygers of Pan Tang. The band's most famous alum is probably John Sykes, the guitarist eventually for Whitesnake, seen by a hundred million young Americans later in the 80s.

Demon was a band that never seemed to live up to the wonderfully spooky way they opened their albums, but "One Helluva Night" is a top 5 NWOBHM tune.

My brother had a Halloween party one year (I want to say 1983 or 1984) and I was told to stay upstairs and out of everyone's way. Which I did, but I came downstairs at one point to go to the kitchen/ peek in. Everyone was gone (I think out in the backyard for something or other) and this song was cranking on the stereo. I remember standing there in the doorway with this cranked, completely by myself in the house, with the chorus blaring over and over again.

Although little-known, for me it's a classic as evocative of its era as "Come On Eileen," "You Shook Me All Night Long" or many others.

Finally, Saxon. My childhood and early adolescence was absolutely saturated with these guys. It's tough to pick just one song from their catalog. That's the weird part about these guys; for a band as relatively off-the-radar as can be, on U.S. shores at least, they have 20 or 25 songs that you hear and instantly recognize as a classic, even if you've never heard it before. They just have "that sound."

True, their album covers tend towards the unremarkable:

Oh dear.
but Saxon remains the proverbial book never to judge by its cover(s.) Absolutely essential. Whether it's straight-up metal madness (Motorcycle Man, Warrior, Battle Cry, Power and the Glory) rock anthems (Denim and Leather, This Town Rocks,) historical storytelling (And the Band Played On, Sailing to America) swagger-riff classics (Strong Arm of the Law,) what my buddy Derek used to call "metal for sensitive hockey players" (Northern Lady, Suzy Hold On, Waiting for the Night) or my sometimes-favorite of all their tunes (Nightmare) always delivers. One of these days I will listen to the dozen albums they've released since the last new one I bought (Solid Ball of Rock.)

From 2012

Before we part, a few words on Metallica. I tried to avoid all American bands in this blog, but Metallica deserves a mention for two reasons. One, alone among any metal band in the 80s, they dramatically expanded their audience in the 90s while (practically) everyone else's shrank, making any conversation about metal that doesn't include them irrelevant. And two, it was Metallica's endless championing of obscure NWOBHM bands that led to those bands who never quite made the big time (Budgie, Killing Joke, Diamond Head, et al) receiving some recognition (not to mention royalties) for their pioneering efforts.

Whatever one may think of their later work or their battles with Napster, Metallica exemplified the NWOBHM spirit and forced the music industry to deal with them on their own terms. "Eclipsing the popularity of the entire grunge and lite punk genres, Metallica sold more than 22 million CDs in America just between 1995 and 2000, while touring and remaining internationally popular. Metallica's total career headline gross for North American shows during this period was $218 million."

Remarkable stuff for a band that grew from a couple of guys who got together just to listen to Lars Ulrich's NWOBHM tapes. Their influence even extends to Psy-Ops, and I close this trip down Headbangers' Lane with one final excerpt from Sounds of the Beast:

Unbelievably - as if it agreed that American culture was painful - U.S. Army Psychological Operations announced it was subjecting captured enemy combatants to repeated plays of "Enter Sandman" during interrogation. James Hetfield called this news "absurd and sad." (Lars Ulrich quipped "I feel horrible about this... how about firing up some Venom?") Just a few miles away, Kid Rock was using "Enter Sandman" as backing music on his USO tour to boost the morale of American troops. 

Not for the first time, the irony was totally lost on the Army. As Army Sgt. Mark Hadsell told Newsweek: "Trust me, it works. They can't take it."


  1. This was an awesome post. However, all of the good will it generated was instantly sapped away by that Grim Reaper video; their singer may be the ugliest rock star I have ever seen, and in a world that once included Joey Ramone, that's saying something.

    I kid. About the sapped good-will; not about the the ugliness of that LV -- he's hideous. Pretty cool song, though; I'd never heard it.

    I was a low-grade metalhead in my early high-school days, but I was restricted to whatever cassettes happened to be in the discount bin or the used section at my local music stores. Plus whatever happened to be on MTV when I was able to turn it on. None of my friends shared that particular interest, and consequently, there are massive gaps in my metalological knowledge. For example, I know next to nothing about Judas Priest, and literally nothing about any number of the other bands mentioned here (most of the ones Metallica covered; Saxon, the awesomely-named Tygers of Pan Tang, who I'd never heard of until about ten minutes ago; Venom, Witchfinder General; and so on). I suspect I would have greatly appreciated being hepped to all of them back in the day.

    For that matter, I appreciate it now! So much metal, so little time to rock...

    1. "So much metal, so little time to rock" is the story of my life, my friend!

      I hope in some small way I've machete'd a path through this particular maze of overgrowth.

      I often wonder how my life would have been different had we not moved to Germany for most of the 80s. I suspect at the very least my musical library would be quite, quite different.

      Too bad I can't hop in the time machine and start sending you tapes in the mid-80s - we could've blogged all this out as-we-went!

      Of all these bands and links, that Demon tune and Saxon in general (particularly their first 8 or 9 albums) are all infinitely replayable. I have no idea why songs as catchy, accessible, and kick-ass as those never found a wider audience here in the States. Venom / Napalm Death, okay, sure (actually, I think ND did better in the States than Saxon ever did) - but Saxon? I mean, it seems like it'd be right at home at any jukebox in America. (shrugs)

      I'll just crank it on my own, I guess.

      I really should edit this to read 'READ AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.' But I'll just put that here in the comments. :-)

  2. Very cool trip down musical memory lane. Fun fact. You said you lost interest around pan killer. That album killed all music except very heavy metal for me for years and years. One of my listen to this to understand HEAVY metal albums and still in my top 5 album list

    1. I'd be very curious to get the rest of your top 5, Ray! Lay 'em on me.

      If memory serves, you and I had some fun metal discussions back in the ECC KP days. I think it was you, actually, who got me to listen to my first Pantera. (Or possibly Helmet. Maybe it was Biohazard.) Those 2 summers (93 and 94) I only had eyes for Phish, The Beatles, and Frank Sinatra, ha - but the metal fire never went out.

    2. By the way, I LOVED Painkiller when it came out. That was the last new Priest I ever bought, come to think of it. I should give it another listen.

      "Desert Plains" (from "Point of Entry") has been getting some airtime lately. And the whole British Steel album - so damn good.