In 1978, British rock music was in a funny place. The heaviest acts of the day – Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple – were either defunct or in drugged-out decline.
The biggest, Led Zeppelin, saw the year out in the incongruous surrounds of Abba's Stockholm studio, recording their eighth album, In Through the Out Door, the last before drummer John Bonham died. Glam rock had faded out. Punk had been fashioned into a mass-market commodity before it, too, fizzled away.
Into this void came something called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, or NWOBHM ("nuh-wob-um") as it became known. It was made up of an odd, and oddly British, bunch. Lacking any modish cachet, it has never received the appreciation afforded to the likes of, say, post-punk or ska. No Friday night BBC Four retrospective has ever been commissioned on Angel Witch. But for a time it was a blast of gritty exuberance that reinvigorated rock music and really did alter its course for good.
With a nod to punk's DIY approach to making music and getting it heard, the burgeoning scene took root in pubs, mixing hard riffs with amateur dramatics. Once again, here was rock resetting the dial and going back to basics: it was cheap entertainment for fans to enjoy on a Friday night, something that didn't mean a trek to Earl's Court and shelling out big money for an arena act.
East End metallers Iron Maiden and Sheffield five-piece Def Leppard were two of the bands rising to fill the void. Fellow front-runners included Tygers of Pan Tang and Saxon, from Whitley Bay and Barnsley respectively. Clearly, geography wasn't a defining factor for the scene. Stylistically, too, the spectrum was broad: Girlschool were an all-female outfit while Girl consisted of men who dressed effeminately.
Part of what unified them was simply that they happened to emerge at the same time, which is why older metallers such as Motörhead and Judas Priest stood apart. "The NWOBHM was great for some bands," Motörhead frontman Lemmy recalls. "It didn't do us much good, though. We came along a bit too early for it." The other shared characteristic was attitude.
Rather than wait to receive record company support, towards the end of 1978, Def Leppard borrowed money from singer Joe Elliott's father to fund their first EP. One night in early 1979, Radio 1's John Peel was midway through a DJ set at Sheffield University when Elliott jumped up on stage and handed him a copy of The Def Leppard EP. "That was the smartest thing I ever did," says Elliott now. "John Peel played Def Leppard on his radio show four nights in a row and people started making enquiries."
Similarly motivated, Iron Maiden paid £200 to record a four-track demo tape on New Year's Eve; bassist Steve Harris took his band's cassette to the Heavy Metal Soundhouse at the Bandwagon, a grandiloquently named function room adjacent to the Prince of Wales pub in Kingsbury, northwest London. Resident DJ Neal Kay had made a name for himself by playing heavy rock music there to a devoted clientele through massive speakers.
Though not overly enthusiastic when Harris buttonholed him, Kay vividly recalls playing the tape later that evening. "My first wife was asleep in bed when I got home," he says. "I went into the lounge, fired up the old sound system and listened to Maiden's demo three times. It was unbelievable. The next night I played it at the Soundhouse and everyone went mad."
Winning approval from the regulars at a suburban disco wouldn't appear to be a pivotal career moment. However, weekly music paper Sounds (now long-defunct) published a heavy metal chart compiled by Kay based on crowd requests. From 21 April 1979, the Iron Maiden demo track "Prowler" topped this chart for three months. "That was the start of the band getting some recognition," Harris says.
Soon enough, that attention would become far more widespread. Neal Kay masterminded a bill at Camden's Music Machine [now Koko] that featured Maiden with a couple of Soundhouse favourites, Angel Witch and Samson. Sounds dispatched deputy editor Geoff Barton to review the show, tagging his write-up 35 years ago this month as the first in an occasional series investigating what it called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Editorial hyperbole, perhaps but, as Barton persisted in effusively championing homegrown young rock acts the NWOBHM label stuck and an extraordinary story developed.
Joe Elliott (singer, Def Leppard): The first time Geoff Barton came to see us play was at Crookes Working Mens Club in Sheffield. I picked him up at the train station in my van – a two-seater so you could throw shit in the back. On that particular day, the shit in the back was Ross Halfin and his camera equipment.
Ross Halfin (photographer): That was in June. I was working for Sounds. Crookes Working Mens Club was full of blokes in flat caps. You could get a whisky and Coke for 10p.
Geoff Barton (deputy editor, Sounds): Ross Halfin urinated into Def Leppard's sink backstage, which I guess was their first true "rock'n'roll" experience.
Robb Weir (guitarist, Tygers of Pan Tang): Barton was instrumental in pigeonholing the whole movement. People feel safe when they see where something belongs. It's like knowing which cupboard your favourite trainers are in.
Steve Harris (bassist, Iron Maiden): That was great for us, being right in the thick of it.
Phil Alexander (current editor-in-chief, Kerrang! magazine): A whole slew of bands became grouped under the NWOBHM banner. Geoff Barton enthused about them in such mock-heroic terms that you thought, "I simply need to hear these bands." At the time, it was bit of a challenge to do so. You could only listen to Tommy Vance on The Friday Rock Show [Radio 1] and hope that he would play whoever Geoff had written about that week.
Tony Wilson (producer, The Friday Rock Show): There was so much happening. Very early on we did sessions with Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and other bands that were soon to become big. I used to take part in the Radio 1 playlist committee and push all the latest rock singles, most of which never saw the light of day. They were considered to be novelty records.
Mark Blake (journalist): You can't underestimate the importance of Tommy Vance in all of this.
Tony Wilson: Tommy Vance meant a lot to many bands that felt he'd contributed to their success. Tommy was a great mate as well as being a colleague. Sadly, he died in 2005.
Neal Kay (DJ, the Heavy Metal Soundhouse): I started putting bands on. Maiden came down and you knew when you'd been "Maidened". We still had an early licence. Pub hours. We got it extended to midnight but you had to have a meal in a basket. That was a bloody nuisance.
Mark Blake: You definitely felt that something was going on. There were these younger bands coming through, or in some cases bands that just hadn't made it yet. Saxon were ancient even then.
Steve "Dobby" Dawson (bassist, Saxon): We'd played every dump that there is. In 1979, we paid £5,000 to get on Motörhead's Bomber tour. Part of the deal was that we shared their bus. It was a normal single-decker but they'd put Parker Knoll chairs in it. At that point we didn't drink or anything, mainly because we couldn't afford it. As soon as we got on that bus all hell broke loose. Lemmy had this little brown suitcase. He opened it up and inside there were two bottles of vodka and some orange juice. That was his luggage for the tour. I had more or less every drug known to man in the first hour and was violently ill all the way to Bracknell Sports Centre.
Joe Elliott: When we started off there was no NWOBHM. We were actually quite annoyed when we got lumped in with it because once we started hearing these bands we thought most of them were shit.
Mark Blake: Before Bruce Dickinson joined Iron Maiden, he sang in a band called Samson. They were terrible. Their drummer used to wear a mask and play inside a cage.
Barry "Thunderstick" Purkis (drummer, Samson): I wore an off-the-shoulder leopard skin catsuit with a hooded mask. Later, to soften the image, I covered the mask in diamante so it looked like a mirror ball.
Geoff Barton: Thunderstick was a bit of a Mickey Mouse character. His cage was never convincing – it was so flimsy that it wobbled about. I did an interview with Samson once and he spent the whole time growling. I didn't realise it was supposed to be threatening. I thought he had a speech impediment.
Barry "Thunderstick" Purkis: I was a raving lunatic in those days. I didn't want anyone to see what I looked like. We'd go into a town, wherever we were playing, and I would mask up and start becoming Thunderstick. I would book into hotels like that. It became very lonely. After soundcheck, the rest of the band would say, "Right, we're going off to have something to eat." I'd just sit in the dressing room wearing a mask not even able to have a sandwich.
Geoff Barton: There were hundreds of these bands. Maybe even thousands. Barely a day would go by without a clutch of new NWOBHM singles arriving in the Sounds office. We had to invent a dedicated reviews section to take care of them all. That column was called "Wooargh!"
Brian Tatler (guitarist, Diamond Head): I used to buy Sounds to read about the bands of the day. The writers used to have playlists of records they liked. We did a cassette, sent it off to Geoff Barton and he put it in his playlist. That was a big deal. Somebody who knew his stuff liked us! Somebody in London.
Kim McAuliffe (singer/guitarist, Girlschool): We were on the front page of Sounds. We did the interview in a pub called The Leather Bottle. They said that was appropriate because we wore leather and we had a lot of bottle.
By 1980, Def Leppard had signed a record deal and were being represented by AC/DC's manager, a New Yorker called Peter Mensch (later husband to Louise Mensch, the former Tory MP). Just ahead of the band's first album On Through the Night being released, Sounds ran a cover story entitled "Has the Leppard Changed its Spots?" Inside the 1 March edition, Geoff Barton charged the NWOBHM mainstays with deserting British fans in order to pursue the lucrative American market.
Def Leppard (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Def Leppard's forthcoming single, "Hello America", and an inaugural US tour didn't offer much by way of a rebuttal.
Barton was much kinder when Iron Maiden's self-titled debut came out in April that year, complimenting the music's "blinding speed" and "rampant ferocity". The real masterstroke was the sleeve, which featured an antagonistic ghoulish horror figure known as Eddie. This creature became Maiden's mascot and was used very effectively to sell not only music but also a wide range of merchandise, especially T-shirts.
Ross Halfin: Girl got a hostile reception, but they were a really good band. They were just too glam for all these oiks in the audience.
Phil Collen: We stirred up very strange emotions in some of the guys that used to go and see those bands. They didn't know if they wanted to kick us or kiss us. Phil Lewis, our singer, had a string of amazing girlfriends including Brit Ekland. People got really pissed off and jealous about that.
Robb Weir: Our first album, Wild Cat, came out in 1980. It went straight in the charts at Number 18. After that Jess [Cox, vocalist] left. He wanted to do other things. Our new singer, Jon Deverill, was from the Welsh Valleys; that guy had a pair of lungs on him. He's an actor in the West End now. I think he was in The Sound of Music.
Brian Tatler: Geoff Barton did a big interview with us and we had a full page in Sounds. He absolutely raved about Diamond Head. That made us feel like we could conquer the world! It was an exciting step on that mysterious ride of what you presume is stardom.
Phil Alexander: We believed everything Barton wrote. When he said that Diamond Head's first album, Lightning to the Nations, had more great riffs on it than the first six Black Sabbath albums put together we weren't going, "Don't be stupid". We were, like, "Alright! They must be good."
Brian Tatler: Lightning to the Nations got called The White Album because there was no cover. It's a blank piece of white card. No logo, no picture, no writing. Not even a catalogue number. It was meant to be a kind of promo thing. I think our manager thought we could take it to the record companies and they'll snap the band up. It was released independently so there was no chance of it getting into the charts.
Phil Alexander: NWOBHM wasn't something that was spread right across the media at all. There'd be the odd review in NME but they'd always be so scathing that it wouldn't really matter. They'd write about Angel Witch to say that one of the guys was fat.
Mark Blake: I saw Angel Witch when I was about 15 at the Watersmeet Theatre in Rickmansworth, which was like this provincial town hall.
Kevin Riddles [bassist, Angel Witch]: It was a step up for us. The next night we'd go and play The Green Man on Plumstead High Street. Back to 50 people and the smell of vomit.
Mark Blake: My mate went to the supermarket and got some beer so we were slightly pissed by the time we went in. It was just awful. Kevin Riddles started shouting at the audience and telling them to make more fucking noise. They still had commissionaires in uniform on the door at this place. One of them – this big woman – walked into the crowd and tried to bollock him for using bad language. Someone grabbed her hat, threw it on stage and Riddles put it on.
Kevin Riddles: We were all wearing big crosses, as you did in those days. Just before we went on, that same commissionaire came into the dressing room and said, "Unless you're devotees of Our Lord, I would prefer it if you didn't wear those crosses". That was a red rag to a bull. I took mine off, hung it back on upside down and walked onstage, like, "Hello Rickmansworth! How the fuck are you?" I used to love getting a bit of banter going and having some fun.
Mark Blake: It was smalltown, suburban anarchy. That was hilarious but on the way home I thought the gig was pretty bad even though I'd had one-and-a-half cans of Colt 45.
Kevin Riddles: In 1980, we released a single, "Sweet Danger", that went into the charts for the minimum period, which was one week, at the lowest position, which was 75. We were the only band ever to do that.
Mark Blake: I saw Iron Maiden play at Brunel University in November 1980. They were really on the up then. The audience was exactly like a cliché. You still saw blokes in flared jeans with bar towels sewn onto the arse. That was a look. There was this one massive guy who wore a sleeveless denim jacket and written on the back in Tipp-Ex were the words "Eat Shit". Just a really nihilistic statement. It was a heavy crowd but there was never any trouble. There were loads of women at these shows, too, especially if you went to see Def Leppard. That made it even more exciting.
Barry "Thunderstick" Purkis: Certain women would want to know what it was like to "date" Thunderstick, as it were. There was one occasion when a young lady was in the hotel after a gig. She'd bought a nightie with her for some reason so I set that on fire. She ended up jumping out of the window and running away. It was a ground floor window.
Biff Byford: A lot of girls were into it because you were doing Top of the Pops and stuff like that. We had some great times.
Dobby Dawson: There were various girls up and down England that we all had sex with. We shared them, if you know what I'm saying. It wasn't until I got married that I started having sex on my own.
Robb Weir: We weren't as wild as some but we did some naughty things that can't really be printed. That's best left alone.
Kim McAuliffe: When we played with these bands they seemed to treat us like one of the boys. God knows what they said about us behind our backs! In the old days there used to be the "Get 'em off!" sort of thing from the audience sometimes, but not that much. We'd just go, "Well, you get yours off first."
Towards the end of 1980, Neal Kay was informed that a rival operation had undercut his prices and he was forced to vacate the Prince of Wales. "I'd been there five years," he says. Iron Maiden were encountering problems, too; after their second album, Killers (1981), mercurial singer Paul Di'Anno was dismissed. Unabashed by their treatment at the Reading Festival, Def Leppard teamed up with ace producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange for the melodic power of High 'N' Dry in 1981, a record that allowed them to exploit developing US music television channel MTV.
Fans at an Iron Maiden concert (Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns)
Still, NWOBHM diehards craving something a little stronger were not let down by a budding Geordie trio of cod-satanists called Venom. Iron Maiden also flirted with imagery from the dark side when new singer Bruce Dickinson made his studio debut on 1982's The Number of the Beast.
In January 1983, Def Leppard released Pyromania, an album that would go on to sell 10 million copies in the US alone. Heading in the opposite direction, Diamond Head discovered that the first 20,000 copies of their new LP, Canterbury, had been delivered to shops with a pressing fault so the stylus needle would skip even if it were weighted down with a penny. "That wasn't good," Tatler says. "You'd get letters in Sounds moaning about it."
This commercial calamity, combined with the continued managerial presence of the singer's mother, signalled the end of Diamond Head's major label deal and the band disintegrated.
Indeed, for most NWOBHM acts the writing was on the wall as they were supplanted by US thrash metal and Mötley Crüe's supercharged glam rock. Saxon, though, still had one more culturally meaningful duty to carry out. Ahead of making 1984's satirical documentary This is Spinal Tap, actor Harry Shearer: was seeking inspiration for the character of bassist Derek Smalls. By arranging to spend time with Dobby Dawson he struck the mother lode.
Harry Shearer: I went on part of a tour with Saxon. It was right before we were doing the movie. I really just wanted to see a band that was playing mid-sized arenas, which is where we had sort of placed Tap.
Dobby Dawson: Harry was infatuated by the ridiculousness of rock bands. He took an interest in what I told him about bass playing. I said, "Well, I've developed a style where I try to play as many open strings as possible so I can point at people in the audience. When you point at somebody they go mad." Harry took a shine to that. If you look at heavy metal bands it's silly, really. You can't take yourself too seriously in that environment. It is a bit pantomime.
Bruce Dickinson: I'm not embarrassed by Spïnal Tap moments. They're hilarious. Thinking, "Gosh, it's a bit draughty in here," looking downstairs and there's your plums dangling in the front row of the audience...
Steve Harris: I've gone steaming up to the drum riser, slipped and got my bass stuck in the kit. Things like that. Did I find Spinal Tap funny? Of course! They probably modelled half of it on us. I take it as a compliment.
Biff Byford: I don't really relate to that. We feel as though we got rid of the Spinal Tap element of the band a long time ago. It's not a documentary, is it? It's a comedy feature film.
Bruce Dickinson: 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.
Phil Alexander: After a while, even Sounds could no longer muster the enthusiasm to tell you they'd discovered the future of rock'n'roll when clearly what they'd actually discovered was some two-bit band from Norwich.
Mark Blake: Only Def Leppard and Iron Maiden really made it. Everything just moved on and the fans started to form bands, the prime example being Metallica. Suddenly, there's another bunch of 16-year-olds coming through and they want their own stuff. I never really went for Mötley Crüe. I couldn't get the hair right. You could only go so far with a mullet.
Dobby Dawson: Maiden's manager didn't look on it as a cash cow for himself. They built an empire and it's still going strong. We more or less got shafted big time.
Rod Smallwood: The band's bigger now than it's ever been in terms of live business. You fly around the world playing to tens of thousands of people who love what you're doing. What's not to like?
Steve Harris: We're still up for doing it and the demand is still there. It's not exactly a chore.
Joe Elliott: There are only a few survivors from that movement. Saxon, apparently, are still going in one form or another.
Biff Byford: We've continued to write great albums and our music is still relevant.
Dobby Dawson: In 1986, our manager said to me, "We should talk about your future in the band." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You haven't got one. You're sacked." Just like that. I was rock'n'roll, really enjoying myself. All the others wanted to do was moan about wanting to go home. They just thought I was a twat. I wasn't. Anyway, that was the culmination of it.
Peter Mensch: I don't talk to Def Leppard any more. They fired me in 2005. When you fire me, you're dead to me.
Barry "Thunderstick" Purkis: Unfortunately, we became one of the also-rans. I look on Thunderstick in the third person now. I'm quite boring and mundane compared to him. Once upon a time he was me but now he's definitely an alter ego that comes out of the cupboard every now and then for festivals and that kind of thing.
Kim McAuliffe: We did go quiet for a few years but we've never split up because, basically, we've got no other friends! We have to see each other for a social life.
Kevin Riddles: Looking back, it makes me smile. Two marriages and God knows what else it ended up costing me… I still don't have a pot to piss in and I don't give a shit! It was an absolutely brilliant time to be playing in bands and I feel privileged that I was there.
Neal Kay: The Prince of Wales has been pulled down. Can you believe that? They pulled down the Soundhouse. It's a Tesco now.
Brian Tatler: I appreciate how hard it is to make it because I've had a go myself. We gave it our all but still it didn't work. That's life. To a lot of people we did bloody great but compared to your big boys we were just one of the foot soldiers.
Lars Ulrich: In 1998, we did a record called Garage Inc that was a compilation of covers. Metallica covered a lot of NWOBHM bands. I believe that may have worked out well for everybody involved.
Brian Tatler: There's four Diamond Head songs on that album. It sold five million copies. We'd have a wage but we never sold records. When we did the Reading Festival in 1982, I was on £25 a week. I've paid for my house now with Metallica's help. Awesome!
Robb Weir: I loved every minute of it. Of course, I'm lucky enough to be doing it again now. We still play all over the world and do extremely well. Who gets two bites at the cherry?
Dobby Dawson: Robb Weir is in Tygers Of Pan Tang but he also serves drinks and sandwiches on the East Coast Main Line. Robb knows me because we've done shows with them. We're both in the same gutter, if you know what I mean, has-beens trying to eke a living out of shit gigs. I was going to London on the train about four years ago. He saw me before I saw him so he's coming down the aisle with his trolley hoping I'd get off before he reached me, which I didn't. I thought it was a laugh. You take the piss, don't you? Robb's a great guy. He can get you a discount on train tickets, too. The only problem is you've got to stand in the guard's van.
Main Image: VENOM; shoot in the Royal Docks, by Fin Costello/Redferns