What brought the New Wave of British Heavy Metal out of the 70s and punched it straight into the devilish heart of 2016 London?
I don’t go to as many gigs as I’d like to anymore, but even my rare descents into the Camden Underworld have shown me that something weird is happening to Britain’s metal scene.
The NWOBHM is making a comeback
For those not in the know, the New Wave of British heavy Metal first turned up in the late 70s, with bands like Iron Maiden, Saxon and the nascent Def Leppard deciding that actually, they really didn’t have much in common with Toto and Kansas, and maybe it would be a good idea to crank things up a bit and write some tunes that appealed to their working-class roots.
This led to a surfeit of songs about large, oily machinery (Saxon’s ‘Motorcycle Man’), murderers (erm… still Saxon’s ‘Motorcycle man’, if I’m being honest) and the occasional chainsaw demon to spice things up.
Crystallising around the legendary/almost forgotten Ruskin Arms in East London, it was always a resolutely unfashionable sub-genre. In many ways it’s aesthetic was a reaction to the turn-up, close-cropped skinhead look that dominated at the time, while it’s core sound was a mix of classic hard rock with a dash of the speed and Do It Yourself attitude of punk.
NWOBHM, while not entirely removed from the inherent ridiculousness of a whole lot of metal (and I’m saying this as a lifelong fan), did give it a street-level brutish force that resonated with younger audiences. Yes, it still dealt in escapism, but frankly if you were a teenager at the arse-end of 70s Britain then getting away from it for a couple of hours was a godsend.
It’s also, for some strange reason… making a comeback.
Like anything that’s suddenly big in music, this resurgence has actually been happening for the best part of a decade, and the reasons for it are not unfamiliar.
Got to get some action, Got to rock tonight
Got to get the volume,To slay you with its might
Get into metal, That’s what it’s about
Come on everybody – Now lets hear you shout
– ‘Rock Until You Drop’, Raven
Metal has tended towards the cyclical in the past. The last time out, Nu-Metal hit the mainstream and gave rise to NWOSDM, a new wave of technical, melodic death metal led by Sweden, which in turn inspired a second wave of black metal to emerge. Each eschewing the more mainstream trappings of its predecessor to make something… well, something more ‘TRVE’.
Incidentally, you can thank British rock journo Geoff Barton, writer for Sounds and the first editor of Kerrang! for birthing all these weird acronyms, based on a review of Angel Witch and Iron Maiden playing down at the Camden Music Machine – known as KOKO these days.
As with most genres, NWOBHM only truly stuck around for a year or two. Between 1979 and 1981 a hundred long-haired, denim-clad groups began plying their trade up and down the motorways and working men’s clubs of Britain. And events played out as they usually do. The majors sniffed a trend and snapped up some of the leading lights. Iron Maiden went to EMI, Def Leppard to Mercury. MCA also had a moment or two of madness, recruiting Diamond Head and Tygers of Pan Tang, both of which they then quickly ruined by forcing them to accept the corporate rock template.
Some of these bands got huge, some slogged it out, and continue to – Saxon have now become an institution through sheer grit, touring the endless hinterlands of the European festival circuit for nigh-on thirty years, while others…. Called it a day. I have childhood memories of the singer from Quartz running a pub near my parent’s house. And I also have more recent memories of seeing them reunite to smash our some great tunes last year at the Live Evil festival in London.
The New NWOBHM
And that brings us back to the present. In the past few years we’ve seen London’s metal scene beginning to regain some of its former glory. It is actually odd that so many of these events are appearing in London, a fashion-forward town that drove the metal scene ever-northward for much of the previous 30 years. While pubs like the Intrepid Fox have gone, gigs and record fairs and mini-festivals have become the order of the day.
Live Evil in Tufnell Park is currently leading the pack, with a line up featuring perennial doom-rockers Pentagram (who happen to be American, but still fit the template), and Girlschool, a group about which much has been written. Suffice to say they were brave enough to be women playing metal in the early 80’s, who weren’t forced by their record company to overly exploit their sexuality along the way – instead, they relied on raw talent.
Oh, and then there’s Demon, who are the reason I’ll be going. As far as I can tell, Demon were born being 60 years old, but there’s something so fantastically spooky about their first two albums that… well, I digress. Suffice to say that they are excellent.
There’s also the GDR festival, focusing on NWOBHM specifically, and featuring the aforementioned Quartz, and Blitzkrieg, a decent if unrefined group who got back together for Germany’s Wacken festival a few years back and haven’t stopped since.
Previous years have seen BattleAxe, Soldier and more unearthed, while new acts like Ranger are doing their best to ape the sound and style of 1981, all galloping basslines and lyrics about treacherous sea-lords or street fighters. Some of this may have sprung from the recent-ish trend towards ‘folk-horror metal’.
Groups like Blood Ceremony and The Oath attempting to draw on the primordial unease of the Wicker Man and force it through a 70s folksy filter, Which in turn sprung from the poisoned well of doom metal. Which came from Death. Which came from Thrash… which came from NWOBHM. Metal is not above embracing its heritage.
As ever, it’s probably a reaction. Most metal has –like it or not – gone mainstream. The digital age means that you no longer have to send a blank tape to a mysterious address in Belgium and hope something comes back in order to uncover new music. Big labels happily host metal acts alongside pop and hip-hop artists, and those that dare dub themselves ‘music fans’ will also usually admit to having a ‘diverse taste’ in music. Beyonce is good. So are Radiohead (sometimes). So is Sexwitch. And I’m not disputing that. Personally I’ve always had a soft spot for Duran Duran.
The Vikings they were conquerors, they sought to rule the land,
Many peaceful villages were crushed beneath their hands –
Blades of Steel, – SATAN
The NWOBHM club however, Does Not Agree. All over the place you’ll see people with denim cutoffs covered in patches. Men of 22 buying albums that have drawings of men of 47 on the covers. Stonewash jeans. Leather trousers matched with white hi-tops.
NWOBHM is deliberately, perversely unfashionable as absolute fuck, and in that, there’s a sense of unity. A sense of tribalism that may have disappeared from music in the last two decades or so. It’s not particularly hard to find albums by NWOBHM bands, but you need to know what you are looking for.
In many cases they are out of print, so actually perusing the record bins at a charity shop and going “Fuck it, this has got a picture of a skeleton punching a goat on the cover, I’ll give it a go!” or simply being part of a community and sharing knowledge. Or maybe it’s just a need for something a little simpler. Escapism combined with the knowledge that hey, you could do this too. Oh, and the audience for cracking guitar tunes never really goes away does it?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s also a vague chance that half of these bands will drop dead at any given moment, so seeing them live has the added thrill of rarity. If that’s too cynical for you – and it probably is. One thing NWOBHM isn’t is cynical – then maybe it’s just the thrill of listening to something unpretentious, that exists outside of trends. That manages to be genuinely underground while still being inclusive. Age and sex and dress-sense are definitely not a barrier to entry, although you may occasionally be called out on your ability to remember the lyrics from a Praying Mantis album.
Don’t worry, they’re brilliant:
Daylight giving way to night
Darkness roams the sky
Sinners of the night return to sanguinary cry
A virgin’s life falls to the grave
Submitting to the call
Her blood to bathe the devil’s needs
Her body has no soul
Who can argue with that?
Blitzkrieg, Quartz, Warrior, Tytan, Soldier and Sacrilage will be NWOBHM-ing it up at the GDR Festival in London on June 25th. Find out more and grab some tickets over on their Facebook page.