A History of NWOBHM!
This year sees the 31st anniversary of one of our most thoroughly titled musical genres: the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, abbreviated to NWOBHM, and pronounced “nuh-wobbum”. It’s a realm of rapid-fire riffs and heroic declarations about motorbikes, the Charge of the Light Brigade and sticking it to the boss. It’s also a place of much bathos and human fallibility. One NWOBHM group toured in a van bearing the trademark of its previous owner: Sid Cummings – Tripe Dealer. Another band’s drummer played inside a cage while wearing what was often referred to as a “rapist mask”. He called himself Thunderstick, though his parents knew him better as Barry Purkis.
NWOBHM was not solely the preserve of bathos. Two of its leading lights, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, went on to become among the biggest groups in the world, forging long-lasting careers. But they do not, perhaps, represent the British metal scene in its truest light. Def Leppard’s transatlantic inclinations soon removed them from the scene that spawned them (and from the affections of hardcore metalheads back home), while Maiden became the international gold standard for metal. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal centres on the hordes of bands who never quite eclipsed the thing that spawned them. They came pouring in from the provinces – bands such as Saxon (from Barnsley), Sledgehammer (Slough) and the Tygers of Pan Tang (Whitley Bay). And the club that became the unofficial HQ of NWOBHM was perhaps the least glamorous centre of any scene. Where the British R&B boom of the 60s had the Marquee and New York punk had CBGBs, NWOBHM had a room attached to the Prince of Wales pub in the north-west London suburb of Kingsbury, where the Soundhouse club would see fans playing along to favourite songs on hardboard cutout guitars – a trend begun by a wedding photographer called Robin Yeatman. So influential was the Soundhouse that Iron Maiden’s first release was called The Soundhouse Tapes.
The term New Wave of British Heavy Metal was first used in 1979 in the now-defunct British music weekly Sounds. It encompassed a mass of young hard rock bands who swore fealty to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, but who mixed this heritage with a new urgency and a DIY mindset, both derived from punk – and the scene was drawn together by a compilation album called Metal for Muthas released in February 1980.
“Punk was definitely important,” says Saxon frontman Biff Byford. “It just created a different mood – like when Def Leppard put out their own EP. We actually supported the Clash in Manchester in 1977. I bumped into Joe Strummer about five years ago. I couldn’t believe it, but he actually remembered the show. He said they’d been jamming our song 747 in their dressing room.”
Saxon are the band who toured in the tripe van. They’re generally linked to Barnsley, but Biff Byford grew up in a West Yorkshire village with an even more dripping-infused name: Skelmanthrope. His life before Saxon reads like something from Mike Leigh. Before becoming a rock star – it’s easy to forget now, but Saxon had proper hits in the early 80s, appeared on Top of the Pops, and were on the bill of the first Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington in 1980 – he had been a miner and a textile worker, which cost him part of a finger. In his 2007 autobiography, Never Surrender, he remembers his sexual initiation at the hands of two women for whom he’d been baby-sitting. “They gave me a hand job there and then,” he writes. “They still paid me as well – two shillings and sixpence.”
“I worked as a carpenter,” says Byford today, remembering the pre-Saxon days. “Then I went down the coal mine. I worked at the coal face for a while, but I was too tall – 6ft 1in. Next, I worked on the steam engines that bring the cage up and down. It was loud, big machinery – pretty heavy metal. When the band started to take
off, it did feel like I was escaping. The band was totally DIY. Our PA was home-made – we went to the library and got books on how to build speaker cabinets. With NWOBHM, people just knew this thing was about to break. It was a very exciting time.”
Saxon’s early shows found Byford augmenting the band’s power chords with pantomime menace – mock-furiously threatening the soundman with a metal chain. He’d cajole the audience with the bawdy banter of an old-school northern comedian – more Jimmy Tarbuck than Jimmy Page. Given this end-of-pier element, it isn’t surprising to learn Saxon’s big breakthrough interview in Sounds was based around a show on an actual pier, the one that juts out into Colwyn Bay.
If NWOBHM sometimes suggests a louder version of George Formby, that makes some sense. The vast majority of the NWOBHM bands were working class. Many came from the Midlands and the north – Def Leppard from Sheffield, Diamond Head from Stourbridge, Vardis from Wakefield, Demon from Leek in Staffordshire. The north-east, especially, was prominent in this manly domain, producing Fist, Raven, White Spirit, and the Tygers of Pan Tang. One of the rare exceptions to the purely working-class roots of the genre was the singer of the London band Samson (the band who also gave us the drummer in the rapist’s mask). The frontman called himself Bruce Bruce, but became better known in 1981 when he reverted to his real name of Bruce Dickinson and joined Iron Maiden. His parents were far from blue-blooded, but they did send him to Oundle public school. He also became a fencing fanatic.
One of the most important NWOBHM bands never had any hits – their legacy lay in the bands who were inspired by them, notably Metallica, who still sing this band’s praises. Diamond Head were formed by guitarist Brian Tatler at school in Stourbridge in 1976, and initially used a drum kit consisting of a biscuit tin, a cow bell and some empty sweet jars. They were managed by the singer’s mum, and probably burned some industry bridges when they rejecting approaches from the hugely powerful management company Q-Prime to stay with her.
Diamond Head’s signature tune was called Am I Evil. When one talks to Tatler – a lovely, benign fellow, speaking in dolorously tuneful West Midlands tones – it becomes apparent the answer is probably “no”. “Punk rock was very exciting for us,” says Tatler. “You’d see the Sex Pistols on the television and think, ‘Oh, I can play that, it’s only got three chords.’ You ended up doing a lot of it yourself – like we did with our first album. The front cover was blank, but not because we were trying to be clever. Our manager owned a cardboard factory and he just thought it would be easier that way. You wouldn’t have any of the band saying, ‘Oh, no, I don’t like that.’ They were great times – young players enjoying the raw thrill of making music.”
But disaster seemed to befall Diamond Head at every turn. That first album had been intended as a calling card to drum up major label interest. Unfortunately, a German label the band sent the master tapes to managed to lose them. Although they signed to the major label MCA for their “official” debut, Borrowed Time, they lost momentum when the first 20,000 copies of its “experimental” follow-up, Canterbury, were faultily pressed, causing them to jump. Fans who got copies that didn’t jump were unhappy at the new direction.
MCA dropped Diamond Head, and the band spilt up in 1985. In the early 90s, however, spurred on by the patronage of Metallica and Megadeth, they reformed, and were added to the bill when the two American giants played a huge gig at Milton Keynes Bowl in 1993, which was broadcast on MTV. Diamond Head were underrehearsed, Tatler was suffering from shingles, and the performance suffered.
NWOBHM was a hugely male thing, but one band were the exception. Girlschool were four leather-jacketed young women from south London, who reached the top 10 with the St Valentine’s Day Massacre EP, on which they duetted with Motörhead on a cover of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ Please Don’t Touch. I meet singer/guitarist Kim McAuliffe backstage as Girlschool prepare to mark their own 30th anniversary with a show at London’s Astoria 2. She is a wonderfully unaffected woman, speaking with the gor-blimey gusto of a 1970s sitcom. “We did laugh about the words [in NWOBHM songs],” she says. “It was all war and shagging. If it wasn’t tits and bums, it was tits and bombers. In Girlschool, we just wrote about getting drunk and falling over.” Though they did sing occasionally about bombers, too – covering Motörhead’s Bomber on the hit EP.
Original Girlschool singer/guitarist Kelly Johnson died from cancer in 2007, but the band are still going, maintaining the DIY approach they had at the outset. These days, they keep their gear in a garden shed owned by McAuliffe’s mother. Said mum sells merchandise at shows.
“Punk was crucial to us,” McAuliffe says. “In fact, at the time we shared a flat with [south London punk group] the UK Subs. There were all these young bands playing hard rock, and suddenly it didn’t matter how well you could play, which was just as well for us [laughs]. It didn’t matter if you were black or white, or a girl or a boy. Things were suddenly opened. It was all just such a laugh.”
Girlschool aren’t the only one of these groups still playing. Many of those original groups are still touring and recording for a fanbase of metal loyalists. Saxon, for example, are about to release their 27th album, Into the Labyrinth, with lyrical preoccupations intact. “Oh yes, the Grumman Hellcat,” says Byford of the second world war fighter plane namechecked on the track Hellcat. “Battalions of Steel is about the Roman legions. I like a bit of historical fiction – I’ve just finished the Roman legions series, Emperor. I’ve read some Sharpe books too, but there are too many of them. I like a three-book series, me. There should be an end to it, when Caesar gets killed or Attila dies.”
NWOBHM remains a peculiarly British thing – like the beach hut that McAuliffe spends her spare time “doing up”. As such, perhaps NWOBHM was bound to incorporate an element of heroic failure. Certainly, most of its practitioners never got rich. But in some cases the NWOBHM gods have atoned. Metallica have recorded several Diamond Head songs, and the songwriting royalties have been very welcome.
“I didn’t make any money from our albums,” says Brian Tatler. “I lived with my parents until I was 33. Then the money from Metallica let me put a deposit on a house. It was the only way I would have been able to do that. God bless Metallica – and God bless the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, I suppose.”