The History of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal
On May 8, 1979, an English journalist by the name of Geoff Barton attended a concert featuring Iron Maiden, Samson and Angel Witch at London’s Bandwagon Heavy Metal Soundhouse — a modest venue that hosted semi-weekly gatherings for a few hundred regulars to bang their heads together along to unsigned bands and assorted records spun by emcee and radio DJ Neal Kay.
Barton’s review of this particular show, which emerged in the next issue of weekly music paper Sounds, carried the first known printed reference to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The term is believed to have been coined by the magazine’s editor Alan Lewis, but which Barton himself would take a lead role in popularizing — first via his ongoing coverage of the scene, and then as the founding editor of ’80s heavy metal bible, Kerrang! Magazine.
Of course, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM, for short) wasn’t born fully formed and clad in denim, leather, and studded bullet belts on that specific night. Rather, it was very gradually fostered in a scattered, informal fashion over a period of years by countless bands playing countless tiny clubs spread throughout the United Kingdom — with more of them long lost than found by historical record.
And yet, that pivotal association between words and music proved to be one the turning points in the history of heavy metal — the catalyst necessary to simultaneously revitalize and finally establish a musical style so widely vilified by critics that even some of its founding fathers — Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, etc. — were reluctant to accept it, never mind embrace it.
What’s more, by the close of the ’70s, as punk rock was ravaging the dinosaur-rock aristocracy, even more recent heavy metal standard bearers like Rainbow, Uriah Heep and Judas Priest were inching closer and closer to commercial hard rock sounds; while in the fast-rising Motorhead, fans found a new hope that — despite all musical evidence to the contrary — has rejected the “heavy metal” label to this day.
In other words, it needed a brand new generation of musicians who were willing to embrace it, warts and all, then reinvent and carry it forward into the future. Turns out, Great Britain in 1979 was home to literally thousands of such musicians — some of whom had already been cutting their teeth in rowdy pubs since the mid-’70s, and many more who were spurred into action by punk rock’s DIY mentality, ironically enough.
Playlist: The New Wave of British Heavy Metal, 1979
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And so it was that the NWOBHM reached a tipping point that fateful year, behind a perfect storm of increasing press coverage, thriving regional “scenes,” and, perhaps most importantly, key releases such as Iron Maiden’s legendary ‘Soundhouse Tapes’ demo (recorded at and named after Neal Kay’s aforementioned Soundhouse events), Def Leppard’s eponymous EP, and Saxon’s debut full-length.
Coincidentally, these three bands (and the first two, in particular) would go on to enjoy the most successful NWOBHM-spawned careers in the long run. Meanwhile, there were just as many ultimately less successful groups already laboring in obscurity (e.g. Diamond Head, Raven, Praying Mantis) or releasing precocious independent singles of their own (Trespass, Sledgehammer, Ethel the Frog!), to say nothing of somewhat older outliers all-too-eager to join the fray (Samson, Demon, Witchfynde).
Several of these bands (and others, besides) were cherry-picked by Kay for the twin ‘Metal for Muthas’ compilations — the first of which arrived in February of 1980 and literally opened the NWOBHM floodgates, joining forces with Barton and his complicit media brethren’s ever-increasing coverage and enthusiasm to accelerate the movement’s explosion onto the U.K.’s mainstream conscious.
This heightened awareness was further fueled by that summer’s inaugural Donington Monsters of Rock Festival, which crowned a frankly glorious year for heavy metal package tours, often matching old and new guard groups (Motorhead with Saxon and Girlschool, Priest with Maiden, and so on) to the delight of ever growing legions of young listeners, keen to take up the cause.
Moreover, the deafening buzz (or was that amplifier distortion?) ignited by all this duly sparked a ferocious major-label signing spree, which saw Iron Maiden link up with EMI, Def Leppard with Mercury, Heavy Pettin’ with Polydor, and MCA Records alone snapping up Diamond Head, White Spirit and the Tygers of Pan Tang, via an upstream deal with the independent Newcastle-based Neat Records.
Speaking of which: the NWOBHM launched nearly as many fledgling record labels as bands. Imprints like Rondolet, Ebony, Killerwatt, the obviously named Heavy Metal Records and, of course, Neat — the granddaddy of all independents — mined a remarkably rich vein of Northern English talent to introduce the world to the likes of Venom, Raven, Fist and Jaguar, to name but a few.
Playlist: The New Wave of British Heavy Metal, 1980
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Indeed, it was this largely independent second wave of artists that kept the NWOBHM’s momentum cresting throughout 1981, with a veritable deluge of albums, singles and tours that visited every corner of the U.K. After all, it wasn’t called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal for no reason, and from Scotland there was Holocaust; from Northern Ireland, Sweet Savage; from Wales, Persian Risk; and so on.
Meanwhile, the movement’s leading lights were dealt hands of varying quality in 1981. For Iron Maiden, there was further acclaim for the sophomore LP ‘Killers,’ even as the band wrestled with the prospect of firing singer Paul Di’Anno. For Def Leppard, there was a career-saving second album (‘High ’n’ Dry’) and a producer (Mutt Lange) worth celebrating. And for the prolific Saxon, a fourth studio triumph called ‘Denim & Leather’ that would sadly mark the end of their scene supremacy.
More troubling, 1981 was notable for the conspicuous disappointment, or even no-show, of other NWOBHM groups that, by all rights, should have been huge in their own right. Groups like the exceedingly capable Tygers of Pan Tang, whose twin 1981 releases somehow failed to take the band to the top tier. Or the Bruce Dickinson-fronted Samson, which was still struggling to overcome their pub-rock roots. But, perhaps most tragic of all was the downfall of Diamond Head, who diluted their revolutionary sound at the behest of their corporate masters and quickly fell from grace.
Nevertheless, whether they were on the way up or down, NWOBHM bands had already made an incalculable impact on the state of heavy metal worldwide. They simultaneously instigated wily veterans like Sabbath, Priest and the Scorpions to renew their faith, while inspiring young disciples both in Europe (Mercyful Fate, Hellhammer and Helloween) and in America, where early duplication (Manilla Road, Cirith Ungol, Armored Saint) soon gave way to further innovation by thrash bands like Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax.
Playlist: The New Wave of British Heavy Metal, 1981
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Herein lies perhaps the greatest legacy of the NWOBHM: generating a musical butterfly effect that would spawn virtually endless permutations of the heavy metal template over ensuing decades — be that thrash, death, black, doom, power or progressive. Every one of these major sub-genres has roots that clearly trace back to NWOBHM, either by inspirational philosophy or to a specific band or two.
To highlight just the most obvious: thrash metal owed much of its raw, energized complexity to the seeds sown by groups like Raven, Diamond Head, Blitzkrieg and Holocaust, among others; black metal drew its occult obsessions and sheer extremism from the theatrical excess of Venom, Withfynde and Angel Witch; and even doom’s revival of Black Sabbath’s slothful prototype was indebted to the likes of Witchfinder General, Pagan Altar, and others. Heck, even more commercial forms of heavy rock found numerous exponents within the NWOBHM, well beyond Def Leppard’s example. Bands capable of churning out melodic rock akin to Thin Lizzy (Praying Mantis) or UFO (Stampede), boogie metal a la Status Quo or ZZ Top (Vardis), and even glam rock, complete with makeup and unchecked pouting (Girl, Spider, et al). All this is to say nothing of Girlschool’s massive contribution to women’s lib in rock — as one of history’s first, truly self-sufficient all-female ensembles.
Unfortunately, this very diversity (evidence of the fact that pretty much any long-haired young bunch wielding guitars with some level of attitude was suddenly fair game for inclusion in the NWOBHM) was already undermining the cohesion of the scene on a fundamental level. And no matter how hard the U.K. music press, and the newly launched Kerrang! in particular, tried to endorse every band and sub-sub-sub-style under the sun, 1982 would effectively mark the end.
Not, mind you, where the NWOBHM’s lingering influence was concerned, since, as mentioned earlier, this still persists in one way or another unto the present day. But certainly insofar as its initial revolutionary spirit and holy war against the musical mainstream. Like it or not, top dogs like Maiden and Leppard had by now become the mainstream. Consider, too, that the bulk of their remaining peers were sinking fast by 1982, unable to keep up with heightened sales projections and “selling out” in the process (see Raven, Diamond Head, Heavy Pettin’, etc.) or, at best, fading into a twilight existence within the metal underground (hardly the worst place to make a living — just ask Saxon or Venom).
There was no denying things had changed.
Playlist: The New Wave of British Heavy Metal, 1982
All of which means that, strictly speaking, the NWOBHM really only lasted two or three years — those dizzying 1,000 days or so, roughly spanning 1979 and ’81 — after which all subsequent bands inevitably either fell into the “inspired by” category, or worse, denomination as a subpar parody. Either way, the dream was over for all but a few, and for some it had actually become some kind of a nightmare.
Not so for a select number of talented guitarists, though, who were plucked from failing NWOBHM bands by more established acts, including Sweet Savage’s Vivian Campbell (first by Dio, then Def Leppard), the Tygers of Pan Tang’s John Sykes (Thin Lizzy, then Whitesnake), Persian Risk’s Phil Campbell (Motorhead), and White Spirit’s Janick Gers (Iron Maiden).
It might be a single, catch-all musical description, technically confined to a brief period in the long history of popular music, but the New Wave of British Heavy Metal covered a lot of ground. Few of rock’s other, widely established subgenres are as clearly connected to particular place and time — the original, wildly distinctive ’70s punk rock bands spawned around New York City’s CBGB come to mind — and fewer still rebelled so completely against a uniform set of sonic characteristics. That’s why the New Wave of British Heavy Metal’s influential reach has spread so far and wide.