In the early 1980s, UK rock magazine Sounds ardently promoted (and christened) the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal – the acronym of which is spelt NWOBHM and pronounced “nuh’wobbum”.
Decades on from its humble beginnings in scabby working men’s clubs, pubs and nightclubs across England’s ravaged industrial heartlands, the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal seems to attract fanatical devotion from some of the world’s biggest rock bands.
Metallica and Megadeth worship at the feet of Diamond Head and Saxon; members of Green Day, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters will happily reel off their favourite Iron Maiden album tracks; while Anthrax, Slayer and countless other thrash metal bands owe their existence to Newcastle’s Venom, who used to lead their crowds with the chant “Fucking Black Metal!” while waggling their tongues.
NWOBHM has also attracted its fair share of ridicule. The Comic Strips‘ 1983 film Bad News Tour, featuring three-quarters of The Young Ones, was a spoof rockumentary of an inept East London NWOBHM band. It was followed a year later by Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which lampooned countless heavy rock archetypes.
Legend has it that Iron Maiden angrily stormed out of the premiere, believing it to be a personal attack on them. Actually, it was their NWOBHM colleagues Saxon who were the prime source material for Spinal Tap’s co-creator, Harry Shearer.
“The fella who played the bassist in Spinal Tap apparently came on tour with us as part of his research,” says Saxon‘s frontman Biff Byford. “And, in hindsight, you could tell that he probably did model his character [Derek Smalls] on our bassist, Steve Dawson. Like him, Dawson had the tight striped trousers, the handlebar moustache, and he would pluck the bass with his right hand while raising his left fist aloft”.
There’s even a rumour that Saxon inspired the Spinal Tap scene where the band get lost trying to find the stage. “Oh, we got lost backstage loads of times” sighs Byford. “Every band does. You crawl through miles of corridors, get on stage, salute the audience and realise you’re facing the wrong way!”.
Not that NWOBHM needed much exaggeration to take it into comedic territory. Samson – who featured a pre-Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson – had a drummer called ‘Thunderstick’ who would wear what he described as a “rapist’s mask” while drumming in a giant cage (sometimes guarded by circus strongmen).
Early Iron Maiden gigs saw the band trying to create dry ice in a kettle, and making horror movie effects with a giant papier-mâché head and a fish tank full of stage blood. When their first lead singer, Dennis Wilcock, put a fake blood capsule in his mouth and pretended to slash his face with a sword, people would sometimes faint.
The NWOBHM label encompassed a variety of working class heavy rock bands united mainly by chronology. Most formed around 1977 while in their late teens, most released their first (independently pressed) records in 1979; many appeared on Sanctuary’s era-defining compilation, Metal For Muthas in February 1980; some were signed by major labels later that year, and a lucky few were hitting the arena circuit by 1982.
But the term lumps together a host of quite distinct outfits. Def Leppard, Tygers Of Pan Tang, Praying Mantis and Girl, for instance, all had a slightly funky edge and a melodic sensibility that served as a bridge between glam rock and hair metal, while Girlschool tended to play a particularly brutalised, up-tempo form of the blues.
But the defining sonic characteristic of most NWOBHM bands – Iron Maiden, Samson, Saxon and Diamond Head in particular, and also the Black Sabbath copyists like Witchfynde and Angelwitch – was that they tended to subtract any traces of blues from their heavy rock template. Where the holy trinity of hard rock’s ‘first wave’ –Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath – all emerged from the 60’s Brit-blues revival, their disciples in the NWOBHM came with no such baggage.
Iron Maiden‘s twin-guitar frontline, for instance, might have been a nod to Wishbone Ash or Thin Lizzy, but Maiden’s guitarists would perform an ultra-fast series of hammer-ons and pull-offs that utterly eschewed the blues.
A circuit of small venues quickly developed for these bands. The Soundhouse – the backroom to a (now-demolished) mock Tudor pub in Kingsbury, north west London – had been home to a heavy rock disco since 1975, and soon became the epicentre of the NWOBHM scene, under the aegis of its charismatic DJ Neal Kay.
Other London venues included the Bridgehouse in Canning Town and the Ruskin Arms in East Ham.
Around the country there was the Retford Porterhouse (in between Nottingham and Sheffield) and the Spread Eagle in Birmingham. Bands would then graduate onto the Mecca promoter’s circuit of Mayfair and Locarno nightclubs, each hosting late-night gigs to around 1,500 punters.
By 1980, not only had heavy rock commandeered the Reading Festival, but Rainbow’s promoter Paul Loasby had set up the rival Monsters Of Rock festival in the grounds of the Castle Donnington racetrack in Leicestershire.