Heavy metal is a genre that refuses to die – like the walking dead, it can never rest in the grave. In the early 70s, the rock scene was dominated by giants like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. But then along came punk and traditional rock banks looked a bit lost.
But rock was not dead. It was merely slumbering. Punk rubbed some of its aggressiveness and thrashiness off on to a new generation of rockers and so emerged the NWOBHM. Faster beats, a frenetic pace and audiences that no longer politely sat through gigs.
By 1979, punk had seriously run out of steam. There were some laughable punk-style acts that Sounds magazine tried to convince us were ‘working class’ but in reality were truly awful. I mean, how many times can you say the F-word and shock anybody? Let alone screaming ‘anarchy’. Punk was becoming a parody of itself. New Wave filled the void but didn’t capture the anger and frustration many young people felt as the country tanked into economic meltdown from 1979 to 1981.
So, along came the metal monsters. Rock had returned re-energised. Def Leppard, Motorhead, Saxon and Iron Maiden. Ozzy Osbourne, lead singer of Black Sabbath, resurrected with the comedic Blizzard of Ozz and the hilarious single Crazy Train. Black Sabbath replaced Ozzie with Ronnie James Dio and released Heaven and Hell.
Ian Gillan, formerly of Deep Purple, clawed his way back with his own eponymous band. Other Deep Purple ex-members re-surfacing included Richie Blackmore with a band called Rainbow and David Coverdale fronting Whitesnake. All these bands popped up in the late 70s coming to prominence at the end of the decade.
So you had new faces and new bands plus the old guard in different guises. AC/DC topped the charts with their album Back in Black while Canada’s Rush brought out Permanent Waves and toured the UK in 1980. Rush were a sort of prog rock band with rock sensibilities.
After 1976, I never thought I’d grow my hair long again but somehow I succumbed for about a year to NWOBHM. Then I lost my virginity and recovered my senses and scuttled as fast as I could away from it.
But for that year, there was a denim jacket adorned with Rush patches and badges. And I will confess to a continuing soft spot for Rush and Motorhead – who both put on amazing gigs back in the day.
In 1980, the Reading Festival was nicknamed the Can Festival – because of the amount of tinnies that hit the stage and spectators. Some were stamped on and thrown like frisbees. These were often violent times at all kinds of gigs. There was a crackle in the air and a lot of discontent. This would all boil over in riots during the summer of 1981. One interesting band at Reading was Girl – a rather camp metal combo with more than a hint of the New York Dolls about them.
NWOBHM was one safety valve for pissed off teenagers to head bang and play air guitars. DJ Tommy Vance on Radio 1 was one of the few outlets that would play the music. Top of the Pops, needless to say, was too busy with Shakatak to notice. After 1981, it all went very mainstream and most of us moved on a little embarrassed to admit we had indulged NWOBHM.