The new wave of British heavy metal – 10 of the best

The music that became known as NWOBHM was short lived, but it bequeathed rock an enduring legacy of hugely influential bands

1. Diamond Head – Am I Evil?

If there’s a single song that epitomises the new wave of British heavy metal, it’s this one, even though Metallica’s cover is probably better known nowadays than the original (Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, travelled to London from Denmark to see Diamond Head in 1981; on moving to California, his small ad seeking musicians to form a band cited Diamond Head and Tygers of Pan Tang and Iron Maiden as role models). Diamond Head were once touted as the second coming of Led Zeppelin – and this song was described as having more riffs than the first four Black Sabbath albums. They should have been huge but failed because of bad timing and bad management, as well as more practical details such as the entire pressing of their “difficult second album” being unplayable because of manufacturing faults. But this monumental song remains their enduring legacy.

2. Tygers of Pan Tang – Don’t Stop By

Metal doesn’t really do difficult second albums (unless you were in Diamond Head) and indeed NWOBHM threw up quite a few bands whose second album was their best. The Tygers of Pan Tang, taking their name from one of Michael Moorcock’s novels, were one such band, bolstered by a change of singer and the addition of guitar wizard John Sykes, later of Thin Lizzy and Whitesnake. This song represents the more commercial side of the band’s much, chosen because of John Sykes’ amazingly fluid solo. It shows why he went on to bigger and better things, and why the band faded away once he left.

3. Angel Witch – Angel Witch

Angel Witch were perhaps too far ahead of their time in the early 1980s: for years they were best known as the answer to the quiz question: “Which band has spent the least time on the singles charts?” (Their 1980 single Sweet Danger spent a single week at No 75, the bottom slot). Though they were sometimes dismissed as a poor man’s Black Sabbath, their music hinted at a potential that was never realised. They did, however, foretell the direction metal would take in future decades, especially on songs like Angel of Death. But it’s the title track of their eponymous album that’s remembered the best. At Reading festival in 1983, the between-bands DJ had the entire audience singing the chorus. As one of the band later remarked, had that many people had actually bought the record, it would have been far more of a hit than it was.

4. Def Leppard – Getcha Rocks Off

Nowadays we think of Def Leppard as an AOR band with a sound airbrushed for American radio by Robert John “Mutt” Lange on the albums Pyromania and Hysteria. It’s as if they had the same sort of relationship with metal as Blondie had with punk. But they didn’t start out like that, and their debut single on their own label, Bludgeon Riffola, helped kickstart the whole NWOBHM movement. This raucous twin-guitar gallop is an ocean away from Pour Some Sugar on Me, and sounds like the product of working-class Sheffield rather than something out of LA.

5. Demon – Father of Time

The NWOBHM label covered many different styles within the broad spectrum of hard rock. For every band who hinted at the more aggressive sounds that would come to define metal in later decades, there was another who had evolved from the more melodic sounds of the previous one. Demon fell into the latter category, with the soaring guitars and bluesy vocals of Dave Hill, but their reliance on Hammer Horror occult lyrical themes was more than enough to put them firmly in the metal camp.

Our New Wave of British Heavy Metal playlist on YouTube

6. Iron Maiden – Phantom of the Opera

Iron Maiden were one of the few NWOBHM bands who managed to achieve escape velocity by the time the scene faded away in the early 80s, and fill arenas and stadiums around the world to this day. But in the early days, with original singer Paul Di’Anno, they were a different beast from the polished metal machine they are today, with a rawer, almost punky element to their sound (though in the TV series Metal Evolution, band mastermind Steve Harris denied any affinity for punk). If you don’t already know the song, you might recognise the intro from the Lucozade advert featuring Daley Thompson. If there was a punk element to their sound, there was also a prog rock side, too – which is still present in their music – as shown by the complex middle section.

7. Girlschool – C’Mon Let’s Go

Nowadays we’re used to women in metal bands, with hordes of Scandinavian symphonic metal bands fronted by opera-trained sopranos. Back in the early 80s, though, an all-girl band playing metal with a punk attitude were pioneers, and metal fans of the day warmly accepted them as part of the gang. Though they are best known for their link-up with Motörhead for the St Valentine’s Day Massacre EP, they deserve their place here in their own right: they epitomised metal’s ambivalent relationship with punk; taking punk’s aggression and can-do attitude while rejecting the genre’s lack of musicality.

8. Samson – Vice Versa

Before he jumped ship and became the voice of Iron Maiden for their imperial phase, Bruce Dickinson used to go by the name of Bruce Bruce and fronted Samson, a band initially known for their masked drummer Thunderstick, who used to perform in a cage. Some of their dodgy imagery and lyrical themes probably wouldn’t be acceptable three decades later, but this song shows Bruce’s “human air-raid siren” – the reason Harris wanted him to replace Di’Anno in Iron Maiden – in fine early form.

9. Venom – Warhead

Celebrated as the founding fathers of “black metal” (a phrase that was the title of their second album), Venom are something of an enigma. They’re a hugely influential band in metal’s history, yet their earliest records were quite comically awful, far removed from the glorious bombast of Dimmu Borgir or the fiendish experimentalism of Ihsahn, who would follow decades later in their wake. They’ve been described as village idiots meddling with demonic forces they didn’t understand, and they did seem to have mislaid the musical chops you’re supposed to get in return for selling your soul to Satan, though perhaps that was because, as their third album put it, they were At War With Satan. But their music has a primal power that can’t be denied, and this 1984 single shows them at their best.

10. Saxon – Machine Gun

While they never became quite as huge as Iron Maiden, Saxon were one of the bands that emerged from the scene to hit the big time. Alongside bands from the previous generation of metal such as Motörhead, Gillan and Judas Priest, Saxon regularly bothered the singles chart and saw big noisy guitars erupt into the otherwise safe world of Top of the Pops. They remained an arena-filling band long after most of their peers had returned to the working men’s clubs where they started. If you’re still reading, you probably know the hits. So we’ll finish with this electrifying piece of proto-thrash that closed their seminal album, Wheels of Steel.

Tim Hall

The GuardianTramp

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