How punk rock sparked the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal
Punk threw rock into the furnace, but the New Wave of British Heavy Metal rose out of the ashes – here we look back at how metallers embraced punk's spirit and came back fighting
Was there ever a more fertile period for classic British heavy metal than when the 70s slid into the 80s and Iron Maiden first appeared on the nation’s radar?
Every street corner, chip shop, schoolyard gate and spangly new identikit mall seemed to have its very own crew of eager, acne-ridden young longhairs touting a demo or handing out a gig flyer – even though we thought punk rock had wiped them off the face of the earth.
In truth, the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was a direct result of punk. Metal bands grabbed punk’s DIY baton and ran – pressing their own singles, booking their own gigs and giving a swift two fingered salute to the ambition-stompers in corporate music business sausage machine.
We could theorise endlessly why the new British rock explosion detonated at this exact time: soaring unemployment; Maggie Thatch and free falling social decay; the miners’ strike; inner city riots; planetary alignment; extra-terrestrial activity or the price of fucking cheese... but the simple explanation is that it was just meant to happen.
Maiden prime mover Steve Harris is insistent that it didn’t happen overnight, for Maiden anyway. “We’ve paid our dues like most bands,” he says. “We’ve done the clubs. Maiden took four-and-a-half years to get a recording contract. It’s not like we just appeared.”
But that was how it seemed. The beginning of the NWOBHM – regarded by many to be a Maiden, Angel Witch and Samson gig at London’s Music Machine on May 9 1979 – opened the floodgates on a veritable tsunami of exciting new British rock.
For every hard slogging band such as Maiden, Samson (band leader, Paul Samson, was a long established blues guitarist) and Saxon (who had been touring as Son Of A Bitch for years), there was a sack of new acts no one had ever heard before. For every Tygers Of Pan Tang there were a dozen Sacred Aliens, for every Witchfynde a war room of Witchfinder Generals.“I went to see bands like Judas Priest and [long-lost Welsh rockers] Lone Star at the height of punk and they were still managing to sell out places like the Hammersmith Odeon [now Apollo],” says Harris. “There were still thousands of kids into rock bands, it was just that the press didn’t recognise it or write about it. It was ‘unfashionable’ and ‘uncool’ to do a feature about heavy metal.”
It’s true. UK metal never really went away, it just didn’t make the headlines for a while. But after the 60s tri-partite supernova of Sabbath, Zeppelin and Purple burnt and faded, it took until the tail-end of the next decade for British rock to gather enough old tyres together to light a convincing fire under the press’ arse.
Harris is right enough, there were bands like Priest and Lone Star along the way – as well as monster bands from across the Atlantic like Kiss, Aerosmith and Rush, and even one or two, the Scorpions for example, from Europe. But there was no internet, no specialist rock press – you had to be supremely dedicated to be a rock fan back in them days.
Sounds music weekly was one of the few publications to give heavy metal the time of day in the 70s. Po-faced types like to claim Sounds used to be packed with nothing but punk and metal. But they were just two elements of an otherwise catholic mix. When Sounds published its first Iron Maiden interview in October 1979 the other major bands featured in that issue included The UK Subs, Lene Lovich, The Ruts, The Mo-Dettes, The Specials and Genesis. Blue Öyster Cult were going on tour with Magnum, and AC/DC with Def Leppard. AC/DC were promoting their ‘Highway To Hell’ album and had just released a new single, ‘Girls Got Rhythm’, and, er, that was about it on the metal front, apart from a review of a show called the Heavy Metal Crusade in Manchester with Maiden, Saxon and a band called Nutz. Not the metal melting pot the rose tints remember.
There are parallels between NWOBHM and the US thrash movement of the mid-80s, when a similar number of exciting young bands emerged. Americans soon sorted themselves a top three of thrash: Metallica – blatantly influenced by the NvWOBHM – Megadeth and Anthrax. The NWOBHM medal contenders were Maiden, Saxon and Def Leppard. All very different bands. Maiden were young, fierce and ballsy, Saxon were older and more of a traditional commercial rock outfit, and Leppard plainly had their eyes set on multi-platinum US success.
“My original ambition, funnily enough, was to play The Marquee in London,” says Steve Harris. “But once we did that, it was like, ‘Fucking hell, this is it!’ It’s where I’d seen all my favourite bands before they got big. It was great.”
So, where do Maiden fit in the great British heavy metal scheme of things? There’s little doubt they studied the showmanship of Zeppelin and Priest, and their European jaunt with Kiss rubbed off in extravagant stage shows in the post-Paul Di’Anno era – though these were equally inspired on by the Turkey-mask tendencies of Di’Anno’s replacement.
But what about punk? Were Maiden really – as they have been popularly described – the first punk- metal hybrid. Possibly. But then again, possibly not.
“Yes, our music is fast and hard,” concedes Steve Harris. “But the structure of the songs is a lot different. The crossover is more on stage. We get some punks who really rate us... I think the speed and aggression had more to do with our age than anything else.”
Despite being a key ingredient in the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal melting pot, Maiden were, are and always have been very much their own band. They had their own ideas and weren't afraid to fly in the face of fashion and convention. When Matt Heafy from Trivium names Bruce Dickinson as his all-time favourite frontman, there is as much disbelief as admiration.
When Maiden started out they were fresh-faced and high-spirited but they never tried to challenge the heavy metal tradition – other than being a fresh- faced alternative to fat geriatric has-beens. The path Maiden took set them up as unlikely stars of a new generation of British rock but they stuck to their roots like glue. And maybe that’s the reason why.
This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer Presents... Iron Maiden