Hello, hail to the soul-stirring majesty of NWOBHM. I know this post has been a long time coming. I was busy changing my life outside of obsessively collecting NWOBHM. To cut a long story short I simultaneously ran out of money and felt so exploited at work I had no choice but to leave. Since then I’ve been living alone in a deserted farmhouse in the Bulgarian wilderness learning to communicate with locals while bringing up a family of rescued animals (bet you just thought I’d just lost interest). However, I have a surprisingly good internet connection (I write articles and interview designers for a living now, I’m very lucky and happy) and my life still has room for epic twin guitar solos that sound like they were recorded in a large biscuit tin, so I thought I’d make some new content.
I settled into the wilderness two years ago with a comforting dose of 70s hard rock. This binge included revisiting some ‘comeback’ albums from bands transitioning from falling out of fashion during the punk boom to reshaping their sound in order to fit in with what the younger groups were doing as the 70s came to a close.
I decided to make a list of my personal favourite NWOBHM comeback albums featuring bands who emerged in the 60s or 70s then took advantage of the resurgence of rock in the classic NWOBHM 1979/1980 period. This means my first post in two years won’t have any genuine NWOBHM, but hey-ho. Also I’ll be dragging it out over three weeks, four albums each the first two weeks then as a grand finale my top two featuring bonus reasons why some bands didn’t make the list. So here goes 10-7…
- Judas Priest ‘British Steel’ April 1980
Was this a comeback? No fucking way, I see this as the world catching up with what Priest were doing, which coincidentally corresponded with the beginning of their time in the commercial limelight. People often seem surprised that I’m not the biggest fan of this record, so I’m glad I have this opportunity to explain myself. After ‘Stained Class’, Priest subtly eased their foot off the accelerator to create ‘Killing Machine’, I love those two and all their 70s records, so (to me) the stripped down aesthetic of ‘British Steel’ has never seemed like the revolutionary masterpiece some people believe it is. More about that later.
Legitimate NWOBHM? Spoiler, in this post the answer here will always be ‘no’, however Priest need a bit of explanation… OK, now one thing I say to people when I’m boring them with my NWOBHM collection is that (in my opinion) bands fall into one of two categories, sounding more like Judas Priest or more like Motörhead. They are the two bands who set the foundations for the early 80s British metal scene, Priest being pioneers of the twin guitar sound (along with Scorpions in Germany, but let’s not confuse things) and Motörhead focusing more on pounding aggressive boogie with a strangely uplifting undertone.
It is often a cause of great confusion that these two bands are not considered NWOBHM, but they preceded the movement and were already making albums before the UK punk boom, so they are more like godfathers of the movement as opposed to active participants. Our genre is such a ridiculous niche to define isn’t it?
Over or under-rated? Totally over-rated in my humble opinion. ‘Metal Gods’ and ‘Grinder’ just seem like slower songs with a weaker structure than anything on Stained Class or Killing Machine. One thing that makes these songs memorable is Tom Allom’s production, which gives it all a good polish. My favourite song on here is probably also the most adventurous. ‘The Rage’ takes the atmosphere of ‘Saints in Hell’ from Stained Class and slows it down, making it into a loitering, throbbing hymn to rock and roll outsiderness.
This is a recurring lyrical theme on the album, glamorising the rejection of authority as both a rogue outlaw (‘Breaking the Law’) and a cooperative community (‘United’, which is basically just an alternate version of ‘Take on the World’ from Killing Machine). Allom was employed full time by the band after his work on the bombastic live album ‘Unleashed in the East’ and stayed working with them until ‘Ram It Down’ (he’s back co producing ‘Firepower’ with Andy Sneap, set to be released 2018). So I think this album’s most notable style change is in the rhythm section. This is the first album with Dave Holland, who’s drum style pales in comparison to Les Binks. He stayed with the band for a decade and never did anything remotely memorable behind the kit. He may as well have been a drum machine (interestingly on his final album, 1989s Ram it Down the band credited him but actually used samples of his drums in a sampler. No one noticed.) Between 2004 and 2012 Holland was incarcerated for indecent assaults. The most interesting thing about this is how Priest’s reissues of their classic albums airbrush him out of their history, opting to tell fans to read official books as opposed to unofficial books on the band. This is an interesting habit of bands from this era, to control their official history with an iron fist.
The next album was the real sell out, ‘Point Of Entry’ saw them removing even more of their flamboyance from their sound. This was a dark phase in the history of Priest (although things got back on track with ‘Screaming for Vengeance’ in 1982, hallelujah!)
- Thin Lizzy ‘Black Rose: A Rock Legend’ April 1979
Was this a comeback? All of Thin Lizzy’s albums are a balance of merits and faults. Personally I think 1977s ‘Bad Reputation’ was an improvement on ’Jail Break’. But as far as being a record where all band members are happy to be there, ‘Black Rose’ is a better representation of Thin Lizzy sounding comfortable and consistent than most. By getting Gary Moore on board the band revitalised it’s sound in an unexpectedly heavy way. Yeah, ‘Bad Reputation’ is often called one of their heaviest records, but if you listen to it, the saxophone on ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ and clarinet on ‘Downtown Sundown’ gives the album a lounge quality that makes it unlistenable to me. To quote Malc Macmillan, these particular instruments in metal ‘are are an accessory which deserves to be made illegal’.
Legitimate NWOBHM? No, they had been doing their thing since 1969 and had even had ‘hits’, namely ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ 1972 and ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ 1976. This one was the right record at the right time, and no self respecting NWOBHMer should be ashamed to like it.
Over or under-rated? This is a well loved record and I think it pretty much deserves this, however it’s far from untouchable. The main complaint I have is with the keyboards on ‘My Sarah’, which stick out like a sore thumb. Strangely whoever is responsible is anonymous… Darren Wharton joined on keyboards for the next album ‘Chinatown’, but whether he was drafted specifically to improve on this adventure in tastelessness has been lost to history. Come to think of it, perhaps it’s just guitar through a phaser? Like I said though, every Thin Lizzy album has a this kind of filler material, most Lizzy fans pretend they don’t, but perhaps I just didn’t spend enough time with them in my younger, less critical years?
The four part ending to the album ‘Roisin Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend’ tries to be Lizzy’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’… there’s a guitar bit in part two “Will You Go Lassie Go” that can be filed under fan service harking back to ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ I guess… It starts off amazing but perhaps starts to sound a little cheesy as it progresses…
This is totally forgivable because it sounds like they’re having such a good time. Lizzy are an enigma, they sound like no one else, but their influence on the world of rock is often forgotten. Whenever I see hipsters playing pirate style party folk I can’t help but think they owe a lot to this weird Irish band who were never ashamed to acknowledge their folk roots. ‘Black Rose’ is kind of like ‘The Force Awakens’ to Star Wars fans, it ticks all the boxes and does it in a way that wouldn’t annoy people who are already invested in the project, then idiot critics with nothing better to do look back and denounce it for that very reason. Lizzy always worked diverse elements into their albums, which is admirable. Sometimes these experiments turn out effective, other times trashy, but they always had a idiosyncratic approach that sounded like no other band.
Producer Tony Visconti, best known for his work with Bowie gets some real power into tracks like ‘Toughest Street in Town’, which gives the peculiar dark real-life imagery with a sing along chorus the courageousness it deserves.
This isn’t the only streetwise song, ‘Got To Give It Up’ is a dark and brooding hymn to the traumas of addiction, something Phil Lynott was no stranger to; just 7 years later he was dead from complications caused by heroin dependency. Kudos also has to go to drummer Brian Downey, who has such a recognisable sound, which really shines on this record, especially on ‘Waiting for an Alibi’, which gallops along with nifty fills that retain class and subtlety. This song is beautiful, with lyrics about corrupt people with corrupt lives, the harmonies effortlessly weave together and somehow humanise the story, which makes the song so life affirming, so real.
This album shows a band really delivering to their fans. I’ve talked in an earlier post about the final Thin Lizzy album, 1983’s ‘Thunder and Lightning’. This is where I go if I really want to listen to something beautiful contaminated by a crass heavy metal attack. ‘Black Rose’ is like a refined version of that, it rocks consistently and retains everything that makes Lizzy special.
- UFO ’No Place to Run’ January 1980
Was this a comeback? Lots of reviewers wrongly consider this to be a low point in UFO history, which I think is kind of unfair. Am I the only person who thinks that (as with Thin Lizzy above) all UFO albums are flawed by odd filler material? …If so, surely someone else agrees that this album is free of filler and consistently chugs along? I find that people discredit NWOBHM era albums by bands with a long discography, simply because there were so many heavy metal albums released in 1979 and 1980… I reckon this is a legitimate comeback (and a worthy contender to NWOBHM groups on a lower budget) even if others don’t.
Legitimate NWOBHM? No way, these guys started as space rock pioneers in 1969, evolved into hard rock monsters when they recruited Michael Schenker from Scorpions in 1979 and never stopped working.
Over or under-rated? Shamefully under-rated I reckon. This is probably the most 70s sounding record on the list, especially ‘Young Blood’, which is the happiest song on the album. There’s also a pretty decent slab of boogie in their cover of ‘Mystery Train’ This kind of harks back to their first two records, which were raw stoner rock in the style of Blue Cheer. These albums are crude, dirty and really kicked ass. Now, one weird thing about UFO (as with Judas Priest as I mentioned earlier) is their obsessive image control. They have developed an official narrative, a fantasy world where their first two amazingly weird albums are routinely dismissed as ‘unlistenable’ by them and their management. To me, covering a 50s R&R classic demonstrates this album to be a phase where they momentarily eased off the denial of their own past. I like to believe this could have been an attempt to kick Michael Schenker in the teeth?
This record is produced by George Martin, you know, the guy who did the Beatles? He brings a sobering honesty to this record. An example of this is how they avoid featuring any ballads, instead hitting you with ‘Gone in the Night’, an almost doom laden keyboard driven song that chugs along with a driving bass line.
This piece is quite beautifully structured, being equal parts emotional and sleazy… Aside from this, the songs are concise, harking back to classics like ‘Doctor Doctor’, but with a bit more of a streetwise down to earth aesthetic. The Lyrics to ‘Anyday’ and ‘Lettin’ go’ both seem to be about being trapped in a mundane, routine based existence, which fits well with the hanging out at a gas station cover photograph.
This material could either be a response to being cornered by a routine of playing and touring in a dysfunctional lineup for so many years or an attempt to connect with their working class following who were then being dehumanised by Thatcher’s Britain. This album being their first without their aforementioned trademark German guitar wizard throws them back into a stripped down turmoil of ass kicking. This was (in my opinion) absent from 1978s ‘Obsession’, which veered dangerously close to prog. All that airy fairy nonsense seems to have left with Michael Schenker, allowing them to enter the NWOBHM era with pride.
To me, UFO have a ‘hidden in plain sight’ darkness to them. Has anyone else paid enough attention to be disturbed by their normalised aggressive sexuality (read the lyrics to ‘Too Young to Know’ off ‘Phenomenon’, the happiest song you’ll ever hear about paedophilia). One reason I like this album is it doesn’t play this awkward rock and roll representation of proud male insecurity card… You’d expect ‘Young Blood’ to follow this lyrical pattern but instead it’s the slightly more respectable and perhaps more recognisable to their fans ‘lonely man yearning’ theme.
For years I have been fascinated by UFO’s ego driven genius; whether it be disturbing songs about defiling undgerage girls or their deluded image control resulting in self censorship of their early years. My morbid obsession with the fallibility of rock stars makes this crazy band fascinating to me. This album blows my mind because it exposes their humanity. Perhaps it was just a glitch, but it resulted in a great record. Listen to the galloping, catchy, soulful slice of reality delivered by ‘Money, Money’. Here, UFO are firing on all eight and it rocks.
- Rainbow ‘Down to Earth’ July 28, 1979
Was this a comeback? Hell no! Rainbow arguably hadn’t put a foot wrong since their formation in 1979 (aside from their stupid name and the hilarious cover artwork of their debut). Ritchie Blackmore’s ex band Deep Purple had disintegrated by this time. Now, as with UFO, I don’t think changing your superstar guitarist should be considered too much of a blow for a band, but Blackmore’s replacement Tommy Bolin unfortunately struggled with massive drug dependency issues, meaning the band couldn’t hold it together (vocalist Glen Hugues was finding cocaine somewhat moreish at the time too) so Deep Purple called it a day in 1976. Therefore our guy Ritchie had definitely made the right choice in jumping the sinking ship and forming Rainbow in 1975, evidenced by a consistently good string of records with Dio on vocals and lyrics (generally about trolls and goblins). So ‘Down To Earth’ wasn’t a comeback but an album that made no secret of being engineered to move away from swords and sorcery imagery and capitalise on the resurgence of ‘real world’ rock.
Legitimate NWOBHM? No way, Rainbow didn’t bubble up from underground, Ritchie Blackmore had established himself as a 70s guitar god and was very much in a position to do his own thing. He quite rightly realised that now would be a really good time to release a record that could connect with an audience hungry for well structured, professional rock mastery. ‘Down to Earth’ explodes with NWOBHM confidence.
Over or under-rated? As with many albums that will follow on next week’s list, 1979 and 1980 are years that saw many bands push their last creative juices into one final masterpiece. This is kind of the case here, so you’d expect this record to be hailed as a classic. However, it’s worth pointing out that most of the records on this list have low ratings on sites like Allmusic. I guess it all goes back to people’s reluctance to embrace the NWOBHM era of rock, generally choosing to dismiss it as shamefully lowbrow and tacky. WRONG!! I believe that the garish style of the time should serve as a frame to the music as opposed to it’s identity. Every era’s excesses should leave a footprint in music, so I wish people would enjoy the overkill of hard rock from this time rather than misinterpret this as a failure to be sophisticated. Some people actually call this album ‘soft rock’, but just give the second track ‘Eyes Of The World’ a listen.
This is epic, powerful metal, where the keyboard by Don Airey (this guy has played with everyone and stuck with Rainbow after this record) strengthens the ensemble rather than distracting from the richly textured rock assault. This ain’t no Foreigner bullshit. The title says it all, it’s not a record about castles and wizards, but everyday stuff, sung with emotion and finesse by Graham Bonnet. I reckon all the crap about him not looking like a heavy metal singer comes from later commentators. Consider Rob Halford, Freddy Mercury and Ozzy Osbourne, look at some of the tasseled dressing gown style crap they wore as stage gear throughout the 70s, then tell me that in 1979 anyone would have batted an eyelid at Bonnet joining Rainbow… It just doesn’t add up.
I guess the opinion this record is any kind of sell out probably comes from their first hit single ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’. Yeah it’s one of those ‘Smoke on the Water’ riffs used in a pop song context, but if you acknowledge the leather and spandex clad rhythm foundation behind the Hawaiian shirt wearing frontman, what makes this any less legitimate than Judas Priest’s ‘Living After Midnight’? Does the fact that one is about heartbreak and the other getting shitfaced with party people really separate them that much? I don’t think so.
Allow the molten cheese volcano called ‘Danger Zone’ to melt your skull for a moment and tell me this isn’t an influence on Salem. You can’t, so bask in its ridiculously titled majesty!
This style emerged full throttle during the NWOBHM phase and couldn’t have found a hungry international audience any other time. The series of solos in the centre of this song take what they did on ‘Gates Of Babylon’ on the previous album ‘Long Live Rock And Roll’ with their Turkish /middle-eastern characteristics. One thing that amuses me about records from this era is songs like ‘Makin’ Love’. Under what circumstances is it not embarrassing to listen to this song? Possibly what makes Rainbow so good is the fact that strangely, either by force of musicianship or compositional genius it somehow works, I love a bit of awkwardness and I have a real soft spot for this record.
I hope you haven’t been too offended by my choices and opinions so far and that you’re on the edge of your seat for part two next week. Did I mention Salem? I certainly did, and they are working their asses off with consistently decent albums over the last couple of years, now prepare for your ears to explode off your head when they release ‘Attrition’ next year with this blast from their flawless past…
Compare this to Thin Lizzy’s ‘Roisin Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend’. Salem play the shameless Dio lyrical card and win hands down. Go and see them, they shred, always have, always will do…