Iron Maiden and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal

If you like the metal, then knowing your "nawobbum" is an absolute must.

Iron Maiden and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal

MPAA rating: N/A
Label: Sexy Intellectual
US Release Date: 2008-06-10
UK Release Date: 2008-05-12

The importance of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, or NWOBHM as it's more commonly known, cannot be underestimated. Despite its somewhat comical moniker, the musical movement brought new life into a genre that needed it badly in the late 1970s. While metal progenitors like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Uriah Heep started to lose steam in the mid-'70s, a second wave picked up the slack in the form of Scorpions, Rainbow, UFO, Judas Priest, and Motorhead, but still, each of those bands was itself comprised of veteran musicians who had been playing since the 1960s. The new generation of heavy metal fans still didn't have a voice of its own. With punk rock on the rise, heavy metal was gradually going the way of the dinosaur, and were it not for a handful of ambitious, brash young bands in the UK who would inject the sound with more speed, more complexity, and more energy, the genre would never have exploded the way that it did in the 1980s.

Since the late '70s and early '80s, metal music has splintered enough times to confuse even Pete Frame. The various subgenres have become so complex that it's easy for some people, especially younger fans, to lose sight of the influence and diversity of NWOBHM, and how its bands played a major role in laying the foundation for everything from thrash metal to doom to death metal to black metal. Just as Tony Iommi's three-note riff on "Black Sabbath" turned heavy rock music on its ear, Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?" influenced American thrash. Def Leppard would conquer America in a way that UFO could only dream of. Iron Maiden would rise from the pubs of East London to become arguably the greatest metal band of all time. Hell, black metal wouldn't even have a name were it not for Venom.

As each year passes, the more we need thorough retrospectives and examinations of British metal's new wave, and despite boasting a title that comes off as a cheaply-made unauthorized biography, the two and a half hour documentary (take a deep breath, folks) Iron Maiden and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (whew!) does an absolutely splendid job detailing the gradual rise and inevitable fall of one of the most exciting and fascinating musical eras of the last 30 years.

Focusing on a half dozen bands, it's impossible for the DVD to offer detailed histories of all the major bands (such stalwarts as Angel Witch, Tank, Witchfinder General, Venom, and Raven are passed over), but it does offer a very good cross-section of the genre. We get examinations of heavy hitters Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, favorites Girlschool, Saxon, and Tygers of Pan Tang, also-rans Samson and Praying Mantis, and of course, the genius but ineptly managed Diamond Head, and while the 157 minute running time might test the patience of those who don't get goosebumps upon hearing the opening riff to the Tygers' "Gangland", for those who do, the documentary just flies by.

We're treated to insight from such musicians as past Iron Maiden members Paul Di-Anno and Dennis Stratton, as well as Diamond Head guitarist Brian Tatler, Tygers guitarist Rob Weir, and Samson's irrepressible, balaclava-wearing drummer Barry "Thunderstick" Graham, but Iron Maiden and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal proves its worth when we hear from those who covered the scene. Neal Kay, the London DJ who almost single-handedly brought credibility to the burgeoning metal scene, offers tremendous insight, as does Geoff Barton, the Sounds magazine writer whose article on Kay's "metal disco" nights at Kingsbury's Soundhouse club broke the scene wide open. Veteran writers Malcolm Dome and Jerry Ewing get plenty of camera time, and their commentary and knowledge is invaluable. While the Tygers and Iron Maiden were adored early on, Def Leppard was slagged mercilessly by the record-buying public for pandering to American audiences. And while Praying Mantis was courted by soon-to-be-legendary manager Peter Mensch, and Diamond Head by the manager of Foreigner (whose album 4 was at the top of the charts), both bands brashly turned down the offers, the multi-vocalist Praying Mantis refusing to get a proper frontman, and Diamond Head opting to continue with their singer's mother as manager. Needless to say, both bands lived to greatly regret the decisions.

As for the extra features on the DVD, we do get a few extended interviews, a short clip on the origins of air guitar, which reached positively surreal levels of inanity around 1980 among British teens, and most interestingly, a simply laid-out but surprisingly difficult interactive quiz on NWOBHM history. Iron Maiden and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal might look tacky, right down to the disclaimer "This film is not authorized by the current lineup of Iron Maiden, etc...", but its contents are anything but. If the rich, complex history of heavy metal floats your boat, this DVD is absolutely essential.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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