The top 25 NWOBHM records

By Martin Popoff

Metal’s first discernible movement, our first codified army of punters, air guitarists, headbangers, denim and leather… such is the glory of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, an explosion of heavy metal bands and LPs and indie 45s emerging from all over the U.K. from roughly 1980 to 1983. Here’s a batch of the best, gamely ranked, a tight 25 metal masterpieces to match the tightness of the time frame from whence they sprang. Up the irons!

1. Angel Witch / Angel Witch
(Bronze 1980)
No record signified doom and gloom and egregious, resolute metal-forging like this evil debut from Kevin Heybourne and his small band of witch music-makers. An infernal album cover forged in the depths of hell provides the perfect visual accompaniment to the band’s skillful Sabbatherian churn, not all of it slow, some of it as erudite as Priest circa ’76 through ’78.

2. Savage / Loose ‘n Lethal
(Ebony 1983)
Lathered up with buzzed electricity, “Loose ’n Lethal” is a canny concoction of songs that sit between under-written and aptly written, but then delivered with such alcoholic power that the unsuspecting punter is bowled over and headbanging hard before he knows what hit him in the pit. This energy is cogently captured upon the cover art (R.I.P. Garry Sharpe-Young). Oh, yeah, and there’s never been a better riff written than “Cry Wolf.”

3. Iron Maiden / Iron Maiden
(Harvest 1980)
Iron Maiden’s frantic debut was a dark, loose-bolted affair dripping in vibe, its note-dense attack evoking Priest at their most sincerely pioneering but roughed up by a punk ethic. It sounds like metal aching to be made, white-knuckled as the guys resign themselves to a life of sleeping in lorries and celebrating identity with pub-doomed metal minions. Given that things turned out sunnier is neither here nor there.

4. Quartz / Stand Up And Fight
(MCA 1980)
A mere three studio albums and all vastly different from each other, Quartz was visually stuck in the ’70s and thus probably doomed to obscurity, despite the blinding professionalism of this high-fidelity record of a proposed stadium metal still 100 percent forged in fire.

5. More / Blood & Thunder
(Atlantic 1982)
With a new singer in Mick Stratton for this band’s second and last album, all of a sudden we’ve got a flash band with Def Leppard- and Whitesnake-like potential, yet with a sound that is all molten riffs, Zeppelin swagger and howling AC/DC-proud power. Maiden should have been a hard sell compared with the direct socket-injecting Stratton and guitarist Kenny Cox, who cook up on tracks like “Traitors Gate” and “Rock And Roll.”

6. Iron Maiden / Killers
(Harvest 1981)
Totally different record from the charming, gritty debut, “Killers” bullied Maiden’s quickly assembling legions to keep up with the band’s virulent strain of proto-thrash riffing and prog-metal quick changes. Production was much improved, as well, and a discernible canniness with respect to pacing, variety and sequencing pointed the way toward inevitable fame and fortune.

7. Raven / All For One
(Neat 1983)
Frustrating band, Raven (both before this record and exasperatingly long after) being irritatingly thin and yelpy. But forsooth, “Wiped Out” is a speed metal classic, and then its follow-up, “All For One,” found the band anchoring its power-trio mania in the stomping production values of Michael Wagener. Killer grooves and money riffs everywhere, “All For One” loomed large enough to garner the band a major-label deal, which it famously fumbled with bad material and even worse image choices.

8. Saxon / Power & The Glory
(Carrere 1983)
Up to this point, let’s face it: Saxon occasionally stumbled upon an anthem, but for the most part, the group luckily was allowed a handicap or a few paces’ head start, sorta like the way we deal with Kiss or The Rolling Stones. Then a shocking transformation takes place, and Saxon gets beside itself with manic metal. Drummer Nigel Glockler has a lot to do with it (traps to cannons), as does producer Jeff Glixman, who unwittingly takes a page from the Ebony Records heavy-metal handbook.

9. Gillan / Glory Road
(Virgin 1980)
Oh, sure, I could reverently place all six Gillan albums within my Top 25 NWOBHM (possibly my favorite band of all time), but I will act responsibly, ’cos, in fact, the looped chemistry that is Ian Gillan’s frantic NWOBHM incubator is admittedly an acquired taste. So I’ll propose one, the third, “Glory Road,” being a hugely inspired and energetic spot of Purple punk endlessly dimensional and human.

10. Witchfinder General / Friends Of Hell
(Heavy Metal 1983)
No less than the band that invented doom metal, Witchfinder General crunched its way somberly through bleak songs of loss, impossibly turgid, charmingly loose and guileless. A mere two records, Witchfinder General nonetheless gave the NWOBHM its leaden anchor, staking claim, proposing that metal, logically, was supposed to weigh down body and soul.

11. Grim Reaper / See You In Hell
(Ebony 1983)
The allure of “See You In Hell” is that it is very much evil metal seducing through hook and melody, much of the reach inside the soul occurring through the emotive vocal holler of one Steve Grimmett. If a band can sound underground, barroom and anthemic all at once, this magical collective is it, even if the exotic, mysterious atmosphere of “See You In Hell” was never to be repeated.

12. Diamond Head / Lightning To The Nations
(Happy Face 1980)
The third great hope from the NWOBHM free-for-all, Diamond Head never lived up to the promise of Tatler’s dependable, connective, emotive riffs and Sean Harris’ rock-star good looks and better pipes. Strange franchise though. I mean, there is so much wrong — almost everything wrong — with this record, and even more so “Borrowed Time,” yet the listener feels he’s in the presence of greatness.

13. Fastway / Fastway
(CBS 1983)
Doesn’t quite feel like a NWOBHM album, but hey, Fast Eddie is from Motorhead and Dave King is barely into his 20s, Irish and unknown. Fastway sounds American, though, which nonetheless is a nice break from the dodgy proto-speed metal and fantasy themes somewhat branding the genre and causing its appeal to be limited.

14. Def Leppard / High ‘N’ Dry
(Vertigo 1981)
Def Leppard squarely fit the NWOBHM bill through its singles as well as their aggressive “On Through The Night” debut. The sound begins to shift with “High ’n’ Dry,” which is nonetheless considered by many to be the band’s best album, given its handshake between young, roustabout metal and a certain AC/DC-ish stadium-rock swagger, an atmosphere of spaces and pregnant pauses masterminded by producer Mutt Lange.

15. Tank / The Power Of The Hunter
(Kamaflage 1982)
The metal armies have always considered Tank the baby Motorhead, but I’d add that Tank’s also a smarter, more entertaining, more event-minded version of Motorhead. Plus, Algy was in The Damned, a fist held high around these parts. And, yes, it’s a certain modest, miniature, DIY-punk vibe that is the charm of this plucky trio. ’Eads down, ’meet you at the end.

16. Samson / Shock Tactics
(Grand Slamm 1981)
Bruce Dickinson’s last record with Paul Samson, “Shock Tactics” is a huge step up on the amateur crap that came before. The album is an appealing mix of rootsy, traditional metal riffing and performances and production that are bold and insistent and enthusiastic about this kind of music taking back the public consciousness for however long it lasts. That right there is the proselytizing power of Dickinson.

17. Iron Maiden / The Number Of The Beast
(EMI 1982)
Third record for Maiden of four commendably very different from each other, “The Number Of The Beast” is a punkier, faster, more urgent album that the considered “Killers,” more like the debut but with an immense upshot in songwriting ideas. Still think there are three bad songs on it, which would be blasphemy to Metal Blade founder Brian Slagel, who has consistently called this the greatest record of all time.

18. Motorhead / Another Perfect Day
(Bronze 1983)
Yes, I know, Motorhead pioneered this stuff through five hugely influential previous records (OK, maybe two of them are vastly lauded), but true usefulness in the life of this writer doesn’t happen until Brian “Robbo” Robertson arrives and cleans up the sound a bit. In tandem, Lemmy writes some of his most artful words of wisdom.

19. Tygers Of Pan Tang / Crazy Nights
(MCA 1981)
Second record with the operatic and rock godly Jon Deverill at the mic finds the band greatly improving on the thin production of “Spellbound,” cranking it into the red. The band’s songs remain squared-off and hooky, based on meat-and-potatoes power chords, but the result is an earthy, pleasing rock headbang not unlike that of simplistic Whitesnake circa 1981-84.

20. Samson / Before The Storm
(Polydor 1982)
The Nicky Moore era of Samson was received with mixed feelings, given the commercial, almost southern-rock vibe the big man brought to the band. Still, the songs were strong and the production even stronger, making for a “guilty pleasure” album in “Before The Storm,” followed by “Don’t Get Mad Get Even,” which was a bit more flash and thus less brave in actuality.

21. Holocaust / The Nightcomers
(Phoenix 1981)
The joys of this record leap from the incongruously evil cover art and then land saddled with the idea that Holocaust is a bunch of Scottish bumpkin punks newly and thoroughly juiced by the joys of discovering metal. Angus and Malcolm meet Saxon for a holler-along down at the pub.

22. Quartz / Against All Odds
(Heavy Metal 1983)
Off MCA and downgraded to Witchfinder General’s label for their last deflated kick at the cat, Quartz turns in a completely different record from its flash second. “Against All Odds” got panned by critics, but there’s something malevolent, depressive, defeated and tragically obsessed with metal about this album, the end result essentially sounding like Tygers, Fist or Holocaust tinctured by doom.

23. Tygers Of Pan Tang / Wild Cat
MCA 1980)
The only Tygers album featuring the katz klaw vocal grit of future Neat Records boss Jess Cox, “Wild Cat” was an early biker-metal classic exuding all the boisterous charm one would expect from a bunch of young kids excitedly helping build a scene. An appealing cross between the smart riffs of Maiden and the roughshod delivery of Tank.

24. Various Artists / Metal For Muthas Volume II
(EMI 1980)
Sure, the first one sparked something, EMI admirably got on board with this new metal thing in a driver’s seat position (MCA deserves praise as well). But the track list of “Metal For Muthas” didn’t quite reflect the plot. Onto the second installment and it’s all mischievous indies waving their arms and jumping up and down, best of course being Trespass, who get on twice but then never manage to get one over.

25. Raven / Wiped Out
(Neat 1982)
The most metal pride and excitement we felt as young punters gathering around this NWOBHM music was arguably generated by the first Maiden album and this second Raven album, “Wiped Out.” Also arguably, Raven invented speed metal, Raven was the band that the term OTT (over the top) was invented for, and Raven was the most frantic, energetic and uncontainable kids crafting this new brand of metal. “Wiped Out” doesn’t hold up like “All For One,” but its fearlessness and inventiveness need to be applauded.

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Which is the best band to emerge from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM)?
• Def Leppard
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4 thoughts on “The top 25 NWOBHM records

  1. I admire Martin Popoff’s enthusiasm and knowledge of metal. I have been reading his stuff for years. But this is a prime example of a North American/ Canadian rock fan getting it wrong when writing about UK rock. Popoff has come unstuck like this in the past (see his incomprehensible but well-intentioned UF0 biography, Shoot Out The Lights). There’s no shame in it. It’s down to those subtle cultural differences, and a UK rock writer would come similarly unstuck if trying to tackle a niche of US metal.
    I lived through the NWOBHM era first hand in England and I saw many of the bands on this list. Firstly, most of them were genuinely shit, and the modern day mini cab drivers. builders, painters and decorators that were once in many of these bands have been quietly laughing for years at how their silly old rock group have been talked up and romanticised by the likes of Lars Ulrich for the past 25 years. Popoff falls victim to the same revisionism. His comments about Saxon are wildly off-piste. Saxon were at their peak on albums two and three. That’s when they sold records and sold out the Hammersmith Odeon. Gillan were never NWOBHM; Popoff seems to have shoe-horned them into the list for his own personal reasons, and nobody need ever listen to Quartz. nobody did in 1981 and nobody does know. While I accept that personal taste has an influence on this, this really is a case of a guy who grew up on the other side of the world fantasising about something that was happening thousands of miles away and creating something bigger and better in his mind. Again, no shame in that. I wish it were true. Ever wondered why you never read about a UK rock star praising NWOBHM? It’s only Lars and the Yanks. Never a Steve Harris or a Joe Elliott. Why? Because they know what we Brits have known for ages: it was fun, but it was shit. With one or two noble exceptions, these are the bands that were thrashing away in the background while everyone was propping up the at the Music machine, the Lyceum, the Hammersmith Odeon, waiting for Gillan or UFO or Whitesnake to hurry up and get on stage.

  2. Great to read a feature in GOLDMINE on Popoff’s top 25 NWOBHM releases! As always Popoff showcases a very interesting list. Martin is a regular on my Skull Sessions podcasts and I love to include him on my metal debates because of his incredibly informative accounts yet highly eccentric taste in metal! There are some very questionable albums on his list, most notably the “Metal For Muthas Vol. II” compilation album, which was utter shit apart from the Trespass tracks and a couple of others (the first volume was 100 times better!). Also “Crazy Nights” by the Tygers was a horrible display of lame-ass lyrics and cheesy riffs, and also a much more thin production displayed by Dennis Mackay than on the Spellbound album. Sorry Martin, but you know me, I always gotta bust your balls and have my say! But in Martin’s defense, I gotta say Nantucket’s remarks were way off course. I too lived through and was a HUGE fan of the NWOBHM from 1980 onward, although I live in Los Angeles area so never saw those bands until they toured here in the US. It’s funny how certain Brits like Nantucket seem to be humiliated by the NWOBHM scene, which I can’t understand. But I will tell you, whether you live in Canada, England, Germany or the US, there is NO arguing that the NWOBHM (particularly many of the bands Martin lists in the top 25) were not only a tremendously huge influence on speed/thrash/death-metal bands throughout the US and Europe but they were TRULY groundbreaking in all aspects of rock music. I will agree with Nantucket to a certain extent in that much of the NWOBHM songs (rather than bands) were shit and do not stand the test of time. But the NWOBHM was truly one of the last truly sincere rock and roll movements as it had nothing to do with hype or trendy fashion and everything to do with MUSIC (unlike any of the popular rock music over the last 20 years). The biggest fault of the the NWOBHM bands was due to poor production value of the recordings (remember a lot of this albums and singles were recorded on 8-track machines on very low budgets). But even with the poor production you can not deny the intense brutally of the groundbreaking guitar riffs from the initial recordings of Angelwitch, Jaguar, Savage, Legend, Blitzkrieg, Raven, Tank and so many others. But for argument sake, let’s look back on the music scene of the early ’80s, particularly in the UK. Is Nantucket trying to say that the British punk and New Wave bands of that era were far superior to the NWOBHM?? Talk about Hyped-up talentless crap! You wanna talk about the hyped-up glammy pop-tart shit that was coming out of Los Angeles at the time, that I was all-too familiar with? I remember seeing SAXON back in 1982 at the Whisky in Los Angeles with Metallica opening (I incidentally saw SAXON last night in Orange County as well and I am pleased to say they still rule!) and there was absolutely no comparison to how much more professional and exciting that SAXON performance was than the LA glam crap at the time. I remember seeing all 4 members of Motley Crue in the audience looking in awe, and taking metal notes on what REAL metal is supposed to sound like. Really the only musician that has boldly stood by the NWOBHM was Lars Ulrich, and I knew Lars back then very well and was at his home in Newport Bch sifting thru his record collection and I can honestly say he had the biggest NWOBHM collection of anyone at the time here in the US. So any defense he has for the NWOBHM is due to the simple fact that music is what almost single-handedly inspired Metallica! So when Lars “romanticizes” about the NWOBHM (as Nantucket puts it) it is simply a fan talking about the music that inspired him to play drums. Apart from that, the NWOBHM (apart from the overly-hyped Def Leppard) has remained underground and underrated for the past 30 years. But Nantucket (whoever you may be?), I love the fact that you are brutally honest about your opinions on the NWOBHM and I would love to invite you on a future SHockwaves SKull Sessions Discussion (or shall we say debate?). And Martin, as always, would love to have you as a guest again! Thanks to GOLDMINE for keeping it real! (had to throw in a hipster quote so I don’t sound as old as I actually am!).
    Sincerely,
    Bob Nalbandian
    RoadrunnerRecords.com/skullsessions

  3. How did Judas Priest not even make this list? they were the first, foremost and best of all NWOBHM bands.

  4. Clarification for Brandon, because Mr Popoff has indeed got it slightly mixed-up:

    First Wave of British Heavy Metal (early to mid-1970s): Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Whitesnake, Rainbow, UFO, Budgie, Motorhead, Judas Priest etc.

    New Wave of British Heavy Metal (late 1970s / early 1980s): Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Saxon, Venom, Angelwitch, Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head, Girlschool, Demon, Praying Mantis etc.

    All great and all to be enjoyed, whatever the genre, eh?

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