Posts Tagged ‘New Wave of British Heavy Metal’

Am I Evil? The Autobiography, Brian Tatler with John Tucker (2009; second edition 2017)

“Am I Evil?” is the most famous song by the Midlands metallers Diamond Head. It may be the best heavy-metal song of all time, but I’m not sure that it’s Diamond Head’s best song. They were the best band in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOMBH), but they were never the most successful.

And why not? It’s quite simple: their greatest asset was also, alas, their greatest liability. It was their lead singer and rhythm-guitarist, Sean Harris. He wasn’t just the best vocalist in the NWOBHM: he was the best vocalist in rock. At least, I think so. So does Brian Tatler, the guitarist who was Diamond Head’s second-greatest asset and no kind of liability at all. If Harris had been down-to-earth and affable like Tatler, Diamond Head might indeed have become what they boasted in the beginning that they were: natural successors to Led Zeppelin.

But I think Diamond Head are better than both Led Zeppelin, who inspired them, and Metallica, whom they inspired. Although I was once a big fan of Metallica, I can go years now without listening to them and not miss it. I could listen to Diamond Head every day and never get bored. Their early music has a depth and magic that Metallica’s music lacks. And Sean Harris was an essential part of that. His voice has a plaintive, melancholy edge that made it perfect for Diamond Head’s brooding, complex songs. But I think it could have graced any kind of music that sought beauty or grandeur, rather than menace or malice.

He wouldn’t have been good as vocalist for Motörhead, for example, but I’ve already written that I wish he could have sung for Black Sabbath. It was a case of right place, wrong time, because all four of the band’s original members were Birmingham boys. Except that they don’t see themselves like that. As Tatler says here: “When I am abroad I say Diamond Head are from Birmingham, and in the UK I say Stourbridge, but to be specific all four original members of the band were from the village of Wollaston, a mile outside Stourbridge, in the West Midlands.” The other two originals were Colin Kimberley, the bassist, and Duncan Scott, the drummer and Brian Tatler’s then best friend. Kimberley and Scott weren’t musical greats like Harris and Tatler, but Tatler says he regrets their departure after the recording of Canterbury (1983), Diamond Head’s second album for the big MCA label after Borrowed Time (1982).

Sean Harris’s manoeuvrings were part of why they left, but so were the perfectionism and bullying of Mike Shipley, who produced Canterbury. Would Duncan Scott listen to the album now? His reply, according to Tatler: “Not unless you can give me Mike Shipley’s head on a silver platter.” I myself listened to Canterbury in a new way after I read about how hard and unpleasant Diamond Head found recording it. In a way I’d rather not know, but I think Shipley did get the best out of the band as they tried a poppier and more melodic direction. I just wish he’d been less unpleasant in doing it.

And I wish the album had sold well and that Diamond Head had acquired a better manager by then. It didn’t and they hadn’t. Instead, they stuck with Sean Harris’s mother, Linda Harris, and she was neither honest nor competent, according to Tatler. He says that Peter Mensch, AC/DC’s manager, seemed interested in taking Diamond Head on in the early days, but Harris wanted to stick with his mum. The band recruited new musicians after Canterbury, but quickly lost their way and broke up for the first time. Tatler thinks they might never have got back together again without Lars Ulrich and Metallica.

And yes, most people today know Diamond Head through Metallica. And maybe most fans of Diamond Head do. I’m not one of them: like Lars Ulrich himself, I knew and liked Diamond Head well before I heard a note of Metallica’s music. Ulrich writes one of the two introductions here. The other is by Dave Mustaine, another talented but temperamental musician, and another big booster of Diamond Head. He helped with Death and Progress (1993), Diamond Head’s third proper album, not counting their self-financed debut EP. So did Tony Iommi, whose own autobiography is much funnier than this one and, of course, about a much more successful band.

But Iommi and Tatler are united in not spilling the beans on any hot groupie action. Then again, Diamond Head don’t seem to have got much hot groupie action in their early days. As Tatler says of their time recording Borrowed Time: “We were fairly boring in hindsight. We never went to clubs; we would often play Monopoly in our hotel room. … We didn’t so much paint the town red as magnolia.” So it wasn’t drink, drugs and debauchery that derailed the Diamond: it was Sean of the Head. Death and Progress was his last album for the band and is likely to remain so, unless something very unexpected happens in the future. That album has some of the earlier magic but it didn’t sell well and once again Diamond Head went into hibernation. Tatler played with other bands and Harris carried on trying to become a pop-star. Harris’s own verdict on Diamond Head is this: “We were always trying desperately to be too much too soon.”

Tatler agrees, but I think he can still be very proud of what he achieved with Harris – and despite Harris. Since Harris’s departure Diamond Head have re-formed and soldiered on with a variety of new singers and musicians, as Tatler describes in the second half of the book. He says that, like his good friend Lars Ulrich, he still regards himself as a fan first and a performer second, but he’s glad that he’s been able to make a living from music. He still thinks about the might-have-beens, of course, but in a way they add to Diamond Head’s appeal. The band are a diamond in the dust whose glittering facets have caught the eye of a discerning few down the decades. Fortunately for them, one of the discerning few was the drummer in the metal band that became the biggest of all time.

But if the band Diamond Head are partly about might-have-beens, so is this book of the band. I wish that it had been better-written and that there were fewer photos of bad hair in it. But the sometimes clumsy prose doesn’t matter. Brian Tatler is a musician, not a wordsmith. And I think he’s a damn good musician too. So is Sean Harris and it’s a shame that the two of them aren’t still making musical magic together. Diamond Head never conquered the world like Led Zeppelin and Metallica, but I’m not alone in thinking that they created better music than either their giant influences or their giant influencees.

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Killers The Origins of Iron Maiden by Neil DanielsKillers: The Origins of Iron Maiden, 1975-1983, Neil Daniels (Soundcheck Books 2014)

Are Iron Maiden the nadir of naff? I would say so. That’s one of the things that interest me about them. Why has a band that seems so bad to me been popular all over the world for so long? I can admire their hard work and dedication, but their music is like cheap beer, harmful to both head and stomach. And I don’t even like dear beer. If a Harris was going to succeed in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, it should have been Sean, the singer in Diamond Head, not Steve, the bassist in Iron Maiden. Both bands share in the ridiculous side of heavy metal, but the boys from Stourbridge have had good tunes to go with it. Iron Maiden haven’t.

But they have been the most influential and successful band of the NWOBMH. Not influential on Metallica, though, I used to think. Metallica said they wanted to combine the grandeur of Diamond Head with the simplicity of Motörhead. They succeeded. Their opinion of Iron Maiden was, I assumed, found in the outro on Garage Days Re-Revisited (1987), where they play “Run to the Hills” out of tune and out of time. But on page 62 of this book Lars Ulrich says that Metallica are Maiden fans and that he himself was inspired to start a band by them.

Metallica have far surpassed Iron Maiden in songs and sales, but there are still a lot of people who will be interested to read this story of the Londoners’ early days and their first four albums: Iron Maiden and Killers, with vocals by the maniacal Paul Di’Anno (born Paul Andrews in Chingford), and The Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind, with vocals by the affable Bruce Dickinson, recruited from Samson. I skimmed and skipped, but it was interesting to see how so much is uncertain and disputed about who did what where, when and why. A lot of things weren’t photographed in the 1970s and 1980s and the web was a long way off. You can understand big history better from small history: if facts and people melt into mist even in the late twentieth century, what were earlier times like?

But Iron Maiden are small history only by big standards. They’ve not been as important as Josef Stalin or Isaac Newton, but they’ve still been part of millions of lives for decades, with fans in every nation from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. And the fans are dedicated: Iron Maiden inspire loyalty like a football team. Steve Harris himself is a fan of West Ham United. I wish his band sounded the way his team play. Unfortunately, they’re school of schlock, not school of science.

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