ARE YOU READY FOR THE
In other words, the North East New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.
IAN RAVENDALE reports from Wallsend, matrix of metal mayhem (it says here) with bands like HYTHRA, FIST, RAVEN, WHITE SPIRIT, TYGERS OF PAN TANG...
WALLSEND. THREE or four miles out of Newcastle and not much of a place. Industry either staggering or closing. A modern shopping centre, all Lego and right angles. Being Sting's birthplace and where his dad still delivers milk has so far been Wallsend's only claim to musical fame.
So far. For Wallsend is where heavy metal's premier independent label, Neat Records, lives. Unlike most of the indies that are sprouting up like bristles on Desperate Dan's chin, Neat has a pedigree. Owner Dave Wood, a rounded gent in his mid-thirties, started the Impulse parent company in 1966, gradually building up to what it is now, a 16 track studio, providing recordings for soloists and bands of all sizes, shades and dispositions and artistry. Neat isn't Impulse's first label either. The folk-based Rubber has been around for years, even notching up a couple of major sellers a while back with Mike Harding's 'Rochdale Cowboy' and the accompanying album.
From Hedgehog Pie to the Tygers Of Pan Tang is quite a jump and one that, it would be fair to say, Wood approaches more as a businessman than an enthusiast. "I was brought up with heavy metal in its previous cycle. And though it was very loud, even then, it's even louder now. What we've done is chosen some good product. It may not be the thing I go home to listen to. I'm more interested in the marketing side."
The first HM 'product' 'marketed' was the Tyger's 'Don't Touch Me There' EP that MCA picked up on and used as a basis to sign the band. Since then, there's been Fist's 'Name Rank And Serial Number' and, just released, White Spirit's 'Back To the Grind'.
Generally speaking, not my cup of hot chocolate, but then very little HM is. But at last something's happening in Geordieville. With the Neat bands, fellow heavies Mythra, the Anti-Pop organisation and combos like White Heat, Hot Snax, Stiletto and Erogenous Zones, the North East just may be, eventually, on the verge of something akin to Liverpool '63 or London '77.
A AND R MAN come-press officer come-whatever is Tyger's manager Tom Noble. I've known Tom for some time and despite his rather unfortunate resemblance to Bram. Tchaikovsky reckon him as a no-bullshit sort of bloke with a straight line in diplomatic capability.
He's far more of a fan than a businessman and acts as Neat's link with what's going on. And he's quite candid that heavy isn't his personal preference, being more of a Rough Trade - Nick Lowe - Records buff. "If I was signing the kind of music I like I don't think I could sell records by them. I managed. I managed Disguise (Hartlepool new wavers - sort of Jam-style) and couldn't sell them to anybody. Despite the fact I thought they were marvelous and so did a lot of other people.
Whereas, with the heavy bands, I know how to deal with them, know who likes to hear them and can get involved in what I like doing.
We're sitting talking in Dave Wood's office, the green room of the former theatre dressing area that serves as Impulse and is still actually green and festooned with the Harding gold discs and pictures of Bobby Thompson, a geriatric local comedian whose first album through Impulse shifted a quarter of a million smackers worth of 'product'.
The next possibilities for a Neat single are Raven, who've just finished lugging their fear into the studio upstairs. So we adjourn to watch them flash down a few numbers on two-track as a bit of pudding-proofing.
Heading out of Newcastle, Raven have been around for at least five years. It's only in the past few months that they've settled on the classic power trio format with the permanent core of the band brothers Mark and John Gallagher (aged 20 and 21 respectively) being joined by 21 year old skins-beating postman Rob Hunter.
"Wun, two, er, wun!" shouts John the singing bassman in an attempt to count the band in. No good. His headphones keep falling off. "Gies that gaffa tape ta keep them on me hede, like," he instructs as the contents of the control booth attempt to control their mirth.
Eventually, Gallagher decides to dispense with the hedephones altogether and just as the combo are set to ignite a passing taxi driver's instructions come cracking across the PA.
"What's ee sayen'?" enquires Gallagher, thinking that the interference is instructions from producer/engineer Mickey Sweeney.
Finally, communication problems, taxis and gaffa tape dispensed with, Raven are off a raving like Motorhead they very definitely possess a similar sort of rough tenacity. Guitarist Mark will be bludgeon riffoling away when he'll suddenly drop something completely unexpected in amongst the holocaust. A high in the lows, a low in the highs, a needle in the haystacks.
What you might truly call a New Wave heavy metal band, Raven have an almost Ramone-like deceptive dumbness to them - a comparison that's irresistible after seeing the Gallaghers in action. Legs apart, heads down and shaking with Mark the spit of Johnny R. Raven are headbangers whose phantom guitars have suddenly shown up.
And then, over the top of this (really over the top) are John's vocals. Not quite as gnome-like as Geddy Lee, not quite as contrived as bondage Bob Halford, Gallagher J. has a great heavy metal voice. "I've always had the high voice," he admits. "When we listen back to our early tapes there's these incredibly squeaky vocals. I've just worked on getting the lower part right."
"We're used to it now," interjects brother Mark. "But it takes some getting used to if you haven't seen us."
The Neats seem well pleased with the tapes, Raven will probably be Neat's next signing, so everyone goes away happy. Put Raven on tour as support to Motorhead and they'd clean up. Metaphorically speaking.
FROM DOWN the road, the luxurious holiday resort of South Shields, come Fist. Well, two-and-a-half fingers' worth anyway. One of the other combos I'd visions of flinging their pension books into the crowd as a set finisher. As it turns out the average age is 25 and what they do have on their side is musical maturity and experience.
More of a hard rock outfit than scrap metal dealers, for me Fist are the most interesting of the North East British Steelers. Their outlook is wider, going from Wishbone Ashy stuff to Rainbow and Scorpions type material. And, 'Name Rank And Serial Number' (Neat 4), as featured on Baron Barton's playlist is as straight down the line heavy rock as you've likely to come across. If you've ever banged a head, played your shirt buttons or bellowed into a hair brush, this is the one to make you do it again. I even like it.
Consisting of Wylie on bass, Harry 'Hiroshima' Hill on drums, Dave Irwin on guitar and Keith Thatchfield on guitar and vocals, Fist came together as 'Axe' in April 1978 after years of playing all sorts of music in different combinations. Axe mark one lasted eight months, dashing out more heavy ballads than they do now, until the lack of gigs for non-new wave bands forced them to jack it in. But of course times, as they say, change and back Axe have come hoping that this time there'll be a place in the collective consciousness of the nation for them as Fist.
"We still don't play heavy metal as such," says Keither. "There's the same aggression but we think there's more in the songs. There's a lot of influences. Dave's the real heavy metaller, I'm a blues rocker, John's more Free-style and Harry's into the Montrose, American hard rock school of drummers. But we all like what we're doing."
The Irwin/Thatchfield songs have a bit more to say for themselves than your standard heavy cant and subject material ranges from interrogation ('Name Rank') to DC10's (the B side 'You'll Never Get Me Up In One Of Those') and in 'Terminus' they even use getting off a bus as an allegory for suicide.
"I feel under no obligation whatsoever to come up with heavy metal lyrics," argues Thatchfield. "We don't take the heavy metal thing that seriously. When we're on stage we take what we're doing seriously, but we're up there to have a good time and entertain."
Your standard heavies Fist ain't. And become even less so when Keith lets slip that he and Hill almost joined their South Shields compadres these oh-so Angelic Upstarts. "We were going to be the rhythm section, with me playing the bass. We'd have really thundered that band along."
'Management problems' dissuaded them otherwise, so Hill contented himself with giving current drummer Stix lessons while Thatchfield roadied for and looked after the management stool after said 'problems' had come to a head. Sounds like a heavy gig, man.
"Just depends how you handle it. At Bradford I got the 'Bouncer Of the Year Award'. When people get on the stage they only want to have a good time. Nobody wants to fight. I had them all lined up in the end, giving them points out of ten on how they fell back into the audience when I pushed 'em. They all loved it and didn't get back on again."
"I really enjoyed the Upstarts for the energy of the band. All the trouble they attracted was really from the early days. If you print this it might lose him all his fans, but despite what he tries to put over Mensi's a really nice lad."
I MAY AS well confess that the combo who had Fist pensioned off were fellow Sooth Sheels lads Mythra. But if you've got a 17 years old guitarist as Mythra have in Mick Rundle, maybe Keither Thatchfield's 27 does seem like one foot in the grave. The rest of what could turn out to be the Bay City Rollers of heavy metal line up as vocalist Vince High (20, guitarist Maurice Bates (20), bassist Pete Melsom (19) and drummer Barry Hopper (18).
Not part of the Neat set up but at the forefront of the (if you insist) New Wave Of British Heavy Metal North East Division, Mythra have had one EP released on the Durham-based Guardian label. 'Death And Destiny' impressed Geoff Barton so much that he called it 'This year's "Getcha Rocks Off". That was enough to get the usual crop of record companies on the sniff and the band have subsequently signed a fairly low key deal with Pinnacle who'll be putting out the EP with 'Killer' as the featured track.
As a band Mythra have been together for 18 months, with Rundle coming in a couple months ago to replace the departing John Roach. The Leppard comparisons go further than simply belonging to the same generation. Guardian boss Terry Gavaghan has given them a really slick, punchy production. And maybe because of the inherent glossiness Mythra, like Def Leppard, don't quite have their own voice yet, at least on record.
"We do put a lot of thought into the arrangements," considers Vince.
"Our own identity comes out on stage," offers Maurice.
"Yeah, we're really powerful on stage," Vince proceeds. "We can definitely communicate with our audience. At our first ever gig there were 200 kids. At the second 400. Live work is very important."
And you don't feel that working within the realms of HM is a bit restricting? Vince is, horrors, a big Barclay James Harvest fan. But there's be no way that Mythra could do anything as quietly introspective as 'Mockingbird' is there?
"I wouldn't want us to. I think the Barclays are a great band but we wouldn't want to play something like that because it's not exciting. We do ballads but they're heavy ballads."
Very much considered the area's young pretenders, Mythra lark around a lot with the more mature High (married, with a modest but immaculate terrace house) acting as a balance to the hi-jinks of Hopper and Randle. The operation as a whole have scant respect for their fellow metal merchants in crime.
"We were on friendly terms with Fist once," says Vince in a cross between amiable and mean-it.
"Fist and Mythra hate each other," tosses in Barry.
"No, it's not as bad as all that," Vince comes back. "It's just what the local followers have made of it. They've created the rivalry between us. When Axe split up we used to do our version of 'Name Rank And Serial Number'. It's at least five years old that song. We sort of paved the way for them in South Shields."
"When they got back together and started playing it again everyone thought it was one of our songs," reckons Maurice with a measure of irony. "And all of a sudden the friendship changed y'kna?"
"And they don't want anything to do with us now," says Vince. "They think we're a bunch of young upstarts."
AH HA! SOUTH shields is just about small enough for everybody to know each other. So...
"I've known the Upstarts all me life. Brought up on the same estate as them," confesses Vince.
Adds Maurice, "There's a bunch of them a couple of months back. There was Mond from the Upstarts, Slesser, John Miles, Paul Thompson from Roxy Music ... We got together in this club and did 'Virginia Plain', Mythra style!"
"And nobody knew the words," recalls Vince. Then, with a smirk, "Mond says, 'Play it in A'. Started playing it y'kna and John Miles says, 'Change to B flat' and Mond didn't have a clue!"
What about this rather arrogant image you've got then?
"The other bands tend to hate me, because they say I've got a bit mouth," admits Vince.
"We could be classed as the biggest bunch of posers in the area," offers Maurice by way of explanation.
Yeah? Over to you, Vincent. "We could be, but we're not!"
If Mythra are the mouths, then by common consent White Spirit are the craftsmen. The other bands speak in hushed tones about the Hartlepool based quintet's musicianship. Until very recently a percentage of note-perfect covers were included in the set but now, with the advent on Neat and the 'Back To The Grind' single, these have been dispensed with.
Like Fist, Spirit reckon they aren't a heavy metal band but if they're not then neither were Deep Purple, the combo they most resemble.
Spirit founder member and guitarist Janick Gers (his parents come from Poland) knows what he likes and a howling racket isn't it. Formed five or six years ago with a somewhat different line up, White Spirit are a supremely professional outfit. Completely self-contained, they lug their equipment around in their own three tonner ("We do have have three tons of gear") and themselves in a customised mini bus.
"When people see the trucks 'n' that," says bass player Phil Brady, who looks like he's just come from a stint with the Baby's, "they don't believe you're on 15 quid a week".
The band spread their winds wider than most, propelling themselves around the country with a verve that's built them quite a following in such dark and distant parts as Nottingham. All of which burns up the gas.
"There've been times", says Janickm "when we haven't eaten for three or four days. That's not being big or anything, but we have paid a lot of dues."
"I've seen us share a Topic Bar between five of us," contributes keyboardist Malcolm Pearson.
SO, UNLIKE a lot of full-time musicians, you aren't on social security?
"You've got to be within the law, because if you're playing and are worried about someone from the social security catching yer it's going to spoil it," reckons Janick.
Something Spirit find happening with great regularity is that they prove to be slightly more competition as a support band than some headliners can handle. Blown anybody off recently boys?
Malcolm: "Praying Mantis are hiding from us. We're supposed to be playing the Marquee with them this week but they haven't rung us up."
Janick: "And there was Budgie at Newcastle Mayfair. We played with Girl the other week and I'm not saying we blew them off but they won't let us support them any more."
Malcolm: "Put it this way, the two guitarists came into our dressing room afterwards and said, 'Nice supporting you lads, see you again sometime' and then walked out!"
Spirit have a track on the 'Metal For Muthas II' album and one on the accompanying give band EP. The most imediate piece of molten wax is the Neat 'Back To The Grind' / 'Cheater' single, both songs showing the band's nod to Purple.
Along with Fist, White Spirit are well pleased with Neat, like the working atmosphere and the accessibility of the personnel. So, everything's hunky dory over the Wallsend. Critical allaim, satisfied bands, ambitious but caring record company. Well, no ...
Article virtually completed, I ring up Tom Noble to clean up a few points and in his role as Tygers' manager rather than Neat PR. He tells me that there's something afoot with the band and the label. He is not happy. I arrange to see the Tiggers the following day and it comes out.
The tygers reckon that Neat have mislead them. MCA wanted to negotiate a further contract so the band took the one they had already to a music solicitor who told them what it actually meant. Behind all the mumbo jumbo there's no legal obligation for the band to get any money at all. All advances and the 12 per cent royalties go to Dave Wood who then pays the band. Under the terms of the contract there's no written obligation for him to give them anything but what it worked out in actuality was that the Tygers had received all their advances but only seven per cent of the royalties, the remaining give per cent going to Neat.
So how about it, Dave?
"The contract with MCA is with me, a licensing deal, and I've got a word of mouth contract with the band. Under the terms of that contract I could most probably do what the contract says, pick up all the money and not give them anything. Which isn't what I've done. All advances have gone straight to the band."
BUT, AS you say, there's nothing in the contract that would compel you to give the band their money if you changed your mind. It does seem rather heftily weighted in your favour.
"As I've said to Tom, we're arguing over something that doesn't exist. Surely my good faith has followed all the way through? If I say that I'll sort something out I've always done it. Surely that's as good as any bit of paper? I don't think a tighter contract between us would have done any more good. In fact, it probably would have done us harm. It's suggested that the terms are unfair. Well, business is business. Five per cent for a licensing deal is perfectly regular."
After a four hour session between Noble and Wood, the Tygers deal has been re-arranged so that Neat get £4,000 and two per cent of the next single and album royalties. A move which Dave views as 'a compromise', primarily so that both parties can avoid getting up to their necks in solicitors.
Whether or not Tom stays with Neat is anyone's guess. Dave hopes he will, I suspect he won't. Especially if talk about the Tygers starting their own label for other bands, brought about by their disillusionment with Neat, goes beyond the conversational stage.
Says forthright Tygers bassperson and Hollies fan Rocky, "What Dave Wood is doing is capitalising on the heavy rock revival. Bands that don't know anything about what record companies offer will beat a path to his door because they'd love to get a single out on anything."
"I think the bands get a very good deal from us. We look after them."
NEAT WILL carry on and prosper, of that I've no doubt at all. There's enough heavy and hard rock bands in the area to keep it fuelled for some time to come. And combos like Hellenbach, Venom, Standard Issue, Nato and King Cad (friends of the estimable Wavis O'Shave who would like note made of the fact that they don't wear flares) are just the tip of what is probably an iceberg preparing itself in garages and front rooms the length and breadth of Tyne And Wear.
If the Tygers enter the record company race as well things could get hot. Especially if their second single 'Rock n' Roll Man' is as big as I reckon it's going to be and gives them all the clout entailed in having a hit record.
Which label would you rather be on?