Michael Hann is the author the book Denim And Leather: The Rise And Fall Of The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. The oral history examines the genre through the lens of musicians, fans, journalists and others. It’s an entertaining read that can be purchased at the usual book outlets, or directly from publisher Bazillion Points. Hann fills us in on the book and the NWOBHM.
Chad Bowar: What inspired you to want to write a book about the New Wave of British Heavy Metal?
Michael Hann: In 2019, I wrote an oral history of NWOBHM – just 2000 words – for the Guardian, then used the overmatter for a much longer piece for The Quietus. My agent convinced me there was a book in it. I wasn’t desperate to write it at first, to be honest, but I knew the pieces had been good, and it seemed to be there was a gap in the market for this book. Also, unusually for a broadsheet newspaper writer, I am at least metal sympathetic – I was an preteen NWOBHM fan, and though I “went indie,” I returned to heavy music of various kinds in adulthood. I felt I had both enough familiarity and enough distance to tell the story.
What led you to go the oral history route?
Two reasons. First, it works for this kind of story – I am not old enough to have firsthand memories of these clubs or festivals, and I hate those kinds of books where writers who clearly weren’t there try to paint the details. Because NWOBHM was so disparate, not centered in one place, there wasn’t the unifying thing to keep everything flowing through a single narrative. The other reason is that it freed me from making critical judgments on any of the bands. A lot of NWOBHM was rubbish, and I wasn’t interested in saying which things were good and bad – I wanted to paint a picture of a lost world.
Was it difficult to organize everything into cogent chapters?
Not really. Though the eventual chaptering is different from the original proposal, I always felt each chapter should be themed around some element of NWOBHM – the power of the press, Radio 1’s Friday Rock Show, the Soundhouse and so on – rather than it being a chronological story (though there is a rough chronology). I transcribed almost all my interviews myself, so I knew in my head what I had, and how it could be arranged.
How long did it take from conception to completion?
I did my first interview just before Christmas 2019, and I finished the manuscript in January 2021. So I did almost all the work during lockdown, when there really wasn’t a whole lot else to do. The interviewing and transcription took all the time – once I started writing, the entire book only took a month.
What’s included in the North American edition that wasn’t in the original?
A lot more photos, some playlists. The text isn’t different.
Why was it important to also interview fans, writers, music business types, etc., in addition to the musicians?
Because you can’t tell the story by only talking to the musicians. You want to know what made Phonogram sign Def Leppard, or why Neal Kay wanted to start a rock club, and how the power of the press worked in pushing the bands (I was surprised that everyone said press rather than radio was the big deal for NWOBHM bands). A scene is never defined only by the people who play the music. They are just the faces.
Who were the most difficult to track down for an interview?
Hands down, Phil Cope of Witchfinder General. A friend eventually located him after seeing a small brewery had launched a Witchfinder General beer, which was indeed named for the band. That brewery produced a working phone number for Phil.
Was there anybody you hoped to talk to for the book, but weren’t able to?
I would have liked Steve Harris and Bruce Dickinson, though I am told by Maiden experts that they really wouldn’t have added much. Geoff Barton of Sounds – NWOBHM’s kingmaker – is missing, but in a way I quite like that, because it means he is like Banquo’s ghost in the story. John Sykes would have been good, but he never replied to any emails. And I wish I could have tracked down Mike Cooke of Sledgehammer, just because he was my old schoolteacher.
This is your first book. What was easier about the process than you expected, and what was more difficult?
It was as I expected, to be honest. I’ve been a writer for a long time. This was just more words.
What was the the first NWOBHM show you saw live?
I’m a little young for true NWOBHM. My first ever show was Whitesnake supported by Samson in January 1983. I saw Maiden on the World Piece and World Slavery tours. But I never even saw Diamond Head and Saxon in the flesh until last week.
You write that the NWOBHM was both a real thing and a confection. What do you mean by that?
It was real in that in the late 1970s there were scores of young bands emerging around Britain playing various kinds of heavy music – so there was a real thirst for aggressive music that was not punk. But very few of these bands even knew each other, let alone influenced each other – so for it to be a movement needed a catalyst, which was Sounds magazine, and their gig review of May 1979 – Iron Maiden, Samson and Angel Witch – for which the magazine’s editor, Alan Lewis, coined the phrase “new wave of British heavy metal”. Without Sounds, it would just have been a load of bands. Sounds made it a scene.
Who were some NWOBHM bands that you think should have been successful but for whatever reason didn’t make it?
Oh, it’s Diamond Head, without a doubt. They were meant to be a Zeppelin for the 1980s, and their self-released debut, Lightning to the Nations, is the best album of the NWOBHM era. But they were managed by the singer’s mum and her lover (also her boss). Every bad decision a band could make, they made. And so they didn’t become stars. But Sean Harris and Brian Tatler are not bitter – they never had to work because Metallica took to covering their songs.
Thrash bands like Metallica cite NWOBHM groups as influences. What other genres did NWOBHM help spawn?
All modern metal owes a debt to NWOBHM. NWOBHM codified metal – it gave it its look, its sound (the lack of blues is crucial). It showed acts around the world that metal did not have to be something aimed at arenas, it could be a DIY thing. And that especially is true of extreme metal – Norwegian black metal comes from a terrible misunderstanding of Venom, for example. Witchfinder General get cited as the first doom band – Lee Dorrian of Cathedral is a huge fan. NWOBHM’s tendrils are everywhere.
There are several singles playlists in the book. Give us a list of 10 representative albums for someone wanting to explore the NWOBHM.
No, because I think NWOBHM is principally a singles genre. There actually aren’t that many good NWOBHM albums, but there were scores of groups who had one or two good songs and then sullied it all by feeling the need to record 10 more for an album. In that respect it reminds me of 60s garage punk, where equally few of the bands had a whole album, just a single incredible song. But here are 10 songs that capture its breadth:
Diamond Head – Am I Evil?
Witchfinder General – Free Country
Praying Mantis – Captured City
Iron Maiden – Drifter
Saxon – Denim and Leather
Girlschool – Hit and Run
Tygers of Pan Tang – Euthanasia
Venom – In League With Satan
Blitzkrieg – Blitzkrieg
Girl – My Number
(interview published December 15, 2022)