NWOBHM Icons Diamond Head Stand the Test of Time on Their Self-Titled New Album
"You don't care a jot if it's not fashionable or people laugh at you. You love it because you love it."
What was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal? Was it a sound? A genre? No, but it was a widespread movement that set the post-punk United Kingdom aflame. As the 70s ended, Highway To Hell, Hellbent For Leather, and Overkill were on the stereos of a disenchanted British youth struggling to come to terms with union strikes, Tory rule, and the winter of discontent. Ozzy was kicked out of Sabbath and Zeppelin went prog. Life sucked.
1979 was also the year that a group of Motörhead and Sabbath freaks (who'd formed three years previously and had spent their youth covering Montrose and The Tuff Darts in their local school hall) decamped to the studio, at the behest of singer Sean Harris' pushy mom and her factory owner boyfriend, Reg Fellows. That band were Diamond Head, and the album was Lightning To The Nations. Packaged in a plain sleeve with handwritten track-listing, they pressed only 1,000 copies, available via mail-order for the princely sum of £3.50.
The rest, as they say, is history. Eventually some fanboy called Lars Ulrich would discover them and travel halfway across the world to watch them play at The Woolwich Odeon, but by then, bands like Iron Maiden, Saxon, Def Leppard (even though they themselves will deny their part in the NWOBHM scene), Angel Witch, Venom and many more would be playing in pubs up and down the country and putting British heavy metal on the map.
Almost four decades later, Diamond Head are back with a new, self-titled album (that drops April 22 via Dissonance). It's not been an easy road, but founding guitarist, the lightning-fingered Brian Tatler, is as excited about releasing their eponymous album after 36 years as he was when he was hand-signing those white labels way back when. The band have a typical tale of electric highs and evil lows, not uncommon in the NWOBHM frenzy that had major labels like MCA and Atlantic desperately scrambling for a piece of the pie. With Reg Fellows at the helm, Diamond Head were on borrowed time (enough puns yet?) and theirs was a career that never was. It's even rumored that the bullish Reg saw off a management proposal from AC/DC boss-man Peter Mensch. After two genre-defining albums on MCA, Diamond Head hit a brick wall, and it seemed like its two key players, Sean and Brian, could never see eye to eye.
But now, fueled by new talent in the form of new singer Ras Bom, Diamond Head are back in the eye of the storm and Noisey needs to know – is the new ‘un as good as Lightning To The Nations... or does it have to be?
Noisey: It's been almost a decade since you released What's In Your Head with singer Nick Tart, and you're chuffed about the reaction to the album. But as a band that pretty much defined a whole movement of heavy metal back in the early 80s, do you think critics and fans judge you unfairly, expecting you to come right out with another Lightning To The Nations?
Brian Tatler: I'm so chuffed, yes and yes, I think in the past a couple of people have sat on the fence, not wanting to kick us, because of our legacy. We've been influential but if it doesn't really float your boat, you can't go overboard. It would be quite easy to say, “You're done, you've had your chance, you blew it,” but that's not been the case. Everybody seems to be saying that Diamond Head are back. The new singer is fantastic and everybody seems to be loving this new album, so I'm on cloud nine.
This new guy sure has some classic rock pipes on him, sounding like a mix between Mötley Crüe's Vince Neil and Robert Plant. Where did you unearth him?
Well, our last singer, Nick emigrated to Brisbane in 2008, so it became very complicated and expensive to fly him backwards and forwards for gigs, so we had a conversation in 2014 where we started to think we should find another singer who lives in England. Just to throw it out there, we don't have to make a big deal about it, don't have to announce it. So wwe found this guy Rasmus, through our bass player. We sent him a file of an old Diamond Head song called "To Heaven From Hell," with no vocals on it and said, “Please could you sing on this and send it back”. He did and it was fantastic. I thought he made it sound really easy, he wasn't struggling, he wasn't have any difficulty reaching the notes, or hold notes. He came up to the Midlands, and I pretty much said, “Well let's do the tour”. About halfway through the tour we were so impressed that we offered him the job and he accepted. We got onto the conversation of writing and I gave him a load of my demos, because I've been building material up in a little home studio since about 2007. He went through those and he found stuff he liked, and then when we got together in January 2015 we started writing, which eventually has become this album.
Who rounds out the band?
Well, the drummer and bass player, Karl Wilcox and Eddie Moohan, have been in the band since 1991, so it is a very safe, strong relationship there. They've been through some good times and bad times with me and Diamond Head, and then after that, the other guitarist Abs, has been in the band ten years this year.
Let's work backwards, a bit, is it safe to say that after the successes of Lightning To The Nations and the two MCA albums, Diamond Head had a bit of a rocky road?
It is a frustrating period. I've always been a fan of Sean and of Sean's voice, but I think it was very complicated but he's difficult to work with. I bent over backwards to try and make things happen and keep it all sweet and rosy and in the end. I had to bail out. I had to get rid of Sean to move forward because nothing was happening. We've reformed twice and both times it's all gone a bit pear-shaped.
We reformed in 1990 and did an album called Death And Progress and then it all fell apart, over all kinds of issues. I don't think Sean really wanted to do Diamond Head, I think it was just a project to him because he'd done this album called Notorious, which was a very expensive disaster. It didn't even get released. So then he moved onto the Diamond Head album, and instead of it being a new start, it was just a bit of a project to him, so he could get an advance and then he wanted to carry on doing another Sean Harris album.
We reformed again in 2000 and each time, I probably thought, Sean's learned his lesson. It's not the case because the second reformation he didn't even want to call the band Diamond Head. He wanted to change the name and not do the old songs. We recorded an album at our own expense and couldn't even agree on what the band was called. We spent a year arguing and in the end I couldn't cope anymore. Life's too short.
And so we get to today, which really is the perfect time for Diamond Head to make a comeback. Iron Maiden are the biggest band on the planet, Saxon, Satan and Angel Witch are all active again, not to mention scores of bands and fans who all worship the original NWOBHM movement.
It was very real, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, wasn't it? It was just bands who liked the 70s bands and were trying to do their own thing. Every band was different, I think, which is fantastic. All around the UK we were all doing our own thing, and then it came together through Sounds magazine. We became aware of each other and it was really amazing how each band was different to the next. It was just a load of new talents and new bands, that just appeared out of the woodwork.
Are you surprised that this old style of heavy metal is enjoying a bit of a reappraisal?
I can only be grateful for that. I think heavy metal has stood the test of time, hasn't it? I always thought rock was a very loyal style. I got into rock when I was 13 or 14, and I still love it now and I can see that in other people. It's not like pop or a fad or a fashion, it never leaves you. You don't care a jot if it's not fashionable or people laugh at you. You love it because you love it. If you get into a band like AC/DC, you end up buying every single album and going to see them. I've probably seen them 12 times, I'm just a loyal fan. I don't think other styles of music have that kind of loyalty and when Diamond Head play live you don't get just 40-year-old guys with their arms folded standing there, you do get young kids going berserk at the front.
A lot of them probably got into Diamond Head through Metallica, which is absolutely fine, but it is heartwarming to see a younger audience rather than just the older guys. We probably get a mix of some crazy youth at the front and some of the old guard saying “I saw Diamond Head in 1982” at the back.
Playing in 1982 is a whole different beast than now. It's so remarkable how a scene like the New Wave of British Heavy Metal grew from pure word-of-mouth. How would you even go about arranging a gig back in 1982?
Obviously, it was way before computers. I suppose you just made the phone calls. I remember we had an agent, so a lot of the work's done for you. When we first started, of course, you do it yourself. You ring round or you get a friend to be the “manager” of the band and he rings round. Everybody wanted to play live but nobody wanted to do that phoning around and ringing up six or seven times trying to speak to the pub manager. I've done it and it's a thankless task. Now you drop them an email or a Facebook thing. It has all changed, there seems to be more of everything now. More bands, more festivals, more magazines, more everything. It's bewildering.
That style of grassroots promotion is almost an urban legend in this hyper-digitalized world. Without Facebook and Bandcamp, how did you even get known?
I suppose playing live really, in each and every town. Diamond Head did a couple of a hundred gigs in the 80s, and you'd have a few papers, like Sounds, which was very much into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The Melody Maker wasn't so bothered, and neither was The New Musical Express, they were more fashionable. They'd do a big piece on, say, Wall Of Voodoo, rather than Iron Maiden, but that's all you had. You had the Friday Rock Show on BBC Radio 1 too, which was two hours on a Friday night where Tommy Vance would play the latest stuff and some classics but that's about it.
Well, you did get known and infamously a lad from LA called Lars Ulrich discovered you and admittedly helped put your name out there. How would a kids from America stumble across a band from Stourbridge?
I think he found out about Diamond Head through Sounds. He bought an album called Brute Force, which was a compilation by MCA. We had signed to MCA in 1982 and Brute Force came out, possibly before that, in '81 and it had 'It's Electric' on, off our first album. Lars loved that track. We sold the album by mail-order and we put six adverts in Sounds. You could go into any newsagent in LA and you could order specialist items, and he would have done that and then he sent off for his copy of Lightning To The Nations for £3.50. He wrote back to the same address where he'd obviously sent his money and said how much he loved the album, he was just this uber fan.
Then he came over to see us. He introduced himself backstage at this gig at the Woolwich Odeon in London, he was 17 and he'd flown over from LA to London to see Diamond Head. We were so impressed with that. No one had ever done that before. I let him stay with me for a week and he stayed at Sean's for about three weeks, we sort of took him under our wing a bit and made sure he was okay. We just liked him, he was full of beans. He was like a Duracell bunny. And of course he had this fantastic accent, which was a cross between Danish and American and we'd never heard anything like it. We'd laugh at this this young guy saying things like “awesome”. To us it was brilliant.”
You must have been pretty blown away when you found out about Metallica, and thought, damn, that's that crazy fanboy
Yes, well, obviously he stayed in touch. He wrote letters and wanted to know what was happening with Diamond Head. Then he told me in one letter about Metallica. He said "We rehearse six hours a day, six days a week" and I thought "Wow, that's a lot more than us". But I didn't think these guys were gonna be the biggest heavy metal band of all time obviously. They were just Lars' band ,and they just grew and grew. I watched them rise from nothing. They covered 'Am I Evil', which was very flattering. It was the first time any band had covered a Diamond Head song and I remember reading that Master Of Puppets sold a billion copies. I thought "Bloody hell, they're much bigger than Diamond Head now". And it just went on and on, never ending, through the roof.
One of the most significant moments of a band honoring their influences was when Metallica invited Diamond Head to open for them at the legendary Knebworth House in 2011, that must have been wild
It was, it was lovely. They had the Big Four on and I think it was someone's idea to have Diamond Head open. I got the call and I said "Yes, please" and then as it got closer to the day I got a call from Lars to say would I like to do "Am I Evil" at the end of our set? And of course I said yes. It was a special moment, God bless 'em.
Had you been to Knebworth in its British rock heyday?
Yes, I'd been to Knebworth once, in 1979 to see Led Zeppelin. That was the only time I'd been, so there was me and 200,000 kids in denim jackets sat on the floor waiting for Zeppelin all day. That's the only time I got to see Led Zeppelin and then there's me, scroll forward, playing on the same stage. It's a dream come true.
It's amazing to hear you so humbled by that experience, you expect that level of excitement from younger bands, but this isn't your first rodeo, and yet you're still so wide-eyed about it all.
Yeah, it doesn't leave you. The excitement of playing your first festival or making your first album, hearing even the name Diamond Head on the radio filled us with excitement. So all those firsts are incredible, but obviously they go. The next time you do a festival, it's not quite as amazing, but playing something like that, with the Big Four, that's really special. You do still have to pinch yourself and think, "Did that just happen?". It's the same when a new album comes out. I always feel a sense of achievement, to hold it in my hand, because I know where it starts. It starts with a guitar riff and then it slowly, slowly builds; writing, recording, mixing, mastering, manufacturing, artwork, there's so many little things.
We're glad you mentioned writing, because when old bands tend to make a comeback it can go one of two ways. Either they stick to their original style to please their fans, or they get so caught up in all the bands that have come since that they try to play catch up, often with disastrous results. Have you kept up to date with current trends in heavy metal, despite, thankfully, opting to keep Diamond Head a strictly classic-sounding band? You must have been aware of the many myriad genres that sprung off from the NWOBHM, you invented thrash pretty much...
Well not completely [laughs]. I think Motörhead were part of it, and Venom. I think Diamond Head were one of the bands. I don't want all the credit. Judas Priest were important, and they were important to me. Black Sabbath were important to me, so I think we're a stepping stone but I don't we're entirely responsible.
As for our influences, I think on the whole, when you're an older band, you've got your influences already. The stuff I grew up with is what's really ingrained in me, stuff like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Purple, Rush. I had a good upbringing with music, I had an older brother and an older sister and there was always music in the house. It all went into the melting pot. I also think punk rock was important because I just loved the energy and the do-it-yourself approach. I'd almost had enough of some of the big bands like ELP and Genesis. I loved them but they started doing triple albums and concepts and then suddenly you'd get The Clash or The Jam on Top Of The Pops. It was a generational thing and it felt new and exciting to me.
Also, I think I'd be silly to try and compete with Lamb Of God or Gojira or one of those bands. Their day one would have been something like Master Of Puppets or Reign In Blood, whereas my day one would have been Led Zeppelin I or Let There Be Rock. I don't want to follow their lead or their trends. Diamond Head has a style which I am aware of and I think I write in a certain way and on this album we've certainly tried to make it sound like a Diamond Head album. There's no point competing—we couldn't even do it if we tried.
Louise Brown is hellbent for leather on Twitter.