How Venom Accidentally Bootlegged Their Own Black Metal History
Founding guitarist Jeff "Mantas" Dunn gives us his honest opinion of bootlegging, the new 'Assault!" boxset, and Venom's wild, strange legacy.
Photo by Pete Cronin/Redferns
Venom. Formed in 1978 in Newcastle, England. The starting line for black metal. Satanic legions of iron and steel; men of war revealed. Authors of some of the most recognizable tunes in the entire canon of extreme metal. I could go on quoting iconic lyrics and listing all the firsts, the historical importance and resulting accolades attached to the band that was laying down its soul for the gods rock ‘n’ roll long before most of us were gleams in the eyes of two strangers behind the port-a-potties at Woodstock, but we’d be here for days. So, let’s just quote my esteemed editor, Ms. Kelly: “Venom? Everybody loves Venom!”
These days, most of the talk surrounding the Venom name is about the fact there are two versions of the band running around. The first features original bassist and howler, Conrad “Cronos” Lant alongside guitarist John “Rage” Dixon and drummer Daniel “Danté” Needham, and has been a thing since 2007, with Cronos being backed by various other musicians for a handful of years before that. The second iteration, which actually goes by the name Venom Inc., features original members drummer Tony “Abaddon” Bray and guitarist Jeff “Mantas” Dunn, joined by Tony “Demolition Man” Dolan, who was a member from 1989-1992, during what’s known as the band’s Prime Evil era. This era bestowed three albums (Prime Evil, Temples of Ice and The Waste Lands) and an EP (... Tear Your Soul Apart) upon the world. While the Cronos-fronted line-ups have been responsible for four albums since the mid-aughts, Abaddon, Mantas and Demolition Man’ only issued their first full-length, Avé, via Nuclear Blast last summer; they'd originally formed in 2015 with the sole original intention of playing old songs live.
Depending on who you talk to, thoughts will vary on which Venom is the most authentic, and debates will rage about the quality of either version’s original output and the quality of Venom as a whole in the many years since the release of third album, 1984’s At War With Satan. However, one point that can’t be argued with is that Venom is a highly prized commodity on the record collecting circuit. It’s a point that Dunn recognizes and agrees with wholeheartedly.
“Venom is a very a collectible band," he tells me. "I know collectors around the world who have insane collections. Even I look at it and think, ‘That’s crazy!’”
To date, the number of releases officially made available by Venom and Venom Inc. could fill a good-sized bin at any reputable record store. However, should you choose to try and count the growing number of unofficial EPs, live albums and reissues, well, that’s a different story altogether (and a full-time job in and of itself). Often times in the case of Venom, the line between what’s official and what’s a bootleg is as rickety, blurry and collapsible as one of Abaddon’s drum fills. Of the many online discography and collector sites focused on the band’s voluminous catalogue, some have made valiant attempts to separate official from bootleg but haven’t entirely cleared up the confusion. Case in point, the recently reissued Assault! 6-CD boxset featuring the six original Assault records (individual vinyl copies with varying splatter patterns are also available).
See if you can follow the bouncing ball. Officially, only three of the original Assault albums were sanctioned by the band (Canadian Assault, American Assault and Japanese Assault), but the new boxset released by Dissonance Productions complies what is commonly regarded as the complete six-record Assault series, with French, Scandinavian and German Assaults rounding things out. Want to get your head spinning even more? This particular hack has personally seen—and in some cases, owns—an Irish Assault, Italian Assault, Belgian Assault, Holland Assault, Brazilian Assault, Assaulto Portugues and even a frickin’ Vatican Assault! (“I’ve even seen a Newcastle Assault!” laughs Dunn, who was born and raised in Newcastle, UK. “It’s like, where the fuck did that come from?!”) And it keeps getting weirder, because, as we were informed as soon as the guitarist picked up the phone at his home in Portugal, he himself wasn’t even aware the Assault series was being reissued.
“How I found out about it is that I saw an advert for it—I didn’t even know it was coming out. As far as I’m aware, the rights to all that stuff are owned by Universal/Sanctuary,” he surmises, when asked what he knows or has uncovered about Assault!. “But I’ve seen that it’s coming out on Dissonance, which is run by the guy who also runs Plastic Head Distribution. I’m also thinking there might be some connection between Universal/Sanctuary and Cronos and maybe he has something to do with the reissues? But for me, personally, after seeing this-and-that coming out and being reissued, it’s fair enough for people who missed it the first time, but how many times can you reissue things? Is it just a cash cow to rip off the fans? I don’t know. I mean, it’s nice to see your stuff out there, I won’t deny that. I was the same way back in the day with Judas Priest, KISS, and particularly Gary Moore; I would buy anything that came out. When we’re on tour, I’ve signed all the usual Assaults, but also ones that are obviously bootlegs; whatever they’ve got I’ll always sign, but I had no idea the Assault series was being reissued.”
Spanning from 1985 to 1987, the Assault series was, as Dunn describes, “originally put out as collectibles for the individual territories that we’d visited on tour. They were designed to celebrate the countries that we had just been to.”Essentially, after wrapping up a first-time tour of new country, the band would take advantage of the spotty international distribution channels that existed during the early days of 80s underground metal to compile material that had appeared on various EPs and seven-inches released at home in their native England, and make them available in foreign territories at non-import prices.
“That was the whole idea of it, to say ‘we’ve been there’ and here’s something exclusive for the people of those countries and maybe it was something they hadn’t heard before. We always did that," he explains. "In the early days, we had songs like ‘Bloodlust,’ ‘Die Hard,’ ‘Seven Gates of Hell,’ ‘Manitou’ and ‘Warhead’ that were singles that never appeared on albums. Back in the day, every band, when they made an album, would also have a single and a B-side, a song that might be on the album anyway. So, you’re going to get ten songs on a vinyl and two of them you already had. That was something we thought about in making the singles and B-sides separate. We were very prolific back then, so whatever came up, we recorded. There are very few ideas that came up that we didn’t record and if they didn’t make it onto an album or an EP, it would go onto a compilation or something. And that was the intent of the Assault series, to put some of those more obscure tracks out there. That makes it viable, but when you continually reissue things with different mixes and mastering, I don’t know about that.”
Certain editions of the Assault series became wildly popular. Because they wrangled tracks from hard-to-find releases and live shows, it was like manna from heaven for fans and headbangers in countries where Venom’s live appearances were rare or not comprehensive (i.e. yes, they played Japan, but as any Japanese metalhead will tell you, there are other cities to play beyond Tokyo and Osaka). In certain cases, the licensed distributor did a fantastic job in getting the record out there, as in the case of Canadian distributor Banzai, which often made finding Canadian Assault easier than copies of the band’s first two landmark full-lengths, 1981’s Welcome to Hell and 1982's Black Metal. The result was the band racking up sales totals that reportedly had the mini-LP achieving gold status and eclipsing 50,000 units in the Great White North.
“I’ve heard that too, but you can never verify that,” Dunn laments. “Way back in the day, we never received an official royalty statement or one of those gold-painted discs. If we had received a disc that would have been an admission of sales wouldn’t it? So, I did hear that, but that’s as far as it ever went."
“It’s frustrating when you think about whoever is doing all this,” he says, returning to the theme of unsanctioned releases. “You’re a victim of your own popularity. I remember reading an interview with Gene Simmons years ago and he was asked about bootlegs and he said, ‘if nobody is bootlegging you, then nobody gives a shit’ which I suppose is true.”
“Dealing with bootlegs and trying to keep on top of what’s out there may be equally frustrating and flattering, but Dunn also understands what goes on in the mind of die-hard fans who happen to be record collectors. It may have been almost 40 years ago, but he remembers being on the other side of the coin, even going so far as to say, “everybody who’s a fan of a band, you can’t tell me you don’t have a bootleg in your collection!
“Back in the day, one of the places Venom used to rehearse was down at Newcastle Quayside. We would rehearse every Sunday morning, pack up the stuff and head down to this huge market. In there was a guy who had a huge vinyl collection, but it was all bootlegs," he says. "I remember buying the KISS Destroyer Anaheim bootleg. Some of the best Venom merchandise I’ve ever seen was from Vietnam, and that was obviously totally unsanctioned. Some people go to great lengths to present the best possible product that they can, but it still hurts the band revenue-wise. It’s a symptom of what we’re involved in and as an artist it’s something you’ve got to accept. It’s been happening forever and it’s almost impossible to stop. But it’s flattering to be that in demand and that collectible.”
“All in all, from what I’ve seen, it looks like a nice boxset, but, I don’t think I’ll ever receive one,” he says with a laugh about Assault!. “You never do as the artist. I don’t even have any of the original records. I think I own the cover of the Canadian Assault, that’s it. I was more focused on writing the music back in the day than all the stuff going on around it.”
Dunn has accepted the fact that as long as Venom and/or Venom Inc. exists in some form—and even long after each ceases to exist—there will be people out there creating their own additions to the Venom discography, especially when one considers how quick and easy technology makes it to create unauthorized releases. He mentions that a few days earlier, Dolan had sent him a couple photos of the covers of audio bootlegs he’d stumbled across that appeared to have been recorded on Venom Inc's most recent tour.
“Even now, with Venom Inc., we’ve seen bootlegs of live shows and some of them have really good packaging!" he says with a laugh.
“You know, these days with the Venom legacy having gone on 35-40 years, there’s nothing more to be put out or done,” Dunn says with finality. “Actually, the only thing that hasn’t been heard is an old cassette I’ve got from the back end of 1979 of us rehearsing in an old church hall in the west end of Newcastle. It’s got the original singer, Clive Archer and I think it’s us doing ‘Angel Dust,’ ‘Raise the Dead,’ ‘Red Light Fever’ and ‘Buried Alive.’ It was just recorded on my father’s cassette player, you know the old ‘press play-and-record.’ It’s almost 40 years old, but you can still hear what’s going on. That’s never been heard by anybody and I don’t think anyone has any copies apart from me. I don’t know if I just opened the doors for people to start asking for this, though!”
Kevin Stewart-Panko is not on Twitter, and honestly, neither should any of us.