Contrary to the name of the genre, New Wave of British Heavy Metal (often abbreviated as NWOBHM) has nothing to do with New Wave music (aka Talking Heads, Echo & The Bunnymen, etc). It’s a kind of heavy metal music very much associated with the music’s classic period from the mid-1970s throughout the 1980s and is characterized by a wide range of themes and moods, from the party-hearty to the menacing. It was the dominant form of heavy metal music until thrash came along.
If the members of Black Sabbath expressed hesitation at being called “heavy metal” (which they did), NWOBHM bands were the first to wholeheartedly embrace the term. The now-classic wardrobe of black leather and studs is a product of this subgenre, and the motorcycle-riding, free-spirited triumphant themes started by Steppenwolf in “Born To Be Wild” found a welcome place in Judas Priest, one of the definitive heavy metal groups of all time.
This attitude is perhaps best exemplified by two of Priest’s first hits, from a well-received live set recorded in Japan. The second, “Victim of Changes,” is sometimes considered to be the best metal vocal performance ever.
The big riffs and leather-lunged vocals by Rob Halford were a huge hit that enraptured live audiences around the world. Some would call their sound and image stereotypical, but their identity as “metal gods” is hardly ever seriously contested by true metal fans.
The other major band of the late 70’s, early-80’s heyday of NWOBHM was Iron Maiden.
Hailing from the London underground punk scene, Iron Maiden was inspired by the jumpy, frenetic energy of that movement and driven by the nimble bass playing of main songwriter Steve Harris. Initially, singer Paul Di’Anno was much loved for his barking, snarly vocal delivery (very much like a punk rock singer), but when operatic singer Bruce Dickenson was brought on board, the results were nothing short of monumental. One only has to look at some footage from the Rock in Rio festival to see just how much energy Iron Maiden brought to the stadium-sized crowds that it soon found itself playing to. Iron Maiden’s unique brand of literary heavy metal, tailor-made for stadium shout-alongs, exemplifies some of heavy metal’s finest moments, and that’s saying a lot.
Everything about the song “Run to the Hills” is so fast, so over-the-top, and so huge that it takes 200,000 Brazilians screaming the chorus to do it justice…
Iron Maiden and Judas Priest are the two bands most commonly associated with NWOBHM, and by extension are two of the most popular metal groups in the world. Although they are responsible for the lion’s share of the accolades, there are several other bands worthy of mention.
Another British trio, also inspired by punk and probably considered closer to thrash metal, Motorhead made its mark with songs like “Overkill” and “Ace of Spades.” Iconic frontman and only constant member Lemmy Kilmeister (by his own admission) has a penchant for writing basically the same biker-style metal songs over and over again, but that song is just so badass that no one really cares. Lemmy claims to have slept with over 1,000 women and supposedly has the photos to prove it. As his DVD says, he is “49% motherf*cker, 51% son of a bitch.”
Another much-loved band of this subgenre that has been kicking around for 30-plus years is Saxon, embracing the same tough, big sound that was now rapidly becoming the most popular form of heavy metal music in the world (although that still wasn’t really saying much). Saxon was initially compared to AC/DC, with the chugging boogie of “Wheels of Steel” and came to be considered by fans as the most “British” of the British heavy metal bands, if that makes any sense.
Basically, this quartet of bands: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and Saxon are what most fans remember about NWOBHM, but there are a couple of other noteworthy acts that lost in their shadow a bit, like Angel Witch and Witchfynde:
My best guess as to why they went unnoticed was that as Maiden and Priest became more popular, these bands were seen less as contemporaries and more as knockoffs, which wasn’t really the case.
There was also Witchfinder General, which had more of a doom-laden, Sabbath flavor.
Although some of this music was catchy and hooky enough to land in the mainstream charts, eventually NWOBHM took a backseat in popularity to hair metal as the latter genre exploded starting in the mid-80’s. Nevertheless, throughout that decade the British heavy metal bands simply couldn’t lose as they amassed as high quality a catalogue of albums as anything in classic rock or any other genre before or since.
In Part 2 of my take on NWOBHM, I’ll discuss what happened as the 1980s drew to a close and other forms of metal took prominence. Fear not, however…although they fell out of favor for a bit, all was not lost for the metal gods and their fans.
Feel free to add on to the discussion on NWOBHM in the comments, or if I missed one of your favorites, go ahead and add it! Horns up! See you next time.
Written by Matt P