‘British Steel’ & Beyond: 40 Years of U.K. Heavy Metal’s Finest Hour

‘British Steel’ & Beyond: 40 Years of U.K. Heavy Metal’s Finest Hour

Heavy metal slammed into the 1980s at full force, with clean lines and no hesitation. While hard-rock forebears like Aerosmith and Kiss struggled during the tail of the 1970s against disco headwinds and the mockery of three-chord punk, fledgling heavy-metal bands cut their teeth in the shadows and prepared for a big takeover. Then, boom: 1980 exploded with debuts from Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Diamond Head and Angel Witch — pillars of the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal, or NWOBHM — as well as career-high shock treatments by elders Judas Priest, Saxon and Motörhead. Not bad, considering the same period also successfully introduced new singers on landmark albums by Aussie expats AC/DC (Back in Black) and Black Sabbath (Heaven and Hell).

Judas Priest’s Platinum-selling British Steel crowned this banner year, stripping down their epic metal flair to meet the confines of a TV-ready era. On the very same date that LP was released, April 14, 1980, newcomers Iron Maiden followed up a self-released 1979 EP with an electrifying and terrifying first full-length. Together, Priest and Maiden formed the backbone of classic heavy metal as twin titans of saturated guitar harmonies, soaring vocals and amplifier overload. They overtook the world, breaking big in every country with electricity and spawning thousands of young bands — including the next great pair of metal rulers, Slayer and Metallica.

Judas Priest
British Steel (Columbia)

These heirs to Black Sabbath’s royal Birmingham lineage excelled during the 1970s as a genre-defining heavy-metal force. Over five albums bearing the inhuman screech of Rob Halford and the relentless guitar team of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, Priest pushed moody, gothic hard rock until it combusted into a crystallized, ultramodern sound on 1978’s Stained Class. Having perfected heavy metal, they streamlined their attack for 1980’s essential British Steel, a suite of stadium-ready anthems like “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” that paved the way for the band’s dominance of America. The album went Gold two years later and Platinum by the end of the decade, cementing Priest’s metal-gods status for eternity.

Iron Maiden
Iron Maiden (Harvest)

Meanwhile, London fireball Iron Maiden grasped all of Judas Priest’s discarded intricate flourishes and supercharged them for a new era. Bandleader and bassist Steve Harris oversaw the unlikely combo of punk savagery and prog-rock dexterity, wrapping in the gripping thunder of horror and dark fantasy. For this debut and the follow-up, 1981’s Killers, singer Paul Di’Anno ruled the night with raw melodic supremacy. Tracks like the “Iron Maiden” theme and “Phantom of the Opera” — a candidate for best heavy-metal song of all time — summoned the violence and back-alley menace of Jack the Ripper, resonating strongly enough to launch one of the most successful touring musical acts of all time.

Ace of Spades (Mercury)

Incredibly, Motörhead’s fifth album was their first to be released in the U.S. Dressed on the cover as desperados in black hats, photographed not in the badlands but in a London sandstone quarry, the most powerful power trio in power-trio history were thrilled to be the bad guys. Reprobates of all persuasions adored this seamlessly gnarly suite of rock ’n’ roll hymns taken to dirty extremes. Without turning down a single decibel, Motörhead charmed their way, warts and all, onto several national TV spots in 1980, including Top of the Pops. They became a touchstone for integrity that inspired hardcore punk and thrash metal for decades to come. Bassist and gravel-throated singer Lemmy Kilmister, guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke and double-bass-drum punisher “Philthy Animal” Taylor were also the most charismatic English band since the Beatles, and the passing of all three irreplaceable characters is a loss beyond words.

Def Leppard
On Through the Night (Mercury)

Before the power ballads and the commercial sheen, Def Leppard at average age 19 were the blazing whiz kids of the class of 1980. Wide-eyed innocence drips from songs about Saturday-night parties, women troubles and cruising around California on a Greyhound bus, yet the delivery is sheer seasoned class. On this record and its successor, High ’n’ Dry, Def Lep were like a sharp, fast, young Thin Lizzy, the unison guitars of Pete Willis and Steve Clark ringing with great power and emotional range that belied their youth. The excellence of these records still makes listeners familiar only with the later MTV efforts shake their heads in disbelief.

Diamond Head
Lightning to the Nations (Happy Face)

A relative obscurity initially released in a blank white sleeve, Diamond Head’s debut is a ridiculously ripe riff-fest that bridges Led Zeppelin’s loose swagger and the pounding force of the heavy-metal 1980s. Excellent songs including “Am I Evil?” and “The Prince” attracted plenty of attention — especially years later when Metallica covered five of the record’s seven tracks. Though the title of Judas Priest’s British Steel gave the U.K. heavy-metal movement a nameplate, Diamond Head’s surging “Lightning to the Nations” and “It’s Electric” formed the battle cry that set in motion a decade of denim and leather.

Ian Christe is the author of Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, the publisher of Bazillion Points Books and the host of the long-running weekly heavy-metal history show “ROOTS” on SiriusXM.

Image: Judas Priest in London, 1980. From left: K.K. Downing, Ian Hill, Rob Halford, Dave Holland and Glenn Tipton. Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns.

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