December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

NWOBHM – new wave of British heavy metal

3 min read
NWOBHM was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which was a hard rock movement at the start of the 1980s that spawned bands like Motorhead
NWOBHM coverdale

Punk was born in 1976. Punk died in 1977. Or so it kind of felt at the time. Apart from those who desperately tried to keep the flame going. After punk – where next? One option surfaced at the end of the 70s and that was a return to heavy metal. But the new bands that emerged in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal – NWOBHM – had adapted to punk sensibilities making the sound faster and more raucous.

So it wasn’t simply a return to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, or even Led Zeppelin, but something that gave you the energy of punk but with the familiarity of 70s heavy rock.

It’s probably not accidental that Sounds magazine championed BOTH the NWOBHM and the skinhead variant of post-punk termed Oi! These were two youth scenes that emerged after the last rites had been read over punk that largely disgusted the more trendy readership of the New Musical Express (NME).

They were getting into the art college New Wave sound while NWOBHM fans were growing their hair long, donning denim jackets and sewing Rush and Def Leppard patches on. Motorhead gave NWOBM some great energy and Iron Maiden gave it theatrical camp. Saxon was another very loud contributor to the NWOBHM sound.

All these bands were satirised to a degree in the 1984 movie This is Spinal Tap

The old guard of 70s heavy rock weren’t going to be left out. Black Sabbath released a new album Heaven and Hell but with Ronnie James Dio replacing Ozzy Osbourne on lead vocals. Ozzy had gone off to form the Blizzard of Ozz. I saw both these outfits in 1980 with Ozzy carrying an enormous crucifix across the stage – as you do.

Ex-lead vocalist of Deep Purple, Ian Gillan bounced back with a band called Gillan. While another ex-lead vocalist of Deep Purple, David Coverdale, came to the fore fronting Whitesnake. Meanwhile ex-Deep Purple lead guitarist Richie Blackmore had established a band called Rainbow. And these are more NWOBHM combos seemed to swap personnel at an alarming rate.

Some rockers succumbed to the grim reaper around this time. Bon Scott, lead singer of AC/DC died of alcohol poisoning in 1980 while John Bonham, the drummer with Led Zeppelin choked in his sleep after a mammoth drinking session.

At the more intellectual end of the NWOBHM spectrum, there were the Canadian rockers, Rush. In 1980 they brought out the album Permanent Waves touring the UK that year. At the time the late Neal Peart, who was their philosophical drummer, imbued the songs with a libertarian slant based on the writings of Ayn Rand that led the band to be seen as right wing – something they have vehemently denied.

In 1980, the Reading Festival was nicknamed the Can Festival – because of the amount of tinnies that hit the stage and spectators. Some were stamped on and thrown like frisbees.

NWOBHM reading

These were often violent times at all kinds of gigs. There was a crackle in the air and a lot of discontent. This would all boil over in riots during the summer of 1981.

One interesting band at Reading was Girl – a rather camp metal combo with more than a hint of the New York Dolls about them.


NWOBHM was one safety valve for pissed off teenagers to head bang and play air guitars. DJ Tommy Vance on Radio 1 was one of the few outlets that would play the music. Top of the Pops, needless to say, was too busy with Shakatak to notice. After 1981, it all went very mainstream and most of us moved on a little embarrassed to admit we had indulged NWOBHM.

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