1983: THE ORIGINAL BIG 4 - METALLICA, EXCITER, RAVEN & ANVIL

May 19, 2016, 2 years ago

Mark Gromen

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It's been more than thirty years, and with time, there comes some revisionist oral history, but the metal explosion of the early '80s had a profound impact on the music we all love. Today, everyone knows the vaunted Big 4, but in reality, they were not always contemporaries. In fact, a case can be made that initially, as early as 1983, there were already four serious candidates, all hailed as innovators, separating themselves from the pack: Metallica, Exciter, Raven and Anvil. Quite a different Big 4 than is bandied about these days!

Really quite different scenarios, each one. Metallica's history has been rehashed countless times in print and on the big screen. The Exciter debut, Heavy Metal Maniac, was issued through Mike Varney's Shrapnel label, predominately a home to solo guitarists. However, the raw sound and drummer Dan Beehler's banshee vocals caught the ear of Jon Zazula's fledgling Megaforce Records and soon the Canucks were following countrymen Anvil down to the Tri-State area for concerts in and around New Jersey. Speaking of Lips and Co., Anvil, signed to Attic, were media darlings overseas and had played England before touring the States for Metal On Metal. By '84, they'd visit both Europe and Japan, then earn opening slots for Aerosmith (who were at a down point in their career; minus guitarist Brad Whitford and Joe Perry). Things appeared bright.

Raven had been the NWOBHM darlings, keeping American audiences a bit off kilter with their stage antics and especially bug-eyed, mouth agape Jon Gallagher and his unusual, high pitched yelp. "When I first started, I sounded like a squeaky door," he admits. They continued to be leaders of pack, even headlining over Metallica throughout the infamous Kill 'Em All For One tour (summer '83): actually a ton of East Coast dates (two weeks between Boston & Baltimore, venturing out to Rochester, NY), just two in the usual metal hotbed of the Midwest (Chicago and Milwaukee), but a week in the south (for some unknown reason four dates in Arkansas!) and finishing with four Cali shows. "We played a place in Arkansas called Bald Nob. It was afield with a shed, with a stage in it, totem poles either side. We played for all these rednecks, with checkered shirts, baseball caps and dungarees on. We went to a radio station, to do an interview, and the DJ didn't know who Iron Maiden was. Never heard of Motorhead. It was like a lost planet." The two bands would reconvene at heavy metal's coming of age party, 3500 fans selling out the Roseland Ballroom, in downtown Manhattan (Anthrax, w/ Neil Turbin on vocals, was also on that bill), August 3rd, 1984. Can still remember a couple of guys near the stage, tormenting Kirk Hammett all night, by unveiling a crude, handkerchief-sized rendering of Vic Rattlehead's visage and the word "Megadeth"in front of the guitarist.

Motörhead were already the established kings of speed and volume, with a couple of Top Ten albums in the UK and the live testimonial No Sleep Til Hammersmith hitting #1. The disintegration of the classic Lemmy-Fast Eddie-Filthy Taylor line-up, combined with the (then perceived) radical departure of Another Perfect Day, left the door open for someone else to walk through and usurp the mantle. Throughout '83, and a for about 18 months later, the scene was fluid, with British mags, first Kerrang, then the grittier, more underground Metal Forces, triumphing what might be the next hot property. With each issue came a new challenger, Nasty Savage (Wages of Mayhem demo), Jag Panzer (EP), Slayer, Venom, Mercyful Fate, Exodus...

Unlike many late teen/early twenty-somethings, I was in a unique position, living in dual locations. Most of the year, I attended college in Cleveland, Ohio, a metal haven for tours, not only with original acts and clubs willing to let them play, but a network of five college radio stations, all week blaring out this wave of aggressive, heretofore unknown brand of music, not seen or heard on any other medium in the US. Summers, returned to NJ, close to, but never affiliated with, the Old Bridge Militia, Johnny Z's Rock n Roll Heaven flea market/store and L'Amour rock club, which together fostered a fertile ground for all things heavy: repeatedly bringing Anvil & Exciter down from Canada, Motorhead, Raven and Venom across the Atlantic, plus Metallica and the first wave of bands across this continent.  Although scores of well meaning publications followed, at the time, Kick Ass Monthly, a black and white, typewriter copied zine was the Bible.

Already a convert and ardent supporter of all four acts, on his initial live experience (L'Amour: Dec. '83) with Exciter, the zine's patriarch Bob Muldowney wrote, "I have never seen a show that was any heavier, nor anymore devastating. And that includes Venom. Exciter was loud (just about as loud as Motorhead, maybe just slightly below Venom's volume) and musically maniacal as Metallica. Exciter managed to get out of the crowd a reaction that no other metal band had ever managed to extract: not Motorhead, not Metallica, not Raven, not anybody. Behind the multifaceted Metallica, Exciter is undoubtedly the heaviest band around and it will take quite a band to replace them in that highly respected number two slot."

Summer '83, the initial copy of the UK's Metal Forces magazine described Exciter this way, "Since the first Motorhead Lp, bands have been coming up with similar styles of sound and personage. 'Til now, Motorhead have never been equaled, let alone surpassed, but judging from Exciter's first LP, they could be the band to do it, thrashing 100 mph guitar, loads of double bass drum and steam-hammer bass."

Like elsewhere, we were playing the debut on air, in Cleveland, awaiting the chance to see the band live. That would come late in '83, at the Pop Shop, a basement underneath the Agora, on 24th St. The small stage could barely fit Beehler's drums, let alone Jon Ricci (guitar) and Allan Johnson (bass). Fans stood directly at the stage edge, several people deep, so it was difficult to actually see the musicians and damn near impossible, once an overactive fog machine was employed. At one point, they had to stop the show and clear the room, to let the smoke dissipate! Still, the music reverberating off that brick bunker, told us we were witnessing something special. Years later, Ricci recalls,"Pop Shop, it was like a downstairs small venue. It got to the point where we had to stop playing, because the fans were all over the stage headbanging with us, and we had to wait until the bouncers cleared the stage."

As with Metallica, albeit to a lesser extent, the history of Anvil has played out on a documentary. They paved the way for their countrymen, overseas, as well as here in North America, having played their inaugural US shows in and around NYC, beginning in '82. The Cheshire grinning, guitar player/motor mouthed frontman Lips was a darling of the English metal press early on, as much for his willingness to pose nude, with well placed guitar (whammy bar in hand), dildo stage prop and sexual lyrical content, as for the ripping music and lethal live attack. On the East Coast, Muldowney's praise was lofty, "Unlike many other forms of music, the majority of heavy metal musicians are just regular, down-to-Earth people. Still, there are a precious few who seem to rise above the rest. In my book, that would only be three people, Ted Nugent, Lemmy (aka God) and Lips."

Fall '82, college freshman and brand new to Cleveland. Discover Anvil is playing a FREE afternoon concert at the Agora. Jump on a RTA bus, ride about 100 blocks down Euclid Ave and head inside, where, to all our amazement, we are handed a FREE copy of Metal On Metal (with a special banner imprinted on the album cover, declaring it a Special Tour Edition - Not For Sale). Had known about the band from overseas articles, but this was my first opportunity to experience it in the flesh. Amazed by the speed and dexterity on guitar, Robb Reiner's solo and for some reason, the dilapidated condition of guitarist Dave Allison's boots. There weren't tons of people there, so afterwards we went back to the tiny dressing room, behind the stage to talk to the band and get the new album signed. Was struck with how short Allison was, despite the heeled boots, the stage adding a godly illusion.

Like Motörhead, Raven were still based in England (and like Lemmy, the trio would all eventually immigrate to the US). Prior to '83, Raven did not play here much, calling themselves, "The most famous unsuccessful band in the world. We've got a big following. Everyone know who Raven is, but we don't make any money." The British press being notorious lopsided towards homegrown acts, they didn't garner much favorable publicity either, just from the punters who bought the records and concert tickets. America, on the other hand, ate it up. At the time, drummer Rob "Wacko" Hunter (who'd leave the band to become a producer) summed it up, "It's hard getting a hometown gig. It's all Journey and REO Speedwagon. All the heavy metal stuff's coming over here (to the US). Fine with me."  

On the road with Raven, drummer/Metallica founder Lars Ulrich offered, "I am, first and foremost, a fan. They're a couple years older and more experienced. We watch them every night. It's about learning and absorbing it all in. With new metal bands popping up every day, all over America, and new independent metal labels seeming to sign just about any band, in a couple of years metal will rule everything. It'll be on TV and the radio. Sure, there will be some big metal band, like there always have been. The Seventies had Nugent, Kiss, Sabbath, Priest, etc. The Eighties will have Metallica, Anvil, Raven, the groups that combine power and mass appeal, but metal has pretty much reached its peak. In about two years, you're gonna have a state of heavy metal like in '77 or '78,when it was just so not-happening."

In Nov-Dec '83, Metallica undertook a headlining club tour, somewhat unheard of in music, but then, they had few musical peers for whom they could (or would allow them to) open. One of the final dates saw them shoehorned onto a Twisted Sister bill, in that band's NJ backyard. Still the kings of volume at home, Sister was a ferocious machine, as much for Dee Snider's acerbic rants on other musicians (Bowie, Boy George, etc.) as well as non-participating members of the paying crowd! Dec 30th, I was at the Fountain Casino, in Aberdeen, camera in hand, pressed against the stage, hoping to get some usable photos. "When we toured with Metallica in Europe," said Snider, years later,"they said, 'We played with you guys in Jersey.' And I was like, 'You did?!' I didn't even know. I was oblivious to the opening band. In effect, it was like a "no-name." And I was never out before the show. I was always in the back getting ready. You never saw me. You didn't see me walking around the club. You only saw me on the stage and then I disappear. I'd get there before the doors opened and I left when the doors closed. You weren't supposed to see a rock star walking around like a human being. So I had no idea Metallica played." Maybe not, but from the stage, he did chastise the band for not paying attention (situated behind the stage, watching) and one SFM in the crowd hurled a beer bottle in their direction!

By then, the San Fran quartet had appeared in the pages of Kick Ass Monthly multiple times, having played the Tri-State area since April '83, with and without Dave Mustaine, prompting this assessment. "Taking into consideration power, speed, talent, songwriting (musical and lyrical), and volume, combining them all, no outfit even comes close. Whether live or on vinyl, no band does it quite like Metallica." In retrospect, of course Muldowney's right, but quite the realization, just an album into their career, even if Ulrich himself had some misgivings about Kill 'Em All, "It came to a a point where they wouldn't allow us into the studio when they were mixing OUR songs. So there's a lot of things we are really dissatisfied with, on the way the album sounds. I remember when I was a kid, I used to read interviews with people like Ritchie Blackmore, who would say things like, 'I can't stand listening to myself play' and I used to wanna yell that this guy was fucking crazy. What was he talking about, but now I think I understand."

So what happened? Apart from Metallica, the usual combination: lack of quality management grasping short sighted straws rather than opting for long term goals. After an aborted '84 UK tour, alongside Metallica & The Rods, Exciter's contract w/ Megaforce was bought out by burgeoning Music For Nations. Based overseas (in the pre-Internet era), the label was unable/unwilling to help facilitate the jump to the next level. A North American winter '84 tour saw them third on a bill with Motorhead and the surging in popularity Mercyful Fate. The die had been cast. April, '83, Anvil released a more mature Forged In Fire, but it would be four years, struggling to get out of one contract, then securing another, before seeing a new disc in stores. During the tidal flood of metal bands, and new North American based print & video media, with changing (dichotomous) tastes, they simply were out of sight too long and overrun by hungry newcomers. Raven went the way of many, to a major label (Atlantic), to the chagrin of the hardcore Lunatics (as their fan club was/is known). New stage clothes, haircuts and  commercialized sound didn't translate to that cross-over tour, like Metallica eventually scored, opening for Ozzy. "There was a possibility we were going to support Ratt, on a couple of shows up in Canada," John Gallagher recalled. "They were in town, when we played L'Amour and they came to see us. The next day, we got a call they didn't want us to support them."

Somehow, in 2016,  they're all making music for the love of it and not ruing what might have been. The classic Exciter trio is back together. The Gallagher brothers continue to record and play all over the globe. Lips and Rob have kept the band going, despite (at times) some long odds, as depicted in their award winning The Story Of Anvil film and a little group called Metallica has them all to thank.

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