A new recording of the British New Wave of Heavy Metal gives a stone classic an exciting new jolt
Forty years after its first release, Diamond Head’s debut LP, Lightning To The Nations continues to wow listeners.
In its grooves are not only the bedrock of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) but the genetic code for thrash and other extreme edges of the metal genre. Now the band has gone back and re-recorded the seven original compositions, giving them a 21st Century sensibility and losing none of the original’s zest, zeal and unbridled energy.
Titled Lightning To The Nations 2020, the record was conceived in 2019 and finished during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Guitarist Brian Tatler, the sole original member, says that the group was keenly aware of the record’s approaching anniversary and spent some time thinking about how to mark the four decades since Lightning slipped quietly into the world.
With lead vocalist Rasmus Bom Andersen serving as producer, the group set down the seven original tracks with razor-sharp abandon, culminating in an LP that doesn’t erase the original’s intensity and wide-eyed ambitions but rather increases upon it. One would never know that songs such as “The Prince,” “Helpless” and “Am I Evil?” were birthed in the cracks between punk and the ‘80s metal explosion or that this is a band that’s endured insurmountable odds to land on the firm ground which it stands today.
Years of touring, playing the beloved songs from the original Lightning and becoming a truly cohesive unit are evident throughout the new package, which includes four covers (including a blistering take on Metallica’s “No Remorse”) in addition to the aforementioned bedrock numbers.
Speaking from England via Skype, Tatler recounts the unlikely journey he and the album have taken: The album’s release as something of a calling card to its status as a must-have element of any metal devotee’s collection. Though the tale of how Metallica’s covers of “Am I Evil?” and other DH numbers eventually propelled the band to reunite and enjoy the status it has today has been well-documented, Tatler endures questions about how the San Francisco quartet’s appreciation for his own band has had its dividends with patience.
VIDEO: Diamond Head performing “Am I Evil?” Live 1979
That said, he’s keenly aware that Diamond Head remains a vital force with plenty more songs in it (he’s currently writing material for the group’s next release) and views revisiting Lightning To The Nations not as a step backward but as a firm step forward, demonstrating that the material remains vital and vibrant.
In the end, Lightning To The Nations 2020 doesn’t something no reissue could have done: It pulls back the curtain on a group of musicians who haven’t tired of the songs, who see that the compositions belong shoulder-to-shoulder with contemporary tunes, and, in the end, it provides a snapshot of a musical future that remains very bright indeed.
The album is out now via Silver Lining Music in digital, CD and vinyl formats.
How much time did you have to record the original Lightning To The Nations album?
We had a week. We did this terrible deal with the studio owner, who also had his own publishing company and we ended up putting the record out on his label, Happy Face Records. He gave us a week’s studio time and in return we signed over 50 percent of the publishing for 15 years with no advance. We did the deal. I didn’t have a clue what publishing was. We were only 19 years old.
It was a big eye-opener to be in a 24-track studio. We tried to get it down, all live, play at the same time. We did some overdubs with the second guitar and the vocals. It sounded really great at the time. I’m really glad we did it. It captured the vibe of the band. We were really pretty well rehearsed. We’d done 15-20 gigs up to that point. Not a lot. But we’d done some preparation and had played all seven songs that we recorded live. That probably helped as well.
You mentioned not knowing what publishing was at the time you signed that first deal. How long did it take you to know that you had a bad deal?
It took a few years. It really took until Metallica started covering Diamond Head and our publishing deal with Zomba went into the black. We were making money from “Am I Evil?” around ’86 or ’87. The other songs were on this dodgy publishing deal with Happy Face. I was getting none of that. All of that was going to the old publisher and the old manager. The band had fallen apart by ’86.
I started to think, “Oh, that deal we signed was a bad idea.” I went to see lawyers and eventually I got the publishing re-signed over to Zomba. It took a long time. I lost money.
Did you get a lot of press with the first release, coverage in Sounds? Or did the record kind of fall on deaf ears at the time?
We only got one review because it wasn’t a proper release. We pressed up a thousand copies, sold them at gigs and sold them mail order. It wasn’t going to get into the charts. There weren’t really any magazines covering rock at the time from what I can remember. Sounds gave us a good review and that was it. It didn’t do much and if it weren’t for Metallica covering the songs that album might have become a New Wave of British Heavy Metal curiosity: A great album by a great band but one that unfortunately never sold any copies and just disappeared with no trace. So here we are still talking about it 40 years later. Obviously, it had something about it that has given it longevity.
AUDIO: Original Lightning To The Nations LP
Despite that, the band managed to sign with MCA.
We did get that very good press, we got a couple of dates opening for AC/DC and we got a date in London opening for Iron Maiden. There were a lot of labels coming to see us. I think the word among the journalists and among A&R was that Diamond Head were a really good band. We’d go and play in London and there’d be word that there was an A&R man there. Very often the management wouldn’t tell us because they thought it would make us really nervous. Loads of labels saw us and I think our management, very naïve management who had never worked with a band before and never did afterwards, thought Diamond Head was going to be the next Led Zeppelin. So they held out for this perfect deal, with five albums and a huge advance.
Everyone knows that Zeppelin signed with Atlantic for $200,000 or something in 1968. But that wasn’t going to happen for us. I don’t know if they were being a bit naïve in rejecting all these offers. Eventually, this guy, Charlie Eyre, came to see us, probably about five times, and he kept saying, “You’re brilliant! I’m going to sign you.” But he had to get [his boss] to come and see us. It seemed to take forever. So, in January, 1982, we were signed to MCA.
How aware of Metallica were you before the band started covering your songs?
Lars was already a fan before Metallica and he came over and stayed with me. We knew of Lars and he was this super enthusiastic and energetic fan of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The he wrote to us in ’82 and said, “I’ve got a band called Metallica and we rehearse six nights a week.” I thought, “Well, that’s impressive.” To us, it was just Lars’ band. It was just nice that our friend Lars in L.A. had a band.
The next thing I heard, somebody in our crew, a monitor guy or something, had been over in the U.S., possibly working for Saxon. Metallica opened the show and did a load of Diamond Head covers. When we saw this guy in England he said, “I saw this band the other week and they just played half your set.” I thought, “Well, that’s Lars’ band doing a load of Diamond Head covers.” But I didn’t think, “Oh my God, they’re going to be the biggest metal band of all time.” I just thought it was very flattering.
VIDEO: Metallica with Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth performing “Am I Evil?” In Bulgaria
Then they covered “Am I Evil?” in ’84 as the B-side to “Creeping Death.” They were on Music For Nations, which is still an indie label. I didn’t think it was going to sell millions of copies or anything. I was very flattered that they’d covered us and had done such a good job. It was very tight and powerful. They’d worked out the solo and the lyrics, everything perfect. It just grew and grew and grew. I watched with astonishment as Metallica shot up the ladder, the ladder that I wanted to climb but, unfortunately, didn’t quite do that. But they got it right and conquered the world. They’re a phenomena, aren’t they? One in a million.
The first thing I thought when I heard this new recording was, “Wow!” It jumps from the speakers.
You obviously took great care to make sure it sounded like a contemporary record.
I think a lot of that has been driven by our singer, Ras, who produced the album and mixed it. I think all along he had an idea of how it should sound. He’s been in the band six years now. I think all along he was probably thinking, “We can do some layers with the guitars, we can get the thing to sound big.” A lot of care has been taken with mixing and mastering that wasn’t taken back in the day. It was almost like a demo album, our first album. I think we kind of viewed it as a demo album, that even if it were released at all, we would re-record it with a producer and take more time.
To be able to do it again now, in 2020, is a brilliant opportunity. To give it a bit more power and use the modern recording technology. Metal’s moved on so much in 40 years. It’s almost unrecognizable. If you’re impressed, we’ve done our job. I’ll pass on your one-word review, “Wow!” to Rasmus.
[Laughs.] “Helpless” is one example. It retains the original vibe but sounds like something that would be on radio now.
I hope so. Over here, we’ve got Planet Rock and they’ve played “It’s Electric” a few times. It does sound really good on the radio. One of the things that people bear in mind now with mixing is that it’s got to sound good on just buds and smart speakers. You’re no longer mixing for just home stereos. Ras is a younger guy, into more modern sounds, so he’s going to try and pull everything out of that mix that just wasn’t there back in the day.
How much reverence did you treat the material with? Were there moments where you said, “That bridge has always bothered me, I’d like to shorten it”?
I feel that the songs have evolved as far as they’re going to go. “Am I Evil?” hasn’t really changed at all in 40 years. The only thing we changed a tiny bit is “Sucking My Love.” That’s a slightly different arrangement. It’s slightly shorter. The original is nine-and-a-half minutes long. It’s ended up being seven-and-a-half minutes long. We lost two minutes somewhere. That was a necessary edit. That was partly to do with live. You don’t want to be doing nine-and-a-half minute songs, especially if you’ve only got a 45-minute slot. “It’s Electric” has changed slightly. The placing of the vocal in the chorus is different. There’s an ending that we worked out live because the original fades. We didn’t really have to rehearse for the album. We just played what we play live.
There are four covers on this new album, including Deep Purple’s “Rat Bat Blue,” which is from Who Do We Think We Are?, a little bit of an overlooked record in their output.
I really like that album. It’s the album after Machine Head. Machine Head is one of my all-time favorite albums. I didn’t want to touch anything off it. It’s almost too big. I thought “Rat Bat Blue” was a great track and that it didn’t absolutely need the keyboards. I think Jon Lord was super important in Deep Purple. We haven’t got a keyboard player and I didn’t want to go down that road of adding Hammond organ. So I said, “Let’s pick one that’s very guitar oriented, full of good riffs and that’s maybe not too famous.” Shed a little bit of love to a track that isn’t “Burn” or “Highway Star.” The other guys didn’t really know it either. I said, “Let’s learn it and have a go.” It sounded great.
What was it like to be Ritchie Blackmore for four-and-a-half minutes?
[Laughs.] One of my all-time heroes. Great riffs. He had such a style. Very fluid. It just rolls. You’ve got to get it just right. I learned a lot from Ritchie Blackmore. Probably stole a lot from him as well.
What do you think it is about Lightning To The Nations that has allowed it to endure?
I can only think that it’s chock full of ideas. It’s been incredibly influential. There’s Metallica, which is incredible, but I still get a lot of feedback about that album from other musicians. It’s almost a musician’s album. I’m not sure how we managed to write those songs. The band formed in ’76 and the album came out in 1980. In those four years, we did a lot of writing. From Day One we started writing our own songs. We would very often write a song a week. By the time that the album was recorded, we’d written 100 songs. We had a lot of choice and we’d really learned our craft. Bit-by-bit. Even with just a cassette recorder, recording rehearsals, analyzing our arrangements.
The seven songs on that debut album were the cream of what we’d been playing live and, of all the songs we’d been playing up to that point, we thought those were the ones [that should] go one the album. Some of the other songs appeared on later albums, “To Heaven From Hell,” which was on Borrowed Time, “To The Devil His Due” on Canterbury. “Wild On The Streets” wound up on Death and Progress, which was 10 years later or something. There were obviously a lot of good ideas around and I think that helped make the album so strong.