New Wave of British Heavy Metal


The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (commonly abbreviated in NWOBHM) was a nationwide musical movement that started in the late 1970s in the United Kingdom and achieved international attention by the early 1980s. The term was first used by journalist Geoff Barton in the May 1979 issue of the British music newspaper Sounds, as a way of describing the emergence of new heavy metal bands in the late 1970s, during the period of Punk rock’s decline and the dominance of new wave music.

New Wave of British Heavy MetalThe New Wave of British Heavy Metal began as an underground phenomenon parallel to Punk and largely ignored by the media, which, only through the promotion of rock DJ Neal Kay and Sounds’ campaigning, reached the public conscience and gained radio coverage, recognition and success in the UK. The movement involved mostly young, white, male and working class musicians and fans, who suffered the hardships of the diffuse unemployment condition that hit Great Britain in the late 70s and early 80s. As a reaction, they created a community separated from mainstream society where to enjoy each other’s company and their favourite loud music. It evolved in a new subculture with its own behavioural and visual codes and a shared set of values, which were quickly accepted by metal fans worldwide following the almost immediate diffusion of the music in the US, Europe and Japan.

Although fragmented in a collection of different styles, the music of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal is best remembered for drawing from the heavy metal of the 70s and fusing it with the intensity of Punk rock, producing fast and aggressive songs. The DIY attitude of the new metal bands caused the diffusion of raw-sounding self-produced recordings and the proliferation of independent record labels. The song lyrics were usually about typically escapist themes like mythology, fantasy, horror and rock lifestyle.

The movement spawned about a thousand metal bands, but only a few survived the advent of MTV and the rise of the more commercial Glam Metal in the second half of the 80s. Among them, only Iron Maiden and Def Leppard became international stars, although Motörhead and Saxon had also considerable success. Other groups, like Diamond Head, Venom and Raven, remained underground acts, but were a major influence for the very successful extreme metal sub-genres of the late-80s and 90s. Many bands from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal reformed in the 2000s and are still active with live performances and new studio albums.

Influence of Motörhead

MotorheadMotörhead are a band founded in 1975 by already experienced musicians (their leader Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister came from the space rock band Hawkwind, Larry Wallis from Pink Fairies, Eddie Clarke from Curtis Knight’s Zeus), which divides the critics about its belonging to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

Some of them think that the band should be considered a precursor and inspirer of the movement but not part of it, because they gained recording contracts, toured the country and reached chart success way before any NWOBHM band stepped out of their local club scene. Motörhead were also the only metal band of the period recording songs with veteran BBC radio DJ John Peel for his “Peel Sessions” program and the first to reach No. 1 in the UK Albums Chart, with the live album ‘No Sleep ’til Hammersmith’ in June 1981. Lemmy himself said that “the NWOBHM (…) didn’t do us much good”, because Motörhead “came along a bit too early for it.”

Other critics see Motörhead as chronologically the first significant exponent of the movement and the first band to fully implement a crossover between punk rock and heavy metal. Their fast music, the renunciation to technical virtuosity in favour of sheer loudness and their uncompromising attitude were equally welcomed by punks and heavy metal fans. Motörhead were supported by many NWOBHM bands on tour, but they also shared the stage with the punk band The Damned, of which Lemmy was a friend. Motörhead’s musical style became very popular during the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, making them a fundamental reference for the nascent movement and for musicians of various metal sub-genres in the following decades.

The First Wave (1979-81)

Iron MaidenThe best chart performances of that period were for Iron Maiden’s debut album and for ‘Wheels of Steel’ by Saxon, which reached No. 4 and No. 5 in the UK Albums Chart respectively, while their singles “Running Free”, “Wheels of Steel” and “747 (Strangers in the Night)” entered the UK Singles Chart Top 50. The immediate consequence of that success was increased media coverage for metal bands, which included appearances on the British music TV shows Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test. Another remarkable effect of the expansion of the movement was the emergence of many new bands in the period between 1978 and 1980, the most notable of which were Savage, Girlschool, Trespass, Demon, Mama’s Boys, Fist, Witchfinder General, Satan, Grim Reaper, Venom, Persian Risk, Sweet Savage, Blitzkrieg, Jaguar and Tank.

As proof of the successful revival of the British hard rock and metal scene, tours and gigs of old and new acts went sold out, both in the UK and in other European countries, where the movement had spread out. World tours were no longer precluded to the groups generated from the NWOBHM, which were chosen as opening acts for major bands in arenas and stadiums: Iron Maiden supported Kiss in Europe in 1980 and embarked in their first world tour as headliners in 1981, besides opening for Judas Priest and UFO in the US; Def Leppard visited the US for the first time in 1980 for a three-month trek supporting Pat Travers, Judas Priest, Ted Nugent, AC/DC and Sammy Hagar; Saxon opened for Judas Priest in Europe and for Rush and AC/DC in the US in 1981.

Into the Mainstream (1982–83)

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal eventually found space on newspapers and music magazines different from Sounds, as journalists caught up with the “next big thing” happening in the UK. Melody Maker even published a weekly heavy metal chart based on the sales of record shops. Sounds publisher cashed in for his support to the movement issuing in June 1981 the first number of Kerrang!, a colour magazine directed by Geoff Barton, exclusively devoted to Hard Rock and Heavy Metal.

Kerrang! was a huge success and soon became the magazine of reference for metalheads worldwide, followed shortly by the American Circus and Hit Parader, the German Metal Hammer and the British Metal Forces. The attention of international media meant more sales of records and more world tours for NWOBHM bands, whose albums entered in many foreign charts. Their assault to the British charts culminated with Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast topping the UK Albums Chart on 10 April 1982 and staying at number 1 for two weeks.

Although the movement had lost some of its appeal for the die-hard fans, as evidenced by the increased popularity of “American influenced AOR releases” on national polls, it retained enough vitality to launch a second wave of bands, which rose up from the underground and released their first albums in the period 1982–1983. Avenger, Rock Goddess, Tysondog, Tokyo Blade, Elixir, Atomkraft and Rogue Male are some of the bands that came to the spotlight after 1981.

Diamond HeadNWOBHM bands had been steadily touring in the United States, but had not yet received enough FM radio airplay in that country to make a significant impression on American charts. Def Leppard remedied to that, releasing at the beginning of 1983 Pyromania, an album which renounced to much of the aggressive sound of their older music for a more melodic and FM-friendly approach. The band’s goal of reaching a wider international audience, which included many female fans, was attained completely in the US, where Pyromania peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Thanks to a string of hit singles and the smart use of music videos on the recently born MTV, the album had sold more than six millions copies in the US by 1984 and made Def Leppard superstars. The overwhelming international success of Pyromania induced both American and British bands to follow Def Leppard’s example, giving a decisive boost to the more commercial and melodic Glam metal and delivering a fatal blow to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.


Great Britain had been a pioneer of music videos, which suddenly stepped up from occasional promotional fancy to indispensable means to reach the audience when MTV started its broadcasting service in 1982. The new TV broadcaster filled its programs with many hard rock and heavy metal videos, too expensive for bands without a recording contract or signed to small independent labels. Moreover, music videos exalted the visual side of a band, a department where British metal groups were often deficient.

So the New Wave of British Heavy Metal suffered the same decline as other musical movements based on low-budget productions and an underground following. Many of its leaders, like Diamond Head, Tygers of Pan Tang, Angel Witch and Samson, were unable to follow up on their initial success and their attempts to update their sound and look to the new standards expected by the wider audience failed, alienating also the favours of fans of the first hour.

By the mid-1980s, image-driven and sex-celebrating glam metal emanating from Hollywood Sunset Strip, spearheaded by Van Halen and followed by bands such as Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, Dokken, Great White, Ratt and W.A.S.P., quickly replaced other styles of metal in the tastes of many British rock fans. New Jersey act Bon Jovi and the Swedish Europe, thanks to their successful fusion of hard rock and romantic pop, became also very popular in the UK, with the first arriving even to headline the Monsters of Rock Festival in 1987. Record companies latched onto the more sophisticated Glam Metal sub-genre over the NWOBHM bands, which maintained a fan base in Europe, but found the home and US markets closed by American groups.

In addition, new but much less mainstream metal sub-genres emerged around the same time and attracted many British metalheads. Power Metal and Thrash Metal, both stemming from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and maintaining much of its ethos, were even faster and heavier and obtained good sale results and critical acclaim in the second half of the 80s, with bands like Helloween, Savatage, Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax.

Two of the more popular bands of the movement, however, went on to considerable, lasting success. Iron Maiden has since then become one of the most commercially successful and influential heavy metal bands of all time, even after adopting a more progressive style. Def Leppard became even more successful, targeting the American mainstream rock market with their more refined hard rock sound.


The widespread popularity of the Internet in the late 1990s / early 2000s helped NWOBHM fans and musicians to communicate again. So the New Wave of British Heavy Metal experienced a minor revival, highlighted by the good sales of old vinyl and collectibles and by the demand of new performances. The statements of appreciation by metal bands of the 90s, the success of tribute bands, the re-issues of old albums and the production of new thoroughly edited compilations renewed the attention of the media and encouraged many of the original groups to reform for festival appearances and tours. Starting in the 2000s, many reformed bands recorded new albums and revisited their original styles, abandoned in the second half of the 80s. Their presence at metal festivals and in the international rock club circuit has been constant ever since.

Influences and Legacy

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal re-ignited the creativity of a stagnant genre, but was heavily criticized for the excessive hype generated by local media in favour of mostly talentless musicians who, unlike the preceding decades, were unoriginal and created no classic rock recording. Nonetheless, the music produced during the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was very influential for their contemporaries in every part of the Western world; today that hodgepodge of styles is seen as a nodal point for the diversification of heavy metal and an incubator of various sub-genres, which developed in the second half of the 80s and became predominant in the 90s.

In fact, the great success of Def Leppard in the US was very important for the growth of Glam Metal, just as the music, lyrics, cover art and attitude of bands like Angel Witch, Witchfynde, Cloven Hoof and especially Venom are regarded as fundamental for the development of Black Metal in its various forms in Europe and America. The name attributed to that sub-genre comes from Venom’s album ‘Black Metal’ of 1982. Motörhead, Iron Maiden, Raven, Tank, Venom and other minor groups are viewed as precursors of Speed Metal and Thrash Metal, two sub-genres which carried forward the crossover with Punk, incorporating elements of Hardcore and amplifying velocity of execution, aggression and loudness.


(Courtesy : Metal Evolution)


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