If you were old, deaf or completely coked up and out of your mind during the ‘80s, you might have missed the fact that Hard Rock and Heavy Metal ruled the music world during that era. Bands like Van Halen, Def Leppard, Scorpions, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motley Crüe, Poison and Guns N’ Roses controlled the airwaves and invaded every home in America via MTV. Hard Rock and Metal had been around for a while, but the ‘80s saw them rise to the top of the charts and into the forefront of our collective conscious, thanks to the early chart-topping success of the bands Quiet Riot and Ratt.
This musical domination really began in 1980. There has never been a year so singularly responsible for unleashing so much great Hard Rock and Metal to the masses. In 1980 I was twelve years old and anxiously awaiting Han Solo’s fate after being frozen in carbonite. I was also mourning the loss of Battlestar Galactica on TV. Not to mention I had just discovered girls! Girls, girls, girls! And as I said in my musical evolution blog, this was the year I really started to drift away from my parents’ Rock ‘n’ Roll music and into the raging rivers of the music that members of my generation could claim as their own.
Sure, I have some personal prejudices; this was the year that my lifelong love of all things Hard Rock and Metal was born. How could I not? Don’t forget this was also the year that the mighty Led Zeppelin broke up after John Bonham’s tragic and early death. In 1980, we lost Bon Scott, the lead singer of AC/DC, only to have him replaced with Brian Johnson before the year was over. Peter Criss also departed KISS, making room for one of the best and most thunderous Hard Rock and Metal drummers ever, Eric Carr.
In 1980, Ozzy kicked off his solo career, and bands that would find some measure of success later in the decade like Exodus, King’s X, Loudness, Manowar, Metal Church and Overkill were formed.
It’s as if all of these events capped off an era of ‘70s Rock ‘n’ Roll, which although classic, appealed to a smaller crowd of die-hard fans. In 1980, the dam burst open. In the following years, that smaller crowd would turn into legions of fans slavering for more, more and more. The era of excess opened with a boom of pounding drums and a crunch of Heavy Metal guitars.
But instead of arguing the point, I’m going to let the music do the talking. Here are some of the seminal Hard Rock and Metal releases of 1980, beginning with AC/DC’s stunning tribute to its late lead singer, Bon Scott:
AC/DC- Back in Black
What an album. This thing kicks ass from start to finish. When someone says, “All killer, no filler,” Back in Black is what they’re talking about. Although it may not be my favorite album from these boys from down under, it’s certainly a fan-favorite of many die-hard rockers. Since coming out in July of 1980, Back in Black has sold more than fifty million albums, making it the second highest selling album of all time (behind Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon). It’s the highest selling album of any Australian musical act, including the chart-topping Men at Work, and of course, the ever-physical Olivia Newton-John.
With outstanding production from John “Mutt” Lange—who produced the band’s previous masterpiece, Highway to Hell, and would go onto produce multiple Def Leppard albums—this record hits you hard and heavy with crunchy riffs, driving bass lines, searing guitar solos, and of course Brian Johnson’s trademark gravelly, soul-searing voice. This is one bad-ass album that’s withstood the test of time. I challenge anyone to listen to Back in Black and tell me that it doesn’t energize them and make them feel like they can take on the world.
If you can listen to this and not be moved, then you’re already dead. Hell, Back in Black is an album you have to play so loud, you’ll even wake up the dead. So, if you’re not moved, you’re just dead to me. Dead I tell you.
Black Sabbath- Heaven and Hell
Ronnie James Dio, we miss you so much. And on Black Sabbath’s phenomenal Heaven and Hell album, RJD would quiet the uneasiness of many Sabbath fans who mourned the departure of Ozzy Osbourne. To be honest, many of my generation’s Sabbath fans became listeners of the band because of this album. For a few previous albums, Sabbath had been riding the wave of its ‘70s success rather leisurely, until it came crashing onto the rocks of the shores of drug addiction, excess and inner-band feuding.
Even as talented as RJD had proved himself when he was a member of the bands Elf and Rainbow, nobody really gave Black Sabbath much of a chance without its original front man, Ozzy. On Heaven and Hell Sabbath came out all guns blazing, completely revitalized and moving in an incredible creative direction due to the new blood being infused into the mix. Songs like “Neon Knights”, “Children of the Sea” and, of course, the title track, “Heaven and Hell”, became instant classics.
Critics and fans were both satisfied by this iconic album, while somewhere out in the musical netherworld, a former bandmate was struggling with addiction and depression, trying to find his own musical footing in the world… for more on that, keep reading.
Def Leppard- On Through the Night
Although not as well remembered as Def Leppard’s following efforts, On Through the Night did peak at number 51 on the Billboard 200 here in the U.S., and at number 15 in the UK Albums Charts. This hard-rocker helped put Def Leppard into the forefront of what would become the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal,” or just plain NWBHM. And although the band likes to think of itself as a Pop Rock band with more in common with ‘70s Glam Rock than with the ‘80s Hair Nation, that’s just revisionist history from the band members. Even though On Through the Night is much rawer than the band’s next (and classic) album, High & Dry, the boys in the Union Jack tank tops and shorts made a hell of an impression on this release.
There is certainly the trademark Def Leppard vocal harmonies, and nods toward what the band’s slicker production would sound like by the time Hysteria was released, but overall this is just kick-ass, guitar driven Rock ‘n’ Roll. Probably the most Hysteria-esque tune might be the ingratiating single, “Hello America”. But no matter what side of the fence you are on in the Leppard camp—pre-Hysteria or post-Hysteria—the album, On Through the Night, helped kick off the ‘80s with a roar.
Diamond Head- Lightning to the Nations
Diamond Head was not a successful band of the NWBHM, but its influence on other Hard Rock and Metal bands can be felt even today, thanks in part to tape-trading and positive word of mouth reviews from bands like Metallica and Megadeth. Diamond Head caught the attention of the bands AC/DC and Iron Maiden, and those acts took them on tour in a supporting slot. Unfortunately, Diamond Head wasn’t able to turn its deal with MCA records into a profitable venture. The band would’ve fallen into obscurity if it wasn’t for the help of Metallica, which had famously covered the Diamond Head tune, “Am I Evil”. Metallica would later be instrumental at securing a remastered rerelease of Lightning to the Nations, as well as assisting the band in newer projects.
Check out Diamond Head’s original version of “Am I Evil” below.
Iron Maiden- Iron Maiden
If the cover of this album—drawn by Derek Riggs—doesn’t scream METAL!!! enough for you, then by the time this record blisters your ears with aggressive, yet melodious, punk-tinged chords and notes, I think you’ll get the idea. Though not living up to the future production values that Iron Maiden would become known for as a band, this album told the world that the band’s mascot, Eddie, and the boys in Maiden had come to kick ass and conquer the NWBHM!
And they recorded this classic album in thirteen days! There have been bands that take years to make an album and never come close to the quality of Iron Maiden (Guns N’ Roses comes to mind). The band exploded out of the UK and went worldwide with its first album featuring Bruce Dickinson on vocals—Number of the Beast—but it would be a shame to downplay the importance of this first Maiden album, even with Paul Di’Anno’s decidedly punk-influenced vocal style.
This was the first of many albums that transformed Iron Maiden into the globe-trotting, musical phenomena it is today and stoked the fires that keep the irons of its rabid fan base held high.
Judas Priest- British Steel
On previous releases, Judas Priest experimented with its Hard Rock/Metal sound to varying degrees of success. With British Steel, they leapt to the forefront of the NWBHM. With a balance of truly heavy classic tunes and songs commercial enough for radio play—without alienating the fans of their heavier, darker work—“The Beast That Is The Priest”, as the band is often referred to, gave us an album for the Metal Ages.
The standout heavier-than-thou songs, “Metal Gods”, “Breaking the Law” and “Grinder” still make me bang my head so hard that I could keep many a chiropractor laughing all the way to the bank. The anthemic “United” is fist-pumping bravado perfect for both music arenas and sports stadiums around the world. The commercially successful “Living After Midnight” is the perfect party song. In “The Rage”, the band continues to showcase its deep musical roots by incorporating reggae guitar work while letting Rob “The Metal God” Halford stretch his vocal wings.
As with many Americans, British Steel was my initial introduction to Judas Priest, and I still hold this album as a measuring stick to what a truly great Metal album should be!
Motorhead- Ace of Spades
Lemmy Kilminster—he of the massive mutton chops and a trademark facial mole with its own personality—has often claimed that his band, Motorhead, just plays good old Rock ‘n’ Roll. In many ways, that is true. But one thing is for certain: Motorhead plays its own brand of Rock ‘n’ Roll and sound like no other band on the planet. Every song from this band drips with attitude, sleaze and an almost Punk sensibility. On Ace of Spades, Motorhead continued to refine its signature sound—a musical style that punk rockers, Metalheads and Hard Rock fans could agree on. Motorhead looked like nobody else on the rock scene and played balls out fast Rock ‘n’ Roll with swagger and grit. They still do, and will keep doing so until Lemmy is unable to stand on stage and play and sing.
Without a doubt, Ace of Spades and Motorhead had the biggest influence on what would become the Thrash Metal scene in the mid-eighties. From the opening riffs of the title song, “Ace of Spades”, to the slithering sounds of “Love Me Like A Reptile”, this album would go on to inspire bands like Anthrax and Metallica and bands as diverse as Guns N’ Roses and The Cult. Ace of Spades has left its mark on Rock ‘n’ Roll, and that mark will burn like the Mark of the Beast well into the future.
Ozzy Osbourne- Blizzard of Oz
As I said at the end of Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell entry, Ozzy was out there—and with the help of his future wife, Sharon, about to explode back onto the scene with an album that launched a fantastically successful solo career. Blizzard of Oz introduced us to the incredibly talented guitar hero, Randy Rhoads, and proved that Ozzy was far from being a forgotten relic of music history.
To date, this is Ozzy’s most successful album. It sold more than six million records and went quadruple platinum, a number not achieved until he released No More Tears in 1991. I’m not going to get into the controversies surrounding this album because most of them happened years after its release. I think the music of Blizzard of Oz far overshadows the insanity of the court case surrounding the song, “Suicide Solution”, and the puzzling remastered releases where the original bass and drum tracks of Bob Daisley and Lee Kerslake were replaced with performances from other musicians.
Although I think that Ozzy’s follow-up album, Dairy of a Madman, was a superior record, it wouldn’t have been possible to record that masterpiece of modern Metal without the success of Blizzard of Oz.
Rush- Permanent Waves
It’s no secret that Rush is my favorite band and, in my opinion, can do no wrong (musically speaking). With that being said, Permanent Waves is not only my favorite Rush album, but it contains what I think is the ultimate Rush song to date in the form of the tune “Natural Science”.
With the outstanding quality of every song on this record, it’s no surprise that this became the band’s first album to reach the Top 5 (hitting number 4) in the U.S. charts. A long string of Top 5 albums would soon follow. Along with the band’s (at the time) longstanding producer, Terry Brown, and the art of Hugh Syme once again gracing the album jacket, this album is everything a Rush record should be.
Lyrically, Neil Peart—responsible for penning all of the bands lyrics along with his duties behind the drum kit—is at his finest, exploring these great themes: the love of music versus the cynicism of the music industry; Freewill and blind belief; and the balance between man’s natural creative instinct and love of nature versus mankind’s quest for knowledge through science and the need to conquer nature. Musically, every band member is on fire on this album, even incorporating hints of reggae into their style for the first time. As mentioned before, no song better epitomizes the prowess of the band better than the song “Natural Science”. In about a ten minute opus, every creative aspect that encompasses the band, Rush, comes together to take the listener on an emotionally and intellectually charged rollercoaster ride.
When I find friends that have never been into Rush, I turn them on to this album and nine times out of ten, I turn them into Rush fans, watering at the mouth to hear more of the band’s music and see them live in concert.
Van Halen- Women and Children First
On the heels of Van Halen’s much underrated second album, Van Halen II, the boys came off of the starting line with all cylinders firing. This album kicks ass from start to finish, with Eddie coming up with some of the most creative riffing and soloing of his career. Right from the start with the opening track, “And the Cradle Will Rock”, the band makes its intentions clear that this album will rock you until your ears bleed. Kerrang magazine rated this album at number 30 on the 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums of All Time, but I would consider Women and Children First to be in my top ten favorites.
Unlike most Van Halen records, this Triple Platinum monster only released one single for radio play in the form of the opening track. By this time in its career, the band was able to move large amounts of albums based on its tremendous touring schedule and well-deserved reputation as America’s premier Hard Rock and Heavy Metal band.
If Van Halen was ever to regain its glory days of yesteryear, it would have to come out with an album that meets or exceeds the ball-busting, guitar-shredding sonic assault that is Women and Children First.
Other Great Albums From 1980-
Krokus- Metal Rendezvous
Michael Schenker Group- The Michael Schenker Group
Ted Nugent- Scream Dream
Queen- The Game
Saxon- Wheels of Steel
Scorpions- Animal Magnetism
Triumph- Progressions of Power
UFO- No Place to Run