The latest album to fall under our in-depth spotlight is one of the great unsung British heavy metal albums of the eighties...
Greetings, Lee, and thanks for bringing Cloven Hoof to our Classics… series! Can you set the scene for us a bit first with regards to the band and what was going on just prior to the recording of the record? “The spirit in the band was incredible; we were still young and green, naïve about the business and all that stuff. The music we were making was quite experimental, I think. It wasn’t as if we were musical geniuses or anything, but the music seemed to turn out a bit differently to everybody else’s. We were good musicians for our age – that’s why I wrote quite complex music with lots of time changes, because I wanted to keep it interesting for the band. We love audiences singing along, so we knew there would be a couple of those kind of songs. But what we do is… I see each song as almost like a passage in a film with the music as a storyline, or a musical backing for a mini-film, if you will. So the music we were writing wasn’t the usual sort of verse-chorus formula stuff that was coming out at the time”.
What were your influences as a band? “We were all into Rush, Thin Lizzy, and Black Sabbath obviously”.
Obviously! So we now know about musical likes and influences, but tell us a bit more about what was actually happening in the lead up to the recording. “We’d recorded the Opening Ritual EP, which had gone into the metal charts at 18, and suddenly big record companies were interested. David Hemmings, who managed Judas Priest, wanted to get involved and he set up a huge deal with CBS Records, who were willing to sign us for God knows how much money. And then he died during the negotiations! He left leaving a lot of people feeling they had a piece of the band, which lead to all sorts of dreadful legal stuff. So CBS, who feared getting sued by all these different people, didn’t take up the option to sign us. I thought our career would take a nosedive and that nobody would touch us, but we did a four track session for Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show-“
That’s when I first heard the band. “It was a real institution that show wasn’t it? We did that session and then Neat Records rang us up, and said they wanted to work with the band. They didn’t care about any of the legal stuff so we signed up with them to do the first album. We went up to their studio (the now-legendary Impulse Studio in Wallsend in England’s North East) and met the producer (Keith Nichol) who’d worked with Venom and Raven, and got on OK”.
So tell us about the first track – Cloven Hoof. “We were just going to record the track, the big intro to the album, and I’d written these occult lyrics, using a real witch’s rune from the Book of Shadows for some of the passages, and we told the producer. He said ‘yeah, I’m used to all that stuff from working with Venom. Mumbo jumbo’. So when we came to record the song, everything broke down in the studio! The producer went ‘that’s really weird!’. He sent us home while he sorted stuff out, and as soon as we left the gear started working again! So we came back and worked on another track, Nightstalker or something, and then went back to the track Cloven Hoof. And the studio went down again! So the producer said ‘can you take some of these words out?’. So I went back to the hotel, messed about with the lyrics, got rid of some stuff… and when we went back to the studio everything worked. I blame my girlfriend at the time, who was a librarian. She suggested that we use proper occult passages if we were going to write about that kind of stuff. When I was showing (guitarist) Steve Rounds the finger picking guitar part on the song, the spooky bit, I started saying the spell words and the other guitar he had in the room, which was just leaning against a wall, just sort of flew across the floor. I guess it might just have fallen down, but he was really spooked. ‘I wanna get out of here!’. We didn’t play that song live for years, because people got spooked. Then we did a show in Valencia and the Church of Satan turned up, a pretty scary-looking bunch, and asked if we were going to play the song. That was the first time we brought that song back!”
Tell us a bit about Nightstalker. “I wanted a shorter, more aggressive kind of song. I’m influenced by horror, comic books and science fiction a lot, so I got the idea that this song was going to be about a serial killer. In America there was a guy called Richard Ramirez, a heavy metal fan who did these black magic-style ritualistic killings. He called himself the Night Stalker. I thought to myself ‘Christ, I hope he hasn’t been listening to us!’ I was really worried about that. So it really made me drop some of the occult-leaning lyrics for the second album. Because you can’t account for who might be listening! You only need one crazy person taking the wrong meaning from what you write. I hope Ramirez didn’t get our first album, but it was out at around the same time! You can’t be blamed for other people’s actions but it did put me off writing occult lyrics for a little while”.
Well, everything blew up in Judas Priest’s face along similar lines, didn’t it? “Exactly, the whole heavy metal suicide thing. Just trying to blame Judas Priest was a money thing basically. But there was nothing in Better By You, Better Than Me that said ‘go away and kill yourself’, and with Nightstalker I wasn’t telling people to go out and commit black magic, ritualistic killings”.
Third track – March of the Damned. “I originally intended it to be something we’d come on stage to. But on the album it got moved to track number three. I wanted something pompous, almost classical, and as an instrumental piece it was a nice contrast. I was quite happy with the way that one turned out”.
Gates of Gehenna is the next track. “Yes, ending side one. It’s our most covered song! So many people around the world have covered Gates of Gehenna! When you’re in your bedroom writing this stuff, to have it then played around the world, to see people all around the world singing along. To be honest it’s not about the money… for me that’s what it’s all about. I don’t do it for any other reason. If my music makes our fans feel the same way as I do when I hear Rush or Judas Priest, then that’s all I want. When bands cover your songs, that’s a massive honour. Gates of Gehenna takes us back to our occult leanings; it’s basically about someone who sells his soul to the devil, really. He gets promised fantastic things for his soul, and then it turns out you just go to hell anyway! Pleasing subject matter! It’s a series of little musical passages, which is why there’s no real chorus as such. A lot of prog bands do that, they put little musical movements together. But at that time there’s wasn’t any other band that was doing it with aggressive heavy metal. So people started to say that that’s the genesis of power metal, and I was thinking ‘is it?’. But I guess you could pick out twenty bands from Germany and what they are doing sounds like what we were doing then! But at the time you don’t think you’re doing something that will turn into a genre. But probably we were the link between Rush and Judas Priest. We didn’t mean to be, but probably that’s how it turned out. And we always have that song in our set today”.
In many ways though I don’t think you could tell that Gates of Gehenna was written in 1983 or today – it just stands as a great heavy metal song. “Thank you so much! That means a lot! I think good music does stand the test of time, and it gets that longevity that means you can put it on any time and it still sounds fresh”.
Side two kicks off with Crack the Whip. “No heavy metal album is complete without a song about sex, and that’s where Crack the Whip comes in! I actually wrote Crack the Whip for that Friday Rock show session. David Hemmings said to me ‘you’ve got the Friday Rock show, so write a three minute single. You love AC/DC don’t you?’ Of course I said yes. He said ‘wouldn’t it be good to have a singalong song like them? and of course it’ll be shorter the all the other songs!’ We only had two days before we had to go to the BBC to record the session! So I wrote some lyrics out – I always start from the lyrics – from the chorus out, really. So I rang up the guys and said ‘’we’ve got to get this song nailed for Tommy Vance!’ They said ‘which one?’ I said ‘you haven’t heard it yet!’. So we spent a day hammering it out and a day nailing it. It was two days old when we recorded it for the BBC! And now funnily enough it’s appeared on hundreds of compilation albums! We’ve actually put it back into the live set because so many people have been asking for it!””
Excellent. Of course in those days all the metal bands had certifiable hit singles, didn’t they? “That’s right! If you didn’t have something that was three minutes long to get on the radio you’d get passed over! Everybody was doing it, so there was no stigma. Saxon were bringing out short, snappy songs, no problem, so we couldn’t be any exception, could we? I’m glad the song’s on the album though. It’s got a youthful exuberance to it!”
I know you say the song is an homage to AC/DC, but I’ve always felt it has a very Priesty feel to it. “Yes, I know what you mean, like Devil’s Child off of Screaming for Vengeance? I was talking to Rob Halford about that, and he said that Angus and the lads were the main influence for that song. It goes down well in the stadiums in America, that kind of fists in the air music. If you want to compare us to Priest I’m very happy with that!”
The penultimate track on the album is Laying Down the Law. “Really early on in the band’s career we were rehearsing on a Saturday morning. But the night before we’d gone to this party. We weren’t really gatecrashers, but we were chatting up some girls at the party and then this almighty fight started. The police came and of course the only people arrested were the long haired, scruffy metal types! So anyway we were in the police cells waiting to get bailed, and the police came in put some mattresses down and then beat the crap out of us with these truncheons that didn’t leave any marks on us. So I thought sod it, I’m writing a song about this! The original version was quite anti-police really, but in the end it sort of became about gangsters and vigilantism, much more palatable! Later on somebody did a video using Laying Down the Law as the music over a Batman, crime fighting kind of thing, which I thought was cool. I love Marvel and DC Comics. But I’m thinking ‘if only they knew it was an anti-police song originally! It was two songs originally which I joined together – the middle eight comes from something else. I think that happens quite a lot with musicians, doesn’t it? The ballad on A Sultan’s Ransom, Mistress of the Forest, is actually three songs put together!”
Which brings us on to… “The big epic! Yes, Return of the Passover! Kev (Poutney, drums), Steve and myself were very influenced by Rush. And when you grow up with songs like Xanadu and Cygnus, you want to write a big nine minute epic! It’s influenced by the Angel of Death story in the Bible. And I thought ‘what about if the Angel of Death came back as a destructive, avenging angel to wreak vengeance on all the sinners?’ As I said I talked to Rob Halford a fair bit and he liked that kind of symbolism. I think Priest covered that type of thing a fair bit later on. I’m really proud of …Passover. The playing’s pretty advanced, but there’s no sort of formula to it. It’s evolved as part of our storytelling technique, and once again the song is kind of in sections, which all sound very epic! I love playing that song live; we played it at the Bang Your Head Festival in Germany, which they were televising for some sort of music shows, and one of the guys said ‘what song do you want recording?’ and I immediately said …Passover because I knew it was nine minutes long and we’d get more PRS money for that one rather than a five minute one! But it’s one thing to write a nine minute song – it’s another to hold the attention. One thing I hated about classical music was that you’d get some great melody lines, but often the music ‘waffles’ and loses it’s drive; the trick is to try and make it exciting all the time and I tried my best to do that with …Passover. Our fans seem to like us to do the more complicated pieces. So at the moment – and I don’t know whether it will appear on the next album or the one after – I’m writing this massive twenty minute piece of music, I’m going to throw the kitchen sink at it, and it’s really a kind of homage to what we did with … Passover. Basically Cloven Hoof was the template for everything we’ve done since. I’m still really proud of it”.
It’s a very well structured album, in’t it? You can say it’s not a concept album, but it certainly flows as such. Every track fits in the position it plays on the record doesn’t it? “Absolutely spot on. With Cloven Hoof, when you get it, when fans totally understand the music and analyse it, they realise there’s much more to the music than people might first think. I don’t like safe albums personally, so we try to use dynamics to tell a story with aggressive heavy metal. More like a prog band really. And Rob Halford picked up on that when he first met us”.
And that’s the album done. Just as a quick postscript, I’m interested to hear a bit more about your experience with Neat Records. To this day you still hear horror stories about them. “The only downside was that they were trying to push Venom more than anyone else, really. One comical thing I remember was when Venom played the Birmingham Odeon in England. My home town, Wolverhampton, is quite close by, so my Dad went and said to them ‘being as Venom are playing the Odeon why don’t we have Cloven Hoof on the bill? They said ‘we don’t know whether they should!’. Dad kept offering them the most ridiculous money to get us on the bill, but they wouldn’t let us on for love nor money! He was offering ridiculous figures! If they’d have taken us up on it I think we’d have all fainted! But it just shows how much they were pushing Venom. They didn’t want us to eclipse them in any way. But that was the only negative apart from the money side. I’ll say this to all new bands who might get into a similar position – you can take this to the bank. NEVER give your publishing away! We gave our publishing to our record label, which is absolute suicide, That’s the golden rule. Never give your publishing away”.
Wise words kids – ones to live by.