In 1981, a trio of likely lads from Newcastle Upon Tyne in England’s far north in a band called Venom released an album called Welcome To Hell, which immediately influenced thousands.
Spinoff, Venom Inc, are currently touring Australia, and this is the origin story of the originators of Black Metal, the progenitors of speed and thrash metal, and the genesis of every other extreme metal sub-genre since, as told by original drummer, Tony ‘Abaddon’ Bray.
Teenagers Bray, Conrad Lant and Jeffrey Dunn had been playing in a variety of local bands when they gravitated towards each other in 1978. By 1980 they had the songs, the attitude, the image and the belligerent confidence to take them out of working class Newcastle and onto the world’s metal stages as Venom. Bray says that one of the first things the trio did was to rename themselves. Abaddon, Cronos and Mantas were born.
“We were very aware at the beginning that the band was different,” he recalls. “We grew up in the North East of England with a lot of bands that came out at the time; like Tygers of Pan Tan, Rivendell, Fist, White Spirit, Titan Dog and a lot of these bands were part of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal scene. We should really have sounded and acted kind of the same as all that crowd, because they were all around us. But we didn't. We were different the way we sounded, different the way we looked, different they way we acted. It was very obvious from an early start, really, that we would have stage names.
“We all just came together and said, ‘I want to call myself this’. It was the same with the pyrotechnics and with the lighting shows. Same with the album cover designs, the satanic lyrics.
“All of those were set out to shock, and to deliberately be blasphemous and demonic - as over the top as we possibly could be. And Abaddon (pronounced ABBA-don) just came from that - it's from the bible, it's Hebrew. He was supposedly the guy at God's right hand, responsible for looking after the birth of the human race. It's quite an old word. It just came from the want to be destructive and forceful. It's not a persona that I put on when I'm on stage - it's an extension of myself. It's the way I live my life.”
And shock they did. Welcome To Hell featured songs like Sons Of Satan, Live Like An Angel (Die Like A Devil), One Thousand Days In Sodom and In League With Satan that not only inspired a thousand bands to go even more extreme, but also drove Mums crazy – including mine when I was a young pup of 16.
“Yeah, that's what rock’n'roll's always been,” Bray laughs. “There was Elvis with his hips that couldn't be shown after a certain time on the TV. They had to shoot him from the hips up. The Rolling Stones - how crazy the Stones were, and how parents reacted against them. All those kind of things - that's what rock’n' roll's always been about, to some degree. I must admit, it's one of the things that tickles me a little bit, when I'm meeting grown-up fans and they say, ‘I was frightened by Welcome To Hell. I went into the record shop three times and picked up and put it back down again. I didn't know if I should buy it or not.’ It's amusing now, but we deliberately set out to be as obnoxious as we could.”
They were different times and the wave of heavy metal with supposedly Satanic references were seen – by my friends and I, at least – as tongue in cheek, exciting and fun. Inspired by the songs of Venom and Ozzy Osbourne, my best friend and I went to the Dianella Library looking for spell books by Aleister Crowley – as if a suburban library in 1981 was going to let 16 year-olds have access to that sort of material! It’s indicative of how influential Venom were, that a couple of middle class kids in suburban Perth could want in on the action – and always there was the music, which we still listen to today.
“For some, like you said, when you're 16, it's a thing you latch on to, and you have fun with, with your mates. It's got a very real tangible touch on peoples lives, music - especially when you're 16 or 17. It's a background to you growing up.
“Maybe you go out with your first girlfriend, maybe you're doing really well with sports or science, or something, and you’re feeling good. Maybe you're feeling really fucking depressed, and you're cutting your wrists, or you’ve got friends who are doing it. Maybe you're getting into drugs, you're stealing liquor from your parent’s liquor cabinet. You're having these experiences and it's all part of what makes you. It's part of growing up.
“The background tapestry to that is music and it's what’s around you at the time. Whether you play it yourself, or you hear it on the radio, or your friends are playing it. It's always there. It's a constant. When you hear the beginning riff of Welcome To Hell, or something like that, when you hear the riff of that, it takes you right back to the first time you slept with your girlfriend or you did all those things. It's a really tangible thing, you can almost touch it.”
Bray is quick to admit that the trio weren’t really satanists, despite their image and lyrics.
“No, we did our research, the same as you,” he insists. “Growing up we got into The Necronomicon and Crowley and LaVey. We touched on all of that. It was a massive source of lyrical inspiration for us, on those first albums.
“And then you look at things that are happening around you. You take influences from that, you know? Growing up in the North East of England - in the ‘70s that was a very industrial area. Your Dad and your uncles and your older brothers were all out on strike. People are living in council housing. It was a tough time and growing up as a teenager, you saw all that, and you felt all that anger.
“All of that goes into the music, as well. It's like making a big pot of soup. You take your ingredients, and you're mixing them up. You've got influences from other bands. You've got influences from around you on a day-to-day basis. You've got your influences as you're growing up. People are bringing drugs into your life. People are bringing drink into your life. Your sexual chemistry, it's all part of making you. And it's all part of what's going into that soup that creates an album like Welcome To Hell.
“It was just a case of cobbling a lot of shit equipment together. Putting it into a shit studio... the engineers just looked at us like we were fucking mental, you know? They just looked at us like, ‘wow, what a racket. How do I even begin to put microphone in front of that?’ Everything was feeding back, everything was out of tune - we didn't have tuners at the time. The guitars were in tune with each other, but they weren't in any specific tuning. It was just a case of, ‘okay, my guitar agrees with your guitar, give me an E. Let's go.’
“The engineers and the producers in the studios that we went into were just saying, ‘what the fuck is this? It's absolute mayhem.’ We were like, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah - quickly, just record it, fast as you can. Just get in down on tape!’
“That excitement and that kind of boiling point, everybody getting in one room and feeling like a band of brothers. We would step out the room and people would be saying, ‘what on earth was that?’ We'd be like, ‘yeah, well fuck you. This is us, this is Venom. This is what we're about. This is what we do. If you like it, you like it. If you don't like it, I don't give a shit’.”
It was this desperate DIY attitude, the working-class poverty that prohibited them purchasing better equipment, and the simple fact that they simply weren’t technically advanced players at that stage, that conspired to produce such a different sound. Half punk, half metal, when combined with their satanic lyrics, outlandish costumes and northern ‘fuck you’ attitude, it was like nothing ever heard before.
“Punk music was the big shake-up then,” Bray explains. “I was into Sweet, Slade, Grateful Dead, Deep Purple, stuff like that. But the punk kick up the ass in England was felt all around. I used to go to disco nights, where they would play mostly punk music all night. They would put on an AC/DC song or something, and we'd get up and headbang to the one AC/DC song. We'd go outside and punks and skinheads would kick the shit out of us. That was growing up - that was what school was like. You had long hair, so you got the shit kicked out of you. But so what? That builds back-bone. That just gets you into believing that what you're doing is right.
“Later we got called punks with long hair! And we kind of identified with that. If you look at our first live video, there are punks in the crowd, there are skinheads in the crowd, there are people with long hair in the crowd. And everybody is going ape shit. And that was one of the first times that these factions all came together. The thrash thing kind of brought everybody together.
“When we went to America, we had bands like The Cro-Mags supporting us, and Black Flag supporting us – Henry Rollins was there, who were out-and-out punk bands, Suicidal Tendencies… and all of that whole thing with stage diving and people diving off the balcony and getting broken noses and busted arms and those kind of shit, all of that was what we were about. We were like, ‘yeah, this is it!’ It wasn't like going to see Iron Maiden or Deep Purple where people just stood there and sort of nodded their heads. This was like a full-on war, and that's normal now to go and see bands like that, who create this kind of mayhem, but it wasn't then. We were right at the forefront of that, right at the beginning.”
As mentioned before, Venom went out to push boundaries, to shock, effectively opening the floodgates to extreme metal.
“I think we broke down so many barriers in one go,” he says, “because people said to us, ‘I don't know what you are. Are you a heavy metal band?’ And we said, ‘no, we're thrash metal, black metal, death metal.’ And people were like, ‘hang on, hang on, hang on, what are all these things? What is black metal? What is death metal? What is speed metal?’ And we were like, ‘that's what we are, we're all of this.’ And they became sub-genres which spilled out from Venom… people say that that break in the middle of Welcome To Hell, the song, that's where thrash metal started. You pin-point all that back and the band you come back to is Venom. And we're certainly very proud of that.”
The original line-up of Venom folded in 1986 when guitarist Dunn first left, followed by Lant two years later. We don’t have room to run through the shuffling deck of band members who came and went over the next three decades, except to note that Bray finally left in 1999, going on to co-run a recording studio, then work in construction, before Dunn and singer/bass player Tony ‘Demolition Man’ Dolan asked him to join them onstage. That band quickly evolved into Venom Inc., with a new album and an Australian tour.
“With Avé, the new album,” Bray says excitedly, “we still sound similar to what we did with those early sounds. Okay, the equipment's better now, the playing's better now - but the songs and the playing of the songs still sound like what we were doing with Welcome To Hell, Black Metal and At War With Satan. Avé sounds like it could have been recorded then.”
Venom Inc perform at Amplifier Bar on Saturday, March 3, with Desecrator and Psychonaut in support. Full details at www.facebook.com/events/605699583105096/