In the late ’70s, the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) struck the U.K. like a bolt of lightning. Bands like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, and Venom bulldozed their way in, changing the genre forever in their wake. Saxon, Angel Witch, and Girlschool propelled the headbangers of the Isles (and later the European Continent) into a white-hot frenzy. But one band stands supreme, and coulda-woulda-shoulda been the kings of them all: Diamond Head.
Formed in Stourbridge, England, in 1976 by guitarist Brian Tatler, singer Sean Harris, drummer Duncan Scott, and bassist Colin Kimberley—all teenagers at the time—the band wrote insanely catchy songs that still ring through the halls of heavy metal infamy. Influenced by bell-bottomed fret lords Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page, Tatler was the only guitarist from the NWOBHM movement who even came close to writing riffs on par with those of Sabbathian maestro Tony Iommi. (And let’s be real: Sean Harris was probably the best vocalist of the era, too.) And yet, Diamond Head might still be languishing in obscurity were it not for the unwavering patronage of Metallica.
When Diamond Head recorded their full-length debut, Lightning to the Nations, in 1980, no one cared. None of the big labels—and most of the smaller ones—gave a flying fuck. The band ended up pressing the record themselves and releasing the first thousand copies in a plain white sleeve. The album contained seven songs. Metallica later covered five of them, recording iron-clad classics “Am I Evil?,” “Helpless,” “The Prince,” and “It’s Electric,” as B-sides of singles and linchpins of covers collections. Every once in a while, they’d bust out Diamond Head’s nine-minute blowjob anthem, “Sucking My Love,” in concert.
In fact, the only reason most people under 50 even know about Diamond Head is because of Metallica. That’s bananas, because Lightning to the Nations is one of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time. And Metallica? They might not even exist without Diamond Head. Just ask Lars Ulrich. “When I was 15 or 16, I got an MCA Records compilation called Brute Force,” the drummer told . “I’d recently read about this band called Diamond Head that I hadn’t heard of before, [and] they were the opening cut on this album. The song was called ‘It’s Electric,’ and I think I listened to it like 9,000 times that month. If there was ever a song that made me want to be in a band, that was it.”
A few years ago, Brian Tatler came across some old versions of Lightning to the Nations songs he’d never heard before. Forgotten for decades and rescued from a flooded studio basement, the lost mixes from the album will be released on September 30, 2022. Being the lifelong Diamond Head fans that we are, CREEM seized the opportunity to speak with him.
CREEM: What was your life like at the time you started Diamond Head?
BRIAN TATLER: In 1976, I was 16 and I was about to leave school. But before I did, I wanted to form a band. I’d already got a guitar, and I’d been learning to play for a year or so. I talked one of my best mates, Duncan Scott, into being the drummer even though he hadn’t got a drum kit. So, we made our own drum kit out of biscuit tins and plastic tubs and stuff like that. We realized we needed a singer, so we started looking around the school. We happened upon Sean Harris, who could really sing, so we asked him to join. The band kind of went from there.
I talked one of my best mates, Duncan Scott, into being the drummer even though he hadn’t got a drum kit. So, we made our own drum kit out of biscuit tins and plastic tubs.
In retrospect, you and Sean Harris meeting for the first time turned out to be a momentous event in heavy metal history. Did you have any sense that Diamond Head was really going to work, back then?
As soon as Sean started singing, I knew he was good. He was easily the best guy we’d seen. I’d invited a couple of other guys ’round to have a go, and they were just awful. As soon as Sean opened his mouth, I thought, “That’s it. The search is over.” He had an incredible voice. But it didn’t feel momentous or anything. The first time I started thinking that it was absolutely do-able was when we started going to see new wave of British heavy metal bands around 1979—we saw Iron Maiden and Def Leppard and Samson—and we thought, “We’re as good as these bands. We ought to be on that stage.” So that was quite a confidence booster.
Then we opened for AC/DC in January 1980, and those two gigs were absolutely fantastic. Again, we felt we could actually do something because we had gone down really well in front of an AC/DC audience, which is notoriously difficult to do. It gave us the confidence to reach for the stars. I hate that cliché, but it seems appropriate.
Did you feel a sense of competition with the other NWOBHM bands, like Maiden and Def Leppard?
I think there was. I think we were looking at each other and seeing who’s got the best riffs, who’s got the best guitarist, the best logo, the best artwork, and who’s getting the best deals. Of course, Def Leppard got signed to Phonogram, which was one of the best labels in the UK for breaking rock bands. The feeling was that they weren’t going to sign anyone else because they already had their NWOBHM band. EMI snapped up Iron Maiden, and the pool started to run out a little bit. You’re then looking at labels that aren’t so powerful and aren’t so good at breaking new bands. So, yeah, there was a lot of competition. You were grabbing every opportunity to get noticed before all the bands got signed or the labels just didn't want to sign any more bands.
We saw Iron Maiden and Def Leppard and Samson—and we thought, “We’re as good as these bands. We ought to be on that stage.”
You ended up recording Lightning to the Nations on your own dime, didn’t you?
Sort of. The way I remember it, we’d already gone into the studio to record the first single, “Shoot Out The Lights,” at the end of 1979. Then, I think our manager said we should record an album at the same studio and then take it ’round to the record companies. We recorded and mixed the album in a week, but no money exchanged hands. Our manager did a handshake deal with the guy who owned the studio, whereby he would get 50% of our publishing for 15 years in return for the studio time. [Laughs] Of course, we didn’t know what publishing was, so we just went along with it. But then we didn’t get a record deal, so we pressed up 1,000 copies and sold them at gigs to generate a bit of money. It was a bit frustrating to realize we’d done this album—we were pleased with it and thought it sounded great—but we couldn’t get a record deal.
There are seven songs on Lightning to the Nations. Metallica covered five of them. I can’t imagine a better endorsement. And, yet, at the time the album was released, you guys couldn’t get arrested.
That’s right. Labels didn’t want to do a deal—or they were offering a deal for a single or maybe two singles. And if you didn’t have a hit, they wouldn’t pick up the option to do an album. So instead of becoming this epic sort of band, writing long songs—“Sucking My Love” is nine and half minutes long; “Am I Evil?” is over seven minutes long—they wanted singles. They wanted us to go on Top of the Pops, the British music program of the day, because everybody was doing that. It would make or break a band. Motörhead went on it, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, UFO, Iron Maiden, Whitesnake, Rainbow—they all went on it.
We were in a perfect position to go on Top of the Pops if we could write a hit single. We were then sort of trained to write hit singles, but we didn’t want to. We imagined ourselves, possibly naively, as a Led Zeppelin sort of band that had epics like “Achilles’ Last Stand” or “Kashmir.’ We admired those songs and wanted to write things like that. But labels didn’t want that—they wanted hit singles that could get played on the radio.
At some point, you’re visited by a young Danish fan named Lars. He ends up sleeping on the floor at your mum’s house for two weeks. This was another significant moment for Diamond Head, but I’m guessing it didn’t feel like that at the time.
Absolutely not. People have asked me, “Have you got any photographs of you and Lars when he stayed at your house?” Of course not. He was just a Diamond Head fan. I didn’t think, “Oh my god, Lars Ulrich’s come to visit me. I must take some pictures because one day it’ll be a story.” But he was a huge Diamond Head fan. We were very impressed that he had flown from L.A. to London to see Diamond Head, and he was 17 years old. No one had ever done that, so we thought it was amazing that there was a guy in America who’s such a fan of the band, that he’s prepared to come over. I mean, we’d never been to America. So, the least we could do was be hospitable. I remember asking him where he was staying, and he said, “I don’t know. I’ve just come from the airport.” So, we drove back to Stourbridge, and he stayed at me mum and dad’s, on the floor, in an old sleeping bag.
In 1984, Metallica covered “Am I Evil?” as one of the B-sides to the “Creeping Death” single. Did that have any immediate impact for you guys?
No, because Metallica was still a small-ish band at that point. They were still on Music For Nations over here, which is an indie label. We thought Diamond Head was still bigger than them, honestly. To us, it was just Lars’ band that had covered a Diamond Head song. But we were very flattered. They were the first band to ever cover a Diamond Head song, and they’d learned it really well. Their version had more energy than ours, we felt, and it was a bit more aggressive. But I didn’t think it would make money for us, and I didn’t think they were gonna be the biggest heavy metal band of all time. We just thought, “Oh, great—Lars has covered one of our songs!”
I know you didn’t write the lyrics, but what do you think “Am I Evil?” is about?
I’m not quite sure, but I know bits of it are about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Sean must’ve been reading about him. I think at one point he said part of it was about the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, but I’m not 100 percent sure. After I came up with the riff, I remember him saying he wanted to come up with a dark lyric that was suitable for it, and he certainly did. I always thought the opening line was brilliant: “My mother was a witch, she was burned alive.” It was very ballsy for a 20-year guy to be singing those lyrics in 1980.
Were the lyrics to “Sucking My Love” ever discussed within the band?
No. [Laughs] But we didn’t really discuss any of them. We realized that Sean was very good at coming up with melodies and lyrics, so myself, Duncan and Colin—we didn’t interfere. The upshot would’ve been, “Do you think you could to a better lyric, then?” I’m not gonna do a better lyric than Sean Harris, so I’d say nothing. But I thought it was all great. For me, “Sucking My Love” was like a Led Zeppelin lyric, like “Whole Lotta Love” or “The Lemon Song.” He’s obviously talking about oral sex, and he’s obviously having some sort of orgasm in the middle, but it didn’t bother me in the slightest. I just thought it was fantastic.
Metallica was still a small-ish band at that point. We thought Diamond Head was still bigger than them.
Weren’t the press touting Diamond Head as the next Led Zeppelin at one point?
Yes, they were. We had a couple of big pieces in Sounds, which was the big music broadsheet of the day. People like Geoff Barton and John Peel wrote for them. They said we were the next Led Zeppelin, and that we had more great riffs than Black Sabbath—which was a lot to live up to. But to us, it did mean that someone who knows what they’re talking about thinks we’re really good. To put their necks on the line and say, “This band has got something special” was a big deal.
Being 20 years old and having one of the UK’s most influential music papers call your band the next Led Zeppelin must’ve been a huge ego boost. Did it go to anyone’s head?
If anybody, it would’ve been Sean. The rest of us were very level-headed, very down to earth. If anyone had a little bit of an ego, it would’ve been Sean. I think he probably thought he was the next Robert Plant. I didn’t really go to my head because I didn’t really believe it. I thought it was flattering, but I’d take it with a pinch of salt. I thought, “Well, we’ve got to prove it first.” Led Zeppelin were untouchable gods in my world, so to get anywhere near that would’ve been a hell of a tough ride.
They said we were the next Led Zeppelin, and that we had more great riffs than Black Sabbath.
Did Metallica’s cover of “Helpless” on the Garage Days Re-Revisited EP in ’87 have more of an impact for you guys than their “Am I Evil?” cover three years prior?
Yeah, probably, because that sold a million copies. Our debts started getting paid. The more Metallica covered us and the bigger they got, the more things started going into the black for us. But we probably didn’t capitalize on Metallica’s raving about Diamond Head as much as we should have. We obviously should’ve gone over to the US much, much sooner. The first time we set foot in the US was in 2002, which was way too late.
From what I can gather, the main problem was that Sean’s mother was involved with the management of the band.
Yes. It was a big problem. And he wouldn’t change his position, no matter what you did or said. So, we’d just go ’round in circles, and eventually it fell apart.
When you re-recorded Lighting to the Nations with current Diamond Head singer Rasmus Bom Andersen for the album’s 40th anniversary, you included a cover of Metallica’s “No Remorse” as a bonus track. When you were learning the song, could you hear yourself in it?
Yeah, pretty much. There were always some parts of Kill ’Em All where I thought, “That’s a bit ‘Sucking My Love’ or, That’s a bit ‘Dead Reckoning.’” And why not? They’re influenced by Diamond Head, so they’re gonna pinch little bits. Just as I’m influenced by Black Sabbath and AC/DC. You can’t help but have the odd little thing in there. When we started rehearsing “No Remorse,” it sounded good right away. It sounded right at home amongst songs like “Helpless” or “Am I Evil?”