High Roller Records, double black vinyl, ltd 250, 5c gatefold cover with gold ink, 8 page booklet.
“Inside the power cage
I can feel the music of my age
It’s paranoid … first degree
Tellin’ me that I’m not free
I’ve got heavy metal music in my blood
And I’d like to give it to you if I could.”
Those words are immortal. When I listened to “Heavy Metal Mania” the first time in 1980, I instinctively knew that my life would never be the same again. What a great number. At the time, it summed up my feelings as an angst-ridden teenager perfectly. I had been bitten by the bug. The Heavy Metal bug, that is. The song “Heavy Metal Mania” should be up there with “Highway to Hell”, “Breaking the Law” or “Strong Arm of the Law” – an absolute genre classic! Holocaust followed this debut EP with another 12″ entitled “Smokin’ Valves” the same year. In 1981, the first album “The Nightcomers” was released. Three records within 12 months, all on the small Phoenix Records label, a pretty busy schedule …
However, the history of the band goes way back to 1977 in fact – the year Punk broke in the UK! Guitarist and mainman John Mortimer knows all the details: “We formed as In Our Minds in 1977, certainly. Four of us (myself, Robin, Gary and Nick Brockie) were together at the same high school. It became clear when we were 13 years old that music was something so important to us that we simply could not NOT form a band! Ed had been at the same primary school with us and we had kept in touch with him … well, Gary especially. So the thought-form of a band was created in 1977 and we gave that thought-form life. I mean, loads of kids would say things like ‘we’re getting a band together’ … but we formed the band as an actual present reality without a single guitar string, mic or drumstick and we really meant it.
The first actual sounds made together – (beyond air-guitar “BVRRHOOM”-ing!) would be October/November of 1978. I especially remember January until March 1979, when ‘Heavy Metal Mania’ and ‘The Nightcomers’ were written; I always remember there was a lot of snow, a lot of sunshine – and just a magical energy in the air.” The band toyed around with different names (Buzzard, Apollo and Preying Mantis) before settling for Holocaust, as Mr. Mortimer explains: “Yeah, I think we went with Buzzard when everyone was into Lynyrd Skynyrd big time and then Apollo when Rush were uppermost in our minds and then Preying Mantis we settled on. Everyone was very happy with the name Preying Mantis and then one day the announcement of the first single release by an English band of that name was made in the ‘Sounds’ music paper. It’s strange, you know, but I recall that whilst we were devastated on one level we also had a real sense of excitement that another bunch of young guys had done the same thing as us … got into writing in the – what was then new – metal style and chosen the name Preying Mantis and actually managed to release a single. It was inspiring.
I don’t recall ever playing a proper gig under the name Preying Mantis, although Pheonix may have been a bit hyperbolic in press releases and turned events like us inviting friends round to hear us playing in church halls into ‘gigs’, if you know what I mean.” Hmm, then maybe it is time to clear up another myth. It was written that the band supported Samson and Vardis in Scotland even before “Heavy Metal Mania” was actually in the shops. Again, John Mortimer seems quite baffled: “I don’t recall supporting Vardis or Samson, other than turning up at their gigs and putting my fist in the air!I think that was more creative hyperbole from Phoenix press releases.” Phoenix Records and Filmworks, to cite the full name of the label, surely seems to have been a very imaginative company. How did the deal come about? “Gary got a job at the Phoenix record store in Edinburgh in 1979 and John Mayer, who was owner of the Phoenix label as well as the store, was there most days. Gary told him all about Holocaust and Mr. Mayer promptly came to see us rehearse in a church hall, accompanied by Robert Bell (his pal and member of the band Blue Nile). After half an hour or so John was impressed enough to say he wanted to release “Heavy Metal Mania” as a 12″ single, (Robert Bell would be producer), and if all went well with that – an album. That was a truly exciting evening!” So Phoenix Records was a one-mal label then? Did they have any other bands sigened to them apart from Holocaust? “They did, but we were the only Metal band. They had folk-rock, reggae, all kinds of stuff. It was indeed a one-man label and that man was John Mayer.” So that man, John Mayer, must have done quite a good job all on his own, as the early Holocaust records were widely available throughout the UK (in chains such as HMV or Virgin as well as in independent record stores) and all over Western Europe (especially in Germany, France and Belgium). So Phoenix must have had good distribution contacts? “I can’t remember much about that”, reflects John Mortimer, “except John Mayer complaining about distributors and saying that ‘everyone else complains about distributors also, because they just don’t care!’ I wasn’t interested in all that boring business stuff and happily ignored it.” So the records were in the shops, you had some good reviews (apart from Sounds) and I guess what was lacking was a national UK tour supporting a big gun like Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Judas Priest or Saxon. That might have made the difference … “Yeah, I don’t think there is any doubt about that. John Mayer tried his very best for us on those fronts but the situation was extremely competitive and we were disadvantaged by being geographically remote from London in those pre-internet days. Things always work out the way they do for reasons we can’t see at any given moment however … I have to say I had a gut feeling Holocaust would not grow in accordance with the traditional paradigm of club tours/support tours/bigger club tours, and so on.”
As mentioned earlier, the first-ever Holocaust release was the “Heavy Metal Mania” EP, which for me still is one of Metal’s most outstanding releases. A true milestone of the genre. A piece of history. How many songs did the band have to choose from for this single/EP back then? John Mortimer: “We had the entire portfolio that became “The Nightcomers” album plus maybe four or five other songs.” I also do love the cover: a perfect Metal cover! Whose idea was it and who executed the drawing? “The idea was John Mayer’s – he put it to us, we liked it and then it seemed like he just pulled the artwork out of thin air.” It seemed a bit strange though that the Holocaust logo incorporated no less than three umlauts. Surely a nod to Lemmy and the boys, wasn’t it? “Well … it was more like an affected emulation of Motörhead, to be honest! We just liked it because it looked like Motörhead and we loved Motörhead.” “Heavy Metal Mania” was quickly followed by another single called “Smokin’ Valves”. How did John Mortimer judge this single in relation to “Heavy Metal Mania”? “In terms of style, the two songs, ‘Heavy Metal Mania’ and ‘Smokin’ Valves’ are like icons of the two divergent trends within the band. ‘Smokin’ Valves’ is more backward looking in style. It was inspired by Ted Nugent, who was a really happening artist for us at high school. There’s no question that I did find Rock bands like Aerosmith or Van Halen exciting in those days and so some of that came through in the songs, but in my heart of hearts I really wanted to develop the heavier and more abstract Metal concepts.”
In 1981, the big moment had arrived: Phoenix Records released the first Holocaust longplayer dubbed “The Nightcomers”. The sound of the album was a bit flat for my liking. Although the songs were really strong … John Mortimer agrees: “Yes, the reason is interesting, I think. There was a sincere attempt by Phoenix to invest more into the album. We were supplied with hired gear that was top quality for those days. For example, I used a genuine Les Paul rather than the Columbus copy with a Dimarzio humbucker that I used for the ” Heavy Metal Mania” 12″ single and we used proper amps rather than the converted wartime valve radio thing that Ed had customized. We didn’t have the time to get comfortable with the gear and make it our own … instead we submitted ourselves to the production process as it was traditionally understood in those days. The result was a certain loss of the unique authentic rawness of the early band.” Nevertheless, the album was once again widely available. It was released in Belgium with a slightly different cover (through Lark) and also in France (via A/Z). Again, Phoenix must have done a good job … John Mortimer knows why: “Yes, John Mayer was an enthusiastic proponent of the Midem trade fair.” Then, in early 1982, came the shock: John Mortimer parted ways with Holocaust. Why? “There were two distinct stylistic trends within the band – one toward the heavier, experimental and more abstract Metal as favoured by myself and Nicky Arkless and one toward the more American Heavy Rock style as favoured by Gary and Robin. Ed had his own ideas but was definitely concerned that the band should be established and popular so that an opportunity to do it full-time would emerge. He understandably saw the American Rock direction (which was truly massive in popularity at the time) as the way to achieve that. Phoenix were not at all sure how to market the band … you can see that by comparing the original “Heavy Metal Mania” cover to the “Smokin’ Valves” cover … and so a meeting was called to sort it all out. Gary, Robin and Ed knew me too well to think that I would go along with the rock-popularity thing and so really it boiled down to them asking me to leave. It must have been very uncomfortable for them at that time. I felt instinctively that the new Metal styles would become big once they caught on in America, but only Nicky Arkless agreed with me. So I left on amicable terms.”
Nevertheless, even minus their original guitarist the following “Coming through” 12″ was a decent enough vinyl. John Mortimer thinks so too: “I agree, it was a decent release.”
Between 1980 and mid-1982 Holocaust released a wealth of vinyl. Did the band have any left-over songs from this period in time? “There was ‘Bridge of Impressions’, that features on the “Raw Loud ‘n’ Live” video. That was the beginning of my being seriously experimental … and the beginning of the end for me in the original band. Writing a Metal song about John Constable (a nineteenth century English landscape painter who was, I perceive, an artistic radical but has been retrospectively idolized as an icon of conservative tradition) was just too strange for the rest of the band, apart from Nicky Arkless, to accept. Think about it nowadays … let’s say Opeth did a song with that theme … no-one would think that strange for one moment.” The mentioned “Raw Loud ‘n’ Live” video included a number called “The small Hours”, which somehow reached the ears of a certain Lars Ulrich. But we will save this story for another time …
(High Roller Records)