Am I Evil. Still famous for being a heavy metal cult classic after Diamond Head first released it in 1980. And probably more famous still for appearing on various Metallica records over the years, as well as being an on / off staple of their live set.
Heavy metal bands cover each other’s songs all the time, right? Well sure, but the connection between these 2 bands is actually quite a bit deeper than you might think and goes right back to when both were first starting out.
Warning: apparently involves yellow flares! Let’s get right into the story.
In spite of their relative lack of commercial success, especially compared to peers like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, even Saxon, most fans still think of Diamond Head as being one of the ground-breaking bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM).
And obviously this is perfectly true. Most of the original members of Diamond Head got together when they were still at school in the mid-1970s. Didn’t care for punk that much, decided to make their way into heavy metal instead, and managed to record a couple of demos with money they scraped together themselves.
Metal For Muthas
They travelled all over the country to do small gigs but managed to do enough to garner a bit of attention – even enough to land a gig supporting Iron Maiden at the Lyceum Theatre in London. I mean let’s not get ahead of ourselves – this was Iron Maiden a few weeks before they’d even released their first album, when they were still getting the benefits from their own red-hot demo, The Soundhouse Tapes – in this case on the Metal For Muthas tour.
But hey, Maiden had been signed by a big label, EMI, everyone knew the album was about to hit, and the buzz of anticipation was just out of this world – like a champagne bottle with the cork most of the way out and you can almost see the pop about to happen.
Diamond Head wanted a piece of that action – and the reason they didn’t get it was in large part what led to their hookup with Metallica, thereby carving out a small slice of immortality which has survived without any care for sales figures.
Lars Ulrich – Teen Dropout
At about the same time that all this was unfolding in the UK, a rich kid named Lars Ulrich was bumming around in California, trying to figure out what to do with his life. Not interested in the tennis career favored by his father, all he really knew was that it needed to involve music – and heavy metal at that. Proper music – not your REO Speedwagon and Styx diet that was available on the west coast at the time.
Ulrich, with his European background, had heard plenty of whisperings of the NWOBHM scene that was unfolding across the Atlantic, and had enough disposable income to get ahead of the game via imported copies of UK albums that he ordered by mail – including that debut Iron Maiden album. He traded tapes by mail as well, and even got hold of a bootlegged copy of the Soundhouse Tapes that way.
With that, he quickly fell into the (relatively small at the time) community in LA who liked the same stuff. (That exclusive group, incidentally, included Brian Slagel who would help get Metallica’s career off the ground).
Best Record Collection
Ulrich was growing a collection that was already quite something for a 16- or 17-year-old kid and was the envy of all his heavy metal buddies for that reason. And, he was drawn to Diamond Head almost immediately, even more than Maiden. Maybe this was because of the way they were still a little old school, not afraid to borrow influences and guitar riff ideas from rock gods like Deep Purple – the band who were Ulrich’s original gateway drug.
Now, in those days, you had to be patient in building up a collection. Sure, Ulrich liked Diamond Head, but all he really had to go was a tape of their first single, ‘Shoot out the Lights,’ that they’d released on their own independent label in 1980.
But word was that an album was on the way.
Yes indeed, Diamond Head now had an album in the works. But not an Iron Maiden / Def Leppard type album, backed by serious management and record company clout. No, for reasons that can only excite wonderment, Diamond Head decided to entrust the management to Linda Harris, their lead singer Sean Harris’s mom (and her boyfriend, one Reg Fellowes).
Linda and Reg did manage to get into negotiations with a couple of record labels, but eventually decided that none of the forthcoming offers were good enough for their boys. As a result, they would put out the first album, ‘Lightning to the Nations’ on the same independent label that had handled ‘Shoot out the lights’ – yep, that’s the same one that Lars Ulrich now had a bootlegged tape of in his bedroom thousands of miles away.
Lacking proper financial backing, only 1000 copies could be produced, and an ad was placed in a national music magazine, Sounds, for 6 weeks. The bill for that particular piece of publicity went unpaid.
…But Very Slowly
As well as getting hold of tapes by mail order, Lars Ulrich sometimes received magazines, including, as luck would have it, Sounds. And what was this? An ad for the new Diamond Head album. Ulrich sent off the money without thinking twice.
Happy times. These days, you order something with Amazon and it shows up the next day. But back then, the wait was weeks. Send an order form by snail mail with the money. Wait for them to process it, dispatch it. You were looking at weeks – especially for an international customer like Lars.
Mom and Manager Correspond
To pass the time, he decided to start writing letters to the band’s mom / manager Linda, who was happy to enter into some correspondence with a certified fan – anything to drum up business. She wrote back to him and sent a few bits of ‘merchandise’ – embroidered patches and the like.
And then, the album arrived. We’re talking bargain basement here – white label only, no cover art or track listings. BUT, each of the four band members had autographed 250 copies, and Ulrich hit the jackpot with a Sean Harris – signed copy.
And that was when pre-Metallica first came into contact with those classic Diamond Head numbers. ‘Am I Evil’ has stood the test of time best, but Lars Ulrich loved them all. The album only had 7 tracks in total, and 5 of those have ended up in Metallica live sets and / or on their records as covers. ‘It’s Electric’ was an early favorite of his.
And the Metallica version for good measure. (This was about the same time that Ulrich started to mess about playing the drums himself, so you might say that this album really lit the fire under what would become Metallica.)
But he wasn’t ready to settle into the usual pattern of practice and hard work just yet. Lars Ulrich liked to think differently and think big. In his letters to Linda Harris, he’d asked if he might come over to the UK and meet the band sometime. She’d said, ‘Yeah, sure’, and thought no more about it. But to Ulrich himself, seeing his now favorite NWOBHM band up close was now his life’s mission. He got on a plane to London.
Hells Angels on the Door
Diamond Head, on the other hand, were doing things the conventional way, with a UK tour to back up the new album. In spite of having little financial backing, they decided to push the boat out, and make it look as if they were a big and successful band, whether or not that was the case. They hired a tour bus AND a truck for the gear. A Hells Angels chapter provided security. (Mind you, it was the Wolverhampton chapter, so fair play to Diamond Head for overlooking local rivalries there, hailing from Stourbridge themselves, a little over 10 miles away. The Hawk has blogged before about West Midlands rivalries, so it probably needed a bit of soul searching before they agreed.)
Feet Under The Table
And sure enough, after one of the dates on the tour, at the Woolwich Odeon in London, Lars Ulrich wandered over to introduce himself as their letter-writing American fan. The band were delighted to have an international following (albeit of 1), and as Ulrich was just off the plane with nowhere to stay, they invited him to bunk up with them.
It turned into a memorable summer for everyone. Ulrich hung out with the band and went to more of their gigs in that tour. Between shows he’d sleep on the floor of guitarist Brian Tatler’s bedroom, and go drinking with them all in pubs.
Those Yellow Flares…
The Hawk ain’t the type of bird to mention yellow flares in the intro, only to forget about them later on.No!
After a downpour on the way home from one of them, a downpour left everyone soaked, and Ulrich, who’d turned up in the UK with no spare clothes as well as nowhere to sleep had to borrow a pair of Tatler’s brother’s yellow flares. Unfortunately, no photographic evidence exists of this part of the story, but Tatler assures us all that it’s true.
Then, one time, he took a train to the city to add to his record collection and came back with 40 vinyls.
And it was somewhat of an apprenticeship – kinda like when a kid hands around an office doing nothing but watering the plants and fetching coffees. No real work – just the chance to drink everything in. And that’s how it was here. Ulrich would watch the band rehearse, see how they’d put together songs, recording ideas in a little 4-track.
He rounded off the trip (so the story sometimes goes) in style, by dropping into a studio where Motorhead were in the process of recording ‘Overkill’. Lemmy can’t remember meeting him but doesn’t rule it out either.
And Lars certainly did return to the US by way of his home city, Copenhagen, where he saw Iron Maiden play a gig in a tiny club and met Steve Harris for the first time afterwards.
Back to the Point
Then it was back to California, where all these learnings were soon being poured into Metallica. And what about ‘Am I Evil’, the supposed topic of this song blog? Well, you can see how it’s stayed a fan favorite for all this time, regardless of whether you prefer Metallica’s version or the original.
On Metallica’s side, it was one of the first Diamond Head covers they recorded, a B-side on the single ‘Creeping Death’ in 1984 and inclusion on the Japanese release of ‘Kill Em All’ in 1988. It even once got an airing at a show of the Big 4 no less – members of Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax, the original big 4 of thrash.
For Metallica, songs like the ones you’ve heard here were mainstays of their early shows and helped them to establish their reputation as one of the best live bands on the west coast. (The band were sometimes a little coy on stage – they wouldn’t claim the Diamond Head numbers as their own, but sometimes said nothing, leaving the crowd to draw their won conclusions.)
‘Am I Evil’ is quite a composition for the time. The opening riff is a heavy metal take on the classical piece, ‘Mars’ from ‘The Planet Suite’ by Gustav Holst. It’s unmistakable.
Burn The Witch!!
Then we have the guitar motif in the intro, a style which is much used in later heavy metal, same with the riffs and vocals. The lyrics tell a story about a guy whose mom is burned at the stake as a witch and goes crazy on a revenge mission – classic heavy metal fair indeed.
So yeah, Diamond Head may have missed the boat in terms of heavy metal fame and fortune. The mom / manager thing never really worked, and by the time they eventually signed for a bigger label, they lacked the clout of people like Iron Maiden to insist on playing their own way. They were forced down a commercial path, which held little future. And their international exposure was limited – amazingly, they never even set foot in the US as a band until 2002.
But they still have that piece of immortality, that bond with the guy who’s become one of the biggest names in the business. What are the chances?
So, which do you want to hear on the playout? The Hawk always aims to please, so here’s a choice.
First – the original sound, as heard by fans in 1979.
Second – the remastered Diamond Head version – as though Diamond Head were a modern band, and the 70s never existed!!
Third and finally – the ‘Metallica Version,’ which younger Classic Heavy Metal fans may assume was their composition, especially since you’re far more likely to hear it these days at a Metallica gig than a Diamond Head one – it’s just the numbers.
Old or new – which one does it for you?
And where do Diamond Head fit in the Classic Heavy Metal hierarchy? Trailblazers or also rans?
Tell us your views in the comments.