By Alun Thomas
The circumstances surrounding this interview are something I'm not particularly proud of. As a long time fan of Raven and their classic brand of heavy metal I've had few negative things to say about the band, but a review I wrote for the bands last studio album, 1999's 'One For All' was scathing to say the least, but intended more for comedy than realistic opinion. The review, which was written for Kicked In The Face, fell into the hands of Raven vocalist and bassist John Gallagher, who sent an e-mail to the editor of the website claiming to be both amused offended at once, the latter the more predominant of his thoughts.
I quickly made amends with John, as having a metal great such as himself thinking I was a severe critic of the band something I would have trouble living with. John read other pieces I had done on the band and seeing I was a fan agreed to to be interviewed, a satisfactory conclusion to an unfortunate incident! Raven of course need little introduction, Newcastle's finest metal export led by the original Gallagher brothers John and Mark, who for over quarter of a century have created a distinctive brand of metal, energetic and always heavy, truly befitting the 'athletic rock' title they branded on themselves in the early 80's. Through albums like 'Rock Until You Drop', 'Wiped Out', 'All For One' and 'Nothing Exceeds Like Excess' the band have carved out a niche for themselves that has earned them the status of metal legends. With a wealth of history, memory and experiences behind his back John Gallagher talks with The Zephyr and enthusiastically fill in the gaps on Ravens career and updates the bands future.
Growing up in Newcastle in the 70's appeared to be a grim proposition for an outsider like myself, weaned on images of urban decay, bleak surroundings and rising unemployment, not to mention a mediocre football team. John and his brother developed a taste for music at a young age, which offset such harmful prospects. 'In the 70's heavy music was totally underground' begins John, 'we were introduced to music from 'Top Of The Pops' or the top twenty show on Radio One.' The heavier side of rock wasn't too long forthcoming however. 'Bands like Status Quo, Sweet Slade, Free, Purple, Sabbath, Queen, Zeppelin, Budgie and Heep all played the city hall in Newcastle so we would learn from the best! he explains, making clear their reasoning for pusuing heavy metal.
John could see early on that music was a way out, and viewing these bands made the passion and drive greater. 'Yeah music was one of the only ways out, but we were not smart enough to figure that out. We just wanted to play like our idols. We'd rehearse in a church hall for a few hours, then ritually throw our gear around and trash guitars, no audience, just us going apeshit! But Newcastle United's dubious performances did not affect us too much!' During the course of the 70's the band gradually developed their fast paced style although not initially as a power trio. 'We were a four piece from 1975 to 1980 until we went to a three piece. It was a revalation as we all had more responsibility. There are no passengers in a power trio, but so much more room!' As for the birth of the bands frenetic form of metal? 'The fast stuff we loved the best' says John, 'Highway Star, Breadfan....It was a gradual thing but we liked the high tempos and a lot of chord changes. I always point to the photo of Mark on the 'Don't Need Your Money' "7" single. That explains Mark's style totally. It's fuckin' nuts!'
Raven signed to Neat Records and with drummer Rob 'Wacko' Hunter released their groundbreaking debut 'Rock Until You Drop' in 1981. One of the greatest debuts ever heard in metal, it established Raven as leaders of the NWOBHM, but despite containing a heavier and rawer sound than Iron Maiden or Saxon, it appeared Raven didn't receive equal recognition. How did this sit with John? ' The media likes it either real safe or real weird' John tries to rationalise. 'I like Saxon.....Maiden also, but there were few real monster riffs, they wore their influences on their sleeves, like Wishbone Ash on steroids! I can't comment on whether we were more inventive, but the great thing was all those NWOBHM bands had their own sounds, and you can't say that about a lot of bands today.'
The raw nature of the first two albums almost suggested live in the studio affairs, leading me to ask John if the songs had been part of the bands live set prior to being recorded? 'Yeah, basically we went in and did our set for the first album. We were growing though with the way we played and our writing, listen to to something like 'Over The Top' and 'For The Future' which were only a few months apart. The second album (' Wiped Out') was written quickly and recorded in a whirlwind one week session. A few were written in the studio on the spot, 'To The Limit' being one. This also includes the songs on the 'Crash, Bang, Wallop'. The energy was jusy insane!!'
Big things were expected of Raven after this pair of gems and third album, 1983's 'All For One' was expected to push them into the major leagues. Did John also think this would be Raven's big commercial jump? 'No' he states ' it was just a natural progression- although it sold well. The criticism of 'too fast, blah, blah, blah' had an impact so we figured we'd explore some medium tempos, as songs like 'Hold Back The Fire' and 'Hard Ride always worked great live and helped set up the faster stuff'. The production values were noticably improved as John confirms. 'We knew we did not want to record at Impulse Studios again, after the experience of recording in a 'real' studio in London for the Radio One session we did. We also wanted a producer, enter Michael Waegner and Udo Dirkschneider! '
'We did pre-production, recorded in London and it was so much fun! We knew we had a great album and the UK press trashed it as well! But with this album we were able to tour the US which was a revelation'. How exactly did Udo come to be involved with the production of 'All For One'? 'Udo was on the outs with Accept and was doing work with Michael Waegner so they came as a package deal, but we loved the sounds on 'Breaker' and 'Restless And Wild' so we said let's do it Udo speaks great English now days...not so then! One night he was mortally drunk in the studio singing 'In Trance' by The Scorpions, 'I vake up in the zee morning and zee sun begins to shine.' Hiliarious!' recalls John with candour. 'They helped us focus our sound' he continues ' we played for power and impact and the combination of those songs and that big sound was great.'
The second stage of Raven's career began in 1984 when they were signed by Atlantic, securing the all important major label deal. This inevitably led to Raven making concessions with their sound, with 1984's 'Stay Hard' toning down the heaviness of the earlier years. Was this done to satisfy the label or did you have the urge to continue in your usual manner? ' It's weird, it all developed from wanting to get off the Neat deal. We were working on an album and the idea was to do an album to give them to get out of our deal. That's when Atlantic became interested so we 'upgraded' the album (' Stay Hard') and started to listen to 'suggestions'. Although the songs are good and its a decent album, it's the 'Pack Is Back' album that took the cake:
A) Rob played to a click track by himself, then we did our parts, which killed the Raven feel on all but a couple of tracks
B) The idea was a high tech metal album, but it got poppier as it went on....
C) Instead of crazed American football players we looked like mutant hairdressers on the cover!
But live we still killed, it was just bigger and crazier.'
Were there any songs that you were hesitant to record during 'The Pack Is Back' sessions? 'Luckily there were one or two that were CHEESIER that thankfully got canned before being finished' John says relieved. 'Still I feel there's a few decent songs on that album that have some great parts, and some stinkers too! Initially a few were extremely heavy, 'Nightmare Ride' for one, but they got 'produced' a little, not Eddie Kramer's fault. I think he was looking forward to doing a rough and ready live feel album, but we ended up in technology city, nine million vocal tracks and redoing everything until it was perfect, and 'perfect' can really suck you know?'
The band kept in good spirits however, managing to keep themselves entertained on the road with various antics, something the band happily indulged in right? 'We usually surprised everyone ,and still do, as we keep the craziness onstage' John confesses. 'Back in the early days Rob and Mark would tear it up after a few bers too many. I actually remember a gig in 1983 on the Raven/Metallica tour when they started beating the shit out of each other before the encore! This was due to the lack of sleep, three days without a motel, seventeen people in a six berth mobile home....agghhh!!!! Drummers are the worst- Joe is a prime example, the things he's got up....blasted on ozou...climbing through Greek ruins pursued by the cops...running through Utica, New York half naked after being caught in the act by the girl's husband....'
I ask John about that Metallica tour, of which Raven were headliners and how that influenced both bands. 'It was nuts! Seventeen people in a six person mobile home touring the USA bringing metal to the masses! We got on well with them, you tour with a band like that and there's always a bond, like being in a war or something! We've only met them a few times since then, but that tour was special.' Raven also toured with W.A.S.P. and Slayer in 1987, which might have seemed a daunting prospect, especially with Slayer trying to annihilate W.A.S.P. onstage. 'The tour with Slayer and 'W.A.S.P. was different' John recalls. 'We'd go on first before Slayer and their fans are notorious for hating everyone.'
'They would throw shit at us, even nine volt batteries. We's start with the song 'Overload' which has a short break before the solo and we'd stop dead, throw down our guitars and climb over the barrier and get into the audience. I'd scream 'You wanna fuckin' fight???' They'd always back down and the throwing would stop! Jeff (Hanneman) and Kerry (King, Slayer guitarists) came up to us and asked 'How do you guys get the girls? Can you show us?' So we were nice guys and showed them the ropes.'
The bands fortunes were slipping commercially despite their US experiences, while other British acts like Maiden and Def Leppard flourished. Raven it seemed were heading down the same path as Saxon, not managing to break the US. Did this stalemate frustrate John and the rest of the band, knowing full well they had the goods to make the grade? ' I don't know' is John's straight answer. We were happy ,and still are, to be able to do what we love. It's easy to play the 'what if' and the 'they suck, we're so much better' game, but where does that get you? God bless 'em (Maiden and Leppard), they did great, worked their asses off and deserve all they got!'
Wisely the band returned to their hard hitting roots following 'The Pack Is Back', with a return to the form of old on 1986's 'M.A.D.' ep and 1987's Atlantic swansong 'Life's A Bitch'. Did this return to your original beliefs confuse Atlantic? 'They were totally nonplussed' says John of the label. 'They did not understand it at all and basically did not help us from that point on. The kicker was a show in New York we put on specifically for the record company. They came two hours early and left before we played!! That was when we wanted out.'
Raven regrouped and in 1988 signed with thrash label Combat complete with new drummer Joe Hasselvander of Pentagram. If anyone doubted the band could ever return fully to their old form then they were silenced by the pummeling 'Nothing Exceeds Like Excess', one of the bands heaviest albums to that point, keeping in line almost with the thrash label to which they had signed. Was this a case of the band returningto their roots or trying to fit into the label's direction? 'Well we were definitely wanting to prove ourselves after the fallout with Atlantic' John summarises. ' With Rob leaving the band and Joe joining it certainly was a return to our roots and us moving forward. Mark and I wrote most of the stuff before Joe joined and we knew it was gonna kill'.
'Mark and I were just jamming' John continues, remembering the sessions for 'Nothing Exceeds', and he started to play 'Die For Allah. He played the ENTIRE thing off the top off his head in one go! Joe added another dimension to the songs and we were off and running....to a studio in upstate New York- Utica. Yes, where Joe would be running around naked. We had zero budget, but it came out well!'
Raven took this momentum into the nineties with the excellent 'Architect Of Fear' in 1990 while continuing to tour, but at one point early in the decade John teamed up with Paul Dianno's Killer's to briefly add bass. What was the situation behind this and what was Dianno like to work with I ask John? ''A good friend of mine was managing Paul and needed a bass player as he was doing showcases in New York to get a deal. Raven had just come off tour with the 'Architect' album and the money was good so I said 'why not'? I get to play all the cool Maiden songs, harmonically correct, along with the guy (Dianno) who stole my money out of my pocket backstage in the London Marquee back in 1980. The funny thing was he was trying to get a deal with no new material!'
'We got a mobile truck outside the rehearsal hall and recorded a 'live' album. I believe it's called 'South American Assault'. More like 'West 27th Street NYC Assault'! It was fun for two weeks playing with Paul, Steve Hopgood and Cliff Davies but I was strictly a short term hired gun, totally different to playing in Raven! John's main priority remained Raven and an ep was released in 1992, 'Heads Up' as the metal scene began to take a nosedive. Raven fought their way through the decade with albums such as 1994's 'Glow' and 1997's 'Everything Louder', proving their worth. Just how tough were the nineties, especially with your homeland seeming to be unloyal. 'Yeah we actually only played the UK once in the 90's' John reveals disturbingly 'a fun gig back in our old pub in Newcastle at the end of our 1997 European tour!'
What countries remained loyal to the band then in this trying period? 'The nineties were hard for most metal bands, we were doing okay in Germany as we had German management, but by 1993 things got tough there. We hit it off with a Japanese label and got to tour there and do a live CD, then it was back to Europe!' Raven's last album to date was 1999's 'One For All' which was recorded in Nashville with Michael Waegner and in 2000 the band toured the US with U.D.O. Tragedy struck the following year when Mark Gallagher was severly injured in a building accident, which saw him taken by helicopter to hospital after a building fell on his legs. Thankfully Mark has recovered after 'a zillion operations' and according to John 'lucky to be alive'. Mark is back on stage however. 'Unfortunately he'll never be able to act like a crack crazed ferret like he used to ' John says 'BUT he's still crazier than most, at the last gig (in Cleveland in May) he was stalking the stage beating the shit out of guitars and having a grand old time!'
A new studio album is also in the works. I ask John how much progress is being made and if they have any titles yet. 'Many titles' he assures', many sounds, currently going over them and fighting over what parts to change/cut out/replace in order to make each song as good as it can be. Some of the titles include, 'Bulldozer', 'Breaking You Down', 'Against The Grain' and Long Days Journey'.
As is the norm I ask John his opinion on the current metal scene and whether or not he enjoys it. His answer is conclusive: 'Ugggghhhh...too much cookie monster screaming, not enough good riffs, AND THEY ALL SOUND THE SAME! There are a few bands with some decent stuff like Shadows Fall, but I get more excited about a band like Muse, whocan play their asses off, write SONGS with riffs. actually SING and enjoy smashing their gear up. My kind of band! We joke that when we buy CD's it's usually nothing newer than twenty years old! Still it's nice to be surprised and I try not to be a cynical old fart.'
Singling out a definitive Raven album is difficult, but I question John to what he feels is Raven's heaviest album. 'That's tough, our heaviest albums are probably 'All For One' or 'Architect Of Fear' he answers surprisingly but knowingly, after all he was there! 'The trouble is we are all over the place stylistically, a product of our miilions of influences! So you get some rock and roll, some humour, some Sabbath grind, usually in the same song!' I've always sensed a keen sense of humour and irreverance in much of Raven's work, a view John backs up, especially that of the 'Pack Is Back' costumes! 'Thankfully the costumes were ceremonially burned in 1987!' he declares. 'It's just our personalities' he explains of the wild Geordie image. 'I have many outtake tapes from sessions that are just so funny and it spills over into music from time to time. We keep threatening to play 'the Ballad Of Marshall Stack' live and may actually do it.'
Of the thousands of shows the band has performed over the years are there any that have special meaning or stand out for you? 'There's a few, the first time we played the Mayfair club in Newcastle was a big deal, the Hammersmith Odeon with Ozzy, the first Aarrdshock festival in Holland in 1983, playing with Priest in the States....The foundations Forum gig in 1994 after a killer intro by a big fan of ours, Dee Snider and getting to play Japan was amazing. To me every gig is the 'big gig' and thats the way we treat it. Honorable mention to that little gig back in Newcastle where we we met childhood friends we had not seen in twenty years.'
Raven I feel have never gained the respect they deserve for being one of metals greatest pioneers, especially in the direction thrash took in the mid eighties, something Raven helped invent more than many bands, with a style of speed that hadn't been heard when they debuted it in 1980. Does John feel the band is as underrated as I do? 'Could be paranoia, but we've often joked that there'a conspiracy to never mention Raven! I know for a fact we have influenced many bands and rarely will anything come up. (Dimebag) Darrell and Vinnie (Paul, both ex Pantera, Damageplan) saw us and Metallica in 1983 and it 'changed their lives'. Kreator were very vocal about us and I love them for it, but it's few and far between. In the late eighties, early nineties there was a clique of metal writers in NYC that appeared to hate us and cut us down at every opportunity. They all work now for for metal labels, no wonder it's so hard to get a deal these days! So we are the invisible godfathers of thrash!'
One last question for John. What exactly is the rambling gibberish you're saying in 'Crash,Bang Wallop'? with your amazingly distinctive voice which is actually higher than Gillan in his prime? 'It's all me, the rant in the middle with the Monty Python womans voice is me. One take. I used to have a tape of that rant, it mentions sucking the brains out of dead turnips!? Boy I have problems...'
Thanks for partaking in the interview John and all the great music and memories over the years. I'm sure I speak for many when I say I appreciate it! 'Thank you! That's a cool statement and so at odds with that shitty review! And it's our thirty first year- we formed in 1974, played our first gig in December 1975!! Jeez!!'