4 of the Best British Heavy Metal Bands from the 1980s

In the late 1970s, British rock bands reacted against punk rock and new wave music. They dressed in robes, wrote fantastical lyrics, and dropped the blues from their heavy guitar riffs.

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Still, some of Britain’s heavy metal bands, in the following decade, learned from punk rock’s minimalism while also borrowing simplified riffs from AC/DC. Even when heavy metal attempted to be scary, the spookiness was accompanied by catchy riffs and even catchier choruses.

Behold, four of the finest British heavy metal bands from the Thatcher era.

Diamond Head

Diamond Head may not be known to casual heavy metal fans, but they were part of the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) and influenced the early sounds of Metallica and Megadeth. Metallica covered Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil,” originally released as a B-side to “Creeping Death” in 1984. After toiling for years, Diamond Head’s second album Borrowed Time reached No. 24 on the UK Albums chart.

Take her down now
Don’t want to see her face
Blistered and burnt
Can’t hide my disgrace

Def Leppard

This entry may anger some, but Def Leppard also emerged from the new wave of British heavy metal before Robert John “Mutt” Lange added his slick production. Steve Clark’s riffs on High ‘n’ Dry are as heavy as Judas Priest’s and Joe Elliott could scream as well as any metal Brit with a mic. Judas Priest adopted a commercial sound on British Steel and Def Leppard took it even further on the towering Pyromania.

They added a shredder in Phil Collen and wrote many anthems: “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages,” and “Foolin’.” Then the drummer lost an arm and kept going. That’s metal as you know what. Hysteria softened the metallic edges and topped charts in several countries.

Rise up, gather round
Rock this place to the ground
Burn it up, let’s go for broke
Watch the night go up in smoke

Judas Priest

By the end of the 1970s, Judas Priest survived multiple lineup changes and the popularity of punk rock. On their fifth album Killing Machine (1978), the band traded Gothic robes for leather, and the music reflected punk’s simplicity as the band tried to appeal to an American audience. However, British Steel became a successful and profoundly influential album. “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” turned Judas Priest into leather-clad legends.

Judas Priest released Screaming for Vengeance in 1982, and the band finally broke through in America. It featured their signature song “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming.” In 2009, Halford secured the trademark to “Metal God,” his fan-given nickname. What else do you call a guy who enters the stage on a Harley-Davidson?

There I was completely wasting, out of work, and down
All inside it’s so frustrating as I drift from town to town
Feel as though nobody cares if I live or die
So I might as well begin to put some action in my life

Iron Maiden

Is it blasphemy to call Iron Maiden the heavy metal Beatles? The East Londoners’ defining album is called The Number of the Beast so perhaps irreverence is the point. The band’s self-titled debut is a lo-fi effort and predates Bruce Dickinson’s time in the band. On their second album Killers, Dickinson had yet to arrive, but Iron Maiden had already evolved into their familiar sound.

Dickinson appears on The Number of the Beast, which became one of the best-selling heavy metal albums of all time. The new singer competed internationally in fencing, flew the band to gigs, bounced around the stage like an Olympic athlete, and sang flawlessly in an operatic style.

Iron Maiden may be a heavy metal band, but “Run to the Hills” is straight-up pop. Led by bassist and primary songwriter Steve Harris, Iron Maiden created a marketing behemoth, perhaps rivaled only by Metallica. The mascot “Eddie,” the logo, the t-shirts, and the iconic album covers turned the band into an institution.

Their run of stellar ’80s albums began with The Number of the Beast (1982) and continued with Piece of Mind (1983), Powerslave (1984), Somewhere in Time (1986), and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988).

You’ll take my life, but I’ll take yours too
You’ll fire your musket, but I’ll run you through
So when you’re waiting for the next attack
You’d better stand, there’s no turning back

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Photo by Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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