Metal Hammer (UK)

diamond head

It started off as an attempt to outdo Black Sabbath, and ended up being one of the most vital tracks of the NWOBHM era


THE NEW Wave Of British Heavy Metal certainly spawned its fair share of anthems during the early 80s. Cuts by Iron Maiden, Saxon and Def Leppard became instant hits that’d help define the genre, but for years, there was one vitally important track that initially failed to get its dues on the big stage: Diamond Head’s mighty epic, Am I Evil? It was, famously, a cover by Metallica on their 1984 Creeping Death EP (and years of subsequent live airings) that brought the song attention like never before. It was some just reward: according to Diamond Head co-founder/ guitarist Brian Tatler, a lot of work and planning went into the making of what, eventually, became widely considered a metal classic.

“I can remember wanting to write a song heavier than Black Sabbath’s Symptom Of The Universe,” Tatler recalls. “So when I came up with that riff, I think we all said, ‘That’s good. We should work on that.’ The song evolved over a period of 18 months. We seemed to keep adding to it. We added the fast section, and then I must have come up with the intro – which was kind of based on Mars from The Planets suite [an orchestral work by Gustav Holst] – and that got sewn onto the beginning. I can remember coming up with the ending, and the very last thing to be written was the guitar solo section, where it changes key, and the tapping. I think we started it around 1978 and finished around 1980, when we went in to record the album!”

The album would be Diamond Head’s world-class debut album, 1980’s Lightning To The Nations. And it turns out that the “tapping bit”, which came to be the song’s defining moment, came about at the behest of an outside source. “The recording engineer,

Paul Robbins, suggested changing the chords underneath it,” Brian recalled in the book Shredders! The Oral History Of Speed Guitar (And More). “So I did the tapping bit, and he played a keyboard and suggested, ‘Why don’t you play an A and then an F and then an A sharp and then an F sharp, and then go up to B?’ It sounded great, so that was it – a great idea, very musical, very dramatic. So once that little last bit was done, the whole song felt complete to me. That felt like the final piece of the jigsaw, and the epic was completed.”

The guitar parts were played on an instrument that Brian became synonymous with – a white Gibson Flying V, with a thunderbol­t design added to the headstock. “I’m kind of famous for using the white Flying

V – that was my main guitar,” he explained. “Before that, I had a Fender Stratocast­er. First of all, I liked Ritchie Blackmore a lot, so of course, I bought a Fender Strat. And then as I got into Michael Schenker, I bought a Flying

V – it kind of followed that idea. It’s a 1979, and I bought it in 1979, brand new, from a guitar shop in London.”

To match Brian’s heavy riffing, singer Sean Harris came up with suitably dark lyrics, which included some of the most extreme opening lines of any metal song up to that point: ‘My mother was a witch/she was burned alive/thankless little bitch/for the tears I cried.’

“‘My mother was a witch’ was a great opening line,” Brian says today. “His mum probably took offence, but she’s probably forgiven him now. I’m not sure what the whole thing’s about. It just kind of works as a rock song. I suppose you could say it’s about evil in man – good and bad; the yin and yang.”

SHORTLY after THE completion of the song, the group tried it out at a live show. As Brian recalls, it immediatel­y passed the test: “As far as I remember, it always went down well. We soon learned that slow songs didn’t work live; the faster ones would stay

in the set. Am I Evil? must have gone down well, because we probably would have chucked it out otherwise!”

The song also passed the test with headbanger­s that frequented prolific 80s DJ Neil Kay’s much-loved London haunt, Heavy Metal Soundhouse. That provided a boost. “They’d have bands on and he’d play [songs],” Brian once recounted in the book Iron Maiden ’80-’81. “You could make your own record, send it to him, and he would play it on the Friday night. That’s a nice way of getting exposure. He would play Am I Evil?, and you could probably judge who the punters liked instantly. Do they get up and headbang to it, or do they sit down or go for a beer? It was an instant way of finding out what was cool.”

Brian points out that Am I Evil? appeared on two different Diamond Head studio albums: “We recorded it for the White Album [aka Lightning To The Nations]. We had to re-record it for the Borrowed Time album, and it felt a bit strange doing it again. But on the


White Album, I do definitely remember listening back to it and – once I’d got the guitar solo right and all the keys that change underneath the guitar solo – it just blew me away. There’s a slightly strange sound on the guitar which is a wah-wah – this Morley Power Wah Boost. It was set at a cutting, ‘nasal’ position. It gave it a little more of an ‘evil’ sound, I suppose.”

WHILE THE SONG instantly became a favourite among Diamond Head fans, Brian remembers the day he was introduced to Metallica’s arguably more famous version.

“We were in the studio, and Sean had gotten a copy of [Metallica’s] Creeping Death, the 12-inch single, with Am I Evil? on the B-side. We listened to it and thought, ‘It’s heavier and tighter’, but we didn’t think it was any better than our version. Because, of course, we’re proud of our own!

“We had no idea that Metallica were going to become the biggest band in the world,” he adds. “At this stage, in 1984, they were on Music For Nations, and it didn’t look like they had the potential to conquer the world to us. We knew

Lars [Ulrich, drums], and we knew how ambitious he was, but I don’t think any of us had a clue that they were going to take that style of metal and bring it to the masses in the way they did. I’m thankful that they did, because I don’t know what I’d do without the songwriter’s royalties of those four songs they’ve covered [Am I Evil?, Helpless, The Prince and It’s Electric]. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so of course we’re flattered that they covered us. They could have covered Witchfinde­r General, couldn’t they? Ha ha ha!”

Having split up in the mid-80s, Diamond Head reunited sporadical­ly throughout the 90s, before Brian soldiered on without Harris. To this day Am I Evil? remains in the setlist.

“Every time we play it live, that riff seems to stir up something in the audience, and it’s always a winner,” Brian says. “You just can’t fail if you fire into that riff. The crowd duly responds. It’s just got something about it. It’s fairly easy to play as well. It almost seems like, if you like rock, it’s one of the first riffs you learn. And I quite like that – it’s not some clever, complicate­d thing. It’s like a Smoke On The Water; a nice, simple, heavy riff that you can hum and remember.”

Interestin­gly, Brian doubts if he and his bandmates would have the chutzpah to attempt composing an epic like Am I Evil? today. “We somehow got into the idea of making long, epic songs, that kept the listener’s interest for six or seven minutes,” he once mused. “I find it very difficult to do now, but at the time, we were brimming with confidence. You’re on this journey to see what’s possible, and anything goes.”

Still, Brian agrees that Am I Evil? is among Diamond Head’s very best songs: “I would say it’s one of the best, yes. It had all the ingredient­s – a good riff, a good chorus, it went fast, there’s a big guitar solo in it, it had good dynamics… there was a naivete in our early songs. Like I said, it always works. You never play that song and think: ‘That’s a bag of shit!’”



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 ??  ?? Diamond head (left to right): Duncan Scott, Sean harris, colin Kimberley, Brian tatler in london, 1980
Diamond head (left to right): Duncan Scott, Sean harris, colin Kimberley, Brian tatler in london, 1980
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 ??  ?? metallica’s cover of Am I Evil? gave Diamond head a real financial lift
metallica’s cover of Am I Evil? gave Diamond head a real financial lift

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