|Venom, the original inventers and founders of Black Metal, the creators of Thrash, Speed, Death and Power Metal, the deadliest force ever to hit the music scene, the original sinners playing the Devil's music at its highest intensity, the ultimate Rock n' Roll band in the universe, Venom, hell fucking yeah!!!!!!!.
It all started way back in the 70's in the north of England, a young Heavy Metal / Punk Rocker called Conrad Lant [aka: Cronos] started working in a recording studio [Impulse Studios] as the assistant engineer after leaving school, he had been interested in music from an early age and had played in a few different bands throughout his school days, with the idea of creating a band that was heavier and more over the top than anything anyone had ever seen or heard before, more Satanic than Black Sabbath, louder than Motörhead, with a pyrotechnic show to rival Kiss, and with even more leather and studs than Judas Priest, the ultimate ingredients for the Ultimate Metal Band.
Venom detonated the whole black metal explosion with one stroke by releasing an album with that title in 1982. Their story is one of the most surprising in the history of music, seemingly rising from impossible conditions to become the cornerstones of the modern sound. Think about it, how many bands have actually inspired and named a whole area of music, almost single-handedly?
Venom weren't a band prepared to compromise. They held firm to their principles, even if at times, this might have cost them significant rewards. For instance, they always boasted that their stage show was so massive they'd never play a UK date until they could be satisfied on being booked into a venue that could house every last pyro and effect. That's why they made their debut at the legendary Hammersmith Odeon in London on June 1, 1984. Go on, name one other UK band whose first ever live performance was at such a prestigious venue. Easy, isn't it? No, There is no other.
"We did it to shove two fingers up at the music industry" recalls Cronos. "we were told by every other musician we spoke to... there was a certain way of doing things in this industry. You had to pay your dues, right? You had to get in a van and do all the shit hole clubs. Then, and only then, could you consider moving up to bigger venues. That was the way it worked - and there was no other way. Oh yeah? I said 'Bollocks!!!, then booked the Hammersmith Odeon in London and sold it out. Our first British gig - well, apart from a couple in local church halls in the very early days. Now what did the know-it-alls have to say? Zilch!"
"I've always broke the rules, taking risks, that's the way I roll. I started out as a tape operator / assistant engineer in a small recording Studio in Newcastle, [Impulse Studios] which was owned by some local folk musicians. I had to work with many different types of bands who came to lay down their songs, and you'd get the bands that said they wanted to sound like Judas Priest or Saxon, or even bloody Shirley Bassey or Frank Sinatra. They wanted this song to be like one band, and another to be like this other happening act of the day. And there was me, in the corner, saying, 'Hey I've got a band too!', and being ignored. All these local musicians were convinced they were the ones most likely to succeed. But there was no originality there. It's typical of the inner city mentality. It's club land, where everyone knows the words to 'We Are The World'. Where's the originality? You think back to all those NWOHM bands at the time: They all sounded like someone else, with boring riffs and predictable lyrics. We didn't want to be part of that, even if it meant people didn't like what we were doing at first, coz it was different".
"From the very start when I decided to become a musician instead of an actor, I wanted to be different, larger than life, to stand apart and bring something new to the music scene. I had been in a couple of bands while I was at school, one band was named: 'Album Graecum' which I had read in the school library meant Petrified Dog Shit, we were a cross punk and rock music outfit. I played Guitar and tried writing some songs with the singer, but it was dificult to ge the rest of the band interested in new material, so in rehearsals we ended up playing songs by the Pistols, the Clash, T/Rex, Bowie, UFO and of course, Judas Priest, AC/DC and Motorhead, but all along I kept writing my own ideas".
But the young Cronos was always on the look out for other musicians to work with, and after a while he formed another group called 'Dwarfstar', a lot more rock / metal than punk and with the first signs of Satanic influences, writing song titles such as 'Sons of Satan', 'Bloodlust' and 'Welcome To Hell'". I designed the bands logos and started incorporating pentagrams and dark satanic imagery into my art".
"Working at the studio was long hours and a lot of the days were booked by Folk Artistes and Session musicians, recording cover songs for the local clubs, although I was focused on learning how the studio equipment worked through the day, and writing song ideas at night. I started taking over recording duties quite quick really, learning how to operate the studio equipment came to me quite naturally, so when the in house engineer was off sick one day, as they didn't want to cancel the booked session, I said 'hey I'll do it'. The session went great and they released their recording as an EP on vinyl. The studio building became a bit of a hang out place for the local ageing club singers, and that's when I made friends with was a singer in a band called 'Geordie' called 'Brian Johnson', who is now the singer with the band AC/DC".
"I'd been playing live shows for a number of years at this point, starting out at a community centre where we played a few times a week. We had a mate with two boxes with 6 coloured bulbs and a strobe light. We used a recording of a witch describing an orgy as our intro tape, which I got from a Bowie bootleg".
So who are Venom? Where do they come from? And how did they become so influential without achieving the enormous commerciality that was surely their birthright. Ah, now here lies a soap opera. So, come with me, back to 1979, when the world was very different. When mobile phones and the Internet were figments of fevered comic book superheroes. And when the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was starting to make its presence felt. And in a dark corner of the North East of England existed…
"About 6 months or more after I started working at the Studios in Wallsend, I met a girl in a burger bar and she invited me round her house one evening, she was there with another girl and her boyfriend, he was a local guitarist, [Jeff Dunn] and I got talking to him about music etc and that I was looking for other musicians for a band idea, he said he was working with some other musicians but wasn't happy with all of them, so he invited me to check out a rehearsal. When I first saw his band they called themselves Guillotine and were a sort of Judas Priest tribute / cover band. The guitarist even had long blond hair and looked the spitting image of KK Downing. He may deny it now, but he knows it's true. The first thing I had to do was knock it out of them. The thing was, the drummer and singer worked in a steel factory and the guitarist was a petrol pump attendant, so they knew nothing about recording studios or concert halls etc, or anything to do with recording or playing live etc etc, plus they were even great musicians, but there was something about them that I liked, they seemed to be having fun and enjoyed playing, so I thought hey what better place to start".
"I decided to go to more rehearsals and joined up with them to form into a five-piece," recalls Cronos. "In fact, I got in the band as a rhythm guitarist. The guy they had previously had short curly hair and just didn't look the part, so I took over on rhythm guitar with Jeff on lead".
"The drummer and I were talking about the band name one day and both agreed it was shit, we had a roady at the time who also drove the van and he suggested the band name 'Venom', I know the guitarist wasn't too keen on the name at first, but with pressure from the other members he succumbed to influence and that was it, we were now called VENOM". (there are variations on this part of the story, but this is the way the band themselves recall it).
"We decided on using stage names very early on. I thought it would be lame to be singing about Satan and demons and all the dark forces, and then for me to say, 'Oh Hello Jeffrey and Anthony'. I felt it wasn't right, we needed names to fit the personalities, something more formidable and demonic. That was always my problem with Ozzy. He'd sing about dark figures then spoilt it all by going, Oh God, help me!' Duh, Wrong! That was stopping one step short of where I wanted to take this band. We were prepared to go beyond the Hammer Horror of Black Sabbath".
For the record, the name Cronos comes from Greek mythology and was one of the first gods, the original Titans, the generation that preceded Zeus and the Olympian gods. He was the son of Uranus and Gaia. "I wanted to come up with a stage name that had some meaning or connection to myself, and as my birth sign is Capricorn, and my planet is Saturn, then the god of Saturn is Cronos. For the other band members, they didn't really put much thought into it, they just took their names from the Satanic bible, from the infernal names. it seems they just took the first names they thought sounded cool without giving it much thought".
"I switched from rhythm guitar when our bassist left one week before one of our gigs, we couldn't play a gig without a bass player and we didn't have time to teach a new one the songs, so I agreed to switch," says Cronos with that trademark hyper-speed verbal delivery that matches the velocity of the music.
"We had a singer at the time, Clive Archer, he had the idea of calling himself Jesus Christ as his stage name [?] which wasn't really in tune with the rest of our names, but hey it was his choice. One cool thing he did though was he used to put tons of wet lime powder on his face and let it dry, then he'd move his face and let it crack, it was the birth of corpse paint, although a lot more gruesome. Archer didn't exactly endear himself to the rest of the band when he chose an inappropriate stage name and hated the Satanic element. That in itself was enough to get him fired, but not until we got a chance to go in the studio one more time".
"Getting into the studio to record was quite a challenge for me, I used to pester the managing director about bringing my band 'DwarfStar' into the studio when I first got the job, although without any joy, then when I formed Venom I tried again, although without any recordings for the MD to hear, he wasn't going to entertain my ideas at all. So one day at our Church Hall rehearsals I set up an old crappy cassette player and recorded our rehearsal, it was terrible, the hall was way to big and the recording really booming, a right racket, but anyway I played it to everyone at the studio and they hated it, and not surprising as the big church hall reverb didn't do justice to our sound, and we sounded terrible, [yeah ] but soon after I was able to convince the engineer (Mickey Sweeney) to work for free if I'd stay back every night in the studio and help him with other sessions, he agreed, so I now just had to try to convince the studio boss (Dave Wood) to give me a few hours for free also, again agreeing to do all sorts of extra work around the studio, this is when we recorded the 3 track demo, at last we had a good-ish quality recording our ourselves to play to the world, and I made as many copies as I could to mail out to all sort of labels and magazines, and one mag in particular was 'Sounds Magazine', and we were astonished that Geoff Barton decided to put all 3 tracks in his play list, and for a few weeks running, he claimed he loved them so much he didn't want 3 different artists like the other journalists put in their play lists, he just put all 3 of our song from the demo".
Neat Records decided at this time that as there were so many [skint] bands around that all needed to record, that he would put an affordable deal together called the '£50 Demos', this was 4 hours in the studio to record as many live songs as possible straight to 2 track master, no fancy 16 or 24 track recording with a mix later, oh no, just set up the equipment, get a basic sound on everything, then go for it, about as live as you can get in a studio. But £50 was still way to much for us in those days, I remember I only got about £20 a week wages. So again I promised to work impossibly long hours in the studio to pay for the session, and eventually after much grovelling, I was finally given the go ahead to bring the band in to the studio to record the '£50 Demos'.
So on the 10th October 1980 we entered the studio, we recorded 6 tracks in the 4 hours we were given.
Sons Of Satan, In League With Satan, Angel Dust, Live Like An Angel, Schizo and the band song Venom. When it was time to record Live Like An Angel Jeff asked me if I'd have a go singing it, I said "Hell Yeah", although at the end of the session we had a band meeting and the guitarist and drummer said that they preferred my vocal style to Clive's. I must say he was very big about the whole situation even though he had in reality just been sacked, he said we could keep his PA for me to sing into, and his parting words were something like; 'I fucking love this band, I really hope you guys make it".
These demos, the fact that the old csinger was out, Neat Records finally agreed to take a chance and let Venom record a single. "Geoff Barton (then of 'Sounds' magazine, a strong supporter of Venom in their early years) ended a review of the (self-titled) White Spirit album by saying; "in closing can I just politely suggest that Neat Records should release a single by the virulent Venom, and soon". That seemed to help our cause a little bit, as Neat were surprised that a classic rock fan like Geoff would like the band. [Neat thought we had bribed him?] Anyway, this was when the band first shocked an unsuspecting public with the single 'In League With Satan', [c/w: Live Like An Angel ~ Die Like A Devil] a seven incher that was so savage it made Iron Maiden sound like grannies with dyspepsia.
"I had to really work hard in the studio to get us enough time to cut that single. We were asked by Neat to work with a guy called Steve Thompson as pop producer - and we hated him with a vengeance. He didn't get what we were about at all, he was just some old 'know-it-all' fat guy who hung out in the building doing sessions for crap club singers [never been's and never will be's] and the like, he knew nothing about rock or metal or anything really, we were gonna tie him up and lock him a flight case, but we knew he had no sense of humor and wouldn't find it funny and he'd cry like a baby. The original mix of the single was awful; it sounded nothing like us. So I did something that nearly got me fired from the studio as well as blowing the chance of getting the single released. When nobody was book to record one day, I put the 16 track master tape back on the machine and completely re-mixed it, just went for it without permission. I then swapped the newly mixed tape that I'd done with the other tape the other guy had mixed. So it was my mix that got pressed up into the singles, and it was only when the label was playing the first batch of discs that arrived at the office that the producer said, 'Hang on, that's not my mix'. I just came clean straight away and admitted, 'No, it's not, it's mine! Honestly, I nearly lost my job over that… the label people were livid. But I stand by what I did. The single sounded raw, hard and very much the way it should have been. I've still got the original tape at home - it's nothing like us, I should probably just destroy it so it never gets out."
That same year, 1981, the band's debut album, Welcome To Hell was unleashed - the audio equivalent of rubbing a tab of salt into a gaping wound. Actually, what a lot of people don't realise is that the album was really no more than a collection of demos! It wasn't a true album, which is why there's such a huge difference in sound quality between 'Welcome To Hell' and the next album, 'Black Metal'."
In a strange way, the very demo quality of the record probably did much to boost Venom's growing popularity as the uncrowned kings of the rapidly expanding metal underground.
"Neat Records were very surprised at how well the single was selling and asked me if we had any more songs, "loads" I said, so Neat asked if we would record everything we had so they could hear all our tracks. We went back into the studio and recorded what we thought were a bunch of demos. Then, Neat Records said, 'You know, we could stick a cover on these and put them out as an album'. We thought, 'Great idea. We'll go back in and re-record the songs properly with more care and attention etc, and then turn the songs into a proper record'. Er, that wasn't the way Neat saw it at all. They literally meant that they wanted to release our demos, warts n' all, as the first album!"
Despite a lack of production values, the album did give Venom a strong foothold for the band on the metal scene. The fearsome trio were no longer just another band for the masses - they had substance and real potential. Their roar was ferocious, unnerving and utterly vitriolic.
"Funnily enough, because of the first album's very basic style, we got a reputation for not being able to play our instruments at all. Of course, we used to play up to that like crazy. We'd do 50 interviews in a day, and at first we'd be sayings things like, 'Nah, we can't play a note. We're shite, really'. Then we'd take completely the opposite approach and tell the journalists, 'Of course we can play. We're all classically trained virtuosos. I can play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony easily. I'm a genius'. It was all a laugh. Something to break the monotony of having to answer the same questions all day".
"But there were loads of people who thought that Venom were incapable of actually playing a decent note. Now look, I would be the first to admit that we had a drummer who wasn't exactly a good time-keeper, but then so do Metallica. Come on, everyone knows that about Lars Ulrich. But does it matter? Did it hold them back? No. You work with what you've got, and that's the way it is."
The stories of their shows they played [destroyed] in old church halls as the band were forming were becoming well known, then a chance opportunity to make a show in Belgium arose and they set off to play a sports hall in a town called Popperinge. "We wanted to get away from the UK" said Cronos, "It was important for us to see how we were accepted away from the constraints of the people who judged us without even seeing or hearing us, we knew we'd have to get out into the world to see if we really had a chance at this or not".
The show was a great success, and so the band set their sights on going even further, but the turn of events that eventually saw Venom heading off to the USA couldn't have been dreamt up....
A small time importer from New York called Johnny Z ordered a few boxes of Venom's first album from Neat Records to sell on his record stall in a shopping mal. Venom decided to sign some of the albums but got carried away and started defacing the albums, eventually smashing and tearing them into pieces. Not wanting to show Neat the damage they just packed everything into the boxes, and so Neat sent them to the US. But instead of complaints Johnny ordered more? As time went by he asked Neat if Venom would be interested in coming to the US for a few shows.....
"I remember when Neat told us of this guy in the US who wanted to organize some shows" said Cronos, "The first thing we talked about was how we could get our show [pyros etc] to the US, and who we could get to open for us. A friend of mine was a bootlegger and used to import loads of rare Kiss bootlegs etc and he had shown me a shitty quality video of a new band from San Francisco where the guitarist was wearing a Venom tee shirt". [Metallica]
The first US shows were great for Venom, they had asked Johnny Z to get Metallica to open for them. "It was great to see that both Europe and the US were very into what we were doing" explained Cronos, "the UK didn't really give a shit about our metal, but we figured that was always the case with people always wanting bands from somewhere else, rather than appreciating your own bands, but we had a blast in the States, we started planning our return before we even left. Not all of the band liked the foreign shows though, our guitarsit really hated the US for some reason of his own, it was like something spooked him, he nicknamed himself 'Anti Septic' and even decided to stay in a hotel room on his own to get away from everyone, a bit sad really".
A year later, having now established themselves as pariahs of the metal world, yet conversely building a strong fan base among those who worshipped hardcore metal, Venom returned with arguably their most important album… Black Metal
"We knew that together we had an original sound, the unholy din that came at you when we kicked into a track was truly tremendous, trying to get this mayhem down onto tape in a studio was another matter, I tried my best with all of the skills I had learned as a studio engineer, I just went for the heaviest sound I could get, I mean there was no way I was ever going to make Venom sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd now was there? It was pure mayhem from start to finish".
"The Venom sound came about more through time constraints than anything else. We only spent three days on Welcome To Hell, and about 7 days at the Studios for Black Metal, this is all the time that Neat would allow us in the studio actually. I always had more to do with the production than anyone else, and that was because I had studio experience. I was there from dawn to dusk, from the first equipment being brought into the building, to the final tapes being taken out. I would work alongside the studio engineer for the recordings but preferred to mix without anyone else there. The studio equipment was old and we didn't have anything like SSL, (programmable desks)".
For Cronos this period was a somewhat frustrating time, being in a band gaining momentum, yet also forced to work with others on the label.
"The period of time leading up to the Black Metal era was quite infuriating for me. Why? Because, as I said before, I was in the studio as an engineer with bands like White Spirit, Fist and Raven etc, they all thought they were the dog's bollocks, but I found it odd that most of them were just trying to be like bands that already existed, and not many of them had much of their own originality. I actually got most of them signed as the label didn't have a clue about this type of music. I started working as A&R for Neat, and I'd go to the clubs around the north east and check out all the local up and coming Rock / Metal bands, I'd then advise Neat which bands I thought were possibly worth a single for the label. I'd also sit in on all the sessions so I could check out their potential, or not. A lot of these bands were just local wannabe Rock Stars. They were getting their first taste of attention to test their merit, and unfortunately for some of them, it went to their heads, and this is when all the rivalry started..... some of them thought they could treat people with disrespect, they all started stabbing each other in the backs and it went way beyond a joke".
"The bullshit even came in Venom's direction with certain bands getting us banned from certain rehearsal rooms in the area, so I'd have to book the studios under different band names to get some rehearsal time, until we finally ended up rehearsing in a church, it was the only place left who'd hire to us".
"I used to think, 'oh yeah that's the thanks I get for helping you fuckers get a record out', but I don't really give a shit anymore, they had their chance to make a career in music, but they blew it, now where are they? Their biggest enemy was with themselves, bigoted attitudes and self defeating principles, they were happy slogging up and down the country hitting the clubs for fifty quid a night, but I was thinking on an international scale, even though I probably didn't know it at the time."
"I always thought the music and the songs were the main reason to be in a band, there had to be an energy that existed within the songs like nothing else, a new direction. I've been writing music and lyrics since I was very young, and the order in which songs are recorded doesn't really matter, I could be writing songs for a new album and think 'oh yeah' I've got that idea I came up with 5 years ago that I'll have a go at".
Not all of the songs for what was to become one of the definitive metal albums of all time were brand new either, with the compositional ink barely dry on the proverbial pages. 'Buried Alive' and 'Raise The Dead', for instance, had dried mud on their boots. "There's a tape of Clive Archer singing 'Raise The Dead'," laughs Cronos. "And we had 'Buried Alive' written for the first album, but didn't feel we were capable of doing it justice at the time when we recorded the first album demos."
'Buried Alive' saw Cronos, with his studio experience, taking a real perfectionist's attitude.
"I didn't want BBC-type effects for the intro, with cabbages being cut up to sound like earth shoveled onto a coffin - I wanted the real thing. So, we brought in a cardboard box and loads of mud, put microphones into the box and used spades to throw the mud into the box. And Keith Nichol, our engineer (given a co-production credit on the record) was brilliant about it. We called him Woody Woodpecker, because he was about three foot tall and had red hair, but he'd go the extra mile to get us what we wanted."
One other song on Black Metal had a bit of history to it, as the bassist explains.
"One day in the studio, the drummer was very late for the session, the guitarist and I were jamming through some new riffs and I started to work the words out. One of our roadies came in the room and jumped behind the kit, we started to mess around with the ideas and the song 'Countess Bathory' was born. The drummer later came in and we played the new song for him, he then got behind the kit and tried to make up a new drum pattern, but the one the roady had played worked best, he was furious that we ganged up on him and made him play the roadies beats, he wanted to put his own stamp on the track but none of his beats were working, he hated the song for ages".
"Mention of the old drummer brings up an itch that Cronos is willing to scratch. "His role, or lack of it, in the songwriting process caused a lot of arguments in the band later on. You see, he never wrote anything, despite getting credits. It was always down to me and sometimes the guitarist to write the songs. I would either just introduce a new song to everyone or sometimes I'd go to the guitarists house and share our ideas, he would show me his new songs and any spare riffs he had composed that he wanted me to put lyrics to, and I would teach him the riffs for my songs, but the drummer was never there and never wrote any songs".
The album ends with something highly unusual - a song that's a taster for things to come, namely a sneak preview of the title track for what was to be the band's third album, At War With Satan, eventually released in 1984.
"Oh, that started off as a story that I wanted to have published as a novel," shrugs Cronos. "It was about the battle between Heaven and Hell. I had the whole idea mapped out. And then it turned into this concept album. I suppose it was our equivalent of 'Rush's '2112', although theirs was more about oppression. Anyway, I thought it would be cool to do a teaser at the end of the Black Metal record, just to warn the fans what was to come. And we did do the concept album. In fact, we devoted the whole of the first side of our At War With Satan album to the title song, which was unheard of back then for a band like us! And, if there's some real trivia freaks reading, get this: when I originally mastered the tracks in the studio and put together the AWWS Intro track that ends Black Metal with the full song 'At War With Satan', it came to 21 minutes and 12 seconds… 2112 on the audio data file, cool eh!"
Black Metal was released later in 1982, to a massive acclaim from the metal underground, and even the mainstream started to take some notice. For Cronos, there was a sense of vindication, although critical acceptance never bothered him. The man's dream was coming true, even it was a nightmare for others.
By time the Black Metal album hit the shops, Venom were planning their next Live event! The stories of their shows they played [destroyed] in old church halls as the band were forming were well known, then a chance opportunity to make a show in Belgium arose and they set off
"I was always frustrated that Black Sabbath never took things a stage further. They might sing about Satan, but still asked God to help them! You know, people go to watch Dracula movies, but none of them want to be the vampire. In Venom I wanted to be the devil, to be the vampires!" What's more, this young metal punk from Newcastle tilted the metal world off its axis.
Although Cronos maintained, "I always had a vision. Most bands starting out were playing pubs. That was never for me. We did a video for the songs 'Witching Hour' and 'Bloodlust' (from Welcome To Hell) to show promoters what sort of stage show we wanted - and they'd all say, 'But if you do that then you'll be skint'. Did we care? Did we fuck! All these other artists would spend any money they got from gigs on beer. We spent it on bigger and better pyros - and who had the last laugh?"
But we should leave the last word on Black Metal to a man who understands the legacy of the album better than most - Slayer's Kerry King:
"I know the guys won't mind me saying that they were the best band in the world with the worst musicians. I still listen to Black Metal and it's still awesome. I see Cronos occasionally, and he's like Superman. He might be dressed casually, but you just know that underneath he's got on the spikes and studs!"
But how to follow a masterpiece? As hinted at above, it was with a conceptual piece, At War With Satan.
"That's a title you can take two ways. On the one hand, you could say it's about going to war with Satan, in other words being on his side. On the other hand, you could take it as suggesting a war against Satan. Depends on the way you wanna take it. The album actually ends with the angels being cast down into hell, and planning to fight their way out. They'd become the outcasts. It's all down to your point of view".
"Loads of people were amazed that a band like us decided to do a concept album, but to me it was no big deal. So what? It's just a collection of songs and sounds. Like any other record. The difference with this was that every song linked into what went before. Maybe it was because of the very idea that a musician like myself would even think about writing a story, then turn it into a 'concept' album, that's only for REAL bands who can play their instruments, not the likes of Venom, ha."
In truth, At War With Satan was a glorious failure in some peoples minds, the sweeping strokes of the concept setting up the music in a manner that demands a huge production, one that sadly the band were unable to deliver, because of budgetary constraints. Now, if Jim Steinman, or Bob Ezrin had been on the case…ah, but such was the lot of Venom in the early 1980s, constantly learning to experiment and to be creative within the limited confines of their independent status. "And that's exactly where I disagree", snaps Cronos "I feel that in actuality, Venom's music was actually enhanced by not having an enormous budget, to think of that album with an Americanised production would have killed it, the raw sound was what made it real for me, real musicians playing real music".
"I always favoured individuality. For me, it was the theatrics of Alice Cooper or Kiss, and the music of Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath and Bowie that was important. Sure, I loved Judas Priest and Motörhead, but madcap individuality really made a mark on me. I was fucking determined that Venom would always do what we considered to be right at the time. No giving in to pressure from outsiders. There were - still are - too many who think that the way forward is to be part of the pack. Yeah, you might get a little bit of success, but can you look at yourself in the mirror, knowing that you've always done what's right, rather than something that just earns easy money, whoever said 'I did it my way'?.
"I know that Venom never played anybody's game. We were always true to just one thing: VENOM. Whether we succeeded or failed, it was on our own terms. I can't stress that enough, because it's the creed that defines us. I always tell whoever is in the band, look, Venom is more important than any one member of the band, no matter how cool you think you are, bollocks, its only really Venom that matters, and whoever is in the band needs to compliment Venom, and not the other way around."
As I write these word for the new Venom box set I think about the time, and it was around this time - 1983 - that I first met Venom. Having championed their cause in various magazines for a couple of years, I finally came face to metaphorical cowl with them at a photo shoot in North London. Cronos immediately made an impression. He seemed to be the only one who fitted the media analysis of the Venom psyche, although he was obviously the ideas man, the one who had the big picture, the vision to steer this band into the right direction. He had little time for any contemporaries whom he dismissed with an almost imperious wave of his hand, and espoused the Venom determination to remain unbowed and untethered by trends.
By contrast, the guitarist was quietly spoken and seemed almost uncomfortable with the music scene, speaking about everyone who was involved in the industry as 'liggers'. He started refusing to do interviews and would only come out of his hotel room to go to the show and then straight back afterwards, he'd say 'I don't want to know anything, just point me to the stage'. Maybe it was the first stirrings on an unrest that would see him quit the band within a couple of years, but he wasn't the rock demon we'd all expected - and anticipated. Meanwhile, the drummer who started out looking like Animal from the muppet show with the words 'fucking cunt' plastered across his kick drum skins, ended up looking like he should have joined Deep Purple, the road crew used to call him David Cover-version. While he may not have been the greatest drummer in the world, he so clearly understood what it took to smash his drum kit. It was a strange trio to say the least. A band who were like no others around. And all held together by the singers aura of invincibility.
Strange to tell that the next twist in the story is one that amazed everyone - and took us all by surprise. The band decided to record a single called 'Warhead'. Nothing weird there, except that it got airplay on the Radio One Breakfast Show! Cronos recalls: "We didn't do the single with that in mind at all. But Tommy Vance picked up on the song and loved it so much he started to give us a lot of airplay." The upshot was that Mike Reid, at the time doing the aforementioned Breakfast Show, decided to play a snippet from the song each day for a week, building up to airing the whole track, much to the shock of many used to smoother fare with their bacon and eggs.
"It wasn't a gimmick, because that was never something I wanted, or expected. All I did was record what I felt was a true metal song, something that stomped, had energy and growled in the usual manner of a Venom metal song. The fact that others picked up on it was a bonus. You know, a lot of supposed metal or hard rock bands record singles that are designed for radio airplay. That's an abomination to me. So, I went in completely the opposite way, and it seemed to hit the right note with someone".
"There were also those who objected to the song's title, because they thought we were advocating war as being something cool. Fuck 'em! That wasn't in our minds at all. To us, this was entertainment, and about as serious as violent horror movies. You don't take them to task do you? Well, you shouldn't. But it's typical of some sections of our society who think they're intelligent, and yet are easily fooled into making idiots of themselves by missing the whole point of something like 'Warhead'. It was a fucking song, not a statement. Did anyone think we walked around with nuclear warheads under our arms? Oh sure!"
With the success of the record being played on the main radio station in the UK, it ensured that, Venom were synonymous with metal in the minds of the mainstream British public, those who remained oblivious to the charms of Iron Maiden or Motörhead. But things were starting to get a little fraught in the Venom camp, with the guitarist starting to lose the plot.
In 1985 with the imminent release of their fourth album 'Possessed', the band decided to organise a headline tour of America, [*note: this is the tour that saw Slayer supporting them] although a week or so before the tour started the guitarist contacted the label to say he had an illness and couldn't do the tour, so they scoured Newcastle searching for a replacement as the tour was to important to cancel. This was when they came across Dave Irwin from the band Fist, although as time was short he didn't feel he could learn the full set, so they also hired Les Cheetham from the band Avenger to learn the second half the live set. The two new guys played just over half the tour before the guitarist flew out to join the last few shows. The US press reported that they thought the shows with the two new guys worked better.
It was reported at the show in Los Angeles that the journalist was amused to notice that the assorted members of Slayer were at the front of the stage headbanging furiously when Venom roared into their set. To Slayer and a whole generation of young American metalheads, the Newcastle nutters were genuine heroes - they provided a way forward, the sound for a new generation.
"I don't think I realised how much we meant to Americans, until this tour," Cronos said at the time. "But we seem to have become the godfathers of an extreme sound, one that has a lot of American input right now. Crazy isn't it? We're bigger in the US and Europe than we are at home."
For all their impetus and momentum in America, Venom clearly lacked the financial wherewithal to make the move to the next level. And, if that American tour proved one thing it was that the road ahead was gonna be tough, although Cronos was completely understanding of this fact; "I knew when we started to realize we could make a career out of Venom that the day would come when we had to make a decision, when we'd have to meet the devil at the crossroads, and that was to either sell out to the majors or keep our integrity and stick to our guns. I'd seen other Neat bands 'sign the deal' and then disappear after one album, and this is coz the majors will make you change, to make you commercial, to alter what your about to increase 'sales', but this will change what your about and destroy everything you've made. I could only ever work with a major if they let me keep full artistic control, because I'm not gonna let anyone destroy Venom, maybe one day they will realize this, but for now they think they know it all, but I disagree".
By the end of the US tour Cronos was on the look out for a new guitarist. He was getting tired of his attitude and was clearly distracted at times. He seemed to lack the ambition and focus, and as the band were recording their latest album, Possessed, his contribution was almost at a standstill.
"He'd lost touch with reality and was acting like a diva with bullshit demands", said the singer. "His input wasn't really what was needed and he didn't have any passion. We also made a big mistake by hiring a swanky Stately Home to work on the album. We were used to dirty, skuzzy basements, where we'd work up the songs in the past. Now, we were in the wrong environment for the music we wanted to make. When we arrived the guitarsit thought he could just lie around and do fuck all thinking he was lord of the manor, but we were there to make an album so it was wrong for the spirit of Venom. He had no new song ideas at all, I've no idea how he thought the album was gonna be created, maybe he was hoping I'd do everything, and it's bloody lucky I did have a shit load of ideas. The only song we'd all worked on was the title track, I'd came up with this during the writing of the first album, although the riff was originally the riff for Manitou, although I swapped lyrics as it worked better the other way around."
It's no surprise that Possessed got something of a muted response from critics and fans alike when it was released in 1985, but on reflection the album is actually better than seemed to be the case at the time.
"I like the songs on Possessed," agrees Cronos. "What let it down was the production and the bands aggressive input, or lack of it, we should have rehearsed the songs before going into the studio, the way we did the other albums, the songs are good songs, but I just had to record the album by showing them each song, then once they had a grasp of the tune we'd record it, then I put all the singing on later, so the songs don't really get a chance to settle and find their true speed etc. I do think the songs on that album are good, yeah they could have been recorded better, and the album got a bad press from people at the time, and it deserves better."
"After we released the double live album [Eine Kleine Nacht Musik] We started work on the 5th studio album that I was gonna call Deadline, but all the ideas from the guitarist were just wrong, not Venom at all. They were terrible guitar pieces he ended up using on his solo stuff - and not at all right for Venom." And so, the guitarist was asked to leave, he'd become visibly depressed, and his selfish and costly demands were causing friction between the members, so it was decided he had to go. And so where did this leave the band? Simple, doing what Motörhead had recently done, namely replacing one guitarist with two others.
The two men in question were American Mike Hickey and Englishman Jim Clare. It was a case of the band taking advantage of their changed circumstances to expand their sound. Now a four-piece, Venom found that they could try different things musically. As Motörhead discovered when they brought in Wurzel and Phil Campbell, potentially there's a new dimension to the approach.
"Having two guitarists in the line-up did take us in a different direction. It was an exciting time because it gave us a real shot in the arm, a shot of enthusiasm from the new guys. Mind you, it had a down side for me personally. With two guitars there, I was suddenly faced with my bass lines being a little swamped, and that did not please me at all!"
The new look Venom released just one album, 1987's Calm Before The Storm. Now, this was a period when the whole thrash movement was at its height, and the genre was starting to fragment. Some bands were becoming more sophisticated, while others were delving into altogether more extreme areas of music. It was an easy time for Venom, because they were unique and ground breakers, so a controversial new direction was perfect to keep the fans guessing as to what the band will do next.
Determined to stick firmly to their own path, they certainly opened up their sound somewhat with Calm…, and probably enough to attract a new audience. However, they were sufficiently removed from the roots of the band to please some diehards, as even those who would only be satisfied with a repetition of the Black Metal formula, they saw that Cronos was again taking a chance and pushing the boundaries of what makes a band great, for such is the price of success and reputation.
While the sound of the album still had a brutal edge, nonetheless the dark imagery of the past had given way to a more sophisticated approach. And it worked extremely. As so many other bands have found in the past when changes do occur to the delicate mechanism that is a rock or metal band - especially one as important as Venom had been - it's as if a chain reaction has been set in motion; the restive spirit suddenly takes over, and with it comes a succession of changes, and as the rot that had set into the late guitarist spread to the drummer, the singer knew his replacement was only a matter of time. Venom toured in Japan and South America but then at the end of 1988 the band decided to split.
But after Calm Before The Storm the front man - who had become the figurehead of the band over the years - decided it was time to move on. Not only that, but he took the two guitarists with him, intent on starting a new career, by forming a band called…Cronos.
"That wasn't my intention. I never really saw the new project as being something of a solo band, I prefer the concept of 'The Band' rather than a one person deal, but I could have looked like a solo artiste to the outside world, because it had my name on it. I had a whole list of band names drawn up, including Ghost or Transatlantic. In the end, though, I was persuaded - against my better judgement - to go for Cronos as the name of the new project."
I moved over to America and we began to work the band, write new songs and tour. I thought it was important to start in the US as if it wasn't going to work, then I'd find out quick over there as they have no time for losers, plus the States were really the first to 'get' Venom back in the day, wherever you made contact with the underground metal scene, Venom were the guv'nors. To those who worshipped an ever increasing desire to go beyond the bounds of normality in metal, Venom represented the apogee. They were the band who'd inspired so many to pick up guitars and try their luck. On the East Coast, the West Coast, in Texas…wherever you may have roamed, the spectre of Venom loomed. You spoke to young bands just beginning, and within a few minutes you just knew they'd be mentioning the hallowed name of 'Venom' in hushed tones. It was astonishing to think of the bands impact. The secret of Venom lies locked partially in serendipity, partly in belief, yet largely in a mythology that's built on solid foundations.
Cronos always had the attitude and psychology to stand apart, determined to bring the sort of success to the band that nobody ever felt was possible, and it was he who had the vision to motivate the band into the studio and march the band forward, without him they would have never made the step forward. Cronos would have undoubtedly followed his instincts and bust his way onto the metal scene regardless of if he'd met the others or not, he was already working with other musicians before Venom so it was only a matter of time, and considering he also created the artwork that helped establish the image of the band, I guess Venom or a version of was always going to be, it was his destiny, and obvious now as he is the only original member still going strong and creating venomous metal after nearly 30 years in the business, the others just didn't have the staying power.
Maybe, to some extent, he was fuelled by a hatred of the way in which he was ignored by his local peers. Perhaps there was a certain one-faceted fanaticism which drove him on, maybe he had the unique vision of fusing rock with punk to create a totally unique sound to call his own, or maybe he's on of the last of the true originals, the larger than life front men like Ozzy or Lemmy or Elvis [?], but whatever it was, Cronos knew there was a way forward - and he was ready to take it.
Cronos, therefore, had the vision. And every successful band needs that one person who has the will, guts and sheer stubbornness to stand against the odds. Some believe that, with bigger budgets, better production values and more market savvy Venom would have achieved so much more. But that is to completely miss the point. What made them so important was that they were so much of the street. Their music had much in common with the punks of a few years earlier, and rock musicians of today. They inspired so many to start their own bands, because they seemed within reach. Moreover, they dared to make bold, brash statements that were shocking yet also true. They dismissed so many of their contemporaries for differing reasons, and time has proven them to be correct. While many who were hailed as future heroes in the early 1980s disappeared, the Venom legend has gone from strength to strength, their achievements multiplied in the telling.
At the start of the 1990s, a new sub-genre of black metal began to spread in Scandinavia. At first all the young bands in Norway were hailing Venom as their godfathers, and their inspiration.
By 1994 Cronos had released 3 albums and been hard at work with his band throughout, content to release his albums and play all manner of sized venues worldwide. Cronos had recruited new drummer Mark Wharton of Cathedral and they went into the studio to lay down the demos for the new album, during this session, and at the request of Mark who was a massive Venom fan, they recorded some of the old Venom classics. Neat Records immediately asked if they could use the tracks on a compilation album, it was the Cronos album entitled Venom. This not only featured new material with a classic Venom approach. But also re-visits such old Venom favourites as '1000 Days In Sodom', '7 Gates Of Hell' and 'At war With Satan'. It was a project that re-ignited the bassist/vocalist's love for Venom.
"It was my third album under the Cronos band name (following on from 1990's Dancing In The Fire and Rock 'N' Roll Disease three years later), and playing those old Venom songs again with Mark on drums was fucking brilliant. He gave them a new twist, and had a real passion for them£.
"Doing this did get me thinking about getting the classic Venom line-up back again. But by that point, there hadn't been a Venom for more than 5 years or so, the band had already split up again after a disastrous attempt to make things work with a different singer. So, I had a good think about it, and I discussed the pros and cons with a couple of lawyer friends of mine in London who were great at offering practical advice. I thought I might be able to re-capture the past magic again and continue where we left off in 1986, I knew there was no messy problem with having to get rid of anyone as they'd all went their separate ways. so I finally decided to make contact, just to see if we could do the right thing, who knows? it could be great fun."
Cronos made contact with his old band mates, and eventually the re-union got off the ground. But not without teething problems.
"I had to drag them forward a bit. the guitarist [Jeff] had cut his hair off, so the old lifestyle wasn't something which appealed to him. [by 'old lifestyle' I mean the long studio hours and touring etc, not the partying, he never partied anyway] And the old arguments soon resurfaced. But for a short time, we got it back together, and we were able to headline the Dynamo Festival." (with 90,000 fans).
The revived trio released one album, 1997's Cast In Stone, but were soon submerged by problems that seemed to overshadow any rapport they might have. And there was soon a standoff between Cronos and the drummer that eventually led to the latter leaving.
"We had huge problems," admits Cronos. "We really weren't getting on. Then one day, the drummer sent me a letter to tell me 'your services are no longer required', ha, the cheeky twat obviously forgot who he was fuckin with, and thus sealed his fate, my response was, 'You can't kick the Devil out of hell, I'm firing you!'. We had this crazy situation where both of us felt we could kick the other out of the band."
Ultimately, it was Cronos who came out on top, with the drummer quitting to pursue a job on a building site, leaving the frontman and the guitarist to move forward. Cronos hired a nu-metal drummer who hadn't been doing much with any other bands, so he jumped at the chance pf playing for Venom. The trio flew to Germany to record the 'Resurrection' album, then played some shows in Germany and Holland. But of course, this is Venom, so nothing stays stable for very long.
In February 2002, Cronos had a climbing accident while out with his old mates from the Marines in Wales, this meant he couldn't play bass, sing or anything as he was wearing a neck brace, the Doctors had estimated a year or two of recovery, Cronos told the guitarist to get on with whatever he could and make the most of this time, he knew he'd been talking about making another solo album, so the guitarist decided to start his own band - then after he recorded his album a press statement was released declaring that he wasn't going to return to Venom and he wanted to pursue his new direction with his solo band, leaving Cronos to carry on with the name. Once Cronos got the 'all clear' from his Doctors, he called the American guitarist who played on the 'Calm' album, and asked if he'd be up for some more guitar work with Venom. Both the guitarist and the drummer off the 'Resurrection' album agreed to help Cronos re-establish the band, although they couldn't join the band for the long haul, as they has other commitments elsewhere, Cronos needed to keep his eyes peeled for other permanent members. They started work on a new Venom album, [Metal Black] which came out in March 2006 on the Sanctuary Music label.
It's been a long, strange, and somewhat twisted trip for Cronos. Full of amazing stories and astounding tales. And he remains philosophical about the decision to again work with the original members even though it didn't work out second time around, as one thing is now definitely for sure, there will never be an original members line up reunion ever again.
That's a fact that Cronos made very clear in a recent interview: "The itch has been scratched, there's no reason to ever repeat a dead idea, it didn't work with the 'second coming', and so in my opinion it will never work, so we can hammer the nails into that coffin well and truly shut. I agreed to reform the band out of curiosity really, I wanted to see if we could re-capture the drive and passion I thought we had when we started, but now I know it will never be and we can't turn back the clock. We are very different people with different ideas of what the band is about, so now its over, I don't see the point of trying again, as it will now always just be arguments, frustration and lies, not to mention I really don't like who they've become as people, and I will never trust anything they say ever again, too many lies were told and too much bad happened during the reformation".
The most important thing for me though is the actual integrity of the band.... I work hard to create an extreme music the fans can be proud of, although it annoys me that the others are complacent about the professionalism of what we create, both in the studio and live. I refuse play with musicians who are sloppy and don't care about being the best they can be, I don't see playing Black Metal as a chore, quite the reverse, its a joy and a challenge, so to me I cannot tolerate laziness and lousy musicians, it's unacceptable. So my quest continues, the reason I wanted to be in a band since I was a kid in the 1960's, and that is to find other musicians who have a similar drive and understanding as I do to play extreme metal, musicians who want to be the best they can be, and to make awesome albums and play killer shows, and until I find these people, I will continue to replace the members of Venom until that goal is reached, and with no compromises".
"What am I most proud of achieving with Venom?" asks Cronos rhetorically. "Standing apart from all the sheep in the music industry. You look at the music business, and most bands want to copy other artists' success, they are scared to do something original and make something new in case other people don't like it, and we know that most people don't like change, they are happiest in their comfort zones, any new idea or different is usually shunned at first until people can put it in a box with a label, so most musicians out there would rather copy a style that's already established. But did I ever do that? NO chance! I might have made mistakes, yeah but all of the ideas were all mine, and I made it from my own incentive and not because I was trying to be a clone of someone else".
With Venom there is always some controversy, and there are two crucial areas that need to be broached, namely the controversy that arose with Metallica, and also just how did they come up with the name 'Black Metal'? Let's start with the whole Metallica scenario…
In February 1984, Metallica came over to Europe for the first time. They toured as support to Venom. But any suggestion that the two bands would bond was soon dispelled. Even during the tour, Venom had a certain dismissive attitude to the young Bay Area upstarts. Metallica had never made any secret of the fact that Venom were a significant influence on them - in their early days, they regularly wore Venom T-shirts, and have always had the utmost respect for Venom's importance:
"Black metal, speed metal, death metal - Venom started it all!" says Lars Ulrich. "As for that 'Black Metal' tag… It was Venom's own determination to be different that led to them coming up with the term 'black metal'…as well as a ton of other titles in an attempt to describe their music which they felt was like nothing else around at that time".
"You see, back then everyone with long hair was called 'heavy metal'," explains Cronos. "So, we were lumped in with bands like Journey and Foreigner - we were all 'heavy metal'. There were none of these genres like thrash, death and speed metal as we have now. We didn't want anything to do with those bands at all. In fact, we slagged almost everyone off during interviews.
"We were interviewed by a magazine one day, and the journalist just said, 'OK, if you're not heavy metal, what are you?'. So I just said, 'We're black metal'. I never thought for a moment that the thing would stick and grow into something so massive, even though what's known as 'black metal' these days has no connection with what we did nearly 25 years ago."
"I think the term 'black metal' was just one of a number we threw out to that journalist at the time. We started off calling ourselves 'long haired punks', and then 'power metal', 'death metal', 'thrash metal'. But the 'black metal' thing struck some sort of chord. What finally convinced me that we didn't want anything to do with 'heavy metal' was when Eddie Van Halen did that single 'Beat It' with Michael Jackson - it got in the metal charts, for fuck's sake! We decided then that Venom was no longer 'heavy metal'. Let bands like Raven be called that - we had to stand apart. We didn't want to call ourselves New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, because that was a mouthful, so we invented our own genre".
"And guess what? The song 'Black Metal' itself is actually about playing live, it's about a Satanic band (Venom) playing live! With power amps set to explode!"
Venom are a band who still sell enormous quantities of T-shirts that bear the album covers and logos which are the artwork of Cronos, the man who invented the emblems for the band and created that look to go with their unholy sound, and even today a massive amount of people still want to wear those classic designs, and Venom albums continue to inspire more young bands even today.
"One thing I was delighted about was that a small label recently put out a Venom tribute record," says Cronos. "What I loved about it was that the bands all did something unique and different with our songs - they weren't trying to copy what we'd done. They understood the spirit of Venom. If you're going to do a cover, then make damn sure you do some of your own stuff with the song. Otherwise, what's the point?
"If we've taught people anything then that would be, Don't try to sound like or be like Venom if you record a cover of one of our songs, be yourself, record the song the way you would had YOU wrote it, use what we did as an inspiration if you want, but be true to yourself."
Venom career like many other great bands who have survived many generations has been a series of ups and downs, and the mark of a great band is learning how to go with the flow and survive the down times. Cronos has always had a very strong vision for Venom and has always been able to see through the thick of the troubles and keep his focus on the important issues, his ability to learn from past mistakes and take on new challenges head on has given Venom that rock solid foundation that the band has needed to survive a tough cut throat industry. He has spoke about the many bands he worked with during his time at Impulse Studios and he must have learned a lot about the many issues the bands have faced which have either destroyed their careers or made them stronger, and Cronos's story is certainly all about making him and Venom stronger.
"Yeah I've had to make some hard decisions and big sacrifices, but you have to be brave and selfless to achieve greatness, nothing comes easy, but with people its a case of if their not part of the solution then they are part of the problem, so they have to go. Decisions concerning other musicians who you've worked with for years are always tough, but the way I see it is Venom is bigger than any one member, and there's a responsibility to the fans that the musicians have to take into consideration. I'm not going to tolerate any musician giving any less that 110% to the music and the fans, I won't have any sympathy for any musician who doesn't treat this band with complete integrity and respect, thi