NWOBHM Heroes Satan Spread Their Wings, Savor Comeback
For the uninitiated, Newcastle, England's Satan have a tangled and confusing history, involving a rotation of vocalists, multiple name changes (first Blind Fury, then Pariah) and at least one lengthy hiatus. But the short version goes like this: After being formed by mainstays Steve Ramsey, Russ Tippins and Graeme English in 1979, and recording one of the most beloved demos and singles from the early NWOBHM era, vocalist Brian Ross and drummer Sean Taylor joined the group and concocted the stone cold classic Court in the Act. Ross exited in 1984, seemingly for good, but regrouped with the band in 2011 for some reunion gigs.
In 2013, they released the acclaimed comeback LP, Life Sentence, and followed it up two years later with the equally lauded Atom by Atom. Satan recently returned to the East Coast to tour through the end of October 2016. The following is a conversation with guitarist Steve Ramsey on the past, present and future of the band.
Satan have a pretty long history that runs through most of your life, but take me back to your entry point in music. What got you interested in playing guitar?
Going to see bands. I started off listening to the Sweet in my young teenage years, then Queen. Then I got a taste for the heavier stuff, like Purple, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, etc., as well as some of the later punk stuff. By the time I was 14-15, I was going to see bands like Motörhead, the Scorpions and Priest, among others. That's how Russ Tippins and I connected. We went to school together, but it was seeing each other at gigs that formed the bond. I decided rather than be in the audience, I wanted to be on the stage doing what they were doing well before I got a guitar.
You guys started as a high school band, correct? What were your goals then? You were playing heavy metal early on, but it also had a scrappy punk quality — were you listening to punk and metal at the time?
Yeah, we weren't actual punks at any time, but we liked the raw energy of the music and the more technical playing of the metal bands, so we were listening to the Dead Kennedys alongside Rush, At our first show at school, we played "Doctor! Doctor!," "Motörhead," "Pinhead," "Holiday in Cambodia" and "Paranoid."
Coming from Newcastle, did you feel intimidated starting out and competing with bands like Venom and Raven, or was there a sense of camaraderie between the Newcastle bands because it’s a smaller city?
We never really thought about stuff like that and got along with all the bands back then; they were good times. We'd go to all of their gigs. There was a great northeast scene to get involved in for a couple of years. We looked up to Raven 'cause they were such a good live band and had the energy we were trying to harness. Sean [Taylor] played with them in their early days.
Satan had a tough time gaining a foothold in the press and with fans. Do you feel like the press gave up on British bands in favor of the rising tide of bands from the U.S.?
That did happen, but I think in general the scene had become a little stale to start with. A lot of bands were starting to sound the same as each other. We were always on the outside of this 'cause our popularity was abroad anyway. Satan, and particularly Pariah, were a bigger concern in Germany and the rest of Europe than we ever were in the U.K. We would get great album reviews, but no interview space in the mags. There was a kind of apathy from the fans towards homegrown bands, too, and the attention turned to the U.S. scene because it was a lot more exciting at that time. Then, all of a sudden, the British bands were trying to sound like their American counterparts.
Do you have any particular recollections about the tour you did with Running Wild during that era?
Now you’re asking! They were the first shows with Satan in Germany, strangely enough. We were quite popular in Holland and Belgium, but it took a while, and a German label to get us into their country playing. The tour was a big success for us, and paved the way for Pariah to become quite popular in Germany. We had good fun with the band, who were all cool guys, too.
The biggest memory I have, though, was the nightmare at the start of the tour. With no proper management, we had to fend for ourselves and coordinate the traveling, among other stuff. We drove from Newcastle to Eindhoven, which took about 14 hours. We stayed overnight with friends there, then headed off to Vienna for the first show. After another similar drive time-wise, we tried to check into the hotel on the itinerary given to us by the agent that set up the tour for Running Wild. They told us that it had been booked for the night before. That was because we had to drive through the Alps straight after the show in Vienna to get to the next show in Zurich — another 16-hour drive! Big lesson. Geography: not our strong point at the time.
What about your shows at the Dynamo club in Eindhoven? Those have become kind of legendary now.
Yeah, it felt like we almost lived in Eindhoven for a couple of years back then. We played that club with all four different singers that Satan had! We had a lot of good friends there, too, and Andre Verhuysen, who first got us out there when he was just out of school, went on to set up the Dynamo Festival, which was a big deal for a lot of years.
It seems like even though Satan had a tough time in the ’80s, there were always a devoted cult of fans, particularly in regard to the early material. At what point did you realize people were still interested in your music?
We were asked to play the Wacken Festival in Germany 2005, which is the biggest, but they were getting a few old NWOBHM [bands] to play and we thought it was just a fad. We had also agreed to play at Keep It True Festival, but it was cancelled due to illness. The guy hounded us for five years to play there, and when we eventually gave in, it was at that show that we realized there was real interest in the band. We were very surprised at the amount of younger fans at the show.
When you reformed the Court in the Act lineup a few years back, the press indicated that you were only planning for it to be a brief reunion. After four years, two albums (plus a live album) and numerous shows, it's looking considerably more indefinite. How do you feel about that? Is it something you hope to continue doing for much longer?
We did think it was just going to be a bit of fun at the start, but once the ball got rolling, it just kept gaining momentum. To answer your question, we have already started work on the next album!
When Life Sentence was released in 2013, one of the things you talked about in the press was trying to return the collective mind of the band to 1983 — the year Court in the Act was released — in terms of how you approached songwriting and production. Did that continue with Atom by Atom, or did the band allow itself some room to progress? How do you strike a balance between taking a retro approach to your music and keeping songwriting from getting stale?
Yes, we discarded a lot of the rules that we imposed on ourselves for Life Sentence, and I think you can clearly hear that Atom is a more progressive album musically. The initial idea was to make sure that we captured the energy that the band had back in the '80s on Sentence. That's why we held the reins back a bit on the composing.
We've had a 30-year break to come up with some ideas! No, seriously, we have played and listened to a lot of other music since back then, and every little note of that can be a catalyst to a new idea, if your mind is open enough.
You’ve been able to hit North America, South America and Japan, all places Satan never played in the ’80s. Are there places you still want to go that you haven’t been able to play yet?
There's always somewhere else to play. It's a big world. I would hate to think that you could say that you've played everywhere; we've been really lucky to have done what we've done. But Graeme will tell you he fancies Down Under, and I want to play in Reykjavik! We're looking forward to Detroit because of the KISS connection, among many other reasons, but everywhere in the States is a great place to play. It also helps improve my terrible geographical knowledge, too!