Justify Your Shitty Taste: Diamond Head’s “Canterbury”

Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, once in a while, on Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. But for JYST’s second run, we’re expanding the scope of the column to include vigorous defenses of the records we love from bands with slightly less incredible track records. This time Adem Tepedelen defends the star-crossed album that tore the original Diamond Head lineup asunder and effectively helped drive a previously promising career right into the turf.

Looking back on Diamond Head’s career trajectory 30 years later, such as it was, it’s a lot easier to see what missteps the band made. But you know what they say about hindsight. We canonized Diamond Head’s first “album,” Lightning to the Nations in the Decibel Hall of Fame in December 2007, but, in fact, this was never meant by the band to be an official album. That it ended up considered as such, four of its songs covered by Metallica, happened many years after the fact. At the time, it was just a demo to get them a major label deal.

That major label deal eventually materialized with MCA two years later, in 1982, and Diamond Head recorded, at least in their mind, their debut album, Borrowed Time, which included two songs from Lightning, and was rounded out by five songs they had been playing for years. Though it did well for the band, longtime fans must have felt some disappointment. It also put them well behind several of their NWOBHM contemporaries—Maiden, Saxon, Def Leppard—who already had a a few major label releases under their belts and were seeing varying degrees of success.

Thus Diamond Head began recording the follow up to Borrowed Time less than a year after that album’s release and were in the position of having to write material specifically for a new album. There were three songs (“To the Devil His Due,” “Makin’ Music” and “Knight of the Swords”) already written, but that was just a start. So, under pressure from their label to write potential singles, guitarist Brian Tatler and vocalist Sean Harris set about creating music they’d hoped would give them mainstream success, not just a staunch following among the heavy metal crowd. (Just to add perspective, Metallica hadn’t even released Kill ’em All yet.)

In interviews at the time they openly talked about wanting to transcend the metal genre and clearly no longer associated themselves with the NWOBHM. They obviously had no idea how their fortunes would change once Metallica began covering their songs and, thanks in large part to Metallica, the entire metal paradigm would shift rather dramatically. Diamond Head just wanted to be successful, and like many of their contemporaries, such as Def Leppard, they were willing to soften their material.

In fact, Canterbury producer, Mike Shipley, worked as an engineer on Def Leppard’s Pyromania album prior to working with Diamond Head. It’s not surprising then that Canterbury has a slick sheen, multi-track vocals and distinct lack of heaviness compared to much of the band’s earlier releases. This was meant to be a bold, ambitious release that would improves their fortunes. It did just the opposite.

So unpleasant and contentious was the recording session—Shipley was, according to the band, incredibly demanding and difficult to work with—that drummer Duncan Scott was fired and bassist Colin Kimberley quit. Both played on the majority of the album, but replacements were brought in to complete it.

Canterbury was eventually released on September 9, 1983 and did worse than Borrowed Time sales-wise. Perhaps the band had second-guessed what their fans wanted. Perhaps they didn’t care and were aiming higher. It got decent reviews at the time, but for a band that had built its reputation with songs like “Am I Evil?,” going this far afield just didn’t seem to make sense.

We’re here to tell you, however, that in spite of all the nonsense involved in making Canterbury, it is loaded with at least as many quality songs as its predecessor. It’s easy to be put off by the slickness and lack of heaviness here (they clearly made a concerted effort to dial back the distortion), but the songs are strong and Tatler and Harris’s contributions are more than solid. Tatler, we still strongly believe, is the most under-valued/appreciated guitarist in the entire NWOBHM.

This dude’s only glory was not simply writing one of the coolest/heaviest riffs ever (“Am I Evil?”). Sure, that was a highlight, but his songwriting and soloing skills are incredible. He has a fluidity and ease to everything he does—heavy, fast, slow, melodic—that is just instinctual. Granted Canterbury is perhaps not the best example of his ample talent, but there are plenty of amazing riffs woven throughout the record that in the right producer’s hands would have been crushing. “The Kingmaker,” “To The Devil His Due” and “Knight of the Swords” had plenty of heft. They were simply neutered by Shipley’s production.

There are other tracks here that sonically may have more in common with the Police or U2 (“Out of Phase” and “I Need Your Love”) but, Tatler’s playing and Harris’s vocals are still amazing. Heavy? No way, but even when these guys had wandered away from the original plot line Diamond Head was founded on, they could still write really good songs. “Ishmael” and the title track are pretentious as hell, but also incredibly well-written and beautiful in spots.

Today Canterbury looks like a such an obvious misstep for a band that rather inadvertently helped invent thrash, but that’s the power of hindsight. Diamond Head (or at least the songwriting duo of Tatler and Harris) was probably headed in this direction anyway. Had Canterbury not split the band, and had Mike Shipley not produced it, who knows how this album would have been received.

Yeah, there’s not much on here that’ll stand toe to toe with “Am I Evil?,” but it’s also not so far from the rest of their discography so as to appear as coming from completely out of left field. And to this day they still play “To the Devil His Due” live.

Makin’ Music
Out Of Phase
The Kingmaker
One More Night
To The Devil His Due
Knight Of The Swords
I Need Your Love