That Satan were one of the most slept-on bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal because of their name is a cruel irony. For a genre that adopted the devil as chief muse and aesthetic patriarch, Satan should have fitted right in; acceptance should have been instant. But while Satan, too, were a product of Venom’s hometown, Newcastle, England, their approach was wholly different.
Formed in 1979 when guitarists Steve Ramsey (also of seminal UK folk metal band Skyclad) and Russ Tippins were still at school, Satan were all about incorporating melody and technicality into NWOBHM’s innate speed. History, politics and justice trumped the for-the-album Satanism of their Geordie peers and the scene at large.
Satan were named after Satan but they were never in league with him. Ramsey and Tippins guitars were the rapier not the hammer; shit, they could really play. But many couldn’t get over a band called Satan coming out with a debut LP Court in the Act that showcased highfalutin’ musicality while paying no genre union dues in its lyrical themes. Calling the band Satan while singing about justice, Native Americans a la Maiden on “Broken Treaties”, Vikings on “Blades of Steal” (a la Maiden again), running from the law (a la . . . There are plenty of artistic parallels with Maiden) . . . That was all taken for cognitive dissonance by a music press that lumped them in with the then nascent extreme metal scene.
Satan were never that: they were straight-up, Heavy Metal, progressively cavalier, and that, as Steve Ramsey tells the Deciblog, helped screw everything up. Satan changed their name (Blind Fury [see bottom], Pariah, The Kindred), changed their line-up, lost momentum, and eventually succumbed to obscurity.
But Ramsey is not bitter. With the imminent release of Life Sentence (Satan’s first studio album since 1987’s Suspended Sentence), and a headlining appearance at Live Evil Festival confirmed for October, he has way more to look forward to than to regret.
What made you bring Satan back in 2004 and then again seven years later?
Steve Ramsey: What happened in 2004 was, we got offered to play the Wacken festival and thought it was a good idea but at the time. Sean [Taylor], our drummer, he had a problem with his knee; he had an operation and couldn’t play so we ended up with the drummer out of Brian’s Blitzkrieg band [Phil Brewis], and he did the show. We did it as a one-off, and didn’t intend to do any more—although we had agreed to do Keep It True Festival as a final show because the guy hassled us so much to do it we just said “yes”. We had no intention of doing any recording or anything like that. Then the Keep It True Festival was cancelled when Graeme [English, bass] had an accident when we were on tour with Skyclad, and split his head open. So, we had to cancel the Keep It True Festival, which was kind of tacked on the end of the Skyclad tour. From that moment on, the guy from Keep It True, Oliver Weinsheimer, kept on hassling us, and hassling us, and hassling us . . . Haha! He just wouldn’t let it go. Every time we went to Germany to play with Skyclad he would turn up at the show and start hassling me again. He was so adamant that there was a big following building up for the old stuff again, and we didn’t see that; but he is there in the scene, especially in Germany. Eventually, he persuaded us to do it but the only reason it happened was because Sean said he was capable of playing again. So we thought, “Great, let’s do the show, ‘cos we sort of owe this guy the show; we’ll do it with the original line-up and draw a line under it there.” That’s how that came about.
It’s funny, because where the metal underground is at, Satan have never been more relevant, or in demand. Are you out of the loop with regards to the metal scene?
Steve Ramsey: Very much so. I think we are just totally out of the loop. We’re not the same as we were when we were young kids, following new bands and stuff like that, so we had no idea that this style was becoming popular again, just no idea at all, and we got such a shock when we did Keep It True. The reaction of the crowd . . . We did a signing session before the show and it took an hour and a half, it was almost like we’d did it for the whole hall; every person had a Satan shirt, or a Satan album to sign. It was unbelievable.
How did Live Evil convince you to play; had you heard any of the other bands who were going to be on the bill?
Steve Ramsey: Again it was just Marek just hassling us! Haha, we’re so laid-back about all this, because we’re not like a young band who’s trying to make a name for themselves. It’s like, “Well, okay: go on, we’ll do another gig . . .” We never expected to be recording an album or doing anything like this; the whole idea was just to do a couple of festivals and call it a day. It has just blown up.
That’s the complete opposite to young bands who have to beg, borrow and steal to get on tours.
Steve Ramsey: It’s crazy. We don’t need to be trying hard. It’s very strange to be doing it. We’ve got really bad memories of playing shows. In the ‘80s, we didn’t play any shows anything like the gigs that we’ve been doing recently, Keep It True or the Purple Turtle [Camden, London] show. We didn’t expect that; I had quite a job trying to convince the rest of the band to play in London because it had always been shit in the UK. The memories of the ‘80s, for us? It wasn’t good.
Has your audience always been biggest in Europe?
Steve Ramsey: Yeah, that’s been the case with Skyclad as well. I mean, Skyclad did well in the early ‘90s, but Kurt Cobain died and that was the end of that; we didn’t get any press after that. It’s always just been kept alive in Europe, everything that we do. It was kind of like that. We had a big thing going on in Holland with Satan but we didn’t even play Germany. We did one tour, one support tour with Running Wild. That was as far as Satan got into Germany; we didn’t do any headline shows as Satan. That was a bit strange as well. Eventually, as Pariah, we did a few shows in Germany but still we didn’t have anything like the reception that we’re getting now.
Why did you change the band’s name so many times—Blind Fury, The Kindred, Pariah—do you think that was a mistake?
Steve Ramsey: Yeah, I think so, absolutely. I think it was a big mistake, changing the name, changing the line-up. But at the time, you can only go by the feedback that you’re getting; the first album, Court in the Act, got 2Ks in Kerrang!, two out of five, and they said it wasn’t very good, so when you start reading stuff like that you start thinking that you’re doing the wrong thing. We thought we needed to change. We realized later that it was a mistake but at the time we were getting classed as death metal and black metal and we weren’t that; we thought the name was making people think that about us. We’re just a traditional heavy metal band. The name is just a name. We are not Satanists. We’re not occultists or anything like that, and we don’t write any songs about the devil. Not a single song written about the devil; Satan, to us, just personifies evil, and the songs are about all the bad shit that happens in the world.
Do you think that bad music journalism cost you the early part of your career?
Steve Ramsey: Yeah, kind of, but it’s one of those things if you listen to the press: We were only impressionable kids and we were listening to people saying that what we were doing is wrong, then we changed. If we hadn’t listened to them we may not have changed. So I think it did, yes. When the first Satan album came out, if you think of all the albums that were out there at the time, there was nothing like that. The bands were playing traditional, straightforward heavy metal, and our stuff is a bit more out on a limb, a bit more progressive than anything that was around at the time, and I think the press didn’t want that; they just wanted more of the same shit that was happening, like Saxon and stuff like that.
You were maybe a bit too cavalier for them.
Steve Ramsey: Yeah, I think so, a bit over the top. Some of the stuff is very technical; the songs are big pieces of music; they’re not verse/chorus.
Who were the big influences on your playing?
Steve Ramsey: For me, personally, as a guitarist: Tony Iommi. For me the big influences in making me want to play guitar were Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, and they band that I compare us most to is Judas Priest, but if you tell people that now they start thinking that we don’t sound anything like “Living After Midnight”, and all the other stuff they did in the ‘80s. But I am talking about the early albums that they did, and especially Unleashed in the East, that live album that they did; all their songs were very intricate in the ‘70s and they sort of sold out with the stuff they wrote in the ‘80s to become big in the States. Songs like “Sinner” and “Deceiver”, “Tyrant”, all those songs had big key changes in the middle, harmony guitars and all that, and that is what we were into.
So you got dragged kicking and screaming to do some gigs, what made you want to write an album?
Steve Ramsey: The whole thing came from the one gig. We played the one show in Germany. The biggest thing was the young fans; we were expecting a room full of 40-year-olds and it was full of young fans going crazy, and they knew every word. It was unbelievable. Then we did a couple of shows, and Russ [Tippins, guitar] just came up with a song. We did one song, sat down and thought about it. If we were going to do this we couldn’t write what we would write now as musicians; we had to try and put ourselves back where we were and write like that, so we had a few little rules, like no odd time signatures; things that we wouldn’t have done back then but might do in our music nowadays. We tried to create the same vibe, and once we got four songs in we knew that we were doing the right thing. A lot of bands find it difficult to put themselves back in the shoes of when they were 18, 19 years old. I mean, I was 19 when we did the first album. We had to try put ourselves back there to write the new album, and it worked. And if it hadn’t worked, if we couldn’t feel like that, the album would never have been released. That’s what we had to achieve, and I think we did it.
How did you get into the headspace of the 19-year-old you?
Steve Ramsey: We knew when we started rehearsing for Keep It True; we knew that we had it. It was like, “Fuck! We’re good.” It felt really good. It sounded really good. The people outside the rehearsal rooms were saying, “Fuck me! Who is this band?” And we hadn’t lost the connection that we had with each other; it was still there; it was like it had never gone. We knew then that we could do it, when we started playing. We still had that special thing, and from there we wrote a song, then tried another song. We played a couple of them at a couple of festivals and they went okay. We took it from there.
Metal in ‘80s Britain always appeared to be a working class thing. Was that your experience of growing up in Newcastle?
Steve Ramsey: I suppose that is why you get into the music. But I remember the group of friends at school—me and Russ went to the same school, that’s where we formed the band—were more the middle-class guys than the metal guys, because we were listening to stuff like Rush, that kind of music, and it was more progressive than Saxon, more technical. So in some ways it works like that, the working class thing, but in others it didn’t for us.
What do you make of Skyclad’s influence in helping to create the folk metal scene?
Steve Ramsey: That’s actually more about being British. We definitely have that, whatever that is: We are definitely very British. Satan are very British, and Skyclad are really British, influenced by British things and British bands. We’ve definitely got that.
Justice has been a running theme for you. Why has that been such an enduring inspiration for you?
Steve Ramsey: It’s injustice, that was the main thing to write about through the years; we’ve written a lot about war and religion, and just the questions you ask every day when you watch the news. A lot of it is going back into history; so we’ll dip back into history and say maybe that it happens because of this, and basically the whole thing is based on religion and injustice. That’s where we came up with the idea of the judge being the devil. The devil is the judge of everyone and he is leading the way we are going, and that’s the concept. At the time, there were a lot of other bands knocking around in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal singing about sick girls, and drinking, motorbikes, stuff like that, and we wanted something else to write about. So it was basically about what was happening in the news, looking into history as to why this was happening.
Did you have much camaraderie with other N.W.O.B.H.M. bands, or did you maybe feel a bit out there on your own because you were more progressive?
Steve Ramsey: Yeah, in a way. But we’re still good friends with bands like Tysondog; Alan Hunter did some backing vocals on our first album, Court in the Act, and then later on we did some shows; we did a Pariah album [Unity] with Alan, and a few shows with him. We were all good friends; we all knew each other. Last year with did a show in Belgium and Tysondog were playing and it was great to see each other again. It was great to see them again. We didn’t see any of the infighting because most of the bands were signed to Neat Records and we weren’t, haha! If there was any infighting it tended to be the bands signed to Neat Records who were maybe getting preferential treatment, like Venom or Raven would get all the money put into them and other bands wouldn’t or whatever . . . But we were on the outside of that.
Who is exciting you at the moment, musically? Are there any other Live Evil bands that you’re familiar with?
Steve Ramsey: No, to be honest, I teach, so really the stuff that I hear now is the stuff that my kids listen to, y’know. I mean, they might have heard of some of these bands—I’ve heard of Antichrist and Midnight, but I can’t tell you what their material will be like. But obviously I will have a listen because I am interested to hear the bands that we’re playing with.
You’re coming back into a scene where there are loads of kids in bands that sound just like Angel Witch. You’ll love it.
Steve Ramsey: Well Angel Witch were one of my favorite bands ever so that’s great. I like the fact that it’s coming back to being a bit more musical; it’s great. My kids listen to bands like Evile and stuff like that, and they sound like they are coming from Metallica, and I think it’s all good.
**Satan Life Sentence is out May 21st through Listenable records. Pre-order it here*.
**Satan play Live Evil Festival on October 18th-20th, Highbury Garage, London. For tickets and line-up info, click here.
[*Listenable webstore offline at time of posting]
**Poke Satan, invite them to your friend’s leaving drinks, whatever: Here is their Facebook