It was only seven shows in seven days in 1989. But it will never be forgotten. Four of the best death metal and grindcore bands in the world, united by the leading extreme metal record label at the time. Grindcrusher UK was more than just a brief tour organized by Earache Records that started on November 10 and ended on November 16, 1989. It was an event announcing that things were changing: death metal and grindcore were creative forces to be reckoned with.
Welcome to the first installment of That Tour Was Awesome, a new Decibel series looking back on a landmark tour in the history of heavy metal. It is our honor to give Grindcrusher UK the initial Awesome Tour treatment. Decibel caught up with Bolt Thrower vocalist Karl Willetts, Carcass bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker, ex-Morbid Angel vocalist/bassist David Vincent, and Napalm Death bassist Shane Embury to get the scoop on how this all went down (and to live vicariously through their memories for a while).
To be honest, though, we’re bullshitting you: that wasn’t an awesome tour. That was a legendary tour. Barney Greenway’s debut show with Napalm Death, Morbid Angel’s first time out touring, horrible Bolt Thrower shirts, and a 75-year-old backflipping stagediver: this was Grindcrusher UK.
What do you know about how the idea for the tour came to be?
Willetts: Well, the original idea came from Earache [Records], as a way to promote the label and four bands that were signed to them. It was an opportunity to showcase and promote the extreme metal scene and, in a way, was rather groundbreaking at the time: all the bands on the tour had the capacity to go out on tour individually and play to a couple of hundred people per night, but collectively the whole thing was a much bigger affair, with lots of promotion from the label and a chance for all involved to play larger venues to much bigger crowds.
Vincent: To my recollection, it was really an Earache thing. They wanted to put out a sampler because they werepretty much, honestly, on the cutting edge of underground, extreme music. There were other labels that were doing stuff, but I’d say a lot safer than where we were. So they put out this compilation [Grindcrusher] of everything that was on the label, including the four bands [on this tour], and they were just like, “Yeah, maybe we should do this tour.” Like I say, from my recollection it was definitely Earache saying they’d do a tour that’s based on sort of the top several acts they had on the label.
Walker: Pretty sure it was Digby Pearson [of Earache]’s brainchild. It was to cash in on the Grindcrusher compilation album. A music paper called Sounds was pushing all these bands as some bullshit “Britcore” thing, so it was a vehicle to promote Earache. I think Dig based it on tour packages like Apocalypse Now, which was hardcore bands like Discharge and Exploited on the same bill. A bit of useless trivia—the Grindcrusher sampler was gonna be called Deathcrusher… until the Heysel Stadium disaster [a 1985 riot at a football game which ended with 39 deaths].
Embury: I think Earache had the Grindcrusher compilation at that point, or was about to release it. So that was where the name came from. That was the first tour any of us—certainly Napalm, Carcass, and Bolt Thrower—had done with a professional booking agent. Morbid Angel had just put their album out, and I think Earache was reaching that peak, their first peak, anyway. But for all of us, it was the first time we had nightliners and stuff like that.
What was the first night of the Grindcrusher tour like?
Willetts: First show was up in Manchester on November 10. In our usual chaotic style we got lost on the way—this was way before sat-nav—and arrived late; the fact that we were rotating the opening slot with Carcass meant that as soon as we arrived we had to go onstage and play. 45-minute set with no sound check to a half-empty room, as we played as the doors opened. Not the best start, as I remember. However, a great chance to start drinking early and get slaughtered. That’s the pleasure of opening up a show. Then it was in the van for a long-haul drive up to Edinburgh…
Vincent: That’s specific. I do remember that, in hindsight, it was a little bit haphazard. You know, labels aren’t necessarily tour-managing entities. But the bands, we were all stoked on it. Carcass and Bolt Thrower had done a lot of shows, so it was probably no big thing for them, and Napalm were already pretty much touring all over the place. So we were kinda the kids. Everybody got along really well. There were some challenges, but I think everybody was definitely bringing their A-game, because there was a lot of media attention on, “What is this strange, obscure stuff that some small label from Nottingham, England, is purveying?” There was a lot of attention, and the shows, by and large, were really well attended. And our unit, we were super well-rehearsed and really, really hungry, and we thought, “Let’s get out here and crank the hell out of this thing, and earn some new fans.”
Walker: Don’t recall anything about it—am I correct it was in Manchester? The only thing I do recall is George Emmanuel III [Morbid Angel’s Trey Azagthoth] walking around burning his fingers on a cigarette lighter to “warm them up,” as it was bitterly cold in the venue. We thought that was weird, as well as giving us a chuckle.
Vincent: Well, it was cold, and we’re southern folks, so we’re not quite used to that. Generally speaking, the climate in England is a little colder and a little more dank. We did whatever it took to get through it, and keeping warm… I’m sure he wasn’t burning his fingers, but he was probably heating them up. Fingers don’t go as fast as Trey’s if they’re cold.
Embury: It was Manchester. That was Barney’s first-ever Napalm Death show. We had just done the Mentally Murdered EP, which had just come out, and there was a lot of interest to see what the band was going to sound like. That was also the first show with Jesse Pintado, who we flew over from LA. He made it in the second time; the first time he got turned back because he didn’t have a work permit. But we were all kinda nervous, really. Barney was more into his death metal phase, so he kinda came on in this crazy manner, ran from, like, the back of the club… he used to watch these old Massacre videos where Kam Lee would come in in this really sort of bravado way, which is different from how he is now, in some ways. Carcass opened, then Bolt Thrower played, then Morbid Angel. So we headlined that show, so that was nerve-wracking for us. Everybody was there, the label was there, a lot of other Earache bands, some of the guys from the band Filthy Christians from Sweden flew over. So, yeah, it was pretty nerve-wracking.
What were the crowds like throughout the tour?
Willetts: Well, the crowds were much larger than the shows that we had previously played on our own. Back then we where chuffed if 200 people showed up to a show, so the opportunity to play to crowds of up to 1000 people was amazing. As we were opening up the shows along with Carcass this gave us a chance to mingle with the crowds and check out the other bands; we met a lot of cool people that we still have contact with to this day. The tour manager of the shows, John Adkins, went on to work with Bolt Thrower for a number of years and still remains a very close friend of mine today.
Vincent: I would say they were really good. We had two parts to this tour. The actual Grindcrusher part of the tour was in the UK. Then we went on with Napalm throughout the rest of Europe. It was the first foray into this from a label standpoint, and budgets look one way on paper and another way in reality. It’s expensive; we’re over there trucking around and we have the crew and there are a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of stuff to do. The expenses start outweighing things, and the agents said, listen, we don’t know if we can bring the entire package throughout Europe, but it seemed like the promoters were biting on us and Napalm. I think it would have been really cool to have the whole gamut, but unfortunately, economics take over where philanthropy ends.
Walker: Pretty hit and miss—none of the shows were sold out or anything. I remember Middlesbrough Town Hall being three-quarters empty. This is a period when most UK metalheads were into shitty attempts at Bay Area Thrash/wanna-be Metallica bands.
Embury: Yeah, they were very good. Bigger venues because the four bands came together. Everyone was just really excited about the tour. You’re talking 1000 to 1500 capacity venues in England at that point, so it was pretty packed at most of the shows. In fact, Birmingham was probably the only one that wasn’t the greatest for some reason; I don’t know why. But, yeah, a lot of people, a lot of friends in local bands, tape traders, a whole mixture of people. The earlier Napalm shows were very family-oriented, we knew everybody, but this was one step further, people all around the country and people would fly over from Europe to see it, because those were the first shows Morbid Angel had ever done. So it was a good vibe, we were sharing buses together, and it was a pretty exciting tour, really.
Did all the bands get along?
Willetts: I can’t remember any animosity between the bands back then; everyone got on well back then as we had shared ideals and it felt like we were riding the crest of a very new wave. It was kind of cool and exciting for all involved and we all pitched in and supported one another as a big united crew.
Vincent: Yeah, to my knowledge. We were fans of all the bands; we looked at it like, “All right, here we go, guys.”
Walker: Yeah. I mean, it was weird—Bill [Steer] had just quit Napalm and there’d been a bit of tension because he walked with what he perceived was his Marshall stack. That’s the last time he ever received anything from that band. So, yeah… it was an undercurrent, I mean, everyone was cool with each other. We mostly shared dressing rooms with Bolt Thrower, who we were pally with, and Napalm and Morbid Angel shared. Carcass was on the same tour bus as the crew and caterers; the other three bands were on the same nightliner. Like I say, we all got on, but Napalm had done a seriously embarrassing interview around this time saying they were a death metal band and how they “weren’t a hardcore” band. They’d done promo shots wearing shades and carrying baseball bats. Barney had even said in an interview he wanted a full jumpsuit covered in nails; he’ll try and tell you it was a joke back then, I don’t believe it was, I’ve know him for donkey’s years. Let’s put it down to the follies of youth, eh?
Embury: Yeah, we were fine. We were a lot younger, obviously, back then. Napalm’s sense of humour, because Mickey Harris was in the band at that particular point… I remember Mickey giving David Vincent a hard time for various things. His cowboy hat was one of the things that got a little grief. And Bill was ex-Napalm, we all went back so many years, there were a lot of in-jokes, a lot of nicknames, just general messing around, backstage antics. The guitar tech who was with us is now Iron Maiden’s guitar tech, he’s a good friend of mine. Kevin Sharp [ex-Brutal Truth, Venomous Concept] came over; that was the first time I met Kevin. It was great.
Did anything particularly memorable or weird happen on the Grindcrusher tour?
Willetts: For me the guys in Morbid Angel were the gods; I was totally in awe of them. It was probably the first time that I had come across a band of Americans on tour and to us Brummies their culture was very strange and, indeed, quite alien. Altars of Madness was my favourite record back then—and still, in my opinion, is the best album they have ever released. I was really pleased to be on tour with them and hang out with them backstage. I remember an incident when we played Nottingham Rock City. Dave Vincent had requested a bucket full of maggots which the local crew—all massive, hard-as-nails Hells Angels—had to obtain from the local fishing tackle shop. They were not pleased about this, not impressed at all! We all found this most amusing, which didn’t really help matters much, but for the Morbid Angel lads this was all quite normal and what they did at all their shows. I remember Trey cutting up his arms to let the blood flow just before they went on stage and quite innocently asking him, “What are you doing that for?” Another incident occurred when we played at the Hummingbird in Birmingham, our home turf. In a moment of extreme exuberance and in true Mickey Harris style—he is a top bloke and remains so to this day—a baseball bat managed to create a considerable amount of damage in a few of the backstage rooms after the show was over and all the beer and spirits consumed. I remember going to the promoter’s office to collect our meagre fee of £100, which just about covered our transportation costs. The promoter was a renowned gangster and it was the only occasion that I have ever faced a gun-toting irate gangster, so on this occasion I beat a hasty retreat and decided to waive our fee! Great days!
Vincent: Gosh, this is just so long ago. I remember it being a pleasant experience, generally speaking. And when things are pleasant, I have pleasant memories. I remember bad things, I think we all do. History books are full of bad things; it’s usually the good stuff that gets left behind. We were really into all the bands that were playing, so we enjoyed watching their sets, then taking the stage ourselves.
Walker: Besides Mick Harris farting in David Vincent’s face as he sat eating some food in a Motorway Service Station? Yeah, there was a bit of a kerfuffle at the Birmingham show. A lot of “punks” had come down, a lot were old faces from the Mermaid, some were the members of Chaos UK and Doom. They were heckling Napalm when they played for being “sell-outs” and at one point someone got on stage and pulled a stack over. Members of Napalm then later that night trashed their dressing room with said baseball bats and set off a fire extinguisher… rock ‘n’ roll, eh? Also, Dig had hired a film crew to record the second show, in Nottingham, as he probably got a cheap deal because that’s where his offices were. I don’t think any band was on form by the second show; we made Earache sit on the footage until the band split and we no longer gave a fuck.
Embury: Well, in Birmingham, Chaos UK, a band from Bristol, turned up and because this tour, you could perceive it being a successful star-studded tour, even though we weren’t making insane amounts of money or anything like that, it was just a bigger tour from everyone’s perspective. But the Chaos UK guys damaged one of the buses for some weird punk rock reason. I remember one show, I think in Middlesbrough or Bradford, this famous old guy, he’s obviously not around now, they called Stan, he was a mad stage diver, he was like 75 years old, he came on stage and did a back flip off. I cringe when I see a 21-year-old trying to do that. This guy just did it, and they caught him, and he ran back and did it again. It was the most insane thing I’d ever seen. Another time, the crowd pushed the entire backline over. All the Marshall cabs, it was set up for all four bands, so it was almost Manowar-esque a little bit, there were more cabs on there than you need, which is contrary to what we do now. Everyone came on stage, and the whole backline came down. The record company was not happy.
What was it like as the tour drew to a close?
Willetts: You could say it was all over before it started—it was all a bit of a blur and quite intense, so it was almost a relief when it came to an end. As with most tours, though, the more shows you do the better you get and the more consistent you sound, so it kind of ended just as it was getting really good! It culminated in London, which was the biggest show of the tour; an awesome gig. Back then, Bolt Thrower were just starting up our relationship with Games Workshop; we had run out of shirts to sell so they promised that they would come up with a killer design for us that would blow us away. They showed up with a box of 100 shirts and I remember just laughing at them when they did the big reveal. They were terrible—some superhero geek with a bolt of lightning coming out of his hand and the logo in yellow! We kindly said thanks but no thanks and I think they went off in a huff. Great start to working relations, eh?
Vincent: Like we wished that it was going to keep continuing.
Walker: A relief! (laughs) I recall we played our set at the last show in London and left straight away and got the train back up north and went home.
Embury: We were happy with it. Being young, it felt like everything was moving in a really positive way. All the bands were doing great albums, Earache was putting out some killer releases. And after that we went and played our first show in New York and then came back and carried on the tour with Morbid Angel across Europe. That was great for us as well because, obviously, with a new lineup we wanted to prove something. But at the end of [Grindcrusher UK], I was satisfied that things seemed to be going in a positive way. Jeff may tell you something different (laughs). I enjoyed it.
What did the Grindcrusher tour mean for your band? What did it do for you?
Willetts: Well, financially, it crippled us. But on a promotional basis it kind of helped get our music over to a wider audience, I suppose. It also gave us a taste of how things could be with larger venues and larger crowds so, in a way it, fueled our fire and increased our desire to push on and achieve greater things.
Vincent: It was our first trip to Europe. Our record was doing really well, and that just kinda put the icing on the cake, and it certainly opened up a lot of doors for us to be able to go back subsequently and enjoy a reasonable level of successful touring in Europe for many years to come. It was like the first step. You cut your teeth and have some opportunities open up, and hopefully take advantage of those opportunities and build on them.
Walker: [It meant] that we got paid nothing! (laughs) [It did] nothing [for us], really; I mean, it was our first UK tour. It was fun, but, I dunno, I’m not sure it achieved anything. Back then records sold anyway; you could shift a lot of records on word of mouth, etc.; touring wasn’t as necessary as it later became. It was just something to do.
Embury: It was probably the culmination of a couple of years of us touring on a very punk rock level, and the other bands as well. You take headlining and whatever you think about that, but obviously we closed the shows, so it meant something from that perspective, and the response was great with Barney and Jesse, so it gave us a boost to know we could carry on forward, really. Friends and the other band members were watching us closely, probably, and they were giving us top remarks for what we were doing.
We think back of this tour as a huge, important one; what was it really like at the time?
Willetts: I think that all the bands involved saw it as a great opportunity; nothing like it had really been done before, especially in the extreme metal genre, so it was a great experience for all involved. As I said previously, though, it was all such a blur of activity and all over before it really got started.
Vincent: You know, when I think about this… it was literally our first tour, and we were just reeling from it. That’s all we ever wanted to do—write music and perform. So it was the early stages of a long journey. We were busy performing and enjoying the parties afterwards, and it probably didn’t dawn on us that it was as important at the time. Things look different when you Monday-morning quarterback it compared to when you’re actually living it. We were there for the ride, and we had a great time. Just like the first record, looking back on it, I don’t know that we ever realized that it was going to be taken to be as important as it was. We were just sort of doing our thing. It’s nice that it ended up turning out that way.
Walker: Nope. Who the hell thinks that?!
Embury: It was exciting to me, because I’d never been on a tour bus before, you’re with your friends, meeting new people, meeting tape traders, friends are coming over to hang out on the bus, record label people, just a bunch of people seemed very excited about the tour. We were playing big stages, where I’d seen bands like Saxon and Motörhead, so that was kind of a buzz for us, because we’d never done anything like that before. You do a gig, and are on the bus with other bands and you’re just being silly, being young. We’re quite reserved on tour now. Back then it was complete madness, Mickey was going crazy, we were all just partying and having fun and enjoying it, as you should do. Voivod’s Nothingface album came out, so we were blasting that every night. It seemed we were moving forward in a cool way, and we were appreciating it in that aspect, as you would be.
This tour was at such an exciting and important time for death metal. Could you feel that at the time?
Willetts: It was a definitely a very exciting time – there was a whole scene emerging and beginning to grow in popularity right across the world. It felt like we were all part of something really fresh and new. We were all exploring musical styles and developing a new genre; it all seemed very refreshing. This is before social media, so that feeling of belonging to something unique and different was very special.
Vincent: We weren’t, in all honesty, looking at it as a genre thing. We were doing our thing, and it just happened to go over well. Certainly prior to our first record, when we were shopping our demos, we heard nothing but negative stuff from pretty much most of the labels. “This is too much, it’s not melodic enough, it’s too fast, the lyrics are not something that we can…” Every objection that you could imagine. We were just happy that we kinda stuck to our guns and did our thing. We weren’t necessarily paying attention to this genre that was growing. We were just thinking, we’re growing, and sort of doing our own thing. And it sure did catch on, didn’t it?
Walker: No, not at all; like I say, your average UK metal fan back then was only just getting into Metallica/Slayer/Anthrax, etc. Bands like those on the tour had already moved on. We weren’t trying to be American, except for Morbid Angel (laughs)!
Embury: For sure it was. Terrorizer’s album was about to come out, we were touring with Morbid Angel, the reviews were coming in and people were freaking out, Jesse was really happy that he was touring with Napalm; he couldn’t believe the scene and the people he was playing to, because back in LA it wasn’t like that, it was backyard parties, you know? Entombed’s album had just come out, that was getting some great reviews, and they were going to tour with us a little bit later as well. Earache couldn’t really do any wrong at that point; everything they were putting out was killer. We all also knew each other back in the day, so we were all quite supportive of each other, best we could. So a great feeling that there was a movement happening, and it kept on moving, which is the most important thing.
Do you have any regrets about this tour?
Willetts: No, no regrets. We enjoyed doing the shows and it’s an important part of Bolt Thrower’s history. Shame it never really got repeated, however, we probably wouldn’t have been asked to do it if it was!
Vincent: Any regrets? No, not at all. Well, other than, like I said, in hindsight, I wish it lasted longer. It seemed like it was such a quick thing. But sometimes that’s what creates the mystique.
Walker: Yeah, that Bill let some Mexican guy use three tracks from the mixing board of the Bradford show for a 7”; that damn thing has probably sold 20,000 copies and we’ve never seen a dime! One last cool footnote; when we supported Iron Maiden in 2009 in Mexico, it turned out their light guy had been at the London show. In fact, I think a couple more of their crew had been there. That was kinda cool… and nice to see that someone had become “successful” (laughs)!
Embury: No. I think Mickey shouldn’t have encouraged Morbid Angel to smash one of the backstage dressing rooms in Middlesbrough. They didn’t do too much damage, but it was a bit too rock-star-ish, even though they weren’t, really. I think Bill Steer gave them a stern telling off. That’s not really a regret, that’s just comical. But, no, I don’t have any regrets, especially on that tour. I’d always wanted to be in a band since I was a kid, so I was happy to be doing this. This was the perfect next step for me, so I had a big smile on my face.
Check out the bands’ live sets from the Nottingham Rock City date on the Grindcrusher tour below: