Prompted by that recent Thurston Moore interview about black metal, I've been exhuming my old Venom albums from my high school days, much to the decidedly pronounced disdain of the rest of the household. I first heard the fearsome Newcastle trio in the summer of 1984. I was on a month-long bicycle trip through Massachusetts sponsored by the network of American youth hostels. The rest of the group was comprised of New York City kids like myself, trucculent Long Island teens and a smattering of Bostonian youths. It was an odd mix, but somehow we all managed to make it work. I showed up on the first day, I'm somewhat sorry to say, wearing a Motley Crue t-shirt (the white Allister Fiend model, if you're playing along at home) and was instantly approached by a metalhead from Boston named Josh. We became swift friends, comparing notes on favorite bands and giving each other recommendations. Having only recently discovered Motorhead a couple of years earlier, I waxed rhapsodic about how they rendered virtually every other metal band entirely superfluous (sure, it sounds like hyperbole, but it's still a strong argument). Josh quickly opined that if I enjoyed Motorhead, I should run -- not walk -- to the nearest record store to check out Venom. It was a good tip.
Venom first reared their hellish, hirsute heads in the early 80's, finding a cacophonous middle ground between the burgeoning NWOBHM scene (that's the New Wave of British Heavy Metal) and the second generation of British punk bands. Much like their predecessors in Motorhead, early Venom sounded virtually indistinguishable from their punk counterparts at the time. Venom classics like "Rip Ride" and "One Thousand Days of Sodom" sound right at home next to, say, "Give Me Fire" by GBH or "Dead Cities" by the Exploited. Where more celebrated NWOBHM stalwarts like Iron Maiden prided themselves on meticulous musical chops, Venom were simply more interested in the powerful roar and stealthy athleticism of playing hard and fast. As such, while Venom may have lacked the comparatively note-perfect precision of Iron Maiden, their own devotion to clamor and stealth arguably won them a more varied audience than `Maiden was able to attract. Venom even toured alongside American hardcore royalty Black Flag at one point. Again, much like Motorhead, Venom were one of the few metal bands that (some) punks dared to espouse (before the lines became blurred a few years later).
Beyond their sonic signature, however, Venom are invariably most notorious for being the most ludicrously extreme proponents of Satanism. Where rock veterans like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and others flirted, hinted and portentously intoned about Satan, Venom came right out and amorously embraced him. Choice Venom song titles include "Leave Me in Hell," "In Nomine Satanus" and "Satanachrist." There was no need to play any Venom records backwards; the blasphemy and florid devil-worship were all very much to the fore, thank you very much. Shortly after the first Venom album, Welcome to Hell, hit unsuspecting record store shelves, their California counterparts in Slayer upped the ante with a decidedly American take on demonic thrash-metal (although with a more pointedly po-faced stance). Venom also turned out to be a sprawlingly seismic influence on the troubled Norwegian black metal scene, inspiring a legion of grim outfits like Bathory, Mayhem, Darkthrone and countless others. For a riveting breakdown of that violent, scary and seemingly impenetrable phenomenon, let me enthusiastically recommend Michael Moynihan & Didrik Søderlind's authoritative tome, "Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground." It's a gripping read even if you're a fan of innocuous piffle like Joni Mitchell et al.
Therein, however, lies the part I never understood. While I thrilled to Venom's abrasively unfiltered endorsement of abject evil, I cannot imagine how anyone in their right mind would have ever taken it seriously. Sure, the trio made a crushingly loud, untethered racket and dressed like bondage-parlor attendants, but Venom never struck me as being anything more than a hoarily entertaining cartoon. How an entire community of church-burning, murderous Scandiweigans failed to see the humor in Venom continues to stump me. I mean, come on -- they have a track on At War with Satan (my favorite album of theirs) called simply "Aaaaarrgh." It sounds exactly what you think it sounds like. It's comedy gold.
After picking up At War... on Josh's recommendation, I swiftly became a frothy-mouthed Venom supporter, taken to adopting a low, guttural growl whenever invoking their name and painstakingly replicating their needlessly-ornate logo on my school books. I dutifully sought out their back catalog, combing through dusty import bins to claim their pentagram-stamped vinyl. Though only their first few albums feature the original line-up -- that being the hilariously-monikered Cronos on bass & vocals, Mantas on guitar and Abbadon on drums (real names Conrad, Jeff and Tony) -- Venom were tirelessly prolific. There seemed to be countless e.p.s, live albums, compilations and bootleg recordings. I snapped up a few, but the only Venom albums anyone really needs (and I'm using the verb "need" very loosely) are the first three. I remember buying the endearingly silly Canadian Assault e.p. on the strength of the live material (later appended as a full concert to their Official Bootleg Live album in 1985, festooned with a cyclopian wolf on the cover, naturally). Captured live, Venom was an exhilarating musical fiasco. Much like No Sleep `Til Hammersmith by Motorhead and It's Alive by the Ramones, these recordings feature Venom bashing through their songs with little or no regard for finesse. The band members play in a frantic rage, as if only fleetingly aware of their fellow players. For much of the proceedings, Cronos literally strums his bass. Suffice to say, it's awesome.
As a sad side-note to this saga, being that all my Venom vinyl now resides in storage, I recently went out in search of Official Bootleg Live on compact disc to rehear those moments. Tragically, most of the local mom 'n pop shops that would have handily fulfilled my quest in the past have since vanished. Rocks in Your Head in Soho? Gone. Route 66 on Bleeker? Gone. It's Only Rock N' Roll on West 8th Street? Gone. Venus Records on St. Marks Place? Gone. Stooz Records in the East Village? Gone. Subterranean Records on Cornelia Street? Gone. Midnight Records on 23rd Street? Gone. Second Coming on Sullivan Street? Gone. Free Being Records on Carmine Street? Gone. Sure, there a couple left (although Generation Records on Thompson Street and Bleeker Bob's both failed me), but they're few and far between these days. Hell, virtually all the big chains like HMV, Virgin and Tower are all gone as well. Of course, I could very simply punch a few keys on my computer and have it delivered to my door from Amazon with relative ease. Pardon me, but that's no fun. Give me a record store staffed with knowledgeable music-heads every time. Moreover, I could probably find much of what I'm looking for on iTunes. But truthfully, I fucking hate that. I want to hold the definitive artifact in my hands and pour over the liner notes, lyrics and cover imagery. The lovingly painstaking art of fervent record-collecting -- a practice that brought nebbishy like-minded misfits together in the physical realm, literally elbow-to-elbow whilst rifling through record shop bins -- has been forever soiled by the rise of the internet. Thanks, technology! But I digress.
As much as I feverishly championed the endearingly silly Venom, I begrudgingly stepped away from metal fandom in the fall of 1985. I've spoken about it before, but I made the heartbreaking decision to forsake my heavy metal LPs for the great trek to my freshman year of college (I simply couldn't crate all that vinyl to the midwest). I left behind stacks of records by bands like Twisted Sister, Ratt, Grim Reaper, Helix, Blue Oyster Cult, Saxon, Fastway, Hanoi Rocks, Dio, Def Leppard and the like. A few crucial titles by bands like AC/DC, Van Halen, Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and Metallica still made the cut (no record collection should ever be without copies of Paranoid by Black Sabbath or Ace of Spades by Motorhead at any point), but by and large, I'd sworn off the more ridiculous metal bands for good. I did however, include Venom's At War with Satan as -- to my mind -- it fit as snuggily alongside my shouty hardcore records as it did among the bedenimed metal cretins. I needed to be able to play tracks like the furiously splenetic "Rip Ride" should the appropriate moment arise. Ironically, Venom actually came to New York City that year (playing alongside the Cro-Mags). I still have the flyer, though. I've even considered framing it.
Over the passage of time, my tastes didn't so much mature as broaden. My inclination towards stentorian heavy metal was tempered by my newfound appreciation for other genres of music. My metal albums were now fighting for elbow room alongside LPs by disparate bands like the Cocteau Twins, the Violent Femmes, XTC and the Beastie Boys. Moreover, while I still cherished the giddy idiocy and high-impact sonic assault of vintage Venom, their particular brand of blasphemous bombast was swiftly surpassed in the wake of more extreme bands. No longer the last word in slavishly juvenile, offensive music, Venom suddenly seemed tame, quaint and almost cuddly.
In time, I just associated Venom with the past. I kept my copy of At War with Satan on disc, but spun it with less and less frequency. I still have an old Venom t-shirt (featuring the cover art of Welcome to Hell), but rarely find a reason to wear it .... unless I'm trying to get out of jury duty, or something. I stopped following their progress (Mantas and Abbadon having long since left the fold). Then, in 2004, I was happily surprised to find Cronos contributing to Dave Grohl's metal side-project, Probot (Cronos' track -- the album opener, "Centuries of Sin" -- is far and away the most satisfying song on the disc, to my ears). Shortly after that, Venom came out of hibernation and released Metal Black in 2006. I was working at MTV News at the time, and our youthful metal writer Chris Harris gamely gave me a copy. Having not heard any legitimately new Venom music for over a decade and change, I dutifully spun it. Refreshingly, while the band's musical chops had honed slightly, their penchant for robust preposterousness (especially on the lovably inane title track) remained undiluted. They've since gone onto release another disc since then (the spartanly titled Hell), but I've capably resisted the urge to spring for it.
But with my memory jogged by that Thurston Moore interview, I've suddenly had a massive hankering to crank up the Venom again. Oddly, I've started to see their name invoked in unlikely circles. Yesterday afternoon, I was crossing Astor Place and saw a portly gent sporting the Welcome to Hell t-shirt. In a boutique on University Place called Environment 337, I unexpectedly happened upon a basket of "vintage rock pins." Amidst a clutch of Duran Duran and Culture Club buttons, there was a Venom pin (a picture of the boys wielding axes and scimitars and grimacing accordingly). I bought it on the spot, of course. Out to dinner with Peggy and our neighbor Bruce at Danal on Fifth Avenue the other night, I actually ordered a Newcastle Brown Ale, Venom's hometown bevvy of choice.
But my search to prize a copy of Official Bootleg Live on compact disc came up fruitless. The what's-left-of-Kim's on 1st avenue didn't have it. Bleeker Street Discs didn't have it. Norman's Sound & Vision on Cooper Square didn't have it. Other Music on 4th Street didn't have it. Even Hospital Productions, an otherwise outstanding new hive of all things black metal in the East Village -- a store that owes its very existence to Venom -- had nothing for me. I found this to be all wholly unacceptable being that the album in question was only re-released as recently as 2007. Time was when New York City was a veritable treasure trove for music collectors (of every genre). Not so anymore.
So, my quest continues. For a quick taste of what it is I'm looking for, here's some video recorded at the same show as on the album. For the layperson, however, while you may not enjoy Venom's music, you'll probably get a kick out of the fabled Ecstatic Peace 7". The story behind this legendary piece of vinyl is that Venom played a show in New Jersey with Black Flag, and Black Flag roadie Joe Cole taped the performance and excised all the music, leaving only Cronos' between-song banter. Cole then gave a copy to Thurston Moore, who thought it was so hilarious that he pressed up a few hundred copies and released them on his indie label, Ecstatic Peace. It's since gone on to be an insanely valuable and much sought after curiosity. The Beastie Boys even sampled it on Hello Nasty. I've never seen an actual copy of it, but it sells for insane amounts on eBay. However, I did track down an MP3 of it for your amusement. HEAR IT HERE AND PLAY IT VERY LOUD.
Oh, and Hail Satan.