Spartan Warrior is gearing up for another visit to our country for two special shows in Athens and Trikala. We get the chance to talk to singer David Wilkinson who was kind enough to take us back in time to the recording of “Steel N’ Chains”. We are also treated with a trip down to memory lane and most specifically to England of the early 80s when NWOBHM reigned supreme. Interview: Sakis Nikas
Rockpages.gr: You are celebrating the 40th anniversary of your debut album “Steel N’ Chains” with a special show in Athens, Greece. What should we expect from this upcoming gig?
David Wilkinson: In 2023 we are celebrating 40 years since the release of our debut album, Steel n’ Chains by playing the album live in full for the very first time. We are playing a particularly special show in Athens on April 28th which will be a headline show at which we intend to play not only the Steel n’ Chains album in its entirety but a large selection of songs taken from the bands Spartan Warrior II, Behind Closed Eyes and Hell To Pay albums. It’s a great opportunity for fans to see us play an extended set and we are very much looking forward to returning to Athens… what better place to play a special Spartan Warrior show! We will also be playing at Horns Up Festival in Trikala the following day.
Rockpages.gr: Let’s talk a little bit about that first official recording of yours. First of all, what are your memories from those sessions at Guardian Studios in Durham?
David Wilkinson: Obviously, we were all very young and it was a very exciting time. We contacted Guardian who expressed their interest in recording two tracks for their Pure Overkill compilation album. We recorded the songs Easy Prey and Steel n’ Chains. Those first two sessions were really good and that led to Guardian expressing their interest in recording a full album. With Guardian at the helm we proceeded to record two tracks per session with the band paying for its own recording costs. It was a very fast, exciting and enjoyable album to make and although it’s a very raw sounding album by todays standards the songs are very good. We had a lot of fun in the studio which was reported to be haunted and as we usually recorded throughout the night and into the next morning there were plenty of opportunities for practical jokes and terrorizing members of the band. It really was a fantastic time and an opportunity to put the band firmly into the public eye.
Rockpages.gr: You are rightfully considered an integral part of NWOBHM despite the fact that the album was released a couple of years later than the genre’s reigning period. Do you think that “Steel N’ Chains” and why not Spartan Warrior would have had a better luck and career path if this bunch of songs would have been released in 1980 or 1981?
David Wilkinson: That’s very kind of you to regard us so highly, thank you.
We had been around and playing live shows locally as Spartan Warrior since 1980 so we were certainly part of what was considered the NWOBHM movement.
I think that Steel n’ Chains was a good debut album. It’s very hard to say whether or not we would have achieved greater success had the album been released in 1980 or 1981. There were a large number of bands releasing albums at this time and although a significant number of them attracted press coverage and became reasonably well known, very few of them endured or achieved any real commercial success or even longevity. Obviously, bands like Iron Maiden and Def Leppard cut through but they were the exception rather than the rule and each had exceptional label and management support. I think that that can often make a huge difference and being in the right place and right time isn’t always enough. 1980 and 1981 may well have seen NWOBHM at its peak but I don’t think that things would have been any different for Spartan Warrior without the major support that some of our peers enjoyed.
Rockpages.gr: Were you happy with how Guardian Records handled the whole promotion and business aspect of this release?
David Wilkinson: I think that it is very important to understand that Guardian were a small local label. They were primarily a recording studio who put out their releases as independent’s. I imagine that their promotional capabilities and reach were limited when compared to some of the more major labels such as EMI.
In Spartan Warrior’s case, it was the band who paid for the recording costs of Steel n’ Chains and to that extent Guardian benefitted from our business directly.
Guardian then released the Steel n’ Chains album which allowed the band to take the next step. Guardian benefitted from that release as the label involved and also from what that release then attracted… namely the opportunity for Guardian to record the next Spartan Warrior album when the band signed to Roadrunner. It was Guardian who negotiated the bands contract with Roadrunner and it was Guardian who then undertook recording and production of the second album. That’s pretty good business by Guardian isn’t it?
It was just before Steel n’ Chains was released that Roadrunner expressed their interest in signing the band. As I recall, Roadrunner wanted to release the Steel n’ Chains album but Guardian very much wanted to do that themselves. If Steel n’ Chains had been released by Roadrunner maybe it would have put the band on the map sooner and to a greater extent… who can say?
Obviously, Guardian released Steel n’ Chains and on the back of that the band signed to Roadrunner for the second album. As I say, that was good business for Guardian as we recorded the second album at Guardian with the cost being borne by Roadrunner… Roadrunner paid Guardian to record and produce the second album.
Guardian were heavily involved in securing our signing to Roadrunner. That had the potential to be a great move for the band but in retrospect I don’t think that Guardian necessarily had it’s sights purely on progressing the band. I think that Guardian were rightly or wrongly equally, if not more, focused on generating business for the studio. I don’t criticize them for that although some people may regard it as rather short sighted. I don’t think that promoting or supporting bands was their priority. I don’t think that they had the capacity or infrastructure in place to be able to do that even if they had wanted to.
Rockpages.gr: NWOBHM was responsible of bringing back hard rockin’ music to the forefront after a time period where punk music was all over UK and the so called classic rock of the early 70s had stagnated. Please, take us back to that time and by the way how were things in Sunderland regarding this musical movement?
David Wilkinson: The 1970’s was a great time for rock music. All of my early influences came from the Glam Rock scene. Bands like Queen, Sweet, Slade, T Rex and Bowie were all huge influences. They really laid the foundations for me.
It was a natural progression from around 1976/77 for me to move on to the classic rock bands of the late 70’s. Bands like Free, Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest and of course Black Sabbath. A little later my influences extended to bands like UFO, Aerosmith and Van Halen.
I recall when punk reared its head… it created a huge musical divide and I hated it and everything it stood for. There was real division and animosity which in retrospect was unnecessary as we really weren’t that different in terms of our attitude of wanting to shake things up and do it on our own terms. I should add that 40 years on, I really like a lot of punk stuff… I think that Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols is a fantastic guitarist and hugely underrated.
When the NWOBHM movement broke onto the scene it was a great time for live music both locally in the North East of England and nationally throughout the UK.
As well as Guardian Records in Durham many bands found their way to the infamous Neat Records in Newcastle… they in particular were a real force in terms of releasing material by a lot of very good bands… Avenger, Tysondog, Venom, Tygers of Pan Tang and of course Raven.
The music scene in the North East was really buzzing. Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough all had really good local rock bands playing on a regular basis… Raven, Tygers of Pan Tang and White Spirit regularly played along with bands from a little further afield including Saxon and Limelight. There was a wealth of local bands coming to the fore too. Bands like Satan, Avenger, Venom and Tysondog.
Sunderland, Middlesbrough and in particular Newcastle were all stopping off points for major touring bands and not a week went by when I wasn’t seeing major bands playing live… Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, Saxon and Motorhead to name a few. It was an absolutely fantastic time.
Rockpages.gr: Do you miss those days?
David Wilkinson: Absolutely. It was a great time to be a rock fan. There were gigs to go to every week and some groundbreaking albums being released.
Rockpages.gr: In 1984 you released the sophomore, self-titled album. Compared to “Steel N’ Chains”, were you happy with how it turned out?
David Wilkinson: To be perfectly honest, no. I think that the first problem was that we went back into the studio to record far too soon. We had literally just done Steel n’ Chains when Roadrunner signed us and we might actually have started recording the second album before Steel n’ Chains was even released!
Most of the second album consisted of songs that we had already written and had been in our live set when we recorded Steel n’ Chains. I don’t think there was much wrong with the songs as they were written but the recording process and production completely changed them.
A very long time was spent on recording the drum and bass tracks and to a certain lesser extent the guitars. The vocals really suffered as a result. By the time we got to that stage there just wasn’t enough time left. Most of the vocals were recorded across two nights and it was very hard work. I actually started to lose my voice at one point… you can here that on Son of a Bitch and Sentenced to Die I think.
It was an awful experience at times. Steel n’ Chains was very easy to record… we just pretty much played the songs live and hit the record button. The second album was nothing like that… some things just took so long to do when it really didn’t need to be that complicated and as a result, other things, particularly the vocals, ended up being rushed and there was an air of discontentment in the band.
During the post recording stage, while the band were not in the studio, some of the tracks were extended and that changed the structure and dynamic of the songs too. We had no say in that… it was just done.
To add insult to injury, we were asked for our input on the album title and cover art. The band advised the label that the album was to be called Assassin and we provided a brief for the artwork. None of that happened and the first time we saw the album it was already in record stores titled ‘Spartan Warrior’ with the skulls and birds on the cover.
What I will say is that notwithstanding how the band feel about the second album fans do seem to love it and the cover is just fucking amazing isn’t it! Isn’t it 40 years old next year? How about another anniversary show in Athens?
As a final note on the subject, it was the very fact that we did not think that the second album truly represented what we were capable of that when we reformed in 2009 our main objective was to record another album to set the record straight. We were absolutely determined to deliver an album full of good rock songs and to take responsibility ourselves for how they were recorded and produced. My brother (Neil Wilkinson – Lead Guitar) recorded, engineered and produced the Behind Closed Eyes album in 2010 and really did a fantastic job under a great deal of pressure. We felt at the time that it was far superior to the second album and so we achieved our objective… of course we wanted to up our game for the next album and we really did that with the album that followed ‘Hell To Pay’.
Rockpages.gr: If you had to point down just one NWOBHM band that deserved more but for one reason or another failed to do so, which one would that be and why?
David Wilkinson: Raven. John and Mark Gallagher are such hugely talented guys. They’ve been around for a very very long time and seem at points to have been on the verge of greater things than even the undoubted successes that they have had.
They have longevity for sure, a fantastic musical legacy and more commercial success than a lot of NWOBHM bands could hope to achieve.
However, I can’t help but feel that they deserve so much more.
They’ve been such a hugely innovative and influential band that they really deserve to be up there with the Iron Maiden’s and Metallica’s of the rock world…
Have Raven enjoyed success, longevity and a musical legacy that I would aspire to? Absolutely they have but in my opinion they deserve much more.
I saw them in Newcastle a few weeks ago when they played to a home crowd of about 150 and yet not long before that they were playing arena shows with Metallica! That’s where Raven deserve to be… hard working heavy metal lunatics!
Rockpages.gr: Last but certainly not least, what should we expect from Spartan Warrior in the near future?
David Wilkinson: We have a Steel n’ Chains anniversary show in May at Dominion Festival in Durham in the UK. That’s a pretty cool gig as it isn’t far from where we recorded the album back in 1983.
We have a few other UK shows penciled in later in the year too and a few other possibilities on the horizon awaiting confirmation.
We also have a few new songs already written. I would quite like to record a fifth album…that’s a little way off yet… that would be cool.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I think we last played in Athens in 2013 so its been a long time coming hasn’t it… it’s going to be a great show for sure. You guys were pretty wild last time. I’m looking forward to coming back to our spiritual home.