In his second “Spine of Overkill” column for The Obelisk, Chris “Woody High” MacDermott is a man after my own heart, writing about New Jersey thrash heroes Overkill‘s very first demo, Power in Black.
If you haven’t seen it yet, Woody‘s band, Mighty High, recently announced a record release show for their new album, Legalize Tre Bags, for April 20 in Brooklyn.
When your humble editor asked me to write about heavy music from the 1980s, I immediately said yes but had a helluva time coming up with a decent name for the column. He rejected all of my suggestions saying that I could do better. I knew he was right and it took some thinking and drinking before coming up with just the right one. Finally, one night it was literally staring me right in my face. I went over to a friend’s place to listen to albums and guzzle his beer. He had recently picked up the triple-LP version of Motörhead’s Overkill. I remarked how the spine of Overkill was dwarfing everything else in his LP collection and I knew I finally had what was needed. Since Motörhead’s Overkill was released in 1979, it’s not eligible for my ramblings on the Obelisk, but I can certainly write about New Jersey’s finest thrash metal band — Overkill. Even though it’s been about 25 years since I’ve seen them live or bought one of their albums they had a profound impact on me.
Back in 1982/’83, as I was really starting to discover all the incredible new metal that was being pumped out across the globe at a furious rate, I was having trouble keeping up. Import records were essential but really expensive. The next step was to get into tape trading. Through classified ads in the almighty Kick Ass fanzine, I started corresponding with other creeps around the country that had lists of tapes that they would dub in exchange for stuff they were looking for. I didn’t have many demos but luckily found some cool dudes who would dub stuff for me if I sent them blank tapes and money for postage. I’d usually send them an extra blank for them to keep or they could send me even more stuff. It was awesome coming home from my after school job to find these packages waiting for me. Who wants to do homework when there are live Exodus shows to listen to? I got Metallica‘s No Life til Leather demo not too long before Kill ‘em All was released and was really into it. Most of the demos I was getting were good but nowhere close to that.
But one that really kicked my ass was Overkill‘s Power in Black five-song demo, released in 1983. I figured a band named after my favorite Motörhead album had to be good, right? (I later learned that they almost named themselves “Virgin Killer” after the Scorpions classic.) Their logo was Iron Maiden-esque and they looked totally evil in the xeroxed photo on the cover. And they were from New Jersey! That was a hell of a lot closer than San Francisco. The first sound I heard on Power in Black (or “power in blacks” as we liked to say in New Rochelle) was tape hiss. Lots of it. Heavy tape hiss and then the sinister riff for their theme song, “Overkill,” played by guitarist Bobby Gustafson. A big thud from drummer Rat Skates and bassist D.D. Verni introduced the lead-screech vocals of Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth. If the fidelity on No Life til Leather was primitive, then Power in Black is ancient. It sounds like these guys were playing so loud that the only way the condenser mic on their boom box could record them was if they set it up across the street – thin, trebly, wooshy sound made even worse from being dubbed so many times only added to the appeal. And by the time the song wrapped up with Blitz screaming “KILL!” five times, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to rewind the tape to listen to it again or check out the rest of the songs.
I decided to let the tape play and was rewarded with a pummeling Judas Priest-influenced song called “The Beast Within.” Blitz does some nice Bela Lugosi-ish bellowing on it and there are a few killer time changes to accommodate a variety of headbanging speeds. It’s been suggested that this is one of the very first thrash metal songs ever written since it dates back to 1981. Side one of the tape wraps up with the very fast “There’s No Tomorrow.” After about a minute and a half of mega-speed boogie, things slow down for a metal waltz part. Blitz lets out a bloodcurdling scream and things go back to rapid-fire tempo for a scorching axe solo from Bobby G. The rhythm section is pretty much buried in the noise, but Rat Skates gets some tasty Clive Burr-style fills audible from time to time. Flip the tape over and there are twp more thrash classics – “Death Rider” (not to be confused with Anthrax‘s “Deathrider”) and “Raise the Dead” (not to be confused with “Raise the Dead” by Venom). “Death Rider” has a Sad Wings/Stained Class-style Priest intro before blasting into faster territory. This song later wound up on Metal Massacre V. “Raise the Dead” follows a similar metal template and later turned up as the opening song on their debut album, Feel the Fire.
This tape really blew me away. And when I finally got to see them at L’amour in Brooklyn in either late ‘84 or early ’85, they literally blew me away. Not only were they really fucking loud, they let off these massive explosions that really shook the rafters. Holy shit, that was scary. That wasn’t the only thing that was scary. Overkill had a huge following of really delinquent fuckups. The club was packed with dudes riding the mescalator and/or dusted out. Add Budweiser and Jack Daniels to the mix and you’ve got a really great time. They were also the first metal band that I ever saw where headbangers were slam dancing and stage diving. I was used to being pressed up against the stage, head banging and fist pumping, but now you had to look out for hopped-up degenerates with spikes getting thrown into you. When they covered D.O.A.‘s version of the Subhumans song “Fuck You,” things got even crazier. After that assault, how could I not buy a t-shirt with the catchphrase “Blood Metal Donor” on the back?
In a perfect world Overkill should have released their debut album in 1984. Their epic song “Feel the Fire” was one of the few highlights of the pretty crappy NY Metal ‘84 compilation (Long Island’s Frigid Bich were my other favorite). They released a killer four-song EP called Overkill also in 1984 but the label was lame and it was out of print almost immediately. It contains one of my all time favorite Overkill songs, “The Answer.” Doom metal freaks should track it down. Not many thrash bands really did slow, heavy, Sabbath-style songs back then and it’s a great “Wheels Of Confusion” rewrite. By the time Feel the Fire was released in late 1985 most of their fans knew the songs inside and out and there was suddenly a lot more competition for a headbanger’s limited attention span. A similar thing happened to Exodus. By the time Bonded by Blood was released, most hardcore metal maniacs had all the songs on tape for about a year.
Anyone interested in the early days – of not just Overkill but early thrash metal as a whole – should check out the DVD that Rat Skates put out a few years ago called Born in the Basement. The highlight is when he talks about how a member of the band was kicked out of the group for showing up to band practice wearing a white leather jacket. Say no to white leather, say yes to the Power in Black!