Witcfinder General (they got their name from a classic horror-movie) is one of the greatest follower of early Black Sabbath style, but it’s not a big wonder, as they were formed in the late of 70’s. Their occult doom/ rock/ NWOBHM music is one of the finest also today, but they are famous about their cover-desingns, too, Ha-Ha! After more than 20 years silence in 2006-2007-2008 they came back with re-releases and brandnew album, so we asked them also about the come-back, not only about their glorious past. Questions were answered by Phil Cope, guitarist.
So Phil, in your opinion, is the history, the formation of heavy metal account for the birth of the R’N’R music of the ’50s?
I think heavy metal came from Black Sabbath. Before they hit it big there were groups like Cream, Hendrix, Zeppelin and Purple who went under the banner of progressive rock back in those days, but it was the sheer power of Sabbath who, in my opinion started heavy metal.
In the early ’60s the Beatles came into being, can they be labelled as the forerunners of the British metal movement or…?
The Beatles definitely changed the course of music, from the strumming sound of pop (I love you darling) kind of music to the laid back (drugs and get your knickers off baby, I want you) hippie music.
In the late ’60s the originals of the metal scene, such as Black Sabbath (formerly known as Earth), Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy formed. Would you say, that without them there wouldn’t have been any metal scene?
Without a shadow of doubt without these guys rock would not have progressed.
Is that correct, that they continued the musical path of Beatles, but on a more brutal and heavier way?
Yeh, you have to remember that the Beatles didn’t really have advanced and heavy guitarists, compared to Page, Clapton, Iommi, Blackmore etc. I’m not knocking Harrison and Lennon, they were brill, but they were better songwriters than musicians.
Do you still remember, at which point did you find an interest in music and metal in particular?
What were the first records or/and songs that had the biggest effect on you?
I first got interested in music when I bought a Slade record ’Take me back ’ome’ in 1972.The start of the record was quite heavy for a pop song but it was that start that made me want to play the guitar. As I progressed on the axe I turned to a more heavier sound such as the classic bands we have already mentioned.
How and when did you pick up playing guitar and was it the first instrument that you started to play?
At the age of 13, I started to play the violin at school. Really it was just a cop out of doing more Maths, English or any hard work. Ha!Ha! I took it home to practice and my Mom sent me over the field because of the noise I was making!!! The violin teacher was well chuffed with me and wanted me to play in front of the whole school, which I thought if the girls see me playing this poncy instrument they would laugh at me, so I packed it in! At the age of 15, I saved enough money and with the help of my Gran I bought my first guitar, which was a big step forward from drawing them on paper or looking at them in mags. It was a Woolworth’s own brand and cost Ł14.50 which was a hell of a lot of money in those days, but it got me going.
Do you perhaps play other instruments as well?
I can play keyboards a little, I’m not that good at it but it gets me by. In fact there are bits of keyboards on the new album which I have done - nothing technical though. I was once a bass guitarist in a pop and country band when I left school just to earn an extra bit of money.
Were you self taught or…?
I had about seven guitar lessons which learned me nothing, so you could say I was self taught.
How and when did the whole WITCHFINDER GENERAL story start? How did you hook up with singer Zeeb Parkes, bassist Johnny Fisher and drummer Steve Kinsell?
Steve is my cousin and we had dreamed of forming a heavy metal band for years. I met Zeeb at school. He was a cheeky little bastard who used to call me names ("all you can play is ya mouth Copey") and then run off, but we soon became good friends. It was Zeeb who got me into Sabbath and we too had always wanted a rock band, so in 1979 we decided to give it a go. We phoned up Steve and he was up for it straight away. We started rehearsing in Zeebs mom’s garage with another bassist called Paul, but he didn’t last long. I think the threat from the neighbours complaining about the noise put him off!! We advertised for a bass player in our local paper and Johnny Fisher joined to complete the line up.
Was it the very first band for all of you or did you have any musical experiences before you were involved in WITCHFINDER GENERAL?
It was the first crack of the whip for Zeeb. Steve and I had been in a band with Rod Hawkes, Rob Hickman and Dave Potter ( of Cloven Hoof fame) called Electrode. I then joined the pop and country band mentioned earlier, before joining up again with Rod to form a band called Rabies, which was later to be one of our songs.
Who came up with the name of the band? Is that correct, that you were formed originally as Satan’s Children?
Satans Children was never going to be the name of the band. Where that has come from I don’t know. Rob Hickman came up with the idea of Witchfinder General and to this day I still think it is doing us proud, a great band name, thanks Rob (r i p).
What about your rehearsals? Do you still remember how often did you rehearse and did you take the band seriously?
We never took it serious, it was like one big joke. Can you imagine about ten of us including the roadies all on the pop and getting stoned, doing a gig and having a great time then trying to sleep in the back of a van whilst the sound of snoring and farting kept waking you up, yeh time of our lives, it was too much of a laugh to take it serious. As for rehearsing I think we practised about twice a week, unless Zeeb and I were writing songs, we would get together for that.
Did you start writing originals right from the start or were you jamming mostly on covers?
Yeh we started writing our own material right from the start, we wasn’t good enough to be playing covers ha!ha!
The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (frequently abbreviated as NWOBHM or N.W.O.B.H.M.) is a heavy metal music movement that started in the late 1970s, in the United Kingdom and achieved some international attention by the early 1980s, how did you feel seeing that great metal explosion in your country which became very influential and left its mark on the scene?
At the time of the NWOBHM nobody realized the influence it was going to make. In fact we were finding it very hard because of the slow doom riffs songs which we were playing at gigs they were going down like the Titanic, not many wanted that kind of music. They wanted the more up tempo songs, such as groups like Iron Maiden, Motorhead and Saxon would play so we got pushed out of it a lot.
The era developed as a reaction in part to the decline of early heavy metal bands such as Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, NWOBHM bands toned down the blues influences of earlier acts, increased the tempo, and adopted a tougher sound, taking a more hardcore approach to its music, how do you see it?
The bands mentioned above were excellent and still are today. The musicians in the NWOBHM were no better than the predecessors they used a bit more power to get the message across.
Not intended to win a wide audience, it was a scene directed almost exclusively at heavy metal fans, right?
Yeah, we were anyway.
The early movement was associated with acts such as: Iron Maiden, Saxon, Motörhead, Angel Witch, Def Leppard, Tygers of Pan Tang, Blitzkrieg, Avenger, Sweet Savage, Girlschool, Jaguar, Demon, Diamond Head, Samson and Tank, among others, all of them tried to make a name for themselves, what kind of friendship did you have with these acts?
The only band we knew were Diamond Head. They started about twelve months before we did. We were at their first gig and saw them out a few times and they soon became our close rivals. Brian Tatler has remained a good friend over the years.
Some bands, although conceived during this era, saw success on an underground scale, as was the case with Venom and Quartz, right?
Right, I never got to see Venom but I saw Quartz a few times. Another band who never got the recognition they deserved was Jameson Raid from Birmingham. Rod, Zeeb and I were present at a few of their shows and they knew how to rock.
Do you agree with, that the image of bands such as Saxon (long hair, denim jackets, leather and chains) would later become synonymous with heavy metal as a whole during the 1980s?
The long hair, denim and leathers were about in the late sixties / early seventies with bands like Quo, Free and then Judas Priest etc, so I don’t think it was a new thing.
The NWOBHM existed mostly outside the world of the mainstream pop and rock culture magazines such as The NME (primarily focused on punk / new wave), The Face (primarily focused on new romantic / synth pop) and Melody Maker (primarily focused on rock) did not generally feature NWOBHM acts at all, what were your views about it?
I only used to look at the Melody Maker, never used to read it just look at the pictures, so I can’t really say much about the others.
It was left therefore to Sounds to pick up the NWOBHM baton, young writer Geoff „Deaf” Barton began writing features on the new up and coming metal bands and Sounds even featured a weekly Heavy Metal chart compiled from record requests at „The Soundhouse”, a heavy metal soundhouse in North West London and the spiritual home of the movement and As the movement continued to thrive, Barton set up Kerrang! the first magazine exclusively devoted to heavy metal respectively Tommy Vance was one of the few mainstream DJs to play NWOBHM on his Friday Rock Show on BBC Radio 1, what do you recall from it?
Tommy Vance (r i p) was a star! He was one of the few DJs back in those days that had the bottle to play Witchfinder General records. When Kerrang came out it was brilliant, it opened up another door for heavy metal.
Was it easy to be Metaller in UK at this point?
Yeh and I was proud of it.
Would you say, that Witchfinder General were highly influenced by Black Sabbath and rode in on the NWOBHM, so you created a unique, original music?
I was definitely influenced by Tony Iommi and I still think he is the master today. I wouldn’t say Witchfinder General was original music, that would be wrong. It’s only what Sabbath did ten years before we came along.
Have you ever recorded demos, rehearsals etc.?
Yeh, loads of times.
Do you still remember how and when did you get in touch with Heavy Metal Records? Did they have an eye longer on you or…?
We got our local paper to take our photo in the castle ruins and we told them we were about to make a record. It was all a load of bollocks really, but HMR contacted us and offered to put our record out for us, and the rest of it is history.
Were there perhaps other labels interests in the band besides Heavy Metal Records?
Not at that time no.
At which point was Johnny Fisher replaced by Kevin McCready and was he the first choice of the band?
John didn’t like the direction the band was moving towards. Zeeb, Steve and myself were happy in trying to make the band sound more and more a doom sound and John didn’t go for it so he left, no arguments; he just wanted a more uptempo group. An old friend of ours Debbie Jones, who later married a famous rock star Lars Ulrich introduced Kev to the band and he fitted in well with the style of music we were playing. He was soon nicknamed ’Toss’- don’t ask why ’cos I can’t remember; the only thing I presume is that he didn’t have a girlfriend at the time. He!He!
„Burning a sinner” was released as a single in 1981, which was your debut release, what about the recording sessions?
The recording of Burning a Sinner in the studio went very well, and we were all pleased with the sound of it. It wasn’t until we got a copy of the record we were so disappointed 'cos there was no treble and the bass had been turned up to distorting point but I suppose this mistake by the record company was the start of Doom Metal.
The lyrics were definitely inspired by the classical horror movie „Witchfinder General” starring Vincent Price, right?
Yeh, Zeeb took and played the part of the Witchfinder General well; he even used to go on stage wearing a long black cloak like Vincent Price did in the movie. So I guess the lyrics did roll around the horror movie.
The single is completed with „Satan's Children”, this one is also heavy influenced by the early Sabbath, both musically and lyrically, your guitar sound and riff-construction is a great tribute to Tony Iommi, do you agree with it?
If I could be half the guitarist Tony is, then I would be happy. For you to say that riff is a great tribute to the master has made my day.
A worthy song in general, and as for slightly flippant and nasal Zeeb Parkes’ vocals, it’s even some kind of Witchfinder General’s trademark, is that correct?
Yeh, Zeeb’s high pitch vocals and the doom riff guitar, bass and drums backing him up, I suppose was our trade mark.
Although songs are very simple they’re great and there is not too much lacking, as for the sound quality, superfluous accent on bass and some sound distortion, the song’s sombre atmosphere only benefits by it, what are your views about it?
To this day we have never found the master tape that came out of the studio with the real 'Burning a sinner' sound. It would be very interesting to hear that version compared to the record.
A year later you released another single called „Soviet Invasion”, would you say, that this single, while it doesn't reach the greatness of your future records, is an excellent and pretty damn heavy mix of NWOBHM and Doom Metal and the similarities to Black Sabbath abound, but it is not a problem as you incorporate your influences well without ripping them off?
Well, at least it sounded better than the first single.
There are only three songs on here, one being a live recording and the other two being studio recorded that wouldn’t appear on any future Witchfinder General releases, does it mean, that these songs were written only for these materials?
The reason these tracks never got used on our future album is because we went through a rhythm change after 'Soviet Invasion' Ep. Steve and Kev left the band Graham and the made up name bass player Woolfy Trope replaced them.
One thing one must point out about Witchfinder General is that you were heavy and this EP is no exception; sludgy, crushing riffs with soaring, NWOBHM solos is what this release offers, even the short acoustic passages fit in well with the rest of the songs and don’t disrupt the song or sound out of place and the best song on here would have to be the title track, with its acoustic beginnings out of which a monster of a riff emerges, that later speeds up into a brilliant solo, and finishes off with the sound of an explosion, what’s your opinion about it?
At the start of the eighties when 'Soviet Invasion' was written, the threat of war from the east and west seemed very strong to us. Zeeb felt he needed to put this in words, hence the name. After the first time we played it live, I remember a friend of ours, Rob Wyatt coming up to me and saying 'man, that song is heavy'. We knew then we were on to a winner and the acoustic beginning was added to the give it such a powerful start.
How do you remember the early Witchfinder General shows? How often did you play live at all? Did these shows help getting new fans for the band?
Right from the first gig we always managed to put a decent following. I think it was mainly down to the band’s name. I mean if you saw a group playing in your local town called Witchfinder General you know straight away that they are going to be heavy and not some new romantic outfit. We never played that many gigs, I can’t say offhand, definitely less than hundred. As for attracting new fans by playing live I don’t really know, I can only presume that people did like seeing us.
After the releasing of the EPs, both Kevin McCready and drummer Steve Kinsell left the band, what happened exactly with them?
I think Steve had lost interest at that time, he had just started seeing a new girlfriend and he felt the band was going nowhere. Kev had other commitments, like his father’s business, so I suppose he was right to walk.
Instead of Steve, Graham Ditchfield joined the band, how did he get in the picture exactly and what about his musical background?
Graham used to play in a local band called 'Effigy' with some friends of ours, Rob Wyatt and Dave White. Their band were no longer together so Graham was happy to give us a go.
Were there still other musicians in mind replacing Steve?
No, not at all.
You entered the Metro Sound Studios to record your first full length „Death Penalty” with the help of producer Peter Hinton, how did the recording sessions go with this material? Were you prepared to record it?
We were as prepared as we would ever be bearing in mind that there were only three of us, so I couldn’t rehearse any lead breaks as we had no bass player, so that side of it was hard but on the whole the album went well.
Did you have a decent budget to record the album? How long did the recording sessions take in total?
Death Penalty album was started on the Saturday morning and it was finished on the Sunday night, so we did not have much time to muck about. Basically the tracks were recorded in one take and another guitar track or tracks was added along with the bass.
While your previous EP showed what the band were capable of, „Death Penalty” takes all the good things that were present on „Soviet Invasion” and makes you better, is that correct?
Looking back on it, the best thing to come out of Soviet Invasion was the bass bottom end of the record, which made it so heavy. When we mixed down Death Penalty, I was concentrating on the guitar sound and as we had no bass player in the room, the bass got left behind. This is something I have always regretted but can do nothing about it as Paul Birch never bought the master two inch tape. What a shame, we could have remixed it.
The first thing the listener notices about the album is the increased pace that they are playing at, while not being exactly fast paced, Witchfinder General sped up the tempos to a moderate pace as opposed to the slower tempos on „Soviet Invasion”, what would you say about it?
I don’t really know 'cos four songs out of the seven we had been performing them right from the beginning. Invisible Hate, R. I. P, Witchfinder General and Burning a Sinner. I suppose after listening to the 'Heavy Metal Heroes' album I did feel we needed to up tempo a few numbers; that is why we wrote No Stayer and Free Country.
There is a much bigger NWOBHM influence which is seen in nearly all of the riffs, which are more melodic and reminiscent of the movement than the previous release, right?
Yeh like I said before No Stayer and Free Country gave us a different direction and it worked well.
Witchfinder General offer on „Death Penalty” the classic NWOBHM sound, along with heavily Black Sabbath-inspired doom metal riffing, the record is centered at a relatively fast tempo, unlike Black Sabbath, and the guitars are definitely not as heavy and distorted as Iommi’s, do you agree with it?
I think this is because the bass guitar was left back in the mix on D P. I had not changed my sound from the Soviet Invasion single, where Kev’s bass sound was mixed right up with my guitar, that in line made my guitar sound more heavy. As for being less distorted than the master (Iommi) I can’t really say, perhaps the batteries were dying in my fuzz box, lol!!!
Do you think, that the songs are very groovy and they have a slightly psychedelic edge, mostly due do the distinctive style of your guitar work?
Well yeh especially No Stayer.
The riffs, while heavily Black Sabbath-inspired, are many in number and very innovative, but it’s a shame the bass is difficult to notice, especially when it comes to „Burning A Sinner”, which had some great bass lines starting in the original recording of the track…
Yeh like I said before the bass got left behind in the mix, Woolfy put some good runs on the bass but unfortunately you cannot hear half of them.
How do you see, that one of the best things about Witchfinder General was their soaring, NWOBHM influenced soloing, and „Death Penalty” is full of them. The first track „Invisible Hate” probably having the best one on here, which is both technical and emotional at the same time?
I disagree with you there, I think the DP solo was the best on the album.
You had an impressive songwriting ability, and a musical sensibility absolutely similar to that of early Sabbath, and especially on this debut album, the similarities were striking, as exemplified by the tongue-in-cheek „Rat Salad” cloning on „No Stayer”, but whatever side one chooses to stand on, dark and eerie tracks like „Invisible Hate”, „Death Penalty”, „Burning a Sinner” or „R.I.P.” are undoubtedly impressive and awe-inspiring, both musically and lyrically, what’s your opinion?
Erm, we always did what we felt was right and it’s good that other people out there have enjoyed our music.
Would you say, that you had both great variety and catchy riffs in this short but sweet debut and while not quite slow enough to be labelled as true doom, it also isn’t quite as boisterous or focused on harmony as some of the NWOBHM bands were?
That’s true, we didn’t set out to be a doom band - it just happened and many say that WFG was the beginning of doom metal.
Do you agree that „Death Penalty” is not only the peak of your career, but also a landmark in Heavy Metal in general, it’s a joyous half an hour filled with classic NWOBHM and doom metal riffing and you are an inspiration to countless musicians?
Well, when D P was released we thought it would help get us some UK recognition, we never realised it would sell around the world. For musicians on the other side of the globe to say that D P was a inspiration to them is just breath taking. At the time DP was probably the peak of Zeeb and my writing career but not the band’s peak…
The rhythm section of Woolfy Trope (bass) and Graham Ditchfield (drums) laid a good foundation for your excellent Iommi-inspired riffing, but your much more adept and energetic soloing added a bit more of a modern flair to the Sabbath-esque sound, how did you end up playing the bass parts as well and why did you use the name Woolfy Trope?
Woolfy Trope was a couple of nick names I had at that time. We wanted people to see on the album that we were a four piece band and not three. I put down the bass 'cos we did not have the time to recruit and teach someone all the bass lines.
The most unique facet of the band, though, was frontman Zeeb Parkes’ vocals - he uses some combination of nasal whine and indistinct mumbling that actually comes off quite a bit better than that description - truly unique, and something that must be heard to be understood…
Zeeb’s idol was Ozzy Osbourne, so we were never going to be far from the Sabbath sound.
The production on „Death Penalty” is far from being perfect, yet that somewhat-poorly produced smooth guitar flatters to Witchfinder General’s sound, Zeeb Parkes’ squeaky voice is an integral part of the band’s sound or would you say, that it is excellent considering the time at which it came out, and all the instruments are heard clearly, except for the bass, which is a little buried in the mix?
The first two singles we had all the say on recording and the mixing and rightly so. On D P Mr Birch came up with the idea of getting a producer involved. I had no objection to this and Pete Hinton who had produced a couple of Saxon albums was hired. Now bear in mind that Saxon are a complete different sound to WFG and this showed on D P. I am not knocking Pete at all, he was a inspiration to the three of us, a friend and a good pool player ha!ha! But I just think that it may have sounded a lot heavier, had we had more of the say on the mixing down.
Lyricswise you glorified mindless sex and drug use to the point of self-destructive nihilism, and occasionally threw in an „evil” song for good measure, is it correct?
The lyrics were down to Zeeb, I did write a few lines for the tracks Witchfinder General and Rabies, but we argued a lot so I didn’t get involved in that side of the writing.
Is it true, that the album received some criticism for the cover photograph, which featured topless model Joanne Latham and the photograph had been taken in the yard of St Mary the Blessed Virgin Church in Enville, Staffordshire without the permission of the local Reverend?
The cover photo for D P which was Paul Birch’s idea was taken in a graveyard in Wednesbury. Enville church was the Friends Of Hell album cover. We did not have permission and this caused a lot of criticism and nationwide news publicity. Mr Birch wanted as much publicity as possible, and we got it.
Were you satisfied with Peter Hinton’s work? Was it his first experience as a producer?
I won’t say a bad word about Pete 'cos he was a sound guy. I just think he was good at producing another style of music to ours.
What were the shows to support the record?
We did not gig at all to support the release of DP. We had the chance to tour as support band to Saxon but we were not good enough at the audition. This was not because Rod Hawkes had only been with us a week; Zeeb, Graham and I also have to take the blame. It just went totally badly.
As permanent bassist Rod Hawkes joined the band in 1982; what about his musical past?
Like I said before, Rod and I were in a school band called Electrode. He then joined a club group called Medway before again meeting up with myself to form Rabies.
Next you released the „Music” single in 1983, what kind of purposes did this EP serve?
The song Music was nothing like what we had set out to do when we formed the band but we just felt we needed to do something different.