The Strange Tale of Cult Sludge-Metal Band Iron Monkey
"We knew what we wanted to do and nobody could tell us any other way—a band like that is never going to last."
Combining cavernous groove with brutal crust-punk aggression, cryptic lyrical poison, head-twisting artwork, and perhaps the most deranged vocal delivery ever put to tape, Iron Monkey emerged from bleak mid 90s Britain with no plan other than to make a big noise. Over the course of their short and unbelievably chaotic tenure they released some of the most vital music to emerge from the sludgier end of the spectrum, a mad dog howl in the pissing Nottingham rain.
Formed in 1994, the original band comprised the late Johnny Morrow (vocals), Doug Dalziel (bass), Justin Greaves (drums), Steve Watson (guitar), and Jim Rushby (guitar). Playing dingy pubs and backrooms around the Nottingham hardcore scene, they drew attention for a confrontational live approach that saw Morrow prowling the stage like demented hunter in search of meat; eyes rolling as he emitted monstrous screams, the band rolling out thunderous ruffige around him that was capable of sucking the air out of an audience: a collective concrete shoes effect.
The Iron Monkey discography is slim but vital. An EP (1996’s Iron Monkey) an LP (1998’s fearsome Our Problem) a split ten-inch, and 2003’s posthumous live album Ruined by Idiots was pretty much the sum of it. Yet the cult band’s underground reputation has only grown since their original 1999 split—much to the confusion of original drummer (and former Electric Wizard/current Crippled Black Phoenix member) Justin Greaves.
"We had no plan whatsoever. People said we sounded like Eyehategod,’’ he says, reflecting on life during the years of the Monkey.
‘‘I suppose that was because we were the closest comparison. But I remember Crowbar playing in Nottingham when Jimmy [Bower, who plays guitar for Eyehategod] was drumming for them. They stayed over at our house, and we were just pissing ourselves laughing at these people that had been saying ‘Iron Monkey versus Eyehategod’ or whatever. Nobody ever knew that we were sat in the same room laughing. Iron Monkey weren’t attempting to imitate anybody. It was more a case of both bands having identical record collections, growing up on a combination of hardcore punk and Black Sabbath. All of us had Sabbath records, Saint Vitus, Black Flag. Then there was newer stuff like Grief, who were around the same time as us. It was a mix of slower heavy stuff with fast punk rock.’’
The meeting of hardcore aesthetics with tar-thick slurry was first introduced by the band’s eponymous EP in 1996. Iron Monkey was an over-the-top assault that reeked of cheap cider, spilt bong water, and simmering, burning rage. From the cover art—a bizarre collage of 60s rainbow freaks that unfolded into a kind of satanic graph; (85 percent Worry, 15 percent Deaths)—to the cryptic lyrical content, the record drew the listener into a self-contained vortex of queasy mania. Doug Dalziel and Justin Greaves worked in tandem to produce a rhythmic foundation that swung like an inflated pig's bladder from a windy tree, while Jim Rushby and Stu O’ Hara came up with riffs that stuck like a stake. Tracks like “Fink Dial” and “Big Loader” were accessible due to the sheer quality of the riffs. With no “sludgier than thou” dirge, Iron Monkey had by a raw vitality and energy that few bands from their corner possessed.
Lyrically, the Monkey dealt in apocalyptic riddle. Morrow scribbled behind the counter at the skate shop where he worked, and his cathartic lyrics carry an off-key power, a bizarre cut up approach that evokes William S. Burroughs in full force. Take “Shrimp Fist,” for example: “God Bless Pig God/Dead Imperial Mile/ Hung Sliced, crushed by Atomic Beak/ Internals fucked by cerebral arrow/Bastard thoughts fit to fuck worlds.” Morrow’s full-throated power scream delivery submerged the lyrical content completely, however—his dislodged howl making the lyric sheet an essential for those wanting to decipher.
‘‘Regarding Johnny’s vocals, it just happened.’’ laughs Greaves. ‘‘I can tell you now that there was absolutely zero thought process in anything that we did. I’ve got an early Iron Monkey rehearsal tape with loads of crust punk songs we were playing with blast beats and stuff. It came out like it came out. Johnny never mentioned any thought process behind the vocals; I think he just started screaming because we were all really going for it in the rehearsal room. I have no idea how he did it though. He never once had a bad throat.’’
Produced by legendary metal producer Andy Sneap and released on Earache, their eponymous debut EP felt ludicrously weighty in conception, a feast of primal cathartic rage and ass-shaking boogie. Tracks such as “Web of Piss” managed to bludgeon and swing in equal measure, and the ever-present depth charge rumble ensured that this was music that you could zone out to, meditate on bass weight.
‘‘I actually think the albums are quite melodic,’’ reveals Greaves. ‘‘We did them quick with no overdubs. We just got the nastiest guitar sound and played ridiculously loud. Andy Sneap kind of refined what we did without telling us, so afterwards we put out this album that sounded great without even realizing it. I probably take a lot more interest in recording methods and stuff nowadays, but we knew Sneap already because he’d already recorded Hard to Swallow—the hardcore band that preceded Iron Monkey—which was on Union Mill. The first Monkey EP he did for about £150 in two days, and then the second album was a bit more like ‘Oh, you’re on Earache now—I want nine grand,’” he recalls, laughing.
Although the Iron Monkey EP—originally released on tiny hardcore label Union Mill—and attendant gigs garnered enough attention to have Earache Records circling the band, Iron Monkey were initially less than enamored with the process of signing to (what was in underground metal terms) a big label.
‘‘I have no idea why Earache wanted to sign us. We kept saying no and I can distinctly remember Johnny spitting on Dig [Digby Pearson, Earache founder] at a gig at The Old Angel in Nottingham," Greaves says, laughing. "I remember somebody said to him, ‘You’re never going to sign Iron Monkey’…and look what happened. He must have tempted us with a curry or something. To be truthful though, we ended up signing because we played a gig with our buddies Acrimony where all our equipment got smashed up. I had a chair leg through my bass drum. We were having trouble paying for a rehearsal room, and it got to the point where we couldn’t rehearse anywhere, couldn’t do any gigs, couldn’t operate at all. Earache dangled a big lump of cash before our faces and—being the massive sell-outs that we were—we took it [laughs]. We discovered it was the wrong decision, really the wrong decision, later.’’
Although the Earache signing and attendant press coverage garnered Iron Monkey a significant amount of attention, touring was an arduous task. The signing made zero financial difference to band members, all of whom were working day jobs at the time, and both funds, label and management support on the road were not forthcoming.
Greaves himself fitted gigs in between building stages for Status Quo, Mogwai, and the Shaolin Monks. “I had to wash the orange robes,” he remembers. Before long, however, Iron Monkey became the focus of controversy in the press for a perceived “aggressive” attitude on the road. They were barred from every Mean Fiddler venue in London due to issues with a promoter—something of a problem for an up-and-coming band, as Greaves recalled.
‘‘We didn’t go out and look for trouble but we didn’t shy away from it. As much as I loved Iron Monkey to bits, it was a complete pain in the ass a lot of the time. Everybody ripped us off—promoters, managers, [our] label. We were very single-minded. “We knew what we wanted to do and nobody could tell us any other way—a band like that is never going to last [laughs]. I mean, we were the darlings of Kerrang and Terrorizer for a while. They bigged it all up—‘Iron Monkey: the band that causes riots!’ But then we’d get to London to play a gig, and there’d only be 50 people there.’’
By the time Iron Monkey came to record their debut LP proper in 1998, the tireless road schedule resulted in an even more amped, hardcore sound. Tracks like “Bad Year” were faster than ever, while the fantastically named live favorite “Charlton Heston’s Floor”—not on the LP, but later released on the Ruined by Idiots live compilation—was a full frontal lunatic charge and includes some of Greaves's finest drum work, heavy on the cowbell.
‘‘We carried on playing a lot after the album. It became fucking ridiculous though—we were so fucking poor," Greaves remembers, laughing. "I remember we played at Dynamo—massive festival—and we were looking around on the ground for loose change and lighters after Metallica had headlined and the lights came up. It was that bad.”
‘‘We’d get ripped off by everyone, not paid what we were supposed to and get in trouble because we’d take it up with the promoter who’d be a real asshole and not book the van to get the band home. I don’t mean that in a ‘hardman’ kind of way, but I think people were unprepared for a band that was prepared to throw bricks through windows over being ripped off for 50 quid. But that money makes the difference between being able to get home or not,’’ continues Greaves.
While touring was often fraught, the last months of the band were a particularly harrowing time due to the increasingly ill health of vocalist Johnny Morrow, who was—unbeknownst to the band at the time—suffering from a life-threatening kidney condition.
‘‘It got a lot darker, when Johnny got ill. That last tour we did with Pro- ain was really dark,” Greaves says. “Johnny was getting seriously unwell and nobody realized what it was. It was the middle of summer, and he’d have a jacket and a hoodie on in his sleeping bag, and he’d still be shivering, he was turning yellow. In the end we went to a doctor in Poland, and he said, ‘Tthis guy has got to go home, he could die,’ so we called Earache right away—and they refused to send us any money. Our manager at the time also said—and I’ll never forget this—‘What do you expect me to do about it?’ But Pro-Pain are some of the best guys in the world, they gave us money from their merchandise to fly Johnny home. It wasn’t even a loan. When we got home we called Earache and told them that was it, we wanted off the label, they weren’t having any more Iron Monkey. We told them that if they didn’t let us off the contract we’d split up. They didn’t think we would, so we did—and that was that. About ten days after the tour.’’
Johnny Morrow tragically died on June 22, 2002. Following Iron Monkey’s split he had formed a new band (Murder One) and had been working on the ‘Ruined by Idiots’ compilation (released posthumously in 2003). Greaves had this to say on both the way that Earache has handled the bands catalog since Morrow’s death and the bands continued influence.
‘‘Every now and then I hear some bullshit from Earache. They’ve made shitloads of money from Iron Monkey and have never accounted to me or anybody else. Since we split I have had one small royalty payment from them. And then they put out the vinyl versions without telling any of us—I haven’t even got vinyl versions of the albums. And I’m not being cynical, but they put out the vinyl versions on the anniversary of Johnny’s death—the ten year anniversary in 2012. They put these vinyls out and say it’s in memory of Johnny Morrow, but they wouldn’t even fly him home when he was sick and we needed help. It is total bullshit.’’
‘‘I do think it sometimes takes somebody to die to give a band cult status," Greaves reflects. "It was a shame because Johnny was our mate and an amazing guy, and suddenly you get thousands of people saying that they loved Johnny Morrow and they met him or they saw him live or whatever, Well, our first gig was to 40 people, and our last gig was to 45 people. We weren’t anything special; we weren’t then and we’re not now. We all miss him hugely, but as far as the band goes, we really buried it. But I’m massively proud of the music we made together.’’
Harry Sword is on Twitter - @HarrySword.