It was 1985. Three years earlier, English speed metal warriors Venom had invented a new genre with their landmark album, Black Metal. Now they were preparing to bring their hyper-satanic style of skull-rattling, pyro-enhanced blasphemy to North America to promote Possessed, the last Venom album—for the next dozen years, anyway—to feature the classic lineup of Conrad “Cronos” Lant on bass and vocals, Jeffrey “Mantas” Dunn on guitar and Anthony “Abaddon” Bray on drums. The band had visited the States for the first time in ’84, with no less than Metallica as support. But the shows had been confined to the coasts. This time they’d return for a full North American tour with nascent thrash masters Slayer and Exodus in tow. “It was one of those tours that make or break bands,” Cronos says today. “People maybe don’t understand how groundbreaking it was. Metal was growing at that point, but it was happening really slow. That tour really helped wake people up to what it was all about. When that three-band bill went across the US in 1985, fans in the audience would be standing there with their mouths wide open. I think it was probably a pivotal point in some people’s lives, because things went much quicker after that. Bands started forming left, right and center.”
Trouble began brewing before Venom even left the British Isles. Just days before their departure date, Mantas announced that he had the chicken pox and wouldn’t be joining the band on tour. Undaunted, Cronos and Abaddon quickly found not one but two replacement guitarists—one for each half of their lengthy set—and proceeded as planned. Punch-outs, religious protests and cancellations ensued as the tour carved a satanic swath across Canada and the former colonies. The now-infamous show at Studio 54 in New York was filmed for the VHS video release The Ultimate Revenge, titled as such because three of the heaviest, most maniacal metal bands of the era were essentially invading the storied disco club where Diana Ross and Elton John had inhaled mountains of cocaine with the likes of Andy Warhol and Calvin Klein in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “Everybody was talking about John Travolta and all this bullshit with Saturday Night Fever, but we basically didn’t care. We were like, ‘John who?’” Cronos laughs. “But they still had the big mirror ball hanging from the ceiling, so I guess the idea was ‘death to disco.’ To us it was just good fun.”
Noisey: Venom’s first US visit was only a handful shows. Was the Ultimate Revenge tour a way of remedying that?
Cronos: We only did the East Coast and West Coast with Metallica opening in ’84. After the New Jersey show, we did a bit of a meet n’ greet with the fans, and we realized people had come from all over—Texas, Colorado—these guys had really traveled fuckin’ miles to come and see the show. We basically weren’t getting any information about what was happening the States back then, because it was all relatively new. British bands that had previously been over to America, like Bad Company and Deep Purple—those guys used to play every fuckin’ toilet known to man. That’s when we first heard the term “petrol stop,” where the band would have five or six reasonably good shows, size-wise, and they’d do these “petrol stops’ in these little titty bars just for a few bucks so they could put petrol in the bus. And that’s so not what Venom is about. We refused point-blank to do “petrol stops.” But this time we figured we’d get to the more unknown, less popular places. To us it was just the Possessed tour, though. The Ultimate Revenge thing was just for the video.
Did it seem like Venom were even more popular when you came back in ’85 with Slayer and Exodus?
Now when people look at it, it seems like black metal and thrash metal were everywhere, but back then people didn’t know what to make of it. That’s why we used to seek out our own support bands, because it was hard for us to find like-minded musicians. We knew the people we’d be attracting at our shows would be people who’d crawled out of the gutters. We were gonna get all the freaks, which is exactly what we wanted. We wanted the people who’d survived the punk generation and were saying, “What’s next?” The rock music of the ’70s was fuckin’ nothing in the ’80s. When we would go to the States, people would be telling us that Deep Purple couldn’t even get arrested there. They had toured themselves into the ground. [Laughs] We wanted to put the bang back into heavy metal. We wanted to put the punk in—the bang, the wallop, the piss—and make heavy metal what it should be: loud and amazing and fantastic.
How did you find out about Slayer?
It was actually James Hetfield who turned me onto Slayer. After we did some shows with Metallica in Staten Island and New Jersey, we took them over to the UK for the Seven Dates [of Hell] tour. We were asking them what else was going on America, because there were other bands popping up in Europe, like Hellhammer and Mercyful Fate. So James told us about Slayer. He said, “They’re much more venomous than us.” Because you know Metallica always wanted to be more of a commercial band. They didn’t wanna be a scary, satanic band. They admitted that from the word go. Their first album—I’ve still got the t-shirt—it was gonna be called Metal Up Your Ass. It had a picture of a hand coming out of a toilet with a guitar in the hand, which we thought would’ve been a great image. But of course, you know, Middle America isn’t gonna find that [laughs] very appealing. So that’s why they went to the whole Kill ’Em All thing, which was great. More power to ’em. Whereas Slayer wanted to go more south of the border, into hell.
What about Exodus?
We used to call them “Exo-dugga-dugga-dugga-dus” because that’s what all their songs did. [Laughs] Fuckin’ great. We went out with them in Europe after that. We just wanted to embrace all things metal, and all the bands that came out of that. You had the likes of Death down in Florida with Chuck Schuldiner and Testament was coming out of the Bay Area. Then there was that whole wave of European stuff. We thought it was great.
What was your initial impression of the guys in Slayer and Exodus when you first met them?
Oh, fuckin’ great, ’cause we were like-minded, you know? Only a few dates in, we did a show in Buffalo, and the actual gig was in a train station. But the fuckin’ promoter, the fuckin’ idiot, wanted the bands to play on top of the kiosks where you buy a train ticket. They had ladders on either side of the kiosks so we could get up there, which was fuckin’ ridiculous. So our crew gets up there and goes, “Look, this is gonna go through. It’s not a stage—it’s a roof. Once we put the equipment up here, it’s gonna crumble and everyone’s gonna get hurt.” So we pulled the show. But unfortunately, Slayer were getting paid show-by-show, so they were fucked as far as trying to get a hotel room. Those guys were traveling in a fuckin’ truck on that tour, you know. Not a warm, comfortable tour bus. And it was snowing outside, too. Kerry King had his fuckin’ snakes under the front seat of the truck. We had hotel rooms, but we also had a bus, so we told the Slayer guys they could crash on our bus.
The Slayer guys were big Venom fans, weren’t they?
Kerry still is. I was out in L.A. a while back and I was gonna hook up with him, but he had to fly over to Europe to play a show. So his wife came down and she brought his Venom collection, his vinyl. She said, “If you can sign all this, I’ll put it back in his collection at home and he’ll shit himself.” [Laughs] So that was cool.
Kerry once told me that Tom Araya got hammered on this tour and pissed on your head while you were asleep. And then you punched him out.
Yeah, that was just one of those unfortunate situations that happen on tour. Me and Tom are great friends. But he was drunk—we were all drunk, really—and I just made him understand that those sorts of things are unacceptable. [Laughs] I was sitting in the back of the bus, and he came back there with his dick out. When I turned around and looked, there were some wet bits in me hair. I thought he trickled some piss into me hair, so I just stood up and knocked him out. Where I come from, you don’t piss on people, you know? [Laughs] But we shook hands afterwards, and it was not a problem. The mark of a man is knowing when you fucked up and then apologizing for it. You shake hands and you move on. When it happened, everyone thought Slayer were gonna get kicked off the tour, but there was no way in hell. If he’d been a dick, then yeah. But he manned up and apologized, so we moved on.
Was it awkward for a few days, though?
Oh, no. He apologized the next day when he sobered up. The other Slayer guys were ragging on him big time, like “Tom, man—you fuckin’ asshole!” They sided with Venom immediately and gave him so much shit for that. But as soon as he apologized, it was dropped. I mean, we all get drunk. I’ve done stupid things as well. I’m human.
There were a lot of Christian fundamentalist types picketing metal shows in America at this time. A Venom/Slayer tour must’ve run into quite a bit of that.
Yeah, we always got that shit. We used to go outside with them and start yelling, “Venom are fucking evil! Boo!” They didn’t even know who we were, you know? They’d see a poster with a band name and a pentagram and a fuckin’ zombie on it, so they’d go and picket the gig. They had nothing else to do—they were bored, you know? We tried to interview one of them, but he wouldn’t let us record him with the video camera. We asked him, “Tell us to the camera how evil this band is. What have they done wrong? We’ll make sure it gets on CNN!” [Laughs] They couldn’t even explain why they were picketing.
Did you have any interactions with Venom super-fans? Like people who are maybe into it a little too much?
Not so much of that. I think we’re a lot scarier than the fans, usually. [Laughs] It’s not like we’re Lady Gaga and they’re gonna attack us with a bottle or something. The only troublemakers I get are ex-band members. [Laughs] But it is humbling when you meet fans. You realize you have the most fantastic job in the world, but you’re responsible for that position when you meet fans who cry and shake with excitement and such awe that they’re finally meeting you. Because I know what it’s like to be a superfan. I’ve slept outside of concert halls for Van Halen and Status Quo tickets. I know what it’s like to really, really look up to another artist. I know what it’s like to see a band in a concert hall and look up on that stage and think, “Fuck, I wish that was me.” So to meet these fans who get so emotional, it’s hard sometimes. You get a lump in your throat. That’s when you know it’s not a game; it’s not a joke. But I don’t get these rock stars who hang out in bars with drumsticks in their back pockets going, “Hey, baby…” or whatever. You’re not that important, you know? You’re not a brain surgeon. You’re not a rocket scientist. You’ve haven’t changed the world. Wake up, you fuckin’ idiot.
Mantas missed most of the tour due to chicken pox. Do you think he really had them?
I honestly have no idea. He said he did. But fuck, I would’ve still toured with chicken pox. I don’t care who I infect. [Laughs] Let’s make it communal, you know? Let’s share the love. I mean, I’d have to have me legs chopped off to miss a tour. So I thought it was a weird concept. But he left the band straight after that, so maybe he just didn’t wanna do it anymore.
You ended up replacing him with two guitarists…
It was two local guys from Newcastle—the guitarist from Fist, this guy called Davey Irwin, and a guitarist called Les Cheetham who was in a few local bands, including Avenger. The thing was, because Mantas decided to get sick only days before we were supposed to fly out, it was a bit difficult to get a guitarist in to learn the entire set because it was like an hour and a half or two hours long. So that’s why we got the two guys in—we learned each guy half the set. It was easier to do it that way rather than plant the whole damn show on one guy’s head. Mantas did finally come on the tour for the last two or three shows, but I don’t think anybody even spoke to him because we were so annoyed. We were working our asses off but he was acting like he was on granny’s yacht or something. And then when we got home we replaced him. [Laughs]
What do you think of the Ultimate Revenge home video that came out with footage and interviews from the Studio 54 gig in New York?
The Venom footage is actually from the UK. The only thing of Venom on the Ultimate Revenge video that came from Studio 54 was the interview and the [pyro] explosion. And the reason for that is because the guys who came down to shoot the show were supposed to pay the management because they were gonna release the VHS video. As you know, this is called the music business. And they refused to pay. They tried to say, “We’ll pay you after the show.” [Laughs] But we’re from England. We don’t fall for that one. We sent everyone who talks like that to Australia many years ago—on a boat. But they didn’t think we’d be able to stop them, so we took the ax from next to the fire extinguisher and just chopped all their cables. So they recorded Exodus and Slayer, but all they got of Venom was the bang. Later on, Neat Records sold them a couple of songs from the show from England. [Laughs] Venom don’t like getting ripped off. Whether Exodus or Slayer got paid, I’ve no idea. But I very much doubt it. It was a shame that the video doesn’t have Venom footage from Studio 54. We weren’t asking that much—they would’ve made ten times that off the video sales. So it was just greed.
Was the tour successful from a financial standpoint?
Venom actually lost a lot of money. We even had to cancel the last couple of shows. We lost that much because we wanted to take the other bands on tour and we wanted to take out the production that we had. Even if all the gigs were packed to the rafters, we would’ve lost money. So it cost us, but it was an important tour. We felt we had to do it. At that point, we’d already been in the band for six years. We’d been pushing at it since 1979, so we thought of the tour as all-or-nothing. We thought we’d just go to the States and Canada and go ballistic. But we left L.A. without even taking the guitars or drums home because we owed money to the production company. So when we came home we had to basically start from scratch. But it was well worth it. I don’t regret one thing. The tour was fuckin’ amazing.
J. Bennett would have loved to see this tour. Too bad he was nine years old when it happened.