Alex Eruptor Interviews former 'Maiden & 'Mantis Axe hero on his career and book
“This book covers the dark ages of ‘Maiden: Gigs, trivia, it’s a blow-by-blow account, warts and all, the inside story including my time with ‘Maiden during the late 1970s, as well as my time with Praying Mantis in which we toured with Iron Maiden’s on two occasions – ‘Metal for Muthas’ and also on ‘Maiden’s own first headline tour – and all of the madness that went on there! I’ve always been a nerd for keeping notes and stuff, I’ve been sat on this stuff for years like a lazy bastard, it took a while to do it but now it’s written and I’m hoping to find a UK publisher for it.”
These were the words of Bob Sawyer, (aka ‘Rob Angelo’), former guitarist of both Iron Maiden and Praying Mantis during their formative years in the 1970s and 1980s. As a ‘Maiden nut and nerd-type fan of all things related to their ‘rock family tree’, guitarist Bob Sawyer, was someone I’d hoped for some time to make contact with in order to write this feature. Thanks to the power of the internet I made contact in February 2014, and Bob was happy to talk for an hour about the book and also of his experiences during the formative British rock/heavy metal scene more generally.
We discussed his early influences - which included the Shadows, Duane Eddy, Tony Hicks of The Hollies, before the arrival of Eric Clapton “the first Cream album was a milestone in blues rock”, and Michael Schenker, whose work with UFO in the 1970s was of course an influence on ‘Maiden, whom Bob joined towards the end of 1976:
“I’d been playing in bands for a few years already by that point including a group called ‘Xero’, and also in a band from London called ‘Shady Lady’ (not to be confused with the American band of the same name) who I joined in the summer of 1976, replacing Dave Colwell who would go on to join 720, Samson, as well as some ‘Maiden related projects, and eventually Bad Company.
I had also been in a band named Nitro with Den Wilcock who by 1976 was fronting Iron Maiden. In December 1976 I was no longer playing for Shady Lady and one day I was in my car at traffic lights (at the junction of Lea Valley rd. and Sewardstone rd, Chingford, Essex, to be precise!) and I heard this voice shout through the window asking me if I was still playing in any band. It was Den Wilcock and also in there were Steve Harris and Dave Murray. A week later I was in Iron Maiden. At that time they were playing in a trailer in this muddy field, you had to wade through all of this muck, it was like the Battle of the Somme.
So, Iron Maiden at this time, and for the duration of my time in the band, was Ron Rebel (drums), Den Wilcock (lead vocals), Dave Murray (guitar), Steve Harris (bass) and myself (guitar). That was the line-up from December 1976 until July ’77 when I left. Basically what happened there was Den Wilcock wanted this other guy Terry in the band and me and Dave left – although obviously Davey joined them again some time later.”
The set list at this time comprised mainly original songs, most of which would surface on ‘Maiden’s eponymous debut album in 1980, as well as one or two others such as ‘Drifter’ which turned up in live form as a B-side and EP track, and then as a studio cut on the follow-up album ‘Killers’ in ’81. At this time Maiden were also playing Montrose’s ‘I’ve Got The Fire’, which remained in the set for some time after and also be recorded in live and studio form no various B-sides.
Asked about Maiden’s sound at this time, the extent to which the songs resembled the later recorded versions, and whether or not they were slower and bluesier as internet reports of the earlier Iron Maiden line-ups suggest, Bob replied that during his spell in the band:
“The influences were British prog rock – especially bands like Stray and Nektar - Steve was really into that – and also American rock such as Kiss, Ted Nugent, and like I say, Montrose. The songs were a bit slower but not bluesy.”
To get a feel for what this might have sounded like, I tried to imagine ‘Drifter’ at a slower tempo and it started to sound familiar – I asked Bob if during his time with the band that song bore a passing resemblance to ‘Blowin Free’ by Wishbone Ash?
“Your'e right about the Blowin' Free / Drifter connection! A couple of years later though, after they’d had all of their gear stolen in 1978, they sort of stopped and it was just Murray and Harris left in the group, and they didn’t do any gigs but they re-built the band through 1978 and 1979. I remember going to see them as a member of the audience and the first thing I noticed as a guitar player was that everything was faster – they built the sound around the speed that Dave played, and all those guitar players who went through the ranks after that: Parsons, Dennis Stratton, you know, the message was: this is our sound now and this is how you have to play these songs. So the sound of the band was by then all geared around Dave Murray’s guitar playing.”
I asked Bob what the gigs were like during his time - which venues were you playing?
“We’d play the Cart & Horses pub every week, and every week the crowds got bigger and bigger. We couldn’t believe what was happening.”
Even then, Maiden had a light show and provided the sort of on-stage theatrics untypical of most other bands gigging on the East-End pub circuit, which helped bring in a crowd craving a bit of rock showmanship. Official Iron Maiden biographies which tell the tale of the band playing such obscure pub shows in London’s East End during Bob’s tenure, with their move into North- and West-London venues being orchestrated and masterminded later, by DJ Neil Kaye and manager Rod Smallwood. Bob’s version of events indicates though that although his might be mostly true, Maiden were in fact also already venturing into North London ‘showcase’ venues and getting onto some decent support slots with fairly major bands:
“During my time, Iron Maiden supported Trapeze at Camden Music Machine, although it wasn’t our finest moment. We started with Transylvania (instrumental track that would later be recorded for Iron Maiden’s first album a few years later) but had terrible technical problems with things not working properly. We’d thought we were really good but we didn’t really cope well in that situation and Trapeze, in comparison, showed us how it should be done. They’d already done several US tours and that gig showed the men from the boys.”
I thought that this was interesting - whilst the Trapeze/Music Machine gig is sometimes listed on fan websites, and a flyer does exist, it was the first time that I'd heard anything about the show itself. A bit more digging around indicates that 'Maiden were indeed getting scouted by A&R types at this time, David Bates who was scouting Def Leppard at that time (and instrumental in getting them signed to Mercury Records) lists the Music Machine show on his website as one of his stand-out gigs of the 1970s.
As well as bands such as 'Maiden and Def Leppard, another band of the era which utilised the twin-guitar approach to melodic but powerful effect was Praying Mantis, and in January 1980, Bob joined their ranks:
“At the time they were choosing a new guitarist, Tino Troy (Praying Mantis founder member) actually got in touch with Steve Harris and asked about me and Steve told them ‘yeah, great guitar player, goes for it on stage’ which confirmed to them to give me the gig. ‘Mantis was a great band, really had something musically. Like ‘Maiden we played all original songs with Wishbone Ash style guitar harmonies, it also reminded me of Blue Oyster Cult at times.”
Bob’s tenure with ‘Mantis was however all over by the summer of 1980:
“I didn’t tow the party line, which is a euphemism for ‘I behaved like a diva!’ Even after that though I had the support of the record company but I went down to live in Cornwall for the rest of the summer like a rock star in exile and three months later when I came back, ready to do something, I’d missed my chance. I joined the band Weapon for a while, but after that I stayed on the pub circuit with mates. I’d had enough –each time you’re out of a band or the band splits you have to start all over from the bottom – it’s a precarious business.”
But what a business – and Bob has been fortunate to not only serve time in some of the foremost bands of the NWOBHM (new wave of British Heavy Metal) but also to have seen some of the biggest acts in rock when they were still slogging around the smaller venues. Highlights include Deep Purple just as their pivotal album ‘In Rock’ was being released, the J Geils and, Wizard and Ray Buchannan at The Sundown (an old converted cinema in Edmonton), T-Rex in 1971 at London’s Roundhouse, The Faces, Free, Steve Marriott playing incendiary sets in venues such as London’s Marquee Club. The list goes on and it is clear that Bob is someone who was there at the heart of the action during some very exciting and formative times for the hard rock and heavy metal genres.
Today, Bob Sawyer is still guitar crazy, building Stratocasters, and the proud owner of over twenty guitars which he plays through a trusty Marshall 100 Watt amp. His latest venture is a Blues Rock, R&B and Jazz ‘combo’ called Firebird Seven, which also includes in its ranks another NWOBHM stalwart, bassist Kev Riddles of Angel Witch and Tyton.
The book promises to be awesome and includes all sorts of stuff for fans of Iron Maiden and the NWOBHM more generally, including a brand new ‘Iron Maiden Family Tree’ based no Bob’s own archives and which should clear up some of the inaccuracies in previously published Iron Maiden family trees and internet speculations which have tended to be hampered by omissions and inaccuracies. For more info visit the facebook page.