Angel Witch formed in 1976, only a handful of years after the debut Led Zeppelin album was released, and, along with Iron Maiden, were leading members of what would become the NWOBHM movement. Bassist Kevin Riddles was there at the beginning and is set to honour his Angel Witch memories with several performances as Kevin Riddles’ Baphomet, beginning at The Dev on 11 December 2021.
MetalTalk caught up with Kevin to talk about his memories of that time, the inspiration for this project and how his dog once pissed up Ronnie James Dio’s new boots.
There is a romanticism of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal these days, but were the bands of that era aware they were part of a movement? “We didn’t have a damn clue,” Kevin Riddles told MetalTalk. “Not a scooby doo. We were just a gigging band like Maiden, like Samson, like the rest of them. We were struggling for gigs like you always do.”
The Music Machine gigs started to happen on a Monday night, and Angel Witch was there along with Saxon, Samson, Iron Maiden and Praying Mantis. “Then Sounds came along, did that review and coined the phrase, but we didn’t realise we were part of something special and different at the time.” The self-titled Angel Witch album is now considered a classic of the era. “I have to say I was proud of it at the time,” Kevin says. “We were just a working band. We loved doing the gigs we were doing, and the further away from home we could do them, the better. We felt like a proper rock ‘n’ roll band.”
Riddles was working in a music shop in Lewisham. “Kev Heybourne used to come in and buy strings, picks and that sort of stuff and sit and while away an hour or so, playing through the various marshall amps that we used to have,” Riddles remembers and Heybourne took note. “I was demonstrating a bass amp to someone on the other side of the store, and Kev was playing away on marshall combo.”
Heybourne was emerging from the remnants of Lucifer. “He said, I’ve got a little band. We rehearse in The Green Man every Tuesday night. Do you fancy coming along? At that point, I hadn’t done anything musically. I was living in Harlow in Essex and driving into Lewisham every day. My base was in Harlow, and there was nothing much going on there. So I said, yeah, why not?
“That’s how it started. I was dragged from the obscurity of a music shop in Lewisham to the busy heights of Angel Witch almost overnight. With Kev Wayborne, Rob Downing, myself and Dave Hogg on drums, the deal was we could rehearse as often as we wanted to during the week, as long as we did a free gig for him once a month.”
Angel Witch rehearsed and planned three nights a week with “an almost abuse of the privilege”, knocking the band into shape.
The song Baphomet was the big breakthrough for the band when it was added to the Metal For Muthas compilation. “We were delighted to become a proper recording band,” Kevin says. “We also had a session on the Friday Rock Show with Tommy Vance, and that was one of the three or four songs we played there.”
Metal For Muthas said that the version of Baphomet was too long. “We re-recorded it and chopped a verse and a chorus out, and that’s the version on the album.”
Iron Maiden and Angel Witch were the only bands to have two songs on that album. “Maiden had brilliant management,” Kevin said. “That combination of Steve Harris and Rod Smallwood was a match made in heaven, and it has worked perfectly for them. We had what I thought was a great band that needed more direction, but we were too young and inexperienced to know what that direction was. Part of the deal with the Metal For Muthas thing was that we had the two tracks on the album with an option for a single.
“Again, Maiden had the same deal, and we both got taken up with the option of the single. So we got three tracks out of that deal, and at that point, Maiden signed directly to EMI, and we signed to Bronze. We had no idea of the difference at the time. We just thought, great, we’ve got a deal, and away we go, you know. Of course, looking back on it now, there was a huge difference. But we were just grateful to have the chance to do some recording. We were genuinely over the moon.”
The recording of the Angel Witch album was the band at its peak, embracing the opportunities and enjoying the experiences. “I can look at it back on it now, and it comes across on the album, we kept the enthusiasm of playing live,” Kevin says. “We kept the fun aspect of it. We were never particularly serious. There was always that attitude of, by God, I’m enjoying this, you know. I was still working with the music shop at the time. I got married, moved into a company apartment, and did the Angel Witch thing. Uriah Heep were in the Roundhouse Studios, and here we are in the same Studio. I actually played the keyboard parts using Ken Hensley’s Hammond.”
A tour with Black Sabbath, who were in the classic Heaven And Hell lineup, followed. “Then I had to give up work. I really couldn’t disappear off work for five weeks and say it was because of my ingrown toenails, you know.”
Smack in the middle of recording, John Henry “Bonzo” Bonham died. “It’s probably me overthinking it too much,” Kevin says, “but it really knocked us all for six. I listen to the album now, and I can almost tell when that happened in the recording process. But, that was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. Dear God, I’m a rock star. I’ve played the Marquee, and Zeppelin played on this bloody stage. Hendrix? He probably peed in that corner. That’s was important. It’s kind of what you do this shit for. To feel yourself not on the same level, but in the same zone and in the footsteps of the people that you grew up admiring.”
Angel Witch released the album’s title track as a single before the album came out, which went down well. “It was one of those songs,” Kevin says, “where once you had people in, shouting and screaming and singing, it was very difficult to stop them.”
There are suggestions online that live, they had to play the title track twice at their gig. Is that something Kevin can remember? “We did it a few times. There was one classic time on the Heaven And Hell tour with Sabbath where a young Bill Ward had inadvertently fallen off the drum riser or something, cracked his head and was taken to hospital.
“I think it was Portsmouth Guildhall at a soundcheck. Everybody’s concerned about him, and we go on play our opening set. At the end, their manager and Geezer Butler said we had to do one more as Bill’s not back. We ended up having to play another three or four. We used to do a couple of UFO songs back in the day, so we resurrected those and came to the point where we had to do Angel Witch again. They said keep playing as Bill was coming back, but the only song we had left was Paranoid.”
The plan was to speed it up, so Sabbath would not notice. “We did the world’s fastest version of Paranoid. It probably lasted about one minute 45. At this point, Bill got up on his drums, thinking Sabbath had started their set. He had a big old white bandage on his head.”
Watching the Heaven And Hell lineup play was something special. “Until that album came out, I had never really heard Ronnie Dio,” Kevin says. “I can’t tell you why. It’s just one of those things that passed me by. But hearing him from the side of the stage was just awesome. Jaw-dropping. I don’t think the band have ever played as well since. It was literally a match made in heaven.
“He is probably the greatest vocalist I’ve ever heard. Bob Plant is probably right up there with him, but I think live, he was just unbelievable. And great, great fun. I have to say, for a small American man who had done everything, he was just so down to earth.”
There is then the story of last night jolly ups. “I brought my dog Boris along, and my plan was to walk on the stage while they were playing, dressed in a flat cap and a broom. I had a headset and mic, and I walked across the stage on a song break, going ‘come on, you get the fuck outta here, you have to go, you have finished here’ in a Northern accent.
“About a week prior to that, Ronnie had ordered these lambskin knee-length boots from some special tailor in London. He’s on the stage with these fantastic pair of boots, but Boris, the dog, has walked up to Ronnie and pissed on one of his boots. One of the few things I remember about physics at school was the term osmosis because as Boris was peeing on the boots, osmosis was drawing the pee up the boots, so they were gradually getting darker and darker and darker. Ronnie hadn’t noticed.
“When he moved at the start of the next song after I had left the stage, he suddenly started shaking his leg, realising what had happened. He just looked at me with a huge smile on his face, and he just said, ‘I’ll get you’.” Ronnies revenge was to fill Kevin’s bed with shaving foam that night while he was sleeping.
1981 would see Kevin Riddles leave Angel Witch and form Tytan. “It felt we had gone as far as we’re going to go. Bronze was a one-man family operation. There wasn’t a great deal of record company support. They were interested in a second album, but it felt like they were going through the motions.
“It was just a very odd time. We were doing the same gigs. We couldn’t just push that little bit further forward. It came to a natural end, really. Kev Heybourne kind of agreed, because he went off and did some things with other bands before he got Angel Witch back together again a couple of years later.”
When you run through the ’80s, ’90s and into the new century, people look back at that era and talk about the Angel Witch album being one of the set responsible for shaping the rise of Thrash Metal in the mid-80s. “I remember seeing an interview on a film with Lars Ulrich”, Kevin says. “He cited Angel Witch as one of the influences behind Metallica. We got him into the Marquee for free every time we played there. He slept on my damn couch for weeks on end because he was homeless.
“He never offered us a gig, the little bugger. They had the luck, the management, the talent and everything else. They got the package just right, and they took their careers and ran with it. That was brilliant, to hear that we had influenced them. It was just an extraordinary thing to hear. You know, people talk about the hair on the back of the neck going up. That was one of those moments. I’ve seen it written before that the Angel Witch album was in the top 20 NWOBHM albums of all times.”
The idea for Kevin Riddles’ Baphomet came from wife, Julie. “She said, ‘why didn’t you do something with that first album?’ There is the first album plus half a dozen extra songs that I was involved with. Angel Witch still have to play a lot of those songs now, but not all of them.”
The idea was worked on over lockdown, with a setlist drawn up and musicians recruited. Kev Heybourne gave his blessing, and the 11 December show looks to be the beginning of some fun trips down memory lane.
Gary Bowler, from Satans Empire, will drum, and a special guest singer will be announced soon, with more surprises in store also. Rehearsals are sounding great, and the gig list is growing, with shows also booked in Spain and Belgium.
“Hopefully, we will get back a bit of that fun that we were having in the ’80s. That is the idea. If people revisit it in their heads, when they saw us at the Marquee, or when they saw us at Sundown, or when they saw us at Hammersmith, or when they saw us at Newcastle City Hall, if they walk out with a smile on their face, that is all I can ask.”
When Angel Witch recorded that first album and played those early gigs, the atmosphere was full of youthful exuberance. The gig at The Dev is a perfect way to honour those times, and the memories for many will still be strong.
“I’ll probably fall over,” Kevin says. “I’ll start crying at some point. I’m bound to. It’s what I do. But, yeah, we will have some fun.”