White Spirit / The NWOBHM Phoenix rises from the ashes

Widely tipped as one of THE bands of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, White Spirit stood out from the rest of the long-haired outfits on the scene, their secret weapon of keyboards adding a welcome melodic edge and shimmering palette to their sound. Soon snapped up by the iconic Neat Records, they were more akin to classic acts Deep Purple and Uriah Heep than Saxon, but this worked to their advantage, their appeal bringing in old fans and new.

With a hugely successful appearance at the legendary 1980 Reading Festival, back when it was chock full of great rock and Metal acts, and a track on the second volume of the equally loved Metal For Muthas album, alongside their critically lauded self-titled debut, the band were certainly on the map.

Things weren’t quite to be, though, the outfit hitting a big speed bump when guitarist Janick Gers was lured away to replace Bernie Torme in Ian Gillan’s titular combo, and from that point onwards, the forward inertia was lost. Given the promise and quality there, it was a criminal loss to the scene, but with so many acts vying for attention at that time, including Gers’ later band Iron Maiden, there were bound to be casualties.

A second album was demoed but never released, and the band went their separate ways until these hitherto lost recordings were recently discovered and restored, parts added and tidied up, all leading to sophomore Right Or Wrong being brought out in 2022.

Featuring the original vocals of the late Brian Howe, best known for his fronting Bad Company and with additional contributions from Jeff Scott Soto, Neil Murray, Russell Gilbrook, Steve Overland and Lee Small, the album was a warmly welcomed return by the band, putting them firmly back on the scene. With keys player Mal Pearson and guitarist Mick Tucker back at the helm, things soon started happening, offers flooding in for shows and the critical and public reaction was blazingly positive.

Buoyed by the reception, Pearson and Tucker reconvened White Spirit, drawing a new and hungry line-up around them to make up for lost time. MetalTalk’s Paul Monkhouse caught up with the two veterans and new singer Alexx Stahl to get the inside information on this most welcome rise from the ashes.

It took the death of Brian Howe from a heart attack in May 2020 for the seeds of a revival of White Spirit to be planted. “I saw the news about Brian, and I rang [Mal] up,” Mick says. “We were chatting about the good old days, really. He said, ‘I think I’ve got the tape somewhere.’ These were eight tracks recorded for Warner Brothers in 81/82. Mal found them in a bedside cabinet drawer…”

“When we moved to France,” Mal says, “there was one bedside cabinet missing from one of the rooms. My missus said, where is it? I said, well, I don’t know. I said it was probably in the container. We have a big 40 ft container in the barn. She said, go and find it. I left it a couple of days, and I went in there, and it was right at the back. We got the cabinet out, unwrapped it, cleaned it up, and unlocked it because we had the key from the other cabinet. And lo and behold, in the top drawer were four tapes. One of them had Chiswick Studios written on it, and that’s the start of it.”

The tape was handed over to Conquest Music boss and Tank guitarist Cliff Evans who arranged for the delicate process of restoring the tapes to retrieve the old recordings.

The sound quality of some elements was not up to today’s standards, but the vocals were lifted, and over time new instrumentation and arrangments happened. “Once we got the actual vocal off the tape,” Mal said, “we re-recorded the songs from scratch. We rewrote the songs completely. So basically, these are brand new songs with a singer who is no longer with us. There were four or five tracks, which weren’t very good quality, so we asked people to come along and, you know, they all said yes. So, that’s history.”

Vocalist Alexx Stahl has joined the band now. “He’s got some big boots to fill,” Mal said. “I’m sure he’ll do it. We wouldn’t have picked him otherwise.”

“I was not aware of the legacy of White Spirit until we made a cover version of the White Spirit song, Midnight Chaser, on our Roxxcalibur album in 2015. We are a band covering New Wave Of British Heavy Metal songs. We’ve made three albums so far, and on the first album was Midnight Chaser.”

“I was speaking to Mick one day,” Mal says, “and I said, I’ve just heard a cover version of one of our songs, which I’ve never heard before. I said, actually, it was good. It was quite good. I was quite impressed, and that was the sort of tenuous connection about 18 months ago, and here we are 18 months later, and Alexx is a singer in the band. So it’s another strange connection in the whole sort of White Spirit family tree. It’s a weird, weird thing that’s happening.”

White Spirit 2023
White Spirit 2023

The self-titled White Spirit debut album came out in 1980, and the band would play Reading Festival that year. “I think we replaced Gary Moore’s G Force because he was ill,” Mal says. “I think we were about fourth on the bill, and we were the first band up there to get an encore. We were so unprepared that we had played all our songs and we had to go and play them again. We didn’t have enough songs written. That’s how totally unprofessional we were.”

They were seen as part of the NWOBHM movement, though with a sound more akin to Rainbow. “That was because of the single Backs to the Grind,” Mal says. “The first one we did was on Neat records, which obviously had quite a few original MWOBHM bands. Further down the line, we just got put with the same stable. We got put on shows with Motörhead at Bingley Hall, and we were supposed to be third or second on the bill with Saxon. But because we had keyboards, we were a pain in the arse to the road crew, so we had to go on first. But we went on first and did brilliantly, and we just disappeared. We can be as heavy as hard and as fast as a Heavy Metal band, as you’re about to find out when the new stuff comes out. As well as the classy stuff, we can do both. We can do it all. Trust me.

“We need people like Alexx, who’s younger, to keep us on our toes. We need the younger generation to keep us on our tours. We’ve got a fantastic young guitar player as well. Micky Crystal is good. I mean, the whole lot of them are great. The festival that we’re going to do, [ Dominion Festival, Durham on Sunday 7th May], we’ve got three great backing singers as well. It’s a nine-piece band, which is slightly different from the original five-piece band that was the Backs to the Grind time. It will sound great.”

White Spirit at the Dominion Festival - 2023
Dominion Festival – 2023 Lineup

Right Or Wrong has certainly taken off, “number one in Japan,” Mick says. “We knew the songs were good,” Mal says. “People have called them annoyingly memorable. They’re great songs, and whether you like that genre of music or not, you can’t deny the songs are good, well-crafted, well-played, well-sung songs, and it’s as simple as that. Now, if it’s not your cup of tea, then fine. But, all the songs are good, and that’s what sets it apart.”

Was it emotionally difficult listening to those original tapes? “Yes,” Mick says. “We lost Crash [Graeme ‘Crash’ Crallan] in 2008…”

“Crash was my best man at my wedding,” Mal says. “I used to go to school with him, so it brought back a few memories, but I think it was far enough back in the past that you didn’t sort of start getting too emotional about it. But now and again, you think about it and know what he would have thought if he was on the album. I’m sure he would have loved it. And Brian, the same. I mean, Brian would have loved it if he had heard it come out this way. It would have taken him by surprise, I think, but he would have loved it.”

White Spirit – Right Or Wrong album review.

With new songs in the pipeline, you can’t describe White Spirit as a heritage act. The band say the new songs lean towards their heavy rock roots, but with the band additions, there is a newer approach to writing. “Alexx comes from a slightly different background, and he has a slightly different sound to the other singers,” Mal says. “So we’ve got a fresher approach to these songs, which is nice because we didn’t want to just churn out another version of Right Or Wrong. We wanted to be a little bit more 2023. The songs are well crafted and catchy and hooky and everything, but it’s just got a slightly different edge to it.”

For the new material, the band says that it’s obviously a massive difference recording from the ’80s, but they have a mentoring approach with Alexx. They now write slightly differently, but the format is still the same. “People used to think for the first album, we were a heavy rock band, but we’re actually a heavier rock band now,” Mal says. “Mick’s playing the guitar, and he’s a different style of a guitar player than Janick was, like a Richie Blackmore, single note guitar player where Mick is like, ‘here we go’. That suits me fine. Because I can do all sorts of things I couldn’t do before. The power is there, and now you’ve got Micky Crystal there as well, and you’ve got Steve Ireland on bass and Kyle Hughes, a little powerhouse on the drums behind that. It’s phenomenal. The Dominion festival is like being chucked into a Heavy Metal festival again because there isn’t a band on that festival which are like us. We’re in the same mix as we were before [Reading, 1980]. But we don’t care. We’ll just play and hope people like it, simple as that.”

With gigs lined up for this year, we’re looking at November for recording the next album, with a four-track EP due in the future too. Mal says the last time he played on stage was with The Sweet in 1988. Mick, more recently, “two or three years since he was playing.”

These live shows are something to look forward to. “The first time around, we didn’t get a fair shot of the dice from the record company,” Mal says. “We’ve said this time we’re gonna record it properly, and that’s what the result is. If you imagine those songs had come out in 1980, you imagine what that would have done? It’s all hindsight now, isn’t it? It’s irrelevant. But it’s led us to where we are today. 

“I’m just looking forward to the new stuff. I want to play Right Or Wrong because they’re great songs. But I also want to get the new stuff out there as well. I really do because there’s no point in looking back now. That’s all there, and it’s to be enjoyed. But it’s been done now. I enjoy it, but we’ll move on. We’re not resting rest on our laurels. We’re not gonna do that.”

Sleeve Notes

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