Location: Savannah Georgia
Journo: John Tucker
It may be a sweeping generalisation, but in the early 1980s punks were punks and metal fans were metal fans and their paths never really crossed – except, perhaps, at Motörhead gigs. As the Eighties progressed though the lines between genres began to blur, and bands like Virus found themselves part of a new punk/metal crossover scene, attracting punk rockers and metalheads alike.
The roots of Virus lay in Criminal Damage. An Eastbourne-based punk band, Criminal Damage were famous for one 1982 demo, a track from which (‘Criminal Crew’) appeared on the No Future Records’ compilation A Country Fit For Heroes Vol.2. But Criminal Damage’s existence was relatively short-lived and they’d gone the way of so many others long before guitarist Keith Hazelden – now better known as Henry Heston – had an epiphany.
“We didn’t give a fuck, basically,” he recalls. “We were a punk band on the south coast and became tattooed warlords at about sixteen and were into, you know, GHB, Discharge and all this stuff. Then, if you were into that movement at that time, you’ll remember how it crossed over into metal. We used to live in London as well, going to places like the Marquee – Slayer played there – and the 100 Club. I remember Exciter, not a band I really liked, but you could see they had something, and you could see that something was happening, a whole new kind of thing. You know, ‘fucking hell, I’m looking at punks who are wearing Metallica t-shirts!’ That was an eye-opener. And I thought… Well, if I had to be brutally honest, I remember going down to a pub in Brighton to see this band. I won’t tell you who they were – they don’t deserve any bad comments from me – but I was very disappointed. In fact, with all that hype and everything, I thought they were actually crap,” he laughs. “My missus at the time, who was a punk, said ‘well, why don’t you do something? Start your own band.’ And I thought, yeah, I’ll do it. So I got my mates together, from Criminal Damage, and other guys I knew, and just said, ‘let’s fucking do something. Let’s make some noise!’”
Henry took on the new band’s guitar and vocal duties and was joined by former Criminal Damage drummer Terry Hookham (aka Tez Kaylor) and bassist John ‘Damian’ Hess. “We were called Vermin at first, but then I thought, ‘well, that’s not metal. Let’s change it to Virus.’ And that was it. We ended up in my mate’s house, on the top floor, and we started just making what was a fucking big noise, basically! And that was Pray For War. I always remember the guy next door used to bang on the door, shouting, ‘what’s the fuck’s going on?’ This was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon – and he worked nights! He came home to sleep and, oh, he was ready to kill us! He must have listened to Pray For War more than anyone.” Henry laughs. “I bet he loved it!”
The newly-christened Virus had a three-track demo featuring ‘Malignant Massacre’, ‘Scarred For Life’ and ‘Pray For War’ in the can and although it didn’t set the world ablaze, it eventually came to the attention of the London-based Metalworks label who were impressed by what they heard and offered the band a deal. This in turn led to their October 1987 debut Pray For War, a nine-track monster which included re-recordings of the three songs from the demo tape. “It was recorded down in Brighton, at Blue Box Studios, and a good friend of mine called Yaz [Yaasin Hanif] was a big part of it. He was kind of a Van Halen guy and he wanted to play on it,” Henry recalls. “Personally, I never took it seriously, to be honest with you. I don’t think any of us did. But Pete Chalcraft and Chris Farmer from Metalworks came along and said ‘we think this is fucking brilliant!’ I said, ‘are you sure?’” he laughs. “Next minute it’s out on vinyl, and those were the days when you used to have Virgin Records and your t-shirts would be there and your albums would be there and I’d be flipping through the records and seeing my t-shirts for sale… I didn’t know what a merchandise deal was. I just used to love going into Virgin and, ‘oh, look, there’s my t-shirt!’ When you’re that young, it’s fantastic!
“Pray For War,” he continues, “that was our spin on what we thought was going to be thrash metal. I mean, we could play, and to this day I think it’s the best album I’ve ever done. I love the noise, you know? I came from Discharge, GBH, this, that and everything else. But then, for some reason, on the second album we sounded like Metallica. Kind of polished metal. But the kids loved it, and all of a sudden it was all about the mosh pits and everyone stage-diving and all that. That said, we were kind of like the bad boys of rock. We were like hooligans, really, and everywhere we went I didn’t take any shit from anyone. I think it was because of our punk background. But, anyway, I don’t think the metalheads were quite ready for us!”
As Yaz had provided a lot of the solos on Pray For War Henry realised that they needed another guitarist. “So we got the fourth member in, and that was Coke, Coke McFinlay. He was a complete Megadeth metalhead, and it was like, ‘OK, let’s give this a go’.” Just three months after their debut album appeared in the shops Virus were back in the studio, recording Force Recon, which was released in April 1988.
These were still early days for the punk/metal crossover, and no one really knew what direction things were going in. And if they did, they certainly weren’t telling. “Yeah, I agree… I’ll give you an example. Pray For War sounded like a noisy old mess because we didn’t have the money, we were punk rockers and we did what I thought was a demo that I never really expected the record label to release. It was their way of earning money. And then the next record sounds completely different – sort of polished, as I said. Meanwhile, you had Napalm Death coming out with ‘Scum’ which was complete noise, and all that, and it was like ‘where the hell is music going at the moment? Which direction do we go in?’ There was Onslaught – I thought their first album was fantastic: I know Nige Rockett very well and I think they’re doing great. I’m really proud of them – but where were all the other British bands? Sabbat came out and we ended up doing a couple of shows with them, and I thought ‘what the hell am I doing with folk metal?’” Another laugh. “When Suicidals came over – Suicidal Tendencies; they’re good friends of mine – we did their first ever London show and I thought, ‘this is our sort of thing’. We played the Clarendon in London, and it was completely sold out. I’ve never seen the Clarendon sold out in my life. And it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I appreciate music, and I do like watching other bands. I did feel sorry for the first band on the night – the Folk Devils. I actually said to them, ‘what the hell are you doing with Virus and Suicidal Tendencies? You should be playing the coffee shop down the road!”
The Suicidal Tendencies gig at the Clarendon – 7 July 1987 – was Virus’s first gig. Not a bad start… “Well, we had a guy called John Curd from Camouflage and Craig Duffy , John’s right-hand man, behind us. Craig was a big Anti-Nowhere League fan, and I’d been seeing them since I was fourteen.” But, despite this high-profile start, the music press in general weren’t overly enamoured with Henry and his bandmates.
“Well, we always knew we could play. So, after the reviews for Pray For War, we were like, ‘well, fuck you, we can play!’ It just depends whether you want to play, right? If I just want to make a fucking noise, I’ll make one. I remember Discharge doing Grave New World [their second studio album, in 1986] and that just made them look like a fucking old glam rock band which was a bit weird. But I thought, ‘OK, we can show ’em we can play fucking metal. Let’s go!’ And that was Force Recon. It doesn’t mean that I actually want to play metal though. I think that in some ways we never really found our feet, and that’s probably what confused some of our audience. But, c’mon, we were up there, playing with some of the biggest bands in the world at the time. Not many English bands were doing that.”
The roll-call of names that Virus shared a stage with is quite impressive. “It’s fucking brilliant!” Henry counters. “Megadeth, Celtic Frost, Kreator, I can’t even remember them all these days… And I was always very blasé about it at the time. And then there was Christmas On Earth at the Queens Hall in Leeds. That was one of the first festivals for metal – a big show, and an important time for thrash. Lääz Rockit, Voi Vod – but they couldn’t get into the country, if I remember correctly – Cro-Mags, Nuclear Assault (good friends of ours from New Jersey)… Then there was Megadeth [who headlined], Overkill and Kreator. And at the time I didn’t think anything of it. I was more interested in the hotel in Leeds where everyone stayed because they ran out of beer! All the bands, the roadies, we drank the place dry. It actually ran out of beer. They weren’t expecting it.
Christmas On Earth took place on 13 Dec 1987. “We were first band on, and we got a bad write-up on that one because there were a few leaks in the roof, and it leaked into my Marshall and fucked our equipment. That was a bad one. We had a lot of equipment, because we were endorsed by Marshall and I had artist endorsement from Jackson and Charvel and all that sort of stuff, and Sonor drums, and to save money John Curd asked if everyone could use our gear. ‘OK, yeah, whatever…’ I was OK with it, because in those days people used to share stuff. But when I got there, and I saw these big American bands, I thought ‘why haven’t they got their own gear? They’re all fucking millionaires or whatever,’ so I went back to John Curd and told him to give me some money because I wasn’t letting anyone use my gear for free. I didn’t used to care at first. It took me a while to wake up to what was going on in the music industry. Everyone was making money, apart from the artists, and I do feel I was taken advantage of. But on the other hand – and this is very important – I would never have changed a thing. I had a wonderful time, and I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for Virus and those three albums.”
The band’s third and final outing, Lunacy, was recorded in May 1989 and released two months later. “I liked Lunacy a lot. It was heavy. It was done digitally, but as a band we played it live. A lot of bands just play one riff these days then loop it, but when we were in Razor Studios I always wanted to play live. If you’re not tight onstage, what’s the point? We used to rehearse every day. We had our own studio. Yes, we used to get drunk and fucked up and all that, and we did have a lot of fights, but we rehearsed and rehearsed. I had it like a military operation and it was good. So even though it was done digitally and they said ‘just do a riff and we’ll loop it and copy it’ like Def Leppard did and all that, I was like ‘nah, I still love the crackle of vinyl and that live feel.’ Some of the music I hear today is too polished and then when you see them live they can’t even play it. It’s just like a job to them.”
But although Virus were now established, and despite the fact that even the naysayers in the music press were finally getting them, Lunacy was to mark the end of the band.
“I’m going to be completely honest with you. At that time girlfriends and wives were getting involved, and it was like, ‘well, if you’re going on tour we want to come with you,’ and I’m like ‘oh no, no, no, no, no. That ain’t going to happen.’ And so I left the band. Lunacy got some great reviews, there was going to be a tour of America and everything. But, well, ‘that’s it. I quit. You go find yourselves a new singer. I’m done’.”
Henry now lives in California, and while Coke McFinlay has formed his own version of Virus (recently releasing an album Evilution Apocalypse on Combat Records), the other members of the band hooked up with Henry about a year ago. “I’ve got a studio over here, and the guys came over. But it’s like, ‘why do we need to play any more?’ John’s got his own landscape gardening business; Terry’s got a couple of tattoo shops; and I’m doing well, I don’t need to work. But I’ve got a new German guitar player called Ricky and we sounded good and were just having some fun, playing the old songs, and Ricky talked about writing a new album. I said, ‘yeah, go for it, knock your socks off.’ I keep getting calls from festival organisers telling me they want us to play. I’m like, ‘really?’” Another laugh.
“Music has been a great friend to me,” Henry admits. “I’ve done well for myself and, as I said, I wouldn’t change a thing. I haven’t spoken to anyone for years about the band. This is probably my first interview in thirty years. I’ve seen all the books that have been written but I’ve never said anything. I’ve even thought about writing my own book, but I don’t know if I want to say everything, you know? I don’t want to upset anyone. So over the years I’ve let everyone else speak and they send me the books and I read them and I’m thinking ‘what the fuck are you talking about? This is all bullshit, you know? That ain’t the real story. They’ve embellished it all.
“I do miss the street punk thing,” Henry says, going off on a tangent. “Look at Colin [Abrahall] from GBH. UK Subs being in the charts: Charlie Harper: how is he still alive? He’s like the Keith Richard of punk rock! You know, I can put on that record now and it takes me back and it gets me excited. I can put on Stiff Little Fingers and it gets me excited. Even now. And I miss all that. The first band I ever saw was The Ruts – remember them? Malcolm Owen, God bless his soul, ‘Staring At The Rude Boys’… I listen to a lot of old music. But as for the new stuff, it’s all manufactured now. Digital crap, really, as far as I’m concerned. I can’t tell you a new band that I like. I’m trying to think of one now, whereas years ago I could tell off the top of my head…
“And I can remember when punk split up into all sorts of factions,” he continues. “You had Crass – anarchists – and then you had GBH who weren’t so much anarchists but had the leather jackets and the studs and all that, and everything kind of started splintering. And I feel the same thing happened with metal. OK, that’s death metal, this is fucking grunge, this is hardcore, this is crossover… I mean, how many more are there? I just get lost in it. Everything’s labelled, and I never thought we could be labelled. I just wanted to be Virus. Virus were like Motörhead. Or The Ramones. I wanted to be an iconic band, a band that wasn’t labelled. How would you label Motörhead? How would you label The Ramones? I used to drink with Joey. But you couldn’t label them. What were they? Were they punks? Were they rock? No. They were The Ramones. And I wanted Virus to be like that. I just wanted to be Virus.
“You know,” he adds, with one final laugh, “maybe I should write that book after all.”
John Tucker October 2020