To this day, Venom has an unsteady reputation in the annals of heavy metal: few groups have been so influential, yet so overlooked. Formed at the end of the ’70s in Newcastle on Tyne, their raw, primitive sound and Satanic imagery spawned a landmark album in 1982′s Black Metal — an record that would unwittingly lay the foundations for an entire genre. Yet the band’s crude musicianship and unvarnished working-class ways meant they were critically reviled, even as their music wound out its tendrils to ensnare misanthropic teenage headbangers the world over.
A turbulent late-’80s period saw Venom’s audience dwindle and their line-up in constant flux. But a new Venom crystallised in the late ’00s, with bassist/vocalist Conrad Lant — aka Cronos — backed by guitarist Rage and drummer Dante. On both 2011′s Fallen Angels and the brand new From the Very Depths, the band is both musically adept and in diabolical good form. “We had this kid come up after a show in Poland and say, sorry, I didn’t really like Black Metal but I fucking love Fallen Angels,” booms Cronos. “You get the odd bloke like, why aren’t you playing lots of old songs? But the answer is there’s three guys at the back who want that — and there’s a horde at the front who want the new stuff. It’s great when you can keep putting stuff out that is wanted.”
Wondering Sound sat down with Cronos, Rage and Dante to discuss Venom’s history through the prism of eight songs.
The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”
Cronos: If ever a song got a band into trouble [laughs]. This was one of the first really controversial songs. You had moments like Elvis Presley in King Creole, when the nightclub boss goes, “You think you can sing kid?” And he gets onstage and he’s singing, “I’m evil, don’t you mess around with me.” But when the Stones came out with “Sympathy for the Devil” — fuck me. The Beatles had their controversies, but the Stones got it in the neck.
This is an early example of a singer taking on the character of the devil…
Cronos: Of course, “Please allow me to introduce myself…” That’s what we do — and one of the things Sabbath didn’t do. Ozzy was like, “Demons are coming to get me — help, run away!” I wanted to bring it back ’round to that — a celebration of evil. Exactly what the church says rock music is — we’ll take it on board and throw it straight back!
Rage: The tone of his voice is so seductive as well. It’s tempting you. And the way it starts, that samba thing…
Cronos: It’s like the dance of the devil, that they do at the carnival in Peru or Boliva.
Cronos, were you living in London in the ’60s? I read you met the Stones.
Cronos: I was born in south Kensington. My mum used to take me by a paper shop on the way to school. Many times we’d see Jagger and the boys in there, buying their cigarettes. Embassy No 6 — I remember the packet! I used to go home, see these guys on our tiny black-and-white TV and make the connection, you know? I moved to Newcastle when I was 10, and no one knew anyone who was famous. And I’d be talking like I was big friends with Jagger, you know? [Laughs.]
Black Sabbath, “Black Sabbath”
Rage: One of my first gigs was seeing Sabbath and I remember when this song came on. It still gives me the chills.
Cronos: I like the way Ozzy sings out of time with the band. We used to sit there listening to the music trying to pre-empt when he would come in — you can’t calculate it, it’s a total guess. People said the early Venom stuff was out of time, but I can point to a load of stuff, including Sabbath, like that. You listen to North American Indian chants — that’s all out of time. Like the Devil would be arsed that it wouldn’t fit on some fucking graph — it’s about the emotion, isn’t it?
Were Sabbath a huge influence on you?
Cronos: For anyone into metal to say otherwise, they’d be a liar. It’s funny, I’m a massive Jethro Tull fan, and Ian Anderson was nearly in Sabbath. You listen back to some of that early Tull stuff and you can kind of hear it — they were two very similar bands in the very early days. But can you imagine how it would have been if Ozzy had not got the job and Ian Anderson had stayed? Because Anderson took on that little pixie thing. Ozzy had that whole drunken rock star thing down, which worked. Ian Anderson was way too clever to have stay this basic.
Rage: He’d have got fucked off the amount of drugs they took.
Cronos: That’s right. I think it was Elton John who said Sabbath invented heavy metal, and without a doubt — without a fucking doubt. The riffs and the chords, they’re still used today.
Sex Pistols, “Bodies”
Cronos: Awesome. Favorite band of all time. I used to tell people I’d seen them live, but I was lying [laughs]. I was a teenager, getting into rock music — your Bad Company, Deep Purple. And then punk came along and the world changed. All those clothes that your mum used to buy you at the jumble sale were now cool. I didn’t do the fashion thing to the nth degree — I did the skinhead, Doc Martens thing, riding around on my fucking chopper.
Dante: I was born 1975, and I remember going into Sheffield with my mum in the early ’80s and seeing these people — they looked like fucking monsters. I was like, oh my god, look at them. Fucking pins in their noses!
Cronos: There’s been nothing since punk that changed the world. None of this hip-hop, people taking ‘E’, none of it was a massive explosion like this. Johnny Rotten did more for me than my parents, in terms of learning how to look after myself, get on in the world. This was a time when the industries were failing — the coal mine, the ship yard, the textile industry, all falling to bits. Those guaranteed jobs for life, vanished. That was what the punks were screaming about. What about us? The fucking forgotten. The lost generation.
KISS, “Detroit Rock City”
Rage: I’ll have to admit I’m not the biggest KISS fan. I like some of the riffs though.
Cronos: Cheesy but fun. Listen, it’s like the riff from Queen’s “Tie Your Mother Down.” When we were starting out, I’d see a band and I’d wonder why they didn’t do certain things. I wanted to go round a fix a lot of bands. KISS had the [Gene] Simmons thing — he looked perfect, this blood-spitting demon. But then he’d sing all these songs like love you baby, la la la. For fuck’s sake! Can you imagine if he’d been the singer of Venom? It would have been perfect — like, all contenders leave. They took such a commercial path. But that just gave us ideas. You should learn from other bands. The pyro, that’s one thing we took from KISS.
Tell me about Venom’s pyro in the early days. What did you use?
Cronos: We didn’t have KISS’s money, so we couldn’t get a professional firm in. Our drummer used to work in a steel factory, and dinnertimes he used to get these steel fucking pots made. We’d get boxes, fill them with sand and plant these metal pots inside. Stick a fuse in, fill them with titanium, wire them up and they go bang! The first time we played in New York I remember we set off the pyro and the building shook — all dust and feathers coming down from the rafters. I ran out on stage like [mimes preparing to strike his bass] and there was no audience. And all of a sudden these heads started popping up. Ah, there youse are! After the show we found one of these metal pots embedded in the balcony. Could have taken somebody’s head off, that. We’d still be in jail now.
Rage: Sounds so little now, doesn’t it? Unheavy. But then it was the heaviest.
This came out in 1979, round about the time Venom got started.
Cronos: We were just leaving school. I’d just joined Venom, and I remember meeting Lemmy at [Newcastle] City Hall. I remember telling Lemmy, oh people in the north of England call you the Heed. He was like “The Heed? The Heed?” Anyone who’s into rock music should love Motörhead. The thing with Motörhead, they’re guaranteed. You see a Motörhead show, there’s no surprises.
Rage: No frills.
Cronos: Aye. But it’s rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not metal. Lemmy constantly tells people that. He hates that people think he’s part of the thrash movement — that was later.
I was thinking of playing you a track by Saxon, but I might skip it…
Cronos: Good [laughs].
But I was curious though if you felt like you were part of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.
Cronos: Not at all. I’ll tell you what, I find it very interesting that those bands who used to look down on us — now they all fucking sound like us. If you take a modern Saxon album, and you play it next to [1980's] Wheels of Steel, it’s a different fucking band. Why aren’t they writing songs like they did in the early ’80s? Why do they now go dug-uh-dug-uh dug-uh-dug-uh. You know? Bit interesting isn’t it? Black Metal [laughs].
Metallica, “Ride the Lightning”
Cronos: Listen to how heavy that sounds after Motörhead.
Rage: This is the album where they got it right. Let’s not talk about the ’90s albums. After [1986's Master of Puppets it's clearly the work of the same band, but here you can hear [original guitarist Dave] Mustaine all over it — I think this is one of the songs Mustaine actually wrote. If things had turned out slightly different you might be playing us Exodus now.
Cronos: Yeah, [Metallica] got the break. They got the Venom gigs to get their name out there. Had the drummer’s rich daddy to help them along the way. But I’ll give them full marks for the early days, the hard work they put in. At the time we were getting more and more offers for U.S. gigs, and we were like we don’t want to be out there touring with all these old half-dead metal acts — or Saxon, who we didn’t relate to at all. We want to tour with the young bands. I had a bootlegger friend living in San Francisco, and he showed me [a picture of Metallica], with Mustaine in a Welcome to Hell T-shirt. I was like, that’s the band I want to open for us. We did a few tours with them — did America, took them out to Europe. We came off of one tour with them, and they went straight out again. They were proper grafters. It was Hetfield who turned me onto Slayer. He said, there’s this band who’ve just started in L.A. — they’re like you, more Satanic. The bands coming out of Europe didn’t really want to associate with us — the Hellhammers, the King Diamonds, they viewed themselves as starting their own little movement. Whereas Exodus and Slayer, they were like ‘We’re like Venom!’
Rush, “Spirit of Radio”
Cronos: Rush saved my fucking bacon. I joined Venom as a guitarist. The week before one of the gigs the bass player fucked off and we didn’t want to cancel, so I asked the guys at the studio where we worked, can I borrow your bass? We did the gig and I winged it — I literally stuck to root notes, still had my Marshall and all my pedals and everything. But I had a bit of a reality check — I have to learn how to play this fucking thing! It wasn’t long after that the other guys kicked out the singer, too, and that fell on me. Play bass and singing, it’s so fucking difficult, you know? I was proper crapping my knickers. So I pulled all my Rush albums out and used to play along to them, all night. Just bleeding ’til I could do what I can do. I went to see them a few times, got right up the front, and just stood there watching [Geddy Lee]. Just singing, hitting all these notes, with no connection — he’s a machine. How can he play that stuff, way out of time to what he’s singing? I took it on myself to learn that technique — being able to switch off. You kind of go into automatic.
Rage: They were one of the first bands where you didn’t have to sing just about love. Their songs were like movies, they took you places. They’re a benchmark for us — we listen to them during rehearsals.
Cronos: We’ve a song on the new album called “Stigmata Satanas,” and the opening to it is pure Rush — the listener’s going to be like, what the fuck is going on?
Mayhem, “De Mysteriis D.O.M. Sathanas”
Rage: That’s something we’ve never done, blastbeats. Didn’t want to be accused of ripping off someone ripping us off.
Cronos: [Copying Attila Csihar's vocal] Sounds like a fucking Tibetan monk.
Rage: Attila is the nicest bloke. I spent a very funny couple of hours drinking with him in France.
He’s fucking awesome, off his head. Mayhem had everything, the sound, the image, everything. But this is when the black metal police started creeping into the scene — like [stentorian voice], “You can’t listen to that.”
Cronos: Venom, we’ve never been like, thou shalt not…the Satanic thing is about freedom, you choose your own path.
Rage: It’s a shame. They had their own amazing scene there. They should have had their own name for it, Norwegian metal.
Cronos: I’d have been happier if they’d done that, chosen their own name instead of taking black metal. Black metal is speed metal, power metal, thrash. It’s fast songs, slow songs, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, Satan, occultism. It’s the long-haired punks — it’s all of it together. After this it became a narrow thing. Plus I don’t sing like those guys. They evolved it to another level — so take credit for it please! Everyone going, “We’re so influenced by Venom and Cronos” — don’t thank me for something you did! What’s the problem with Norse metal — or corpse metal, eh?
Rage: Those guys came out and they were fucked. After all the church burnings, that was all anyone ever wanted to talk about. The fact that they’ve carried on, they haven’t packed it all in and become a plumber — I give them respect for that.
Cronos: I’ve still got Mayhem and Burzum cassette demos that they sent. When they first kicked off. I remember thinking, like Burzum — what does that mean?
Rage: [The Norwegian bands] disowned a lot of stuff. That’s a shame. It must be hard when you’ve done church burnings that you can’t admit to.
Cronos: I’ve written songs I’d like to forget. I’ve had people in the band I wish I hadn’t. It’s like women you wish you hadn’t fucked. You might not be where you are today — with the woman you love — if you hadn’t. For me it’s all a journey.