CLOVEN HOOF - The Opening Ritual LP
Vinyl reissue of this New Wave of British Heavy Metal band's private press debut EP plus early bonus demo tracks. With printed insert and color poster. Bone white vinyl!
Midlands outfit Cloven Hoof must rate as one of the most legendary bands of the entire New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement. The origins of the group go back to the year 1979, when they first formed under the name of Nightstalker. In 1981, however, the band switched to their new moniker: Cloven Hoof. Original vocalist David Potter, guitarist Steve Rounds, drummer Kevin Poutney and main man Lee Payne on bass adopted the stage characters of ‘Earth’, ‘Fire’, ‘Water’ and ‘Air’. A very interesting concept which was far ahead of its time. After recording demos of songs such as “Return Of The Passover” and “Night Stalker” Cloven Hoof issued their debut vinyl 12” EP »The Opening Ritual« on Elemental Music in 1982 (today a precious collector’s item).
Originally, Cloven Hoof was formed in 1979. Lee Payne sheds light on the very early days: “Yes, we were born on October 31st 1979 in a church hall in a village called Wombourne in the heart of the West Midlands. The very first line up had Kevin Poutney on drums, an old school friend of mine on lead guitar and this vocalist mate of his who talked a mean song and myself on bass. We played cover versions of 'Temples Of Syrinx' and 'Bastille Day' by Rush, 'Warrior' and 'Emerald' by Thin Lizzy, 'Delivering The Goods' by Judas Priest, 'Lights Out' by UFO and 'Another Piece Of Meat' by The Scorpions. This went on for a few months, then I decided to play the boys a song I had written yet to be called 'Return Of The Passover'. Everyone thought it was as good as any of the cover versions we were doing, so they told me to come up with some more songs. 'Gates Of Gehenna' and 'Night Stalker' came next, so we were well on the way to having a set. The singer, who must remain nameless, wasn’t coming up to scratch, so Kevin and I elected to fire him. The guitar player didn’t agree with our decision, so we both fired him, too. The rest is history, as they say, the brilliant Steve Rounds was recommended to me by a friend, so we auditioned him by learning the whole first side of »Hemispheres« by Rush to see if he was up to scratch and in for a challenge. At the end of that audition some promoter heard us outside the rehearsal room door at Holy Joe’s where Priest and Robert Plant used to rehearse. He offered us a gig at a festival saying we were an incredible instrumental band, we laughed and told him it was the first time we ever played together. Guess it was pretty impressive for a debut for the new line up. It took us ages, however, to find a credible singer in those days but in the end we got Dave Potter, so there were not many line up changes in our fledgling years. We stayed together for four years and never had a cross word. Girlfriends led to the eventual downfall of the first line up, wanting to settle down to a 9 to 5 existence. I was too dedicated to let that happen to me, music and metal rules my life. It is like a religion to me and it brings people together from all over, irrespective of race, creed or colour. If everyone was a metal fan, the world would be a better place for sure. It is one brotherhood united by the love of greatest form of music of all time. The band material for »The Opening Ritual« was written during the first New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement, but it took a hell of a time to get musicians who were good enough to play the songs. The material was a little ahead of its time, so most players did not get the multi time changes and progressions. Some musicians were prog rock influenced and could handle the technical rigours of the music, but lacked aggression and attitude. Others played heavy but were too basic and could only play run of the mill 4/4 tunes. So in the end finding Steve Rounds and Kevin Poutney was a blessing.”
Was Cloven Hoof's visual, lyrical and philosophical concept evident right from the start or did the concept evolve over time? Lee Payne reflects: ”The concept evolved over time certainly. The musical perimeters were evident from the start, we wanted to play fast, hard but with taste. Having light and shade in the music was very important because we had high musical aspirations being influenced by bands like Rush and Thin Lizzy. The aggression and darkness in our sound was evident by my admiration of Black Sabbath and Priest. We all came from the same part of the Black Country. There is something inherent in our harsh concrete and glass environment that comes out in the music. Right from the start I didn't want the band to be a standard rock act with an obvious name and music. I wanted to break new ground and be original, the music had to be epic and thought provoking and the name had to reflect this, too. To show the cloven hoof means to reveal your evil side, to let it take over. The Church of Satan call their church, 'Followers Of The Cloven Hoof', in short disciples who worship at the feet of the devil. I had always had a fascination with the occult and horror movies, so I wanted to reflect this in the name and material of the band. The moniker of a rock group needs to be memorable and powerful, that a crowd could chant out easily, so I began by writing down all the things I could think of with occult word associations. The name that really grabbed me immediately was: Cloven Hoof! We played sci-fi, occultist escapist songs so I wanted our image to reflect that. We wanted to be the ultimate metal band with the ultimate music, concept and image. I hit on the idea of the four elements personified by the band members in the first instance because, in witchcraft the magic circle is guarded by the Spirits of the Watchtowers of the South, East, West and North. These all have an allotted element: fire, water, earth and air respectively. The sound of the instruments could also lend itself to this notion, the thunder of the bass, the earth quake of the drums, creative flowing melody of the vocals and red hot guitar playing. Everyone is born under a star sign and these have the elements attributed to them also. Strangely enough each of the band members at the time matched their zodiac glyphs perfectly. I was Gemini, so I was Air, Steve was Sagittarius, so he was Fire, Kevin was Taurus and that was Earth and Dave was Pisces? It was uncanny that everything seemed to fit perfectly! A logical conclusion to the concept lent itself perfectly to a comic book treatment. Each character would have suitable super powers and hold sway over the creatures associated with it. So the Lords of the Elements could have Sky citadels, Atlantean Kingdoms, Stygian Netherworlds and forest domains to hold court over. The scope seemed endless and was a marketing dream. I even came up with a storyline to suggest how four ordinary musicians came to acquire the power of the elements. I'm sure you will agree the whole thing was pretty inventive and had mammoth potential if given the Steven Spielberg treatment. Kiss was the only band that had come close to the full on comic book mythology angle, but I feel sure that the Cloven Hoof concept was more coherent and had more depth.”
“Our debut gig was pretty wild, too,” continues Lee Payne. “That took place at a night club venue in Colchester called the 'Affair Club'. We turned up in weird sci-fi costumes, masks, wings, dry ice, explosions the whole works! The audience were in shock, they had never seen anything like it. We were fast, loud and technical. Even the rock DJ got carried away and shouted down the P.A at the end... 'That, ladies and gentlemen, is the best heavy metal band you will ever see!' Yeah it was a pretty good debut.”
When Cloven Hoof originally started out, were they aware of the NWOBHM movement at all ? Did they ever feel part of it? “Heavy metal really ruled the streets in the late 1970s and early 1980s back in England,” sums up Lee Payne. “Denim and leather kids were everywhere. There was a thriving gig scene and people would go anywhere to catch a band playing original songs. Papers like Sounds and later Kerrang! really supported home grown talent and labels were really interested in signing bands with potential. On the radio the 'Tommy Vance Show' was the biggest thing on BBC Radio 1, so the media were really hooked into the NWOBHM movement that was sweeping the country. I was totally immersed in the metal scene and was always proud to be part of the NWOHM movement!”
A lot of people say that Cloven Hoof's first vinyl offering, »The Opening Ritual«, was the band's most NWOBHM record in their entire career. Musically speaking... In later years Euro Metal, Epic Metal and US Metal influences started to creep in... “Yes, I would agree with that, “ agrees Lee Payne. “It is a real record of the time and captures the vitality and energy we felt as a band. Cloven Hoof played fast because we were nervous in the studio when that red light came on. I wrote more riffs in one song than most bands had on an album because the musicians like Steve and Kevin wanted music to be interesting and challenging. Above all it had to be fast and epic sounding because the bands we were influenced by were like that too. Nowadays they say we are pioneers of power metal and black metal with our occult themed works but I still think of us as NWOBHM because that is at the core of our sound and where we were from initially.”
»The Opening Ritual« was issued on the band's own label Elemental Music. How many copies were pressed Where was it sold? Did the band manufacture test pressings or special editions at all? Lee Payne obviously knows all about it: “No test pressings or special editions were made at the time, I'm afraid. We put the self financed EP out on our own Elemental Music label, a moniker in keeping with our stage concept. We were totally unprepared for the overnight success it seemed to attain when Tommy Vance aired it on the Friday Night Rock Show on BBC Radio 1. Geoff Barton, the editor of Kerrang! Magazine, then played it too when he stood in for Tommy Vance as special guest DJ. The phone never stopped ringing with offers. I guess we were just at the right place at the right time. Our music was en vogue and our image was way over the top. The magazines were championing larger than life bands back then. We caught the mood and movement of the time perfectly. It was not contrived in the least we were forging our own path and it caught the public's imagination. »The Opening Ritual« peaked at number 18 in the Sounds and Kerrang! heavy metal charts and CBS, the biggest label in the world, contacted us about signing a record deal with them. The initial pressing of 5,000 records sold out from the distributor in a matter of days and CBS demanded our master tapes and put a block on any more pressings because they wanted »The Opening Ritual« on their label. In fact, CBS (now Sony Records) still has the master tapes to this day. In the music press we were hot property and flavour of the month, so things were looking good right from the start. The highlight of my life so far was being told at the age of 22 you are going to sign to a major record label and getting paid a million pounds in advance for playing the music you love, surrounded by two stunning penthouse pets. Ah, a man of simple tastes, shame everything turned to dust when our manager died, but that’s life, I guess, we just dusted ourselves down and kept coming back for more. We will never surrender as Biff from Saxon said, it is our motto and will be our final epitaph, too. Our manager Raymond Froggat owned the studio we recorded »The Opening Ritual« at, it was called Metrosound Studio, in the heart of the West Midlands. Black Sabbath used to be a support act for him when they were called Earth and Froggy’s guitarist H-Cain was Ozzy Osbournes next door neighbour. He saw our potential of being the next Black Sabbath and agreed to manage us until we got too big for him. He organised to have the 5,000 records pressed for us which my Dad paid for and then got them to a distributor. Within days they were sold out and then the music papers were aware of us, then the circus began.”
The High Roller vinyl re-issue does contain four extra tracks. Those are from Cloven Hoof's "1982 Demo", correct? “The extra tracks were from demo sessions recorded at Froggy’s Metrosound,” confirms Lee Payne. “We recorded them prior to making »The Opening Ritual«. They were initially for a music publisher who worked for Chappel Music. He took them into record labels for us and didn’t get the advances he expected. He then suggested we make a self financed EP to create more demand that would strengthen our negotiating status. A better recording budget with the labels he had lined up could then take place. The songs have rested in our archive until now and it is good to hear Dave, Steve and Kevin in their formative stages of musical development. We certainly got more aggressive and fast in our approach from the more melodic direction that was en vogue at the time.”
"Back In the USA" is probably the most unusual song on the EP. It somehow stands out. Was this kind of an experiment for Cloven Hoof? Stylistically, it is not really what Cloven Hoof were known for, was it? Some people said it almost sounded like Kiss... “Wow, a big honour to be compared to Kiss,” beams Lee Payne. “I will take that as a compliment. Some say it sounds a bit like UFO. Whatever, as long as it is compared to a band I admire I am happy. It is quite amusing sometimes when people compare your songs to something else. I promise most of the time I have never heard of the band they are talking about or the track they are referring to. For example, on the new album someone compared one of our songs, I forget which, to a Rob Halford solo album track. It must be purely coincidental because here is a confession: I love Rob as a singer and adore him as a person, he was a great friend and has helped Cloven Hoof out a hell of a lot, in the early days especially. I owe him so much for getting us on the map. But when he left Priest I couldn’t bring myself to listen to any of his stuff because I didn’t want to be disappointed. Does that sounds crazy? He is like a god to me still and Priest are an impossible act to follow. I only wanted to think of him singing Priest songs and in my mind nothing would be able to match that. Maybe I am doing him a disservice but I don’t mean to, I still can’t bring myself to hear what he has done post Priest. I am just glad he is back where he belongs. Ripper Owens was awesome and did a great job but Rob Halford simply is Priest for me.”
Did Cloven Hoof not get any offers from record companies for »The Opening Ritual«? I mean Heavy Metal Records was based in Wolverhampton, same as you... “Yes we had tons of offers from record labels after our EP got to number 18 in the Kerrang! heavy metal singles chart,” states Lee Payne. “CBS were the biggest record label in the world and they wanted to sign us really bad. They agreed to sign the band and they even arranged to have a blockbuster video shoot to go with it. We would have been catapulted into the big league for certain, if our manager had not died in mid negotiation. But that’s water under the bridge now, the main thing was the disappointment didn’t stop us and we carried on regardless and kept our music pure. Heavy Metal Records always wanted to sign Cloven Hoof right from the beginning but Neat Records offered us more, pure and simple. Paul Birch always kept in touch, so a deal with him was inevitable at some point it is true to say.
Those days were magical times looking back and I wish I had appreciated them more. I really did feel part of the NWOBHM movement, my life totally revolved around it like an obsession. It was a brilliant period to be young forming your own new band. We were intent on taking on the world and breaking new ground. Kevin, Dave, Steve and I were best friends and we never had a cross word. The EP stands as a testimony to them and the days when British metal really was a world musical force to be reckoned with.”