The 1980s hard rock and metal scene is widely known as a generation of excess and a lot of over-the-top imagery. In fact, most people refer to the 80s as the decade of Hair Metal or Glam Metal because many band members had big, hairsprayed hair, often outlandish and bright or glittery clothes, and where a large portion of the bands wore more makeup than some women did. However, that’s not the full story. Many of the great hard rock and metal bands of the 80s let the music do the talking and didn’t bother much with creating an image that matched the trends. Sure, some dabbled slightly in it, but these bands listed below just did their own thing for the most part and did exactly what they wanted with both their music and their image. So, For Those About To Rock without the glitz and the glam…
After becoming a rock n’ roll sensation from Australia, AC/DC was on track to take the world by storm. However, tragedy struck as Bon Scott was found dead after reportedly choking on his own vomit, while unconscious, from a long night of drinking. Each album release had propelled the band to higher charts, but Scott’s death was almost too much for the band to overcome. The band considered disbanding but decided to move forward with a new vocalist, Brian Johnson. In 1981 AC/DC released Back In Black with “Hell’s Bells” in tribute to the late Bon Scott with Johnson on vocals. It would prove to be one of the best-selling albums in rock. The band continued right where they left off and were able to grow an incredible worldwide fan base. AC/DC only added to their legendary status throughout the 80s.
This German metal band was highly overlooked in the U.S. during their run of great albums in the 80s. The single “Balls To The Wall” brought them to a larger metal audience around the world, but starting with their self-titled album in 1979, they established themselves as a force to be reconned with. The classic lineup released I’m A Rebel (1980), Breaker (1981), Restless And Wild (1982), Balls To The Wall (1983), Metal Heart (1985), Russian Roulette (1986), and finally Eat The Heat in 1989 which featured American vocalist David Reece and featured a more mainstream sound. However, Udo Dirkschneider would return for several albums before departing for good. The band currently features ex-TT Quick vocalist Mark Tornillo has been with the band since 2010.
Annihilator is the highest-selling Canadian thrash band and has sold over 3 million albums worldwide. The band’s first two albums, Alice in Hell (1989) and Never, Neverland (1990) are highly regarded and the band has released seventeen studio albums thus far. The only remaining original member is Jeff Waters, but the band remains extremely popular and has a loyal following of fans.
Anthrax was New York’s version of Thrash, often compared to West Coast bands like Metallica, Flotsam And Jetsam, Megadeth, and Death Angel. While the Bay Area bands of San Francisco had their sound, Anthrax had a more gritty, inner-city feel to it. While the band has had several singers over the years, the classic lineup featuring Joey Belladonna, Dan Spitz, Scott Ian, Frank Bello, and Charlie Benante is the most recognizable. Anthrax released Fistful Of Metal (1984), Armed & Dangerous (1985), Spreading The Disease (1985), Among The Living (1987), and State Of Euphoria in 1988. The classic lineup, minus Dan Spitz is currently touring and performing.
Armored Saint hit the scene as a gritty L.A. version of Judas Priest. The band was busy in the 80s releasing their self-titled EP (1983), March Of The Saint (1984), Delirious Nomad (1985), Raising Fear (1987), and finally Saints Will Conquer in 1987. The band featured vocalist John Bush, who would later replace Joey Belladonna in Anthrax for many years. Armored Saint had some modest hits with songs like Can U Deliver and their cover version of Lynryd Skynrd’s Saturday Night Special. The band still has a large following of fans and continues to record and tour to this day.
After Jake E. Lee left or was fired from Ozzy Osbourne’s solo band, he built a bluesy rock band that stands up today as a true classic. The band featured vocalist Ray Gillen who along with Lee’s immaculate guitar skills propelled Badlands to be one of the most criminally underrated hard rock bands of the 80s. The band fused blues with classic rock and metal to create a unique sound. Badlands debuted in 1989 to rave reviews. They followed it up with the impressive Voodoo Highway and ultimately their final release after Gillen’s death Dusk. Eric Singer would later go on to be the longtime drummer of KISS following the death of Eric Carr.
A product of the San Franciso Bay area thrash scene along with bands like Metallica and Megadeth, Death Angel was one of the original bands to start the scene. However, the band struggled to find the mainstream success that many of their peers found. The band has consistently created great quality metal albums over the years and received heavy rotation on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball with the release of their album Frolic Through The Park in 1988. The band is still regarded as one of the classic metal bands of the bay area metal scene.
Ronnie James Dio had successfully transitioned from the band Rainbow to Black Sabbath and in the 80s, he branched out on his own as a solo artist. Starting his solo band in 1983 with former Rainbow bass player Jimmy Bain, former Black Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice and a then relatively unknown guitarist Vivian Campbell, Dio set out to conquer the world. With the album Holy Diver, the band immediately had a hit with the singles “Rainbow In The Dark” and “Holy Diver”. This was the beginning of Dio’s reign and musical legacy which is highly regarded as one of the classic metal bands of the 1980s. The tension was brewing within the band and after three studio albums, guitarist Vivian Campbell parted ways with Dio. While the following “Intermission” EP and “Dream Evil” were still considered great albums, the classic lineup on the albums “Holy Diver”, “The Last In Line” and “Sacred Heart are still considered the best albums by the band. Dio continued with his solo band until his untimely death in 2010 from stomach cancer.
Of the best debut albums of the early ’80s was the self-titled album by Fastway. The band’s name was a hybrid of “Fast” Eddie Clarke and Pete Way, who started the band together. Vocalist Dave King often drew comparisons to Robert Plant. The band would go on to record several albums for CBS / Epic Records and performed the soundtrack for the horror movie “Trick or Treat” which featured Ozzy Osbourne and Gene Simmons in cameo appearances. While the band continued to record great albums, none of them reached the level of the debut and the band eventually parted ways. Dave King is currently the lead singer of the Celtic punk band Flogging Molly. Sadly, Pete Way passed away in 2020 from serious injuries.
Flotsam And Jetsam
Flotsam And Jetsam were formed in 1981 in Arizona. This thrash metal band released Doomsday for the Deceiver (1986) and No Place for Disgrace (1988) during the 80s. Jason Newsted played bass on the debut album before leaving to replace Cliff Burton in Metallica after his tragic death. Flotsam And Jetsam have a long history and have released many albums since their inception. Their latest release was 2019’s The End Of Chaos. While the band lineup has changed many times, they still continue to release quality thrash metal albums, time and time again.
Starting out with Paul Di’Anno, the band made a name for themselves and was poised for greatness. The band had a major label deal with EMI Records in 1979. With Di’Anno at the helm, the band recorded their debut album “Iron Maiden” and “Killers”, but due to Di’Anno’s self-destructive behavior and extreme drug use, the band parted ways with him and hired then Samson vocalist, Bruce Dickinson. And the rest as they say….is history. Iron Maiden scored their first No. 1 UK hit with “The Number Of The Beast” and built one of the biggest followings worldwide with Dickinson. The band is currently one of the most popular metal bands in the world.
Judas Priest is considered one of the best metal bands in history, and rightfully so. Having made a name for themselves in the 70s, the band exploded during the 80s. Releasing the albums British Steel (1980), Point of Entry (1981), Screaming for Vengeance (1982), Defenders of the Faith (1984), Turbo (1986), and Ram It Down (1988), the band practically dominated the metal scene. They scored a huge hit with You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’. Featuring guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing and Rob Halford’s incredible vocal ability the band continued to sell out arenas and sell lots of albums. Halford split from the band for several years and has returned in recent years and the band still continues to create new material and tour.
Formed after Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine was let go from the band, Megadeth represented everything Mustaine had wanted to do, but now as a leader and vocalist as well. With lyrics focusing on death, war, politics, relationships, and religion, Megadeth often reflects our society in its songs. Megadeth released the following albums during the 80s: Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good! (1985), Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? (1986) and So Far, So Good… So What! (1988). Especially the first two Megadeth albums were instrumental, along with bands like Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax, Overkill, and Testament to create the Thrash metal movement. Dave Mustaine still champions Megadeth to this day. The band received its first Grammy award in 2017 for Best Metal Performance for “Dystopia”.
Originally formed in San Francisco, Metal Church relocated to Seattle and signed to Elektra Records. Soon they were touring with artists like Slayer, Testament, Overkill, and Metallica which helped them reach a larger audience with their brand of Thrash Metal. The band hit its commercial peak with the album entitled “The Dark”. However, afterward, the band had a changing lineup of musicians which lead to the band not being able to achieve a consistent sound or message. Metal Church released the following albums during the 1980s: Metal Church (1984), The Dark (1986), and Blessing in Disguise (1989). Vocalist Mike Howe died in 2021 by suicide, who replaced the late David Wayne who died in 2005.
In 1981, Metallica came from the underground metal scene of the San Francisco bay area to become one of the most popular metal bands of all time. Originally featuring Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine on guitar, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Cliff Burton formed the early version of Metallica with Kirk Hammett replacing Mustaine before the band’s debut album Kill ‘Em All was released. The band released the albums Kill ‘Em All (1983), Ride the Lightning (1984), Master of Puppets (1986), The $5.98 E.P. Garage Days Re-Revisited (1987), and …And Justice for All (1988) during the 1980s. Bassist Cliff Burton was tragically killed in a bus accident while the band was touring for the album Master Of Puppets. Metallica would replace their longtime friend on bass with former Flotsam & Jetsam member, Jason Newsted who made his first appearance on The $5.98 E.P. Garage Days Re-Revisited in 1987. Metallica received rave reviews for all the first three albums they released with Master Of Puppets being the album to break the band through to the mainstream.
Motorhead is considered one of the legendary bands in metal music. Motorhead released 22 studio albums, 10 live recordings, 12 compilation albums, and five EPs over a career spanning 40 years. Led by lead singer and vocalist Lemmy Kilmister, a character larger than life, Motorhead took no prisoners in their approach. Never a band to bow to the pressure of trends or for radio airplay, they did exactly what they wanted, how they wanted. Motorhead’s best know lineup featured “Fast” Eddie Clarke and Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor on drums. While the lineup changed over the years Lemmy was always the constant and maintained the Motorhead sound and image. In 2015, Lemmy died from cardiac arrhythmia and congestive heart failure, after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Motorhead was nominated for Grammys multiple times and won only one for their cover of the Metallica song “Whiplash”.
Overkill was formed in 1980 in New Jersey as a sort of thrash metal crossover band. The band took the name Overkill from Motorhead’s album of the same name. The band released for high acclaimed albums during the 80s: Feel the Fire (1985), Taking Over (1987), Under the Influence (1988), and The Years of Decay (1989). The band’s success continued throughout the ’90s and 2000s and the band still has a huge following today. Overkill and Anthrax are considered two of the biggest Thrash metal bands on the East Coast of the United States. The current lineup has changed a lot since the early days but still features vocalist Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth and bassist D.D. Verni.
Rush, started earlier but found great commercial success in the 80s. Formed way back in 1968, Rush consisted of the trio Geddy Lee (bass, vocals, keyboards, composer), Alex Lifeson (guitars, composer), and Neil Peart (drums, percussion, lyricist). The band mixed elements of progressive rock, heavy metal, jazz, and blues into a different sound that was all their own. Hit songs like “Tom Sawyer”, “Limelight”, “Subdivisions” and “The Spirit Of Radio” turned Rush into international superstars. Rush ended with Neil Peart’s death in 2020. Rush released the following albums during the 80s: Permanent Waves (1980), Moving Pictures (1981), Signals (1982), Grace Under Pressure (1984), Power Windows (1985), Hold Your Fire (1987), and Presto (1989).
British band Saxon was very busy during the 80s releasing the following albums: Wheels of Steel (1980), Strong Arm of the Law (1980), Denim and Leather (1981), Power & the Glory (1983), Crusader (1984), Innocence Is No Excuse (1985), Rock the Nations (1986), and Destiny (1988). Led by vocalist Biff Byford. Saxon is often listed alongside Iron Maiden and Judas Priest as influential bands from the NWOBHM scene. The band could never quite capture the mainstream metal audience in the U.S. but was quite successful in Europe and Power & Glory is still their best-selling album to date. Saxon is still performing and recording today.
The Scorpions released four albums during the 80s, Animal Magnetism (1980), Blackout (1982), Love at First Sting (1984), and Savage Amusement (1988). While all of them would receive great critical reviews, the band picked up speed with the album “Blackout” in 1982, which was driven by the single “No One Like You”. It was “Love At First Sting” that would finally bring the band the huge international fame that they had been seeking. The smash single “Rock You Like A Hurricane” put the band up to #6 on the Billboard charts and went 3 X platinum in sales.
Formed in 1981 by guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, drummer Dave Lombardo, and bassist and vocalist Tom Araya, Slayer is considered one of the most influential metal bands to appear in the 1980s. They are a virtual tie for the best thrash metal band along with Metallica. Over the years Slayer released twelve studio albums, two live albums, a box set, two EPs, and a cover album. Slayer disbanded in 2019 after their farewell tour.
Along with bands like Metallica and Exodus, Testament was one of the early San Francisco Bay Area Thrash bands to break new ground musically. While the band was formed in 1983, they didn’t release their debut album until 1987. Testament released three albums in the 80s: The Legacy (1987), The New Order (1988), and, Practice What You Preach (1989). While the band never achieved the commercial success of Metallica or Megadeth, they have continued to keep a steady fanbase and a lengthy discography.