‘Conan The Barbarian Was A Big Influence On Us’
In the world of Heavy Metal here were few bands as divisive as MANOWAR.
They took their metal-ing extremely seriously.
They set about creating their own sub-genre known as True Metal but could be considered ‘speed metal’. They had a slogan / chant ‘Death to False Metal’. They had their own salute (clenched right fist, left hand gripping the wrist of the right). They had a striking look. Often shirtless, musclebound and oiled chests and a wardrobe which at various times saw them in animal skin loin cloths, studded underwear and chaps. It was a look that even at the time was too much for some metal fans and added to the ostrasizing of them by some areas of the metal community and much of the music press. The hosility towards them strengthened their fans connection to the band and visa versa. They were innovators though and the Dio style vocals of Eric Adama, and the shredding guitar of Ross The Boss Friedman, and the ever-longer bass solos from co-founder Joey DeMaio combined to create a kind of Iron Maiden on steroids version of metal. They somehow got Hollywood legend Orson Wells to narrate a track on the first record. The lyrics drenched in images of mythology, Vikings, epic battles ‘under metal skies’, is a trope that has certainly been plundered and heavily borrowed from by many bands that became more commercially successful then they were in their home territory of the USA. They did become massive in Europe though (they love a good Viking rock song in Europe). The band have been going for thirty eight years and are currently of their final tour. They have had a long career, thanks in no small part to the template co-created and executed by their co-founder and head-shredder, guitarist Ross The Boss.
Friedman had previously been a member of pro-punk band The Dictators, who made a bunch of pretty mighty records with punk attitude before it was punk attitude and a sonic delivery that means Detroit bands like The MC5 are the closet comparison. They were an awesome band, I love those records. The guitar playing on them is incendiary and the vocals from original singer Andy Shernoff and later from the magnificently named Handsome Dick Manitoba were full of raw power and energy. Lyrically they were full of a lot of goofball fun, even if some of the gender politics doesn’t pass muster forty years later. When the band split Ross joined French outfit Shakin’ Street and it was while that band was supporting Dio era Black Sabbath in 1980, that he met Joey DeMaio who was Sabbaths bass tech and fireworks manager. The pair decided to create a super heavy metal band and that is just what they did. Those early albums like Battle Hymns, Into Glory Ride and Sign of the Hammer are packed with evocative song titles like Army of the Immortals, Gloves of Metal, Gates of Valhalla, you get the picture.
Ross was unceremoniously kicked out of Manowar after eight years and the first six albums, but more of that soon.
Ross The Boss is on the phone and keen to talk about his forthcoming Australian tour Ross The Boss Plays Manowar. He is in the middle of doing an avalanche of press to promote the tour and seems genuinely energized by the enthusiasm being shown for the Australian trip.
People want some heavy metal, and I am more than happy to give it to them.
I was hoping we could talk about the Dictators a bit?
Fuck I love those records. When I first heard those Dictators records I was just a kid. They were punk before punk. I heard them before I had heard MC5, they had a massive impact on me. I hadn’t realised that the band had reformed and then gone through a very public and messy break up, with lawsuits and counter suits. Has it been hard going through all that drama over the last few years?
The main friction was between Andy (Shernoff) and Richard (Handsome Dick Manitoba) is that right?
Yes the problems were between Richard and Andy! It always really has been. They were butting heads together. The way I looked at is Andy don’t want to play. Scott doesn’t want to play. Ross and Richard want to play. So why not let Ross and Richard play?!? Why do we have to do this at this stage of our lives? Is it for the money? Cause they weren’t gonna get that much money! We were doing well touring but is it really about the money? I can’t believe that, that is just ridiculous. If I was in Andy’s spot I be saying ‘go play’, who cares, go have fun. But, Andy’s not me.
From an outsiders view it does seem that Andy always considered The Dictators his band, he was the original singer after all, but do you think he never really liked the fact that Richard played such a big roll in making the band so popular and taking over on vocals (Originally Manitoba was the band mascot)?
It’s too bad. People weren’t really paying attention until the guy with the big afro got on stage and then the place went berserk. Is he a remarkable guy? Absolutely!
So let’s talk Manowar. The big difference between them and The Dictators seemed like, The Dictators had a real sense of humour and fun about them, whereas at least on a superficial level Manowar seemed like they were deathly serious about everything. Even in metal circles there seemed to be a real resistance to Manowar, how did that play out for you?
The resistance to Manowar? Well first of all no-one never really understood us in the beginning. That’s pretty commonplace when you are starting, especially because we were doing something completely different. People would say to me ‘Ross you went from forming The Dictators to forming Manowar, how did you do that? How did that happen? And I was like…well, I wanted to start a band, I wanted to start a heavy band, I wanted to form the heaviest band. It just so happened that band was called Manowar. I think people just misunderstood what we were all about, from the beginning and to this day people still do. The fans get it, but a lot of people don’t.
People didn’t seem to have the same issues with say Iron Maiden singing the Rime of The Ancient Mariner. Those same people didn’t embrace Manowar singing about Vikings and Norse mythology which I have never really understood.
Yeah, it’s pretty similar. All metal is similar in that it’s fantasy, a lot of stuff from fiction writers and stuff like that. Conan The Barbarian was a big influence on us. People didn’t know who Manowar was and then all of a sudden people started to understand, they started to get it. Once they understood the band grew and grew and grew. What can I say? The Dictators and Manowar are completely different and at the same time a lot the same.
Was it hard to see those acts like Iron Maiden cracking the States in a big way when that eluded Manowar?
Well there was a reason Manowar didn’t take off in the States. I think that back in the day when we could have been bigger, we didn’t tour the States the way those other bands did. Joey didn’t want to play because we couldn’t use all our gear, or it was too expensive. What we should have done, is toured non-stop in a small truck, with our gear and a couple of outfits and played in every city in the United States. If the band would have done that, we would have been huge in the United States, back in the eighties. Too me it’s all about the songs. It sucks. We didn’t do that, but Metallica did and Slayer did and Testament did and Iron Maiden did, there you have it.
So you left or were coaxed to leave in 1988…
I was ejected (laughing). I was ejected!
As the co-founder of the band that must have been devastating.
The timing couldn’t have been worse either. It was right before the release of Kings of Metal. Right before the release of the bands biggest record. I don’t know. It was bad judgement, it was greed, or control or some other ridiculous reason. I don’t know why Joey (DeMaio) did it, but he did it. I think it was a bitter mistake. The band could have been twenty times better, eons better.
Your playing was critical to the bands sound and they never really reached that level again.
No critically I don’t think. They did put out some good stuff and I have like it. But they never volley six records the way we did, one after another. They got so they were waiting four or five years between releases, which smacks of frustration to me. I mean, come on, it never took us that long to do anything.
I guess the industry is very different now and you have the marketing guys and accountants running everything these days
True, but bands don’t want to do it either, because the return on CD’s isn’t what it used to be. Why bust your ass making records when people don’t buy them any more. The Stones don’t do it. Motley Crue don’t do it. I mean, I’ll do it! I gladly did it.
So now your own band is touring playing all Manowar songs. Is it refreshing, or more fun to play Manowar songs without Manowar?
I think so I think so. There is none of the old baggage. There is no insanity, there is no 20 minute bass solos, there is no speeches. There is none of the whole shtick involved in Manowar. We do these songs our way. My way. It’s stripped down. It’s more punk rock. It’s like a punk rock version of Manowar. It’s stripped down, no breaks, no speeches, no special effects, no tapes, no down time, no boredom, it’s all rock’n’roll, it’s all rockin’ hard, heads down and GO! Like a motherfucker! That’s why people like it so much. People say ‘Ross – I never heard them songs played like that’. The reason for that is that we never did. I find it refreshing. We have a new record coming out on April 20th and we’ll start injecting some of those songs into our sets. We have a lot to do. A lot of things to accomplish. We are excited about the whole deal. We are excited about the Australian tour and we are getting so much beautiful feedback from people down there. We can’t wait and it’s a great time.
Before you go I wanted to ask if you’ve ever heard of an Australian punk band called Nancy Vandal?
No I haven’t.
They had a great song called I’m More Metal Than You. Which starts with the lyrics ‘I got all the Manowar, albums on picture disc, Got backstage Motley Crue, where I blew Nikki Sixx’. I’ll make sure you get a copy when you get down here!
Oh man, great title, that sounds like something I’d really enjoy. I look forward to hearing that one.
Nancy Vandal – I’m More Metal Than You on Bandcamp
Interview by Ian Bell
Catch Ross The Boss on the following dates…