Geoff Barton, behind the wheel
Former Kerrang! editor discovers a different kind of speed

By Steven Ward

In the late '70s and early '80s, Geoff Barton's name became synonymous with the 'NWOBHM' groups. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands of the time--Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, Saxon, Diamond Head, and dozens of others--were mixing D.I.Y. punk energy and aesthetic with sped-up classic rock chops that were direct descendents of British metal pioneers like Deep Purple and Judas Priest. Barton may not be the man that coined the term 'NWOBHM,' but he was the first journalist to use it in print.

After chronicling the exploits of the 'NWOBHM' bands in the pages of the British music weekly, Sounds, Barton moved on to create and edit Kerrang!--the world's most popular metal mag. To this day, Kerrang!--founded in 1981--is the highest circulated rock weekly in the world.

After several years of doing time as a rock journalist, Barton left it all behind one day and disappeared. In the following e-mail interview he explains why, and tells us where he is today (let's just say you're more likely to find him behind the wheel rather than behind the music).

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Geoff Barton

Steven:   First off, what year did you leave rock journalism behind and why did you do it?

Geoff:   I left Kerrang! at the end of 1995. It was a decision that was kind of forced upon me. At that time I had the rather baffling job title of Managing Editor and Marketing and Circulation Manager of EMAP's hard rock/heavy metal titles--EMAP being Kerrang!'s owners and the UK publishing company I worked for, of course. I don't quite know how I ever got myself into such a ridiculous situation--all I ever wanted to do was write about my chosen field of music (i.e., rock/metal) and edit Kerrang! Anyhow, casting my mind back, things were a little in the doldrums at this time. Kerrang! wasn't selling particularly well (it was still struggling to get out of the "old metal" era, untangle its poodle perm, and adapt to modern times) and RAW, another of our titles, was going down the tubes. We'd also had to close Spanish and German language editions of Kerrang! due to erratic sales, and a short-lived "extreme metal" publication called Ultrakill! sadly folded after a handful of issues.

But back to RAW for a moment. It was decided to "save" the title by giving it all lower-case letters ("raw"), abandoning the rock/metal guff and changing its editorial strategy, concentrating on bands such as Oasis, Blur and Supergrass instead of Bon Jovi, Metallica and Iron Maiden. (As an aside, RAW was originally set up independently by Dante Bonutto, Malcolm Dome, Mark Putterford, et al. when they left Kerrang! It was later acquired by EMAP, where it was positioned as a "younger" version of Kerrang!) The advent of the Gallagher brothers and their Brit Pop compatriots in RAW's/raw's pages effectively ended my involvement on title, leaving Kerrang! as the only mag I had left in my "portfolio". Of course, the excellent Phil Alexander was Editor of Kerrang! at the time--so cue plenty of thumb twiddling and gazing out of the office window on my part. I worked for a while with Phil on trying to refocus Kerrang!--we eventually came up with a more contemporary "vibe" for the title, and regretfully had to request that the writers stop using phrases such as "gut-wrenchin', migraine-inducin', kranium-krunchin' kaos"--much to the chagrin of Xavier Russell in particular!

The first Kerrang! with the new look had Reef on the cover, but--I dunno--it felt like a far cry away from the days when we could put bands such as Vain, Death Angel, Celtic Frost or (splutter) RPLA on our front pages and, rightly or wrongly, feel like we were making some sort of difference. So, shortly afterward, an EMAP executive shook me awake at my desk, dangled a cheque in front of my bleary eyes and asked me to vacate the building!

Steven:   Today, you are the News Editor in the London bureau of Automotive News Europe magazine. How did you arrive there, and what were you up to during the years between your rock writing career and your auto writing career?

Geoff:   To be honest, I fancied a change after more than 20 years of working in the music industry. I had a bit of money in my pocket after leaving Kerrang! and all I really knew was that I wanted to keep on working as a journalist. I had a misty-eyed aspiration of moving out into the countryside and sitting in a field on weekends, so I initially got a job as Sports Editor on a small group of rural-area newspapers--which was a hoot during football (soccer) season but tedious beyond belief when all these zillions of obscure village cricket teams woke up from hibernation and started playing, er, cricket during the summer. It had always been my ambition to get paid for driving exotic sports cars, so I started working as auto industry journalist about four years ago. Unfortunately, I have still to get behind the wheel of a Ferrari--although I did manage to borrow a Skoda for a few days just before Christmas.

Steven:   Let's go back. You are known for your writing in Sounds and Kerrang! How did you first get into the rock writing business, and what publications were you first published in before going to work for Sounds?

Geoff:   I joined Sounds as a 19-year-old straight from completing a journalism course at the London College of Printing. Apart from a short critique in the Spider Man letters page, I had had nothing published up to this point. Amazing but true. I strongly believe that I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I wrote a letter to then-Sounds Editor, Billy Walker, asking if he had any vacancies on his writing staff. As it happened, he had two--and one had already been filled by an established rock journo, Mike Flood-Page. Maybe Billy--a black-bearded, gentle giant of a man--thought he'd take a chance and fill the other spot with a total unknown. He never told me his reasons and I was so grateful for him giving me the job, I never asked him. I remember going back home on the London Underground after Billy told me I'd be joining Sounds. Travelling down the grubby escalator into the bowels of the crumbling tube system, it actually felt like I was descending a glittering staircase amid detonating fireworks in a Busby Berkeley musical! An all-time high. At this time (we're talking 1974), Sounds had a hot young writer called Pete Makowski covering bands such as Deep Purple, ELP and Uriah Heep. Despite the popularity of such combos, Pete was something of a pariah among the Sounds staff, many of whom were folk/jazz fanatics. But Billy the Editor knew how popular Pete was with Sounds' readers--and when I mentioned Montrose were one of my favourite bands in the interview, I think that clinched it for me.

Steven:   Tell me who were your rock writing influences, and what rock mags and music papers did you read before you entered the profession?

Geoff:   At that time, there were three thriving British music weeklies--the New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Sounds--and I was an avid reader of all of them. But I always liked Sounds the best as, compared with its rivals, it always struck me as being more down to earth and less cynical. I used to be an avid reader of Chris Welch's amusing weekly singles review column in the Melody Maker and I always enjoyed stuff by Pete Erskine and Pete "Hunter S." Makowski in Sounds. I particularly remember a legendary article when Makowski went on the road with Lynyrd Skynyrd in the USA and someone pulled a gun on him! Apart from that no one else really springs to mind from the early days. But working on Sounds it was a real privilege to interact with--and often edit--some outstanding writers. Giovanni Dadomo, Jonh Ingham, Jon Savage, and Sylvie Simmons (particularly when she was Sounds' Los Angeles correspondent) immediately spring to mind. But special mention must go to Jane Suck--a blistering talent from the punk era. Cutting, brutal and brilliant, she made Julie Burchill look like Delia Smith. With regard to influences, I always tried to write like Stan Lee (Marvel Comics) would have done if he'd been a rock journalist. Similarly, I always endeavoured to edit Kerrang! as if "Stan The Man" was standing behind me, looking over my shoulder. So be it!

Steven:   Tell us the story on the birth of Kerrang! I'm guessing they pegged you to work on it because you wrote about a lot of hard rock and metal bands at Sounds?

Geoff:   It was Sounds Editor Alan Lewis's idea to launch Kerrang! ("Big Al," as he was known, took over from Billy Walker at Sounds' helm in 1975 or thereabouts.) Along with the likes of Garry "Cockney Rejects" Bushell and Dave "Pink Military Stand Alone" McCullough, I guess my rock/metal ramblings were one of the mainstays of Sounds--but the tabloid newspaper format hampered the scope of our coverage. We needed glossy paper and we needed garish full colour! I remember Big Al having quite a battle with management to get Kerrang! off the ground. He finally thought he'd got the go-ahead in 1979 or 1980 (can't remember the exact year) and asked me to write/commission/collate the first edition, which I did from a small, damp cupboard adjacent to his desk. But then management got cold feet and we had to divert everything into a pullout section within Sounds itself. (I think the pullout was called something like Kerrrrr-annnggg!!!!--later shortened to Kerrang! so the title would actually fit onto an A4 page!) Kerrang! was finally launched in 1981 as a stand-alone one-shot with Angus Young of AC/DC on the cover. It was an instant hot-seller and monthly frequency was established shortly afterward. Later, Kerrang! began to appear on a fortnightly basis, and in 1987 it finally went weekly.

Steven:   Is it true that you coined the term, "NWOBHM" (New Wave of British Heavy Metal), and how and why did you come up with it? Also, did you really see bands like Iron Maiden and Saxon as a new, important breed of band and what kind of impact did this scene have on the world of rock and roll?

Geoff:   I'd like to take credit for inventing the term "NWOBHM"--but once again I believe it was a "Big Al" Lewis brainstorm. There's little doubt that punk's "do-it-yourself" ethic kick-started the NWOBHM--young British rockers began to break through using the same route to stardom as their spiky-haired counterparts, i.e. book your own gigs, make your own records and sell/promote them independently. But in truth the NWOBHM was a catchall title for a melting pot of bands with an immense variety of musical styles. (You could say the same about punk and the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Jam and the Damned. It was attitude more than anything else.) The only thing a lot of NWOBHM groups had in common was that they came to prominence at about the same time. But to call the NWOBHM a Sounds editorial gimmick would be going too far--and history has proven that there was a genuine resurgence of youthful British rock at the end of the 1970s/beginning of the 1980s. But Saxon, much as I love 'em, weren't exactly spring chickens when that first Carrere album (not to mention Biff Byford's "singing teeth") came out. Apart from a pioneering spirit and the occasional mention of Satan, a scattergun selection of bands such as Venom, Jaguar, Shiva, Sledgehammer (more old geezers), Mythra, White Spirit, Angel Witch, L.A. Hooker et al. were often miles apart musically. When you're closely involved in covering a scene such as the NWOBHM, it's often difficult to pull all the threads together, step back a little and realize what an impact it's having at the time. In later years, I was astonished when Metallica's Lars Ulrich told me he trekked over to visit Portsmouth on the south coast of England (presumably as a fresh-faced fan from Denmark), just so he could catch an early Diamond Head gig. It was only then that I was able to get a handle on things and realize that, yes, the NWOBHM was a indisputable grassroots revolution that deeply affected the lives of thousands of people--yours truly included.

Steven:   Do you read music mags and music papers today, and if so, which ones? Also, are there any British or American rock writers that stand out for you today?

Geoff:   No and no. Good, intelligent, well-informed writing is always important--but I strongly believe that the Digital Age has killed off the cult of the personality rock journalist. No bad thing, some would say! But looking back to when I bought Sounds as a young punter, many of the writers were like gods to me. I was always attracted to the mini-photos of the journalists they used alongside the bylines. I remember a particularly haunting shot of Pete Erskine, for example. He had long, lank hair, sunken cheeks and spooky, hollow many ways, I was more interested in the writers themselves than in the bands they interviewed. Of course, like an unfortunate number of rock journalists, Erskine (who later moved to the NME) wanted to be Keith Richards and ended up paying for it in the worst way possible. Don't think that happens too much today.

Steven:   Do you miss writing about rock or do you ever feel compelled today to put your thoughts down on paper about a band's performance or album?

Geoff:   It's been a rude awakening getting a proper job. Working on Sounds and Kerrang!, most of the time you were getting paid for having fun. For the past couple of years I have been working on a book set in a rock newspaper environment and inspired by the Motley Crue/Frank Ferrano "doppelganger" episode. But it's very much a work in progress and it will be a damned miracle if it ever sees the light of day.

Steven:   What music moves you today and does it give you the same rush as bands like Rush or Iron Maiden gave you in the past.

Geoff:   Even today, the sound of Neil Peart tinkling his cowbell still sends a shiver down my spine.

Steven:   What did you see as the main difference between the British weekly music papers and American rock magazines like Rolling Stone? Also, what did you think of your American competition in the days of Kerrang!--magazines like Circus and Hit Parader.

Geoff:   The British music weekly music papers were much more genuine, down to earth and cutting edge than Rolling Stone, which I always thought of as being somewhat holier-than-thou in its approach. I'm not a big fan of the fancy Cameron Crowe school of lovingly-crafted journalism. Similarly--and I'm probably in a minuscule minority here--I don't really enjoy present-day Brit mags such as Q and Mojo. Impeccably written, extensively researched and wonderfully designed they may be, but--in my personal view--they're far too reverential and stuffy. You wouldn't be able to get away with writing a dumb-ass (but heartfelt) testimony such as "Kiss Alive! is the greatest record of all time"--and there's no way you would be allowed to award a Paul Sabu album the equivalent of a lofty "L" rating (as opposed to "KKKKK" in old-time Kerrang! speak). By contrast, I used to love Circus and Hit Parader. Particularly in the Hair Metal days, they were the perfect throwaway vehicles for the glamour, excitement and glossy nonsense of the era. Circus and Hit Parader were quite shameless in their editorial approach, and all credit to them for that. If the readers wanted 30 pages of Ratt, a giant Dokken poster and Vince Neil make-up tips every issue, that's what they got. People might have criticized Circus and Hit Parader as record company mouthpieces, but I lapped it up.

Steven:   Do you feel like you and Kerrang! are responsible for introducing the world to talents like Mick Wall, Malcolm Dome, and Dante Bonutto?

Geoff:   I used to work with Mick Wall on Sounds and I always thought he was at his best when he wrote long, in-depth, atmospheric, rambling pieces. In Kerrang!, Mick's mammoth "Rock In Rio" epic immediately springs to mind. Mick was a typical money-hungry freelancer insofar as he would always come back from an exotic foreign trip and say, "I can't possibly write just 1,000 words. So much happened, this has got to be a two- or three-part epic!" But invariably he was right and the results were riveting--although Axl Rose might not think so. There was a certain period in Mick's career--and I hope he won't mind me saying this--when he went completely out of control and his writing took on a frenzied, frazzled quality that, in actual fact, was a real joy to read. This could have been about the time when he was trying to balance his Kerrang! duties with writing a lengthy book about Marillion, and his brain kind of short-circuited. Mick also enjoyed an extended period of madness writing Kerrang!'s old "View From The Bar" gossip column. Two pages had to be filled every edition--which was often difficult, as weeks would go by with little to report except the fact that Wrathchild had organized an uneventful cheese and wine party after a gig at the Royal Standard in Walthamstow. So with the absence of any genuine tittle-tattle to write about, Mick turned his wildly inventive eye on the Kerrang! staff and wrote about them as if they were demented, manic, larger-than-life personalities. This approach may sound indulgent and incestuous, but I strongly believe it also gave Kerrang! a crazed spirit that the readers genuinely enjoyed. "View From The Bar" took on a surreal, untamed, almost mythical quality that actually spilled over into the office--for a while there, we actually started to believe that we were these bizarre characters. It really defined the spirit of Kerrang! at the time. We used to work in a long, narrow office at the bottom end of Camden Town and our designer, "Krusher" Joule, would often liven things up by lying on a backless office chair with squeaky castors. Adopting a right-fist-forward position, Superman-style, he would scoot down the length of the office at high speed, making "whooshing" sounds as he went! He would finally come to a crunching halt when his head collided with a desk. Later, our dodgy office stereo system somehow soared out of a window and plummeted down into the car park below. Quite honestly, it was the only way to persuade our mild-mannered publisher, "Bomber" Bob Thrussell, of the need to buy a new one. Phew--rock 'n' roll, eh?!

(As an aside, Bomber was a real gem. He was an old guy nearing retirement but he really put his heart and soul into Kerrang! He had an unfortunate stutter and, try as he might, he couldn't quite grasp some of the niceties of the Heavy Metal genre and the names of its celebrities. Thus, Bomber often referred to Lemmy of Motorhead as L-l-lenny, Ronnie Dio was R-r-roddy D-d-dio and Lita Ford was L-l-linda F-f-ord. And I couldn't help but feel sorry for Bomber after one wild Kerrang! Christmas party in a local Greek restaurant. So much alcohol was consumed that Bomber's credit card exploded and he had to continue paying the bill back in installments in the New Year!)

As far as Dante is concerned, I had a bit of a strained relationship with him to begin with, when I moved to Kerrang! in about 1984 after editing Sounds for two or three years. Before my arrival, Dante had been kind of an unofficial editor of Kerrang!, taking care of business in the early days before it was decided to put some solid investment behind the title. So it was a bit of a rocky ride at times but I always admired Dante's enthusiasm, organizational abilities and meticulous attention to detail. Moreover, he was a bigger Kiss fan than I was! One of the first things we did was put Blackie Lawless of WASP on the cover of Kerrang!--Blackie was depicted splattered in blood and brandishing a craggy human skull. That sparked a few protests in those unenlightened times and got Kerrang! removed from the shelves at W.H. Smith (Britain's biggest newsagent chain, accounting for the vast majority of our sales). An auspicious start! A few issues later, we dared to put Prince on the cover. But that's another story...

I've never really spoken to him about it, but I believe Dante strongly disagreed with the decision to increase the frequency of Kerrang! from fortnightly to weekly in late 1987. I think he feared a compromise in quality, so he left with a few of the other Kerrang! guys to go and work for Metal Hammer. Later, as I mentioned earlier, Dante and his associates bravely set up RAW as an independent publication--and, to be honest, that's really something we should have had the courage to do with Kerrang! from the outset.

As for Malcolm, well, what can I say? An encyclopedic knowledge, a passion for vodka and grapefruit, and a man who never sleeps. Part vampire, part Robocop, Malcolm has this remarkable metabolism that makes him practically indestructible. His output was (and still is, I'm sure) truly phenomenal. By the time I used to arrive in the office, Malcolm had already written Kerrang!'s entire six-page news section, interviewed the late Robbin Crosby of Ratt, answered a dozen readers' queries, opened the post, made a phone call to Sylvie Simmons, reviewed four albums, reorganized the photo library and made cups of tea for everyone. I've never met anyone like him. Malcolm was a brilliant ambassador for Kerrang! and was integral to the success of the mag.

Steven:   Do you think there could be a better British metal publication out there today--something better than Kerrang!, Metal Hammer or Terrorizer--or do you think that audience is being served well already?

Geoff:   There's always the potential to do something better. But Kerrang! in particular is such an immensely strong brand, it would be virtually impossible to topple it. The modern-day metal audience is being served extremely well--perhaps too well. Information (of all kinds) is very easy to get hold of in the 21st century, whether it's in print, on the web, via satellite TV or digital radio. Before long you'll be able to have electrodes attached to your brain, Matrix-style, and 10 seconds later you'll be the world's leading expert on brutal German Thrash Metal bands from Bochum. That's a long way from just having your tour dates published in eye-straining 6-point type in Kerrang!'s "Shrapnel" column.

Steven:   What was the highlight of your rock writing career--a concert? an interview?

Geoff:   I remember the first time I met Gene Simmons in full stage regalia just before a show. I acted like a mesmerized geek from the Detroit Rock City movie. I was dumbstruck for several seconds but eventually managed to utter the question: "Gene, can I touch your armour?" Water-skiing with Black Oak Arkansas comes a close second.