„Everyone was trying to be the best band in the city”

Singer Jeff Allen about the story of Witch Slayer – Part I

Although Chicago’s metal scene back in the 80’s wasn’t as influential as L.A.’s, the Bay Area’s or New York’s/New Jersey’s, there was a handful of bands that managed to reach cult status, e. g. Trouble, Thrust, Zoetrope or Master/Death Strike. Unfortunately there were some outfits as well who, despite their good songs and their songwriting ability, failed to release any albums. One of them was Witch Slayer. Their very kind, down-to-earth former singer Jeff Allen told us the entire story of this band.

At what age did you first become interested in heavy metal music?

I started to get into the late 60’s/early 70’s bands around the time I was in middle school (early 70’s). I had a rough childhood with a lot of aggression so I naturally gravitated towards the heavy bands.

What did you find so exciting in that style? What were your first impressions regarding it?

The bands were very cool, dangerous and rebellious. It was everything this 13 year old wanted to be. I loved it. You had Alice Cooper hanging himself, Hendrix lighting his guitars on fire, The Who destroying their gear. It was great stuff and the music kicked ass.

What were the first bands, artists, records etc. that you discovered?

The Beatles were the first rock band I ever heard when I was just a toddler. I used to rock out to their 45’s on a portable record player. I had an older brother who turned me on to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, Frank Zappa & the Mother’s of Invention. I discovered on my own the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Deep Purple’s Machine Head, David Bowie’s Young Americans, Alice Cooper’s Killers & Schools Out, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Neil Young’s Harvest. The very first record I ever bought was Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic, first concert I saw as well.

When did you first start learning to play an instrument and which instrument was it?

I started singing in a band at 18. Craig picked up a guitar at 16 and was performing by the time he was 19. Basically we all started playing instruments in our teens.

Did you regularly take lessons or were you self-taught?

I did initially work with a vocal coach but my style is self-taught. Craig was self-taught as well. Not sure about Dale & Sean.

When did you decide to be part of a band?

When I was 18 I got talked into fronting a friends band. It felt pretty natural so I just went with it.

Being based in the suburbs of Chicago, do you think that Trouble and Zoetrope were the first original heavy metal bands who were actually really heavy and not hard rock?

I would agree with that. You could add the band Thrust to that list as well. I believe they were all original at that time as well.

Did they immediately manage to put the town on the map of the Heavy Metal/Hard Rock scene?

I wouldn’t say Chicago was on the map as having a Heavy Metal/Hard Rock scene until Brian Slagel released M. M. IV with 5 Chicago Metal bands on that album (Trouble, Zoetrope, War Cry, Thrust & Witchslayer).

Were they the first to define a sound of heaviness in the scene and maybe everyone kind of took that sound a little?

I don’t know about that. One could argue that they were the first original metal bands on the scene but everyone in those bands were teenagers in the 70’s. We all grew up listening to the same music. We all loved Sabbath, Hendrix, Priest, Zeppelin, Cream, etc. Those were heavy fucking bands. Add in long, dark, gloomy winters in a major blue collar, working class city and you naturally develop the Chicago doom metal sound or as Zoetrope brilliantly tagged themselves as street metal. I would say the biggest influence to the Witchslayer sound were the NWOBHM bands along with the Blizzard of Ozz and Randy Rhoads).

They (Zoetrope and Trouble) were the earliest bands that brought everyone together, weren’t they? Both of them were influential…

I never even heard of those guys until long after Witch Slayer had formed. I knew the guys in Thrust & War Cry because we all went to high school together in the same area. I discovered Zoetrope & Trouble after we started playing gigs in the city. Our sound was already defined by then. But knowing Trouble & Zoetrope we were able to start teaming up for some good shows. So one could argue that a Heavy Metal scene in Chicago started to come together at that point in time.

Was the early Chicago metal scene a traditional heavy metal one?

I guess you could say that. It was heavily influenced by Black Sabbath, Judas Priest & Iron Maiden.

Do you think that besides Zoetrope and Trouble, Witchslayer, Slauter Xstroyes (previously Naj, White Which), Hammeron and a little bit later Thrust, Snowhite/Znöwhite, Iron Cross, War Cry (incl. Paul Speckmann), Mayhem Inc. etc. belonged to the first wave of Chicago’s metal?

I would consider any band that was playing original metal music in Chicago between 1980-1984 as being in the first wave of Chicago metal.

Were all of the bands different from each other and just sounded completely different from each other? Did everybody just have their own unique sound?

I think so. Zoetrope had a thrash punk influence, Trouble had a heavy 60’s style metal influence. Witchslayer was more influenced by the New Wave of British Metal bands. War Cry was just heavy as fuck. They definitely loved Black Sabbath. Thrust seemed to be influenced by bands like Judas Priest & Iron Maiden.

Was it a kind of camaraderie among the bands back then?

It was competitive. Everyone was trying to be the best band in the city and be the first ones to break out. But at the same time we were all family. We hung out together and we performed together. I have nothing but respect for everyone who was brave enough to put it out there.

How about the clubs? What were the venues that started opening their doors for metal?

There were only a handful of places in all of Chicago that would let metal bands play. Chicago is a blues/jazz town. But there was a club in the suburbs called Haymakers. That club really helped us all get started. It was a dump but we were allowed to perform and refine our craft. Schenker played there once, as well as Twisted Sister & Queensryche. The owner would always let a local band open. In the city we would play at a complete shit hole called the Rusty Nail. There was also another suburban bar that would come along and eventually let metal bands play. It was called the Thirsty Whale.

How was Chicago’s metal scene as a whole compared to New York, Los Angeles, Texas or the Bay Area at this point?

LA was the main music scene back then. I didn’t know about the Bay Area until Metallica came around. NY had some decent bands and I knew nothing of a Texas scene at the time. We were pioneering the Chicago scene. It was up and coming.

Were there a lot of fanzines, fans/followers that supported the town’s burgeoning scene?

Yes, there definitely were many fanzines. The fanzines got the word out on new bands. They were great support and we owe a lot to them. There were/are a decent amount of metal fans in Chicago.

Jeff Allen

Was the underground still in its infancy?

From my perspective it was. The underground probably evolved from the fact that mainstream media ignored most metal bands.

Under which circumstances was Witch Slayer formed? Did the line up consisted of vocalist Jeff Allen, bassist Sean McAllister, guitarist Craig MacMahon and drummer Dale Clark right from the start?

We all met at a house party in the Chicago suburbs. There were some guys in the basement that had set up and were jamming. I went down there and started singing with them. Speckmann was there, McMahon was there, McAllister was probably there lol. Anyways when the party was ending McMahon approached me and said he was looking for a lead singer to front a new band he was forming. So that was when the first Witchslayer lineup started forming. We played all NWOBHM covers. We practiced in the drummers basement in the Chicago Suburbs. That line-up was vocals – myself, guitars – Tom McNeeley & Craig McMahon, drums – Ken Wentling and bass was Pat Ryan. Craig & I eventually felt we wanted to go into a different direction and we split out, kept the name and asked Sean McAllister if he wanted to join. Then we found Dale Clark thru a musicians ad in the local entertainment paper. At that point we went all original.

Was it the really first outfit for all of you that you have been in or did you already have any experiences as musicians prior to Witch Slayer?

I was in really shitty cover band prior to joining Witchslayer. I remember Sean having been in another high school band prior to Witchslayer. I believe it was Craig & Dales first real band. We found Dale thru a local musicians classified ad. He shows up to audition with a beginners drum set. We said look dude, we like you but you need to upgrade that kit. A few days later he shows up with a brand new kit that Neil Peart would’ve been proud to play.

Did the band get its name in part to help themselves establish more of a white metal image? (the other part due to its love of N.W.O.B.H.M. legends Angel Witch)?

Yes, that is all 100% correct. Long live Kevin Heybourne!!!

What can you tell us about your early rehearsals? Did you start writing originals or did you focus mostly on playing covers?

Well, most bands start playing covers and slowly start building their sets with a mix of originals. The first song we ever wrote was Witchslayer. We figured Angel Witch had Angel Witch so we would have Witchslayer. We did perform some covers: Paranoid, Running Free, Killers, Angel of Death, Breaking the Law, Hell Bent for Leather. I believe that we were the only band in Chicago at that time who covered Angel Witch.

Did you draw your inspiration from the N.W.O.B.H.M.? What were your views on this movement?

We loved it. It was fresh. The music was awesome. The guitars were killer. It was anti-disco, anti-punk, it evolved from all the classic rock/metal bands of the 60’s/70’s. We totally related to it.

Sean McAllister

Around the same time, or a little bit later on, at the early 80’s, in Germany a lot of bands were popping up that became influential, such as Runing Wild, Helloween, Warlock etc., while the forerunners, Scorpions and Accept already had a name and built up a big fanbase. Did you show an interest in the German scene as well?

I saw the Scorpions on the Lovedrive tour at Navy Pier in Chicago during one of the early Chicago fests. That show is infamous. It was fantastic. We were all talking about the Scorpions after that show. Trouble turned me on to Accept. Rick & Bruce loved the guitars on the Restless and Wild album. Killer album cover. We were aware of all those bands, but we didn’t pay much attention to the German scene.

Is it correct that Witch Slayer and Trouble actually shared a rehearsal space?

Yes, we did, that is true. I think they felt bad when they recruited Sean from us. They knew we were looking for a new rehearsal space. We had at one point rehearsed out of a storage unit we rented. My mom once let us rehearse in our homes basement but booted us when we cracked the living room picture window from the bass vibrations. But there was a bar in Chicago called the Devils Inn. Trouble had set up shop in the basement. It was split into two rooms so they hooked us up with the other part of the basement. I remember the bartender always asking us to tone it down because the drinks on the bar were vibrating from the music in the basement.

How long did it take you to come up with originals and how were those songs composed? Was it a band effort at that time?

Our songs were a consolidated effort that happened over a 4 year period. McMahon would create a riff along with a theme and basic structure. Then the band would work it thru to completion. He would come to me with a harmony and we’d work thru the verses.

Sean McAllister left the band in 1982 to join Trouble. Did his farewell make a big hole in your pocket?

It was disappointing to say the least. We were all friends who grew up together. That band was fun. It was a blast and we were finally starting to come into our own. But Trouble were steps ahead of us and it was a good opportunity for Sean. So you know, what are you gonna say? Sean finished our ’83 demo tape with us and then we wished him the best and eventually we found Rick Manson.

Was it easy to find an enthusiastic, talented, skilled musician, who you needed?

No. It’s never easy to replace a band member. At least it wasn’t back then. There was no internet or smart phones. It was all word of mouth, trading tapes or perusing print classifieds. Then you need to have a right fit. We needed someone that we liked, had a rock look and could get along with us. Someone who’s style of play matched ours, etc.

Was Rick the band’s first choice, or perhaps did you try out other bassists as well? What about his musical past?

You know, I think McMahon found Rick the same way we found Dale. I don’t remember looking at any other bassists. I do know Rick loved thrash punk. Bands like the Dead Kennedys & Suicidal Tendencies. He brought that fan base to our shows.

(to be continued)

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