WHEN his band Diamond Head folded in 1985, thwarted in their quest for rock stardom, guitarist Brian Tatler, still in his early twenties, must have presumed it was all over.
But thirty years on, the band is revered by rock fans around the world – not least in the US – with some of the songs he wrote in his parents' house in Wollaston having entered the classic rock canon. Metallica, the Californian quartet who headlined Glastonbury Festival just a few weeks ago, are just about the biggest rock band on earth, but if it wasn't for Brian and Diamond Head, not only would they not sound like they do, they might never have got together in the first place.
In our June 19 edition, we featured a Top Ten of Stourbridge's most influential people, and reader Chris Aston contacted us to say that he believed Brian Tatler was a glaring omission from that list. And if influential is the key word, the Wollaston-born guitarist is definitely worthy of a place.
Now in his early fifites, Brian lives in Stourbridge still, and was happy to tell the Bugle the remarkable story of how a bunch of Black Country schoolfriends managed to make their mark on music, years after they'd thought their time had gone.
"My older brother David was in a band." Brian recalls, "When I was 11 he tried to encourage me to play his guitar, but I thought it was too hard. By the time I was about 15 though, with a love of Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore, I decided to knuckle down.
"I needed a drummer, and I roped in my friend from school, Duncan Scott. We got a biscuit tin and put a chain on top to sound like a snare drum; but we had to leave the biscuits in because it didn't sound right without them. Duncan built the rest of the kit in my bedroom, adding some plastic tubs, and a piece of pipe for a cowbell."
The pair wrote some basic songs, but needed someone to sing them. Asking around at school, they were told Sean Harris could sing – someone had heard him giving it some on the coach during a school trip. Eventually another of Brian's old schoolfriends, Colin Kimberley, was brought in on bass. He'd never actually played one, but picked it up quite quickly.
Their first gig was at school, High Park, in 1976. They made their own posters and charged 30p a ticket, and made their first ever appearance in front of 170 schoolkids, playing only their own songs.
Further rehearsals took place in Brian's bedroom, no doubt to the delight of his parents and neighbours, and from the off the boys had a professional, methodical approach to their craft.
"We'd record what we played, then listen back to them and see what we could improve,"
After a couple of years of honing their craft, they took their show to Birmingham. Within a short space, they were on local radio and TV, and had a rave review in Sounds magazine.
Gigs up and down the country soon followed. And they hadn't even been signed to a record label yet.
So the young band recorded their own album, and took their live act to their ever-growing audience with an 80-date British tour in 1980, selling their record at the shows and by mail order. One copy winged its way to a young fan in California, a teenager by the name of Lars Ulrich. He was so overwhelmed by the untitled, blank-sleeved Diamond Head record that he booked himself a plane ticket to London to see them at Woolwich Odeon in 1981. He was only 17, and he didn't even think to book anywhere to stay.
"This guy introduced himself to us backstage after the gig," Brian recalls. "He told us he'd come over just to see us. And we thought, young chap, on his own in London, nowhere to stay. Come with us!
"We brought him back to Wollaston, and he stayed at my parents' house, on the floor in a sleeping bag for a week. Then he went and stopped at Sean's and slept on his settee. He came to some rehearsals with us, writing sessions; he came to three gigs with us in the car, four of us squashed on the back seat. He must've stayed for six weeks."
Though he must have been playing drums himself by then, young Lars, probably too shy to say in front of his heroes, never mentioned it or asked for a go on Duncan's kit.
"We had no idea, we just thought he was an uber-fan. But then as soon as he got back to America, he called James Hetfield, who he'd already met, and asked him if he wanted to form a band."
They called themselves Metallica, and they began to hone their craft by working out how to play Lars's beloved Diamond Head songs.
"They slowly started to write their own songs," says Brian, but even when they started to play live, they played five or six Diamond Head songs in a gig, maybe a Budgie song, and a couple of their own." In the meantime, Diamond Head had finally inked that elusive record deal, with MCA records. Their new album Borrowed Time was a success, going straight into the UK album chart on its release in 1982. But while the band hoped this was the start of the Big Time, it turned out to be their peak.
There are various theories as to what went wrong, from misguided management decisions and abrupt changes in musical direction, to ridiculously tight recording schedules and thousands of badly pressed records that jumped. Along the way they lost drummer Duncan Scott, who was deemed unfit for the task by a producer ("we ended up sacking Duncan: it was horrible, he was my mate"); and bassist Colin, who followed him out because all the fun had gone out of it. Brian and Sean limped on until 1984, when MCA opted not to renew their contract.
"We were constantly changing our musical style," Brian admits, "because we were searching for something new and fresh. But we wanted to write the ultimate rock track, the classic rock track. It turns out we'd written it already, and we didn't know it."
That track was Am I Evil?, which Metallica later recorded as a b-side. It became a staple of the American band's live shows, and Diamond Head, though they had never even played in the US, were beginning to win over the Yanks – even though they'd folded.
"I was very flattered that a band would cover our song, and work out how to do my guitar solo," says Brian. "At that time, to us they were just a little band on an independent label. But they started to grow and grow. Their next album, Master of Puppets, sold a million copies. And I realised, Lars's band are bigger than Diamond Head ... !
"In 1986, they played Birmingham Odeon, and I got a call beforehand from Lars, asking me to go up onstage and play Am I Evil? with them as an encore. So I caught the train from Stourbridge station, with my guitar. I played the song with Metallica in front of 1,800 people, which was more than we'd had when we played there. And the crowd were going nuts. You could tell there was something big going on.
"So I did the song and went home on the train. And watched their meteoric rise to fame!"
Metallica's profile, and their record sales, exploded, and they went on to record another three Diamond Head tracks, which they blasted out in front of the huge audiences they now commanded. Diamond Head's reputation was re-evaluated so much so that Brian and Sean reformed the band for a while, supporting Metallica at a huge stadium show in Milton Keynes in 1993.
These days, thanks to the songwriting royalty cheques which roll in from Metallica's recordings of the songs he co-wrote, Brian is in the enviable position of not having to hold down a 9-5 job, and is able to take the 21st century version of Diamond Head, featuring Nick Tart on vocals, out on the road whenever the call comes. Their reputation among the modern generation of heavy rock fans is such that they have played some huge festivals right around the world, and, finally, played in the States.
And despite being one of the biggest rock stars alive, worth a reputed 180 million dollars, Lars Ulrich is still the world's biggest Diamond Head fan.
"He still calls me when they're over here, and invites me to the shows," says Brian. "And Metallica's love of Diamond Head has been a lifesaver. I wouldn't have this house without them!"
Diamond Head are touring Europe this autumn, but will be back in Stourbridge at the River Rooms on Friday November 14.
Did you see Diamond Head in their early days? Were you one of the pupils in the audience at that first gig at High Park School? Write in, give us a call, or email gjones@black countrybugle.co.uk.