The Best Band in the World: The 1980s


In this very special guest feature Nate Garrett (Spirit Adrift, Gatecreeper) is taking you on a year-by-year journey through the greatest live performances of each year over the last four decades. We’re continuing our trip with the cocaine-addled 1980s. Take it away, Nate. 

The 1980’s marked the evolution of heavy metal from an inadvertently stumbled-upon style to a purposeful, clearly defined genre and subculture. By the end of the decade, metal was at its height of popularity and the bands were more extreme than ever before. That being said, our first entry is a powerhouse of the old school. Is it possible to follow the riff from ZZ Top to Morbid Angel? Find out below.


ZZ Top

It took these tres hombres from Texas a little time to hone what would later become their instantly recognizable onstage aesthetic and, for lack of a better word, vibe. By 1980, they’d fully locked it in. The chemistry between Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard is rare, as evidenced by the fact that the band hasn’t changed a member since these guys first got together. Try and name another band that has maintained the same lineup for nearly 50 years. They were meant to play together, and their profound musical bond is in full effect at this legendary live-broadcast performance on Germany’s Rockpalast. ZZ Top are the masters of subtlety, discretion, and tasteful playing. I call it being “old guy tight.” Watch and learn.


Ozzy Osbourne

A while back, I bought a shirt on eBay that features this lineup of Ozzy’s band. What caught my eye was the text across the top of the band photo that read “The Ozzy Osbourne Band.” Originally, Ozzy’s solo project was supposed to be called The Blizzard of Ozz. But the label, as big labels often do, fucked it up for selfish purposes. They printed “Ozzy Osbourne” at the top of the first record, and the smaller “Blizzard of Ozz” text ended up looking like the album title, not the band name. The rest is history. The reason I bring this up is because if you watch footage of Ozzy from around this time, it seems so much more appropriate to call this the Ozzy Osbourne BAND. His band fucking smokes. In 1981 particularly, he was backed by one of the greatest group of musicians ever assembled. The band consisted of Randy Rhoads on guitar, Don Airey on keyboards, Rudy Sarzo on bass, and Tommy Aldridge (Ozzy’s original choice) on drums. I did some research about this particular late-night TV performance from Rochester, NY. If my infallible sources (Wikipedia and are correct, this is only the sixth time Aldridge and Sarzo ever played live with Ozzy. Unreal. As you can tell, it was a different breed of players in metal back then. I watch this down-tempo, super heavy version of Mr. Crowley first thing in the morning every day for inspiration.


Black Flag

Two-guitar Black Flag is best Black Flag. There’s all kinds of bonkers footage of Black Flag in 1982, including a show in June where Henry Rollins whips the asses of several of the more handsy audience members throughout the set. However, I felt it was crucial to find footage with Chuck Biscuits on drums, for as short-lived as his tenure in the band was, that’s the best lineup. Black Flag in 1982 was at an exciting crossroads. As you’ll see at the link, they’re still firmly rooted in hardcore punk. Yet the sludgy, discordant threads of doom and sludge are creeping their way into the band’s music and attitude. As an added bonus, they open the set with “What Can You Believe,” a song which was never officially released, but featured on their incredible 1982 demo (which was recorded with this powerhouse lineup). That demo was made in one night and could have become the best Black Flag album ever released, had it not been for their legal troubles. Watch Biscuits annihilate his snare drum at the link.


Judas Priest

The first band to proudly accept and represent the term “heavy metal,” Judas Priest’s momentum and energy had reached a fever pitch by 1982. So had their songwriting, as evidenced by the release of Screaming For Vengeance that year. Then in early 1984 came the phenomenal Defenders of the Faith. Both of these albums are highly regarded to this day, and for good reason. This period was one of many high-water marks for the band, and the live footage at the link captures Priest smack in the middle of one of their most prolific, successful eras. I hate to call it choreography, so let’s just say the INTERPLAY between band members is as awe-inspiring as their playing. They were, and still are, the whole package.



Yeah, it’s not the classic lineup. But 1984 was the year that Phil Campbell joined the band, and he would remain by Lemmy’s side until the end. He may not have played on some of the “classic” albums, but when it’s all said and done Campbell is THE guitar player of Motorhead. Dare I say, the subtle licks and ripping leads he adds throughout this performance make the songs even cooler. Also, during this time period Motorhead featured not one but two guitar players, the second being Michael Burston. According to my calculations, two guitars are heavier than one guitar. Just check out those exaggerated accents during “Killed By Death.” Plus, this lineup featured the criminally underrated Pete Gill, fresh out of Saxon. Keep an eye on him during “Iron Fist.” It’s one thing to play slow, simple songs with a cigarette hanging out of your mouth, but to play Motorhead songs while smoking? On the drums? Again, it was a different breed back then.


Celtic Frost

Trust me, I fully believe Celtic Frost was the best and most important band in the world in 1985. That said, even if they weren’t, they’d be in this slot anyway just because everyone deserves to witness them tearing through “Into The Crypt of Rays” in this wildly unfitting soundstage setting on Swiss television. This is the band that just released Morbid Tales and was about to release To Mega Therion. Celtic Frost in 1985 was a crucial, massively influential force for heavy music.



This is the year that Metallica released Master of Puppets, toured with Ozzy, and took the world by storm. It’s also the year of the infamous bus accident that killed Cliff Burton. While I would much prefer a world with Cliff Burton still living in it, the bus accident gave us two different but equally ferocious live versions of Metallica in 1986. I would never even imply that any lineup of Metallica is superior to the lineup featuring Burton. However, the band in the immediate wake of Cliff’s death emits a darker, more menacing aura. Metallica in the last months of 1986 is as frenetic, imposing, and straight up pissed off as any band that’s ever played. You can just feel the pain and rage they’re dealing with, and they’re playing like trapped animals. Metallica with Cliff in 1986 is the band at their best. Metallica with Jason in 1986 is the band at their most violent. They win the title for that year, twice over.

Metallica w/ Cliff – Roskilde:

Metallica w/ Jason – Quebec:



For the record, I considered Napalm Death for this year. Scum came out in ’87 and changed the course of heavy music. There’s some footage of them playing a house show in Germany that’s worth checking out. Then I saw this full Testament concert from the legendary Dynamo club in Holland. These guys were also supporting their debut full-length in 1987, and I have to say I prefer The Legacy to Scum. On this tour, Testament were playing only songs from that first album and from their as yet unreleased sophomore LP The New Order. In other words, fans were only hearing the best songs Testament ever made. The crowd participation and energy at this show encapsulates just how explosive metal was at the time, and Testament was the best the genre had to offer. The finest thrash vocalist and the finest thrash guitar player both in the same band? Hardly fair.



There’s an interview with Kerry King in which he discusses South of Heaven, and how the band was determined to record an album that would show the world they weren’t just a one-trick (lightning fast) pony. Slayer achieved that goal and proved that they had slower, creepier, even heavier tricks up their sleeves, in addition to possessing breakneck speed. By 1988 the band had become fully realized and their savage, adrenaline fueled live shows were so primally compelling that they couldn’t stop audiences from destroying venues, as you can see in the infamous “Seat Cushion Riot” performance at the link. Even when Tom begs the crowd to calm down, they can’t. The power of the almighty Slayer was just too much for them.


Morbid Angel

For a moment, I considered waxing poetic about the immeasurable musical, artistic, and cultural significance of Altars of Madness. But that’s been done to death. I decided instead to let Trey Azagthoth speak for himself on this one. In the book Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, Trey is quoted as saying:

“Back then, I really wanted to destroy everybody. I wanted people to have to work a lot harder after the fans witnessed what we had going on. I wanted to smoke people. I really believed that bands were challenging each other, trying to outdo each other and make each other quit – almost like the rivalries with East Coast and West Coast rappers. I really kind of thought people wanted to write parts that would engulf the whole world. I wanted to get onstage and have people go, ‘Holy shit – what the fuck is going on?’ I wanted to write stuff that would make other bands run and hide. It’s not really very nice, but that’s what drove me.” Watch the footage below and believe every word.

Check back next week for Part 3 of this series, The 90s. In the meantime, check out some of Nate’s upcoming tour dates. He is surely, positively coming to a venue near you.

May 24 Vancouver, BC @ Modified Ghost Festival
May 28 Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
May 29 Los Angeles, CA @ Hi-Hat
May 30 Oakland, CA @ Golden Bull
May 31 Eugene, OR @ Old Nick’s
Jun 01 Seattle, WA @ Northwest Terror Fest
Jun 02 Boise, ID @ V.I.P. Boise Event Center
Jun 03 Salt Lake City, UT @ Diabolical Records
Jun 04 Denver, CO @ Streets of London
Jun 05 Kansas City, MO @ Riot Room
Jun 06 Chicago, IL @ Cobra Lounge
Jun 07 Detroit, MI @ Sanctuary
Jun 08 Toronto, ON @ Velvet Underground
Jun 09 Montreal, QC @ Bar Le Ritz
Jun 10 Boston, MA @ Sonia
Jun 11 Brooklyn, NY @ Saint Vitus Bar
Jun 12 Richmond, VA @ Strange Matter
Jun 13 Atlanta, GA @ Drunken Unicorn
Jun 14 Nashville, TN @ The End
Jun 15 Little Rock, AR @ White Water
Jun 16 Ft. Worth, TX @ Ridglea
Jun 17 San Antonio, TX @ Limelight
July 25 Blueberry Hill Duck Room – Saint Louis, MO
July 26 Indiana City Brewing Company – Indianapolis, IN
July 27 Ace Of Cups – Columbus, OH
July 28 Mr. Smalls Theatre – Pittsburgh, PA @ Migration Fest
July 29 Metro Gallery – Baltimore, MD
July 30 Kung Fu Necktie – Philadelphia, PA
July 31 Union Pool – New York, NY
August 2 Great Scott – Boston, MA
August 3 3S Artspace – Portsmouth, NH
August 4 Bar Le Ritz – Montréal, QC
August 6 House Of Targ – Ottawa, ON
August 7 Hard Luck – Toronto, ON
August 8 Lager House – Detroit, MI
August 9 Empty Bottle – Chicago, IL
August 11 Lee’s Liquor Lounge – Minneapolis, MN
August 12 Riot Room – Kansas City, MO
August 15 Urban Lounge – Salt Lake City, UT
August 18 Psycho Las Vegas – Las Vegas, NV
August 21 Brick By Brick – San Diego, CA

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