“NOT THAT BAD, REALLY…”
In January 2013 Midnight Messiah, formed by Phil Denton and Paul Taylor, ventured into The Lodge to record their debut album. Exactly 27 years previously and, ironically in the same studio (although The Lodge has now been relocated from Suffolk to Northampton) Paul and Phil, accompanied by their bandmates Norman Gordon, Kevin Dobbs and Nigel Dobbs, were hard at work recording Elixir’s debut album, ‘The Son Of Odin’ – one of the highlights of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.
Elixir was formed in London in 1983, the catalyst being a young resident of Luton called Phil Denton. “I was heavily into the classic rock bands – Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, that sort of thing – and listened to The Friday Rock Show religiously in my teenage years,” Phil recalls. “I started work in London at sixteen and spent my first two months’ wages on an electric guitar and learned how to play. My fiancée Alison – whom I’d known since I was five! – and I got married, and as we both worked in London it made sense to move, and we ended up in Walthamstow. I started looking for a band and had a little outfit going for a while but I didn’t feel we were really going anywhere. I saw an advert looking for a guitarist, saw that the band was local and went along for an audition. There I met Kev and Nigel [the bass- and drums-playing Dobbs brothers"> and guitarist Steve Bentley. They played me a couple of pieces of music they’d put together, one of which evolved into ‘The Idol’. They didn’t have lyrics for it at the time but I liked it and reckoned I could come up with something appropriate for it. We played through a new song I’d just written, ‘Devil Rider’, and I really liked the way they played it. I liked them, they seemed to like me, and I was offered a place in the band. From there we rehearsed four hours every Monday and Wednesday night at my flat – with food, tea and coffee provided by Alison! – where we wrote a number of songs, and we also had a full eight-hour band rehearsal every Saturday at the studios.
“We were big fans of records like Michael Schenker’s first MSG album, and Judas Priest’s ‘British Steel’ defined the sound of Eighties metal for us; these were our songwriting influences. We were also into Mercyful Fate and Queensryche in the early days and wanted to be a kind of progressive metal band, writing long pieces of music with lots of time and tempo changes, and that’s how songs like ‘Death Toll’ and ‘The Idol’ were developed.”
As with most bands, coming up with a name was far from easy, and both Hellfire and Ritual were both quickly discarded. “I think choosing a name is probably the most difficult thing for a band to do,” says Phil. “We really didn’t want to categorise ourselves as just another typical heavy metal band and be called something like ‘Heavy Steel’ (or have an ‘Iron Maiden’ kind of name, come to think of it!), we wanted something with a bit more mystique, something that gave us room to experiment with our music and expand our horizons if we wanted to. However, we were getting nowhere until one day Kev and Steve were together and Steve pulled out a dictionary, closed his eyes, and stabbed a finger at a page. It fell close to the word ‘elixir’, and when they read the definition, it just seemed to fit. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as an ‘alchemist’s preparation designed to change metal into gold’ and the ‘Sovereign Remedy’ and the ‘Elixir of Life’ is a magic potion which prolongs life – which is what’s brilliantly illustrated on Ciruelo Cabral’s fantasy artwork on the cover of our ‘Sovereign Remedy’ album. Anyway, we liked it as a name and Steve, being a printer, came up with an original font and designed our Elixir logo,”
So far, so good; but the four guys were still short of a vocalist. “We auditioned many, many singers, and our first real line-up featured a female singer, Sally Pike. We played two shows with her, and recorded our first demo in 1983 which featured the songs ‘The Idol’, ‘Devil Rider’, ‘Death Toll’ and ‘Satan’s Angel’. But it wasn’t really working with her, nor Steve the guitarist,” Phil continues, “and by the end of 1984 we had Paul in on vocals and Norms on guitar.
Sally was the first to leave, quitting Elixir to join a new all-female group called Sweet 16. “I remember playing our first demo to Neil Kay,” says Phil, “who said that we should sack our drummer and write more commercial stuff. He said that the singer would go far, and asked to talk to her; he then persuaded her to join this all-girl group he was putting together called Sweet 16.” Although they were featured in Metal Forces magazine, Sweet 16 soon vanished into obscurity. The band didn’t mind too much. “I know it’s not very P.C. but we really wanted a male vocalist.”
Enter Paul Taylor, formerly the singer of the now defunct fellow East London band, Midas, who’d released one self-pressed single ‘Can’t Stop Loving You’ in 1983. “Paul joined in July 1984,” recalls Phil. “We put an ad in Sounds – the old music paper – for a vocalist. Paul saw it but when he phoned my number I was away on holiday. Luckily Kev just happened to be there as he was feeding our cat! If Paul had phoned ten minutes later he wouldn’t have got an answer, and if Kev hadn’t picked up the phone, Paul may never have rang back. Anyway, Paul came along for an audition, and we asked him to sing a new song we’d just written called ‘Deal With The Devil’. As soon as Paul started singing, Kev and I looked at each other and grinned. We both knew right away that this was the singer we’d been looking for for so long. After we had gone through a few songs we sent Paul out to discuss it, but all agreed we wanted him in. So we asked him to join us and he accepted. We weren’t aware of him or Midas previously, and we hadn’t heard his single,” laughs Phil, “but he made us listen to it a few weeks after he joined!”
A second demo tape was recorded on 20th October 1984 (featuring what Phil now calls “Paul’s audition piece” ‘Deal With The Devil’, together with ‘Born Loser’ and ‘Dead Man’s Gold’) but Steve Bentley’s days with the band were now numbered, although Phil’s a little unsure of the exact timeline now. “I would have said that Norms joined in October 1984, so Steve must have left right after we’d recorded the demo. I remember the pirate radio station, Alice’s Restaurant, playing that demo and announcing that we were looking for a lead guitarist, and I know for sure that we played our first gig together supporting Tokyo Blade at the Royal Standard, on 4th January 1985. Norms must have had a couple of months’ rehearsals with us beforehand so taking an educated guess it looks more likely now that Norms joined us in November 1984.” Like Paul before him, ‘Storming’ Norman Gordon came to the band through an advert in the music press. “We had several applicants,” is how Phil remembers it now, “but Norms stood out because he turned up in a mini, driven by his then girlfriend, with a Marshall 4x12 cabinet squeezed in the back, his amp head hanging out the boot and his guitar between his legs in the passenger seat! He had a stud in his nose, and we couldn’t understand a word he was saying because of his Belfast accent! He’d played in bands over in Belfast – he was on the same circuit as Vivian Campbell – but we weren’t aware of him as he’d only just come over to England and was looking for a band to join.”
So as 1984 became 1985 the line-up that everyone knows as Elixir was complete, and as noted above the Taylor/Gordon/Denton/Dobbs/Dobbs line-up made its debut at Walthamstow’s Royal Standard, followed by a headliner at the Green Man in Stratford. “We played really well there,” Phil told Joel Griggs of Marshall Stack fanzine at the time, “but the Green Man was the best gig for crowd reaction, and we didn’t have the hassles of being the support band. Tokyo Blade were great, though, they gave us over an hour and we’re good friends with them now.” In the same interview, Phil revealed that the band hoped to be working on another demo in the near future, “possibly with ‘Trial By Fire’ on it which is very heavy yet also melodic. Then there’s ‘The Idol’ which is a black magic sort of song; you can’t keep your head still to that one! Basically,” the guitarist concluded, “the next demo’s going to have plenty of bollocks!” So while everyone else was tucking into their Easter eggs Elixir were hard at work at their third demo which unbeknown to them was to be the band’s turning point. Another three tracks were recorded – ‘Treachery (Ride Like The Wind)’, ‘Winds of Time’ and ‘Playing With Fire’ – and once they’d heard the playback they knew they had something special on their hands.
“Well,” begins Phil modestly, “you don’t sit down and say ‘today we will write a classic’. You try to do the best you can when writing all songs, and we still don’t know why ‘Treachery (Ride Like The Wind)’ is more popular than the others. The strange thing is, ‘Treachery’ was written in a few minutes at rehearsals one day, probably the quickest song we’ve ever written. Black Sabbath say the same thing about ‘Paranoid’, you know, that they wrote it quickly as an extra song to put on their second album to make up the time. Anyway, we just came out with the riff, Kev and Nigel jumped in, and we had the music in minutes. I thought up the ‘Ride Like The Wind’ line, and that got Paul started with the lyrics. It was that simple. When we finished, I said that it sounded too much like Iron Maiden and we should scrap it, but the others talked me out of it. And when we played it live the first few times, it became apparent that it was a very popular song. Although it was first recorded as a demo track, when we decided to bring out our first vinyl release, the recording was chosen as a single.”
With ‘Winds Of Time’ on the ‘B’-side ‘Treachery’ was reviewed in ‘Kerrang!’ by no less than Ronnie James Dio. “Not that bad, really,” noted the magazine’s illustrious guest reviewer. “They sound a lot like Iron Maiden but at least they’re following examples and doing it well… I think they have a chance, they’ve got a shot at it. It’s good, and it shows the potential to be a lot better.”
As mentioned above, the band have never really worked out what it is about ‘Treachery’ that makes the song such a fans’ favourite, and have even tried to drop it once or twice. At the British Steel festival in 2008 the song was noticeably absent from the setlist taped to the stage, yet they played it anyway. Phil laughs: “Norms had said a while back that he was a bit fed up with playing ‘Treachery’ at every gig and wanted to miss it out for once. Kev and I weren’t so sure. It isn’t one of my favourite songs to play either, but the crowd always seem to want to hear it. It seems like it’s our ‘Paranoid’ or ‘Smoke On The Water’ – but without the sales! So we decided, with some feeling of uneasiness, to leave it out for once. However, Kev and Nigel went over the road to Burger King before the doors opened and bumped into a few fans who said something like ‘can’t wait to hear ‘Treachery’ tonight!’ So we put it back in the set on the spur of the moment!”
Whilst the demo resulted in the band’s first single, the third track recorded at that session, the long-forgotten ‘Playing With Fire’ suffers the ignominy of being what Phil describes as his “least favourite Elixir song.”
“One of the things I’ve learned over the years I’ve spent working with Paul is that he’s made some of my song ideas turn out ‘nicer’ than I was intending,” he offers by way of explanation. “For example, when we were working on new songs for Midnight Messiah I wrote the music for a song called ‘Holy Angel’ which has a mean and moody verse riff, a bit like a King Diamond/Mercyful Fate kind of thing. Paul wrote the lyrics and sang on the demo and to my mind it was great; just how I’d imagined it. Then Paul said that he thought it was too slow and wanted to speed it up, and to me that took the menacing feel away from it. I’ve always wanted to come up with some great Iommi-type BIG, BIG riffs but Paul then tends to ‘sanitise’ them to make them more melodic to sing over. So what I mean is that once in a while I’d like to come up with a great, dark, brooding, malevolent headbanging riff and actually have it survive the songwriting and rehearsal process intact, and ‘Playing With Fire’ was an early example of what I’m talking about. When I wrote the music, I was thinking Queensryche for the intro and Mercyful Fate for the verse riff. Then Paul wrote the lyrics and made it into a love song! So to me, ‘Playing With Fire’ represents a song that had a lot of potential but didn’t turn out as hard and heavy as I would have wanted. But that’s a price I’m willing to pay for working with such a great singer. The combination of my input, mixed with his, helped create the Elixir sound and I’m happy with a large percentage of what we’ve written over the years. But that is why I don’t like ‘Playing With Fire’.
“Anyway,” he continues, “with Paul and Norms on board we constantly rehearsed and wrote songs. We played live extensively through 1985 and continued writing new material on the road or back at home. We had to keep writing because we didn’t play covers, so had to keep coming up with original material for our live sets. With the release of the ‘Treachery’ single in 1985, and the encouragement we got from the Dio review – Ronnie James Dio was a great hero of ours, so when he said it was good, it gave us a lot of encouragement – we thought it was time to start thinking about recording an album.
“We booked The Lodge Studios, a residential studio then in Suffolk, for the first week of January 1986. It was owned by a prog band called The Enid, who were disillusioned with the record industry and were releasing their material on their own label. We were encouraged by that approach, and in the absence of a decent record contract, decided to do the same. We probably had around twenty songs written by the time we went in to the studio to record the album, but had to choose nine to fit the 40 minutes of vinyl available. We finished by lunchtime on the final day and, as we had a couple of hours left, we quickly ran through ‘Chariot of the Gods’, an instrumental, and recorded it in one take, added the solo, mixed it, and kept it in case we needed a ‘B’-side for a single off the album.” And that was it – ‘The Son Of Odin’ was in the can. “I was very happy with it at the time, and still am. I remember feeling very, very satisfied when I heard ‘Son Of Odin’, the track, fully mixed, blasting out loudly through the huge studio speakers. Listening back to it now I think we played the songs a little fast, but we were young then and full of energy and enthusiasm! I personally think that we perform the songs better now, but that’s just a minor criticism of the album. We’re probably better musicians now as well.”
‘The Son Of Odin’ was released on the band’s own label in July 1986 to some extremely complimentary reviews. The much-loved Paul Miller who had joined Kerrang! after years of producing his own fanzine Forearm Smash gave the album a 3¾K review in the magazine. “I like Elixir,” he wrote. “They’re British, heavy, melodic, write decent songs about interesting subjects, pay for their albums with a loan from the bank manager and use their own manager’s flat as security for the loan... ‘Treachery (Ride Like the Wind)’, the band’s single, appears re-recorded here and actually sounds more like Maiden than the old version, if such a thing is possible. It’s slick, meaty, catchy and those bloody guitars are still dancing around my brain a week later. ‘Son Of Odin’, on the other hand, is a different proposition – slow, moody and melodic, the kind of ‘epic’ number that would easily slot in between ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’ and ‘Rising’.” In Metal Forces, the true barometer of what was good in metal at that time, Dave Constable called ‘The Son Of Odin’ “a self-financed debut LP that shames many major label metal releases. This is good British HM through and through… Maidenesque influences abound, but it’s no blatant rip-off. Songs like ‘Treachery (Ride Like the Wind)’ – which some of you may have as a single – and ‘Pandora’s Box’ are good banging stuff. My favourite though is ‘Children Of Tomorrow’, really powerful and catchy; a bit like Metal Church, in fact. Rather than go on about the value of each track I’d just like to recommend this LP as a whole…I’d rather listen to this,” the reviewer concluded, “than a hundred ‘Turbo’s or ‘Somewhere In Time’s.”
Given such reviews, it’s fair to say that most of the critics got what Elixir were all about. “Yes, some did,” agrees Phil, “like Paul Miller, who is no longer with us, bless him. In fact, I think a lot of them did. There’s one critic who never got past ‘Treachery’, but on the whole, once people heard our first album they realised that we were a decent band with more than one good song to our name. Nine out of ten reviews were encouraging, and I can’t blame the music press for our lack of success. It’s just unfortunate that metal became unfashionable in the middle- to late-Eighties, and it was the music industry that gave up on metal bands, in my opinion.”
Before the album appeared though, fans were given a sneak preview of four of its songs via a session for BBC Radio’s The Friday Rock Show. “Our manager at that time, Seymour Mincer, took a tape of the album to the BBC and when Tommy Vance finished broadcasting one night Seymour waited for him in the reception at the BBC, gave him a copy of the tape and asked if he’d listen to it. We got a call saying they wanted us to do a session so on 7th February we recorded the four tracks, the following Friday I went back to help with the mix and on 28th February it was broadcast. I’ll never forget those dates as long as I live!”
As for the album’s artwork, “the landscape picture on the cover of ‘The Son of Odin’ came from the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s calendar!” Phil can’t help laughing at the memory. “It was January 1986 and we’d just recorded the album. Paul was working in the Treasury for the government at the time, and happened to look through Nigel Lawson’s new calendar when he spotted what he thought would make a great starting point for the album cover design – so he tore it out! I think it was a picture for July or August, so it was at least six months before Mr Lawson would have noticed!”
Given that the band were now making real headway it’s unlucky that within a year things had started to unravel. “It was a silly argument caused by Kev’s girlfriend at the time,” recalls Phil. “She damaged our band harmony, and in the end something snapped. Nigel went to form a new band Saratoga with his brother, and for me that was the start of the decline of the band. Kev and Nigel were irreplaceable really; no-one plays the songs like them.” Although a second album – ‘Sovereign Remedy’ with Clive Burr on drums – was recorded in 1988, it wasn’t to be released in the band’s lifetime. “We toured through 1988/1989 playing the new songs, with Mark White on bass and Stevie Hughes from Sweet Savage on drums. We were frustrated that we didn’t have a record deal to release the album – and we were still paying off the loan for ‘The Son of Odin’ so couldn’t afford to bring out the second album on our own label – and with Kev and Nigel gone, I felt that there was nowhere else to go for Elixir. With my first son about to be born in November 1989, I quit the band.
“After I left, the band continued for a short while and Paul managed to secure a deal with Sonic to release the album. However, when the album came out, I was extremely disappointed with it. They re-named it ‘Lethal Potion’ which I thought was really ‘cheesy’, and the cover was awful and irrelevant to the album content. The mixes had been changed, with a lot of the instrumentation missing, and some songs were not included at all, including the epic ‘Lost In A Dream’. We never got paid for that release either, so I just consider it to be a bad bootleg album, and was much happier when I managed to put things right and get the album released as it was meant to have been, under the title ‘Sovereign Remedy’ in 2004.”
The five all met up once more at Norm’s 40th birthday bash in 2001 and soon discovered just how much they’d missed playing together – and also, just how much interest there was in the band. One thing led to another and soon Elixir were back in business once more. “When we got the band back together we had four objectives,” says Phil, counting them off on his fingers: “(one) record all the old songs that I’d found on a live tape; (two) release the second album, ‘Sovereign Remedy’ as it should have been; (three) record an album of brand new material and (four) enjoy what we’re doing!”
The band achieved all four objectives and had a great run for their money, and when in 2012 it stopped being fun for some of them Elixir split once more, presumably for good this time, leaving Phil and Paul with an album’s worth of ideas and the spark for a new band, Midnight Messiah (a name itself taken from a song title off the last Elixir album, ‘All Hallows Eve’).
“I’m happy with what we achieved in Elixir,” is how Phil looks back at the band. “I’m happy with my life now and how it was back then. Things generally turn out for the best. When I talk about the band I realise how much fate had intervened in how things worked out for us – like when Steve stuck his finger in the dictionary and chose Elixir for a name, or how ‘Treachery’ just came out of us in a flash. And we have some great songs to our name. Look at ‘Sovereign Remedy’ – the tempo, rhythm, dual guitar intro and subject matter are typical Elixir. Then there’s the faster double guitars of ‘Treachery’ played around Nigel’s drum spot before Norms great solo. There’s also Norm’s fantastic and very original guitar solo in ‘Pandora’s Box’, coupled with Paul’s fabulous lyrics, or the majesty of ‘Son of Odin’. And I’m particularly pleased with ‘Samhain’; a song that’s over fourteen minutes long takes a lot of work, writing, rehearsing, arranging and then recording, but I think it has come out extremely well.
“I guess we were never meant to have been signed up and ‘made it big’,” he laughs. “Just as well really; we would probably be washed-up has-beens with a drug habit by now, having to appear on some crap celebrity TV show just to make a few quid. And how undignified is that!”