1980. Gladbeck, Germany.
Two young musicians – singer Chris Boltendahl and guitarist Peter Masson – are trying to settle upon a name for their fledgling heavy metal band. The choices on offer are the perfectly reasonable Grave Digger, and the wonderfully inappropriate “Gas Chamber”. Hmmm…
Sensibly, if somewhat disappointingly, the pair decides to resist the temptation of siding with their wacky German sense of humour and go with the former…
Three years later, and armed with an original song entitled ‘Violence’ and a cover of The Rolling Stones ‘2000 Light Years From Home’, the band soon came to the attention of many metal fans on the Noise Records compilation album Rock From Hell (German Metal Attack), appearing alongside the likes of Running Wild, S.A.D.O., Rated-X, Iron Force, and Railway.
Announcing themselves with more serious intent, Grave Digger released their debut Heavy Metal Breakdown (Noise) in April 1984. Resplendent in its heroically amateurish and virtually meaningless artwork, the album is pure Accept worship from first track to last. With Boltendahl’s heavily accented and occasionally inarticulate Udo Dirkschneider style vocals, ‘Headbanging Man’ and the title track could easily have been lifted from Restless and Wild or Balls to the Wall (both Portrait). ‘Back From the War’ is all rather gloomy and serious, but still more than adequate headbanging fare, while ‘Yesterday’ sounds so agonisingly overwrought that it must surely stand as one of the most inadvertently comical power ballads of the Eighties. ‘We Wanna Rock You’ has a killer riff, and like ‘Headbanging Man’ is another absolutely essential song about THE POWER OF METAL. ‘Legion of the Lost’ has nice riffs and awful lyrics, and the very metal ‘Tyrant’ passes the time with enjoyable efficiency. Their cover of ‘2000 Light Years From Home’ makes a reappearance, but with its punk/early Speed Metal edge, sounds nothing like the original, while the excellent ‘Heart Attack’ makes for a great closer.
For their 1985 follow-up Witch Hunter (Noise) the band recruited a new bass player, Rene Teichgraber, and “private English teacher” Roy Dean Brown to help improve Boltendahl’s enthusiastic, but often unintelligible English pronunciations. Having already worked with German singer Nena, translating her hit song ’99 Luftballoons’ into the more commonly heard ’99 Red Balloons’, the professional lyric coach did actually succeed in making Boltendahl a little more coherent. Opening with the pairing of the title track and ‘Night Drifter’, it’s clear that the previous album’s Accept-isms and Judas Priest/Iron Maiden worship were still evident, as was the influence of up-and-coming labelmates Helloween. ‘Get Ready For Power’ is a superb anthem to the POWER OF ROCK AND ROLL, but quite incredibly, power ballad ‘Love Is A Game’ somehow manages to be even more excruciating than ‘Yesterday’ from the previous record. ‘Get Away’ is a fine example of no-nonsense German Heavy Metal, while ‘Fight For Freedom’ begins with a drum solo and adds some decidedly questionable semi-operatic vocals along the way. Their interpretation of Alice Cooper‘s ‘School’s Out’ has a very clear message, and that message is Stop. Doing. Covers. Thankfully, the darkly bitter ‘Friends of Mine’ quickly gets things back on track, before ‘Here I stand’ closes the album in some style.
Despite containing a healthy share of fairly disposable material, both of these albums still burn with a bright, youthful intensity and feature some absolutely bonafide ’80s bangers, even if some of the lyrics are more than a bit wobbly. Grave Digger may not have been the biggest or best exponents of European Heavy Metal, but these plucky Germans have written some fantastic songs over the years, as well as having chosen a most splendidly metal band name. Well, until 1987 anyway, when Boltendahl bewilderingly (but thankfully only briefly) changed it to Digger, and released an album with a robot Donald Duck on the cover.