Press rewind. Let’s go back to the age when cassettes dominated the world.
Yes, those beloved plastic cartridges with their twin internal spools, their microfiche-sized liner notes and shrunken album art folded into cheap, rectangular cases. They filled up our storage racks, the floors and gloveboxes of our cars, and stacked up in various places in our rooms. It was revolutionary – – we could listen to selections from our own personal music libraries just about anytime, just about anywhere: in our boomboxes, Walkmans, and multi-component home stereo rack systems.
It’s a wonder anyone left the 1980s.
The Heavy Metal kingdom had only recently established regency at this time, with its own histories and its own court of monarchs, heroes, scribes, jesters, and pretenders. Gen-X kids were tweens and teens in the 80s, peasants just coming into our own musical awareness. Pop and New Wave were everywhere, but a number of us had been drawn to the Metal lands by the likes of AC/DC, Def Leppard, Dio, Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Van Halen, Ozzy, KISS, etc.
From the castle parapets, we could also catch glimpses of this vast countryside full of the other great, unknown heavy bands, just waiting to be explored and discovered. Friends and older siblings could often act as guides to these unfamiliar sounds, supplying blank cassettes (Maxell or Memorex) with full album copies or – – if you were really lucky – – mixtapes, but their expertise still had limits. At some point, the young intrepids needed to venture out on their own.
This is where K-Tel stepped in.
Founded out of Winnipeg in 1962 by slick salesman Philip Kives, K-Tel started out selling teflon frying pans, establishing the template for the fast-talking “ORDER NOW!” commercials that have plagued our afternoon and late-night TV viewing ever since. They also sold stuff like the Veg-O-Matic and the Miracle Brush.
In 1966, employing their innovative creativity and a “We’ll sell anything!” attitude, K-Tel released one of the first-ever compilation records: “ 25 Country Hits,” followed shortly thereafter by “25 Polka Greats.” They went on to create products for just about every genre: Disco, Classical, Soft Rock; but it wasn’t until 1980 that they first dabbled in the world of Heavy Metal with “Axe Attack.”
I began my K-Tel mixtape education a few years later with “Masters of Metal” and “White Hot: Masters of Metal,”* eventually adding “Metal Wars” to my cherished K-Tel trilogy. I did not own “Axe Attack” vol. 1 or vol. 2, but, checking their track listings, I clearly would have revered them too.
Whether K-Tel hired Subject Matter Experts to curate the mixes, whether they had the playlists dictated by Record Company suits, or whether they threw darts at a wall of Circus, Hit Parader, and Creem magazines, they succeeded at creating stellar, mind-blowing compilations that represented every facet of the early-80s traditional Heavy Metal landscape.**
As a burgeoning young Metalhead, I learned as much from K-Tel as I did from any friends or radio stations. I knew every note of Black Sabbath’s “We Sold Our Sold For Rock n’ Roll,” but it was through “Masters of Metal” that I discovered the Dio and Gillan eras of the band. On the K-Tel tapes, I first heard Twisted Sister songs beyond those 2 that were all over MTV; I encountered amazing cuts from Triumph, Zebra, Krokus, Y&T, and others that I might not have found – – or appreciated – – as quickly otherwise. For me, these albums were a perfect serving of those lesser-known gems alongside the big Metal blockbusters of the day, like “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” “Run to the Hills,” “Tom Sawyer,” and “Cum on Feel the Noize.” Songs I already loved and owned on other cassettes blended together with the newfound to craft the perfect Metal listening experience.
K-Tel weren’t the only company releasing compilation albums,*** but theirs were the ones that reached my tape deck, that impacted me, that tutored me, at that critical developmental phase. The “various artists” mixes that mean the most to us are the ones that feel personal – – whether they’re tailored streaming playlists, cultural moments (e.g.: some of the classic soundtracks), or mixtapes/mix-CDs made by you or someone thinking of you. Somehow, someway, whether they intended to or not, K-Tel managed to release compilations that felt personal to Metal kids of the 80s.
Apparently there was some variance between mediums and regions and release versions for the “Masters of Metal” track listings, but these were the albums as I knew them:
MASTERS OF METAL:
- Black Sabbath – Trashed
- Y&T – Mean Streak
- Zebra – Who’s Behind the Door
- Dio – Rainbow in the Dark
- Van Halen – Dancing in the Street
- KISS – Lick it Up
- Rainbow – Street of Dreams
- Iron Maiden – Run to the Hills
- Rush – Tom Sawyer (Live)
- Triumph – A World of Fantasy
- Twisted Sister – You Can’t Stop Rock n’ Roll
- Krokus – Screaming in the Night
WHITE HOT: MASTERS OF METAL
- Scorpions – Rock You Like a Hurricane
- Slade – Run Runaway
- Rush – Distant Early Warning
- Zebra – Tell Me What You Want
- Triumph – Lay it On the Line
- Dio – Holy Diver
- Y&T – Don’t Stop Runnin’
- Judas Priest – You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’
- Krokus – Stayed Awake All Night
- Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
- Twisted Sister – I Am (I’m Me)
- Quiet Riot – Cum on Feel The Noize
- Y&T – Summertime Girls
- Krokus – Midnite Maniac
- Helix – Rock You
- Queensryche – Queen of the Reich
- Quiet Riot – Mama Weer All Crazee Now
- Bon Jovi – Only Lonely
- Slade – Run Runaway
- Mama’s Boys – Lettin’ Go
- Judas Priest – Some Heads Are Gonna Roll
These are the track listings for the “Axe Attack” compilations (that Jack didn’t have):
AXE ATTACK, vol 1
- Rainbow – All Night Long
- Ian Gillan – Running White Face, City Boy
- Judas Priest – Breaking The Law
- Ted Nugent – Cat Scratch Fever
- Scorpions – Make It Real
- Girlschool – Race With The Devil
- U.F.O. – Doctor Doctor
- AC/DC – Highway To Hell
- Whitesnake – Ready & Willing
- Iron Maiden – Running Free
- Aerosmith – Sweet Emotion
- Frank Marino And Mahogany Rush – You Got Living
- Black Sabbath – Paranoid
- Motorhead – Bomber
AXE ATTACK, Vol 2:
- Rainbow – Since You’ve Been Gone
- Motorhead – Ace Of Spades
- Black Sabbath – Die Young
- Samson – Earth Mother
- Michael Schenker – Armed And Ready
- Rush – The Trees
- Scorpions – The Zoo
- Whitesnake – Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City
- Iron Maiden – Murders In The Rue Morgue
- Def Leppard – Rock Brigade
- Ted Nugent – Flesh And Blood
- Gillan – Mutually Assured Destruction
- Blue Oyster Cult – Godzilla
- U.F.O. – Mystery Train
- Judas Priest – United
* Don’t confuse K-Tel’s compilations – – especially their “Masters of Metal” tapes with the similar releases from Warner Special Products, which included “Masters of Metal: Strikeforce” volumes 1 and 2 from the 80s, and 1974’s double-record, “Heavy Metal – 24 Electrifying Performances.“ The latter was only partially Metal, featuring such, um, face-melters as Buffalo Springfield, the Grateful Dead, and Van Morrison, alongside Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper.
The “Masters of Metal: Strikeforce” cassettes, on the other hand, seemed to have very similar track listings to their K-Tel counterparts. I didn’t have any of these WSP mixes. . . I’m not here to invalidate your experience if you did. Hell, if these compilations provided you the same thrills and education that the K-Tel tapes did for me, then that’s a good thing.
By the way: Warner Special Products were also linked to the “Freedom Rock” compilation. “Hey, man, is that Freedom Rock? Well, turn it up, man!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eGWW8KOQio
** Both “Axe Attack” collections were compiled by K-Tel A&R Manager, Nigel Mason, who was by no means a Heavy Metal specialist. His compilation credits run the gamut of genres and styles: “I picked the tracks and then licensed them from all the different record companies, which would then be compiled onto one of K-Tel’s compilations.” He left the company in 1982.
The “Masters of Metal”(1984), “White Hot: Masters of Metal” (1984), and “Metal Wars” (1985) comps are uncredited.
*** I can’t close this article without a shoutout to Metal Blade’s legendary “Metal Massacre” compilation series. Nothing to do with K-Tel, but these were some of the most important and influential compilation tapes in Heavy Metal history.
Jack Mangan is best known in the Metal world as the co-host of the popular Metal Hall of Fame and MetalAsylum.net livestreams with Rich Catino, but in this space, he’s also the lead author/project runner for the “Am I Evil?” graphic novel and a journalist with MetalAsylum.net and the official Metal Hall of Fame. In an adjacent life, he was a podcast pioneer, with numerous appearances on Technorama, Dragon Page, Escape Pod/Pseudopod, and many others, including his own productions: Jack Mangan’s Deadpan, and the Podcast novel, “Spherical Tomi.” Friend him on Facebook if you can find him, but be warned: he’s not great about checking Facebook Messenger.