It was the 1970’s and Epic Metal was not even a genre of music yet. For that matter the term Heavy Metal did not even refer to music but the French based fantasy magazine Métal Hurlant. The phrase Heavy Metal was just barely showing up in the works of a very few bands. Steppenwolf had used the phrase heavy metal thunder in their hit song “Born to Be Wild”. But in this case I believe the reference was to loud motorcycles. But there was always a more multifaceted meaning springing up in my head when I thought of the words. The obvious motorcycle reference was there but the French artists that worked on the magazine, that eventually made it’s way into the United States under the name Heavy Metal, obviously thought of the meaning in more of an adventure/epic fantasy way. There was one series within the magazine called “Heilman” that was about a Punk / Rock star, of the future, that was a clone or android type character. When he performed he wore leather, boots, chains and metal spikes and studs and brandished a wicked looking black electric guitar. It was like looking at an artists conception of what Rob Halford was to look like in the years to come. But at this point in music history nobody was dressing like that on stage yet (as far as I know). Halford had graduated from looking like a long haired hippie rock star to a short haired, clean cut business man wearing suits, even on album covers. But it was very soon that the tides and styles changed and started developing into what was going to be the standard for a whole new name for heavy, loud and evil sounding hard rock. It was the birth of Heavy Metal.
This new breed of music was totally compelling to me. But I came from a very classical music background from my mother and the other styles of music prevalent in my family were Jazz and Country. The first Rock album I ever bought was Meet the Beatles and that was when the band first came out. I was a young educated musician who could read both clefs of written music and could play, semi-proficiently, several instruments. I started my musical training at age 5 on piano. My mother insisted that I also take vocal lessons and soon I was off and running learning how to play other instruments as well such as, Trumpet, Baritone, Bass Fidel and all types of percussion. By the time I was a Sophomore in High School I started a Rock band, we named Embryo, with a school mate of mine by the name of Jim Stark. He was a really good guitarist that could play just about anything. He was a big Jimi Hendrix fan along with other greats like Bryan May, Ted Nugent and Johnny Winter. I was the drummer in Embryo but it was playing with Jim that led me to learn how to play the guitar. I have to give a little credit to my step-brother David also because he was the first one to show me how to play a song on the acoustic guitar. That song was Hey Joe, made popular by Jimi Hendrix. But it was really Jim Stark that showed me a lot of tricks and techniques on the axe that soon led to me being totally enveloped in the lust for the lost chord.
After High School I did a very brief stint in the US Marine Corps and when I came back to my hometown of Wichita Kansas I was full of energy to embark on a whole new life and the life I was drawn to in my heart, from the age of 5, was the life of a performing and writing musician. Upon my return I had met up with a friend that I had partied with before I went into the service, Scott Park. I was looking for a place to stay and he offered me a share of a flat that himself and some of his friends were leasing. It turned out that Scott was really interested in becoming a Bass player and that one of his room mates, Benny Munkirs was a drummer. I had brought my musical gear to the flat from my parents house, which consisted of a bass rig, drum set and part of a sound system for on stage. This was all gear left over from the Embryo days in High School. Ben was fascinated with my drum set because it was much better than the one he had. I had a really nice bass guitar and a really cheap six string electric guitar that I had been plunking around on since my time with Embryo. Well with that much equipment laying around in the flat you can imagine that it did not take long for us to get the idea of playing around together for the fun of it. It became serious very fast though. Once we started jamming we all started talking about being a band and doing shows and getting rich and famous and changing the history of music. At this point in time there was only one band that I can remember that was really looking metal out there and that was KISS. Ben and I came up with the name Manilla Road while drinking one night at the kitchen table watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus. For some reason, to us, it meant the Road of Light. I personally think we were just drunk and could not come up with anything more creative at the time. But the name stuck and no matter how hard I tried to get away from the name or how many times I tried to change it the name stayed with the band. Scott’s little brother Robert decided he had to get in on the fun also so he started learning how to play guitar as well. And that became the original lineup of Manilla Road.
As with all Rock bands starting out several of our friends wanted to join in and help by being roadies or sound and light men. It was a glorious time of discovery for all of us. As we rehearsed more and worked on each of our own capabilities we actually started to sound like a real band. We started doing shows and our crew was large and our equipment list grew and grew. We had everything from sound and light equipment and we were blowing up and setting on fire just about everything we could on stage. Then our head sound and light man Allen Denny met with a very unfortunate accident that took his life and the disaster left us all stunned and depressed. Ben decided he could not continue on playing music with the band at that point and so he left. We tried playing with several other drummers and finally landed on one Myles Sype. We went into the studio for the fist time to record a demo with Myles and the other three of us. But Robert was hitting the alcohol very hard and had been doing so ever since Allen’s death. He came to our first recording session in a professional studio with half a dozen friends and they were all blitzed (drunk as a skunk as we say in Kansas). An argument ensued between Robert and Scott and myself and before I knew it Robert was stomping out of the studio screaming that he quit. That was the last time Rob ever played with the band. We proceeded to record the demo which we called Manilla Road Underground. It consisted of three songs titled Far Side of the Sun, Herman Hill and yes a song called Manilla Road. About 50 to 100 cassette copies were made and given out to anyone who would listen. We are still in search for the original master tape to this demo.
After the demo we did some shows with Myles but he really was not fitting in that well with the band musically. So we replaced him with a High School friend of mine that played drums, Rick Fisher. With the addition of Rick all of a sudden it seemed like the pieces were finally falling into place. The band started sounding really good to me and I had a couple of really good guys in the band that were great fun to jam with. They both totally believed in my music writing ability and so we were off on the grand adventure that was to eventually become a bit of a musical historic event. My lyric writing was what was really setting us apart of most other bands. I was deeply influenced by literature and started delving into putting great story lines to music. I was influenced by the writings of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, E.C. Hellwell and a string of other really great writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was a huge fan of epic adventure and sword and sorcery story lines. Of course these influences started showing up in the bands music and lyrics. We were fast becoming popular in our hometown as one of the best and heaviest and spaciest bands around. What set us apart from almost every other band in Kansas was the fact that we did nothing but original music. We saved up our money and went back into the studio and recorded our first album Invasion. Just before the album came out in the winter of 1979, on our own label Roadster Records, we did a live radio broadcast from the local University station KMUW-FM. This radio show was recorded as it happened and the last half of the show was found and released a short time back as After Midnight Live.
Invasion came out in January of 1980 and we distributed it ourselves and went on to record 3 more albums with Rick Fisher, Scott Park and myself. Those albums were Dreams of Eschaton (which we did not think was good enough to release so we shelved it until 20 years later) now called Mark of the Beast, Metal and Crystal Logic. We also recorded a single called Flaming Metal Systems for Shrapnel Records US Metal III album. It was right after we put out Invasion that someone asked me in an interview what kind of Heavy Metal music do you play? I thought for a brief moment and blurted out Epic Metal. And ever since that moment we considered ourselves just that. An Epic Metal band. Some say that was the moment of creation of the Epic Metal style of music. I’m not too sure of that but I know that we were bound and determined to be the best weavers of epic heavy tales in the whole music industry. The release of Crystal Logic is what really set the ball to rolling for Manilla Road. It was 1983 and a Dutch radio station voted Crystal Logic as the best released album of the year. We also played in the Wichita Battle of the Bands at the amphitheater at the University in front of about 6000 people and took 1st Place. We were still doing our own distribution and promotion from our own label but had started making contacts in a couple of countries in Europe.
All seemed like it was going pretty good for us at this point but then Rick decided that Scott and I’s direction with our next bunch of music I was writing for the new album was too heavy and fast. We reached sort of an impasse at that point with Rick and the music. So he agreed to step down from the drums and we brought in Randy Thrasher Foxe to fill the void. Crystal Logic had been received so well in parts of Europe that we drew the attention of an up and coming label called Black Dragon Records. We signed with them and were off and running again trying to put our brand on the heavy metal market worldwide. Our first release on Black Dragon was Open The Gates and it was a huge success for us. All of a sudden in France we were known as the Masters of Epic Metal. We stayed with Black Dragon for many years until they lost their grip on the business putting out several more albums – The Deluge, Mystification, Live Roadkill, Out of the Abyss and The Courts of Chaos. This brings us to about 1991 and we had toured in the states a decent amount but had never toured in Europe. Black Dragon was struggling, we were struggling and so was the whole Metal underground. There was personal tension between Scott and Randy and Courts of Chaos proved to be the last album that would be recorded with that lineup. Manilla Road disbanded and I started a new band called Circus Maximus. I signed the project to Black Dragon but they thought if they put the name Manilla Road on it that it would sell better. So the project came out as a Manilla Road album instead and the title of the album was The Circus Maximus. I was not happy with the decision and it was the last business that I ever did with Black Dragon. BD continued to release Manilla Road demo material that they had and best of collections without the bands approval and also without paying the band any money for said releases.
I got married and had kids and played in Circus Maximus for awhile and left Manilla Road in the dust except for a few MR songs that Circus played live. But none of us in Circus thought that we would stay together even as long as we did. Our intention was to do only one project and then go our separate ways.
After Circus Maximus Randy and I started jamming together again with Harvey Patrick on Bass (the brother of our road manager Bryan Patrick) under the name Manilla Road again. We did several live shows and wrote new MR songs and intended on recording another album. But bad blood arose between Randy and Harvey and Harvey left the band. Randy and I decided to look for another bassist but figured that we should go ahead and start recording the next album. We were not very fluent at the time and so paying for a lot of studio time was not going to happen and the only way we were going to get an album recorded was if we bought our own recording equipment and did it ourselves. Digital recording technology was pretty new at this point but it was good quality and not very expensive to get into the equipment. So Randy and I both bought digital recording systems and I waited for Randy to come up with the drum tracks to lay my guitar and vocal tracks down to. Well the wait went from months to years. During that time Bryan came to me and said that I should not wait any longer and that I should keep writing and recording whether Randy was on board or not. And so Bryan and I started recording new music ourselves with a drum machine that eventually turned into the Atlantis Rising album. While we were working on this recording I was contacted by the Bang Your Head festival promoter and asked to play in their 2000 festival. Bryan and I had been working with a bass player, Mark Anderson, on the recordings but we did not really have a drummer because I was still sort of waiting on Randy to get it together. So I contacted Randy and asked him if he wanted to go play in Germany at the festival. He said yes and Mark Anderson was up for it also. So I contacted the promoter and took the booking for the show. Then about 3 days later Randy informed that he was not going to go and that the band had to cancel the show. I saw this festival as an important opportunity that we could not pass up if there was to be any kind of future for Manilla Road at all. So I informed Randy that if he would not go that I would replace him with another drummer. He was very mad at me and as far as I know he still is for I have not communicated with him ever since. I am sorry for the loss of my relationship with Randy but I don’t regret the decision at all for if we had not played that show Manilla Road most likely would not be alive and kicking today.
I brought on Troy Olson to play with us at the festival and with only about 3 months of playing together we went to Germany and did the Bang Your Head festival in front of some 20 or 30 thousand metal heads. Manilla fans from all over Europe had come to the festival and all our t-shirts sold out the first day of the festival, which was a day before we even played. I had brought with me several demo cassette tapes of the project that Bryan, Mark and I had been recording and gave them out to all the label reps that I ran into at the show. We had already been contacted by and signed a re-issue contract with Iron Glory Records for our Crystal Logic album and it was selling really well. I had no idea that our popularity was as big as it was in Europe until that festival. I don’t think we did a very good show but it did seem to spark the interest in the band even more with the European Metal public. We were offered a pretty good deal from Iron Glory for the new album and so we came back to the states intent on getting a full time drummer and finishing the album with real drums and not a drum machine. We brought in Scott Peters who was another friend of Mark Anderson’. We finished the project and titled it Manilla Road – Atlantis Rising.
We stayed with Iron Glory for another album called Spiral Castle and then member changes happened again. I was going through a divorce and it was ugly. Mark and Scott could not handle all the drama and they both left the band. Harvey Patrick returned to the fold and we recruited yet another new drummer in Cory Hardcore Christner. Iron Glory went through changes also changing the name to Battle Cry Records. I had just finished building my own recording studio and could not even work in it until the divorce proceedings were finished. So we moved all the recording studio equipment into the old Roadster Records house called the Road House and recorded Gates of Fire. After the divorce was finalized I got all of my property back and moved back into Midgard Sound Labs studio as fast as I could. We split with Battle Cry and signed with My Graveyard Productions and recorded and released Voyager. This was without Bryan though. He had some personal issues that he had to deal with for awhile and so I pulled all of the singing duties myself on that one.
Then Harvey started having troubles maintaining his marriage while playing in the band so he quit the band for a 2nd time. Vince Goleman took his place and we headed out touring Europe several times again and by this time Bryan could not stay away any longer and made his way back into the fold as well. We started working on a new album with Vince but after recording two songs with us in the studio he was afflicted with severe problems with his left hand and he had to bow out of the band so that we would not be slowed down anymore. He was a trooper I tell you. Maybe the best on stage performer that I have ever shared the stage with. I recruited an old friend of mine that I had derived literary inspiration from in the past, E.C. Hellwell to finish the bass tracks on the album for us. And finally after lots of delays because of member changes and touring we finished the project and it is now out called Playground of the Damned.
If you have managed to read this from start to finish then I applaud you. I feel like this has been very long winded, just like many of my concepts and songs. But at the same time this is a very condensed version of what has taken place in the life of Manilla Road over more than 3 decades. I know that Manilla Road does not appeal to everyone, even in the metal world. And our production style is a bit archaic and definitely different than most. But that is part of the mystique of the band and the music. I have and always will treat my music like a mad scientist in the lab. Experimentation is the key to finding the elusive lost chord. Music is magik and without magik we are nevermore.
UP THE HAMMERS & DOWN THE NAILS
MAY THE LORDS OF LIGHT BE WITH YOU
HAIL THE MANILLAN EMPIRE
HAIL TO THE BRETHREN OF THE HAMMER
Mark W. Shelton