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October Obituaries: Category X – David George Halliday

In Memoriam
1st January 1957 – 29th January 1987

“I defy the very devil to dare to cross my path
If he did, I swear to you – he would suffer from my wrath!”

– Let Battle Commence, 1982

The story of Dave Halliday’s death and legacy has only recently reached widespread public attention, and for that, I am grateful, as it is one of the most fascinating and inspiring tales in the canon of metal music. Unappreciated in his own time and subjected to one rejection after another, Halliday has posthumously been vindicated by fans and by the music press as a visionary whose charisma and extroverted energy made their influence surreptitiously felt through an entire generation of British acts. With the release of Hell’s Human Remains last year, Dave Halliday’s work has at last found an outlet appropriate to his vitality.

Much of what is known about Halliday in life is derived from the recollections of his former bandmates and acquaintances. The image that forms from their testimony is of a classically mad rock-star personality who threw everything he had at his music, seemingly animated by the thrill of performance and creation. Hell formed in 1982 from the ashes from Halliday’s and fellow guitarist Kev Bower’s respective bands Race Against Time and Parallex, arriving at the tail-end of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Hailing from Nottingham, they achieved cult status in England’s midlands thanks to their outrageously theatrical stage shows and occult-influenced aesthetic. Halliday appeared front and centre dressed in the regalia of a Satanic Priest, shrouded by smoke from pyrotechnics, belting out the lyrics to what, in the early 80s, would have been some of the heaviest songs ever written (Let Battle Commence in particular edged out of the NWOBHM into full-blown thrash metal before the genre had even been properly formulated). Offstage, that same manic commitment manifested itself just as potently, Halliday maintaining the band while blighted with ill-fortune and limited resources all with the appearance of enthusiasm and good cheer.

Despite his apparently bottomless reserves of energy however, Dave Halliday was not without his troubles. He appeared to invest his heart and soul in his music and was heavily reliant upon it for a sense of fulfilment; unfortunately, Hell were never granted the stroke of luck he was waiting for. Their bombastic and aggressive sound not embraced by the British heavy metal scene of the time which was more and more inclined towards radio friendly acts like Def Leppard following the decline of the NWOBHM. While they played local gigs frequently, they were rarely given much attention from the press, many of whom were based in London and unwilling to travel as far north as Nottingham; the reviews that they did accumulate were almost uniformly negative. Over their years together, Hell accumulated innumerable rejections from record labels who didn’t know what to do with their idiosyncratic sound. The final straw came when they were finally able to sign a deal with the Belgian label Mausoleum in 1985, only for the company to go bankrupt before an album could be recorded. Following this debacle, Kev Bower quit the band, and after being briefly replaced by Sean Kelly, Hell disbanded. Shortly thereafter, Halliday committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in January 1987.

Whether or not the split of the band was the sole factor contributing to Halliday’s decision or simply the straw that broke the camel’s back is hard to discern. Kev Bower has gone on record since as saying that Halliday didn’t put his inner life on display; what problems he had, he masked behind a visage of humour and high spirits. Up to a point, no-one really knew him. The surviving members of Hell moved on without a backward glance, with only bassist Tony Speakman continuing to perform as a musician at all. It was a tragic and ignominious end to the life and career of a singularly unique and passionate performer.

The fruits of Halliday’s labours, however, were not irretrievably lost. In Hell’s early days, he had become known locally as a metal guitar teacher. Among his students was Andy Sneap, who met him at the age of twelve in 1982 and came to think of him, in his own words, as an older brother. This was the same Andy Sneap who would go on to form the seminal British thrash outfit Sabbat, claiming Hell’s music as his main influence, and to whom Halliday left his songs in his will. Sneap, having become a prolific and respected producer in the past decade, eventually got back in touch with Kev Bower and the rest of Hell’s original members: with Sneap himself taking over the guitar duties originally handled by Halliday and Bower’s younger brother Dave taking up his theatrically hammy vocal lines, Halliday’s music at last saw release on Nuclear Blast records in 2011 to overwhelmingly positive acclaim. Sneap arranged for the proceeds that would originally have been Halliday’s to go to his sister.

If there is a lesson to be gleaned from Dave Halliday’s life and death, it is that passion and effort, much like energy, never truly disappear. They may dissipate, become elusive, but if they have been communicated to another living soul then they remain in some form. That Halliday chose to take his own life without ever seeing a tangible reward for his effort is a terribly sad thing, but the evidence that his life was not wasted is palpable; you can buy it on CD or Vinyl right now (and you should – Human Remains is, quite apart from anything else, one of the best metal albums released in recent years). It should be a message of hope to aspiring artists working in any medium that Dave Halliday was able to inspire a young guitarist so thoroughly that he took up his mentor’s mantle almost a quarter of a century later. To touch another life so completely and profoundly, even after death, is perhaps the greatest validation of the creative impulse one could ask for.