Longevity is hard to come by. In the world of music, it’s damn near impossible to stay consistent and relevant over any period of time, let alone 40-plus years. Bands come and go with regularity and many acts with a stretch of time behind them will inevitably find themselves wearing down and slowing up. Albums will mellow out, songs will become a little more familiar, and fans might start to burst with a little less excitement at the thought of a new release. In an ever changing musical landscape, holding on to the public’s attention can be a Herculean task. Through riff-driven tunes, classic album covers, and energetic live performances, guitarist Robb Weir and the Tygers of Pan Tang have managed to do just that.
Rising to fame alongside other bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal era, the Tygers of Pan Tang built a strong following in the ’80s before disbanding. Following a reunion at Wacken Open Air in the late ’90s, the group has been going as strong as ever and at a consistent pace. Now, 44-years after forming, Weir and the boys are working on what he told me might be his favorite album of his storied career so look out. I recently phoned Weir to discuss his band’s history and future.
How did you end up getting into music in general and how did you become a fan of heavier music in particular?
Robb: I’ve got two older sisters and in the early ’60s there was always music being played in the house, some form of rock ‘n’ roll. They were continually jiving around the house to Little Richard and Elvis Presley and all the greats of the day. It kind of rubbed off, I suppose. I still have a great love of rock ‘n’ roll to this day. When I was about 11 or 12, I guess, my dad brought in just a little nylon strung Spanish guitar, picked up from a junk shop, and said “I was just passing and saw this, so I bought it to try.” I thought “Alright, ok.” I actually picked it up and tried to play it left-handed, which of course I’m right-handed, and thought “Oh my goodness, how on Earth do you play one of these things?” I was quite an avid fan, albeit watching in black and white of course because I am that old, of music programs (like) Top of the Pops and various programs we had in the day with all these wonderful acts on. I don’t know what made me do it but I actually spun (the guitar) around the other way and thought “Ah, right. That feels a bit more comfortable.” I started to try and tune one string to one of the notes in one of the songs that I was watching on the telly. It sort of carried on from there. Self-taught, really. I’m still teaching myself (laughs).
What was your experience playing in bands before Tygers?
Robb: I only ever played in two bands, sort of. The first band was called Trick, which was an amazing band and if there’s one thing I wish I could jump in a time machine and go back (to), I’d love to go back and watch Trick play because we must have been hilarious. There’s me playing a kind of heavy metal guitar, hard rock guitar I guess. The bass player looked like he just walked out of a stage show of Jesus Christ Superstar. He was into The Crusaders and jazz-funk, so that was his style of playing. The drummer was a rhythm and blues skiffle drummer that seemed to play ride cymbal and roll on the snare drum. During our performances, his drum kit used to part and as he was kicking the kick drum it used to move away from him so we used to have to stop the show about 20 minutes in and about 30 minutes in and about 40 minutes in while he reassembled his drum kit around him and then we carried on. And our singer was a punk. So if you can imagine jazz, rock, punk, heavy metal, and rhythm and blues trying to play “Whole Lotta Rosie” by AC/DC…it was interesting (laughs).
That sounds like a wild experience.
Robb: Absolutely. I’m not quite sure how or why that sort of came to an end but (afterwards) I put an advert in the local newspaper just asking for anybody who played bass guitar, a local bass guitar player who wanted to get together and write songs and create things. I got a phone call within a few hours of the advert, and we didn’t have any internet in those days so you had to put an advert in a newspaper. Within a few hours, this lad phoned me up and said “I’m a bass player. I’m at college in Newcastle. I’d love to get together.” I said “Where do you live” and he said “I live in a seaside town called Whitley Bay and I said “Crikey, so do I.” As it turns out, we didn’t live that far away from each other. He said “In my college courses is another lad who plays drums. Should I bring him along?” I went “Crikey, absolutely!” So we were three-quarters of a band. We got together in a local church hall and started knocking out some tunes. I showed them the stuff that I’d been writing, which they loved, and that’s kind of how the Tygers started.
How did you guys come up with the name? Were you all fans of Michael Moorcock?
Robb: No, that was very much Rocky, the bass player, Richard Laws. He was very much a bookworm and his favorite area was fantasy/science-fiction. Of course, Michael Moorcock was a huge author back in the ’70s. We were around at Rocky’s mom’s house out in his lounge trying to think of a name for this wonderful three-piece band we’d got without a singer. I said “What about Achilles Heel?” and he said “Yeah, I like that but what about Tygers of Pan Tang?” and I said “What? I’ve never heard anything like that in my life. That’s just genius!” He explained that, in the book Stormbringer, to get into the emperor’s lands, you had to pass through the cliffs of Pan Tang and they were guarded by the emperor’s attack tigers, rather than attack dogs. He said “I just put all the elements together and came up with that.” I said “That’s just genius. That’s exactly what we’re going to be called.” We very quickly advertised in the local newspaper again for a singer. A young lad called Mark Butcher, who was our original first singer, came along and got the job. We did our first 25 shows locally in pubs and clubs and parties and anywhere that we could play. That’s how it all started.
What was that local scene like for you guys starting out?
Robb: It was great. It really was good. Up in the Northeast of England we had a lot of industry. We had the coal mines, the steel business, the steel works. We had a shipyard. People on a Friday night, when the whistle blew, the old Flintstones adage if you like, when the whistle blew and the yard closes for the night, everybody wanted a bit of a release, wanted to go out and enjoy themselves. If there was a rock band on, or a heavy rock band on or whatever, people would flock to see it or to see them. The attendance was (great), everyone was packed. It was a very exciting time to be alive and involved in.
What was the music writing process like for the Tygers in those days?
Robb: It was mainly me. I wrote the music. Rocky did write some of the lyrics and Jess (Cox) wrote some of the lyrics, certainly for Wild Cat. Then when Jon Deverill and John Sykes joined the band, John wrote half the music and I wrote half the music, it was about 50-50, and Jon Deverill wrote the melodies and the words for Spellbound and Crazy Nights and then, of course, The Cage was a completely different ballgame but that was kind of the writing process.
How did getting to record that first album, Wild Cat, come about?
Robb: We had, from ’78 when the Tygers first sort of formally went on the road, probably three-quarters of Wild Cat written and we were performing it live. We were quite an unusual band because when you went into a workingman’s pub, most bands just played covers of the day, whether it be “Smoke On the Water” or “Stairway to Heaven” or “Paranoid,” all those big standards, if you like. We played about, I think in our live set there were about five songs that were covered, and the rest were all originals. By the time we actually went into the recording studio, in the early summer of ’80, we recorded, mixed, and mastered with Chris Tsangarides in 13 days, start to finish. That’s because we knew the songs inside out, front to back, top to down, there was no messing. Chris didn’t have an awful lot of production to do because the songs were almost set in stone. He did come up with some great ideas for the way we recorded and a guitar solo that was played through a Leslie Hammond organ speaker with the rotating air horns at the top, crazy things like that. It was really, because we knew our stuff, pretty well-honed, as they say.
Were you guys all pretty happy with it then when it came out?
Robb: It was a huge, proud moment, absolutely. Four young lads standing holding your first LP with great artwork. The record company and our management and our agents, we were all working really hard together. We had some great shows; we did some great tours in 1980. We toured with the Scorpions, we toured with Saxon, we toured with Def Leppard, we toured with Iron Maiden. Then we did Reading ’80, which was John Sykes’ first show, in front of 42,000 people. Then, five days later, we went out and did the Wild Cat tour. We were headlining, selling out 2,000 capacity venues. I think we had 23 shows back-to-back. I can’t even remember a day off. I hate days off when we tour. I just like to do it, but I realize singers need a day off for their throat to recover, but I just like to get on with it when I get out there and that’s today as well. I’m 63 now but I still have the lust and the love of going and doing it and cracking on as they say.
That first headlining tour had to be a wildly exciting time.
Robb: It was absolutely off the scale. It was absolutely brilliant. We got up to some amazing stuff that you wouldn’t be allowed to do these days, the usual stuff that you read about although I must say, I never glued a TV to the ceiling of a hotel room. I’ve never done that!
You mentioned lineup changes before a little bit. What do you look for in a new member and has that criteria changed over the years?
Robb: The criteria never changed. Journalists like to write about bands changing members but there aren’t many bands in the world who have the same lineup after 44 years. When an album comes out and some people write “Robb Weir, the only remaining member in the band . . . ” There’s lots of bands that only have one remaining member. Whitesnake, David Coverdale, only remaining member. If you want to go down those sorts of roads, probably most bands you think of only have one original member. Judas Priest, one original member, Ian Hill the bass player, nobody else is original. There are some bands touring that have no original members and I really fail to see how you can tour if none of you are founding members, but that’s an argument for another day. My whole point is that people move on for personal reasons, they want to do other things, something in their life’s happened and they’re not able to carry on giving 100%, and maybe the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Sometimes people want to move because they think they’re getting a better offer somewhere else, who knows. That’s why people come and go. The current band, last year we had two lineup changes: one I was expecting, one I wasn’t expecting but things happen. This incarnation of the band, from 2000, Craig Ellis, the drummer, has been in the band since 2000 so that’s 22 years that he’s served. (Jacopo) Jack (Meille) has been in the band 16, 17 years now and we have two new boys. When you do change members, the lovely thing that happens is you get an injection of fresh enthusiasm and fresh blood and fresh ideas. It’s quite nice, it’s quite refreshing.
I’m sure it is. That also must push you more to get new takes on the material and new ideas.
Robb: It does and the criteria, certainly for the Tygers, is that they must be great players, obviously, but they’ve got to be nice people. When you go on the road with somebody, for a few weeks or whatever, you’ve got to be able to get on with them. You can’t just do your 90 minutes or your 80 minutes onstage and then walk off stage and think “I don’t like you so I’m gonna sit in another room.” You’ve got to be able to, it’s an old English expression, chew the fat with them. You’ve got to put the world right and just be friends, be buddies. It’s the right thing to do and it’s like buying a comfortable pair of slippers. When you’ve done your work, you just want to chill and relax and have a laugh.
With how much time you spend together, it’s almost like auditioning an extended family.
Robb: Yes, absolutely, and the Tygers is family. It’s run as a family where everybody has their say.
After Wild Cat, Spellbound and Crazy Nights both came out in 1981. How hard was it getting those albums done in that short of a time frame?
Robb: That was just a crazy situation. Spellbound was doing really well in the charts, it charted at 18, not a rock chart we’re talking about here, we’re talking about a national chart with big acts in the chart, like David Bowie and Michael Jackson and Gloria Gaynor and all these big multi-platinum artists, and then there we are, in with our album. The record company came to our management and said to our management that they would like another album this year and our management said that’s crazy, none of the contemporary New Wave of British Heavy Metal Bands are releasing two albums in one year, this is madness. They insisted and said no, we want another album out by November.
I think Spellbound came out (in) February. We hadn’t really toured Spellbound, we did the Spellbound tour but we hadn’t taken it properly into Europe and the far east. We went to Japan but there was so much more that we needed to do. Then we had to concentrate on writing new songs for this third album that was requested, albeit against our wishes. They drafted in a producer from the States who did a couple weeks, and then had to fly back to the States to finish another project he was working on, then flew back again. It was recorded in five different studios and I think the songs were great but they suffered from being dragged from studio to studio to studio, and I just don’t think we got the big Tygers sound that was on Spellbound.
I imagine it had to be very hard to get comfortable recording in five different locations.
Robb: Yeah and there’s very few backing vocals on it, which I find very bizarre. But it had an amazing, iconic cover designed for us by Rodney Matthews, which we were very grateful for. It was and has been a massive talking point for the last 39 years.
What are your thoughts on the whole New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement? I know some people aren’t crazy about being lumped in with it while others really ran with it.
Robb: You have to embrace things like this. We were a new rock band on the scene at the time, as was Def Leppard, as was Iron Maiden, as was Saxon. A journalist, called Geoff Barton, wrote about us and the phrase was immortalized as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal because, of course, the old wave was Black Sabbath, was Led Zeppelin, was Uriah Heap. That was it. We were the new boys on the block so we were the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. It’s something that we’ve lived with for the last 44 years and it’s something that we’ve always embraced. It’s a great thing.
Was the fourth album, The Cage, a better experience at all?
Robb: No, not really (laughs). On The Cage, we didn’t write an awful lot of songs. We used outside songwriters, which I was very against because I felt that we had already proved our songwriting credibility with having a number 13 album with Wild Cat (and) a number 18 album with Spellbound. Crazy Nights was top 40, I think, but didn’t do as well as the first two because they still weren’t spent. They were still selling and we’re trying to ask the public to buy another one. It was just quite frustrating.
But The Cage, they got a great producer called Peter Collins, who we were the guinea pigs (for). We were the first hard rock band that he had ever produced because he was a pop producer and he worked with people like Alvin Stardust and The Lambrettas, who were having singles in the charts week after week. When Peter started working with us, quite a lot of our stuff he did change. He said “I think we can change this” and we were thinking “Oh my goodness, he’s gonna turn us into a pop band” but it actually did come out well. He had a great engineer who worked with Peter and the album did really well. The record company was trying to break us in the States, albeit we never actually got there before the band kind of dissolved.
With the fifth album (The Wreck-Age), we went away and recorded it ourselves, and we took the cassette tape to the meeting with the record company execs. We played it for them in the boardroom, this was in ’83. They said “Yeah we like it but we want you to play these songs” and it was 12 songs by other songwriters, American songwriters, English songwriters, and I just put my hand up and said “I’m not doing this. I didn’t sign up to play other peoples’ songs. We can write good songs, I can write good songs. I’m not doing it.” Everybody just kind of got up and walked out with me. Whether that was a very brave thing to do or a very stupid thing to do, I don’t know, but that was the end of MCA.
That had to be a shock to have them be so set on just using outside songwriters.
Robb: Def Leppard were still kind of writing their own songs, Saxon were writing their own songs, Iron Maiden were writing their own songs and I thought “No, we’re just not going to play a handful of songs by outside songwriters.” That’s not what we are. I never wanted to play in a cover band ever and I never will.
The band dissolved there around the same time. Was that part of the reason?
Robb: Yes, pretty much. Brian (Dick) and I left the band at the same time and I rang him up and said “Do you still want to carry on” and he went “Yeah, definitely.” I said “Well, I’ve got an idea for a new band” and we put together a band called Sergeant and we recorded an album of songs and got a recording deal with CBS worth a great deal of money and then, very shortly after, that fell to bits with a personality clash, and then I had written an album’s worth of material and Jess, the singer from Wild Cat, got involved with that and we recorded some songs, had album’s worth of material but only one of those songs was ever actually released, called “Small Town Flirt,” which is on First Kill, which is a compilation album with that one new track on it. The rest of the songs never really came to fruition so I got a bit cheesed off with the whole music industry thing and sold everything and left and walked away. I thought I’d had enough of this, let-downs and disappointments and stuff out of my control. I just stepped aside and walked away. About 10 years later, I got a phone call asking if I wanted to be part of a 20th year reunion and the Tygers were going to play at a big German festival called Wacken. I was asked if I wanted to do it and I said “Yeah, definitely, I’ll have to go out and buy a guitar and learn the songs!” I did all that and just walking on that stage at one o’clock in the morning and there’s still 22-thousand people not in bed. Just seeing that I got this monumental rush and feeling and thought that I’ve got to do something about the Tygers again. So, I came back and put together a new version of the Tygers, as it were, and the rest is history, as they say.
Was that Wacken performance pretty nerve wracking, having been away from the band for so long and then playing for that many people?
Robb: It was interesting. It was interesting for my nervous system (laughs). Walking on, I had a bit of a dry throat and I thought “Wow, ok.” Then, about 25-second into playing the first few chords, it took about 25 seconds to swallow and that was it. It was just like 20 years before. It was great.
Was it a different experience to record that first album back, Mystical, or did you fall back into the swing of things pretty quickly?
Robb: It was just back in the saddle. It was good. It was a very easy process. It was completely self-produced, in a proper recording studio but kind of low-budget. Editing was done in house so it was as good as it was possibly going to be. Again, great songs on there.
Since you’ve been back, you guys have been putting albums out at a really consistent pace. What’s fueling that creative fire of the band?
Robb: When I need to not be learning songs for live sets, I kind of write every day. There’s always something on the go in my little recording studio at home. It’s constant. All the songs have been written with Francesco (Marras) the new guitar player. The music was written together and Jack and Craig. They handle writing the lyrics and the melodies. That’s been the process since Jack joined the band. Before that, Craig and I used to write together. It’s an ongoing thing. We’ve got seven songs ready for the next album already. Whether those songs are on the next album or just one of them ends up on the next album, who knows. I need to share them with Francesco and he needs to look at them and say, “I like this, I don’t like this.” Five people writing is a lot more creative than just one person writing.
I wanted to ask about Jack. How did you end up with him as the singer? He’s got a great voice and it’s a perfect fit for the Tygers sound.
Robb: It’s amazing, yes. When the word went out that the Tygers needed a new singer, we were contacted by, I think it was, a talent agency, I think it was from Switzerland or Italy, I can’t quite remember, saying if you’re looking for a singer, there’s this guy who’s in an Italian band called Mantra who might be worth considering. We contacted Mantra, and Jack of course, and said “We’re looking for a singer, can you send us a CD?” He did and we liked it so we flew him over. He was already a big fan of the band, apparently, because he’s ten years younger than I am, maybe a little more. When I was first in the band, Jack was kind of very young, just into his teens, and was a huge fan, apparently. We asked him to learn about four songs, I think, and 45 seconds into his audition, I stopped the audition, I remember it like it was yesterday, and I turned to Jack and I said “You’ve got the job if you want it.” That was that, we knew after 45 seconds that he was gonna be absolutely perfect.
For the latest album, Ritual, was the creation process any different?
Robb: That was exactly the same. Songs written by myself, Craig’s got a song on there, Jack’s got a song on there, Michael “Micky” Crystal’s got some songs on there, all pulled together by Jack and Craig with the melodies and vocals.
You guys have always had really great, riff-driven albums. How important is that sound to you
Robb: It’s the Tygers’ style. It’s what we do. I don’t see us doing anything else, really. If you like Ritual, blooming heck wait till you hear the new album, my goodness. We’re five tracks into recording, five tracks finished, complete with vocals, guitar solos, all that kind of stuff. Another seven tracks to go and it’s going to be my favorite album, I think, up till this point in my 44-year career. It’s huge.
Wow, that’s exciting to hear.
Robb: It’s exciting to talk about, to be honest with you. But I know because I’ve got the rough mixes. It hasn’t even got to our producer yet, I’ve just got the rough mixes that Francesco’s done because he’s got a very nice recording studio. He’s just done a very quick, rough mix for us all and it’s…yeah, I’ll shut up about it now (laughs).
How badly was the band affected by the COVID pandemic?
Robb: Playing wise, as with every other band, huge because we couldn’t. I honestly thought it was just like another strain of the flu and thought it was going to last two or three months. I didn’t think it was going to last two or three years but we’re in the same boat as everybody else. We did change guitar players, we changed bass players, we wrote this album, so it worked out alright for us. And we released an EP with two new tracks and two old tracks. It worked for us.
What kind of goals do you still have for the band at this point in your career?
Robb: The 2016 album (Tygers of Pan Tang) we got a gold disc for that for record sales. Ritual came out just before the pandemic so we didn’t really tour Ritual at all, so our shows start on the 21st of May this year in Madrid, (at the) Pounding Metal Festival and there are obviously a few songs from Ritual in the live set, along with a brand new song from the new album. We’re just going to try it out on people and see if we can excite them. Musical goals, I just love playing. I like playing. I love when a new product comes out, just to get the feedback from people, just making sure we’re going in the right direction.
I very much view the band’s musical career as walking up a staircase. This is going to sound like a funny analogy. So, when you walk up a staircase, you’re going upward all the time, otherwise you wouldn’t get to the top. No band wants to release an album and take a step backward, that would be detrimental. You’re always looking to go up or, in other words, always looking to improve. With this new album that’s coming out, I think we’re going to climb two stairs, not just one. Of course it’s a stairway up to where you want to go to and I don’t think you should ever reach the top because if you do reach the top, then where else do you go? Maybe it’s time to retire. If you feel there’s nothing else to achieve or nowhere else to go then you’ve reached the top of your staircase and that’s it. We’re still climbing, we’re still going upwards, which is a great thing.
How do you feel the band has grown and changed over the years? Or do you feel like there’s been much change for the group?
Robb: Yes it has changed because technology has changed. The world has changed but we’re still going in the right direction, the direction we want to go in. We’re still playing, we still love it, we’re still writing, we’re still buying guitars, and doing the things that we love and love doing. We’re doing alright.
Do you stay up-to-date on what’s going on it metal or where do your musical tastes lie these days
Robb: I don’t really listen to an awful lot of new stuff, to be honest. I like what I like. I’m a bit of a closet disco queen. I love disco, always have. It’s well written about but I have quite an eclectic taste in music. I love all sorts of genres. If it’s there or someone says to have a listen, I’ll certainly listen to it. I don’t have enough time to go out and watch new bands and new stuff to be honest with you.
Is it wild to ever stop and think about how long you’ve been with Tygers?
Robb: It’s quite surreal. I’m very proud with what’s happened. I wouldn’t change anything, really. It’s been great. It’s been an amazing journey and thankfully there’s still fuel in the tank and we’re still moving forward.
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All photographs of the artist provided to Metal Plague by Robb Weir.