At the forefront of the 80’s heavy metal movement and in the heyday of mainstream metal hair bands there stood one that broke the mold.
Hellion was one of the first and only bands of the time formed and fronted by a woman. Her name is Ann Boleyn.
Fans of Hellion will tell you that the novelty of a woman at the mic wasn't what made the band one of the best metal bands to come out of the era. What set Hellion apart was a layered sound of emotional depth and fury fused together by the unearthly vocals of Boleyn and thematic guitar by the likes of Alan Barlam and Chet Thompson.
Now, Boleyn is resurrecting Hellion with new material, reissues and new shows. For the legions of Hellion followers, it's a gift. For a new generation of heavy metal fans, it's a revelation.
I recently spoke with Boleyn about her past, Hellion's present and the future of both...
Q: Before we get into your legendary career and the new Hellion CD, what was life like for you growing up?
Ann Boleyn: I was born in Seattle, Washington and I grew up in a small town just north of Portland, Oregon. And I'll tell you this – things were a lot different when I went through high school than they are now, that's for absolutely sure.
I had a radio show at the local college and I got kicked off the air and banished forever for playing music from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Alice Cooper, and David Bowie because (quote-unquote) "They were gay." So, things have changed quite a bit.
But at that time I was discovering bands like Alice Cooper and Deep Purple. In fact, Deep Purple had a huge influence on me. When I was in high school I won a national contest with the 4H Club and got to go to Chicago. During that time I had the chance to see Deep Purple live along with the opening band Elf, which was Ronnie James Dio's band.
Q: Being influenced by such heavy bands, why did you choose to play keyboards?
AB: I took piano lessons when I was real little. And you know… I hated it. (Laughs)
But by the time I was in junior high, I had some kind of knowledge of the keyboards. In my very early years I played keyboards and bass.
I was a pretty lousy bass player. But the band I was in couldn't find a bass player in our small town and it was more important to have a bass than keyboards, so that's what I did. I must have been 13 or 14 years old.
Q: Do you remember the first time you told your parents you wanted to be a professional musician and their reaction?
AB: My parents were very old school, as were my grandparents who went through the Great Depression and were a big influence on my life. So for them it was very important for me to have a college education and to pursue a normal job that would give me benefits and things like that.
So they were very, very much opposed to me being a musician. They were all pretty horrified.
They didn't want to face the fact that it was serious until the last part of my senior year in high school. By that time, Tommy Bolin (Deep Purple, The James Gang) had invited me to play in a band that he was trying to reform called Zephyr and he wanted to include a few female musicians.
When my parents found out about it, they just lost it. Going out on the road as a 14- or 15-year old and playing clubs with 20-year old guys was just not acceptable.
Q: So, you basically had no support from your family?
AB: Not at all. But in my small town, nothing really good happened too often and I thought, 'What am I doing here? I'm wasting my life.'
Then in the last part of my senior year, I got a call to go audition with The Runaways. And while I didn't end up being in the band, that’s what brought me to Los Angeles.
The Runaways producer and manager Kim Fowley paid for me to come down to L.A. and that's when my parents started taking things seriously. But at that point, I didn't care whether or not it was acceptable to mainstream society to be in a rock band. This is what I wanted to do.
Q: A lot of kids will be surprised to know that you actually coined the phrase 'Speed Metal.' How did that come about?
AB: When I first came to California, like I said I knew Tommy Bolin and I would drive him around to radio station interviews and rehearsals and things like that because he didn't drive.
In doing so I ended up meeting people at KROQ, which was pretty much free form radio at the time. And I ended up getting a job offer and working there.
I did the midnight to 6 a.m. show for awhile. And since it was free form, I played whatever I wanted and that was usually Judas Priest, Deep Purple, Rush – a lot of fast music.
One day Larry Woodside, who was the morning DJ at the time, came in before I ended my show and said, "I almost got a speeding ticket driving here listening to your show. I guess you're playing speed metal."
Then it just became a joke. I had the 'speed metal show' and then it somehow became Speed Metal Hell. Then I started making a series of early heavy metal music compilation albums, I named them Speed Metal Hell Volume One and then Volume Two, etc.
Q: You were also playing in heavy rock bands at the time. Did you realize how daunting it was going to be treading into such a macho landscape, or were you naive to the difficulties?
AB: I don't know because from the very early time of my playing I knew people like Tommy Bolin, who thought it would be great to have a female in a band. Zephyr had a female singer and even in Tommy's other bands he had a female saxophone player. So there were people who didn't really care as long as you were a good musician.
And there were a number of bands that I played keyboards in for a time and it was great. I did some work with a band produced by Yngwie Malmsteen, for instance.
But going through the heavy rock genre was different. There was a time when I was being considered for the job of keyboard player in Rainbow based purely on my playing (this was after Ronnie James Dio had left). But as soon as they found out I was female, I wasn't even allowed to do the audition. So things like that that started happening.
What usually happened was I'd get in a band and it would be great in the beginning. Then this jealousy would take place between the male lead singer (which there always was) and myself. Because typically the male lead singer and the male guitar player would get the media attention, but then they’d see me and ask, "Hey, what about her?"
I was thrown out of a lot of different bands, not because of my keyboard playing but because they just didn't like having a female in the band.
Q: How did Hellion come about?
AB: When I started Hellion I was just sick and tired of starting in good bands and then having a conflict arise with the singer not wanting to be in a band with a female or developing "LSD", which we'd call the Lead Singer Disease. (Laughs)
That's usually what would happen so we started Hellion.
Q: How did you discover your unique sound?
AB: My favorite singers were always Ian Gillan and David Coverdale – these people with huge voices. And when we started doing cover tunes, which is how Hellion started out, it sounded ridiculous for me to try to imitate David Coverdale. I was okay doing songs by bands like Rush, The Scorpions, and Dio-era Black Sabbath.
But there were no female singers that I could relate to or be influenced by other than maybe the really old ones like Janis Joplin or Aretha Franklin.
So we made it up as we went along and figured out what kind of songs worked well for my voice and that's what we did. We were learning the craft.
Q: With so many people against you being in a metal band, did you ever doubt yourself?
AB: Absolutely not. I'm a very strong willed person and when I heard "You can't do it" over and over again, it just made me want to do it even more.
There were periods years later when I would think about how I've worked with greats like Ronnie James Dio and Ken Scott producing me and Hellion still didn't get a record deal. And I'd think, 'I must really suck.' (Laughs)
I told myself that for a long time, even through recording Screams in the Night and The Black Book and all those records. The thought of why things weren't happening for us despite working with these great people must be because of me – that was always in the back of my mind.
When I was back in the studio with Ken Scott recently, I talked to him about this and he said he wasn't even sure the demos we recorded back then were ever even shopped.
I heard the same thing from a number of people who worked at Geffen and Capitol who were sure the demos were never shopped to them because they were in positions where they would have known about it.
I spent literally decades thinking I must suck, so to know years later after talking to Ken Scott and a few other people, I came to realize – Wow, maybe the band really didn't have the chance I thought they had.
Q: That’s so discouraging. But it kind of makes sense as to why Hellion never reached the mainstream in the states because you didn't have the backing or support.
AB: We didn't. What we were all told was that the major record companies just weren't interested in a band like Hellion unless we got a male singer or I toned down my act and we weren't so heavy.
Q: Sometimes all it takes is one person to believe in us. Who was the one person in your life who said to you "I believe in you. You can do this."
AB: That would have to be Ronnie James Dio. I wrote a very detailed diary during the early days of Hellion. And as I was going through the old demo tapes to put in the Hellion anthology I found those diaries.
It’s so interesting to go back and see the things I wrote down. Just the advice he gave to me about the band and taking charge of the band and that kind of stuff. It's just fascinating to look back on all the words of wisdom that he gave me.
Q: Do you think you'll write a book and maybe include some of those things?
AB: Well, of course I did write a book to go along with the release The Black Book which was supposed to have been published back in 1989. We're hoping to get that thing out when we rerelease The Black Book later this year or early next year.
But at some point, I do intend to write an autobiography and I have other plans for some other books as well. I really enjoy writing and all that is definitely in the works.
Q: Speaking of The Black Book, both that as well as Screams in the Night (one of my all-time favorite metal records, by the way) still stands the test of time. They both sound fresh and new in many ways. What do you attribute that to?
AB: Thank you. I attribute a lot of that to something I learned from Ronnie James Dio.
When I was in the studio for the very first time, he said to me, "When you write music, you need to write thinking about a person or certain people or situations that really happened because you're going to be singing this music for decades. If you're just writing about something that's purely fictional and has no relevance in your own life, it’s not going to come across real and it’s also not going to be something you’ll be willing to sing for decades."
And I learned from that. For example, Screams in the Night was about the time I was kicked out of my own band in 1985 and they continued on with a new lineup. So I stayed to fight, now there's screams in the night. (Smiles)
And when I perform that song even now, I can reach back into that emotion and the song is still very passionate for me. So, that's great advice to make sure there's a certain passion that you put into your music and if it's real, it's still going to be meaningful later.
Q: What prompted you to bring Hellion back now along with a new CD and tour?
AB: I initially thought about just releasing a single. We even toyed with using a different name or maybe just using my name. But it just makes the most sense to use Hellion because that's what I've always been known for. It’s much easier to go with a name that's already established, particularly in Europe.
Then instead of just releasing a single, I thought it would be a good idea to give the fans a few new things and also put out some favorite material from the past.
I really wanted to give them a good value for their dollar. And there would be a real motivation for fans to pick up the whole CD, rather than just downloading a bunch of old stuff off YouTube. So that's how that came about.
Q: Tell us about this new incarnation of Hellion.
AB: We've changed lineups over the years like a lot of bands, but I'm very fortunate to have a great lineup of people recording with me. We have Scott Warren (Dio, Heaven & Hell) on keyboards, Simon Wright (AC/DC, Dio, Queensryche) on drums, a wonderful guitar player named Maxxxwell Carlisle, and bassist Bjon Englen (Yngwie Malmsteen, Dio Disciples). To me it's the best lineup I've ever had of any group I've ever worked with. It's an honor.
Q: What can we expect from Hellion in the next few years?
AB: We signed a record deal with Cherry Red and we're planning on doing three releases per year, which is pretty tough, but we've got the back catalog to throw in some reissues too.
The next release is going to be an EP or mini-LP, however you want to call it. It's titled Karma's a Bitch and that will come out later this summer. And after that comes out we'll be doing some touring. Our plan is to go out and do a bunch of shows in Europe and throughout the United States.
Then, we'll follow that up with either a release of The Black Book or Screams in the Night with added content.
Q: Hope you guys do some L.A. shows.
AB: I'm sure we will.
Q: At the Grammy Awards this year the nominees for Best Metal Performance were Black Sabbath, Anthrax, Dream Theater, Killswitch Engage, and Volbeat featuring King Diamond. All bands or musicians that have been around awhile. What does that tell you about the state of metal today?
AB: Well, metal is something that often takes a long period of time before people accept it. King Diamond is a classic example of this. I've loved Mercyful Fate since the start. People either love his voice or hate it. But I think more people now are accepting of his voice 30 years later than they were when he first came out. And that's just one example.
Black Sabbath absolutely deserve everything they get. Ultimately as far as I'm concerned, the purpose of most award shows is to sell products. It's about advertisers and let's just say, there's a lot of things that go on behind the scenes.
Q: I think a lot of people would agree with you on that. When it's all said and done, what would you like the legacy of Ann Boleyn to be?
AB: Oh, I don't know – That I was a decent human being, that I always tried to be the best human being I could be and that I always gave everything my best. I think those are the things that matter most.
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