"We were no-holds-barred, brutally honest, straight-to-the-point fuckin' metal," former Pantera bassist Rex Brown says. "And that legacy of music needs to keep going. It needs to be there for kids who are growing up now and listening to this terrible music that's out there. They need to know about the guys who really drove metal to the edge, and also to the mainstream."
While that might sound like chest-thumping hyperbole to some, in truth, Brown's words contain not the slightest bit of exaggeration. Because for metal fans growing up in the '90s, there was no band more widely respected and admired than Pantera. Though they never achieved the household-name recognition of Metallica or Nirvana, the hell-raising Texas quartet — whose classic lineup consisted of Brown, frontman Phil Anselmo, guitarist Dimebag Darrell, and his drummer brother Vinnie Paul — left an indelible scar upon modern metal with unapologetically brutal albums like 1992's Vulgar Display of Power, 1994's Far Beyond Driven, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart (still the heaviest record to do so), and 1996's The Great Southern Trendkill. Even as the hard-rock fads of the decade came and went, bouncing from glam to grunge to industrial to rap-rock to nu-metal, Pantera steadfastly stuck to their guns, making each new album more punishing than their last.
But after 2000's Reinventing the Steel, there would be no new Pantera albums. Breakup rumors were swirling around the band for years, stoked by Anselmo's involvement with Down (which also featured Brown) and Superjoint Ritual, and his less-than-diplomatic comments about Darrell and Paul in the press. When the brothers reemerged with Damageplan in 2003, Pantera were officially laid to rest, but fans around the world still held out hope for an eventual reunion. Sadly, Darrell's shocking murder — he was gunned down onstage by a deranged former Marine in December 2004 — dashed those hopes forever.
Yet, Pantera's legacy continues to reverberate throughout heavy music. Not only is Darrell rightly revered as an innovative guitarist — "Dime will go down with Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, and Jimi Hendrix. He'll fuckin' influence kids forever," says his longtime drinking buddy, Black Label Society frontman Zakk Wylde — but there's hardly a metal band out there that hasn't been shaped by Pantera's fusion of nitro-burning riffs and hardcore-inspired vocals, and the list of musicians in every hard-rock subgenre who still worship at the Pantera altar would fill a magazine several times over.
"Pantera are as important as Metallica in the metal world," says Derek Shulman, who signed the band to Atco Records in 1989. "Probably more so, actually. They were extreme, but it wasn't play-acting extreme. That's what they were." And this is how it all began...
Vinnie Paul and little brother Darrell started playing music together when they were 14 and 12, respectively, and they both started out on drums. "I got better than him so I wouldn't let him play them," Paul recalls with a laugh. "I was literally playing from the minute I got home from school until it was too late to play them at night or the neighbors called the police plenty of times. I was crazy about the drums, in love with them, and I wouldn't let my brother get to them so he got mad and my dad got him a guitar.
"Dime wanted to be a rock and roller right out of the shoot so it drove him to do his [Kiss guitarist] Ace Frehley makeup and stand in front of his mirror — I had to walk past his room to get to mine and I would see him in there all the time. I'd be like, 'Dude, are you ever going to learn how to play that thing so we can start jamming?' One day I walked by and he said, 'You want to go jam?' I said, 'You can play that thing now?' He goes, 'Let's take a shot at it.' So we got in the room and he kicks into [Deep Purple's] 'Smoke on the Water,' and we played that riff over and over for seven, eight, nine hours, and I knew from that point on we were going to be in a band together."
The drummer recalls that his brother quickly developing a nearly all-consuming dedication to his instrument. "As much time as I spent learning to play the drums," Paul says "he spent that much time and then some on the guitar. I never skipped school to play drums. He skipped school all the time to play guitar, man."
It was at James Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas, that Paul met Rex Brown in 1980. "I used to sit behind Vinnie in algebra class," the bassist remembers. "We were in jazz band together. I played bass, and he was the drummer."
"We'd be fucking up because it was old jazzy music, not where our heads were at, you know," Paul recalls. "So Rex wanted to jam — we'd get out of class, we'd jam, or we'd get there early and do some Rush tunes and stuff like that. Then the band director would come in and tell us, 'Nah, that's all wrong! You can't do this, you can't do that.'"
Paul's dad, Jerry, owned a local recording studio called Pantego Sound, where he and Darrell could usually be found after school. "Darrell was just learning how to play three chords when I met him," Brown recalls. "And one summer — I think it was when [Ozzy Osbourne's] Diary of a Madman came out — he literally sat in his room all summer long, and that was it. It just came that quick in three months!"
The Abbotts already had a very early version of Pantera going, and Brown would often stop by Pantego Sound to borrow their P.A. system for his own band. "I was in 11th grade about this time," Brown says. "They weren't having any luck with their bass player, and they called me one night — I was baked with a bunch of friends — and they said, 'Come to the studio. We want you to play on these original songs.' So I came in half-blazed, played everything. They dug it and asked me if I wanted to join the band."
"At the time, me and Dime were all super, super straight-laced," Paul says. "Everything was focused on music. I remember the first rehearsal that Rex ever came to, he brought a 12-pack of fucking beer, and I looked at Dime and said, 'There goes the fucking band, man. It's fucking over now — everybody's getting fucking drunk.' But Rex just sounded so good on the bass, man. He fit right in, and we kind of went from there — then we all developed drinking problems."
And so it was that Pantera were unleashed upon the world, or at least the greater Dallas–Fort Worth area. Fronted by schoolmate Terry Glaze, a lead singer in the David Lee Roth mold, the quartet began to build up a following at local clubs like the Arlington Metal Shop, the Rock Haven, and Dallas City Limits. "When we started out, we were a fantastic cover band — we could play any cover tune in the world — but my dad would always just tell us, 'Yeah, you can be a cover band if getting to go play the local nightclub is the fucking goal.' But we'll never make it to that Judas Priest level, that real band level. My dad used to always tell us, 'Look guys, you're never going anywhere until you learn to write your own songs.' So that was really a big moment in our career at the time, for him to tell us that, so we started really focusing on writing our own songs and putting out our own independent records and stuff. A lot of bands do their growing up on demo tapes, and we did our growing up on our own independent records."
To say that Pantera's first three albums — 1983's Metal Magic, 1984's Projects in the Jungle, and 1985's I Am the Night — were remarkable mostly for their hilariously awful cover art would be true, but it would also miss the point. Pressed up on Pantera's own Metal Magic label and sold mostly at gigs, the records gave the band crucial studio experience and allowed them to get their mistakes out of the way before they hit the big leagues. If the material (which leaned heavily upon hair-metal clichés) wasn't exactly top-shelf, "Diamond Darrell" (as he billed himself in those days) had obviously already developed into a formidable lead guitarist. But though they sent hundreds of copies of these LPs and cassettes to major-label reps, no one wanted to hear about Pantera. In those days, Hollywood was the reigning capital of metal, and Texas might as well have been halfway around the world. Discouraged by the lack of label interest, Glaze left the band in 1988 to go back to college.
"With Terry, it had its heavy moments, but he always wanted to be like a David Lee Roth kind of a pop fucking metal dude," Paul says. "It was cool, but it was also, at a time, when that was kind of on its way out. Me and Dime wanted it to be heavy, but when we started doing the covers of Metallica and Slayer and stuff, Terry didn't want to sing them. He'd just leave the stage. Dime would sing them, and we'd do it as a three-piece and just fucking crush.
"Dime was really, really into the crunching guitars like Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax, all that good stuff, Megadeth even. We saw Metallica and Raven at Harvey Hall in Tyler, Texas, and there was 30 people there, maybe. That was amazing. That was the first time we ever met James [Hetfield] or Lars [Ulrich] — we hung out with them, they came back to the house, and we got to be really good friends. From that point on, it was game on, just fucking balls-out heavier."
"So Terry quit, and we looked for singers for about six months," Brown recalls. Pantera continued to play shows with a variety of vocalists they were trying out.
Hailing from the New Orleans area, Phil Anselmo had been paying his dues on the same Texas-Louisiana club circuit as Pantera. Though he'd done time as the singer for a glam band called Razor White, he was into heavier stuff like Venom and Slayer, as well as hardcore punk. "Punk rock was never really my forte," Anselmo says, "but when hardcore came in, that's where it caught my ear. My influences as a singer ranged from Roger Miret of Agnostic Front to Henry Rollins, of course, and Rob Halford of Judas Priest."
"We used to play this spot in Shreveport, Louisiana, called the Circle and The Square," Paul recalls. "We had a huge following there until we changed singers. You know, we still had a lot of people come to see us, supporting us, but it wasn't the same. They would always tell us, 'There's this band that plays here called Razor White and they got this singer named Phil, man, and he'd be perfect for you guys!' We'd go away for a couple of weeks and his band would play there and the same people would go up to him and say, 'Man, there's this fucking band called Pantera. They're awesome, they need a singer, man. You got to check them out.' So I had gotten his phone number from somebody, called the dude up on the phone, was talking to him and he just had a ton of charisma, sounded amazing. I felt like I was talking to [Kiss'] Paul Stanley. We hit it off great right out of the shoot. So about four, five days later, we flew him to Texas from New Orleans. He came in and did an audition. We jammed with him for about an hour and a half — it was like we had been in a band together for five years. All the cool songs he wanted to play in his band, they wouldn't let him play because they were kind of a glammy band, and all the songs we wanted to play that we couldn't play with Terry, we could play with him like an Anthrax tune or whatever. He never even went back home — he had his shit flown out here to Texas and that's how it got started."
"I think the original frontman, Terry Glaze, was really fucking good at what he did," Anselmo says. "Excellent voice, excellent pitch for what the style was at the time. I had heard I Am the Night, Projects in the Jungle. And when Terry Glaze was in the band, they had a fucking rabid fan base, packed house every night fucking thing. For them to lose that, which they did after Terry left, that had to feel pretty rough. But that's why it felt even better, even for me, when we rebuilt that whole fucking fan base."
The first step in that rebuilding process was Pantera's debut album with Anselmo: 1988's Power Metal. Though much of the record's material had been penned before Glaze left, it marked a substantial leap forward in sound and style from their previous efforts — though there was still considerable room left for the band to grow. "To say I'm proud of it, no, I'm not," Anselmo admits, looking back on Power Metal. "But to say that we as a band were still trying discover who the fuck we were and what we could do, that's very evident. I did the best I could, and I think the songs were heavier overall, more attacking."
It was shortly after the release of the album that Darrell found himself at what would prove to be a crossroad in metal history. Megadeth had split with guitarist Jeff Young, and bandleader Dave Mustaine offered the job to the young Pantera shredder. Paul remembers the day when his brother came to him and broke the news. "He said, 'Look, man, Megadeth called me up and offered me the fucking world,'" the drummer recalls. "'They offered me health insurance, they offered me a Nike endorsement, they offered me a paycheck all this shit I don't have.' Dime thought about it and, well, apparently he told them, 'You either get me and my brother or don't get me at all.' It could have been a pretty cool thing for him but I'm glad my brother stuck to his guns, and we all had a meeting after that and we said, 'All right, here it is. It's a big fucking deal. Let's make it count. Let's do a whole new direction, let's write the best songs, and let's fucking kill it.' And we just said, 'You know what? These fancy clothes, the spiked-up hair, none of this shit is making music, we are. This shit is bullshit, let's get rid of it. Let's just go fucking balls out and see what happens.' We wrote "Cowboys From Hell," "Psycho Holiday," and "The Art of Shredding" all in one weekend after that. From that point on, it had become a new band. It became more focused and more intense. When those demos started going around to people, people started getting excited. Things happen for a reason."
One of the people who ended up with a copy of the demos was Derek Shulman, an A&R man from PolyGram whose previous signings included Bon Jovi. "I was very, very impressed with Pantera, but it was towards the last year of my tenure at Polygram, and I knew I would be moving on," Shulman says. "But I was very intrigued, and almost immediately after I made the move to Atco, I called their attorney. I said, 'This band Pantera — are they still unsigned?' And he said, 'Yeah, they're still unsigned, and no one's interested because it's not pop or melodic rock.' I said, 'Well, I'd love to see them.'"
In September 1989, an A&R scout Mark Ross, who worked under Shulman, was flying to North Carolina to meet with a band the label had just signed called Tangier. That's when nature stepped in to offer Pantera a helping hand: Hurricane Hugo swept through and Ross' plane was forced to land in Dallas. "So Mark called up Derek and said, 'Hey, I'm stuck here. I can't go to North Carolina. Are there any bands you want me to see?'" Paul tells the now legendary tale. "And Derek says, 'Well, I've been following this band called Pantera. Why don't you see if they're any good live?' The only gig that Pantera had booked that night was a girl's birthday party at a local Mexican restaurant.
"Word had it that this guy Mark Ross was coming out from Atco Records. I didn't know if he was even there," Anselmo recalls. "It was a party show, man. We weren't even really taking shit seriously. And to add to the ridiculousness of it, there were only about 40 people there. We were set up in the corner on this slick dance floor. The girl had her cake, it was smashed all over the floor and there's icing all over, so it's slippery as shit. We were scared to take a step 'cause we thought we were gonna slip and break our necks. At the end of the night I remember Dimebag saying some shit like, 'I don't even think that motherfucker showed up.'"
But Ross had shown up, and just four songs in, he had stepped out of the restaurant to call Shulman. "He said, 'This band — I've never seen anything like this! You've gotta fly down here!'" Shulman recalls. "I flew down the next week to Texas and saw them play in a little club outside of Dallas, and they were the best live band I'd ever seen in my life. Phil was an absolute superstar, and I became an immediate fan." Within weeks, Pantera had inked a deal with Atco — but not before, in what would prove to be typical form, they got into some trouble.
"The New Years Eve before we were signed fell on a Saturday night," Anselmo remembers. "We played on a Friday and after the gig we went to a friend of ours. I walked straight into the bedroom and there was a Marshall half stack there. And I just turned that motherfucker on and started playing on 10. The people next door were sound asleep. They freaked out. Next thing you know, the place is crawling with cops. So I turn around and Darrell and Vinnie are in the parking lot and they're down on the ground. I was upstairs in the apartment and this cop told me to stay put or I was going to jail. Then I look outside and I see this fucking cop whip out a steel baton, make a run at Darrell and start beating on him. Well, I fuckin' tore my ass down the steps and I can't go into detail, but me and Dimebag spent the night in jail."
It may not have been the most pleasant way to ring out 1989 and ring in 1990, but it was a fitting show of loyalty and anti-authoritarianism that set the stage for Pantera's revolutionary next chapter. This wasn't just the band that had won over the local Texas circuit, anymore; this was a band ready to take on the world. This was the Cowboys From Hell.