It looked like Anthrax were at the top of their game when they finished touring for their debut album Fistful of Metal and prepared to write their second record, which was scheduled to be released through a joint deal with Island Records. But while they were soon to hit a pivotal point in their career, the creation of Spreading the Disease — which came out Oct. 30, 1985 — it didn’t come without running over some major bumps in the road.
As soon as Anthrax finished touring for Fistful, the band fired vocalist Neil Turbin. They had already written a batch of new songs are were getting ready to work on them with their planned new vocalist Matt Fallon, who used to sing in the band Steel Fortune (which also featured future Skid Row guitarist Dave Sabo).
The band entered Pyramid Sound Studios in Ithaca, N.Y., and recorded drums, guitars and bass for most of the songs. But Fallon wasn’t up to the task. While he sounded fine onstage, he lacked confidence and discipline in the studio and no matter how hard Anthrax tried, they were unable to get him to deliver decent vocal takes. So Anthrax put Fallon on a bus and sent him home.
Once again, Anthrax were in a tough situation without a singer. “We were so desperate, we were actually entertaining the idea of becoming a four-piece,” guitarist Scott Ian says. “Like KISS, we’d have two singers. Frankie [Bello] would be Paul [Stanley] and I would be Gene [Simmons], because Frankie had a clean singing voice and I could do a hardcore kind of thing. We’d split up the songs, and that was literally our plan B, because we didn’t know what we were going to do, and we couldn’t sit on it much longer. Nobody was thrilled with that idea. Mostly me and Frankie were not thrilled with it, but we figured If this is what we have to do to finish the record than let’s do it.”
As interesting as Spreading the Disease might have sounded with Ian and Bello on vocals, the band’s producer Carl Canedy, who was in the Rods, suggested Anthrax track down a local singer named Joey who had long curly hair and sang in a band called Bible Black, which used to play shows in Upstate New York. Not long after, Canedy located Joey Belladonna in Plattsburgh, N.Y., playing in a cover band. A quick phone call later and Belladonna agreed to try out for Anthrax even though he had never heard of them and didn’t know anything about thrash metal.
“He showed up wearing these really, really tight jeans, these boots — I can’t even explain — just s–tty poseur leather boots,” Ian says. “I think even one of them had a chain on it, and he had an animal print shirt that was cut a little too short, no sleeves, very poseur-ish. I’m looking at his clothes with my jaw open, standing there in an Agnostic Front t-shirt and my ripped Levis with suspenders hanging down and Doc Martens on. I thought to myself, ‘What the f— have we gotten ourselves into here?’”
Since there was a microphone set up and since Belladonna showed for the audition, the band asked him to sing something. He auditioned with songs by Journey, Foreigner and Deep Purple. While Anthrax didn’t vibe with his choice of audition material they could tell Belladonna had magical pipes.
“Instantly, Carl was like, ‘That’s your golden ticket right there,’” Ian says. ‘”Listen to that guy’s voice. You guys will be unlike any other band out there. This is going to put you miles ahead of anybody.’”
Anthrax offered Belladonna the singing position, but before they brought him into the vocal booth they trained him on the ins and outs of thrash metal. They played him their old music, taught him their old songs and booked a short string of dates for him to perform at and catch the vibe of the live Anthrax experience.
“He said, ‘I’ve never seen a band like you guys. I don’t know this scene,’” Ian recalls. “So we said, ‘Okay, well the best way to learn it is to immerse yourself in it. So we’re going to do these shows and you can feel what is going on out there for this music, and then you’re going to come back and then you’re going to sing the album, because you’ll have experienced it, and you’re really going to have it in your gut.’”
The strategy worked. Belladonna was swept away by the energy of the crowds and returned to Ithaca with a new energy and hunger. But most of the music for Spreading The Disease was so fast he didn’t know exactly how to phrase the vocals or fit them between the riffs. So Ian worked closely with Belladonna and went over the vocal melodies for the new songs line for line until he could perfectly repeat them. Then they gave him some creative liberties to embellish the vocals as he saw fit.
“It was great to see Joey make those songs his own,” Ian says. “The only problem was that we were taking so long because we were literally starting from scratch and we were costing our label a fortune, going more and more over budget by the day.”
The last track Anthrax recorded for Spreading the Disease was album opener “A.I.R.,” the only song they wrote after Belladonna joined. Just as the singer was wrapping up his vocals for the record, Charlie Benante started messing around with a guitar and came up with the riffs for “A.I.R.” Convinced he was on to something, he played it for Ian and Bello, who immediately latched onto the Metallica-inspired opening and rapid-fire main guitar rhythm. It was the thrashiest song on an album, which already featured skullcrushers like “Armed and Dangerous,” “Aftershock” and “Gung-Ho,” and it set the stage for the band’s next creative leap.
“It was such an important song at the time,” Ian says. “It was super-heavy, it had this vibe and it kind of showed us where we wanted to go, and foreshadowed what we did on Among the Living. We loved it.”
In 2015, Anthrax released a special deluxe edition of ‘Spreading the Disease’ in honor of its 30th anniversary.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends, co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.