Steve Waksman

Smith College

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  1. Heavy metal and punk rock are arguably the two popular music genres that most represent the paths followed by rock music after 1970. Often considered in opposition to one another, metal and punk have crossed into one another as often as they have been starkly differentiated. In the 1980s, exchange between the two genres occurred with such consistency that a “crossover” subgenre emerged that was built upon stylistic hybridization. Although metal/punk crossover is typically considered a distinctly 1980s phenomenon, bands that fused elements of the two genres were, if not plentiful, certainly in evidence in the preceding decade. Even early protopunk bands such as the New York Dolls or the Stooges can be considered to have significantly mixed generic elements in both music and the broader meanings that circulated around them, and such bands have often been accorded a place of prominence in written accounts of both metal and punk. By the mid-1970s, the period widely recognized as the moment of punk’s preeminence, a number of bands straddled the metal/punk divide even as punk was becoming defined as a more discretely bounded—and at times ideologically stringent—phenomenon. Foremost among these was the British band Motörhead, led by a refugee from the psychedelic era whose given name of Ian Kilmister had been supplanted by the single-word moniker Lemmy.

  2. Motörhead played along the fault lines of late 1970s British rock culture as did few others. The band exhibited a commitment to stripped-down rock and roll song structures that was arguably surpassed only by the Ramones, though their models were hard-edged 1950s rockabilly and R&B rather than the early 1960s pop favored by their New York counterparts.
    Figure 1. Lemmy
    Motörhead’s sound had a few more frills than the Ramones’, particularly in the guitar solo department, where the psychedelic residue of the band seemed most to reside. Even at their most ornate, Motörhead was a unit that emphasized rhythmic drive and overall sonic force above the sort of virtuosic exhibitionism that held sway in the heavy metal of the time. The band was also notable for their connection to a string of independent labels—Stiff, Chiswick, and Bronze—at a time when independent releases were beginning to assume not only logistical but also ideological importance within the value system of British punk and new wave. At first roundly dismissed by critics who were taken with the mounting punk surge of 1976, Motörhead commanded increasing attention as they drew around themselves an audience notable for its intense loyalty and its mixed character. By the end of the 1970s, the band was widely perceived to have split the difference between metal and punk both in sound and in the scope of their appeal, and they led the way towards a broader synthesis between the two genres that would take British metal into the 1980s.

  3. Generic crossover has figured very little in the relatively small scholarly literature on popular music genres.1 Most genre scholarship in popular music studies concentrates on a single genre in isolation, or else is dedicated to positing the mechanisms through which musical genres work in more broadly theoretical terms. In the midst of one such essay of the latter type, Italian scholar Franco Fabbri put forth a valuable formulation that has remained unexamined, at least in English-language research: “genres offer an extremely useful instrument for the researcher’s analysis—just as they do for the practice of the singer and the songwriter—precisely when they are tested along the boundaries and in the intersections of a misty no man’s land that exists between one genre and another” (137). In the case of heavy metal and punk, the very proximity of the two genres makes the matter of boundaries and intersections especially charged in some instances. The era of metal/punk crossover in the 1980s was immediately preceded, and to some extent accompanied by considerable animosity between fans of the two forms, particularly in the United States. As Donna Gaines described in her now-classic Teenage Wasteland: “Wherever hardcore kids and metalheads congregated, the scene became an instantly contested terrain” (200). Contestation at the level of subculture had little inhibiting effect upon the musical cross-fertilization that occurred, however; if anything, it gave such boundary crossing an added edge, an air of transgression into forbidden terrain that became part of the thrill.

  4. The 1970s saw less direct physical conflict between the two subcultural camps but there was considerable conflict at the level of discourse, especially among journalistic advocates of punk for whom heavy metal represented a bastion of old-guard tendencies in the face of punk’s vanguard momentum. For such commentators, metal’s persistence was a mystery in itself, the dimensions of which were compounded by the incursion of metal into zones demarcated as punk. Others found this occurrence less befuddling. Indeed, in the case of Motörhead, a small camp of critical voices celebrated the band precisely because they were combining generic signals and thus paving the way for a nascent crossover aesthetic that would only gain momentum over time. Significantly, one begins to find record of such attitudes as early as 1977, the year that marked the release of the first Motörhead album, and that also has been identified as the pivotal year in the growth of the punk phenomenon.

  5. Few eras have been invested with as much weight in the larger sweep of rock history as has the punk explosion that had the years 1976–77 at its epicenter. For Greil Marcus, one of the most influential commentators on punk, the occurrences of the mid- to late 1970s were equaled in significance only by the earliest stirrings of rock and roll in the mid-1950s and the impact of the Beatles in the years 1964–66. Drawing a line from Elvis Presley to the Sex Pistols in his book Lipstick Traces, Marcus posited that Presley had struck a particular balance that maintained “the negative as the principle of tension, of friction, which always gave the yes of rock ‘n’ roll its kick—and that was the history of rock ‘n’ roll, up to October 1977, when the Sex Pistols happened upon the impulse to destruction coded in the form, turned that impulse back upon the form, and blew it up” (16). Although more extreme than most, Marcus’ pronouncement is emblematic of the ways in which the rise and diffusion of punk is thought to have had a largely divisive impact upon the existing terms of rock. 1977, in this narrative of rock history, is a year that marks a clear distinction between “before” and “after,” in the wake of which rock could never quite mean the same thing as it had before. Such central elements of rock culture as the mystique of the rock and roll star, the value placed upon virtuosity in rock performance (especially as centered around the electric guitar), and the sense that the rock audience could be construed as a unified community were effectively demystified by the punk assault, which brought to rock a new degree of self-consciousness and an unprecedented impulse to reconstruct the dominant premises of the music from within.

  6. There is much that is compelling in this version of punk and its place in rock history. Yet it is ultimately too sweeping, too decisive in its acknowledgment of punk’s powers of negation. In this light, my concern with Motörhead and the interplay between metal and punk in the late 1970s has less to do with the mechanics of generic crossover and is motivated more by an observation made by Simon Frith in his book Performing Rites. Considering the relationship between musical genre and social life, Frith posits that “genre analysis must be, by aesthetic necessity, narrative analysis. It must refer to an implied community, to an implied romance, to an implied plot” (90–1). For Frith, the narrative qualities of genre are most importantly connected to matters of everyday sociability, to the sort of ordinary pleasures and person-to-person social bonds that popular music makes possible. I think his insight also has significant value for assessing the historical narratives that are constructed around popular music, and for rethinking historiographic assumptions about the music and its development. A particular conception of punk has figured prominently in the formulation of the late 1970s as a major turning point in rock history. Recasting the narrative of the punk moment as a story of metal and punk in dialogue is, in turn, a way of challenging the effects of that moment upon the subsequent development of rock and of questioning the extent to which it constituted a point of rupture in the broader rock narrative.

  7. When the first version of Motörhead was formed in 1975, Lemmy had been making his way in the British rock scene for a decade. He had joined his first band of note, the Rocking Vicars, in 1965, at the height of the British beat music phenomenon. In the years that followed, he played for a more psychedelically oriented ensemble headed by a southeast Asian figure named Sam Gopal, and had a fabled tenure working on the Jimi Hendrix road crew. During these years, his involvement with London’s drug culture deepened. Although he had an appreciation for LSD, Lemmy became one of the most visible speed users on the scene. He also became part of an extended circle of freaks occupying London’s west side, where a more hard-bitten version of the counterculture had taken root. Mick Farren, a writer and musician who headed one of the more confrontational British bands of the late 1960s, the Deviants, was another part of this circle; Farren would go on to co-write a handful of songs with Lemmy during the latter’s tenure with Hawkwind and with Motörhead. Out of the ashes of the Deviants, in turn, would arise the Pink Fairies, a band that began life as the “Pink Fairies Motorcycle Gang and Drinking Club,” dedicated by Farren’s account to “the most raucous after-hours fun we could devise” (250).

  8. In 1971, Lemmy was invited to join Hawkwind through his connection with Dikmik, a member of the band who specialized in generating unusual sound effects with a range of electronic instruments. Like Lemmy, Dikmik was into speed, and the two had bonded in their mutual affinity for sleep deprivation before Lemmy had joined the band. Previously a guitarist, Lemmy only began to play bass when he entered the Hawkwind fold, a fact that no doubt accounts for his extroverted approach to the instrument. During the next four years, Lemmy would figure prominently in Hawkwind as the group’s own fortunes rose significantly. Known as a group who would never pass up a chance to play at a free festival or underground political event, Hawkwind nonetheless carried their odd mix of science fiction lyrics, electronic effects and heavy metal textures into the British charts and also developed one of the most extravagant stage shows then running. Lemmy offers a rich description of a Hawkwind concert in his autobiography:
    Hawkwind wasn’t one of those hippie-drippy, peace-and-love outfits—we were a black nightmare! Although we had all these intense, coloured lights, the band was mostly in darkness. Above us we had a huge light show—eighteen screens showing things like melting oil, war and political scenes, odd mottoes, animation. The music would just come blaring out, with dancers writhing around onstage and Dikmik shaking up the audience with the audio generator. (81-2)
    Out of this maelstrom of sound and image, Lemmy began to attract attention as one of the band’s key personalities, which may well have contributed to his dismissal as intra-band power dynamics solidified. A 1975 profile of the bassist in New Musical Express, printed just prior to his departure from Hawkwind, presented Lemmy as a figure who dedicated his energy to personifying a stereotype of the rock and roll outlaw. Journalist Tony Tyler was dubious of Lemmy’s commitment to such an image, not because of any doubts regarding his conviction but because he deemed the image itself to be exhausted. By Tyler’s account, Lemmy regarded the street outlaw as a “Romantic Figure—and you can tell RFs by the way they dress most of all. Hence the leathers and the Iron Cross and the long lank hair and the prized relationship with the Hell’s Angels.” Sure enough, the photograph accompanying the article pictured Lemmy in said leather outfit astride a Harley Davidson that, according to Tyler, was borrowed from a friend. Such were the lengths to which Lemmy would go, said Tyler, to ensure that his image matched the romantic ideal to which he aspired.

  9. In a sense, then, Lemmy was already considered a bit of a throwback before he had ever gotten around to forming Motörhead. His initial choice of bandmates did little to dispel such notions. Although Lucas Fox was an unknown quantity, Larry Wallis was a figure bound to ensure that Lemmy remained connected to his recent past. Wallis had previously spent two years as guitarist and singer for the Pink Fairies, in which band he had replaced Paul Rudolph—who, in 1975, was to replace Lemmy as the bassist for Hawkwind.
    Figure 2. Album cover to Pink Fairies,
    Kings of Oblivion
    Such musical chairs was hardly surprising given the tight relationship between the Fairies and the ‘Wind, which was succinctly described by British rock historian Pete Frame: “During the early seventies, both Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies developed their reputations as bona-fide hippie house bands. … When the two bands played regular gigs together there was invariably a Pinkwind set … a big din session at the end of the evening bashed out by those still able to stand up!” (25). As similar as the two bands were in performance, though, the Fairies had been a tighter unit on record, at least on the sole album they had made with Wallis on hand. Kings of Oblivion was a powerhouse album of early 1970s hard rock, with few psychedelic trappings. Driven by the guitar-bass-drums trio of Wallis, Duncan Sanderson and Russell Hunter, it was closer in sound and conception to what Motörhead would become than the bulk of the music that Lemmy had recorded with Hawkwind. [Listen to Pink Fairies] One of its songs, “City Kids,” would become a key feature of Motörhead’s early playlist.

  10. As integral as Wallis was to the early sound of the band, neither he nor Fox were long for the group. The first months of Motörhead’s existence, from late 1975 into the middle of 1976, were far from auspicious. On the live front, one of their earliest gigs opening for Blue Öyster Cult drew some resoundingly negative reviews and put a stamp on the band that lingered for some time to come. Picking the band as one to watch for 1976, Sounds writer Geoff Barton, who would become one of their most vocal champions, noted that Motörhead had been tagged “worst band in the world” on the basis of that show, though he tried to make the case that the band were not in fact that bad (“Picked to Click” 5). Briefly interviewed by Barton, Lemmy offered a provocative early description of the band as “a horribly mutated cross between the music of the MC5, Hawkwind and Grand Funk Railroad.” The Michigan brand of heavy rock was clearly a significant point of reference for his ambitions with the group. Getting their mutated sound on record proved for the time a challenge. Motörhead was quickly ushered into the studio by United Artists, the label for which Hawkwind had recorded. They recorded a full album’s worth of material under two producers, changing drummers in the midst of the sessions, with Phil Taylor replacing Lucas Fox. The resulting album was a stillborn affair, though. United Artists refused to release it, and Motörhead was left to spin its wheels. Shortly thereafter, Wallis would quit the band following an audition by guitarist Eddie Clarke, who was intended to join Wallis as a second guitarist. As Lemmy recalled the event, “we carried on as a three-piece until we found Eddie Clarke … and wound up carrying on as a three-piece anyhow” (Kilmister 109).

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Works Cited



1. Of course, racial crossover has figured significantly in popular music scholarship, though less so in the scholarship on genre. Jason Toynbee does include a section on “crossover” in his analysis of genre in Making Popular Music (119-122). Even though the discussion of crossover occurs under the rubric of genre, however, Toynbee’s approach to the topic demonstrates a fundamental point: that even though racial crossover has clear generic dimensions to it, with genres coded as “white” and genres coded as “black” often coming into contact, discussion of crossover in terms of race tends to leave genre itself as a secondary consideration. Thus does Toynbee tend to concentrate on the relationship of crossover artists to racial communities, on the one hand, and patterns of racialized performance and belief on the other.


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