1. While the early career misfortune faced by Motörhead was far from encouraging, it did contribute to a key tenet of the band’s mythology: its association with the archetypal “loser.” In some ways an extension of Lemmy’s fascination with the romanticism of the outlaw, the “loser” stood for the bassist as a terminal outsider, always at the bottom of the social hierarchy, always fighting against the odds for any success he might achieve. “Born to Lose” became a veritable motto for Motörhead from its earliest days, and the loser motif would reach a sort of apotheosis for the group with their 1980 release, Ace of Spades, the symbolism of which Lemmy explained by referring to “the loser thing again. Born to lose. It just defines us really—take something as a loser as your motif then it can’t get any worse!” (Needs, “The Carnival Carnivore” 24). When British punk began its ascent to public consciousness in 1976, this predilection for losers was part of what brought Motörhead sympathy from some adherents of the music. Whereas so much heavy rock seemed enthralled with images of power and mastery, Motörhead’s outlook was tempered by something almost like humility, or at the least a sense of the ordinary that made the band seem far more grounded than many of its contemporaries.

  2. The hard-luck status of Motörhead also led the band to rely on the growing network of British independent labels to release their music for the first several years of the band’s career. Given that the motivation for such reliance was a failed deal with the established United Artists label, it is safe to say that Motörhead went to the independents more out of opportunism than principle. When Lemmy and his bandmates finally signed a deal with Sony in 1990, there was little sense of compromise, only a sense that after fifteen years the band had moved a coveted notch higher on the music industry totem pole. Nonetheless, the group’s early history of releases offers a snapshot of the function played by independent labels during the late 1970s, as well as the range of labels then working to produce new music.

  3. Assessing the state of independently released rock music in 1979, Paul Morley and Adrian Thrills made a claim for the importance of the Buzzcocks and their first self-released EP of three years previous, Spiral Scratch.
    Fig. 3. Album Cover to Buzzcocks, Spiral Scratch
    By their account, Spiral Scratch exerted a far more “practical” effect upon the shape of British rock than the more celebrated efforts of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, demonstrating not only that one could successfully promote and distribute a record through independent means, but also that “small” labels were the best vehicle for music on the leading edge of rock (23). [Listen to Buzzcocks] Challenging the nostalgia that had already grown around the punk moment of 1976, the two writers called that earlier phase a “false start,” and asserted almost dogmatically that “the true concerted, subversive revolution … happened in late ‘78, early ‘79 … and is still happening” (26). This “true” revolution involved the broadening of access to the means of musical production amongst figures who were as much involved with the passion and creativity behind the music as with the business of making records. It also involved the further demystification of the role played by record labels and their intermediaries and a diminishing belief amongst many adherents of punk that the larger corporate labels could be effectively used to further their own ends.

  4. In 1976, few associated with punk would have put forth such a stringent statement in favor of independent companies. Of course, in 1976 there were also hardly any punk records about which to be stringent, at least in England. American punk groups had not put particular stock in following an “independent” path where making records was concerned; bands such as the Dictators, Ramones, and Patti Smith may all have pursued artistic visions that highlighted their individuality, but they hoped to bring their visions into the wider marketplace with all the assistance they could gather. As has been widely noted, many of the early British punks felt similarly. Despite their often confrontational rhetoric, the Sex Pistols showed little hesitation in signing with the various labels under which they recorded, including corporate behemoth EMI.2 The Clash, meanwhile, struck a deal with CBS Records that they would be driven to defend repeatedly as the matter of releasing records independently became a more politicized matter. Indeed, it was the example of the Clash that perhaps most figured, in a negative way, into the construction of an ideological framework that cast the independent label as a linchpin of punk praxis. For many, the band’s political vision, predicated on a strong critique of the British social and economic system, suggested a path of resistance to dominant structures that was partly undermined by their willingness to work under the auspices of a large corporate concern. Members of the Clash, in turn, argued that independent labels did not have sufficient reach, and that to record for one of the smaller labels that had emerged in connection with British punk would have been to limit their audience and their message to the already converted.3

  5. While the two most prominent bands of British punk tested the prospects of working with larger, more established labels, it was left to the Damned to release the first full album associated with the genre in early 1977 on the independent Stiff. Damned Damned Damned was a raw if uneven burst of Stooges-inspired rock and roll, produced in a suitably close-to-the-bone fashion by Nick Lowe, formerly of the rootsy pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz. Seeking to get his own recording career back on track, Lowe would also become something of a house producer at Stiff, a role that would yield particular dividends in his work with another up-and-comer, Elvis Costello. Meanwhile, in the heady days of 1976 and 1977, Stiff was perhaps the most punk-identified label then running, as much due to the attitude with
    Figure 4. Album cover to The Damned,
    Damned Damned Damned
    which they went about the business of making records as due to the music they issued. Typical of the Stiff approach was an advertisement run in the May 14, 1977 issue of New Musical Express promoting a series of shows by label artists the Damned and the Adverts. “The Damned can now play three chords,” proclaimed the copy, and “the Adverts can play one”—this latter bit an obvious reference to the Adverts song, “One Chord Wonders,” then available as a single from Stiff. Readers were encouraged to “hear all four of them [chords, that is]” by catching the two bands on tour (Stiff Records). Evoking the influential injunction first carried in punk fanzine Sideburns—“This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band”—Stiff portrayed its groups’ lack of musical technique with humor but also with the conviction that this lack was an appealing feature marking punk’s departure from widely held ideas concerning the value of expertise in the sphere of rock performance (Savage, England’s Dreaming 280).

  6. Stiff was the first label to release—as opposed to record—a record by Motörhead. “White Line Fever,” backed with a cover of the Holland-Dozier-Holland song “Leaving Here,” was issued as a single in the first months of 1977. “Fever” was also included on a compilation assembled by the label, A Bunch of Stiffs, which brought the song and the band to wider notice and placed them alongside artists such as the aforementioned Costello and Lowe. Reviewed in New Musical Express by young punk scribe Tony Parsons, A Bunch of Stiffs served largely as an occasion for the writer to note changes that had taken hold at Stiff, which had recently signed a distribution deal with Island Records, thus impinging on the label’s “independent” status. When he got around to commenting on the music, Parsons found it much to his satisfaction, and praised Motörhead’s contribution as a “straight-ahead rocker … with a great Lemmy production” and lyrics that played upon the ambiguity of “white lines” as a metaphor for both drug use and for being on the road. Further consolidating their connection to the punk side of Stiff’s recording roster, Motörhead would also play a show with the Damned in April of that year, beginning a long-standing affiliation between the two groups that would at one point even involve Lemmy filling their bass position for a while (Kilmister 120).4

  7. The association between Motörhead and the Damned would far outlast that between Motörhead and Stiff; they had only signed to the label to record a single. Another British independent, Chiswick, would take up the responsibility of releasing the first Motörhead album. Not quite as squarely identified with punk as Stiff, Chiswick was nonetheless one of the pathbreaking labels of the era. Started by record collector and record shop proprietor Ted Carroll and his partner, Roger Armstrong, Chiswick was initially formed to capitalize on the momentum of the British pub rock scene, which prefigured punk in its emphasis on high-energy rock and roll and small-scale live shows meant to encourage a tight bond between performer and audience. Among the first records produced by the label was a single by the 101ers, a key pub rock group fronted by Joe Strummer, soon of the Clash. Carroll was a dedicated maverick who perceived his operation to provide a much-needed alternative to major label channels, arguing in a 1976 interview that “the first shoe-string label to score a hit will scare the shit out of the majors. You see, we’re straight off the streets and are more in touch with what’s happening than all those expense-account A&R men” (Carr 27). Such convictions may have underestimated the capacity of the major labels to co-opt the efforts of their smaller counterparts, but they contributed to the aura of Chiswick as a label that took its independence seriously. The credibility of Chiswick can be gauged from the fact that the final issue of the pivotal punk fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue, included a celebratory three-page survey of the label’s release history by the zine’s founder, Mark P (Perry).

  8. That piece found the writer acclaiming Motörhead’s eponymous album in unqualified terms: “The best 12 inch ever released and the most relevant ever released” (9), an opinion reiterated in less inflated terms by Danny Baker in the same issue: “Motorhead IS POWERFUL. Headshakig [sic] madness, heavy, loud, we all love Motorhead, don’t we” (26).5 The Motörhead album released by Chiswick was effectively a reworking of the album they had recorded for United Artists. Roger Armstrong remembered that, “Lemmy had an acetate of the album that they had made with Dave Edmunds and that UA had decided not to release. He played it for Ted and then came over to the Soho market stall and played it to me. Ted and I agreed that UA were right” (“Punk ‘77”). Feeling that neither the production nor the performances on the UA tracks properly captured the group, Carroll and Armstrong arranged for two days of studio time with producer Speedy Keen, a rock veteran who had earlier fronted Pete Townshend protégés Thunderclap Newman. Intended to produce a single, Motörhead instead tore through the backing tracks for eleven songs, and convinced Carroll that they should proceed with making a full album. The finished result largely duplicated the track listing of UA material, with three songs carried over from Lemmy’s tenure with Hawkwind, most notably the band’s namesake song.

  9. In their vitriolic overview of punk, The Boy Looked at Johnny, Tony Parsons and his partner in crime Julie Burchill devote a chapter to the connection between drugs and rock music. Towards most drugs they have a wholly dismissive attitude, but one substance draws their approval: amphetamine, or speed, “the only drug that makes you sit up and ask questions rather than lie down and lap up answers.” Speed was by their account a “useful” drug, a “threatening” drug, and above all an “essentially proletarian drug,” as was evident by the central role it had played amongst Mods in the 1960s and amongst punks a decade later (72–3). “Motorhead,” a song that Lemmy had written during the final phase of his tenure with Hawkwind and from which he had taken his new band’s name, is perhaps the ultimate rock and roll ode to speed. Indeed, the very term is “American slang for speedfreak,” as Lemmy has noted (Kilmister 99). Fittingly, it is the opening track of the Chiswick album and sets the pace for the music to come.

  10. “Motorhead” opens with six bars of Lemmy playing unaccompanied bass, a gesture he would repeat many times over the course of his band’s career. The tone of his instrument is brittle, harsh, and heavily distorted; former bandmate Bob Calvert’s observation that Lemmy “played his bass like a rhythm guitar” is here very much in evidence (Frame 25). He strikes a musical figure that centers on the key of E, the booming note of the bass’ bottom string alternating with its higher octave, which briefly gives way to a D–D-sharp–E sequence that adds a touch of tension but maintains the insistence and rapid tempo of the throbbing E. Phil Taylor’s drums enter in bar 3 as light tapping but assume greater volume and presence up to the last bit of Lemmy’s intro, at which point the two are joined by Eddie Clarke’s guitar, which follows the pattern set by the bass and fills out the sound to even greater levels of distortion. [Listen] Lemmy’s use of a distorted bass tone in tandem with Clarke’s overdriven guitar was a key to the band’s distinctive sound; to a significant degree it effaced the sonic distinction between the two instruments and heightened the overall impact of their attack, making it seem as though the band was always operating at maximum output.

  11. The verses of “Motorhead” relinquish the chromatic pattern of Lemmy’s opening bass riff for a more basic two-chord shift between D and E. Another chromatic move occurs during the bridge, however, where the bass and guitar quickly move up the neck from C to B to B flat to A beneath two lines of lyric; a third line of the bridge cuts the sequence in half, involving only C and B; this third line sets the stage for the chorus, where the presiding E is reasserted. The bridge, where the song’s harmonic structure is most unstable, is also where Lemmy’s lyrics most address the effects of the amphetamine rush. For the first bridge, he “can’t get enough/and you know it’s righteous stuff,” while in the second bridge he offers to “have another stick of gum,” a reference to the teeth-grinding that so often accompanies a dose of speed. In the final bridge, he announces that “I should be tired, but all I am is wired”—this last word shouted forth—before concluding he “ain’t felt this good for an hour.” Between verses two and three, “Fast” Eddie Clarke issues a guitar solo that eschews elaborate melodic invention in favor of pentatonic runs that remain tightly hemmed in by the song’s compressed harmonic structure. Midway through the solo, Clarke strikes his low E string and then apparently scrapes the strings of his guitar against a microphone stand, creating an effect of sheer noise that carries into the rest of the solo, which is marked by thick chord textures and double-stops that are as much rhythmic as melodic devices. [Listen] Through the combined effect of music and lyrics, “Motorhead” put forth an unrelenting torrent of sounds and verbal images that effectively captured the extreme psychic state of the song’s subject.

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Works Cited


2. Whether the Sex Pistols pursued their various deals with EMI, A&M, and Virgin out of a desire for deliberate sabotage, hoping to subvert the usual business workings of rock from the inside, remains very much a matter of interpretation. Jon Savage, author of the monumental study of punk and the Pistols, England’s Dreaming, would certainly claim as much, and did so in several articles written during the era for the British weeklies Sound ds and Melody Maker. No doubt there is some significant truth to this perspective. Malcolm McLaren’s managerial strategy was markedly confrontational, and he was able to use the publicity surrounding the band’s various dealings to bolster their image as renegades who refused to be contained by the decorum of the music industry.

3. Interviewed in 1978, for instance, Strummer asserted against critics of the band: “Listen, we want to reach a lot of people. If we’d put our own label together we’d have only reached a few hundred or maybe thousand people. What’s the good of that when you’re trying to be realistic about these things?” (Kinnersley 8).

4. Lemmy can be heard on the Damned’s cover of Sweet’s glam rock classic, “Ballroom Blitz,” which is included on the compact disc reissue of the Damned’s third album, Machine Gun Etiquette. For a review of the April 1977 show that paired the two groups, as well as the Adverts, see Savage, “Damned: A Piece of Cake.”

5. It should be noted that Mark P. concluded his Chiswick survey with a statement of despair that prefigured the demise of the zine, the editorship of which he had already abdicated: “This whole piece was an exercise in ‘how to bore the pants of [sic] you while reviewing records that you’ve probably already heard or got.’ Writing is for cunts who are scared to show their faces. … That’s why the GLUE should stop stop right now.”


Review Essay

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