1. Reviewing Motörhead in Sounds, Pete Makowski not only raved but laid down the gauntlet in assessing the album’s significance. Calling the album “vinyl’s answer to the neutron bomb,” he further asserted that “THIS IS THE REAL THING,” a distillation of riffs and volume with no melodic subtleties or keyboards to get in the way. He continued: “Stripped away of all the frills, the band have that stance that people like Rotten are always talking about. Let’s face it, you couldn’t see Lemmy sitting behind a desk working regular hours, this guy’s a natural road clone.” This suggestion that Motörhead significantly overlapped with the punk phenomenon carried into a subsequent features on the band. Geoff Barton, whose penchant for heavy metal would figure prominently in reviving the genre’s fortunes later on, considered Motörhead primarily a representative of that genre. After all, not only did they have a pronounced affinity for volume and distortion, but the band’s members all sported long hair, leather and denim, clear stylistic markers of the metal crowd. “So howcum,” he asked, “they have a strong, fashion-conscious punk following?” (“Motörhead”).

  2. The motley nature of Motörhead’s audience also caught the attention of Kris Needs, the Zig Zag editor who had turned the long-running zine’s attention away from the 1960s and towards the new wave. In the first of several profiles he would write on the band, Needs observed that “it isn’t really COOL to like Motörhead … They ain’t Punk Rockers (Roxy stance definition) … I s’pose if Heavy Metal Rock’s got a definition Motörhead play it—how it should be played (at head-bangin’ overkill level)” (“Motörhead” 20).6 For Needs, then, Motörhead was a quintessential heavy metal unit; like Makowski he is drawn to the way the band strips the genre down to its basic elements and plays those elements for all they’re worth. But like Barton, his perception slightly shifts when confronted with the composition of the group’s audience, which he terms a “veritable crossover.” Interviewed by Needs, Lemmy confirmed this sense that the band drew an unusually broad assortment of types to their shows: “We get everyone, disillusioned Hawkwind people in plimsolls [sic] and greatcoats, a few punks, … it’s good you know. If somebody gets off I don’t care if he’s got a bald head and a bolt going through it” (21). Needs, in turn, affirmed Lemmy’s acceptance of stylistic heterogeneity, noting his own weariness with “punk gigs where everyone has to wear their little uniform and you get frowned on cos you ain’t got one too” (21). Writing in late 1977, at a time when punk style had become more rigorously codified in England than it had been at its inception, Needs viewed Motörhead as an antidote to the musical partisanship that seemed to have taken hold over the scene. They were a crossover, a band whose own stylistic premises were more open than most.

  3. Which is not to say that Motörhead was open to all comers. For one thing, Lemmy had in common with some involved in the punk scene one of the less savory qualities: an affinity for the swastika and other emblems of the Third Reich. Many interpretations have been offered for the punk appropriation of these symbols. In his now-classic analysis of punk, Subculture, Dick Hebdige argued that the swastika was “worn because it was guaranteed to shock,” further claiming that it “had been wilfully detached from the concept (Nazism) it conventionally signified” and used to “deceive” an uncomprehending public about the motives of the wearer (116–17). Updating Hebdige’s analysis, Jon Savage goes further in situating punk uses of the swastika within the divided racial politics of punk, which contained both racist and anti-racist factions, and also makes more of the symbol’s utility in questioning the innocence of England in the rise of fascism (England’s Dreaming 241–3).

  4. How applicable these arguments might be to Lemmy is difficult to determine. His own affinity for the symbol was more than likely stimulated at least in part by its prevalence within the biker subculture that long preceded punk, where it was used as a marker of outsider status that also bespoke a fascination with the iconography of power. In his autobiography, he attributes it more to his fascination with World War II and its effects, which perhaps due to his age (he was born at the end of 1945) he perceived with an immediacy lacking in his younger counterparts (Kilmister 220). Interviewed by Chris Salewicz in New Musical Express, Lemmy spoke critically of the neo-fascist National Front and claimed that his display of Third Reich symbols was meant as a joke, adding that “if there were Nazis around today I’d be in the concentration camp immediately” (19). Yet there remained something unsettling about his stubborn insistence to continue sporting such emblems at a time when racism was very much on the rise in British political life. Like many of the punks who gravitated towards the swastika, Lemmy may well not have intended to convey racist beliefs. If he meant his use of it to be a joke, though, he had to have been either naive or insensitive to the fact that for many it was no laughing matter.

  5. Ultimately more salient to Motörhead’s importance was another feature as likely to aggravate as to attract: the band’s aggressive use of noise, in the form of volume and distortion, the effects of which were heightened by the quickened tempos at which the band played. Anyone who has paid attention to the genres of heavy metal or punk knows how much both rely upon forms of sonic disturbance and how often that reliance has made them subject to bitter criticism for their deviation from certain received standards of “good music.”7 As generalized as these tendencies have been, Motörhead was a band uniquely subject to either devotion or derision on the basis of the noise they generated. Reviewing one of the group’s concerts in late 1977, Paul Sutcliffe captured something of the way in which excessive volume in particular figured into the band’s impact. Sutcliffe himself was overwhelmed by the sound of Motörhead to the point of discomfort. When the band began its set his first response was that “it was very loud;” and as the set progressed he noted that the they continued to get louder with each song, to the point where he judged the band “as loud as the First World War if they’d crammed the whole thing together and held it in a telephone booth. In fact,” he finally had to admit, “IT WAS TOO BLEEDIN’ LOUD!” For Sutcliffe, the volume obliterated all other features of the band’s music. Yet what he found truly confounding about the experience was the response of the audience, members of which routinely complained aloud that the music wasn’t loud enough, prompting Lemmy and company to continually increase the volume. Concluding his review, Sutcliffe stated his admiration for Lemmy’s “unpretentious” onstage manner and for the band’s capacity to energize a crowd, but was left to observe that “the vibe between Motörhead and their audience is all about being loud to the point where you wonder whether hearing aids just became this week’s chic.”

  6. Similar perspectives on Motörhead were to surface repeatedly over the years, though the value attached to the band’s preoccupation with volume above all would fluctuate considerably from one commentator to the next. Representative of the negative side was Deanne Pearson’s 1979 review of a Motörhead show, in which she described the band as “three heavies who pulverise their instruments with the volume full-up trying to disguise that they’re … regurgitating meaningless, empty guitar hammering and drum-bashing.” Meanwhile, reviewing a show some months earlier, in late 1978, Neil Norman assessed Motörhead with an ambivalence more in keeping with the views of Paul Sutcliffe. For Norman, a Motörhead concert was a sort of showdown between what he termed “Everypunter” and the band, who shared a penchant for long hair and denim but were separated by the latter’s capacity for using decibels to devastating effect. Breaking into their namesake song was termed a “below the belt” gesture for the critic, who observed that “After that there is no contest. The audience, which has doubled by now is quickly brought to its knees and finally stomped over.” Such sonic excess was clearly not to Norman’s taste, but he is moved to acknowledge a grudging respect for the band’s approach: “Nothing can stop them and for that at least I admire them. Dinosaurs they may be, but right now they’re unique, they know it and they’re not going to go away.” The musical extremes that Motörhead pursued were for Norman thus representative of the band’s tenaciousness; almost like cockroaches, they were built to weather whatever resistance they faced from critics or audiences and to continue playing as loudly as possible.

  7. Volume was no doubt the main musical reason that Motörhead was so readily classified as heavy metal. One might recall Robert Duncan’s claims regarding the “loudestness” of metal as a core defining feature of the genre (39), claims upon which Robert Walser has expanded to illuminating effect. Walser’s discussion of volume in connection with metal also can help to shed light on why Motörhead’s use of volume went a bit against the grain of the genre’s conventions as they existed in the 1970s and might have aligned the band with certain features of punk. According to Walser, “loudness mediates between the power enacted by the music and the listener’s experience of power … the music is felt within as much as without, and the body is seemingly hailed directly”(45). Such a characterization goes some way towards explaining how volume worked to seal the bond between Motörhead and its audience, for whom the band’s willingness to continually “turn it up” conveyed their commitment to a particularly extreme sort of rock and roll experience.

  8. Walser also notes that metal uses of amplification often rely not only on volume as such but volume in association with other sonic qualities such as echo and reverb that create a sense of expanding aural space, “making the music’s power seem to extend infinitely” (45). On this point, Motörhead deviated from the practice established by such bands as Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, the latter of whom were roughly contemporary with the band. Not that Motörhead never supplemented their sound with echo or reverb. But the pace of their music, the rapid tempos that forged well ahead of those pursued by the metal bands of the era, inhibited the sense of vastness in their sound. The basic rhythmic and harmonic tool of heavy metal, the power chord, relies not only upon elements of timbre and volume but also, in a crucial sense, upon time and tempo; power chords often sound most powerful when they are allowed to sustain, to remain suspended in time, and it is these moments of sustained power that create some of the most readily identifiable generic effects of heavy metal. Motörhead’s music has few such moments. The chords they played were steeped in sonic power, but those chords were played at a pace that made them seem more to crash into one another than to build infinite layers of echoing power. Lemmy’s distinctively distortion-laden bass sound also comes into play here, for the illusion of space created by heavy metal relies in large part on a sense of depth in the music that arises from the contrast between the jagged, trebly timbre of the guitar and the throbbing, relatively clean sound of the bass. Eliding the sonic difference between bass and guitar, Motörhead collapsed the space between the two instruments to a considerable degree. Their music was all rushing distorted surface, and the power generated by the music was not so much undermined by the band’s speed as it was continually threatening to outpace itself.

  9. Supplementing these qualities of Motörhead was another quality alluded to in the foregoing reviews, especially that by Deanne Pearson: the band’s supposed lack of technical skill, which made their music sound not just loud but painfully loud, cacophonous, lacking in melodic or harmonic distinction. The members of Motörhead often vigorously contested such charges, with Lemmy in particular always ready to defend his capabilities and the capabilities of his bandmates. Yet the song structures and guitar solos that marked the band’s music were not designed to showcase virtuosity in the manner of other late 1970s hard rock and metal bands such as UFO, Rainbow, or Thin Lizzy. In this the band could be compared to many of the punk bands of the time who did not so much refuse the acquisition of musical technique as question the uses to which that technique was put. Motörhead had one key distinction from their punk counterparts in this regard, however. Especially in England, for many punk bands the questioning of musical technique was attached to the relative youth and inexperience of the musicians; the “uncooked” sounds of punk were meant to signify a generational act of reclamation, as young bands asserted their right to play over the valorization of virtuosic technique that had taken hold in various spheres of rock since the late 1960s. As more seasoned musicians, the members of Motörhead did not pursue their brand of noise with such an age-based agenda. They were not rebelling against the rock and roll past so much as bringing some of its buried elements to the surface. As such, in the words of metal critic Martin Popoff, they could be considered “the first grunge rockers, being the first who could actually play, but chose to stink up the place” as a deliberate gesture (295-6).

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Works Cited



6. The “Roxy stance definition” is a reference to the Roxy, a club opened in December 1976 that for a brief time was the primary subcultural space in London for live performance of punk. By many accounts, the Roxy quickly became overrun by the dictates of subcultural style; it was a space where the founding spontaneity of punk was transformed into a set of codes that were to be followed in order for one to merit the “Punk” tag. For a critical appraisal of the Roxy written at the time of the club’s brief existence (it was effectively shut down in May 1977), see Burchill and Parsons, “Fear and Loathing at the Roxy.” For a historical appraisal by someone who was present at the creation, so to speak, see Savage, England’s Dreaming, 300–1.

7. A recent collection edited by Washburne and Derno, Bad Music, includes several essays that address the social and cultural function of distinguishing between the good and the bad in the sphere of musical judgment, including one essay each on the genres of punk and metal. In the opening essay of the collection, Simon Frith refers to one manner of response to “bad” music involving “anger at music being played too loud,” which he notes is a reaction motivated not by “volume as such … but the feeling that someone else’s music is invading our space, that we can’t listen to it as music … but only as noise, as undifferentiated din” (32–3). Such was the response engendered by Motörhead in many critics of the band, as will be shown below.


Review Essay

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