1. Overkill, Motörhead’s second album, distilled the band’s elements with new focus and consistency. Released in early 1979, the album came out at a time when British punk had entered something of a hangover period following its initial rush. British metal,
    Figure 5. Album cover to
    Motörhead, Overkill
    in turn, was on the verge of a period of renewal that was shaped in part by the growing interchange between metal and punk. Heavy metal had not been fully washed away during the height of enthusiasm for punk, but it had been put on the defensive, at least in print. Judas Priest, arguably the most influential metal band to emerge during the punk era, was the object of some attention and no small degree of ridicule during these years. The members of Priest were typically diplomatic in their appraisals of the surrounding punk phenomenon, though they also took a line that became standard in metal appraisals of punk over the next decade, noting appreciation for the punk attitude while expressing condescension regarding punk musical abilities.8

  2. For critics who had devoted themselves to the transformative ideologies of punk, however, assessing a band like Judas Priest was like entering into an alien sphere. Such were the attitudes of writers Paul Morley and Jon Savage, two of the more astute and stringent advocates of punk, who each took up the challenge of Priest with considerable hesitation and skepticism. Morley portrayed attendance at a Judas Priest concert as an experience akin to being “an atheist amongst fervent believers … it is all very religious … It’s a bewildering ritual of call and mass response.” For Jon Savage, it was the Priest album Killing Machine that presented the challenge of how to get past his own critical biases.9 Admitting that the codes of Priest’s music were unknown to him, Savage spent much of his review musing on the band’s apparent leather fetish, which brought “gay biker associations” to the surface, requiring the members of Priest “to be even straighter than usual” to avoid the wrong message (“Play Doughty”). Savage was hardly the first critic to note traces of homoeroticism running through Priest’s image, but his accompanying refusal to give their music due attention was indicative of the ideological divide that metal provoked. His only way to escape wholesale dismissal of the band was to make them the basis of a rather stock problem: “do ‘the people’ want what they get, or will they accept more than they’re usually given?”

  3. These attitudes towards metal would hardly go away by 1979, but with punk’s momentum receding, bands like Judas Priest and Motörhead were to be cast less as throwbacks than as standard-bearers. In this transitional context, Motörhead’s tendencies toward crossover between metal and punk would become paradigmatic, and Overkill would solidify the group’s boundary-crossing reputation. The release of the album was overseen by yet another record label, Bronze, with whom Motörhead would stay for the next several years. Founded by industry veteran Gerry Bron, Bronze was an independent label with a less well-defined image than Stiff or Chiswick but with a decided track record in marketing heavy metal through Bron’s long-standing association with genre stalwarts Uriah Heep. Meanwhile, the producer of Overkill, Jimmy Miller, was a rock and roll veteran of a different stripe, having famously collaborated with the Rolling Stones on a celebrated string of albums during the late 1960s and early 1970s that culminated in the 1972 release of Exile on Main Street. That album had found the Stones sinking into the murky, stirring depths of their blues influences with a low-fi ambience that conveyed the tone of a convincingly unsteady drug trip. With Overkill, by contrast, Miller fleshed out Motörhead’s sound with impressive clarity and maximized the band’s propulsiveness while capturing a sense of dynamics from the group lacking in their previous recorded work.

  4. As on their debut album, the opening track of Overkill—also titled “Overkill”—was a genuine pacesetter. “Overkill” opens with a remarkable burst of drumming from Phil Taylor, belying the notion that this was a band lacking in technical mastery. Taylor’s drum riff at the opening and throughout the song makes use of a double bass drum, which produces a pounding bottom end played at a tempo that well exceeded anything on Motörhead’s debut.10 After a couple bars of unaccompanied drumming, Taylor is joined by Lemmy’s buzzing distorted bass, which has much of the character displayed in the opening to “Motorhead” but is played much higher on the neck to better separate itself from the bottom-heavy approach of the drums. As was becoming customary, Eddie Clarke enters the song last, establishing that unlike many heavy rock bands, Motörhead was a group ruled by its rhythm section.

  5. “Overkill” was also in keeping with the established style of Motörhead in that it was structured around minimal chord changes. Rather than three-chord rock, Motörhead specialized in two-chord rock; their harmonically confined structures were made to intensify their songs’ rhythmic effects. Clarke and Lemmy build interlocking two-chord patterns throughout the verses of “Overkill,” turning the basic musical gesture of moving from one chord to another and back again into a fulcrum of sonic tension. This highly concentrated set of riffs is in keeping with the song’s lyrical content. As “Motorhead” had portrayed the rushing intensity of speed, “Overkill” depicted a comparably intense sort of experience, located not in drugs but in the onslaught of the band’s music. In the manner of the MC5’s “Kick out the Jams,” “Overkill” is an explosive piece of rock and roll about the explosive physical impact of rock and roll. Lemmy’s lyrics are concise but descriptive: “On your feet you feel the beat, it goes straight to your spine/Shake your head you must be dead if it don’t make you fly.” The song’s chorus, which involves the repetition of the title word, is the one moment at which a bit of release is offered from the churning velocity; the band eases (relatively speaking) into a set of more standard chord changes, and Taylor’s drumming temporarily assumes a less unrelenting cast. But following the last of its three choruses, “Overkill” goes into overdrive, with Eddie Clarke playing a frenetic solo as Taylor and Lemmy locked into a merciless groove. Seeming to end on a final decaying power chord, Taylor restarts his drums and Lemmy repeats his introductory bass riff not once but twice, leading to two false endings and two further thirty-second iterations of distorted flurry before “Overkill” at last released its grip.

  6. Considered as a whole, Overkill the album was viewed by more than one critic as leading the way toward a new degree of interchange between punk and metal. Geoff Barton, by that point well entrenched as a staunch ally of the band, put the case most emphatically. Satirically assuming the stance of an outraged listener writing a letter of complaint regarding the offensiveness of the album’s content, Barton’s review managed to observe through the satire that “I’ve heard talk of this album being the first true HM/punk crossover,” and further claimed, “playing this LP on my Bang and Olufsen with the volume turned down, even the so-called ‘silent’ grooves between the tracks register 90 dbs on my noise meter!” (Review of Overkill). Joining Barton in this judgment was John Hamblett, whose New Musical Express review deemed Overkill “the definitive Heavy Metal album,” but went on to proclaim that “the only things that stop this being on par with Never Mind the Bollocks are a few rather misguided slow moments and the indisputable fact that at least two-thirds of Motörhead are older and uglier than the Pistols were.” Motörhead did not wage war with the mythology of rock to the degree the Pistols did—the band was, rather, steeped in a version of that mythology, evident in Lemmy’s continuing infatuation with the outlaw stance. As a strictly sonic phenomenon, however, the band upended some of rock’s prevailing conventions as effectively as any of their peers. Fusing residual psychedelia with rhythmic drive and excessive volume, forsaking virtuosity for sonic density, Motörhead created a heavy rock aesthetic that was to wield considerable influence in the ensuing decade.

  7. Just two months after he published his review of Overkill, Geoff Barton issued the first installment in his widely influential series of articles for Sounds documenting the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (“If You Want Blood”). Coined by Barton’s editor at Sounds, Alan Lewis, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal—or NWOBHM, as it would become clumsily abbreviated—soon assumed significance well beyond its function as a journalistic catch phrase. New heavy metal bands began to proliferate at a dramatic rate in the UK, and the audience for the music grew accordingly. Perhaps even more striking was the concurrent development of a new breed of independent record labels devoted to the genre, which included Neat, Ebony, and even Heavy Metal, many of which had a distinctly underground cast in the styles of metal they sought to promote. While Motörhead had effectively stumbled into their alliance with the independent labels for which they recorded, now British metal was showing signs of having absorbed the punk emphasis upon independent production. Musically, too, the influence of punk was apparent. Many new bands pursued varieties of metal in keeping with leading lights of the genre such as Judas Priest, Rainbow and Black Sabbath, but others played in a faster, coarser style, with songs that were, if not significantly tighter in construction, at least shorter and more compact than listeners had come to expect from the genre. Talk of metal/punk crossover, which in the preceding years had been limited to Motörhead and a handful of other bands, became almost commonplace in the years 1979–83, when NWOBHM held sway.

  8. Unsurprisingly, the fortunes of Motörhead were notably altered during these years. Although they would remain a minority taste in the U.S. for years to come, Motörhead became
    Figure 6. Album cover to
    Motörhead, Ace of Spades
    a bona fide star attraction in their native England. Ace of Spades, released in late 1980, reached the number four position on the British charts, a feat the band topped with their next album, the live No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith, which hit the top of the charts. Reflecting this success, Motörhead swept through the 1980 Sounds readers’ poll, winning first place honors for best band, best album (for Ace of Spades), and best single (for the title song from that album). Individually, Lemmy took the top spot in the poll for his bass playing—and the number two spot as male sex object—while Phil Taylor placed third among drummers and Eddie Clarke seventh among guitarists (“Sounds Readers’ Poll”). The stylistic fusion promoted by Motörhead had found its audience.

  9. Though rarely considered as such in histories of punk, metal/punk crossover became one of the defining features of the immediate post-punk era in British popular music. Many at the time considered the generic union unlikely, but it was in some regards bound to happen. As Deena Weinstein asserted in her sociological analysis of heavy metal: “The heavy metal and punk subcultures are the two dominant examples of youth attempting to create and hold onto their own distinctive and unassimilable culture” in the aftermath of the 1960s (109). Metal and punk gave rise to contrasting aesthetic and stylistic values in pursuit of this goal, but in the crucial years of the 1970s remained connected by an underlying similarity of motivation. When punk “broke” in England in the key years of 1976–77, metal seemed poised to go into remission. Instead, it emerged revivified, due in part to the efforts of a band like Motörhead, who, despite their own ambivalence towards the heavy metal genre, offered an early and influential example of how metal power and volume could be blended with punk speed and a sense of the ordinary.11 Meanwhile, the status of Motörhead as a proto-crossover band in the midst of the definitive punk explosion also reveals some rarely acknowledged dimensions of that charged rock-historical moment. Many of its most influential chroniclers have presented punk as a veritable “all or nothing” proposition in which the stakes were as high as the continued viability of rock itself. However, for many and perhaps most of those affected by punk, it was another in a range of options and styles. Motörhead represented the less purified side of punk, a side that needs to be taken into account to show the full range of practices to which punk gave rise.

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Works Cited



8. A characteristic comment was made by Priest singer Rob Halford in a 1977 interview: “Punk to me is rock … I saw the Sex Pistols and I got something from the band when I saw them … If anything I would say that … our music is like an advancement of their music, because their rock is basic and so much more direct” (Doherty 35).

9.This album would be released in the US under the title of Hell Bent for Leather.

10. Taylor discussed his use of the double bass drum setup in a 1979 article in Sounds. Gary Cooper, author of the article, noted Taylor’s technical proficiency as a drummer in that article, observing that “Phil talks about drumming theory with a knowledge and expertise which I’ve only ever previously encountered in people like Phil Collins and Bill Bruford. It’s that old Motorhead story all over again,” he continued, “The band looks like the aftermath of a Moorcock demolished London … but, in fact, Phil, Lemmy and Larry have years of experience and considerable ability” (46).

11. It should be noted that even at the height of their popularity among metal fans, in the early 1980s, Lemmy and his bandmates were never entirely comfortable with the heavy metal designation. In an article accompanying the Sounds 1980 readers’ poll, for instance, both Lemmy and drummer Phil Taylor expressed their reservations about the tag. Taylor complained that metal “always seems so slow and ponderous,” a characterization affirmed by Lemmy, who stated his preference for MC5-style hard rock (Millar 29). To my mind, such concerns on the part of the band do not invalidate their association with heavy metal, but only serve to confirm the extent to which genre is never an entirely closed system of meaning.



Review Essay

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