Of Pigs and Power

After appearing on classic albums by UFO, Hawkwind and Pink Floyd, one of the UK’s biggest rock stars is calling it a day. The name might not be familiar, but this legendary icon’s contributions to rock music are surely familiar to just about anyone who owned a turntable in the 1970’s.

The Battersea Power Station is located on the South Bank of the River Thames, in the Battersea District of South West London. This coal burning power plant is actually 2 identical buildings; Station A, built in the 1930’s, and Sation B in the 1950’s. The station stopped producing power in 1983, but has nonetheless become one of the most popular landmarks in London and one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. Since its decomission, investors have sought to make the building into a theme park, a stadium, and even another, more modern power station. Since 2012, the site has been under development as a giant mall, with residential apartments and townhouses, and opened these rental untis to the public on May 1st of this year. Thankfully, the British government required all bidders on the 39-acre site to include the 4 iconic chimneys in their redevelopment plans, thus retaining the buildings’ iconic look and national landmark status.

So how does the largest brick building in Europe become a rock star? Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters lived near Battersea in the 70’s, and those famous chimneys constantly loomed as part of his local skyline. When the Floyd needed an image to communicate the ideas found on their upcoming ‘Animals’ album, Waters thought the coal burning, smoke spewing power station, which was then within a few years of outliving it’s usefulness, would be an effective way of communicating the record’s concept. Loosely based on George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, the album’s theme centered on the UK’s outmoded class system hierarchy. The pig floating between two chimneys sealed it, a mocking symbol of corruption hovering majestically between two of Battersea’s towering chimneys, as they belch black smoke into the sky. The image perfectly encapsulated Waters’ view of Britiain’s class system and the societal and moral decay he felt it produced.

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‘Animals’ was released in January of 1977. Today it is acknowledged as Pink Floyd’s reaction to the burgeoning Punk Rock movement, an attempt to tackle some of the same ideas and concepts so vociferously explored by punk music. Battersea provided Floyd with an iconic image (created by the legendary Hipgnosis graphics group) that helped the record achieve 4x Platinum status, which in turn helped make Battersea one of the most recognizable buildings in the world.

Next up for Battersea was an appearance on the cover of UFO’s ‘Lights Out’ album in May of ’77. Hipgnosis once again looked to our favorite power station for an image to communicate another Punk Rock-inspired idea: Who controls the ‘power’, and what happens after the ‘power’ goes out and no one is looking? And where better to question the goings on along the corridors of power than… along the corridors of power?

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‘Lights Out’ was not a concept album, but the lyric to the title track, with its artful allusions to the bombing of Britian during WWII, deals with such themes as war in the streets and a forced toppling of the status quo, a perfect description of what was going on in the UK’s music scene in 1976/77. Battersea provided the backdrop for an image of power station workers, ie those who control the power, disrobing while on the job, clearly up to something other than their work. It’s a subtle but striking graphic representation of the abuse of power.

In June of 1977, Hawkwind released their seventh studio album, ‘Quark Strangeness and Charm’. To many, the psychedlic Space Rock of Hawkwind, with it’s sci-fi lyrics and hippie jam band musical aesthetic, may have seemed immune to the siezmic shifts in rock music caused by the birth of Punk Rock. But the hippies shared with the punks a major imperative: ‘Question Authority’. Hawkwind had also shared members with UK proto-punks The Pink Fairies, so the self-appointed Psychadelic Warlords were a lot closer to the punk rock fray than most rock fans realized. In a timely attempt to underscore Hawkwind’s connection to punk’s ideals, Hipgnosis staged the image to illustrate the band’s political stance, and shot the cover to ‘Quark’ in one of the control rooms at Battersea.

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The image is set in the enterior of a high-tech control room, and depicts two machines interacting together, with dangerous-looking results; lightning and laser light are arcing into the nearby control panels, while a portal of some sort seems to be opening between them. The lab-coated human in the picture looks the other way, completely oblivious to the activity behind him. The back cover features a close-up of the ‘face’ of one of the machines, while behind and to the left, the human technician is shown to be asleep in a chair with paperwork covering his face. This artwork brilliantly captures the essence of Hawkwind’s underground philosophy: Let’s change the world while ‘The Man’ isn’t looking. It’s another compelling image with a charged political message, depicting those in control asleep at the switch.

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In the first 6 months of 1977, as the Punk Rock apocalypse poked, prodded and outright threatened more established rock acts, three major British bands rose to the challenge, and looked to the artists at Hipgnosis to graphically express their responses. Hipgnosis, in turn, found their go-to symbol to represent power, authority, and control; the perfect setting to stage three chilling tableaus of corruption, abuse and moral decay: the brick and wrought iron fortress known as the Battersea Power Station.

From coal-fired electric power plant to unlikely rock star to metrpolitian shopping mall. There’s a concept album in there somewhere.

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Motorhead: The First Three Years

Shortly after his firing from UK space rock pioneers Hawkwind, Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister adopted the biker motto ‘Born to Lose, Live to Win’ and made it his new band’s mission statement. As luck (both good and bad) would have it, he would spend the next few years living both sides of that creedo, earning the right to make it his own every day while struggling to get his new band, Motorhead, off the ground.

Motorhead was doomed from day one. But Motorhead was also destined for greatness. Lemmy knew both of these statements to be true even at the very beginning. Motorhead survived more drama and disaster in their first few years of existence than most bands suffer in decades, all through the sheer force of one man’s will. Lemmy’s bold self-belief, dogged perserverance, and abject refusal to give up and go home kept Motorhead alive during the nearly complete clusterfuck of their first three years.

Of course, being 49% motherfucker and 51% son of a bitch didn’t hurt either.

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Born To Lose: In May of 1975, Lemmy is arrested at the Canadian border for possession of amphetamine sulfate. Management bails him out and puts him on a flight to Toronto. At 4am after the Toronto show, he is fired from the band he once performed with on Top of the Pops, singing lead on their Top Ten (#3) single ‘Silver Machine’ in 1972.

Live To Win: Within two weeks of returning to England, Lemmy steals his equipment back from Hawkwind’s rehearsal space, repaints his psychedelic amps black, and forms a band he calls Bastard. He retains his Hawkwind-era manager, who persuades him to change the name. He re-christens his new band Motorhead, naming it after the last song he wrote for his previous band.

BTL: In July, Motorhead’s live debut takes place at the Roundhouse, a high-profile UK venue. Lemmy himself states the band were “bloody awful”. After a 10-show trek across Britain in August, the band opens for Blue Oyster Cult at the Hammersmith Odeon in October. In December, based on the Hammersmith performance, Motorhead wins “Best Worst Band in the World” in the reader’s poll featured in the year-end issue of the respected UK music paper Sounds.

LTW: Motorhead manages to secure a record deal with Hawkwind’s label United Artists. Dave Edmunds, one of Lemmy’s heroes, is set to produce. The band prep their originals and a few covers and enter the studio In December.

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BTL: After recording only four songs, Edmunds abandons the project. Drummer Lucas Fox, trying to keep up with Lemmy’s speed habit, is a disaster in the studio. His drum tracks are not workable and his behavior is erratic, even dangerous; he is fired before the record is complete.

LTW: 21 year old drummer Phillip Taylor is drafted in as Fox’s replacement. Taylor overdubs all of Fox’s drum tracks (except one) and the album is completed with producer Fritz Freyer.

BTL: United Artists shelve the album, deeming it ‘unfit for release’. Motorhead, still under contract with UA, cannot record for another label. In the Spring of 1976, immediately after Lemmy drafts Eddie Clarke in to the band as rhythm guitarist; Larry Wallis quits.

LTW: Motorhead hire a new manager, who arranges another recording. In July, Kilmister/Clarke/Taylor record a single for Stiff Records, ‘White Line Fever’/’Leaving Here’.

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BTL: Motorhead are still under contract with United Artists, who block the release of the Stiff single. Motorhead have now recorded music for 2 labels and neither label has released anything. They limp through the rest of 1976 with one-off gigs, living in squats and starving. Just a few months into 1977, Phil and Eddie decide to call it a day.

LTW: A farewell performance is booked at the Marquee in London in April ’77. Lemmy convinces Ted Carroll of Chiswick Records to record the show in a last-ditch attempt to get anything with the Motorhead name on it released.

BTL: The mobile studio promised by Carroll never materializes at the Marquee gig; the farewell show is not recorded.

LTW: Carroll shows up backstage after the show and by way of apology, offers the band 2 days of studio time to record a single. The band instead record basics for 11 songs, and their single deal with Chiswick becomes an album deal. Carroll gave the band the cash to complete the unfinished tracks, with which Motorhead records 2 additional songs, for a total of 13. The album, called ‘Motorhead’, released in August of 1977, peaked at #43 in the UK.

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BTL: About a week into the headlining tour to promote their ‘debut’ album, Phil Taylor breaks his wrist in a fight and the rest of the tour is cancelled. The band is unable to do any live work until a November gig at the Marquee. Motorhead’s manager cuts ties with Chiswick, citing lack of support, and the band, in turn, fires him. Phil and Eddie throw together another band, The Muggers, and once again consider leaving Motorhead.

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LTW: Motorhead hire manager Doug Smith, who secures the band a deal with Bronze Records for a single. In August 1978, ‘Louie Louie’/’Tear Ya Down’ was released, and hit #68 on the UK Singles chart. The success of the single resulted in Morohead’s first appearance on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops program. It was Lemmy’s 2nd appearance on the show, his first having been to promote Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’.

So: After three years of struggle, Lemmy had come full circle. He had dragged himself and his new band through a minefield of bad deals, bad breaks and plain old bad luck. Lemmy never wavered. Each and every time he was kicked, he kicked back; every setback was met with a grim determination and a raised middle finger. Lemmy made his own good luck by constantly pushing against any and all obstructions, ignoring his detractors and doing plenty of good old fashioned hustling.

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All of this led up to their watershed moment: the release of their seminal ‘Overkill’ album. Lemmy (and Motorhead) ultimately won. Of course, all of the rejected material that was recorded during this time period was eventually released by labels eager to cash in on the Motorhead’s chart success a few years later. Hawkwind has even re-released ‘Silver Machine’ 3 times, and each time it has charted again. Lemmy of course never saw a dime from any of this thievery, but the vindication is priceless. As if the ongoing success of Motorhead, some 40 years on now, weren’t vindication enough.

The lesson in all this? As the slogan on the back side of the picture sleeve for the ‘Louie Louie’ single reads, “NIL ILLEGITIMUM CARBORUNDUM”.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.