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Roy Wilkinson On Motörhead's Bomber sleeve, Sea Power, Rock & War
Roy Wilkinson , March 23rd, 2023 09:03

In this month's Low Culture essay, Roy Wilkinson writes about the the sleeve for Motörhead's Bomber LP and how it became both an Airfix kit and a curious artefact that sat in the anti-militarism of his brothers' band, Sea Power

War? What is it good for? Well, where would the military-industrial complex and manufacturers of model kits be without it? In 2019, the kit maker Airfix released an unusual new line – a Motörhead Heinkel He 111 bomber, a scale model to mark the 40th anniversary of the release of Motörhead’s Bomber album. On the album sleeve, Motörhead’s three Luftröckers look out from inside a literal manifestation of heavy metal. They form the crew in a Heinkel 111, the largest of the Nazi bombers that regularly blasted British cities during the Blitz. Your correspondent was 15 when Bomber was released. For me, this album’s sleeve and title track are fascinating artefacts that sit on the juncture between rock and war.

Warfare and loud music have frequently intersected. It’s a tandem that’s been ridden by amplified music-makers as varied as Iron Maiden, Einstürzende Neubauten, Public Enemy, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Billy Childish, the Prodigy and Public Service Broadcasting. Arguably, war has conjoined with rock music for longer than rock music has existed. Brass-laden military bands could be seen as a kind of heavy metal before the fact. Warfare has blended with musical loudness across the ages, from rams’ horns bringing down the Walls Of Jericho in the Old Testament to Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony of 1942. The stage cannons in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture were echoed when similar artillery augmented the power chords of AC/DC’s ‘For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)’. Among those who are always about to rock, Iron Maiden have sung of war with particular regularity.

Truth to tell, I never owned a Maiden album as a kid. As Motörhead’s Bomber album was released, my own music tastes were modulating. My adolescent amazement at the virtuoso hard rock of Queen, Rush and Rainbow was being augmented by the occasional punk single: The Sex Pistols’ ‘Holidays In The Sun’, The Clash’s ‘Tommy Gun’. My post-metal purchases were sometimes gauche, devoid of retrospective cool. The first “punk” album I bought was The Boomtown Rats’ A Tonic For The Troops. Troops? Perhaps my enthusiasm for this nod to soldiering was somehow part of a bigger picture. My father had served in the Second World War, volunteering in 1942 on his 18th birthday. The pocket-size Commando comics had been a staple of my childhood, with titles like Revenge Of The Gestapo, Hell In A Hellcat, Escape From Java, and on and on…

The Tonic For The Troops album has a track called ‘(I Never Loved) Eva Braun’. Here was more Second World War content, but in this case more about quizzical provocation than battlefield drama. For me, the Rats were a transitional way station en route to more resonant post-punk variations – to bands including Joy Division, a group whose name is maybe the ultimate in rock/war gravity. But, as I abandoned hard rock for post-punk, Motörhead seemed inviolable, beyond musical boundaries. When ‘Ace Of Spades’ blasted out in our school common room, it was never met by the factional derision that could greet, say, Genesis or Cabaret Voltaire. Motörhead played on. The Bomber sleeve lodged, ineradicable, in my brain.

In 2001, Q magazine made me a co-editor of a kind of one-off rock summer special: THE 100 BEST RECORD COVERS OF ALL TIME. The Beatles, Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush –  they all featured. But, for me and my fellow editors, Ian Harrison and Paul Stokes, the main editorial agenda was easing in as many unlikely cult-ish choices as possible: Earl Brutus, Add N To (X), Half Man Half Biscuit, the album Doin Thangs by Big Bear. There was, of course, also room for Motörhead’s Bomber.

Lemmy was interviewed for the album-sleeves book, talking about the Bomber cover: “I insisted it should be a German plane. Sure, it’s a filthy memory, but the fact is the bad guys made the best shit. The Spitfire was a very beautiful aircraft, but Messerschmitts looked like they were built to kill.” Motörhead were all about careening, white-line abandon, but the Bomber sleeve was created with rigour and research. The RAF Museum at Hendon, home to an actual Heinkel III, provided reference material. Illustrator Adrian Chesterman had studied at the Royal College of Art. He met up with the band to discuss the sleeve: “I suggested meeting at midday. I don't think they were accustomed to getting up that early. Phil [drummer Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor] had a tin of Special Brew in his hand.”

The Bomber album was Motörhead’s third, charting at number 12 in the UK. This success had other collateral impact, helping make the umlaut part of rock orthography. As Lemmy observed: “Mötley Crüe stole it from us, but, then again, I nicked it from Blue Öyster Cult.”

From the late 20th century until 2005, I managed the band British Sea Power, now called Sea Power. Through the group’s formative years, the Bomber sleeve was there in the background. I’m the eldest of six children. My two youngest brothers are the two singers in Sea Power – Scott, AKA Jan, and Neil, AKA Hamilton. The teenage years of the nascent Sea Power frontmen were spent in an idyllic setting, on the edge of the English Lake District. There were eight of us squeezed into a dilapidated post-war council house, damp and without central heating. But the house was in a cosy village called Natland, surrounded by fields. On a clear day, the immense crenellations of Lakeland’s central fells loomed on the skyline, their mass and magnitude colouring the air.

I’m some 15 years older than my Sea Power brethren. By the time they’d entered their teens I’d left home and was working as a journalist, mainly as a freelance for the weekly music paper Sounds. My record collection sat at our parental home in Cumbria. Because of this, Sea Power’s future singers had broad listening. There were records by many of the great touchstones for punk and post-punk: The Velvet Underground, Can, Patti Smith, The Stooges. There were other records that would’ve been even less common in Cumbrian council homes c.1990: Butthole Surfers, Galaxie 500, Fugazi, 12-inch singles from Larry Heard’s Fingers Inc. Motörhead’s Bomber was there too on the South Lakeland shelving, beside the open coal fire that lit the living room through the winter.

I worked with (British) Sea Power closely as they made their first two albums, starting with their 2003 debut The Decline Of British Sea Power. It now sounds ridiculous and perhaps wildly inappropriate but, at the time, I saw the band as a pop-world equivalent of ‘total war’. We had this chance to make a statement in the holy rock and pop forms – in conjunction with our then label, the great Rough Trade Records. This had to be approached with an all-in, 24/7 commitment. Everything mattered. The shoes you wore. The songs you wrote. The colour and content of every flier and promotional beer mat. As it said on the Sea Power pencils that were inevitably made: “Exceeding the national average”. Sea Power had to do things like collaborate with both Faust and The Wurzels – in the same week. Amazingly enough, this happened, and a good deal besides. While this pop imperative held sway, elliptical allusions to military history became part of the picture.

Early on, the band wore some neat ex-RAF jackets. Sea Power’s keyboardist/marching-drum man Eamon – AKA The Official Fleet Reserve – wore the kind of helmet typical of the British Army though the two World Wars. It should be noted that Eamon’s helmet had been “demilitarised” by being sprayed a light blue that was meant to suggest the UN and painted with the silhouettes of leaves of key British trees. Soon, every other Sea Power review would say something like: “Bird-watching rockers in First World War uniforms staging a seance for Ian Curtis.” This became so routine that working titles for the band’s fourth album included Now That’s What I Call World War I Joy Division! But we shouldn’t protest too much. The Second World War became a minor but definite part of the band’s recordings – alongside subjects including Canvey Island, Antarctic ice shelves, the wrestler Big Daddy, the wonders of the natural world and respect for economic migrants.

On Sea Power’s debut album, the track ‘Lately’ contained oblique reference to our dad’s wartime service, during which he was posted to what was then the Dutch East Indies. In 2004, Sea Power released the A Lovely Day Tomorrow EP, a collaboration with the Czech duo The Ecstasy Of Saint Theresa. The title track alighted on the assassination of the brutal SS leader Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Butcher of Prague. Heydrich was killed in that city in 1942, when his car was ambushed in a British-Czechoslovak operation. This was detailed in subtle style on the Sea Power EP’s title track: “To find a beginning in an end / And halt the devil’s Mercedes Benz”.

Sponsored by Budweiser Budvar of České Budějovice – nothing to do with the insipid US suds – Sea Power played a wonderful show in Prague, alongside The Ecstasy Of Saint Theresa. The Czech promoters came up with some great flyers, which included a small silhouette of a wartime bomber, but it wasn’t a Heinkel III. A UK newspaper reporter was covering the Prague event. He asked us if the plane might be a Halifax, the aircraft that had parachuted in the Czechoslovak agents. I was happy to correct him – it was a B-24 Liberator, a plane that had nothing to do with the Heydrich assassination.

Heydrich’s killing was overseen by the Special Operations Executive, a wartime British organisation that carried out espionage and sabotage in Nazi-occupied Europe. An SOE agent featured on a 2003 Sea Power flier. Alongside the band’s leaf motifs and four other inspirational women, it was an honour to remember the name Violette Szabo. During the war, with astonishing bravery, Szabo left South London to become a secret agent in occupied France. She was captured, then executed in Ravensbrück concentration camp.

The song where the Second World War features most on Sea Power’s debut is ‘Something Wicked’: “Where the ancient oak leaf clusters grew / The death's-head hawkmoth flew... The swallow is depicted there along your fuselage / Something wicked this way comes”. One version of the German military decoration the Iron Cross comes with an oak-leaf addition while sections of the SS had a death’s-head skull-and-crossbones badge.

This opening section of the above Sea Power song, then, is fairly enigmatic, a sequence to be decoded. Acute modernist poetry? Or just a rock equivalent of Dan Brown’s goofy symbolism? But the song’s overall meaning is pretty clear: “It starts with love for foliage and ends in camouflage… Please remove your field grey coverall / Your works of nature are unnatural”. There’s something compelling about the military’s cryptic dimension. Camouflage fascinates us. It has long since migrated to the fashion world and into our daily lives. But, hey, as much as this military greensward mimesis draws us in, it’s a sham, a catastrophic re-routing of nature. As Sea Power would later sing, on the 2011 track ‘Who’s In Control’, all along their intent was to be “militant not military”.

Certainly, Sea Power’s glancing interest in miltarism is different to Lemmy’s. The Motörhead frontman would sometimes sport Nazi regalia, while stressing, "I only collect the stuff, I didn't collect the ideas." German uniforms in the Second World War were clearly sharply tailored. But, then as now, it’s not a good look.

When I was growing up, I’d notice how often Lemmy talked about the Second World War in interviews. He often seeming less interested in discussing his band’s new album than outlining the hilarious deficiencies of the Heinkel He 177 – a more advanced and less reliable would-be successor to the Heinkel 111 on the Bomber sleeve. Lemmy was well informed about weaponry. He noted that, in the Bomber sleeve illustration, the group were out of proportion: “The band should have been smaller, to make the scale right.” Lemmy would also have been aware that the Motörhead Heinkel has imagined extra details. There’s an additional gun turret at the front – a made-up addition, there to give drummer Philthy Animal somewhere prominent to sit. However, the Airfix Motörhead model is a real Heinkel III, different to the sleeve version as it lacks the fictional chin turret. On top of that, the model kit’s representation of Snaggletooth – Motörhead’s biker-warthog emblem – is in the wrong place, moved back along the fuselage.

The Motörhead bomber is not real, but still it flies through our world and still occupies my mind. I currently have out a series of “non-non-fiction” books, called Dark Lustre, available in six volumes. Long before The Quietus generously asked me to write this essay, I’d included the Motörhead Heinkel in the books:

“As Tommy [a character in the books] neared the railway station, he again thought about the Nazi socio-cultural shadow, about our collective fascination for these benighted times and places… He’d noticed a singular artefact for sale – an Airfix model of a Heinkel bomber. The model kit had been customised so it resembled the illustration on the cover of Motörhead’s Bomber album … A long-playing record from some notional 331/3 Reich… Tommy walked on, thinking of Motörhead’s dear, dead Lemmy. This rocker was perhaps emblematic of mankind’s endless interest in the Third Reich. Lemmy – a big Jimi Hendrix fan – disdained racism. He’d made it clear he despised Hitler. But Lemmy had also collected cutlery from the Nazi Reich Chancellery. Then there was the time he’d been filmed in a wartime German uniform while driving around in a Jagdpanzer 38, a Nazi tank – or, more strictly speaking, a tank destroyer…”

In the Dark Lustre books the narrative spans Barnstaple, Berlin and Bavaria, taking in Nazi gold, Tarka the Otter and a brilliant all-female band called The Countess Marie-José de la Barre d’Erquelinnes Hextet. Across it all, a question hums in the middle distance. Can we ever be free of our endless fixation with our darkest history? Can an alternative reality ever appear? A reality where the Motörhead bomber never flew – either through the skies of a world at war or across an album sleeve.

Roy Wilkinson’s Dark Lustre books are available here