A miners' strike rally in 1984
In the second half of the 1970s, the United Kingdom was in a state of social unrest and widespread poverty as a result of the ineffective social politics of both Conservative and Labour Party governments during a three-year period of economic recession. As a consequence of deindustrialization, the unemployment rate was exceptionally high, especially among working class youth. It continued to rise in the early 1980s, peaking in February 1983. The discontent of so many people caused social unrest with frequent strikes, and culminated in a series of riots (see 1981 Brixton riot, 1981 Toxteth riots). During this period, the mass of young people, deprived of the prospect of even relatively low-skill jobs that were available to the previous generations, searched for different ways to earn money in the music and entertainment businesses. The explosion of new bands and new musical styles coming from the UK in the late 1970s was a result of their efforts to make a living in the economic depression that hit the country before the governments of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The desperation and the violent reaction of a generation robbed of a safe future are well-represented by the British punk movement of 1977–1978, whose rebellion against the establishment continued diluted in the new wave and post-punk music of the 1980s. These self-proclaimed punks were politically militant, relishing their anarchic attitude and stage practices like pogo dancing. They wore short and spiked hairstyles or shaved heads, often with safety pins and ripped clothes, and considered musical prowess unimportant as long as the music was simple and loud. However, not all working-class male youths embraced the punk movement; some preferred to escape from their grim reality in heavy metal, which was equally effective in providing fun, stress relief, and peer companionship – otherwise denied because of their unemployment.
Heavy rock in the UK
The UK was a cradle of the first wave of heavy metal, which was born at the end of the 1960s and flowered in the early 1970s. Of the many British bands that came to prominence during that period, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple achieved worldwide success and critical acclaim. The success of the music genre, usually called heavy rock at the time, generated a community of UK fans with strong ties to psychedelia, hippie doctrines and biker subculture. Each of these bands was in crisis in the mid-to-late 1970s: Led Zeppelin were plagued by discord and personal tragedies and had drastically reduced their activities, Black Sabbath finally fired their charismatic but unreliable frontman Ozzy Osbourne, and Deep Purple disbanded. As a consequence, the whole movement lost much of its momentum and media interest, which were refocused on what British writer Malc Macmillan calls "the more fashionable or lucrative markets of the day" such as disco, glam, mod revival, new wave and electronic music. Just like progressive rock acts and other mainstream music groups of the 1970s, heavy rock bands were viewed as – in the words of journalist Garry Bushell – "lumbering dinosaurs" by a music press infatuated with punk rock and new wave. Some writers even declared the premature demise of heavy metal altogether.
The crisis of British heavy rock giants left space for the rise of other rock bands in the mid-1970s, including Queen, Hawkwind, Budgie, Bad Company, Status Quo and Nazareth, all of which had multiple chart entries in the UK and had conducted successful international tours. The British chart results of the period show that there was still a vast audience for heavy metal in the country, and upcoming bands Thin Lizzy, UFO and Judas Priest, also had tangible success and media coverage in the late 1970s. Foreign hard rock acts, such as Blue Öyster Cult and Kiss from the US, Rush from Canada, Scorpions from Germany, and especially AC/DC from Australia, climbed the British charts in the same period.
Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister of Motörhead was a reference figure for the whole movement.
The band Motörhead was founded in 1975 by already experienced musicians. Their leader Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister was a former member of the space rock band Hawkwind, Larry Wallis had played with Pink Fairies, and Eddie Clarke had been a member of Curtis Knight's Zeus. Their previous experience is one element which divides critics and fans over whether the band belongs to the new wave of British heavy metal. Some believe that the band should be considered an inspiration for the movement, but not part of it, because they had signed recording contracts, toured the country, and had chart success before any NWOBHM band had stepped out of their local club scene. Motörhead were also the only metal band of the period recording songs with veteran BBC radio DJ John Peel for his Peel Sessions program and the first to reach No. 1 in the UK Albums Chart with the live album No Sleep 'til Hammersmith in June 1981. Lemmy himself said, "the NWOBHM ... didn't do us much good", because Motörhead "came along a bit too early for it".
Other critics view Motörhead as the first significant exponent of the movement and the first band to fully implement a crossover between punk rock and heavy metal. Their fast music, the renunciation of technical virtuosity in favour of sheer loudness, and their uncompromising attitude were welcomed equally by punks and heavy metal fans. Motörhead were supported by many NWOBHM bands on tour, and they also shared the stage with Lemmy's friends' punk band The Damned. Motörhead's musical style became very popular during the NWOBHM, making them a fundamental reference for the nascent movement and for musicians of various metal subgenres in the following decades.