Had you been at Slaughterhouse Studios when Brian May arrived one summer day in 1990, you may have thought you’d stumbled into an alternate timeline of British rock music. The Queen maestro had traveled to the outskirts of Hull in the U.K. to lay down some riffs on a couple of new tracks. Yet rather than shredding to Freddie Mercury’s wails demanding that Scaramouche do the fandango, May was putting the final fuzzy touches on grimdark tales of stranded Space Marines and gigantic robotic Titans, conjured straight from the sci-fi world of Warhammer 40,000.
He’d been invited by D-Rok, a newly formed heavy metal rock group that was in the process of recording its debut album. It was something of a concept piece, with each song peppered with lyrical references to Games Workshop’s tabletop wargame, and its cover art an illustration of a troop of Space Marines. But this was no fan project. D-Rok was both a bona fide rock outfit and thinly veiled promotional vehicle, the first group signed to Games Workshop’s then-fledgling and ultimately ill-fated in-house music division: Warhammer Records.
Games Workshop had first dipped a toe into musical waters a few years before, in 1987. John Blanche, the art editor of the company’s promotional magazine, White Dwarf, and a longtime Warhammer illustrator, had persuaded local Nottingham thrash metal band Sabbat to partner with the mag for a one-off single. He’d provide the page art, he suggested, and the band would handle the tune. The result was “Blood for the Blood God,” a satanic paean to Warhammer’s Khorne that was printed on vinyl flexi discs and tucked between the magazine’s pages. “The mag just gave Martin [Walkyier, Sabbat’s singer] a big pile of books and he wrote the song from that,” guitarist Andy Sneap told Metal Forces magazine at the time. “It’s not your usual horror-type metal and the lyrics fit in very well with our imagery.”
Two years later, the game’s artwork would again spring Warhammer into the world of rock with death metal band Bolt Thrower. As fans of the game, they had asked to use a piece of official Warhammer art for the cover of their sophomore album. Games Workshop agreed and ended up handling the LP’s entire sleeve design, as well as lending it the name of a recent Warhammer rulebook: Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness.
Like the flexi disc, it was a bit of an extravagance, but the company was by this point riding a wave of excitement and success following the release of the first edition of Warhammer: 40,000 and its many subsequent supplements. Hopes for the new franchise were high, and by the dawn of the ’90s, Games Workshop was used to taking big swings in offbeat marketing campaigns. It had licensed comics and novels, published White Dwarf for the better part of a decade, and even dabbled in several fresh IPs. The music industry, company management thought, could be yet another avenue to grow the brand.
“A lot of Warhammer fans were metalheads and were into rock music,” said Andy Jones, a former Games Workshop employee, in a recent interview with Polygon. He was the man tasked with setting up and managing Warhammer Records.
“Also with role-playing games, there seemed to be an association, certainly with the imagery,” Jones added. Warhammer’s gothic ultraviolence was clearly gelling with the studded leather getups of Britain’s burgeoning metal scene. And with Games Workshop embracing what Jones describes as an “entrepreneur spirit” where “anything was possible,” the idea of following up these musical dalliances with a full-blown record label seemed less like pivot than a natural next step.
“We hadn’t got a clue about making a record, or what that involved,” says Jones. “We just thought, Well, how difficult can it be?”
The plan was for Games Workshop to foot the bill on recording and production costs, handle album covers, and organize distribution through a larger label that would put the albums on the shelves of record stores. The bands, meanwhile, would deal with “all the music industry stuff,” as Jones puts it, like organizing tours.
“It didn’t quite work out like that, and that was probably us being very naive as much as anything,” says Jones. But it was that cavalier attitude that landed D-Rok the use of Brian May for an afternoon. May’s son would regularly visit the Games Workshop store in Hammersmith in London. A few phone calls, and May was invited to the Warhammer design studio, where he was introduced to the band and offered to play on their upcoming project.
Though no sooner had May noodled in the studio and D-Rok released its 1991 debut, Oblivion, than the newly minted record label encountered a problem: It needed more bands.
“The idea was that we could use our imagery with bands who were into our stuff,” says Jones. “We didn’t really want to just slap Warhammer and 40K imagery on any old rock. We wanted there to be a personal connection.” But without music industry connections, the well of potential talent quickly dried up, and the label was left to look around the local Nottingham music scene for acts. There, a former music journalist who’d been brought onto the label as its only A&R representative (standing for “artists and repertoire,” basically talent acquisition), and was all but single-handedly managing its day-to-day runnings, picked out rock group Wraith.
“I’d heard of Games Workshop, and their figures and that kind of thing. But I wasn’t majorly interested [in Warhammer],” said Wraith guitarist Gregg Russell in a recent interview with Polygon. Given the chance to finally bag a record deal, though, the band quickly signed on the dotted line.
“It was a completely different contract compared to normal record label contracts,” said Russell. “Everything they did was different to most other labels.”
In large part, that was because Warhammer Records seemed to have no problem throwing money around. The label paid for every part of Wraith’s promotion, right down to the gas money it used on tour, and even shelled out for the band to be photographed by Ross Halfin, a legendary rock photographer who’d snapped the likes of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Metallica. The company paid for Wraith to record its first LP, 1992’s Danger Calling, in London’s Easy Studios, where members of Thin Lizzy and Motörhead would hang about in the daytime, while its second album was put down in Birmingham’s Rich Bitch Studios, a favorite of Black Sabbath.
After each release, Warhammer Records took out ads in big music magazines like Kerrang! and Metal Hammer, and organized for Wraith and D-Rok to appear at gaming conventions and Games Workshop stores up and down the country. More bizarrely, it paid royalties to the bands from their very first album sales — before the label had even recouped its costs.
“It was very laid-back,” said Russell. “They gave us free rein on anything we wanted to do.” That is, almost anything. One of the specifications of their contracts was that bands had to use pre-approved artwork. “That was the main clause, that all the imagery had to be Warhammer-related.”
For the boys in Wraith and D-Rok, that hadn’t been a problem, and Warhammer Records had even managed to stick a picture of a Space Marine biker on the cover of heavy metal legends Saxon’s 1992 album Forever Free after it landed the record’s U.K. distribution rights by chance. But the limits of the clause were tested when it signed its final act: punky pop-rock group Rich Rags. Another band that had no previous interest in Warhammer and was signed through a personal connection, it was only after they finished recording their debut album that they read the small print of their contract.
“We hated all of it. All this Dungeons & Dragons and fairies and orcs. This was not us,” Rich Rags singer Ian Hunter told Polygon. Informed there was no room to negotiate over the artwork, they were left to rummage through the Warhammer archives for an album cover.
“We ended up finding a couple of images that we thought maybe we could work with,” Hunter said, “but we were straight away told we can’t use those because it’s got to be something that’s current and reflect some of the games Games Workshop was producing now.”
Eventually, Rich Rags settled on an illustration of a horde of alien Genestealers and titled their album Psycho Dead Heads from Outer Space. They hoped to lend the record an air of ’50s B-movie nostalgia — and thereby obscure its connections to Warhammer.
“We had to absolutely compromise,” Hunter said. “It was the worst thing because everyone who knew us went, ‘Love the album, fucking hate the artwork. What were you thinking?’”
The relationship between the band and label only turned more acrimonious when Games Workshop delayed the album’s launch by several months in 1993, after the band had already arranged a monthslong tour across nightclubs up and down the country. With no new record to promote, press coverage was poor, audiences were thin, and Rich Rags’ patience dried up.
“We suddenly realized that what Warhammer Records was really about was promoting their brand,” Hunter said. “They’d set it up to be a shop window for Games Workshop.”
The band folded shortly after the mismanaged tour, and enthusiasm for Warhammer Records inside Games Workshop evaporated with it. The A&R rep who’d been hired for his industry connections had already left, and the company suddenly found itself beholden to scrutinous shareholders when it transitioned to become a publicly traded corporation that same year.
“Tom Kirby took over as the CEO and, in retrospect, quite sensibly stopped us doing a bunch of crazy things like running record labels,” Jones said.
In the years since, the few albums put out by Warhammer Records have become collector’s items among fans. Meanwhile, D-Rok’s songs appeared in the odd Warhammer video game, and Wraith continues to occasionally perform to this day.
Brian May, though, remains best known for his other work.