Forty years ago, Motörhead were flying. Well, they were probably always flying, but 40 years ago they were having themselves some hit records. They'd released smash albums in 1979 - the classic Overkill in March, which, much to everyone's surprise, reached #24 on the UK charts; and Bomber, just seven months later in October, peaked at #12. They're hit singles even led to appearances on Top of the Pops – scaring the kids no doubt. Those two albums – their second and third – were produced by former Stones producer, Jimmy Miller, and defined the Motörhead sound; hard, fast and loud, but not particularly metal. They were a lot earthier sounding than most heavy metal bands – they didn't have that metallic ring to their sound - and of course, they didn't see themselves as heavy metal anyway. Even if the double kick drums that opened "Overkill" signalled the birth of speed-metal and thrash-metal.
Motörhead always saw themselves as a rock'n'roll band. And they swung like a rock'n'roll band. Lemmy, of course, had grown up on Little Richard and Elvis. He came of age in the '60s and loved the Yardbirds and Ronnie Wood's old band the Birds, and he roadied for Hendrix and took his inspiration for Motörhead from Detroit's legendary MC5, who combined the energy of R&B with the volume of the Who. Drummer Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor had been a teenage Rude Boy/Skin Head and loved soul music; likewise, guitarist "Fast" Eddie Clarke had previously played with American soul singer, Curtis Knight, who was best known for employing a young Jimi Hendrix in the mid-'60s. (Before joining Motörhead, Eddie was in a short-lived band called Continuous Performance alongside New Zealander Charlie Tumahai who had previously played in Australian bands Healing Force and Mississippi – thus providing only two degrees of separation between Motörhead and the Little River Band – and who would go onto join Be-Bop Deluxe). This wasn't a bunch of kids caught up in Black Sabbath or Deep Purple; these guys had roots and knew their shit. The band came out of the counter-culture – Lemmy had spent a few years in Hawkwind, and original Motörhead guitarist Larry Wallis came out of the Pink Fairies, so they were contrary guys for sure, and they were friends with some of the punks, the Damned in particular. So the pace and attitude came from that side of things. But they were older and liked long hair, and they hung out with Thin Lizzy a lot, and like Lizzy, they just kind of fell into the metal camp. But it served them well.
By mid-1980, Motörhead were starting to prepare for their next album. Ace of Spades would be released in November, followed by the collaborative 'Headgirl EP' St Valentine's Day Massacre, recorded with members of Girlschool (see our recent piece on Girlschool, here), both of which took them into the UK Top 10. The group would reach its commercial zenith in 1981 with the live No Sleep til Hammersmith album which debuted at #1. There would be some lean years ahead, but the work they did around this time is what the band's now-iconic status is based. That and Lemmy's almost mythological rock warhorse status, of course.
In honour of the momentous earth-moving that Motörhead were doing forty years ago, we're going to count down our favourite Motörhead tracks. ILYOS is thrilled to present this Dirty Dozen from the band that made Everything Louder Than Everything Else both a mission statement and a way of life.
12. "Stay Clean"
An ironic title to be sure from the dirtiest band in rock'n'roll, but "Stay Clean" is deathly serious, and speaks of Lemmy's attitude to life and the world around him. "Stay Clean" here means stay honest and stay away from the bullshit. It reminds me of the classic Dylan line "To live outside the law you must be honest," and I reckon Bob would dig a lot of what Lemmy sang. One of the triumvirate of three songs from Overkill that they never stopped playing and which helped define Motorhead's style. The other two are coming up.
11. "No Voices In The Sky"
Of numerous anti-organised religion Motörhead songs, "Orgasmatron" is one of the great and angrier ones, even though, for some reason, it takes its name from the relief-providing booth in Woody Allen's early sci-fi spoof, Sleepers. This stuff was personal for Lemmy, who was the son of a Bishop and had been abandoned by his father when he was three months old. It's also one of a handful of Motörhead tunes that could be called 'poppy.’ A highlight of their mighty 1991 album 1916, which saw them break in the US for the first time. This could almost be a Ramones tune. And indeed the same album included their fantastic tribute to the Ramones, "R.A.M.O.N.E.S."
10. "Stone Dead Forever"
This dark and dirty grind from their brilliant third album, Bomber shows that Motörhead could work with space and dynamics as well flat out tempos; Lemmy's bass here reminds me of the first note I heard him play when they hit the stage in Melbourne on their first Australian tour. That note that Lemmy played – he was just checking everything was working before they kicked into the first song – was, by itself, as loud and room-filling as any band I'd ever seen. My first thought was "this guy does’t even need a band.” A killer stop-start riff (of course, most Motörhead riffing starts and then doesn't stop) that boogies into a great bridge and chorus.
9. "We Are The Road Crew"
Sometimes even more insanity is revealed in the band's slower moments – perhaps when they're not flat out they can show off how mad they really are – and this is one of them. Of course, it's not slow by anyone else's standards, but the pacing enables them to capture the mania of life on the road, and an all-time great Motörhead's riff. A note of genuine affection to the wild and hard-working chaps who made it all happen, and an enduring highlight of their biggest ever album, Ace of Spades.
The title track of Bomber was inspired by a Len Deighton novel of the same name and was an early example of Lemmy's fascination with war. Lemmy was also known as a collector of Nazi paraphernalia from WW2, but let it be said clearly here that he revealed again and again in his lyrics that he was anti-war and anti-fascist. Lemmy was born the year the war ended and grew up in its shadow in a bombed-out London. For him and his mates, the Nazi's were, of course, the ultimate evil – Darth Vader's Empire in real life – and if you have any fascination for the dark side of human nature, the SS and their pals are pretty much going to top your interest list, along with Jack the Ripper or any serial killer of your choice. When Motörhead played this live, with air raid siren's screaming, the term heavy metal took on a whole new meaning.
7. "Iron Horse/Born To Lose"
Another slow one and the highlight, along with " Motörhead," of their first album, the one they recorded on 8-track back in 1977. This is their ode to bikers and their bikes, and it's a heavy, dirty bump and grind with a slithering riff that shows off their "Everything Louder Than Everything Else" mantra to perfection, as Lemmy's bass seems to dominate proceedings until Fast Eddie's guitar somehow squeezes itself in over the top. More great lyrics too; the lines "Wasted forever/Ferociously stoned" no doubt became a mantra to many of their fans.
6. "Just 'Cos You've Got The Power"
Unbelievably, just a B-side when it first appeared – appropriately, for like-minded but more amusing "Eat The Rich" – this grinding heavy blues number remained a live favourite to the end. It's also as overtly political as Motörhead ever got, and I can't help wishing there was more of it. It's plain-spoken and incredibly potent. Lemmy would invariably introduce this with something along the lines of, "It's a slow, beautiful and sensitive song about fat bastard businessmen who are stealing your money right now!"
5. "No Class"
Another classic from Overkill, and another track that's punk as f••k, even if it does borrow from Lemmy's beloved ZZ Top early classic "Tush.” (Motörhead had already covered ZZ Top's "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers" by this stage, and were probably influential in Girlschool covering "Tush" soon after). At first, I thought this one was a proud declaration about themselves, but then I realised, as I should've straight away, that these guys are ALL class, and this is aimed at someone who doesn't share their way of living and thinking. It works either way, I guess. It's a great outsider anthem, has a catchy riff and hook and was a long-time fan fave.
4. "Killed by Death"
One of the new tracks on the first Motörhead comp No Remorse, this was the first evidence of the post-Fast Eddie two-guitar line-up, with Wurzell and Eddie Campbell. Another one of those crazed mid-tempo numbers with a great groove; you can feel the speed hump rather than flying over it. The title gives the craziness away for sure - it shows off a love of the absurd, which is something we don't see enough of in rock - and it also inspired a series of rare punk compilations and in turn a retrospective genre name for obscure 70s punk rock.
The title track from the second album and Philthy discovers the hitherto unheard potential of the double kick drum. He made it sound like he was hitting a speed bag – with his feet – thus turning the studio and the stage into a boxing gym for 5 minutes or so. The pace was astounding, and if the rhythm had ever faltered, the whole thing would've collapsed. The sound of rock'n'roll played absolutely on edge; the sound of absolute risk and danger. And the birth of thrash metal. Then there's Lemmy's poetry, itself a love letter to rock'n'roll – "Only way to feel the noise is when it's good and loud."
2. "Ace of Spades"
I remember when this came out. I loved the Ramones and thought heavy metal was old fart stuff. It was the first Motörhead track I heard, and it rewrote the metal rule book – sounding like the Ramones compressed into the tread of a motorcycle tyre that was doing 100 mph on a straight road. It was faster than any known punk song other the Damned's "Love Song,” which, in hindsight, was pretty obviously influenced by earlier Motörhead! If Motörhead didn't inspire hardcore punk, nobody did. New producer Vic Maile, another rock'n'roll producer who'd worked with the likes of Dr Feelgood and who'd recently helped make Girlschool sound something akin to a female Motörhead, sharpened Motörhead 's sound just a tad, and they probably never sounded better. And what a great freaking song too hey? A young soul singer named Eli' Paperboy' Reed did a version a decade or so ago that turned into a seriously fantastic James Brown-style number – check it out.
Yeah, this pips the better-known ace in their deck because it is the sound of pure chaos. It ties their whole history together, and, of course, it's their theme song. Written and first recorded by Lemmy when he was in Hawkwind, the track had gained weight – muscle and some hard flab – when Motörhead's version was first released as their first single – on 7" and 12" – by Chiswick Records in 1977. That version was recorded on 8-track, and the sound of so much noise squeezed into so little space was akin to a tube of toothpaste emptying itself in a split second. The original Larry Wallis line-up had also recorded a fine version, but that wasn't released till later, and it's not really a patch on the single version, or the later No Sleep Til Hammersmith live version. This is a rock'n'roll hurricane. Where their best subsequent stuff tended to have the mono-directional fury of a pile driver, this has the fury, but it's pushing and pulling in all directions at once. It's a living heap of sound, in motion. And that momentary break down between the two guitar solos? Lemmy always said he wanted Motörhead to be the band that, if they moved in next door, your lawn would die. That moment is the death of lawns across the universe.
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