Live to Win: Motörhead Revisited

By Adrien Begrand

“We are Motörhead, and we play rock ‘n’ roll.”

Harder, heavier, faster. Formed by one Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, speed freak, bass player, and former member of space rockers Hawkwind, with the intention of taking the sound of the MC5 to another, altogether louder level, Motörhead (so named after a Hawkwind tune) flew in the complete opposite direction of the overblown progressive rock bands, offered a much looser, stripped down alternative to second wave heavy metal bands like Judas Priest and Rainbow, and arrogantly spat back into the collective faces of the punk crowd. With Lemmy playing bass notes so distorted, he might as well have been playing guitar, guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke letting loose frenzied, blues-based riffs, and young drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor hammering away on his drumkit like a certain skin-pounding muppet would do on TV a few years later, this was rock music pushed to its most extreme, yet reduced to its most primal at the same time. Ironically, the stupefying simplicity of it all, defied categorization. Sure, Motörhead peaked right as the nascent New Wave of British Heavy Metal was itself set to explode, and profoundly influenced the entire metal genre as it entered the 80s, but in reality, Motörhead’s music, sung by that mutton-chopped hoodlum with a tuneless rasp for a voice, was as old school rock ‘n’ roll as it could ever get.

With 18 studio albums in 30 years, Motörhead has proven to be one of the most resilient bands of all time, unwilling to rest on its laurels, as they not only continue to tour relentlessly today, but their studio output is always at a consistently high level. This despite the fact that Lemmy and his boys have milked the same sound for more than three decades now. Sure, there have been a few departures from time to time, like 1986’s Bill Laswell-produced Orgasmatron, but if there’s anyone who knows never to fix it if it ain’t broken, it’s Motörhead. As formulaic as their music is, it always satisfies. There are some metal bands whom we want to challenge us by doing something new each time out, but others, like Motörhead, are the musical version of comfort food, a band you can always count on for a quality album and a spectacular live show.

As much as Lemmy wants to keep his eyes focused on what’s ahead of him, every so often, he has to deal with the desire for fans, critics, and record company execs to look back on a long career. When you’re closing in on your 60th birthday, it goes with the territory, which he knows full well, and there has been a plethora of retrospective releases, from several best-of compilations, the outstanding Stone Deaf Forever box set, and the man’s own autobiography, White Line Fever, which was published in 2004. Every five years, record companies find more excuses to continue to exhaust the whole retro thing, but in 2005, the folks at Sanctuary Records came up with a rather good idea, releasing the band’s key studio albums from 1979 to 1982, in newly expanded form, giving both longtime fans and new young listeners definitive looks at some truly seminal pieces of work.

After a single for the hip UK label Stiff Records (“Leaving Here”/”White Line Fever”), a good debut album in 1977, and a fun cover of “Louie Louie” that miraculously hit #68 in the UK and got the band an appearance on Top of the Pops in 1978, momentum was certainly in Motörhead’s favor by the time 1979 rolled around. The band had a rapidly growing fanbase, a well-known producer in Jimmy Miller (who had previously worked with The Rolling Stones), and, probably most importantly, Taylor had a new drum kit, complete with two kick drums. It was Taylor’s showing off of his new double-bass beats that not only spawned “Overkill”, a classic double-time track that was built around his goofing around, but set the template that Motorhead would follow for good, profoundly influencing a generation of young metal musicians in the process.

1979’s Overkill might begin with that colossal live staple of the same name, but the album hardly ends there, as the trio performs with a tenacity and focus that their early material was desperately missing, the overall tone of the music abrasive and thunderous, built around Lemmy’s super-distorted bass and Taylor’s primitive thuds and crashes. The band show some true depth, not just going for speed all the time, as “Stay Clean”, “Metropolis”, “I’ll Be Your Sister”, and “Capricorn” all strut with a badass swagger, Clarke’s sinewy, blues-infused licks adding just the right amount of sleaze to Lemmy’s libidinous lyrics. If anything, the album peaks during the latter half, first on the raucous “No Class”, and then with the brutal stomp of “Damage Case” and the aggressive, lecherous “Tear Ya Down”. Along with the band’s 1978 Peel Session and a 1979 live BBC performance, some key bonus tracks are included, most notably the original A-side “Louie Louie” (two alternate versions are also present) and b-sides “Like a Nightmare” and “Too Late Too Late”, the latter of which ranking among the most revered non-album tracks in the band’s discography.

Released later that same year, Bomber might have topped its predecessor as far as UK chart position was concerned (#12 to Overkill‘s 24), but despite the presence of such stalwart tracks as “Dead Men Tell No Tales”, “Stone Dead Forever”, and the roaring title track, it sounded too rushed overall (two albums in six months will do that), and sounded too much like a sequel, as opposed to Overkill‘s authoritative mission statement. Still, the table had been set. Motörhead were on the cusp of something huge, and 12 months later, they would kick off the 1980s in style, starting with That Song.

Every great rock band has that one song that captures the imagination of audiences to the point where it becomes both a ubiquitous concert fave and a song that defined an era. Zeppelin had “Stairway to Heaven”, Deep Purple had “Smoke on the Water”, Sabbath had “Paranoid”, and Motörhead has “Ace of Spades”. The sonic equivalent to spontaneous combustion, it begins with Lemmy’s famous two-note riff which forms the basis for the entire track, with Taylor revving the engine with his snare, and in the blink of an eye, pow, they’re off and running at a speed metal clip, which was, at the time, unmatched by anyone. As the song cruises along at breakneck speed, Lemmy sneers those famous lyrics that some consider a dark metaphor for life, while others (like Lemmy himself) think it’s just about a card game; nevertheless, however you interpret it, his words pack a punch, climaxing with the verse, “You know I’m going to lose/And gambling’s for fools/But that’s the way I like it, baby, I don’t wanna live forever.” Concluding with a brilliant, screaming guitar solo that is arguably Clarke’s finest hour, “Ace of Spades” leaves listeners catching their collective breath, and no matter how many times you hear it, its impact never diminishes.

The rest of Ace of Spades is stacked with classics, making its 36 minute running time all the more impressive. “Shoot You in the Back” serves up an inspired Wild West motif, highlighted by Clarke’s versatile guitar work (from the slithery opening riff to the fantastic wah-wah solo), “We Are the Roadcrew” is a furious, dryly funny tribute to the unsung heroes of the touring life, and “Jailbait” is as lecherous as the title would indicate. As good as the title track is, though, the band save the best for last, first with the 90 second run-through of “Bite the Bullet”, which then segues into a real masterpiece in the form of “The Chase is Better Than the Catch”, arguably the best song in the band’s entire catalog. With its simple, three chord riff and Taylor’s snare/cymbal accents as subtle as a ball-peen hammer hitting a skull, “Chase” grooves like no other Motörhead track, before or since. Lemmy is in full stalker mode, growling, “A little beauty, I love you madly/Come on home with me/I know you’re hot/I know what you’ve got/You know I want to shake your tree.” After a sinister breakdown which has things quieting down in the wake of Lemmy’s eerie pleas of “I can’t hear ya,” Clarke takes over, in a soaring solo to cap off the song. For all the praise “Ace of Spades” gets, “The Chase is Better Than the Catch” is Motörhead at their most nuanced, one of the most thrilling musical moments in ’80s metal.

A huge reason for the success of Ace of Spades is the work of producer Vic Maille, who has the band increasing their intensity tenfold, and sounding much tighter than they sounded on their 70s releases. The biggest improvement is the performance of Taylor, who is as savage as ever, but displays a control over his beats that he would never match on record again, his backbeats sharp and robust, his frenzied fills possessing tremendous flair. The bonus tracks are fascinating, offering us glimpses of the songs in their formative stages, most notably the title track, which sounds completely different, not to mention more tentative, than the final product. The trademark Motörhead sound is there, warts and all, but unlike the band’s work with Miller on the two previous records, Ace of Spades is flawless in comparison. Which also makes 1982’s follow-up Iron Fist all the more perplexing.

With the enormous success of both Ace of Spades and the immortal 1981 live album No Sleep Till Hammersmith (which shocked many by debuting at #1 in the UK), expectations from fans were justifiably high, but critics were also waiting in the wings, knives sharpened, eager to see how Motörhead could possibly follow up two masterpieces successfully. While the album kicked off, for the fifth consecutive time, with a typically fast, fiery title track, the rest of Iron Fist, from the band’s performance, to Lemmy’s voice, to the no-frills production by Clarke, sounded both weary and rushed, and the band were critically lambasted for it. As the decades have passed, though, the album still holds its own decently enough, as “Heart of Stone”, the hilarious “Sex & Outrage”, and “(Don’t Need) Religion” highlight a surprisingly pedestrian record that, despite the power, sounds a bit too safe.

You’ve got to hand it to those sly Sanctuary people, though, as Iron Fist boasts the best bonus tracks of the entire reissue series, featuring a full live set recorded in Toronto in 1982. Supposedly recorded during the band’s opening stint with Judas Priest, what it lacks in sound quality is made up for in ferocity, as the trio tear through 14 songs in 45 minutes in a face-melting, skull-crushing set. While it’s nowhere near the great recording that Hammersmith is, it’s an enthrallingly sloppy performance. Taylor is constantly on the verge of veering wildly out of control, as Clarke ably keeps up with the maniacal pace; the set is in constant danger of becoming a complete trainwreck at any second, yet it never happens, and that edge holds our attention throughout.

In addition to the album reissues is a new two-disc compilation of Motörhead’s BBC appearances between 1978 and 1986. Although most of the songs presented on BBC Live & In-Session appear on either the aforementioned reissues or the Stone Deaf Forever box set, it’s nice to have all the sessions collected in one single volume, in their entirety. While the 1978 Peel Session is decidedly straight-laced, the In-Concert set from a year later is sheer insanity by comparison, performed in front of an enthusiastic bunch of fans in a theater staffed with ill-prepared technicians (hence the, erm, dubious sound quality). The 1981 studio session, on the other hand, is brilliant, a snapshot of the band at their peak, highlighted by energetic renditions of the “White Line Fever” and “The Chase is Better Than the Catch”. The best of the lot is the 1986 session, during which a completely revamped Motörhead, expanded to a quartet (with Clarke and Taylor long gone), perform such middle-period Motörhead classics as “Doctor Rock”, “Killed By Death”, and “Orgasmatron”. The CD, while not essential for casual listeners, is a good one for Motörhead completists, despite the fact that most fans have already heard many of these tracks before.

In the wake of Iron Fist, tensions mounted between the members. Clarke left after Lemmy’s novelty duet with Wendy O. Williams “Stand By Your Man” (promptly teaming up with UFO bassist Pete Way to form Fastway), only to be replaced by former Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson on the vastly underrated Another Perfect Day in 1983. Robertson would be out a year later, and Taylor soon followed not long after the fine greatest hits collection No Remorse hit stores in 1984. Although the lineup was given a serious overhaul for 1986’s Orgasmatron, Motörhead was reinvigorated, and young guitarist Phil Campbell would remain with the band to this day, making him the band’s second longest-serving member.

Today, Motörhead continue to churn out the good music (“In the Name of Tragedy” is their best song in ages, I tell you) and blow away audiences worldwide with the most deafening show around. If anything, they’re a better band than they’ve been in a very long time these days: drummer Mikkey Dee (who has been with the band since 1992) is the best drummer the band has ever had, the amiable Welshman Campbell is as reliable and versatile as ever, and Lemmy…well, Lemmy continues to wear that Iron Cross around his neck, sip Jack & Coke between songs, hammer away at that Rickenbacker bass of his, strain his neck towards that microphone, and emit the exact same growl as he did in 1975. Rock music’s true indefatigable warrior, Mr. Kilminster might be approaching retirement age, but we all know he ain’t goin’ nowhere. We fans might have loads of fun exploring these fantastic Sanctuary reissues, but Lemmy and Motörhead will keep on chuggin’ away, the left wheels of the bus glued to that white line on the road, their eyes forever locked on the horizon. May they never die.

Originally published by Static Multimedia in 2005.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.