Graded on a Curve: Motörhead,
Ace of Spades

We remember Motörhead’s “Fast Eddie” Clarke who passed away on Wednesday, January 10 with a look back from our archives. Ed.

Well, the impossible has transpired. Lemmy Kilmister is dead. I was convinced he was immortal, but he finally drew the Ace of Spades, and is no doubt in Hades as I write this, turning the Dark One on to some good old-fashioned amphetamine-fueled biker bar jukebox rock’n’roll. And the Dark One is undoubtedly crouched in a corner with his fingers in his ears, wishing Lemmy (vain hope!) would turn it down a notch.

Motörhead’s 1980 LP Ace of Spades—the band’s fourth—is without a doubt my all-time favorite proto-thrash LP, or any metal album for that matter, and the world would be unimaginable without it. It’s a nonstop blitzkrieg of raunch’n’roll, what with its high velocities and Lemmy’s hoarse croak; this isn’t just speed metal, it’s an 18-wheeler with no brakes descending a steep grade straight to Hell. Lemmy sings about all his favorite memes: poker (although in real life he preferred the slots), jailbait, drugs and more drugs, high-speed driving, burning hotels, and making the audience’s ears bleed.

In short, it’s the ferocious salvo of a band led by a fiercely independent spirit who got kicked out of Hawkwind for, as he himself put it, “doing the wrong drugs.” To which I can only say, if the drugs that produced this album are wrong, I don’t want to be right. It’s possibly the perfect album with the exception of “Dance,” which will pound you like a deranged gorilla but boasts a very un-Lemmy set of lyrics about, well, dancing. Me, I don’t want to hear Lemmy sing encomiums to dancing—I want him to sing about how he, as he puts it in the great “Jailbait,” “loves that young stuff,” thereby joining in the select company of Mick Jagger, Van Morrison, Bill Wyman, and assorted others.

For 40 years Motörhead pounded eardrums with their speedfreak rock, but you don’t have to be a tweaker to enjoy it. All you need are ears and a desire to “get yourself some original sin…no remorse!” Needless to say Lemmy has the world’s greatest heavy metal voice, gritty and relentless, and it makes songs like “(We Are) the Road Crew” impossible to resist. He sounds like he’s lived on the wrong side of the tracks forever, and it’s his vocals and general attitude that have always made me doubt the claim that Ace of Spades is a forerunner of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, not one of whose bands can lick Motörhead’s boots. Lemmy always said Motörhead played “rock’n’roll” and that’s what it sounds like to me: there’s more Jerry Lee Lewis in the band’s furious beats than Def Leppard, one-armed drummer and all.

It can hardly be said that Motörhead never got no respect, but the rock critics I care about were strangely oblivious to their charms, or lack thereof. Chuck Eddy didn’t even include Ace of Spades in the top 200 LPs in his indispensible tome, Stairway to Hell: The Top 500 Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe. Instead he placed them far behind the swill that is Rush’s Permanent Waves and Def Leppard’s Hysteria. The top 200! Anyone with nerve endings and a working brain has no recourse but to put it at No. 2 behind The Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy, which wins top honors due to its off-the-charts hilarity factor.

Motörhead won hearts and minds the old-fashioned way—by singing about the issues important to 16-year-old boys and saying to hell with attracting a female audience. They were the antithesis of pretty boy hair metal, and their appearance—which can only be called outlaw biker chic, that is when they weren’t in Wild West getup—lent them a patina of danger and menace that bands like Poison, Precious Metal, and Electric Angels could only wish they had. So what if their groupies probably weren’t as good looking? Lemmy never struck me as particularly choosy, although he did seem to have a hankering for the underaged underachiever.

“Ace of Spades” gets my vote for best metal song ever, in any division, but Motörhead hardly pauses for breath after the title cut. Instead Lemmy sings about reptile love and the hard life of the road, while guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke and drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor play rip-roaring riffs behind him, every one of them as catchy as they are mean. Clarke in particular is my prototype of a great guitarist; he can be heavy, he can be mean, but he’s not afraid to let rip on the solos, and rip he does. Take the instrumental on “Love Me Like a Reptile.” Or his monumental riff on “Shoot You in the Back,” in which he also plays an incredible solo on wah-wah guitar. And his work on (“We Are) the Roadcrew” is truly brilliant.

I could go on and on. But I doubt Lemmy would appreciate a critic trying to put his songs into mere words, so I’m not even going to try. Suffice it to say that when he sings, “Anarchy is coming in” he means it, in the form of a guitar solo so tremendous it causes my synapses to buzz like bug zappers. Motörhead was one of a kind, sui generis; they weren’t “smart” in the way the Rolling Stones are, and after wracking my brain for hours the closest comparison I can come to them is AC/DC. Both bands simplified their sound to the bare essentials, eschewed gimmicks, and simply delivered up one great album after another, filled with songs about subjects that never strayed far from sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. But Motörhead looked filthier, and I like them more than AC/DC for that reason.

There will never be another Motörhead, but we’ll always have Ace of Spades, with its relentless barrage of fast-moving tunes (no power ballads for these guys). They were as pure as the driven slush, as Tallulah Bankhead once described herself, and did exactly what they wanted, making no concessions to trends or popularity or anything else. In short they didn’t give a shit, and that’s as rock’n’roll as it gets. I recently wrote about the Stones and “Hot Stuff,” on which they desperately attempt to sound up to date. Motörhead never made an attempt to sound contemporary or to cash in one the current trend because they were timeless. Formulaic? Sure. But when you happen upon a formula as great as Motörhead’s you stick with it. I’ve never tired of their outlaw biker approach to rock, and I never will. RIP Lemmy. We won’t be seeing your likes again. Oh, and don’t forget the joker!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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