Graded on a Curve: Motörhead,
No sleep ‘til Hammersmith

On which the late metal minimalist/ genius/ proud-to-be-a-lummox Lemmy Kilmister delivers the hard rock goods live in a couple of halls not including London’s Hammersmith Odeon. No sleep ‘til Hammersmith features Motörhead at their ferocious and pummeling best, and is the perfect corrective to the lyrical excesses, grand themes, and emphasis on musical virtuosity that characterized much of the metal then popular. Call them the anti-Rush.

With the able assistance of “Fast” Eddie Clarke on guitar and backing vocals and Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor on drums, Lemmy bangs out some tunes (most of them of unfashionably short length and unfashionably fast tempos), announces in DIY fashion that Motörhead is its own damn road crew, and demonstrates that his very hoarse bark has real bite.

Kilmister possessed not a whit of glamor and about as much charm, but that’s exactly what made him so lovable; he wasn’t good looking, his tonsils hardly made the little girls swoon, and when push came to shove he was the perfect antithesis of, say, Robert Plant. “No Class” is addressed to (or so I suspect) some anonymous groupie hanger-on, but Lemmy would no doubt have agreed it applied to him as well; he had about as much class as your average lorry driver, and never pretended to have better manners than your average lorry driver.

In short, you could relate to Lemmy Kilmister. He sang about all of the things you cared about, and said fuck it to the darkest depths of Mordor. He was a creature of the road and of the tedium and excesses that entailed, didn’t give a shit about Xanadu or hobbits, and didn’t want to write the next “Stairway to Heaven” either. He was down to earth, didn’t look like he placed a very high premium on personal hygiene, and probably would have come in handy in a bar fight. He’s as close as English music has ever come to producing an outlaw country musician.

I love Motörhead for the same reason I love AC/DC; both bands kept it as simple as a kick to the bullocks. But I like Motörhead more because (1) they played ‘em faster and (2) Lemmy’s grizzled roar was the perfect delivery mechanism for Motörhead’s raw sewage swagger. The guy sounds like he swallowed a couple of razor blades before he the curtain went up, then washed ‘em down with whisky, cigarettes, and some very biblical nestles. If a battered Triumph motorcycle engine could sing, it would sound like Lemmy.

And No sleep ‘til Hammersmith was recorded at the most opportune of times, capturing Motörhead at their peak. I may be alone on this one, but their later LPs possess a sheen and polish where I prefer grit. Robert Christgau may have liked the “fierce clarity” that later producer Bill Laswell’ brought to their sound, but I’m a mud and grit guy myself. Remember all those SST records people accused poor Spot (the Phil Spector of Murk) of ruining? I liked ‘em all!

And speaking of punks, England’s greatest power trio (Cream? Bah!) did more to bring punk and heavy metal together than anybody this side of Kix. They did it by means of tempo, mainly, but mood had a lot to do with it as well; Lemmy may have been too much the grizzled road warrior to be a gob young punk, but his sense of humor and fuck it all attitude are the hallmarks of a guy taking the piss, and if taking the piss ain’t punk, what is?

The songs on this great live document can be separated into fast and faster, and I’ll let you guess which I like better. The best of the faster ones is “Ace of Spades,” which is speed metal at its most stripped down and proof positive that Lemmy’s taste in illicit chemicals didn’t run to downers. “The Hammer” is less hammer than nail gun, and “Philthy Animal” Taylor is the guy operating the damn thing. On “No Class” the din even overwhelms even Lemmy; you can literally hear him going hoarse trying to sing above the mayhem.

“Overkill” is just that; it’s faster, harder and meaner than the competition, right down to Taylor’s twin bass drum bash. “Bomber” is the sound of the London Blitz making its way back to London for a second go round; “It’s a bomber, it’s a bomber, it’s a bomber” croaks Lemmy, before Clarke launches into one of his patented back-to-basics guitar turns. And I love both Lemmy’s “Na na na na” and the 19th nervous breakdown at the end. Which leads us, of course, to “Motörhead,” the last song Lemmy ever wrote for his old band Hawkwind.

My faves amongst the slower fast ones include “Stay Clean,” on which Lemmy declares he can’t abide little white lies and comes out front on bass as well. Then there’s “(We Are) The Roadcrew,” on which Lemmy speed raps about the travails of life on the road only to conclude, “But I just love the life I lead/Another beer is what I need/Another gig my ears bleed/We are the road crew.” Junk food, groupies, super glue, and a new set of scars; it’s a helluva life Lemmy leads, having to memorize the capitols of Europe and all, but it’s the only life he knows.

As for “Metropolis” it’s heavier than heaven, and Clarke’s wah-wah guitar is heavenly indeed. On “Iron Horse/Born to Lose” Lemmy rides the “motorcycle as iron horse” meme to the grave; “Loaded forever and ferociously stoned,” he sings, while Clarke goes totally blotter acid on guitar. “This one is a slow one,” announces Lemmy before going into “Capricorn,” but Lemmy’s slow is another man’s fast just as Lemmy’s week is another man’s year, and Black Sabbath rarely moved so nimbly. And once again Taylor proves he has the biggest and baddest backbeat in the biz.

To paraphrase The Most Interesting Man in the World, I don’t always listen to heavy metal, but when I do it’s Motörhead. They’re leaner, meaner, and yes funnier than the competition, and a wonderful cure for a headache (the remedy has to be worse than the disease). Toss in the fact that they owe nothing to the blues and you positively cannot dance to them, and what you have is the greatest heavy metal band in the history of the world. The sleaziest one too. And unlike fleeting joy, sleaze is forever.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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