Wasn’t 1980 a great year for metal? We have Iron Maiden‘s NWOBHM, Judas Priest‘s radical simplification, Whitesnake‘s last great album before their slide into glam-metal, Ozzy Osbourne‘s solo debut, and now Motörhead’s signature song. Enjoy 1980, because we won’t return to this series until another full decade has passed. But for now, here’s Lemmy:
Motörhead have never described themselves as a heavy metal band, in fact they have explicitly disclaimed that label. (Lemmy has said he feels they have nothing in common with Judas Priest.) So far as he’s concerned they’re just a rock ‘n’ roll band — one that plays loud and fast. The other style that seems to peek through is punk rock, both in the simplistic song structures and the attitude. Yet, paradoxically, in the shift of meaning that seems to have taken place in the meaning of “heavy metal” — a term that started out as synonymous with “hard rock” but has drifted to mean something faster, harder, more distorted and less bluesy — Motörhead are one of the bands most often cited as driving that transition.
Motörhead is Lemmy’s band. He’s the bassist and vocalist. Although the roster of guitarists and drummers has shifted through the years (and Motörhead are now in their 39th consecutive year), the sound has remained pretty constant. It’s driven by Lemmy’s very distinctive bass style, which is informed by his background as a rhythm guitarist. He uses a lot of open-string drones and power-chords. That, together with the tone he uses (bass and treble both turned down low but lots of middle) and his habit of overdriving his amplifiers means that his bass-playing sounds a lot like a second guitar. Throw in his equally distinctive rasping vocal style and you have a band that truly sounds like no other.
Ace of Spades is from the album of the same name — their fourth album, or fifth if you count the initially unreleased On Parole. By this time their style was well established, and Ace of Spades is a superb example. It was also their highest-charting studio single, reaching #15 in the UK.
It launches on a distorted bassline, lunges into a monstrous guitar riff (an E power-chord with the 5th hurtling down through the semitones via the diminished 5th to the 4th), then opens out into a classic Motörhead lyric: “If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man / You win some, you lose some, it’s all the same to me”. Commenting at the end of each line is another simple but brilliant guitar figure, string-bending parallel fourths up at the top end of the guitar. The bridge continues with the same breakneck momentum even as the instruments drop out, and the lone vocal tells us “You know I’m born to lose, that gambling’s for fools / But that’s the way I like it baby, I don’t wanna live forever” — an ironic line from a band that’s still going strong 34 years later. The guitar solo is perfunctory: in the memorable words of NME, just long enough to open another bottle of beer. Then we’re into a final verse, and a brutally efficient ending that winds up the whole song in less than three minutes.
Motörhead are not a sophisticated band. Their charm (and I think that’s the right word) is precisely that they never aspired to be. They know what they like, and they do it with absolute conviction. Even if their style of music is not one you particularly enjoy, it’s hard not to admire them for it.
(For what it’s worth, my own take is that I love any given Motörhead song, but that by the time I’ve heard two or three in succession, I’m about done.)