Motörhead, Ace of Spades (October 1980) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 20

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:

Oh yeah.

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.)

8 responses to “Motörhead, Ace of Spades (October 1980) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 20

  1. “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.”

    Yes I think charm is the right word. There’s a clip of an old back-in-the-day Stones fan exulting “they’re so ugly they’re appealing!” The same’s true for Motorhead.

    ”I love any given Motörhead song, but that by the time I’ve heard two or three in succession, I’m about done.”

    I shall not be so uncharitable as to say that I was thirty seconds into the Whitesnake track before I was done. Instead I’ll concede I know what you mean. With some bands trying to listen to a whole album is a bit like trying to run the 100 metres fourteen times, rather than go for a jog. (And if you think that’s true of Motorhead, try Alec Empire. Three tracks in succession is somewhere between an epiphany and an endurance test.) That would of course fit Lemmy’s description of them as a rock’n’roll band, as that genre was primarily about singles, and partly explains how one of the more radical-sounding bands of the era came to have so many hits. Plus, if asked to name one of their albums, I think most folk would pick the live one.

    But for whatever reason pioneers of a genre often don’t like to be told what they’ve done. Over in the land of punk, Minor Threat didn’t like being told they were hardcore, or Rites of Spring emo. Plus Lemmy is often ambiguous as to whether he is saying Motorhead play rock’n’roll, or whether its all rock’n’roll to him and people who fixate on the difference between black metal and death metal are merely hairsplitting. Artists don’t always get the last word on their art.

    If I might summarise my argument, m’lud, I think Motorhead are metal.

  2. I’m sorry (but not at all surprised) that the Whitesnake did nothing for you. I have to admit that, since I wrote that post, Fool for Your Loving has been running through my mind constantly. We’ve been asked to provide danceable songs for a wedding in December, and I am trying to persuade myself that we can legitimately slip it into the set. (The reality is, we’ll probably be doing I’m a Believer and Never Gonna Give You Up. *sigh*)

    I am sympathetic to Lemmy’s reluctance to have Motörhead classified as metal. Yes, they’re hard and they’re fast; but I was struck by his singling out Judas Priest as a band that he feels they have nothing in common with. It’s true: everything about their approaches is different, from the guitar tone via the vocal approach to the harmonic language.

  3. Pingback: Ozzy Ozbourne, Crazy Train (September 1980) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 19 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  4. (Update: we did do both I’m a Believer and Never Gonna Give You Up. And I’m not ashamed to say I loved it.)

  5. You dont know what Motorhead is, you dont know where they came from. You dont know what rnr is, and you dont know what metal is. Motorhead is not metal, they are rnr. Music industry propaganda pushing them in metal but they can fuck off. “On Parole”, “Motorhead” and three live albums before Overkill all had three new songs, all songs are from Hawkwind, Pink Fairies, Larry Wallis and covers. Thats not metal. Metal as Scene did not existed before 1980/1981, in those years it was NWOBHM. Motorhead came before that and before punk. Two bands Sabbath and Priest are not Scene. You have to have more than two bands to call something Scene. Nobody, specialy, not massive use in 70’s word ‘metal’, it never existed than. Stupid teen metal fans hear metal in Mozart too :D. I have extremeyl big knowledge about genres and who created them, and all about music industry propaganda who manipulate with people same as politicians. Here: http://www.udr-music.com/index.php/en/motorhead-band/379-motoerhead-lemmy-interview-spiegel

    Chuck Berry, Beatles, Hawkwind, Motorhead, John Lennon “Imagine” phylosophy is not the same as teenager Iron Maiden 666 the number of the beast child thing and Cannibal Corpse.

    Yes, there are influences, they didnt came from planet Mars, right? But begining of rnr started from connection of Jazz and Blues, but I dont say that Motorhead is Jazz or Blues band (even they have some blues songs and many solos). Except pure music, from late 60’s lyrics became very important, you will find out how Motorhead have lyrics/way of thinkin if you want like Lennon “Imagine” song, music is not my taste on that song but lyrics are pure definition what rnr as, like Lemmy say “Religion”, is. In Motorhead many monthy python humor etc.. too. As well as those facts from first post. Now, listen lyrics of metal, ’66 the number of the beast’ shit, horro movies, devils or whatever, teen stuff. Motorhead and rnr is for grown up people, metal is for teens. That doesnt mean there are no smart teens too. Than metal propaganda about long hair or leather jackets even we know that long hair got hippy’s before and leather jacket even James Dean had in 50’s and rnr people BUT if you have long hair today and leather jacket with Motorhead shirt, 90 percent people will say ‘oh look meta fan..’, why? Who putt that in people’s head? Thats media propaganda on which you grew up as a teen and you think that this is yours opinion, its not, its what they put inside your head. Music industry propaganda use the same tactics as politicians, + marketing PR to sell bettter their product, they think music is not art, for them its product like bottle of beer. This stuff about music world people forget and dont understand. Rnr had evolution, like Miles Davis and Jazz from 50’s is not like in 80’s. Rnr is: rnr, rock (short from rnr name), hard rock (harder sound), psych and prog. Metal is something else. Continue in next post.

  6. …part 2. Than Music Industry must have ‘gods’ in music, make them ‘gods’ like Rolling Stones, or Beatles etc… because if they dont have ‘gods’ they will not make money. You cant earn money on some band which noone heard about. Those bands were next generation of rnr, than Motorhead came to be third generation with more progresive atitude in rnr, but industry said ‘no’, they must be ‘something else’ (???). Because, you cant be more than ‘gods’, they will not make big money anymore than, so they must be something else. In those days without internet, with record deals is everything, your future, and those managers they dont care about music only profit, and they will change and push everythiing for money. They didnt want Motorhead in anything, they dont sound like metal but they are to noisy for that what music industry said is rnr (!!!) can you imagine that? THEY who never had guitar in their hands will say what is rnr. They had trouble to release any album at begining etc… Than music industry wanted more money, so they decided to every period of evolution in rnr genre should be genre for itself, and thats how they should talk to masses of people throu media. They didnt want only few ‘gods’, they wanted a couple of ‘gods’ in every new “genre” etc…. Like Lemmy said, people from that bussines are realy disgusting. Problem is masses of people trust media, and dont learn anything, so they have perception on music wht media told them from when they were a little kids to this days. Lemmy say one thing “I dont like metal (for Spiegel) we are rnr, and SOME media completely other thing. Its a long story this is just small part of Lemmy’s fight against idustry propaganda.

  7. You dont know what Motorhead is, you dont know where they came from. You dont know what rnr is, and you dont know what metal is.

    Hi, Lucas, it’s always refreshing to meet someone with such direct opinions.

    Motorhead is not metal, they are rnr.

    As noted in the article, “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”. But however much might wish it were otherwise, the fact is that a band doesn’t get to define once and forever what its style of music is called. Names for styles of music evolve over time (just look at what R’n’B means now!). Ultimately, words mean what the majority of people use them to mean: “gay” no longer means carefree and joyful, as Agatha Christie used it; and the terms “rock and roll” and “heavy metal” have undergone similar shifts.

    Nobody, specialy, not massive use in 70’s word ‘metal’, it never existed than.

    Speaking as one who grew up in the 70s, I can attest that this is simply incorrect — at least as regards the end of the 70s. The early albums of bands like Rainbow absolutely were considered to be heavy metal.

    What is true is that they bore little resemblance to the music that people now most often mean when they use the term. But as I said, the meanings of terms shift.

    if you want like Lennon “Imagine” song, music is not my taste on that song but lyrics are pure definition what rnr as

    I’m struggling to parse that sentence, but are you saying that the lyrics of Lennon’s Imagine exemplify rock and roll? If so, then I am going to have to disagree. Historically, rock and roll began with the cars-and-girls songs of Chuck Berry, and Lieber and Stoller. Philosophy — even the rather painful lower-sixth-form variety of Imagine — would never have occurred to these writers as a suitable subject for rock and roll: indeed the very novelty of such subject matter in Lennon’s song is probably a big part of why it was perceived as so innovatory when it was released.

    Motorhead and rnr is for grown up people, metal is for teens.

    Again, history says different. The early rock and roll of people like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis was very explicitly addressed to the concerns of teenagers, then a newly emerged demographic and one that the record labels saw as an important new source of income. Rock and roll was for teens.

  8. Hi Mike!
    Reply on your posts:
    1. “Again, history says different. The early rock and roll of people like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis was very explicitly addressed to the concerns of teenagers, then a newly emerged demographic and one that the record labels saw as an important new source of income. Rock and roll was for teens.”

    – Yes. Thats true. But I was not talking about rnr from 50’s.

    2. “I’m struggling to parse that sentence, but are you saying that the lyrics of Lennon’s Imagine exemplify rock and roll? If so, then I am going to have to disagree. Historically, rock and roll began with the cars-and-girls songs of Chuck Berry, and Lieber and Stoller. Philosophy — even the rather painful lower-sixth-form variety of Imagine — would never have occurred to these writers as a suitable subject for rock and roll: indeed the very novelty of such subject matter in Lennon’s song is probably a big part of why it was perceived as so innovatory when it was released.”

    – You need to understand “Imagine” lyrics. Than to understand Motorhead lyrics abut same subject. Than listen Lemmy, you will understand what Motrhead and rnr is.

    3. “Speaking as one who grew up in the 70s, I can attest that this is simply incorrect — at least as regards the end of the 70s. The early albums of bands like Rainbow absolutely were considered to be heavy metal.

    What is true is that they bore little resemblance to the music that people now most often mean when they use the term. But as I said, the meanings of terms shift.”

    – depends where you lived Mike in those days. End of 70’s means what? 1979? Massive use of term metal didnt existed

    4. “As noted in the article, “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”. But however much might wish it were otherwise, the fact is that a band doesn’t get to define once and forever what its style of music is called. Names for styles of music evolve over time (just look at what R’n’B means now!). Ultimately, words mean what the majority of people use them to mean: “gay” no longer means carefree and joyful, as Agatha Christie used it; and the terms “rock and roll” and “heavy metal” have undergone similar shifts.”

    – Yes, and there is business desicions about songs too. They always make one or two songs metal on albums (specialy from 1990) and drest of it is classic Motorhead, because music industry propaganda push them to metal and if they want to live from music must make something for that audience, they dont realy like it.

    It was pleasure talking to you. Most of the people are not that relaxed when this subject come, becase they have one picture in their head, if you tuch that even talking the thruth, they will feel they are under “attack”. Cheers

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