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Ain't a hope in hell, Nothin' gonna bring us down, The way we fly, Five miles off the ground
One morning during the school holidays, sometime in the late 80’s, my cousin woke me up by BLARING this at full blast.
Most Heavy Metal historians use the release of Black Sabbath’s first album as the birth of Metal. The industrial accident where Tony Iommi lost his finger tips and had to adjust his guitar playing style is well documented, and has taken on an epic, birth of the hero type thing in Metal lore. That is as good a starting point as any, though there are other contenders for first Metal band.
Steppenwolf used the phrase ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ in their iconic track ‘Born to be Wild’ in 1968. That predates Ozzy, Tony, Bill, & Geezer by a year. Blue Cheer had released a flurry of Protometal albums from 68 onwards. There were others around the same time.
Hawkwind were one of these protometal bands. They were formed in 1969, but really only got going when they started collaborating with Fantasy author Michael Moorcock and doing loads of psychedelic drugs. They then added two female dancers to their live act (who often performed wearing only body paint). They also went through a few different bass players, finally settling on one by the name of Ian Fraser Kilmister (aka Lemmy) who also became their vocalist. Their live shows took off and the single ‘Silver Machine’ became an underground hit.
Everything about that time looks absolutely mental!
Lemmy was fired shortly after this due to a misunderstanding between himself and customs officials over cocaine. Disgruntled, he formed his own band which he named after the last song he wrote for Hawkwind. Below is the Hawkwind version:
It’s a bass heavy, prog rock classic. The entire band sound completely bonged out of their minds and probably were. It’s brilliant! Lemmy later complained that he was fired from Hawkwind for doing the wrong drugs. He was probably correct. Below is the Motörhead version of ‘Motorhead’ (off of their eponymous debut album Motörhead).
It’s the same song, but it’s not in the same genre of music anymore. This is stripped down, heavy, high speed rock and roll. The above line-up of Lemmy, Fast Eddie Clarke, & Phil Taylor wasn’t the first or the last Motörhead line up, but it’s the one everyone remembers. There was an element of luck to the band staying together. They almost broke up before they released anything due to record label problems. NME and other elements of the UK music press hated them. They persevered and were about to release three albums in the next year and a bit that would cement their status as… well, Motörhead.
The title tracks of Overkill, Bomber, and Ace of Spades became hard rock classics.
Here’s the thing… Lemmy always said that Motörhead were a Rock n’ Roll band. He introduced the band as ‘We are Motörhead and we play Rock n’ Roll’, during every gig they played. He always denied that they were a Heavy Metal band, and left that label to Black Sabbath and Judas Priest (who were beginning to make a lot of noise around this time). However, Lemmy’s bass playing (where he played deep power chords like it was a guitar), the speed they played at, the hard man imagery, the drugs, the lyrics about war and sex and gambling, were all very much Metal. They just did it before everyone else.
They added the German umlaut to the second o in the band name, in order to appear tougher and dangerous. Lemmy often wore a hat that bore similarities to a Nazi SS Officers hat from WW2. In fact, as he was an avid collector of WW2 memorabilia, it probably was a Nazi SS Officers hat from WW2. Or one of several. This of course caused a lot of controversy. Lemmy shrugged it off.
Motörhead attached themselves to the punk scene and were peers of bands like The Damned and The Ramones. They were just louder and faster than any punk band. This hybrid approach created a unique feel to their gigs and look. It gave birth to Thrash and Speed Metal. They in turn spawned Black and Death Metal.
Every single Metal band since, owe something of their sound and aesthetics to Motörhead.
Motörhead’s signature tune was ‘Ace of Spades’. A fairly typical track of theirs and not too different in tempo and ferocity to ‘Overkill’ which was released a year before. Whether it was the gambling references and metaphors in the lyrics, or the fact that the cover of the single had the band wearing Santa Claus outfits, were contributions to it’s success isn’t clear. Ace of Spades became synonymous with Heavy Metal. It’s a freight train of a tune. It bludgeons the eardrums, but it has a swing to it. You’ll headband along or at the very least tap your foot. It sounded hard and mean in 1980. It still sounds hard and mean in 2022, in a way that few early Metal songs still do.
It blew me away as I was lying in that bed in the late 80’s. Thoughts of Tommy & Gina were gone. The Telegraph road had receded into the distance. Ace of Spades just was. It was like experiencing a lightning storm or a mountain top for the first time. I was feeling what Abbath felt when he first heard it. I was feeling what the lads from Metallica felt when they first put it on. This was something.
Motörhead released 23 studio albums. Critics would say that they all sounded like Ace of Spades. Fans might also say that they all sounded like Ace of Spades. That would be a tad unfair, but they never strayed too far from the signature sound of the deep bass and the screeching guitar with machine gun style drumming through it all. Motörhead became extremely successful. Lemmy had cameos on TV and in movies. In the pantomime that is the WWE, the character ‘The Undertaker’ had the undisputed best music and entrance of any wrestler. Then Motörhead provided ‘Triple H’ with an even better entrance theme.
Sorry Mark, and sorry Jon. Lemmy stole me away from you guys and it was a permanent move.
I’m not finished writing about Motörhead. In a later post I’m going to explore how there was amazing craft and musicianship to their music. I’ll also touch upon how canny a business man Lemmy was beneath it all, and I’ll reveal my favourite Motörhead album (which was a commercial disaster at the time).
Next week: We got fun and games