The early pigeonholing of Motörhead as punks may have stemmed from their loud’n’fast playing, their leather jackets, engagements opening for the Damned and their early releases on a UK indie label, but then, as now, the band was engaged in its own hard-rockin’ rebellion — slashing guitar, flailing drums and Lemmy playing bass like a lead and rhythm instrument, singing as though he were in the process of being strangled. Inspired moronism? You bet, just like “Louie, Louie,” which the band covered for a minor hit in 1978!
Motörhead’s very existence opposed the safe, sterile, flabby ritual “heavy music” had become (not to mention the rest of what had been passing for rock’n’roll), and prefigured the new wave of rawer British metal bands (Iron Maiden, Saxon et al.) in the early ’80s, not to mention the thrash bands of recent years. All told, Motörhead’s primal urgency clearly recalled their spiritual forebears: the Amboy Dukes/Bob Seger System/MC5 Detroit axis.
After being fired from Hawkwind, bassist Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister hooked up with two ex-Pink Fairies (also Hawkwind chums): Larry Wallis and Lucas Fox. Producer Dave Edmunds allegedly fled their recording session, covering his ears; Fox was dumped and his replacement, Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor, overdubbed some of the drum parts. UA let Motörhead’s contract expire, and didn’t see fit to release the results until 1980 (as On Parole). In any case, Lemmy sought to beef up the sound by bringing in guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke (like Jimi Hendrix, a former employee of Curtis Knight), at which point Wallis took a powder.
In their second attempt at a debut album, Speedy Keen (ex-Thunderclap Newman), who’d mis-mixed the Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F. LP, successfully captured Motörhead’s sturm und klang. Cut after cut, it’s phenomenal: remakes of Hawkwind’s “Motörhead” and “Lost Johnny” (the latter co-written by Mick Farren), “White Line Fever,” “Iron Horse/Born to Lose” and more, all with a force and fury unequalled until the 1981 live LP. A 1980 12- inch of outtakes from those Chiswick sessions features Wallis’ “On Parole,” Motörhead’s “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” and oldies by John Mayall and ZZ Top. (The belated American reissue of Motörhead appends the entire four-song EP as well as the band’s first B-side, the Pink Fairies’ “City Kids.”) Released in ’83, the live What’s Words Worth? revealed the band in an early ’78 show — uneven, although some of the cover tunes, like “Leavin’ Here” and “Train Kept a-Rollin'” strike some pretty good sparks.
Moving from Chiswick to Bronze, and from Keen to ex- Stones producer Jimmy Miller, the trio put out a trio of solid LPs, each with its own merits and classic cuts. Overkill‘s title track, “Stay Clean” and that ultimate putdown, “No Class,” are balanced by the atypically slow, deliberate “Capricorn.” Bomber has its title track and “Dead Men Tell No Tales” as highlights. Ace of Spades also has a great title track and “(We Are) The Road Crew.” Vic Maile produced the last of those LPs, achieving more sonic fullness and texture than Miller had, though Overkill‘s material is the best of the three.
In a collaboration alternately referred to as Motorschool and Headgirl, Motörhead and labelmates Girlschool ganged up on the 1959 Johnny Kidd & the Pirates hit “Please Don’t Touch” (with a flipside containing each group murdering a fave song by the other, the single was packaged on 7-inch and 10-inch as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre EP) and had a hit. Then the live No Sleep went into the UK album charts at number one: Maile’s super production job balances ambience and clarity. It was all any Motörfan could’ve asked.
Fast Eddie ran the console for Iron Fist, with the help of engineer Will Reid Dick. The results are relatively lackluster, in material as well as sound. (The 1990 reissue adds “Remember Me, I’m Gone.”) Eddie was not happy with the direction of the band, and while the others were busy combining with the Plasmatics as they had with Girlschool (less successful artistically and commercially, on Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man”), he decided to split and form the bluesy, Zep-ish Fastway. Ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson immediately replaced him. Another Perfect Day was a good change of pace. Considering how unsuited Robertson figured to be, it works surprisingly well. But it just wasn’t Motörhead, and after a tour-shortening illness, he left.
No sooner was he replaced by two unknowns, Phil Campbell and Mick “Wurzel” Burston, than Taylor decided he wanted out, too. In stepped Pete Gill (ex-Saxon, and before that the Glitter Band, as in Gary!). The next release, No Remorse, was no stopgap, though. They didn’t get the rights to the Chiswick tracks, but otherwise the two-record set is a model best-of collection: a wise, balanced choice of LP and EP cuts, non-LP single sides, four smokin’ new numbers, annotation (and commentary by Lemmy) on all tracks, complete lyrics, a smart, detailed band history (by Kerrang!‘s Malcolm Dome) and some cute pics. It does include “Please Don’t Touch,” “Louie, Louie,” “Leaving Here” (the best version of the five the band has cut over the years, from the snappy Golden Years live EP) and that instant classic, “Killed by Death.” (“If you squeeze my lizard, I’ll put my snake on you.”) Sheer Shakespeare in a Chevy. (The 1990 American CD omits “Louie, Louie,” “Leaving Here” and the original liner notes, but the cassette has two tracks entitled “Under the Knife” from the initial Wurzel/Campbell sessions.)
The next year, Raw Power licensed enough tracks from Bronze to make up a second two-LP retrospective, Anthology, suitable for those whose only previous purchase was No Remorse (although five tracks do overlap). Born to Lose is a substantial compilation of tracks from On Parole and Motörhead, plus alternate takes of “White Line Fever” and “Leaving Here” that had been issued only as part of a Stiff boxed set.
Orgasmatron was produced by Bill Laswell with Jason Corsaro. Laswell’s involvement got lots of critics to pay attention, and they got to hear a decent Motörhead record — including classic “Doctor Rock” — but hardly their best. On the LP’s opener (“Deaf Forever”) and closer (“Orgasmatron”) the sound is a striking juggernaut but, generally, it seems a bit sonically squashed.
The very next LP, Rock ‘n’ Roll, produced by the band and Guy Bidmead (who’d engineered Orgasmatron), has more sonic depth, a bit of slide guitar and backing- vocal harmonies! Also Phil Taylor, who had a change of heart and was allowed to step back in after Gill departed. Better than Orgasmatron, though not quite top-notch, it also includes “Eat the Rich,” done for the film of the same name in which Lemmy has — gasp! — an acting role. (Aside from the title tune, the soundtrack LP consists of previously released material plus non-Motörhead scoring.)
Wurzel’s EP is not bad: a “Sleepwalk”-esque instrumental, a Jeff Beck-ish hyper-waltz and a couple of Motörhead Jr.-type numbers.
Next, some reassessment and watershedding. No Sleep at All (live at a Finnish festival) combines top-notch playing and crappy sound, especially compared to the much hotter Hammersmith. That’s sonically, though, not performance-wise. Campbell and Wurzel outplay Clarke on their version of “Ace of Spades,” and their much- longer “Overkill” brims with pyrotechnics. On the rest (all post-Clarke material), it’s doubly a shame the sound is muffled, since these takes out-rock almost every studio version (not true of Hammersmith). The CD adds two cuts.
Blitzkrieg on Birmingham (early ’77, pretty raw) and Lock Up Your Daughters (mid-’77, much smarter) are live LPs of virtually the same vintage and material as What’s Words Worth? (early ’78). Welcome to the Bear Trap is a double-LP’s worth of Bronze tracks, mainly the same as previously compiled.
Dirty Love consists of Ace of Spades rehearsal tapes. The rough versions of six tracks (one not even listed on the cover or the disc label!), plus a B-side of the same vintage, offer little creative insight; of four rejected/unfinished numbers (for which Clarke — source of the tapes — claims sole writing credit), only one is worthy of notice.
The Birthday Party — an album Motörhead tried to block the release of no less than three times — is the soundtrack of the band’s 1985 tenth anniversary concert video. The sound is crisper than on the other live LPs, but you can’t hear any bass drum, which makes Pete Gill sound even worse (compared to Philthy) than he actually is. Plus, some of the songs are played too fast, which further undercuts him. A few tracks are quite good and the twin guitars smoke throughout, but Clarke’s shadow looms large, as eleven of the twelve songs date from his tenure (five from Ace alone). The CD adds three, one a show-closing “Motörhead” with past and present bandmembers onstage.
From the Vaults is an unessential but good collection for fans who only have the albums: all four (live) tracks of the Golden Years EP (okay); assorted B-sides (mostly quite good); “Bomber” by Girlschool from the St. Valentine’s EP; “Masterplan” by Motörhead, “No Class” by the Plasmatics and “Stand by Your Man” by Wendy O. and Lemmy from the notorious ’82 maxi-single (amusing); and a fun, Quo-ish cut by the Young & Moody Band (Quo roadie Bob Young and ex-Whitesnake guitarist Mick Moody, plus Lemmy, Cozy Powell and — yes — the Nolan Sisters).
The all-new 1916 album was more than worth the long wait. For once able to take time and care in the studio, and armed with their best set of songs since Ace (or even Overkill), Motörhead delivers an aggressive firestorm (check “The One to Sing the Blues”) with the huge and harsh sound the band always needed but never previously achieved — kudos to producers Pete Solley and (for three tracks) Ed Stasium. Unexpected stylistic variations abound: a weird and sophisticated soundscape (“Nightmare/The Dreamtime”); Motörmetal à la Chuck Berry (“Going to Brazil”); a tongue-in-cheek boogie-paean to Los Angeles (“Angel City”); a 1:25 tribute to the Ramones (“Ramones”); a ballad blending slamming chords and churning solos with vocal harmonies, synth-strings and credible romantic (!) lyrics (“Love Me Forever”). Lemmy quietly closes the LP with “1916,” sung from the perspective of a young soldier dying in WW I. The startling diversity and mastery of this album brings Motörhead to a new level.
Meltdown is an excellent, well-balanced boxed set (three CDs or five LPs) compilation that includes a solid selection from the band’s live and studio albums.