39 Years Ago: Motorhead Burst Into Metal Mainstream ‘Ace of Spades’
After being kicked out of space rock band Hawkwind following an arrest in Canada for possession of cocaine (the charges were later dropped since he actually had methamphetamine), Lemmy Kilmister formed Motörhead, named after a song he wrote for his former band.
By the time they released their third album, 1979’s Bomber, the band had developed a strong underground following in England with a sound that mixed the swing of early rock 'n' roll, the groove of blues and the speed of punk. North America didn’t catch on until Motörhead’s fourth full-length studio album, the barreling, bruising Ace of Spades, which came out November 8, 1980, and which featured the timeless title track, which remains the band’s signature song.
Kilmister was pleased that “Ace of Spades” turbo-charged his career, yet he was always upfront about his confusion with the public’s reaction. “I keep telling people this, but they think I’m fucking lying, but I’m not: I didn’t think it was any better than any of my other songs and I still don’t,” he told Decibel.
That view is debatable, but one thing’s clear: “Ace of Spades” was the storming anthem the band needed to break into a new market and Ace of Spades was the ideal home for the song and other band classics. The album is filled with raging, ripping songs that helped define the group, at least in North America. “Fast and Loose,” “(We Are) the Road Crew,” “The Chase is Better Than the Catch” and “Love Me Like a Reptile” stand alongside “Ace of Spades” as some of the band’s finest material.
“Sure, I like Ace of Spades, but no more than most of our other albums,” Kilmister told me in 2013. “The only one I really didn’t like was Iron Fist and that’s mostly because the production was no good.”
By contrast, the production on Ace of Spades is clear and savage, which is surprising since the album was produced by Vic Maile, who was known for his work with Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin.
The idea of the producer taking on a ragged slugfest by Motörhead and keeping it raw seems counterintuitive on paper. And, Maile had some unorthodox ideas that seemed strange for a gritty rock 'n' roll band (Lemmy never embraced the term “metal”). "If it was anyone else, we'd have told him to go and fuck off and die or tied 'em to the car and run around the car park with them," guitarist Eddie Clarke told Uncut. “[But Vic] was very delicate because he was a diabetic… We couldn’t fucking shake him, you know what I mean? He might die! So we had to listen to him."
While many of the songs on Overkill and Bomber were churned out riff by riff over a short period, Motörhead put more time and effort into Ace of Spades, which in no way detracted from its spontaneous, from-the-hip vibe. The band wrote and demoed the tracks at Rockfield Studio in Wales, before they recorded them with Maile at Jackson's Studios in Rickmansworth, England over a five-week period in August and September 1980. The songs were pretty much there, but Maile helped fine-tune them and suggested textural touches that made them more impacting.
“He certainly had his own ideas,” Clarke said in Martin Popoff’s Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers: The Rise of Motörhead. “He put his little bits in, little bits and bobs, and he would subtly just try to steer you a bit. Like, if my guitar was a little too dirty, he wouldn’t pull his punches. But he did it in a way where you didn’t want to argue with him.”
The most notable example of this is “Ace of Spades,” in which Maile convinced the band to use rhythmic wood blocks to enhance the sound of the tune. “We're there with these blocks of wood banging them together,” Clarke told Uncut. “He put loads of reverb on and that's the sound you hear - 'dang dang dang dang dang dang CLACK.'“
Unconventional tracking also accompanied “(We Are) the Road Crew,” a tribute to the band’s roadies, one of whom was so touched, he cried when he first heard it. Clarke says the song was literally thrown together. “We had the riff going, and Lemmy came up with the title when we only had a riff,” he told Popoff. "And what happened was that the title took over the song. But we never really finished the song – you can kind of hear that at the end. We kind of [left it alone] a little bit because the lyrics were so strong, and we loved the groove of it. But it doesn’t have a proper chorus.”
“My Chief Memory of ‘(We Are) the Road Crew’ is Eddie lying on his back in the studio, helpless with laughter, his guitar feeding back all over the place, halfway through what was supposed to be his solo,” Kilmister wrote in his memoir White Line Fever. “And we left it on because it was so fucking funny. The song was my first 10-minute lyric: That’s how long it took me to get the words down in the studio.”
The title track addressed Lemmy’s gambling habit: “I know I’m going to lose, ‘cause gamblin’ is for fools / But that’s the way I like it baby, I don’t want to live forever.” “Like it says in the song, ‘The pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say,’” he told me. “But no gambler ever wins, not in the long run. The most I’ve lost at any one time is three grand. I won nine grand on one pull of a lever once at the Venetian in Vegas. I put two grand back and took seven grand home. That’s very good for me.”
As with the title track, most of Ace of Spades is about Kilmister’s rock 'n' roll microcosm, laid out down and dirty. “Jailbait,” which Kilmister is surprised he didn’t get any flack for, was written about the appeal of underage girls: “I don't even dare to ask your age, Just enough to know you're here backstage / You're jailbait and I just can't wait, Jailbait, baby come on.” And “The Chase is Better Than the Catch” is about how trying to win over women is more exciting than actually hooking up. “Well it is, isn’t it?” he wrote. “I mean, whenever you move in with somebody, it’s fucking gone, you know? They leave their knickers in the bathroom and they have horrible habits that you didn’t know about... To have a relationship is fatal to the relationship.”
One of the factors that slowed down the creation of Ace of Spades, Clarke told Popoff, was Lemmy’s tendency to only enter the studio when he was ready. “[drummer] Phil [Taylor] and I would spend a lot of time playing because we used to get bored,” Clarke said. “Lemmy never got bored. He always had a [girl] with him and a bottle of Jack and a book. Trying to get him to rehearse was difficult at times.”
The first two Motörhead albums had cover art that complimented the ferocity of the band. Ace of Spades did not. Instead of depicting the band’s Snaggletooth mascot in some sort of gambling setting as fans might have expected, the band chose a Wild West motif that made them look more like Mexican banditos than English punk-metal pioneers. Ironically, the desert scene was shot in a sandpit 10 miles northeast of London near a town called Barnet. Still, the band was pleased with the cover and the cowboy theme underscored the idea of Motörhead and rock 'n' roll outlaws.
“I’m not quite sure how we came up with that idea,” Clarke said. “We were discussing with management what we were doing for the next album cover, and I think that’s when it was [mentioned] that we should dress up like cowboys. And of course, I thought, ‘Well, fucking fantastic, I’ll be Clint Eastwood.’ Because I was a big Clint Eastwood fan. And so, of course, it got exciting, because we were going to dress up. And it was a wonderful day.”
Ace of Spades was the first Motörhead album distributed in the U.S., but while it made an indelible mark on fans of cutting-edge underground metal, it didn’t excite many record labels, who were caught up in the NWOBHM Judas Priest/Iron Maiden mold. “We couldn’t get signed in America until well after No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith came out,” Kilmister told me. “And that was a No. 1 record in Europe! Ace of Spades was No. 4 and Bomber was No. 6. But in America, nobody wanted to know us. I don’t think we looked cute enough. We sort of fit right in between the old surge of British heavy metal like Deep Purple and just before the new surge of heavy metal. So we were fucked for a while.”
To date, Ace of Space has been released more than eight times in various territories, in single disc and double-disc formats. And the title track has been covered by countless bands, appeared in at least 16 movies, including Hardware, Zombie Nightmare, Grosse Pointe Blank, Superbad and Smokin Aces. The song was also featured in commercials for Kronenbourg and Kia.
“That song has been really good to us,” Kilmister told Metal Hammer. “I just wish that people would realize we’ve gone past it now. In America especially, they seem to think we stopped in .”
Indeed, Motörhead released another 16 full-length studio albums and numerous live records over the next 35 years before the band ended with Kilmister’s death of cancer on December 28, 2015.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.
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