Bands come and go. Motörhead, built for speed not comfort, have remained – and this year they celebrate an unbelievable 40 years making their slightly anomalous heavy rock music. The band have never quite been hippies (though they have strong ties to the British underground), never quite been metal (though their albums have featured guest artists like Ozzy and Slash), and never quite been punk (though they found fellow travellers in the likes of The Damned and The Adverts).
“I always thought we had more in common with punk than with anything else, but we had long hair so we didn’t fit in that box,” says Lemmy today. “But that’s the embassy talking, not the bands. We did a show at the Roundhouse which was The Damned and us supporting The Adverts – you can’t get more of a mixed media show than that.”
It’s unbelievable because the band has kept up a very fast pace for most of that time, much of it spent on strong drink and bad drugs. Unbelievable also because the band very nearly quit before it properly began. Having been kicked out of Hawkwind (more properly, been left behind by Hawkwind, who didn’t bail him out when he was busted for possession in Canada), Ian Kilmister, a veteran of Sam Gopal and Blackpool beats The Rocking Vicars, known as Lemmy, returned to England. On arrival, he rang Larry Wallis. “I jumped in a cab over to a rehearsal room in World’s End, Chelsea,” says Wallis, “and Lem put out a line of white powder. I asked, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘Amphetamine sulphate’. Five minutes later we were making a right old racket at 5,000 miles an hour.”
The constituent parts of that racket, not unlike that being made on the pub rock circuit, took inspiration from raw American R’n’B (in their early repertoire was “Leaving Here”, a Holland-Dozier-Holland number), and also from the faintly psychedelic British interpretations of the same ingredients – what record shops now call “freakbeat”. Ted Carroll, who at the time ran the Rock On stall at the top of Portobello Road recalls how Lemmy’s record-buying was a barometer of his fortunes. “He had really good taste in music,” says Carroll. “When Hawkwind got a deal, I remember Lemmy coming in saying ‘We got an advance from Atlantic – I’ve got a bank account!’ He bought 50 quid’s worth of records. Six months later he came in and said, ‘I’m out of the band’.”
To Motörhead, Lemmy brought his artful, paranoid compositions for Hawkwind (“The Watcher”, “Lost Johnny” and “Motörhead” itself). Wallis brought work like “City Kids” and “Fools”, which grew out of his own experiences on the fringes of underground London. Writer/activist/head Mick Farren – a sometime collaborator of both Wallis and Lemmy – was also in the creative mix. The record, however, was not well-received by the record company, and after an intervention from on high (“Clive Davis told us we were ‘free to seek another label’,” Wallis remembers), Wallis quit. Motörhead were on the verge of collapse before they had even released a record.
In most senses of the word, Motörhead’s saviour was speed. Though downhearted, the band decided in 1976 that if they were going to quit, then they would at least leave a memorial to their talents, and release a live album of a forthcoming show at the Marquee club, set to be one of their final gigs. They approached Ted Carroll for money to hire the Rolling Stones mobile studio for the recording, which he gave. However, when the Marquee wanted additional money for recording in the venue, Carroll suggested they instead use the money to record a single, produced by Thunderclap Newman’s Speedy Keen. Wired after the Marquee gig, the band drove directly to the studio in Kent, and began setting up. “That was Friday night, so we had all Saturday and Sunday,” says Eddie Clarke. “We’d been playing these songs for a year, so we thought fuck it, we can do an album. In a few hours we had all the backing tracks down. Put the vocals down. Bit more speed, put some more guitars on. Few more beers – we were fucking steaming. Come Saturday night, we’d nearly finished it.”
Carroll was driving down to hear the finished single on Sunday night. While the band went to bed, Speedy Keen and engineer Johnny Burns began the mix. When Motörhead awakened, they found that the pair had ventured deeply into the material, but not widely.
“We go in the studio and their eyes are out on fucking stalks,” says Eddie. “They’ve done 45 mixes of “Motörhead”. They’d given each mix a mark: three stars, four stars, eleven stars. They didn’t know which one was which.”
From this unpromising chaos began Motörhead’s glory years. A run of albums from this 1977 debut until 1982’s Iron Fist that defined their invulnerable, but strangely agile sound. “Bounce and swing,” says Eddie Clarke. “Bend not stab,” says Lemmy.
Their next two LPs (the ace Overkill and Bomber, both 1979) were produced by Jimmy Miller, “a nice man, a gentle man” by all accounts, but one who was self-evidently returning to heavy heroin use. The band debuted at No 1 in the charts with the 1981 live recording No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith, a highpoint even the No 1, ’82’s Iron Fist, couldn’t quite match. After an argument over a recording of “Stand By Your Man” with Wendy O Williams, Eddie Clarke quit the band.
In 1980, they made the work which has continued to define them, Ace Of Spades. It was produced by Vic Maile – whose musicality, and eye for detail had helped bring success to the recordings of Dr Feelgood, and more recently Girlschool. The band proved strangely receptive to some of Maile’s more left-field production ideas.
“He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, and he was very delicate because he was diabetic,” says Eddie Clarke. “He had to have his Ryvita at six o’clock. We couldn’t get heavy with him, couldn’t fucking shake him, you know what I mean? He might die!
So we had to listen to him.”
To “Ace Of Spades” itself, shortly to become a headbanger classic, Maile added woodblock. “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 round the carpark with them,” says Eddie Clarke. “But because it was Vic we said, ‘Oh, all right Vic…’ So we’re there with these blocks of wood banging them together. He put loads of reverb on and that’s the sound you hear – ‘dang dang dang dang dang dang CLACK’. We didn’t want to upset him in case we killed him.”
Classic as it was set to become, Ace Of Spades was difficult to write. The band went to Rockfield studios in Wales to come up with some tunes, but while Clarke and Taylor spent a lot of time playing, there was a notable absentee.
“We couldn’t get Lemmy in the rehearsal room,” says Clarke. “He can be a bit set in his ways. He was too busy getting a blowjob, or reading his books, or getting pissed. We didn’t get much done.
I was fishing in the river at the bottom of the garden, there were people shooting sheep with fucking air rifles. It was a fucking nightmare – and that was just writing the tunes. We brought a little mobile in to record the last day of rehearsals and the poor guy turns up with his mobile, parks outside, and we shot all his tail lights out. He must have been in there thinking, ‘Fucking hell, am I gonna live through this?’”