Many years ago, probably 1981, I walked into a Tech Hifi to buy a needle for my turntable. I happened to be wearing a t-shirt featuring my favorite band. The salesperson asked me what kind of turntable I owned, but then pointed at my shirt and said “But then again, if you listen to Motorhead, it doesn’t matter, does it! HAW HAW HAW!!” I turned around and walked out.
So, fuck him.
Look, I know Motorhead’s music is not for everyone. Their sound runs the gamut from dirty, blues-infused hard rock to gnarly, high-velocity metallics, while Lemmy’s singular vocal stylings and bass/rhythm guitar hybrid give the band an abrasive edge, making mainstream commercial success …unlikely. But Motorhead did what Motorhead does, steadfastly ignoring trends while the musical landscape continually changed around them, and slowly established themselves as an institution. A long-overdue documentary on Lemmy brought the band some well-deserved attention, cementing their status as one of the most influential rock bands of all time, and bestowing upon one Ian Fraser Kilmister some righteous recognition as a rock and roll icon for the ages. Vindication after forty years. So if you don’t like their music, maybe you’re missing something?
Now that Lemmy’s gone, it’s suddenly hip to be into Motorhead, while previously, the word ‘hip’ wouldn’t dare come anywhere near this band. Millions of ‘lifelong fans’ are suddenly cropping up everywhere, buying bootleg tribute t-shirts and downloading shitty ‘best of’ compilations as fast as their modems will allow. And yes, there are some casual fans that want to dig deeper, and there are the genuinely curious who want to know what all the recent fuss is about. Bottom line is: If the only Motorhead album in your collection of ‘Ace of Spades’, you have a lot of work to do. Twenty three* more studio albums await. So as a public service, I offer the following overview, to both the sincerely interested and the douche-y bandwagon hoppers, in the sincere hope that it might aid in the understanding and appreciation of one of Heavy Rock’s most colorful discographies.
The Essential Five
The five albums detailed below put the lie to the ‘All Motorhead albums sound the same’ line. Here we have Motorhead at their most musical (‘Another Perfect Day’), experimental (‘Orgasmatron’), primal (Overkill) and polished (‘Bastards’), along with their definitive studio statement (Ace of Spades). You’ve also got three different drummers and four different guitarists, each with their own sound and style, and five different producers. We can debate about which is the ‘classic’ line-up all day, but the fact is virtually all of the band’s configurations coughed up at least one stone cold classic.
Ace of Spades (1980) AoS is the musical equivalent to drinking too much and driving too fast. Dirty, dangerous and completely authentic. Vic Maile strips away Jimmy Miller’s warm 70’s tones, revealing the most deadly 3-piece band on the planet. Continuing to somehow straddle the line between punk and metal, here Motorhead kick both genres right in the teeth. The vicious Kilmister/Taylor rhythm section is the secret weapon here, and every performance reeks of confidence and amphetamines. The legendary title track was a UK top 20 ‘hit single’ in 1980, and hit No 12 just after Lemmy’s death. One weak track, ‘Dance’, is easily replaceable with the non-LP b-side ‘Dirty Love’. Aces.
Overkill (1979) With an production upgrade via Jimmy Miller (Rolling Stones, Traffic, Blind Faith), Motorhead suddenly sound like the nexus of heavy metal and punk rock on their second proper album; witness the missing link between Blue Cheer and early Damned. Traces of Lemmy’s Hawkwind history remain in the robotic ‘Metropolis’ and the spacey ‘Capricorn’, but punk elements are felt just as strongly in ‘Tear Ya Down’ and ‘(I Won’t) Pay Your Price’. Add the bluesy hard rock of ‘No Class’ and ‘Limb From Limb’, and you’ve got an astonishing stew of seemingly incompatible styles. Filled with classic songs and blessed with several moments of accidental brilliance, ‘Overkill’ is the real ground zero of the Motorhead Saga.
Another Perfect Day (1983) The addition of Thin Lizzy’s Brian Robertson brings some class and depth to the table, and Motorhead evolve (albeit temporarily) into something somewhat respectable. The songwriting stretches the patented Motorhead sound into unexplored territory by adopting some new elements, such as ‘melody’ and ‘subtlety’. Surprisingly, it works, and works really well; the grit and grime of classic Motorhead meets the style and musicality of some of Robbo’s best playing, and this unlikely amalgam creates something truly unique in the Motorhead canon. A divisive and controversial record for years, ‘Perfect’ has aged quite well and is now fully embraced as a Motorhead classic.
Orgasmatron (1986) Many found the sonic experimentation by producer Bill Laswell on ‘Orgasmatron’ an unwelcome distraction, as this stellar set of songs was nearly overwhelmed by the off-the-wall production. From the opening seconds of ‘Deaf Forever’, it’s plain that somebody been messin’ around at the mixing desk… Laswell (PIL, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson) boldly takes the band’s sound to its logical extremes: exploded drums, homicidal buzzsaw bass and caustic, effects-drenched axes dominate the landscape, but in the end, the top notch songwriting shines through. Robert Christgau called ‘Orgasmatron’ a ‘work of art’, and if we’re talkin’ about the title track, I’ll go even further: Masterpiece.
Bastards (1993) Roaring back from the ‘March Or Die’ disaster, a revitalized Motorhead unleash a monster of a record, featuring a tighter and more metallic sound (It must be said: Sorry, Lem, but sometimes when you played rock and roll, what came out was heavy metal). The forward thrust on this record is at times breathtaking; with Mikkey Dee now on board, and the 2-guitars still firmly in place, ‘Bastards’ is a fearsome thing indeed. A modern reaffirmation of the true Motorhead ethos, and just what the alterna-90s needed so badly. Huge mistake signing with Dance music label XYZ Records after leaving Epic/Sony; ‘Bastards’ was only distributed/promoted in Germany, so this amazing comeback record was tough to find elsewhere until it was re-released in 2003.
Essentials, Part II
Five albums, not matter how stellar, don’t tell the complete tale. Here are five more recommended records that round out the Motorhead story.
Motorhead (1977) Witness the birth of a legend. Although actually Motorhead’s second album, it’s the first with the Kilmister/Clarke/Taylor line-up, and therefore essential. 13 songs recorded in 2 days during sessions that were supposed to yield a mere single. Let’s be honest here, this is not a ‘great’ album; there’s a critical shortage of songs written by the trio themselves (‘White Line Fever’ and ‘Keep Us in the Road’ are the only originals). The production sucks, as the three amigos were recorded live, with very few overdubs added. But If the songs and the sound weren’t there yet, the energy and attitude certainly were. In spades.
Bomber (1979) The hastily written & recorded follow-up to ‘Overkill’ includes just enough Motor-classics to qualify as essential. In fact, ‘Stone Dead Forever’ and the title track are among Motorhead’s all-time greatest songs. Jimmy Miller’s at the helm (barely) again, and his nasty segue from ‘Lawman’ into ‘Sweet Revenge’ is fucking badass. The 2nd half flags a little due to some filler (‘All the Aces’, ‘Talking Head’), but the good stuff is phenomenal, and the not-so-great stuff is not-so-bad. Add B-side ‘Over the Top’, and job done.
1916 (1991) Motorhead’s first album for a ‘major label’, and while some commercial concessions are evident, the perfect balance is struck between accessibility and authenticity. Yes, there’s a power ballad (cringe), but there’s also a throwback to Hawkwind (‘Nightmare/The Dreamtime’), and enough Wurzel riffs to sink a battleship. The title track would be considered a major achievement in any genre, and simply has to be heard to be believed. ‘1916’ is as commercial as Motorhead could ever be and still be Motorhead. Note: Those averse to power ballads (guilty) can easily replace ‘Love Me Forever’ with either of the two Motoriffic non-LP B-sides ‘Eagle Rock’ and ‘Dead Man’s Hand’. You’re welcome.
Inferno (2004) An unexpected blinder; their strongest album in 11 years. ‘Inferno’ blasts past at a breakneck pace, one modern day classic after another. Like ‘Bastards’ a decade before, ‘Inferno’ is another thoroughly contemporary-sounding metal album (there’s that word again) from the loudest, meanest rock and roll band of all time. This record is all killer, no filler. That any band could release an album as vital as ‘Inferno’ this far into an almost-30 year career is nothing short of miraculous. Bonus: the all-acoustic ‘Whorehouse Blues’ and two guest-solos by Steve Vai.
Bad Magic (2015) “Victory or Die!!” Motorhead’s final album is filled with thinly-veiled goodbyes. If ‘Until the End’ doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, then you’re reading the wrong blog. There’s also quite a venomous mean streak running through much of the lyrics, and the music is delivered with a dark, relentless determination. Where the lyrics and vocals on previous outing ‘Aftershock’ hinted at Lemmy’s age, no such evidence exists on Bad Magic. No letting up, no slowing down, just a band intent on growing old disgracefully. Ending Motorhead’s recorded legacy with a cover of the Stones’ ‘Sympathy For the Devil’ works brilliantly. Motorhead must have known that ‘Bad Magic’ would be Motorhead’s final album, and crafted it into a fitting farewell. What a way to go.
Under the Radar:
The average metal fan may have lost track of Motorhead after the disappointment of ‘March Or Die’, and many missed the impressive comeback of ‘Bastards’. But ‘Head continued forward, hitting their stride as a 3-piece and releasing a run of consistently solid albums for years, though many were no longer paying attention. 2003’s ‘Inferno’ was considered a comeback by some, and the Lemmy documentary a few years later brought Motorhead back into the conversation… but only after several quality records went unnoticed. Ignore at your peril.
Sacrifice (1995) Their ‘heaviest’ album? The follow-up to the magnificent ‘Bastards’ sounds kinda cruddy, with an especially muddy guitar sound, but there’s a very strong set of songs on display here. In fact, the only thing keeping this one out of my Top Ten is the murky production. Wurzel’s only (and final) appearance is a solo on the awesome ‘Dog Faced Boy’.
Overnight Sensation (1996) If radio gave a shit, this could have been a big record for Motorhead in America. The sound is cleaned up, the writing a bit more mainstream but the result is still 100% Motorhead. Phil Campbell does a great job as the sole guitarist on the first post-Wurzel album. The title track and ‘Broken’ could have been singles.
Snakebite Love (1998) ‘Snakebite’ featured the welcome return of humor to Lemmy’s lyrics, which had become pretty grim. Opener ‘Love For Sale’ sounds like a classic ’80s Motorhead single. Mikkey really shines on this album, especially on the sinister ‘Assassin’. The title track is essential; ‘Take the Blame’ kills.
We Are Motorhead (2000) Side One (that’s right, side one) kicks your ass so hard you barely notice the cover of ‘God Save The Queen’. Side Two includes a ballad (no, not a power ballad, there’s a big difference), done completely on Motorhead’s terms, hence the title: ‘One More Fucking Time’… and it’s great. Other than that, the pace is blistering, culminating with an absolute classic: ‘We Are Motorhead’. Another solid album.
After the outstanding but oft-overlooked run of records sandwiched between ‘Bastards’ and ‘Inferno’, Our Heroes soldier into their fourth decade with another string of solid releases. Though not up to the standard set during their the band’s first 30 years, this is Motorhead we’re talking about, and each of these records will still kick your ass around the block. I’m thinking that this is also where the ‘No Remorse’ material from way back in 1984 fits in to the bigger picture…
Kiss of Death (2006) Carries forward the mean metallic sheen of Inferno, but the songwriting’s not quite as good, and the track sequence is odd. ‘Sword of Glory’ and ‘Devil I Know’ are badass. Here the metal is balanced out by the rockin’ ‘Christine’ and ‘One Night Stand’. Contains one of Lemmy’s finest-ever lyrics, in the mid-record showstopper ‘God Was Never on Your Side’.
Motorizer (2008) Motorhead let rip with album number 20. Motorizer is one of the more varied late-period records, with each song taking a different approach than the last. Contains ‘Rock Out’, the only song of the handful they did for the WWE that actually sounds like Motorhead. ‘Teach You How to Sing the Blues’, ‘The Thousand Names of God’ and the Bonnie & Clyde-inspired ‘Back on the Chain’ are highlights.
The World is Yours (2010) Huge album for Motorhead, coming out just after the ‘Lemmy’ documentary. It’s decent overall, with a clunker here and there, but ‘I Know What You Need’ kicks major ass, and ‘Devils in my Head’ harkens back to the Wurzel days. Finest moment: ‘I Know How to Die’.
Aftershock (2013) ‘Aftershock’, along with its predecessor, is a solid collection of late-period Motorhead tunes; the difference here is that some bold chances are taken this time around. The good news is that for the most part, the risks all pay off. ‘Lost Woman Blues’ and ‘Dust and Glass’ are high points, and have a bluesy depth and texture, while even the rocker ‘Death Machine’ pushes outside the usual Motor-zone. Lem’s lyrics are somewhat unfocused and that voice is just a shade weaker…
No Remorse* (1984) Motorhead’s first ‘best of’ included 4 new songs (6 if you count the two ‘Killed By Death’ B-sides) and, taken together, they’re almost the debut album by the 2-guitar Motorhead. This new material was a big o’l poke in the eye to those who were pleased with the forward movement on ‘Another Perfect Day’, as Motorhead get back to basics with a simpler, sloppier vibe. If you’re a 2-guitar line-up fan, this stuff is indispensable; the dueling guitar solos throughout the record positively rip. Two or three more songs and this would have been a corker of an ‘old school’ Motorhead album.
Any band that releases 24 albums in 40 years is bound to throw the occasional wobbler. Hate mail and death threats can be forwarded via the Comments section.
Iron Fist (1982) The title track is killer, but this is the one true Kilmister/Clarke/Taylor dud. Sacrilege, I know!! Eddie Clarke produced; the multi-tracked vocals & jangly bass sound awful. Lots and lots of filler. On the positive side, ‘Iron Fist’ probably captures Phil Taylor at the height of his ‘Keith Moon on amphetamines’ powers.
Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987) Out of gas. Philthy is back, and there’s a bit of a spark on two or three decent songs, but overall the band sound tired and out of ideas. ‘Eat the Rich’ is the standout, though that was recorded with Bill Laswell a year previous. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ also contains a brief monologue from Monty Python’s Michael Palin..! Motorhead’s last album before Lemmy’s pilgrimage to LA.
Hammered (2002) Four winners (‘No Remorse’, ‘Brave New World’, ‘Voices From the War’, ‘Red Raw’) mixed in among six losers. And an interesting diversion: the spoken word piece ‘Serial Killer’. Should have been an E.P.!
On Parole (1976) This is Motorhead’s first album, recorded in 1975 and shelved by United Artists. After the success of Overkill and Bomber, it was finally titled and released in 1980. It’s a rough-hewn post-hippie/punk rock hybrid, sounding a lot like a Larry Wallis solo record; in fact, Lemmy gets just three songwriting credits, and all for songs that he wrote and recorded with Hawkwind. Witness Motorhead’s first recorded version of ‘Motorhead’, which starts with the explosive blast of a motorcycle roaring to life. An interesting look at Lemmy’s early struggle to get his band off the ground, but not really a proper Motorhead record.
March or Die (1992) The follow-up to ‘1916’ has none of the energy or character of its predecessor. Lem and the boys succumb to the LA lifestyle and fall (temporarily) to the dark side for their second (and final) major label outing. If you’re looking for Motorhead’s absolute nadir, you’ll find it here: The completely awful cover of Ted Nugent’s ‘Cat Scratch Fever’. Try as I might, I really can’t find anything positive to say about this one.
(Pauses, catching breath) There you have it. I’m trying to think of another band of Motorhead’s vintage who have delivered a massive 24 studio albums for us to enjoy. If you’ve only heard a few of these albums, I envy you; as someone who has been along for the ride since ‘Bomber’, there will never be anything new for me to explore. If you’re just beginning your Journey into Motorhead, or if you lost track of the band somewhere in the 90’s, fasten your seatbelt, and keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle. It’s gonna be a helluva ride.