So, this album is going to have to do a lot of work. It is essentially going to stand in for close to three years’ worth of albums I bought when I first moved to Edinburgh, most of which sounded – at least in part – something like this. I picked this one for several reasons: it is, in truth, a classic; my copy was on coloured vinyl, and it allows me to wax lyrical about those couple of years of concert-going.
I’ll cover the content of the album in a bit – I haven’t listened to it all the way through for a great many years, so while I know roughly what it sounds like, it will be another rediscovery.
My copy of Ace of Spades proudly proclaimed itself to be a ‘Limited Edition – Gold Vinyl’. I’m sure it was meant to be gold. In fact, I always assumed that the colour they were aiming for was the colour of the sand dune from the cover image. Whatever it was meant to be, it was actually a kind of muddy yellow, not far off the colour of Caramac chocolate, but a little less appealing. Coloured vinyl was widely considered to be inferior in quality to the usual black, but I never found it to be so. Unless you’re talking about picture discs, which were surely never intended to be played, as they always had an aggravating level of background hiss, which even my battered ears could detect.
I was never a collector of albums in the sense of being someone who avidly sought out the special editions, the coloured or specially shaped releases; I wasn’t particularly exercised about making sure I got this or that version of an album, but I was the kind of person who went out and bought new records within a couple of days of the release date, so there was always a good chance I’d pick up something unusual – round about this time, I bought an early copy of Gillan’s Glory Road album, which came with a whole other album attached, and is probably worth something now.
But, yes, I sold them all.
Incidentally, I always peeled the ‘special edition’ labels off anything with extraneous stickers. I have probably made some actual collectors come over all faint. Sorry, but I always wanted to see the cover exactly the way the designer had intended. Even when (and I’m inevitably thinking of at least a couple of other Gillan albums here) the intent of the designer could be summed up as ‘will that do?’.
Anyway, my ‘gold’ copy of Ace of Spades had been acquired in time for me to be ready to go and see Motorhead play live, and that’s really why I wanted to look at this album.
I moved to Edinburgh in October 1980. One of the first things I noticed was that there were a lot more bands who came and played there than in Aberdeen. I’ve looked back through the listings for that first year, and there were so many bands and artists I could have gone to see, but, as I’ve already explained, I was in something of a narrow rut of music appreciation at the time, so I generally only went to see the ones who would prevent me from hearing properly for a day or two afterwards.
One of the reasons I saw so many bands around this time was that most gigs were held in the Odeon cinema on Clerk Street, roughly a ten minute walk from where I was living – indeed, I would walk past it every morning on the way in to campus, and every evening on the way home. That meant that I would often see the advance notice of who was coming before it was even a press release in the weekly music press. In turn, that meant that I usually had front and centre tickets, since in order to buy one, all I had to do was go in and queue at the box office.
I’m sure there’s a whole book to be written on why and how the concert tours of the seventies and eighties were mainly hosted in poorly converted cinemas. One night, the Odeon would be showing ‘Gregory’s Girl’; the next, Girlschool would be supporting Motorhead. I’m sure it was profitable, but I wonder how well it actually worked from a practical point of view for the performers. Were these cinemas always intended to be what we would nowadays call ‘multi-use’, with enough stage area and facilities out of sight of the general public, or were they cramped and unsuitable, but capable of holding hundreds or thousands of people? I know which one my money’s on.
For the first year or so, bands played the Odeon, but it was gradually supplanted as the music venue of choice by the larger (and further away from my point of view) Playhouse. More fans meant everyone made more money, I’m sure, but I no longer had my early bird easy access to the first tickets, and I was never again quite as close to the front. Which, on reflection, may have saved my hearing.
My memory insists I saw Motorhead three times, but I can only be certain of two of those. The first was for the tour accompanying this album, which featured noise at a level I’d never experienced before, and the famous ‘Bomber’ lighting rig, which duly made an appearance during the appropriate song, and was, to be fair, pretty damn impressive for 1980.
However, it’s the second time I saw them which I remember more clearly. It was at the Playhouse in March of 1982, promoting an album whose title I just had to go and look up (Iron Fist, apparently). All I knew going in was that the ‘Bomber’ rig had been retired, and replaced with something even more impressive. Somehow, I managed to avoid finding out what, and was therefore subject to the intended level of total surprise when the curtain opened to an almighty din, and absolutely nothing on the stage.
I don’t mean no musicians; I mean nothing at all. The stage was completely empty; all you could see was the brick wall at the back. But Motorhead were hammering out something (I’m going to guess the title track of the new album) somewhere.
Slowly, and to a crowd reaction unlike any I’ve ever been part of before or since for a rock concert, the band, the instruments, the whole backline, lighting rig and – well, everything, descended from above. It was jaw-dropping to witness unprepared, and remains pretty much my favourite concert memory from all those years. It was even worth the later life hearing issues.
Naturally, Lemmy and co didn’t even acknowledge that it had happened.
To be honest, I sometimes wondered if I’d imagined it (how, for example, did they adapt it to work at every other venue on the circuit? The Playhouse was a huge properly kitted out theatre; did the de Montfort Hall in Leicester have the ability to lift Britain’s noisiest band into the rafters before the show? I would genuinely love to know). There is, to my great relief, a video of the whole thing, although it is not entirely clear what’s going on, since it’s mainly shot from the perspective of the band, but once you know that they’re being lowered from above, it makes sense. And I didn’t imagine it; it really happened.
Once I left Edinburgh in 1984, I moved to places where bands didn’t really come and play, and my avid gig-going days were over. It was a lot of fun while it lasted, though.
Meanwhile, the gold coloured disc still awaits my judgement. There’s nothing more to say about the title track, really – it’s by far Motorhead’s best-known song, and has a life of its own outside the context of this album. It’s been covered in any number of strange and unlikely ways, and it pretty much sums up Motorhead for anyone who has never heard anything else they ever did. It was, of course, famously played in an episode ot The Young Ones, which – I think – gave it and the band an air of cool which none of their peers ever had, even in retrospect.
In case there’s any doubt, this is the classic Motorhead lineup and sound – three men intent on making rock music as quickly and loudly as they could. There are no extended epics on here; everything is under four minutes, and fits a straightforward pattern – for example, Love me Like a Reptile features intense drumming – unlike most bands, the drums pretty much provided the entire rhythm section – neat and tidy guitar playing, punctuated by a short, efficient solo, and Lemmy.
Lemmy gets a paragraph all of his own. Whatever you thought of him (and I think I was more ambivalent about him than many, who seemed to see him as some kind of loveable rogue), he brought a unique sound to everything he did. It’s a coin toss whether he’s more famous for his slightly strangulated vocals, produced by tilting his head back and singing up at the dangling microphone, or for his bass playing. He treated the bass as a lower pitched rhythm guitar, often – almost always, in fact – providing the main riff and the structure of the song, with the result that Motorhead were never going to be mistaken for anyone else.
It occurs to me that Shoot you in the Back – a slightly slower-paced variation on the Motorhead theme – suggests that this is a concept album. I imagine I knew that at the time; it’s loosely themed around the Wild West (whatever that means), but it sounds like a Motorhead album; there were no concessions to the sound design or anything intended to make it sound like this was recorded in South Dakota or Arizona or something.
Live to Win does much the same thing as the previous tracks – it is impressive how much mileage was wrung out of this same basic template. It’s not that these songs sound alike; they are all distinctly different, but there’s not much to say about any individual lyric or any particular solo.
I knew this would be tough to review – I’m enjoying the general feel of it, and I can clearly see why I loved it at the time, but all I’m coming up with to say is “this is another Motorhead song”.
I do remember We are the Road Crew, though – it’s a straightforward tale of life on the road, but it reels off its cliches with genuine enthusiasm and a memorable riff. The version on Spotify seems to be the radio edit, though – the original was a tiny bit more sweary than this..
Fire, Fire threatens to be more of the same, but the instrumental break jolts it out of the routine, and I’m tapping my toes to it by the end.
There’s a song called Jaibait. Sigh. Moving on…
During Dance, two things occur to me. First, it’s possible to have a well regarded, classic album with a song with lyrics as trite as this, and second, I have just discovered that I used to work close to where it was recorded. Not sure what to make of that.
I’m struggling, can you tell?
The beginning of Bite the Bullet is one of those times when a flubbed start to a take got left on the final album. That’s about the only interesting thing I can think of to say about it. Well, it’s also short.
The Chase is Better Than the Catch is another one I remember quite clearly. Slower and more deliberate, it is a lot closer to the whole ‘New Wave’ of metal which was going around at the time. Lemmy famously objected to being pigeonholed, claiming that Motorhead were just a rock and roll band, but I went to the gigs; they had pretty much exactly the same audience as all those other bands who made their living sounding like this song did.
Well, with different vocals, to be fair.
And we round things off with The Hammer, which is at least ambiguous – is it about drugs, or an actual serial killer, or something else equally unpleasant? It finishes the whole thing off in definitive Motorhead style, the riff and tempo are call backs to the first track, and serve to remind us why we came here in the first place.
You know, with some of the albums I’ve revisited, I’ve found what it was which enthused me at the time, but the spark just isn’t there with this. It’s not a bad album, but I think a little Motorhead goes a long way now, and I have a feeling that even then there were other albums of theirs I preferred.
Hard to imagine, but I don’t really have an opinion about Motorhead any more. They did give me the most memorable opening to a stage show I ever saw though, so that’s something.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
I’d like to say yes, but that would mean going back and listening to them all again, and I’m a little tired of mining this seam right now. I think I had copies of both Bomber and Overkill once upon a time, though, so if you liked this, try those.
Compilations to consider?
Never owned one, but No Remorse seems to cover this period comprehensively. For later stuff, you’d have to ask someone who was there.
Ah, I know the answer to this one: No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith is the recording of the live show from the Ace of Spades show, and proves what I think I knew all along – Motorhead were a live band first and foremost. I’ve listened to it in preparation for this, and if I had to own a Motorhead album, it would be this one. I still remember the genuine thrill of seeing it at number one in the album charts.
Anything else? The only thing I’d like to point you to is the Classic Albums episode about Ace of Spades. I imagine it’s not to hard to find online, and probably gives a much fairer assessment of the whole thing than I’ve been able to do.