There may be a small cult of unbelievers out there, but their opinions count about as much as those of flat-earthers and moon-landing conspiracy nuts. The simple fact is that Motörhead is the baddest-ass rock ’n’ roll band in the history of everything, the beginning and end of modern hard rock, an amplified force of nature as intense and dangerous as a black hole.
Bassist/vocalist Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister and his bandmates have laid down a handful of iconic performances that serve as evidence for Motörhead’s universal supremacy: the indomitable, superclassic 1980 single “Ace of Spades”; the massive 1981 live album No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith; and a clutch of other well-known songs—“Overkill,” “Bomber,” “Iron Fist,” “Motorhead”—that have become anthems for bikers, burn-outs, and speed freaks around the world.
After all this time, “Ace of Spades,” from the band’s fourth album, is still the definitive Motörhead track. Kilmister, speaking from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s lived since 1990, says he has “no clue” why the song has become the cornerstone of his career. “Even when I was writing it, it didn’t seem that special,” he says. “It was just another song to me.”
It might be that “Ace of Spades” crams Motörhead’s entire philosophy into three minutes of textbook hooks at screaming velocity. The song is stripped of anything but the bare essentials: an instantly recognizable two-chord riff and an infamous breakdown—“You know I’m gonna lose/and gambling’s for fools/but that’s the way I like it, baby/I don’t wanna live forever”—that expresses both the wild, unbridled joy and haunted fatalism of early rock ’n’ roll.
“It’s stuck with us,” Kilmister says. His voice is as whiskey-soaked and cigarette-scarred as it sounds on record. “It’s kept us alive. I get a check every year. And it’s a good song. We could have gotten famous for a turkey.”
Something else that’s stuck with Motörhead since the 1980s is the ghost of its early lineup. Many fans still consider the early roster—Kilmister, guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke, and drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor—as the best. Kilmister’s frustration about such nostalgia is understandable—Motörhead churned out some of its most emblematic material during the Clarke/Taylor years, but the band’s also released 14 albums since 1982’s Iron Fist, that trio’s last record together. The most recent, last year’s Motörizer, released 33 years after the band first formed, was Motörhead’s first to break into the top 100 in the United States. Current drummer Mikkey Dee joined Motörhead in 1992; the band’s current guitarist, Eddie Campbell, joined in 1984.
Critics have often pointed to Motörhead’s high-speed cocktail of heavy metal and punk as a primary influence on bands like Metallica and Slayer. But Kilmister has always insisted that Motörhead’s not a metal band.
“We’re a rock ’n’ roll band,” he says. “That’s what I came from, that’s what my roots are, and that’s what my f--king band is. We do all kinds of music at different tempos, but most of it’s translatable back to the original rock ’n’ roll. But heavy metal’s the logical descendant of rock ’n’ roll. If Eddie Cochran was alive, that’s what he’d be playing.”
If there’s anything the band is as well-known for as “Ace of Spades,” it’s a prodigious consumption of booze and drugs. “Motorhead,” after all, was ’70s biker slang for a meth user, and Kilmister was booted from his previous band, the British space-rock lords Hawkwind, after getting arrested for possession at the Canadian border. In the 1970s, Kilmister went to a doctor to explore the possibility of replacing all his blood, in a detox procedure similar to one rumored to have been used by Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards. In his autobiography, White Line Fever, Kilmister writes that the doctor told him he wouldn’t survive the procedure. “Pure blood will probably kill you,” the doctor said.
“I went in and gave a sample and the doctor said, ‘Don’t let him give any blood transfusions!’ My blood had apparently become some kind of chemical soup,” Kilmister explains. “We did a lot more bad things back then that we’re not doing today. Not as much. It wasn’t just me—in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s everybody was taking everything.”