If Motorhead is to be remembered for one song, it would be “Ace Of Spades”. The title cut from their most commercially successful album, a track that encapsulates Motorhead– fast, loud, defiant. Let’s dig into this heavy metal classic to see what makes it work.
“Ace Of Spades” (Ian Kilmister, Edward Clarke and Philip Taylor) Copyright 1980 Motor Music Ltd, All rights administered by EMI Intertrax Music
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Welcome to the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast on the Pantheon Podcast Network. I’m your host, Brad Page, and on this episode’ we’re gonna pummel our ears with two minutes and 46 seconds of the most relentless rock ever produced” this is Motorhead and “Ace of Spades”
In Madison, New Hampshire– about an hour from where I live– there’s a giant granite rock called the “Madison Boulder”. It sits in the forest, in the middle of nowhere, pushed there thousands and thousands of years ago by the unrelenting flow of ice during the Ice Age, and then left alone when the ice receded. 83 feet long, 23 feet high, 37 feet wide, weighing about 5000 tons, it’s the largest known glacial Boulder in North America.
The only thing I can think of that’s as heavy as that rock, and as relentless as the ice that brought it there, is the music of Motorhead.
Ian Frazier Kilmister, better known as Lemmy, did a stint as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix and eventually landed a gig as the bass player for the ultimate Space Rock band, Hawkwind. Oddly enough, it was Lemmy who came up with the only hit Hawkwind ever had– a song called “Silver Machine” that reached number 3 on the UK charts back in 1972.
Apparently within Hawkwind, there was a clash over drug use; the rest of the band was into psychedelics, whereas Lemmy preferred speed. So after Lemmy was busted for possession of amphetamines, they fired him from the band. So he started Motorhead. With Lemmy handling bass and vocals, the lineup eventually settled on “Fast” Eddie Clark on guitar and Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor on drums. This would be the classic Motorhead lineup.
Struggling to find any success at all, the band was just about to split up when they went into the studio to record one final song; they ended up recording a whole album’s worth and released it as their first album in August 1977. It actually did alright sales-wise, enough to keep them afloat. They released a single in September 1978, a remake of “Louie Louie”.
It managed to make it to 68 on the UK charts, high enough to get them an appearance on the TV show “Top of the Pops”. They released their second album, “Overkill”, in March 1979, and by then, the Motorhead formula was fully established: loud, fast, arrogant, speed-freak rock and roll.
The album was an unexpected success– it reached number 24 on the UK albums chart. The band worked non-stop; by the time their third album “Bomber” reached number 12 on the charts, only six months after the release of their previous album, Motorhead were bonafide rock stars.
Motorhead was one of the few bands that appealed to both punk rock and heavy metal kids alike. Lemmy once said he thought they had more in common with The Damned than with Judas Priest, but no matter which camp you are in, everybody loved Motorhead. And now that they had actual hit records, the pressure was on for the next album.
In early 1980, they headed into a studio in South Wales to work up material for the new album. One of the tracks was “Ace of Spades”. Lemmy didn’t have to look far for inspiration for this one– he already had the Ace of Spades tattooed on his left arm, with the credo “Born to lose, live to win”.
That first version of the song that they laid down is not drastically different than the final version, but there are some important differences. The main riff is slightly but significantly different; it’s in a different key, the breakdown in the middle is missing, and the ending is different:
saw the potential in the song and encouraged them to work on it some more, so they revamped the riff into the unforgettable classic we know today. So again, here’s the original riff:
and here’s the final version:
OK, so let’s get into the track. It kicks off with Lemmy’s bass. He played a Rickenbacker 4000 Series bass, plugged into a modified Marshall Super Bass amp head. Apparently, he set the bass and treble on zero, turned the mids up to 10, and then cranked up the volume.
So that’s the intro with the guitar. Actually, I think it’s two guitars double tracked playing the same riff, while Lemmy hammers away on one note.
Here’s the first verse. An additional riff is overdubbed on top of the main riff which carries on underneath.
Here’s the second verse, and let’s listen to Lemmy’s vocal.
It’s a little hard to hear in the final mix, but he actually doubles his vocals there.
The next section of the song is what the band always referred to as the “tap dancing section”. The producer Vic Maile had a cardboard box in the studio full of percussion instruments and noise makers. He pulled out a set of wood blocks and had the band whack away at them, creating this clickety-clack sound effect that sounds a little bit like someone tap dancing to “Ace of Spades”:
Next up is a vocal break that’s probably my favorite part of the song;
“You know I’m born to lose
and gambling’s for fools
but that’s the way I like it, baby
I don’t want to live forever”
That’s pretty much Lemmy in a nutshell.
Let’s listen to what Lemmy was doing on the bassunder that part:
That’s like the gnarliest bass sound ever. That section leads us into the guitar solo:
Lemmy really lays on the gambling references here; “pushing up the ante”, “read them and weep”, “the dead man’s hand”.
(The expression “dead man’s hand” is a poker hand consisting of two Black Aces and two black eights; supposedly the hand that Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot and killed. There’s no actual proof of this, probably not true but it’s what Lemmy believed, which is why it’s in the song.)
Interestingly, Lemmy really wasn’t much of a card player at all. He preferred playing the slot machines. He even brought one on tour with him.
Lemmy is actually playing chords on his bass. Sometimes, as a three-piece band, that’s a way to fill out the songs, but it just adds to the thundering sound of that bass.
And let’s not let the song end without giving a listen to what Phil Taylor is doing on the drums:
Let’s hear the final verse as they drive the song home:
There’s the tap dancing again.
This ending is just perfect:
Motorhead – “Ace of Spades”
“Ace of Spades” was released as a single in October 1980, and though it got virtually no airplay on British radio, it managed to hit number 15 on the UK charts. The album entered the charts at number 4– a remarkable achievement. That success did not replicate in the U.S., though “Ace of Spades” was the first Motorhead album to be released in the US. As American commercial radio wouldn’t touch themwith a 10-foot pole, they had to start from scratch here. Motorhead eventually became Legends in the U.S., Lemmy in particular; there was simply nobody else like him, but they never had anywhere near the commercial success in the U.S. that they had in Britain.
“Fast” Eddie Clark once said that out of the millions of dollars that people have made in the music business “I’d rather have ‘Ace of Spades’ than a million quid in the bank, because ‘Ace of Spades’ will be here after I’m gone. It’s a classic and you don’t get cassics every day.” So true.
Eddie would leave Motorhead in 1982 and he died in January 2018. He was being treated for pneumonia at the time he died; he was 67.
“Philthy Animal” Taylor left the band in 1984, though he did return in ’87 and played with them until 1992 when he quit for good. He was 61 when he died of liver failure in November 2015.
And Lemmy, the seemingly indestructible Lemmy Kilminster, died less than two months after Phil. He passed away on December 28 2015 from cancer. There’s a great documentary about Lemmy– it’s simply titled “Lemmy”, and it’s worth watching for sure.
And I hope you thought this episode was worth listening to. The “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast will be back in two weeks with another show, so tune in for that.
In the meantime, share your Motorhead memories on our Facebook page; just look for the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, or on our website lovethatsongpodcast.com. And you can always leave a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to the show, that’s always appreciated.
On behalf of the Pantheon Podcast Network, I thank everyone for listening and supporting these shows. And with that, I’ll leave you with Motorhead and “Ace of Spades”.