The Sto­ries Be­hind The Songs


Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Dave Ever­ley

“It’s got a nat­u­ral speed, a ve­loc­ity of its own and it rocks like a bas­tard.” Yes, it’s Ace Of Spades.

Motör­head had speed in their veins and wind in their sails when they en­tered the stu­dio to record their fourth al­bum, Ace Of Spades, in the sum­mer of 1980. Their pre­vi­ous re­lease, the live Golden Years EP, had turned this gnarli­est of bands into un­likely Top 10 stars. But it would be Ace Of Spades – par­tic­u­larly its un­for­get­table ti­tle track – that sealed their im­mor­tal­ity.

From its over­driven bass in­tro to its squeal­ing, hit-the-brakes end­ing two minutes and 48 sec­onds later, this gam­blers’ psalm would be­come not just Motör­head’s sig­na­ture song, but also one of the all-time great rock’n’roll an­thems.

Nat­u­rally, the band them­selves had no such am­bi­tions when they holed up in Rock­field Stu­dios, South Wales in early 1980 to be­gin re­hears­ing for the fol­low-up to the white-hot one-two of Overkill and Bomber, two brilliant al­bums re­leased within seven months of each other in 1979.

“We went down to Rock­field for a cou­ple of weeks, got in the vodka and every­thing else,” says gui­tarist ‘Fast’ Ed­die Clarke. “Un­for­tu­nately, Lemmy wasn’t too up for re­hears­ing in those days – he had a nice bird up there with him, so he was dis­tracted. But Phil [drum­mer ‘Philthy An­i­mal’ Tay­lor] and I used to like play­ing, so af­ter we’d fin­ished fish­ing and fuck­ing about and God knows what, me and Phil would have a lit­tle bash. It gave us an op­por­tu­nity to work out some riffs.”

Ace Of Spades was one of them. The band recog­nised its po­ten­tial, and worked it up into a rough song and recorded an in­stru­men­tal ver­sion at Rock­field. Back in Lon­don, they added vo­cals and over­dubs. This early in­car­na­tion first ap­peared on the 1989 odds-and-sods al­bum Dirty Love. While not dis­sim­i­lar from the fin­ished ver­sion, it lacked two key com­po­nents: that steel-plated cen­tral riff, and the break­down that Lemmy mem­o­rably de­scribed as “the tap-danc­ing sec­tion”.

Pro­ducer Vic Maile, who had pre­vi­ously worked with Lemmy’s for­mer band Hawk­wind and who Clarke af­fec­tion­ately de­scribes as “a nice bloke, very soft, big hooter, short hair”, played a big part in fix­ing both.

“Vic kind of ques­tioned what we were do­ing with the song,” says Clarke. “He made us look at that riff, so Lemmy and I started fuck­ing around with it a bit. It was one of the only times we’d writ­ten in the stu­dio.”

Maile also had what Clarke called “his box of tricks” – a card­board box full of items used to pro­vide sound ef­fects. Amid the mara­cas and rat­tlesnake tails was a set of wood­blocks which would pro­vide the clack­ing sound dur­ing the break­down.

“He said: ‘This is what we’ll do’,” ex­plains Clarke. “We were pissed or speed­ing and we were to­tally against it. ‘Well, we’ll do it cos it’s you, Vic, but we ain’t gonna fuck­ing use it.’ He set up a nice Neu­mann mic, and the three of us stood there with the blocks. Of course, at first we’re all do­ing it at dif­fer­ent fuck­ing times: ‘Come on, Phil, for fuck’s sake!’ ‘No, man, it’s you!’ But when we heard it, we thought: ‘Oh, it’s not bad.’”

With its tur­bocharged new riff and mem­o­rable break­down, the track was be­gin­ning to sound spe­cial. The fi­nal piece in the jig­saw was Lemmy’s lyrics – an at­tempt, he said, to cram as many gam­bling ref­er­ences in as pos­si­ble: the high one, snake eyes, dead man’s hand (and don’t for­get the joker…). In typ­i­cal myth-mak­ing fash­ion, he claimed to have writ­ten the lyrics in the back of a Tran­sit van while speed­ing down the mo­tor­way at 90mph.

“He might have writ­ten it in the fuck­ing shit­ter for all I know,” Clarke says with a laugh. “He used to do that. We’d say: ‘Man, we need some fuck­ing lyrics for this.’ So he used to go for a shit and write the lyrics. But if he said he wrote it in a Tran­sit van, then you’ve got to be­lieve him.”

Ace Of Spades reached No.15 in the UK when it was re­leased in Novem­ber 1980. It swiftly be­came a high­light of their live set.

The last time Clarke saw Lemmy was at the Clas­sic Rock Awards in Oc­to­ber 2015, two months be­fore the singer’s death. Motör­head were due to play UK dates the fol­low­ing Jan­uary, in­clud­ing two dates at Ham­mer­smith Apollo, and the two of them talked about the gui­tarist join­ing them on both nights.

“He looked so frail at the Clas­sic Rock Awards,” says Clarke. “I was a bit shocked. I did think that he wouldn’t make the gigs be­cause he was so frail. I never thought he was go­ing to die, though.”

Af­ter Lemmy’s death, an on­line cam­paign to get Ace Of Spades back in the charts pushed it to No.13, two spots higher than its orig­i­nal peak more than 35 years be­fore. In 2016, Clarke joined old spar­ring part­ners Saxon and Girlschool on tour. Each show would cul­mi­nate with a mass ren­di­tion of Ace Of Spades.

“It went down a fuck­ing storm,” he says. “It didn’t bring tears to my eyes, but it was very emo­tional. What can I say?”

In his later years, Lemmy had mixed feel­ings about the song he played ev­ery night on stage with Motör­head. While he recog­nised its en­dur­ing qual­ity, fa­mil­iar­ity def­i­nitely bred con­tempt.

“I’m sick to death of it now,” he wrote in his 2002 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, White Line Fever. “We didn’t be­come fos­silised af­ter that record, you know, we’ve had quite a few good re­leases since then. But the fans want to hear it so we still play it ev­ery night. For my­self, I’ve had enough of that song.”

Ed­die Clarke has no such is­sues: “It’s a fan­tas­tic track. It’s got a nat­u­ral speed, a ve­loc­ity of its own, it’s got a great ar­range­ment and it rocks like a bas­tard. And Lemmy’s lyrics are fan­tas­tic.

I some­times say to peo­ple: ‘I used to be in a band years ago’, and they say: ‘Oh, which one?’ When I say Motör­head, they look be­mused. So I say: ‘Ace Of Spades’ and the penny drops. They might not know Motör­head, but they def­i­nitely know Ace Of Spades.”

“It’s got a nat­u­ral speed, a ve­loc­ity of its own, it’s got a great ar­range­ment and it rocks like a bas­tard.”

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