38 Years Ago: Motörhead Storms Into The Mainstream with "Ace Of Spades"

November 8, 2018

The story behind Lemmy Kilmister and the formation of Motörhead has been the things of rock legend. It all started in 1975 when he was kicked out of the band Hawkwind after being arrested for cocaine possession (though the charges were dropped because he was actually in possession of methanphetamine). As a result, he started Motörhead, which was named after a song he originally wrote for Hawkwind.

By mixing blues grooves, punk-like speed and the edge of early rock, Motörhead had acquired a large following in England by 1979 following the release of their third album Bomber. However, the band did not see significant mainstream success until November 8th, 1980 when their fourth album, the heavy and ripping Ace of Spades caught on in North America.

Titled after the band's hit single and signature song, Ace of Spades skyrocked Motörhead into superstardom, though Lemmy admitted that he didn't think "Ace of Spades" was any more special than any of their other material. The public, on the other hand, saw it as a high-adrenaline anthem that helped define Motörhead and their sound. "Fast and Loose," "The Chase is Better Than the Catch," "(We Are) the Road Crew," and "Love Me Like a Reptile" were also more of the fan favorites.

"Ace of Spades" was written around Lemmy's nasty gambling habit, and how the life of a gambler consists of mostly losing, though he once won $9,000 on a slot machine at the Venetian casino in Las Vegas, only to gamble away $2,000 of it.

The album was a supercharged, aggressive ripfest produced by Vic Maile, who had produced albums for the not-nearly-as-heavy Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin. Starting at Rockfield Studio in Wales, the band began writing and recording their demos before relocating to Jackson's Studios in Rickmansworth, England with Maile. Over the course of five weeks, Maile helped the band sharpen their songs while still maintaining their raw feel of their sound by adding more textures to give the songs an extra "oomf."

One of the songs that had a special place on Ace of Spades was "(We Are) the Road Crew," which paid tribute to Motörhead's roadies at the time. Guitarist "Fast" Eddie Clarke recalled Lemmy coming up with the title and lyrics to the song when all they had was the riff, and found himself laughing on the floor of the studio because of how funny he thought the song was.

But in contrast to the rapid-fire tempo of the songs, production for Ace of Spades was often slow. Clarke recalls how he and drummer Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor spend a lot of time playing out of boredom, while Lemmy always kept himself occupied with a woman, some Jack Daniels and a book. So getting Lemmy to commit to attend rehearsals would often be challenging.

The Ace of Spades album art was also a departure from their previous albums. Usually they would feature their mascot Snaggletooth, but for Ace of Spades they agreed with depicting themselves as a trio of Clint Eastwood-style rock n' roll outlaws.

As the first Motörhead album to see distribution in the U.S., Ace of Spades resonated well with rock and metal fans, record labels had their attention geared towards New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Because they didn't fit the trending mold of the time, Motörhead were lumped in with pre-existing British rock bands like Deep Purple. Despite Ace of Spades being the No. 4 album in Europe, and Bomber was No. 6, the band did not get signed in the U.S. until they released live 1981 album No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith which was the No. 1 album in Europe.

Motorhead went on to record 16 full albums for the next 35 years before Lemmy Kilmister passed away from cancer on December 28th, 2015.