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With 20-plus quality records created over their substantial 40-year run of rock & roll notoriety, Motörhead amassed a good dozen timeless tracks recognizable by even casual heavy-metal fans, including "Overkill," "Metropolis," "Stay Clean," "Orgasmatron," "(We Are) The Road Crew" and most notably "Ace of Spades." But dig down into the mud, muck and mire of the battlefield, and there's a plethora of tracks that prove Lemmy and Co. were a band pretty much incapable of making a bad record (save, arguably, for the Sony years).
Deep-dive time is upon us as we examine, in chronological order, 10 tracks that exemplify Motörhead at their most devilishly delightful — but criminally underrated.
It's incredible how Motörhead were able to dip into different heavy-metal flavors record after record. Of course, given the voice and personality of Lemmy, there's a strong narrative flowing across all these varied (but squarely Motör-metal) compositions. "Death Machine" evokes images of heavy Uriah Heep with squalling wah-wah laced across the sweeping panorama of Dee's rhythms. Then there's a whole new smart prospect come chorus time. It's shocking how reliably good Campbell is at raising the bar on an already killer song with his choruses. All that was left was for Lemmy to arrive with his hard-fought words of wisdom. "Death Machine" is all that and more. But, like many of these underrated songs, it's buried beneath an embarrassment of riches doomed to be lost, but for the few who will make the effort to seek them out.
The Wörld Is Yours, 2010
"Devils in My Head" is a rare late-period Motörhead song that sounds like something classic Seventies-era guitarist Fast Eddie Clarke would write. It's earthy with a bit of the blues, but mischievous, metalized and subversive at the edges. But that all changes for the chorus, which finds Lemmy harmonizing with himself over Campbell's gorgeously melodic chord changes. It's an exquisite exercise in contrast: each solid, solitary element merging to create a synergistic whole that is stronger than the parts alone.
Part of the reason why there are so many underrated Motörhead songs is because of how prolific the band was during their 40-year career. Fans could always count on the fact that another Motörhead album was on its way — filled with well-written and crushingly performed tunes. This, along with the fact that their live set list required the inclusion of a bulging number of beloved classics of yore, meant a lot of choice material never got the proper chance to shine. "When the Eagle Screams" is one such song. This track represents Campbell's ability to write punchy, salt-of-the-earth traditional heavy metal that's well suited to his technical, tasteful drummer Dee, who always delivers the perfect wind-'em-up fill and never overplays.
Kiss of Death, 2006
"Living in the Past" is like a more immediate and accessible "Orgasmatron." Lemmy is speak-singing in measured tones, formally, low of register, over a massive, doomy mid-paced groove. The substantial class and gravitas of the song is enhanced come chorus time when Campbell breaks into a thoughtful and ever-so-slightly melodic riff over which Lemmy places a multi-tracked vocal. Lem's lyrics are a master class in the arrangement, rearrangement and repetition of simple words and phrases — just another side of the shocking skill of this hugely under-considered rock & roll wordsmith.
"The Game" was written by WWE music man Jim Johnston as entrance music for the wrestler Triple H (which Motörhead included as a bonus cut on Hammered). As such, it goes places the band normally might not, sounding like the sort of grungy, down-tuned, nu-metal–influenced heavy music you might get on a latter-day Ozzy album. What's extra special about it is Lemmy's beefy, theatrical approach to the vocals — he really gets into the character. Add to that the extreme distortion on Campbell's guitars and Dee's cavernous Steve Albini–esque noise-rock drum sound, and you've got a song that is red-lined in every department except for tempo.
Overnight Sensation, 1996
This larger-than-life stadium rocker finds guitarist Phil Campbell turning in a crushing intro and chorus riff, augmented by a verse structure that is one of the most exotic and interesting of the entire Motörhead canon (not particularly technical, but intriguingly sour of melody) over which Lem goes to work with a completely independent vocal melody. The song is let down a bit by Lem following the riff too closely on the chorus, but that's a minor quibble to this ambitious, massively powerful, high-fidelity track.
Bastards is widely considered by fans to be the first record of the band's rehabilitated second wave of crunchy goodness (significantly, it's drummer Mikkey Dee's first record as an official member of Motörhead). The album's mythos is further enhanced by how underground Bastards was at the time, as if the guys were forced to start over from scratch. Here we are deep in the track list with a novel construct: very straight-lined, minimal chord changes and Lemmy doing his vocal multi-tracked, similarly hypnotic to the music but with a sophisticated melody. Aiding in the rock-solid execution of this oddity is producer Howard Benson, onboard for his first of four records with the band.
Really, anything off Orgasmatron is a joy to listen to, if only for the fact that producer Bill Laswell gave drummer Pete Gill such a huge drum sound. Ergo, powered from the engine room, "Built for Speed" is a rock & roll number that swings, sorta like an all-business "Killed by Death." The song was, in fact, a bit above the radar at the time, with the "I was born with the hammer down/I was built for speed" refrain helping it become a modestly known anthem. But this was back in the mid-Eighties when the band was wobbling — as Lem was navigating label deals, personnel changes and, eventually in 1990, a migration to his war memorabilia–cluttered apartment close to his beloved Rainbow Bar in West Hollywood.
Iron Fist, 1982
Like Bomber, Motörhead's Iron Fist album was also somewhat dismissed in its day, though it similarly coughed up a few hidden gems. Consider "America," with its doomy note-dense riff and novel halting rhythm, over which Lemmy quite economically lists a few choice descriptions about what befell the boys crisscrossing the country on tour: "The endless road, another night to bend your mind/White line fever, I think that state patrol car's still behind." Beyond images of fast cars, girls, crystal meth paranoia and "Sinsemilla, ripple wine," "America" might be the only time "Yakima Reservation" has ever been name-checked in a heavy metal song.
Folks derided Bomber back in late '79 as a little light and undercooked, rushed even. But none of that applies to this vicious song of raging, smart heavy metal. "Poison" is the heaviest song on the record, but weirdly ignored in Motörhead lore. Matching the music for violent depression, "Poison" is Lem's look at various types of toxic agents — the last being his old man, as Lemmy delivers a few words of regret about his hard upbringing. At the comic end, however, he muses that "when you're poisoned out your mind/A flight of stairs is like swimming the Atlantic."