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Motörhead arrived mid-afternoon in June of 1975 for the new wave of British heavy metal happy hour — and never left. For 40 years, the band, led by its unforgettable figurehead Lemmy Kilmister, seemed indefatigable, cranking out their singular blend of punky, speed-freak, hard-rocking biker metal right up until its dear leader Lemmy succumbed to cancer on December 28th, 2015. Indeed, Lemmy had long warned he wanted to die onstage, which very nearly was the case as Motörhead performed what would become their last live show just weeks earlier in Berlin.
Through the English outfit's four decades in existence, Motörhead achieved many milestones. The band's classic lineup — singer-bassist Lemmy, guitarist "Fast" Eddie Clarke and drummer Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor — revealed their loud, fast intentions on their 1977 self-titled debut, and then redefined brutality for the Seventies with its follow-up Overkill. After a third record, Bomber, then came Ace of Spades with its apocalyptic title track, a song famed enough that it's become part of pop-culture consciousness. Indeed "Ace of Spades," with all its dirty, slashing propulsion, ranks among the greatest metal songs ever written. A year after its release, the album was followed by a U.K. No. 1–charting live record called No Sleep 'til Hammersmith, which captured the band's fabled eardrum-busting show and provided proof to Lemmy's famous 1975 claim that if Motörhead moved in next door "your lawn would die."
But what's most inspiring about Motörhead is that after a modest number of lineup adjustments through the Eighties (and Lemmy relocating to Los Angeles and finally making some dosh writing for Ozzy) the band got rock-solid with guitarist Phil Campbell and drummer Mikkey Dee and made much of the best music of its 22–studio album career. This we aim to prove to you as we present our picks for the 25 greatest Motörhead songs of all time.
Overnight Sensation, 1996
Opening with a dirty solo bass line that's a near quote from "Keep Us on the Road," from Motörhead's 1977 self-titled debut, this unassuming title track doesn't feel like much — until we get to the anthemic clouds-parting chorus, where Lemmy spits, "Overnight sensation/All mouth and no soul/The bad boys sold your franchise/And stole your rock 'n' roll." Elsewhere, Lemmy extols the wisdom of keeping your mouth shut, while also noting that "To live outside the law, my dear/You gotta give a damn." Producer Howard Benson makes sure the mid-speed backing music slams with similar conviction.
Sure, it's punky and frantic, but this up-tempo track on the somewhat maligned third record demonstrates Eddie Clarke's ability to write a thoughtful, textured riff that is blues-derived but solidly metal. Also on display is Motörhead's smart song construction, with a lengthy pre-chorus leading to a modulated chorus, after which it collapses back to the marauding intro riff. Mathematically, "All the Aces" should have been four times more of a hit than "Ace of Spades," but it was not to be.
"We are Motörhead and we play rock & roll." Sure, sometimes, I guess. Usually, it's metal. But "English Rose" is a great example of a track fulfilling Lemmy's habitual onstage promise to you, the deaf, with Dee giving us his best Charlie Watts as Campbell and Lem boogie and do the "Louie Louie." It's also one of Lem's amusing transactional love-on-the-run songs, laced with a little poetic gravitas. When the chorus hits, he comments, apropos of nothing, "English rose, a crown of thorns." Also amusing: the song starts like AC/DC's "Whole Lotta Rosie."
Iron Fist, 1982
Sweeping riff, double-fisted high-hat over a half-time rhythm, Lemmy, mournful, poured out, in his cups … What's not to like about this soulful Iron Fist deep cut? Extra charm comes from the fact that the song begins with the chorus. In fact, each verse begins with the chorus, after which Lem spits out some choice words of revenge, turning around the title conceit. Late in the sequence there are unexpected licks and even a contemplative mellow respite, which gives way to a multi-part jam. Lots going on here.
Bad Magic, 2015
"Victory or Die" is the opening track on Motörhead's swan song, Bad Magic — and it asks a lot of questions. But Lemmy, who would sadly exit this world not six months after its release, doesn't leave us wanting for his wisdoms. Throughout the song he offers many musings on his near, at that point, 70 years on earth … including the fact that he's seen a UFO. Behind him Campbell and Dee dutifully thunder along, at the brisk end of mid-tempo, anchoring the song so Lemmy can deliver his message with maximum impact.
Under Cöver, 2017
"Heroes" wasn't a huge hit for its original creator David Bowie right out of the gates; it grew in stature over time to the point where it's now arguably the most beloved song of the singer's exalted canon. The legend of Lemmy seems to be making a similar arc — he didn't sell in his day either. And even within the confines of this ragtag collection of Motörhead covers from over the years, if "Sympathy for the Devil" got a head start by being part of Bad Magic (and appearing in an Acura TV ad), it's "Heroes" that is proving to linger longest and deepest — now conjuring memories of both Lem and Bowie, who passed two weeks apart.
Ace of Spades, 1980
Its main riff is a bit pedestrian, and it's plunked atop an accursed four-on-the-floor beat from Taylor. But fans love this song, reveling in Lemmy's philosophical musings across the muddy World War I march of the thing. But that maligned opening riff — which, granted, is the part that sticks in the head — gives way to more interesting chords at the verse, and then pre-chorus and chorus meld, building tension, punctuated by the title refrain. Plus, given the tempo, the song provides much needed contrast to the rest of the album, which is uniformly quite speedy.
Is there a starker avowing of atheism in rock & roll than this short, dirty rocker from Iron Fist? Probably not, given how high Lemmy is in the mix — both his cranky bark and his buzzy bass — and how jaggedly and right between the eyes each negative statement is spit. Other nice features: during the instrumental movement, it's the bass that carries the riff, and come solo time, there's a modulation in key which seems to inspire Clarke to go all echoey and arty and layered, followed by a resonating then fading howl that lasts as we lapse back into another round of the geometric opening riff.
Kiss of Death, 2006
It was super inspiring how fast and furious the albums were coming out in the 2000s. Kiss of Death was among those, and its mid-album cut "God Was Never on Your Side" emerged as a hugely popular late-period classic. Not surprising that it would stand out for extra attention: the music was framed like a darkened, world-weary power ballad — part Metallica, part Roger Waters — over which Lemmy delivers another one of his stinging indictments of religion. The implication of Lemmy's gorgeous and formal lyric this time out is that there might indeed be a God, but if so, he's at least indifferent … if not nihilistic.
Lore over the years has framed this as one of Lem's handful of songs about the dangers of heroin. But that's not really the case, with Lem's lyric actually addressing the subjects of integrity, conscience and honesty. "Stay Clean" features a relatively sophisticated riff from Clarke, which dominates the song. The guitarist hits it hard when there's no singing and then artfully plays it subtle as Lemmy comes in with his verses. Other nice features: a famed gal-loping Lemmy bass solo at the end, and a fluid, bluesy solo from Clarke caught unaware by producer Jimmy Miller while Clarke was warming up.
One of the band's most memorable and creative album openers, "Deaf Forever" finds New York art-rock producer Bill Laswell applying gutted, echo-drenched effect to a drums, bass and vocals combo. This cut grooves forward right through the long first verse before we hear the guitars clang in — this is the first record featuring the Phil "Wizzo" Campbell and Michael "Würzel" Burston team — accompanied by the famed "sword and shield, bone and steel" chorus refrain. Gang vocals accentuate the majesty of this song's deft AC/DC-like construction. All told, it's a huge opening statement for Motörhead's first album in three years, and, after a break with Bronze, its first on the band's own imprint.
Here's one that teaches us to stick around to the end of the album — and to pay attention to these late-period albums, despite there being so many of them. First off, Lemmy's just laying on us another one of his remarkable poetic tracts, using his dependable war vocabulary to talk about his amusing embrace of pessimism. Second, we find out that the song's robotic, monotone riff is that way for a reason: to set up the rich and inspired chorus chords, which are blessed further by the rhythm of Lemmy's words. Third, Campbell plays slide guitar!
Written on Wizzard/ELO multi-instrumentalist Roy Wood's acoustic guitar at the Hyatt House in West Hollywood in 1974, "Motorhead" (no umlaut) showed up as a Hawkwind B-side before Lemmy was ousted from the collective due to a drug bust. It became Motörhead's "Black Sabbath" and "Iron Maiden," even going beyond that purview by defining the band's "up all night on speed" personality in the lyric as well as the hapless, trundling music. Also landmark and trademark at once is the intro to the song, on which we are forced to get accustomed to Lem's unearthly bass sound. Add in Taylor's sideways shuffle drumming and the sum total is shockingly trashy, punkier-than-all-the-punk proposed at the time outside of the Damned.
Another Perfect Day, 1983
Another Perfect Day is the polarizing album featuring — as one and done — Thin Lizzy's Brian "Robbo" Robertson at the guitar position. Those who complained about the concept could point to the shockingly Southern-sounding rock guitar chords that open this song. Granted, they soon give way to a typical nasty Motörhead track, but then, surprise, they're back for the chorus, eliciting endless debate over Robbo's suitability. Elsewhere on the record, there's nothing this extreme to grouse over. Still, in the end, most fans eventually warmed to this curious era of the band, and as it stands, "Dancing on Your Grave" has become the album's most streamed song.
Overkill standout "I'll Be Your Sister" combines a flashy riff with swinging cymbal-smashed accents, along with a construction that has a couple of parts but no real chorus. All the while Clarke gets to solo a lot, Taylor bashes away with glee and Lemmy sings uncommonly high up his warty register. The lyric turns on the novel title idea, with Lemmy refreshing and un-ironic in his promise — not just a dirty dog — that he can be a lover, a mother and a sister.
The Wörld Is Yours, 2010
There is a really smart construction to this late-period album opener (which, confusingly, is the second time the band used "Born to Lose" as a song title). Campbell arches accessible conservative chords over a half-speed double-bass drum barrage from Dee, with everybody executing fun stops and starts and a tricky drum-dominated series of action points after the modulated solo section — all dialed in with crunchy perfection by critical team member during the latter years, producer Cameron Webb.
Famed in rock history as the first time anybody's dared play double-bass drums all the way through a song, "Overkill" is indeed a barn burner. In retrospect, it also feels like a warning of sorts that an even better wall-of-sound anthem from the band would soon arrive called "Ace of Spades." Forget the drum milestone, the song's also one of the heaviest things ever recorded in the 1970s, and certainly a precursor of the thrash-metal movement to come. In fact, it's a myth about the double-bass: the song includes a false ending a minute before its actual close, where Taylor, alas, briefly comes off the pedals.
Ace of Spades
Part "I'll Be Your Sister" and part ZZ Top's "Heard It on the X," "Shoot You in the Back" is a spirited and infectiously groovy up-tempo selection, nimble and erudite of riff, on this usually more rudimentary album. At the lyric end, Lem gives us a spaghetti Western song, which he telegraphs by saying "Western movie!" Reinforcing the atmosphere — basically that of the front cover — is the loud and clear use of a percussion instrument called a vibraslap, made famous on Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower," and also heard on "Sweet Emotion" and "Crazy Train."
Dark blues or bluesy doom — take your pick. Fact is, this one is loaded up with Sabbath-like atmosphere, providing contrast to the record and even some gravitas. What's shocking is how few lyrics there are to the thing, three enigmatic fortune-cookie verses, with the rest of the song given over to Clarke's squalling guitar solo excursions. Also surprising, despite its unshowy jammy quality, "Metropolis" wound up being one of Motörhead's most performed songs of all time.
B-side of "Overkill" single
Consult the pros: Metallica knew all too sagely that this 1979 non-LP track had something special, which is exactly why they included a version of it on their Garage Inc. covers album. It was always this writer's favorite Motörhead B-side, due to the relatively high-concept NWOBHM riff rocketing the thing. Come chorus time, the sternly metallic gives way to the soulful and anthemic, culminating in the title admonishment. Bottom line: this is the song that kept us, as teenagers, excited about Motörhead extras (color vinyl didn't hurt either).
Into our top five first is this superlative Motörhead anthem from an album that deserves reassessment. Kicking off with Taylor acting uncommonly stadium rock on the drums, next come inauspicious chords that don't hold much promise. But then we're into the riff and the band is in attack mode, with Lem's voice sounding particularly thick and hoary. The chorus brings soul and the encouraging sentiment inherent in the title credo. The song then intensifies further, offering more sharp-shooting drumming from Taylor, clear and capable soloing from Clarke and a frenzied big wind-up like it's the end of a gig.
Ace of Spades
Many Motörhead songs are frantic, but this is the most anxious of them all. Lemmy captures the job stress of the crew perfectly as he pays thoughtful and knowing tribute to those who keep the show on the road despite bad food, little sleep and having to get the singer out of the downtown strip club and over to the venue. The effect is achieved by the upfront beat, with Taylor whacking the snare on one, two, three and four rather than the standard rock & roll two and four. I know lots of crew guys who appreciate Motörhead writing this song, and that alone is good enough to get it into the top five.
Ace of Spades
"You know I'm born to lose, and gambling's for fools/But that's the way I like it baby/I don't wanna live forever." With lines like that, it's easy to under-stand why many people consider "Ace of Spades" to be the definitive Motörhead anthem. This stinging slap to the face is arguably the dirtiest, scrappiest, most transgressive piece of music to have pierced the pop culture veil. Its unforgettable lyrics, powerful bass riff and propulsive groove helped lead its namesake album to gold status in the U.K. shortly after its release, and its popularity has never waned (the song's currently logged over 300 million streams on Spotify alone). "Ace of Spades" undeniably elevated Lemmy to godlike status and cemented Motörhead's enduring legacy as true rock & roll outlaws.
The final song on a well-regarded mid-period album, "Orgasmatron" was beloved from the start and now sits proudly as the band's "Stairway to Heaven." Which seems somewhat illogical because the music's not overly ambitious. The guys lock into a hypnotic, seductive, pounding metal groove, one beat throughout, with a few chord progressions to break up the violence. At five minutes and change, it's not particularly long, and at the lyric end, there are only three verses and no chorus. But Lem packs a lot in, growling an indictment first of religion, then politics, then war. Still, folks love that sweeping, swinging riff and rhythm so much, plus Lem's scholarly pronouncements, that "Orgasmatron" is the first thing that comes to mind when fans are asked to suggest a "masterpiece" from the Motörhead canon
No Remorse, 1984
Buried on a quasi-compilation album, not from the classic lineup, originating from a bit of a lost year in Motörhead history… "Killed by Death" was born to lose, but it lives to win. It's testimony to the song's Stonesy swagger, its sense of humor, its groove and its easy drinkability that "Killed by Death" wound up the fourth most played song in the band's long gigging history — and a moment of pure joy at any Motörhead show. "We are Motörhead and we play rock & roll" indeed. Lemmy and Co. are vicious when they do metal, but when they actually play rock & roll, they are damn near untouchable.