In 1979, Motörhead became the one band headbangers and punks could agree upon. The two records they put out that year, Overkill and Bomber, smacked of gritty, unpredictable, throbbing riffs and frontman Lemmy Kilmister sounded as if he had been huffing macadam and was coughing it up kernel by kernel. It was the best of metal, punk, and Capital-R Rock & Roll sledgehammered into half-hour wallops. The lyrics ranged from lubricious (“Damage Case”) to ludicrous (“Over the Top”), and yet Lemmy was also the king of metal maxims: “The only way to feel the noise is when it’s good and loud” (“Overkill”), “The only proof of what you are is in the way you see the truth” (“Stay Clean”), “Dead men tell no tales” (“Dead Men Tell No Tales”). In another time and another land, Lemmy would have been an outlaw country hero, a folk legend, but in London at the dawn of Thatcherism, he was a drug-fueled heavy-metal prophet.
The highlights of Motörhead’s Year of Radical Thinking now comprise a new box set, 1979, which is a smart title since Lemmy would’ve wanted it plain and raw. (When asked why he put the umlauts over Motörhead’s name, Lemmy said, “I thought it looked mean.”) In the box, there’s March 1979’s Overkill, the band’s most perfect single LP, in all its sleazy, knuckleheaded glory, and its slower, scuzzier sister, that October’s Bomber, which showed that three musicians could play as heavy as any larger-sized band. Then there are two live recordings, where you can hear the lineup that diehard fans call the Three Amigos — vocalist-bassist Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clark, drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor — in their most natural habitat, the stage, at two key points of the year, and a smattering of B sides. It’s not a total 360 view of the band that year (their live-in-Paris Peel Sessions are missing, as is any video content), but it’s holistic enough to show how and why they became one of the most important forces in hard rock, inspiring Metallica, Ramones, Mudhoney, and the black-metal group Immortal, among countless others.
Although Overkill was the band’s second official album, the band were seasoned pros when they recorded it. As Lemmy sings on that album’s acid-rock love song to himself “Capricorn,” “When I was young, I was already old.” Kilmister grew up a die-hard rock & roll fan (his hero to the end was Little Richard), and, in the late Sixties, he was a roadie for Jimi Hendrix and a member of the costumed group the Rockin’ Vickers. He joined space-rock pioneers Hawkwind in ’71 but was kicked out after getting busted for possession of amphetamine sulphate in 1975. “I was doing the wrong drugs, see,” he wrote in his autobiography (which, for the record, is Essential Rock Reading). “If I had been caught with acid, those guys would have all rallied around me.” He formed Motörhead later that year, and shortly thereafter replaced the first lineup with Clarke and Taylor. Lemmy originally wanted a five-piece but settled for a trio.
Taylor and Clarke already knew each other and, according to Lemmy, they fought like brothers. Taylor had taken drum lessons at the Leeds College of Music, and Clarke had played with Jimi Hendrix associate Curtis Knight in the group Zeus. After some woodshedding and the recording of an aborted album, On Parole (which also came out in 1979, when the record label wanted to cash in), the group put out their real debut, Motörhead, in 1977. Somewhere in there, Lemmy tried to teach Sid Vicious bass before he joined the Sex Pistols, but as Johnny Rotten once said, “[Sid] had no aptitude for music at all.” They played the odd gig, the record didn’t sell very well, and eventually in ’78 they landed a hit with a sandpapery cover of “Louie, Louie,” got a new record deal and started working on what would become two of their defining albums.
In early 1979, Lemmy turned 34 and, by that point, basically served as a sage wizard to all the upstart punk and metal bands; Clarke and Taylor were still in their mid to late 20s, but they played like haggard road dogs. Maybe it was all the drugs they were taking, or maybe it was teaming up with producer Jimmy Miller — whose credits include the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. and Blind Faith’s self-titled record — but the band were undeniably functioning at a higher level when they cut Overkill in late ’78.
The record begins with Taylor spraying bullets all over his drum kit. Lemmy joins in with a chunky, rockabilly bass line — which sounds like it’s played on guitar, thanks to all the distortion he used — and Clarke’s guitar covers the mix like a thundercloud, all leading up to Lemmy’s pontification, “The only way to feel the noise is when it’s good and loud.” The song is such a monster that they start it over again two more times before throwing in the towel after five minutes. When Metallica brought the Big Four concert, with Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax on the bill, to Yankee Stadium in 2011, the song they played was “Overkill” — a perfect anthem that each of those bands knew and could relate to.
“I had never heard anything that sounded like that,” Lars Ulrich once said of Taylor’s drumming on “Overkill”. “It blew my head off. And then that kind of energy continued — it was so raw. I’d never heard anybody sing like Lemmy, and it was this fusion of, like, punk and rock and metal, and it was crazy. It just added to an energy to it and was completely over the top with these almost exaggerated, cartoon-like lyrics.”
The rest of the Overkill album shows Motörhead’s breadth of artistry at the time. “Stay Clean” are some of Lemmy’s most philosophical lyrics (“In the end, you’re on your own/And there is no one that can stop you being alone”) pasted over an elastic rock & roll riff. “I Won’t Pay Your Price” is a chunky rocker that showcases Lemmy’s mastery of the Rock Vowel (“You know I won’t pay your price-a”), “I’ll Be Your Sister” is a snaky precursor to Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” that Lemmy said he always wished Tina Turner would sing, “No Class” is a brilliant upgrade of ZZ Top’s “Tush,” and “Metropolis” is a nonsensical rocker that sounds good no matter what speed you play it on. Then there’s a trio of Lemmy’s pickup lines: “Tear Ya Down,” “Limb From Limb,” and “Damage Case,” none of which sound like they’d be very appealing to women but Lemmy — eternally bewitched, bewildered, and be-warted — has disagreed. “There ain’t no shame in my bed at night,” he sings on “Limb From Limb.”
When Rolling Stone interviewed Lemmy shortly before his death in 2015 for an installment of our My Life in Songs franchise (which we rechristened “My Life in 15 Snarls” for Lemmy), he picked “Overkill” and “Stay Clean” among his favorites from his career. “I know that a lot of metal bands have covered ‘Overkill,’ but I don’t think a lot about our influence,” he said. “We’re just older. It’s nice to get a tribute, but it’s not the end of the world for me. We’re busy writing new stuff.” As for “Stay Clean,” he said, “It’s not about drugs or alcohol; it’s just ‘stay clean.’ I was trying to copy Mel Tormé, like ‘I’m Comin’ Home Baby,’ but the song didn’t turn out like that.” The guitar solo, he said, was simply “Fast” Eddie tuning up, but apparently Jimmy Miller was faster at hitting record and wouldn’t let him recut it.
A little over half a year later, Motörhead returned with Bomber, which somehow sounded heavier than Overkill. The first words you hear on the record are Lemmy growling, “This is it!” on the anti-heroin song “Dead Men Tell No Tales.” Clarke’s guitar solos sound as though he’s raining hellfire from above, pointing his amps downward as he flies over the recording studio, and Taylor’s rhythms lurch all over the place. “Lawman” is a slow-swaggering indictment of cops with the evil eye, “Sweet Revenge” sounds anything but sweet due to Clarke’s slow blues riff, and the surprisingly “Poison” gets better thanks to a Certified Lemmy One-Liner: “I poisoned my life … It’s better than marrying my wife.” “Stone Dead Forever” is a rager that Metallica covered at Lemmy’s 50th birthday party, where they picked a set list that was two-thirds songs from 1979.
Bomber’s “All the Aces” foreshadowed the band’s biggest hit, “Ace of Spades,” which came out the next year, and in the grand Motörhead tradition, the album’s best song was the title cut, “Bomber,” which wiggles and explodes as Lemmy wheezes, “Ain’t a hope in Hell/Nothing’s gonna bring us down.” Strangely, they left one of their best songs, “Over the Top,” off the record and released it as the B side to “Bomber,” but it’s a ripping, catchy rocker that might have made the album a perfect 10 like its predecessor if they’d included it.
“‘Bomber’ was the first song I wrote about war,” Lemmy said in the “My Life in 15 Snarls” interview. “I was reading Len Deighton’s book, Bomber, at the time I wrote it. It’s about a bombing raid on Germany when the British hit the wrong town, and it’s what goes on, on the floor and in the air from both sides. It’s a really good book. You should read it.” As for “Over the Top,” which he acknowledged as one of his best songs, he said, “It’s about going nuts. … What do I know about going nuts? I took acid for eight years. I know about going nuts.”
Nuts is exactly how Motörhead sound on the two live recordings in the 1979 box set. The sound isn’t very good on either of them, but the grittiness makes them sound more authentic. The first one, Good ‘n’ Loud, finds them playing at the Aylesbury Friars, a now-closed 400-seater a little over an hour north of London. It was recorded on March 31st, 1979. Before “Keep Us on the Road,” Lemmy encourages the audience to steal the first Motörhead album. He jokes about “Metropolis” being their “Pink Floyd imitation number,” and adds, “It’s better than Pink Floyd these days” (and remember, this was just before the release of The Wall). He dedicated the Motörhead song “Born to Lose” to all the bikers in the audience and when they cheered, he goes, “Fuck off, you can’t all be bikers.” When they came back to play the evening’s final song, Lemmy joked, “You never saw Hawkwind do two encores. We’re called … ” and then they just start “Motörhead.”
The second live record, Sharpshooter, was recorded on the Bomber tour in Le Mans, a few hours southwest of Paris, on November 3rd, 1979, and you can hear how seven months on the road have treated the band. Lemmy sounds gruffer. Taylor starts “Overkill” at a particularly speedy tempo only to have Lemmy join in on the bass even faster, driving up the charge, taking it to the brink. Halfway through, Lemmy offers an off-handed “Shut up,” which may well be his catch phrase, but they keep the pace, probably because there was a heavy airplane prop dangling over their heads like the sword of Damocles. The plane weighed so much that they couldn’t bring it to the States. Throughout the show, Lemmy tries speaking to the audience in the worst Inspector Clouseau French accent ever recorded, thinking it would mean something more to them. At one point, he has the whole crowd say “bollocks,” and then offers that, “Now you all speak English.” It’s hilarious and electric, and it’s how you would imagine Motörhead would sound live in 1979.
A little less than a year later, the Three Amigos would be back in the studio to record the album that would truly send them “over the top,” Ace of Spades. That lineup would make one more album, 1982’s Iron Fist — which Motörhead aficionado Lars Ulrich actually watched them record — before Clarke left the group, followed by an album later that still featured Philthy Animal. Taylor would come back later in the Eighties, but Clarke never did. Lemmy soldiered on and led new lineups in recording more classics like “Killed by Death” (on No Remorse, the only “greatest hits” comp to make Rolling Stone’s greatest metal albums list), as well as a new album nearly every two years up to Lemmy’s death.
While there are many essential releases in Motörhead’s catalogue (Bastards deserves a reappraisal if you haven’t played it in a while), the band’s legend truly started in 1979. And now they’re nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The reason the group was so influential was because Lemmy was a late bloomer: He’d already spent years in the music business by the time the band put out Overkill and had an insider’s idea of just what people wanted from a band like his.
Among other things (sheet music, a replica Bomber tour program, buttons), the box set contains an all-Motörhead zine, cheekily titled Melödy Breaker, which perfectly fits the band’s irreverent attitude. It contains interviews with nearly everyone left alive who came in contact with the band, from former Joy Division bassist Peter Hook to their recording engineer. What’s missing, though, are fresh interviews with the band members, which is sad because at this point, they’ve all died, and as Lemmy once sang, “Dead men tell no tales.”
There is, however, a vintage article on the band from 1979 included, which perfectly captures Lemmy’s view of the world at the time: “If you can give the kids a good time then that’s all it’s for,” he said. “Forget art and all that — that’s bullshit. If you can send that shiver down a kid’s back, then that’s what it’s all about. All else is bullshit.”