At the time Martin Popoff had more or less finished what became his new book, Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers: The Rise of Motörhead, all three members of the British band’s classic lineup were still alive. By the time he put the finishing touches on the tome, bassist-singer and longtime West Hollywood resident Lemmy Kilmister and drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor were dead. Only guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke, now 66, remains among the living.
However, Motörhead’s outlaw appeal is alive and well within the 260 pages of Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers, which focuses on the band’s early years, when Kilmister, Taylor and Clarke were recording such fast and heavy albums as Motörhead, Overkill, Ace of Spades, Bomber, No Sleep ’til Hammersmith and Iron Fist. Those works provided much inspiration for future denim-and-leather-clad groups, particularly Metallica.
“The charm of this book is it really has the personality of these three guys in it because I’ve interviewed them so many times,” Popoff says, reached via phone at his seventh-floor Toronto office. “And they’re all such different characters. Phil is just the goofball punk and seems so detached from the experience. Lemmy has those short, wise answers, and Eddie is just that raconteur who has this incredulity to him: ‘You have to laugh at how chaotic and inept the whole thing was, but we came through it and became legends because of it.’”
Popoff has written more than 50 books on heavy metal, hard rock and record collecting. He also consulted on the excellent 2010 documentary film Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. Popoff has been a Motörhead fan since he was a teenager and purchased the band’s self-titled debut album as a new release. He penned Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers, which also pulls from some of the band's other press interviews, during a five-month period.
“I really wanted to make it the story of the records themselves,” Popoff says. “None of those guys were super heavy metal fans, yet they were pretty much the heaviest band of the late ’70s and early ’80s, which is kind of odd and probably one of the reasons it came out so unique. Debate rages still today if [Motörhead] belonged in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or if they were a punk band and just didn’t look like one.”
Popoff's biggest takeaway from hanging with the legendary Lemmy? “I just find him always on that line between the good guy and the bad guy.”
In this excerpt from Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers — which comes out today from ECW Press — Popoff discusses the band's most famous track, “Ace of Spades,” and the album of the same name from which it sprang.
Ace of Spades, recorded over a five-week period in August and September of 1980, was issued on November 8, hot on the heels of its world-beating title track. Not that this would mean mass success for the band now, soon or ever, but remarkably, Ace of Spades would be the first Motörhead album domestically issued in America, through Bronze [Records]’ longstanding distribution arrangement with Mercury Records. It’s simply the case that records could be optioned for the U.S. or not, and now, finally, one of Motörhead’s was. Still, the album would go gold on home turf, and give to the world an artful and intriguingly inscrutable autobiography in its speed metal title track. “Ace of Spades” was a lethal update and improvement on the wall of sound that was “Overkill,” improved in terms of the complexity of the riff at hand over both that crude song and over the original “Ace of Spades” demo that Phil and Eddie scratched heads o’er. The song would become a bit of an albatross, because, let’s face it, in the most distilled, simple, abbreviated telling of this band, Motörhead is known for one defiant and abrasive song alone, an anthem nonetheless banished to the fringes so deftly that we can’t even call Motörhead one-hit wonders. They are no-hit wonders, because “Ace of Spades” wasn’t even a hit. And yet it has barged into the pop culture lexicon and will likely be part of it forever.
It’s a similar situation to the Ramones, who are represented by “Blitzkrieg Bop” at hockey and football games and yet never had much of a hit with that “Hey ho” anthem or any other of their beloved songs. But “the brudders” sure punch above their weight in T-shirt sales, as does Motörhead. Both acts represent a walk on the wild side for eschewers of hard rock, and in Motörhead’s case, it’s because of Lemmy and his three-minute blast of nihilism, “Ace of Spades.”
“Well, every band gets that,” shrugs Lemmy. “Every band is attached to one song: Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘Free Bird,’ Eric Clapton, ‘Crossroads’ — but he’s got a few actually — Hendrix, ‘Purple Haze.’ All these bands with different songs, you have to just grin and bear it. And we were lucky — we got famous from a good song; ‘Ace of Spades’ is a good song. I don’t mind playing ‘Ace of Spades’ because it’s good. But imagine if you are famous for a fucking turkey, and have to play that for the rest of your life.”
Playing it is one thing, but being asked about it in interviews all the time is another. “No, I like doing interviews if they’re good questions,” explains Lem. “If someone has done their homework and they don’t want you to do all the work for them . . . because you get some people that say, ‘So, tell me about “Ace of Spades.”’ Oh, fuck off. I mean, there are only a certain amount of things you can say about one fucking song.”
I asked Lemmy if it’s ever come to a head, where perhaps he’s got to go in for some superficial and short TV chat at 8 in the morning and it all went pear-shaped. “Well, I won’t go there at 8 in the morning. I’ll probably kill somebody. Especially in TV. No, I usually breeze through it, it’s certainly not something new to me. I’ve never walked out of an interview. Except me and Phil Campbell did once, because this chick was really a pain in the ass, and she insisted on doing an interview in the bathroom for some reason, and it was very echoey. You can imagine all the tiles and all that, and the hallway. And she said, ‘Did you ever do anything really funny in an interview?’ And Phil said, ‘Yeah, well, me and Lem once got up and walked out of an interview and never came back.’ And then we got up and walked out and we never went back. And one time we were waiting for a radio guy, Radio Clyde, from Strathclyde, in Glasgow, Scotland, and me and Eddie missed a sound check to go and do this fucking interview because it was so deathly important. And like this guy kept us waiting for half an hour, so we put the fire hose inside the fucking studio, shut the door and turned it on and left.”
“Ace of Spades” offers a ruthless peer into Lemmy’s carpe diem life credo, which is roughly live fast roughly and play the game for the rush of playing it. Even though you win some, we are all born to lose. It’ll be proven in the gambling and all the games that make up our illusory lives, and then, ultimately, as intimated in the last verse, death will play its card, the ace of spades. And therefore, back to the opening sentiments: Roll up to the table, ante up and play the game.
Inspiration for the closing sequence, particularly the reference to the dead man’s hand, derives from the tale of Wild Bill Hickok holding those cards when he was shot dead. As for wider influence, Lemmy qualifies that he’s more of a slot machine gambler than a card shark, but where’s the drama in that? Nonetheless, his recent left forearm tattoo of the phrase “Born to lose, live to win” circling a spade might also have played a role in the lyric’s birthing.
Excerpted from Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers: The Rise of Mötorhead by Martin Popoff. © 2017 by Martin Popoff. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd. ecwpress.com.