On 1979, Motörhead’s most revolutionary year gets the attention it deserves
Prior to its release in March of 1979, there had never been anything quite like “Overkill,” the opening track on Motörhead’s second album, Overkill.
To hear it – then, now, or anytime in-between – is like witnessing the flickering shadows of a moonshot telecast, or a monochrome film of a rocket car setting a land speed record under a wide desert sky. From the first flurry of quadruple-timed drumming, we know we are witnessing new ground being broken.
This music, this “Overkill,” was a bullet train, it was a train chasing a bullet, it was a bullet chasing a train; it was a speed-fueled expression of arrogance and anxiety, a remarkable departure from anything that had been attempted before. Relentless and breathless, “Overkill” had no obvious references or antecedents, aside from an extreme, almost hysterical form of the Highway Star-ism that had been earlier expressed by Hawkwind, Deep Purple, and Blue Cheer. Strangely, the hoarse blur of “Overkill” may have leapfrogged into the past: It was, more than anything else, a gnashing, speed freak’s transcription of the kind of nervous, ecstatic, impolite holler made by early rockers like Little Richard, Huey Piano Smith, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Imagine the red ant attack of the Collins Kids taken to their natural hysterical, hell-bound conclusion, and then introduce ol’ Lorrie and Larry to Danny the Drug Dealer from Withnail and I, and you have “Overkill.”
VIDEO: Motörhead “Overkill”
Everything about “Overkill” felt different, yet bold and simple. It was one of those moments when a new and fertile country is discovered, where listeners and players go,“Oh…that can be done? That is fucked up…but just right.” “Overkill” kicked down the door to reveal a form of music so streamlined it was almost profane, a sound that accessed both the untapped potential for volume and speed that was implied by metal and the minimalism that was suggested by punk. It was, almost without any doubt, the foundation upon which the entire burning church of speed and thrash metal is built. The rest of the Overkill album maintained the intensity and jaw-dropping sense of awe and discovery heralded by the opening track, and recordings like “Stay Clean,” Metropolis,” “No Class” and “Tear Ya Down” would remain amongst Motörhead’s best.
Overkill is the sound of Motörhead being invented. Until 1979, Motörhead had been a somewhat hazy but promising concept. Motörhead’s eponymous first album, released in 1977, had the vibe of a scientist looking for a light bulb: the intent was there, and its’ pared down sound and stark imagery strongly suggested that a back-to-basics movement similar to the one that had fueled punk also needed to infect hard rock, heavy metal, and hard blues; but the music itself failed, at virtually every instance, to take flight. On Motörhead the band sound like a promising yet flat chalk outline of Budgie, lesser Humble Pie, or the shorter, more brittle recordings of Hawkwind (three of the album’s eight tracks are songs previously recorded, arguably in superior versions, by Hawkwind). In a few places – notably “White Line Fever,” “The Watcher,” or the song “Motorhead” – Motörhead feels like a market correction…but never a revolution.
However, in literally the first seconds of their second album, Motörhead storm the Bastille, free the prisoners, and very visibly stick a whole bunch of heads on some pikes. The revolution had begun. With Overkill, Motörhead had eaten punk and metal and created a genre that was better than both.
Very recently, a new album package, 1979, puts that revolution in a context absolutely worthy of its gravity. 1979 very simply lives up to its’ title: It contains the two albums Motörhead released in 1979 – Overkill and, just seven months later, Bomber – along with two complete live sets recorded a week or so after the release of each album (Aylesbury Friars on March 31, 1979, and Le Mans, France on November 3, 1979).
Overkill is the first Motörhead album to sound distinctly like, well, Motörhead. It’s got that awesome, monstrous, immediately identifiable sound, that genre unto itself: A jackhammer churn that is so shocking yet so engaging that it sounds like it’s part of some Bronze Age ritual, albeit a ritual that involved playing “Glad All Over” on the skulls of some people who decidedly pissed off Baal. Honestly, I have always found it difficult to describe the deeply hypnotic car window-rattling Motörhead sound (which emerges with Overkill and remains more or less consistent through their excellent final studio album, 2015’s Bad Magic). Despite obvious antecedents (like the aforementioned Budgie, Purple, Blue Cheer, BÖC, and Hawkwind), it has always been clear to me that Motörhead were most significantly building upon the work of Fats Domino, Johnny Burnette, Jerry Lee Lewis, etcetera. Motörhead were attempting to use the tools of England’s satanic mills to create a truly pure, pile-driving form of a Memphis/New Orleans rock’n’roll, streamlined and steaming with volume. This is all to say that Overkill is a fantastic fucking rock’n’roll record, revolutionary and compelling.
To be honest, the same cannot be said of the other studio album on the 1979 collection, Bomber. Although it is played and recorded with the same rattling and throttling intent as Overkill, Bomber feels rushed, and the material sounds inconsequential. If Bomber had come out between Motörhead and Overkill it might make more sense; but coming after Overkill’s nearly unhinged level of achievement and intensity, it sounds virtually obligatory. Only two tracks — “Stone Dead Forever” (a re-tread of some of the throttling minimalism of Overkill, with some curious anticipation of the FM-y finesse to be heard on 1983’s Another Perfect Day) and the title track, “Bomber”– rise above the fray. Honestly, if I was mix-taping the whole mishegas, I would just stick those two tracks on Overkill, call it a day, and skip right to Ace of Spades. But what do I know? I signed Hootie & the Blowfish.
VIDEO: Motörhead “Bomber”
Ah, but the real treasure on 1979 are the two live sets, especially the one taped immediately following the release of Overkill. In fact, The 17 songs recorded at the Friar’s in Aylesbury on the last day of March, 1979 may be the best live Motörhead set out there – and that’s saying a lot, since there’s a pile of very good commercially released Motörhead live material available.
On Live at Aylesbury Friars, Motörhead sound insanely powerful, over-eager, and often very close to losing control. On no other released live set do they sound quite so much like brilliant yet manic speedfreaks trying to run quickly across a very icy six lane highway while carrying panes of glass. On the Aylesbury recording, they actually teeter on the edge of disaster a number of times, but there is an incredible energy, a presence, that somehow knits it all together, even when the band seem like they are half an inch away from completely going to pieces. Half a dozen times on Live at Aylesbury Friars, Motörhead almost collapse into a thrashing mess before the band somehow joyfully pull together and halts the chaos, turning it merely into carnage.
AUDIO: Motörhead “Train Kept A-Rollin'” (Live at Aylesbury Friars)
The result is Motörhead’s most absolutely energetic, methfrantic, over the top and awesome live recording. “Leaving Here” sounds like fucking Discharge, “Train Kept A Rolling” sounds like Pussy Galore (it is the dirtiest, most crust-punk I have ever heard Motörhead sound), and it’s all capped by literally the best version of (the song) “Motorhead” ever put on tape (and there have been a lot of them – I count 15 between Hawkwind and Motörhead). This is the sound of Van Gogh holding a razor and looking in the reflection of the front window of Sun Studios. Yeah? Yeah. Let me make this clear: The 1979 collection is worth the price of admission for the March 31 live set alone. It underlines that although there were many great things about later Motörhead line-ups, what is utterly special about the “classic” three-piece band heard throughout 1979 (Lemmy Kilmister on bass and vocals, “Fast” Eddie Clarke on guitar, and Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor on drums) is that they sound united in their derangement.
The Le Mans live set (from about seven months later) is also rawer and rougher than most of the other live Motörhead recordings, revealing a band more in tune, say, with the Damned than Zeppelin. However, Lemmy, Clarke, and Taylor sound distinctly tired on this night, and where the Aylesbury set is an absolutely unrelenting mad dash, the Le Man set lurches, albeit with the crunch and screech of a muffler dragging on a highway. It is not quite as good as the Aylesbury Friars set, though still of great value.
In any event, at least half of 1979 isn’t just brilliant, it’s startling. On Overkill and Live at Aylesbury Friars, we hear Motörhead, for the first time, playing with the kind of arrogance, intent, and disregard for earlier blues metal and hard rock forms that found them simultaneously reinventing metal and linking themselves with the careening, white-knuckled pioneers of rock’n’roll. Motörhead were first and foremost an unhinged and atomic-powered version of a formerly steam-driven whiskey-mad animal, the Memphis/New Orleans rock’n’roll machine; this is first truly evident in 1979, the year Lemmy Kilmister revealed himself as one of the handful of humans who can be legitimately called a Rock’n’Roll Master.
VIDEO: Motörhead 1979 unboxed by Ben Ward of Orange Goblin
[i] Some say that speedmetal beat – often called D-Beat, after one of its’ earliest continuous progenitors, the band Discharge – first appeared on the Buzzcocks’ song “You Tear Me Up,” released in March, 1978. But I find that usage incidental: It is not the clear and distinct anchor of a new type of song, a new form of music, as is the case with “Overkill.” In other words, on “Overkill” the song picks up on and continues the intensity and trilled blur of the beat, essentially inventing speedmetal; on “You Tear Me Up,” the beat is something that merely happens before the song, and the song itself is not significantly different from other contemporary work, especially the hyper-rhythmic punk of the Damned, Eater, or any number of Northern Irish punk bands. The author wonders if Jack Rabid agrees.
[ii] These thoughts on the first Motörhead album apply both to the first Motörhead release, 1977’s Motörhead, and to the first album Motörhead actually recorded, an album with essentially the same material that was made (mostly) in 1975 yet went unreleased until late 1979 (when it was issued under the title On Parole).
[iii] We note that Lemmy briefly played with the Damned (temporarily doing business as The Doomed, in mid-1978). It is very possible that the Damned’s virtually wanton energy helped facilitate Motörhead’s remarkable transformation between album one and two.