Motörhead had speed in their veins and wind in their sails when they entered the studio to record their fourth album, Ace Of Spades, in the summer of 1980. Their previous release, the live Golden Years EP, had turned this gnarliest of bands into unlikely Top 10 stars. But it would be Ace Of Spades – particularly its unforgettable title track – that sealed their immortality.
From its overdriven bass intro to its squealing, hit-the-brakes ending two minutes and 48 seconds later, this gamblers’ psalm would become not just Motörhead’s signature song, but also one of the all-time great rock’n’roll anthems.
Naturally, the band themselves had no such ambitions when they holed up in Rockfield Studios, South Wales in early 1980 to begin rehearsing for the follow-up to the white-hot one-two of Overkill and Bomber, two brilliant albums released within seven months of each other in 1979.
“We went down to Rockfield for a couple of weeks, got in the vodka and everything else,” says guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke. “Unfortunately, Lemmy wasn’t too up for rehearsing in those days – he had a nice bird up there with him, so he was distracted. But Phil [drummer ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor] and I used to like playing, so after we’d finished fishing and fucking about and God knows what, me and Phil would have a little bash. It gave us an opportunity to work out some riffs.”
Ace Of Spades was one of them. The band recognised its potential, and worked it up into a rough song and recorded an instrumental version at Rockfield. Back in London, they added vocals and overdubs. This early incarnation first appeared on the 1989 odds-and-sods album Dirty Love. While not dissimilar from the finished version, it lacked two key components: that steel-plated central riff, and the breakdown that Lemmy memorably described as “the tap-dancing section”.
Producer Vic Maile, who had previously worked with Lemmy’s former band Hawkwind and who Clarke affectionately describes as “a nice bloke, very soft, big hooter, short hair”, played a big part in fixing both.
“Vic kind of questioned what we were doing with the song,” says Clarke. “He made us look at that riff, so Lemmy and I started fucking around with it a bit. It was one of the only times we’d written in the studio.”
Maile also had what Clarke called “his box of tricks” – a cardboard box full of items used to provide sound effects. Amid the maracas and rattlesnake tails was a set of woodblocks which would provide the clacking sound during the breakdown.
“He said: ‘This is what we’ll do’,” explains Clarke. “We were pissed or speeding and we were totally against it. ‘Well, we’ll do it cos it’s you, Vic, but we ain’t gonna fucking use it.’ He set up a nice Neumann mic, and the three of us stood there with the blocks. Of course, at first we’re all doing it at different fucking times: ‘Come on, Phil, for fuck’s sake!’ ‘No, man, it’s you!’ But when we heard it, we thought: ‘Oh, it’s not bad.’”
With its turbo-charged new riff and memorable breakdown, the track was beginning to sound special. The final piece in the jigsaw was Lemmy’s lyrics – an attempt, he said, to cram as many gambling references in as possible: the high one, snake eyes, dead man’s hand (and don’t forget the joker…). In typical myth-making fashion, he claimed to have written the lyrics in the back of a Transit van while speeding down the motorway at 90mph.
“He might have written it in the fucking shitter for all I know,” Clarke says with a laugh. “He used to do that. We’d say: ‘Man, we need some fucking lyrics for this.’ So he used to go for a shit and write the lyrics. But if he said he wrote it in a Transit van, then you’ve got to believe him.”
Ace Of Spades reached No.15 in the UK when it was released in November 1980. It swiftly became a highlight of their live set.
The last time Clarke saw Lemmy was at the Classic Rock Awards in October 2015, two months before the singer’s death. Motörhead were due to play UK dates the following January, including two dates at Hammersmith Apollo, and the two of them talked about the guitarist joining them on both nights.
“He looked so frail at the Classic Rock Awards,” says Clarke. “I was a bit shocked. I did think that he wouldn’t make the gigs because he was so frail. I never thought he was going to die, though.”
After Lemmy’s death, an online campaign to get Ace Of Spades back in the charts pushed it to No.13, two spots higher than its original peak more than 35 years before. In 2016, Clarke joined old sparring partners Saxon and Girlschool on tour. Each show would culminate with a mass rendition of Ace Of Spades.
“It went down a fucking storm,” he says. “It didn’t bring tears to my eyes, but it was very emotional. What can I say?”
In his later years, Lemmy had mixed feelings about the song he played every night on stage with Motörhead. While he recognised its enduring quality, familiarity definitely bred contempt.
“I’m sick to death of it now,” he wrote in his 2002 autobiography, White Line Fever. “We didn’t become fossilised after that record, you know, we’ve had quite a few good releases since then. But the fans want to hear it so we still play it every night. For myself, I’ve had enough of that song.”
Eddie Clarke has no such issues: “It’s a fantastic track. It’s got a natural speed, a velocity of its own, it’s got a great arrangement and it rocks like a bastard. And Lemmy’s lyrics are fantastic.
I sometimes say to people: ‘I used to be in a band years ago’, and they say: ‘Oh, which one?’ When I say Motörhead, they look bemused. So I say: ‘Ace Of Spades’ and the penny drops. They might not know Motörhead, but they definitely know Ace Of Spades.”
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Motörhead made two appearances on Top Of The Pops to promote Ace Of Spades, but it was their stint on anarchic kids’ TV show Tiswas that was most memorable.
“Tiswas was really fucking funny,” says Eddie. “All the bands used to love doing that show. We were doing an interview with Sally James and she says, ‘Oh look, there’s somebody over there knows you.’ Me and Lemmy turn around like c**ts, and of course [black-masked, custard-pie-toting character] the Phantom Flan Flinger fucking does us both.”
That wasn’t the end of the chaos, as the band joined the show’s regulars to tell jokes to the camera while being drenched with buckets of water. “That was such a fucking laugh,” says Clarke. “Even though we’d normally end up punching the c**ts.”