Ace of Spades is an all time Motorhead classic, with pride of place in any Classic Heavy Metal catalogue. Did the song have any deeper meanings to share with us? The hell it did. And it didn’t need any either. Here’s why.
It’s About Gambling – Doh!!
Ace of Spades – Motörhead’s all time classic gambling-themed powerhouse – and a song without which no Classic Heavy Metal blog could possibly be thought complete. The Hawk has always loved this song – that bass intro just flicks the switch and there’s this vast magnetic field pulling fans into the mosh pit. Kinda like when you hear the voiceover to a track like Iron Maiden’s ‘The Number of the Beast’. You know the good stuff that’s coming your way.
Thrown Together in The Back of a Van
But what makes it so special? Nobody would think the lyrics are anything much – read through them again if you don’t believe me. As Lemmy himself said, when he wrote the song, ‘it was just a word exercise on gambling, all the cliches.’ The biggest cliché being, of course, the ‘Dead Man’s Hand‘ reference. That was the aces and eights hand which legend has it was held by Wild Bill Hickock when he was shot in the back of the head and killed whilst playing poker in a saloon in Dakota Territory. Lemmy also claimed to have written the song in the back of a van bombing along the highway at 90mph – which if true would have made it difficult to hold enough concentration for a more cerebral set of lyrics.
Motorhead played on the Wild West imagery when the song was released as a single in October 1980 though. The single’s cover featured all the band members dressed in Western costumes (although the ‘desert’ in the photo was just a quarry near London – unable to persuade the sun to emerge on a gloomy day, the band had to have the scorching hot blue sky added in afterwards.)
So, it was basically a case of, ‘Let’s write a song about gambling, throw together some words, and see where it ends up.’ And boy, did it end up somewhere.
That opening bass riff is simple but unmistakeable. Then the drums join in. Then the guitars. The whole thing clocks in at less than 3 minutes, but the pace is so relentless that on the official video, Motörhead’s drummer Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor reminds you of a wind-up toy that has gone crazy and may explode at any moment. Maybe that’s why the band inserted the short interlude (the ‘Tap Dancing section’ according to Lemmy) in the middle – ‘You know I’m going to lose / And gambling’s for fools…’ – not that it really slackens the pace, but at least it gave Taylor a couple of bars to catch his breath. (Taylor was one of the first rock / heavy metal drummers to introduce a double bass set up in his kit, long before thrash had even been invented. It was just part of that early classic metal drive to increase the speed to a frenzied level – something Ace of Spades captures perfectly.)
Once the verses kick in, Lemmy finds a real soaring quality in his vocals, which is probably the Hawk’s favourite part of the song. After the regulation verse / chorus / verse / chorus / interlude, we move on to a classic guitar solo in 3 sections, which starts with bluesy, discordant runs then builds tension by climbing up to the high-register ending, all without losing any momentum from the song at all.
Another quick verse / chorus / outro, and we’re done. The song peaked at number 15 in the UK singles chart, a decent performance for that style of music at the time. And the relative commercial success got the band a few crossovers into pop culture, like when they appeared in a BBC sitcom, ‘The Young Ones.’
After Lemmy’s death in 2015, the song was re-released as a tribute to him, and did a bit better second time around, with a chart high of 13. It also got a run out at the Grammy’s, performed by the Hollywood Vampires (Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp and Joe Perry) and introduced by Dave Grohl, which shows you how widely everyone could dig the song.
It got a decent critical reception on first release, though many of the more glowing reviews came later when the band were firmly established as Classic Heavy Metal legends. For instance, NME magazine made it #155 in their 500 Greatest songs of all time, but that was only in 2014. And Loudwire had it top of their top 10 of Motörhead songs in 2012. In a courageous move, Louder Sound relegated it to only number 2 in their 2021 list of the best 50 Motörhead songs.
They have ‘Overkill’ as the best Motörhead offering ever. That was the first ever record that deployed the double bass drum setup, which helps it win the Louder Sounds vote – a strong track in it’s own right, but also the start of a revolution, paving the way for thrash, black metal and death metal sounds that were to follow in later years.
Ace Of Spades – Subject to Overkill??
But none of that explains why this is the song that proved to be the bands most important legacy. Lemmy apparently got sick of playing it after a while but felt they couldn’t leave it out of their set lists because the fans expected to hear it every time. It’s a common enough sentiment. Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson expressed similar feelings about ‘Fear of the Dark. In his autobiography ‘What does this button do?’ – like he’s always tempted to re-interpret the song, just to relieve the boredom / burden of having to perform it in every show, on every tour. No doubt it’s a feeling widely shared among bands – but not by many of the fans. The paying audience is full of people who only get to see their favourite bands maybe one time every tour, and who don’t want their favourite songs re-interpreted for the sake of variety. It’s just a completely different point of view.
So fair play to Lemmy for giving the punters what they wanted.
Honestly, though, having now finished writing it, Classic Metal Hawk if just going to out on a limb here, and say that it wasn’t really that exciting to take a classic song and perform a sort of ‘rational’ analysis of why it sounds so good. Let’s just say that the planets aligned and a classic was born. It’s chemistry. It’s mood. It’s just…well Ace of Spades. So, sit back, give it a listen, and feel the vibe again. No further explanations needed.
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