How Motorhead Hit the Jackpot with “Ace of Spades”

Shortly before headlining Glastonbury, Dave Grohl revealed that the plan behind the forthcoming Foo Fighters album Concrete And Gold was to create a record with a mix of melody and riffs which would be best described as “Sergeant Pepper played by Motorhead.” While it remains to be seen as to whether he and the band have achieved that, such comments are yet another testament to the enduring, relentless thrills of the latter’s incredible rock music.

Around 18 months on from Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister’s passing, Motorhead’s legacy remains stronger than ever and the band is a key touchstone for countless rock and metal groups. Undoubtedly their most loved moment is the iconic “Ace of Spades,” a song which has transcended the confines of the hard rock/metal genre to become a tune that simply everybody knows. It does not matter if you love rap, EDM or Irish folk: as soon as that pile-driving riff begins, the song is unmistakable and instantly recognizable.

Rock n Roll History Being Written

“Ace of Spades” was originally released in October 1980 as the first single from the album of the same name. Considering its place in rock history, it is surprising to note that the song actually only peaked at number 15 on the UK Singles Chart on its original release, with it achieving a placing at number 13 when it reentered the chart following Lemmy’s death in December of 2015. The song’s two minutes and 49 seconds of sheer, unadulterated rock power was produced by the late Vic Maile, who had also worked with the likes of The Who and Led Zeppelin previously.

What’s it all About?

Ace of Spades may be incredible, thunderous noise, but do we actually know what it is about? In an interview to the BBC, Lemmy described it as a word exercise to cram as many gambling phrases as possible into three verses. Indeed, there are references to all kinds of games in the song. For example, many believe that “double up or quit, double stake or split” could well be related to blackjack, as the rules of blackjack involve options to double down and split hands, both being extra chances for the player to make a profit. Elsewhere, there’s mention of “read ’em and weep, the dead man’s hand again,” which is thought to be a poker reference linked to the legend of Wild Bill Hickok.

Bizarrely, however, Lemmy and the band are believed to not really have been card sharks. In fact, he was never too shy to admit the song was originally inspired by his love of one-armed bandits, which perhaps makes it rather fitting that it went on to inspire a Motorhead-themed online slot game launched by NetEnt.

Image Source: @Lemonbeats via Twitter

Raw Power

Of course, “Ace of Spades” is about much more than just its lyrics. The song’s signature guitar line was named among our top 25 metal riffs for beginners, as those iconic four notes have become a genuine clarion call for serious headbanging and moshing. Interestingly, the riff at the beginning of the song is actually played on Lemmy’s signature Rickenbacker bass, with the instrument put through a Marshall stack for a more standard guitar sound. Shortly before his death, Lemmy told Noisey all about his style and influences, with the fact he was a big fan of treble coming up for discussion. It’s the kind of melding of guitar and bass technology which has been seen in a number of bands since, including most recently the likes of Royal Blood.

The bass may kick the song off, but it is important to not downplay the contribution of guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke on the track, too. His bluesy burst of guitar between the verses act as a screeching counterpoint to the thudding chaos happening behind it, while his speedy solo halfway through has inspired air guitarists across the world for years.

Rock with Swing?

The sheer dynamism of the drumming deserves a mention too, with the incredible rhythm from Phil Taylor being named in our 10 best drums songs for beginners as a prime example of the d-beat. This groove has become the foundation of a huge number of songs which require drums to not only be played hard, but also very fast. It is a classic performance from Taylor on a tune where the playing simply has to be frenetic and truly faultless.

Sheer Adrenalin

The combination of all of the above means “Ace of Spades” is rightly regarded as one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded. It is a short, sharp burst of pure adrenaline with classic moments littered throughout. We haven’t even got around to mentioning to rebel rousing cry of, “That’s the way I like it baby, I don’t wanna live forever… and don’t forget the JO-KER, in the bridge either!

While there is an obvious sadness hearing that line now that Lemmy has passed away, the great man himself would surely be proud that his finest song will stand the test of time. Or he wouldn’t care less — you know Lemmy…

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