In Ridiculous Praise of Overkill, Motörhead’s Finest Hour
By Kyle Harcott
There is no better album in Motörhead’s canon than their second, Overkill. It’s the gold standard, summing up the entire Motörhead aesthetic in one fell swoop – far more than its predecessor, or anything that would come after. Song for song, it contains the most ‘classics’ (and least ‘misses’) of any Motörhead album, bar none.
Now, before you clear your throat all in a huff, planning that argument that invariably starts “But what about Aaace of Spaaades, maaaan?” Please. Just stop right there. Ace Of Spades, god bless, is just so stinkin’ obvious – just because of the song, it’s the one that gets all the attention, the one everybody knows. Look, I’ll happily grant you this much – without argument, Ace Of Spades is Motörhead’s next most ‘classic’ album – but stacked up against Overkill, Ace Of Spades is anemic, a white-meat alternative to Overkill’s blood-and-gristle-laced surge of dark-meat raw protein.
Here are Ten Reasons why Overkill is the best Motörhead album, as if you really needed them:
“Overkill” -the song- is the 2001-monolith of Motörhead’s catalog – there’s a reason it is the permanent final encore in their live show. There is nothing else they could have called this song and by extension, the album it was going to be placed on. The first seven seconds are just Philthy Taylor, two kick drums, and all the subtlety and grace of a rhino charge. Then Lemmy comes in with the bass, but hardly your standard, subdued, grounded bass line – he’s playing it like it’s a fucking lead guitar. Then the actual lead guitar pushes its way into the song, whistling through the air like Major Kong’s atomic bomb ride in Dr. Strangelove, only to hit the song with similar impact – Eddie Clarke’s first chord at 0:16 is nuclear. Lem’s vocals kick in, hacking away about road kill or dole queue or whatever it is he’s barking in the chorus (irrelevant if you’ve got the record turned up loud enough) and it hits you that THIS is the way rock and roll was intended to sound all along, ever since Little Richard a-lop-bam-boomed it into existence back in nineteen-fifty-whatever; hard and mean and pounding as it goes right through your guts into your spine. Fast Eddie rips a blazing, sulphuric-acid guitar solo which worms its way into your brain, and oh dear god finally it’s over… But no! Philthy’s still having his fun, he’s not about to let you go that easily, and he starts the whole mess up again, re-stampeding all over your already-trampled body. Eddie dive-bombs his way into it again, tearing off another scorching bastard solo, and surely this time, when it all comes crashing down with that final flourish, it must be over. Then Philthy pulls out another one, and we’re into ad nauseum territory now, because by god, there’s a reason they called it “Overkill” and you’re soaking in it now. By the time it reaches (is it? Really?) the end, you’re wasted, a quivering human sponge, wrung fresh-out of adrenaline. Verily, rock and roll ain’t worth the name if it don’t kick your nuts.
“Stay Clean” is a bit of room to breathe after the grievous bodily harm inflicted by “Overkill”, a manifesto set to biker-boogie pace: Never lose sight of your own vision, never stray from your own path, illegitimi non carborundum, etc – total tunnel vision. Fast Eddie’s here to make it all dirty blues, and Philthy just kind of keeps it all laidback, in check and in time (excepting of course, his massive intro). Somebody lets Lemmy play a bass solo and why not? He’s driving the bus anyway; by now it’s launched a thousand four-stringed ships. Meanwhile, the guitar’s just here to bring the boogie.
Right there, first chorus of “(I Won’t) Pay Your Price” – you hear that signature snarl, the one that sounds like two raised middle fingers: “On my way, you know I won’t pay YOUR PRICE!” And if there was any lingering doubt before, you’re well and truly sure by this point that Lemmy Kilmister is NTBFW. Philthy brings the windscreen-wipers-beat and gets everybody’s ass shaking, and Eddie’s leads drip dirty-soul venom. Meanwhile, Lemmy’s so drunk! , continues barking all-hell-what-for at the song’s intended recipient; he’s put up with enough bullshit and bollocks to this. It’s nigh-impossible to listen to this song and not get all self-righteous and sneery to the point where nobody better give you any goddamned lip either.
“I’ll Be Your Sister” is arguably Motörhead’s very first love song or at least the closest thing you’ll get up to this point in their oeuvre. But its sentiment is heartfelt, no bullshit – ‘Here’s what I have to offer, luv, here’s what I’ll do for ya. If you want what’s for taking, come get it.’ The straight-up sentiment rings far truer than most other schmaltzy attempts at love songs, no wonder Lem’s the ladykiller he is. No mean feat on a record packed full of ‘em, it’s also the ass-shakin’-est song on the album. Legend has it Lemmy wrote the vocal parts with Tina Turner’s paint-peeling wail in mind, and if you listen close, you can almost hear what it would’ve sounded like with her vocals over top. Meanwhile, Philthy’s all bombast and strut – cymbal crashes every second hit here, and Eddie’s leads rob the song blind.
“Capricorn” is the song Hawkwind WISHES they kept Lemmy for. It’s got just enough spacerock in Lemmy’s reverberating vocals and the trippy-dippy, astrology-referencing lyrics to hint at Kilmister’s former employers, but it’s Eddie Clarke’s signature bluesy leads that ground this song firmly in Motörhead territory. Another self-righteous stab at laying out his one-track-mind manifesto, Lemmy is here to tell you plainly: you can’t touch him, you can’t knock him down, so don’t even try. He’s already aware he’s immortal because it was preordained in the cosmos or some such. Remarkably, this marks the only time in rock’n’roll history that zodiacal signs could be incorporated into a song and not only not be lame, but actually come off pretty badass. What, “This is the dawning of the age Of Aquarius”? Fug off, hippy.
“No Class” may well be THE perfect Motörhead song. As some of the dirtiest rock and roll ever committed to tape, it pretty much sums up the band’s aesthetic perfectly. All the ingredients are there: Eddie’s brash main riff (cribbed though it is from ZZ Top’s “Tush”, and fair enough. But perhaps if ZZ Top had had the nuts to use the riff properly, history would’ve been written differently), Philthy’s stiff-forearmed shuffle, and Lemmy’s signature guttural growl align to make this one of the album’s finest moments. By the time the guitar break shows up at 1:16, this one’s turned itself into a housewrecker. More than any other song on this album, “No Class” rudely knobs it to the right, insistent on being played as neighbor-irritatingly, lawn-killingly loud as possible.
Though- as far as perfect Motörhead songs go, “Damage Case” is certainly neck-in-neck. The opening barrage boxes you about the ears, but it’s the song’s cocksure strut that makes this a classic, dripping with attitude. Here’s Lemmy, aviators on (‘cos he’s hiding from The Man, of course), pulling every bird in the place, calling ‘em all ‘Babe’ because names don’t really matter – and the bastard gets away with it, too, smirking all the way to the back of the bus, because he gives them all the vapors like some kind of Hell’s Angel Fonzie. Eddie’s riff is appropriately brutish and impatient (‘got no time’), and Philthy nails it all down to the ground with his four-on-the-floor march. The chant-along chorus is just the raise-your-beer-mug icing on the cake. Eddie thinks he gets the last laugh with his solo, but it’s only ‘cos the singer’s pissed off already making time with all the rest of the chicks.
“Tear Ya Down” comes from the previous “Louie Louie” recording session (and it sounds like it), and hence feels a little bit tacked on to the album as a result – but still, the song is a prime example of early Motörhead in their raging glory. The band’s still finding their identity, straddling the gap somewhere between a-dirtier-ZZ-Top and speed-snorting street punk. “Tear Ya Down”, with its amphetamine pace, is decidedly on the latter side of the coin, but with enough groove to hint at the former. Lemmy counts ‘er off, ein-zwei-drei-vier, kicks the door open with his lead bass, Philthy provides the racing-heart beat, and Fast Eddie backs up Lem’s leads, least ‘til he gets the requisite searing solo. Another bird-pull this time: Speeded tongue wagging, hound-dog Lem’s using all his best lines, and he’s almost got the girl. She may think she’s got all the aces, but our narrator knows it’s in the bag; in the end, she’ll coalesce. Sooner or later, they all coalesce to Hell’s Angel Fonzie.
It’s the introductory salvo that sets “Metropolis” apart – Eddie’s leads make it sound like some sort of bombastic Wagnerian opera unfolding – then Philthy gives it the one-two bootfuck and the song ROARS to life. That main riff is pure parched-earth, road-grit-blues with just the right amount of menace. The lyrics are few but nonsensical, only adding to the mystery and that ill-at-ease, what’s-up-around-the-bend? feeling. Aside from Philthy’s classic two-shot kickoff, it’s Eddie Clarke’s song, hands-down – his less-is-more riffs in the verses give the song its sinister aura, but the gigantic solos are some of his finest. On an album absolutely stuffed with classics, “Metropolis” stands out. Why it’s not the album’s closer, I’ll never know.
Instead the record is rounded out by “Limb From Limb” – not a bona fide ‘classic’ per sé, but still some of the dirtiest early Motörhead in fine form. For the first two minutes, the song’s slow-and-low-down, dragged-through-the-dirt Motörhead as a roadhouse blues band (see also “Iron Horse/Born To Lose”). Then somebody gets bored, so Philthy decides to bollocks the slow stuff, and the bandcrank the song up into the train-kept-a-rollin’, white-line-fever blues that’s their signature. Once again, Fast Eddie Clarke steps firmly into the spotlight and steals the show with his blistering solo work. The last quarter of the song, the rest of the band just lets (actually, encourages) him go to town. The whole thing ends with Motörhead bringing the house down with typical wild abandon. End Overkill.
Overkill is the album that spawned all your favorite bands. Overkill is the album that gave way to the ‘Trick Question, Lemmy IS god!’ punch line. Overkill is the album that earned Motörhead their rightful, center-throne seat as one-third of the Holy Triumvirate of Rock’n’Roll. It goes without saying, but Overkill should be mandatory listening for any child who displays even the slightest notion of interest in rock and roll, perhaps even at as early a stage as the womb. Only calling Overkill ‘essential’ is half-hearted and weak, because Overkill is the be-all, end-all of Motörhead.
All Hail Overkill!
(Originally released by Bronze Records in 1979)