November 16, 2008

"That's the way I like it, baby, I don't wanna live forever!"

"And don't forget THE JOKER!!"

The case can be made (a case strong as the smell emanating from under Lemmy's leathers) that Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" is one of the greatest rock songs of all time. And when I say greatest, I don't mean top 500, or top 100. I mean top 10, maybe top 5. How many songs are as crazy? How many songs are as desperate? How many songs have that single-minded drive directly into the void at the core of culture, a drive that threatens to explode everything that we consider normal? Not many.

Everything here is obvious, just as rock -n- roll should be . . . and yet, it's not without its elegance. The ace of spades, of course, is the death card, and form follows function here on the rails to hell. As with any great song, there is a hook you remember, a hook big enough to be the expressway to your skull. It has an absolute single-mindedness, every element focused directly into the heart of the void. And, more than any song I can think of, it still sounds fresh in spite of having been at the top of my rotation for 25 + years.

And yet, it isn't even Motorhead's best song. Or, to be more accurate, Motorhead is not served by having a great song. Motorhead is about the undefinable drive to the heart of other - songcraft is just GILDING THE FUCKING LILLY.

The most essential element of the Motorhead oeuvre is breakneck drive. Sonically, this means a rampaging pace and plenty of mass. The mass is achieved by Lemmy's "guitaristic" approach to bass: roll off the low end, boost the mids, break it up a bit, and play chords instead of individual notes. The resulting sound is less spatial, more undifferentiated and impenetrable . . . and more projectile-like, or like putting the BULLET into bullet train. There's no funk to the drums; nothing there but raw drive. The guitar solos, such as they are, exist like turbulence inside the cartridge, like a light show from inside a bottle, and in no way draw down the aerodynamics of the thundering comet. Lyrics exist only to serve this single-minded purpose - vague, open-ended signifiers that, shouted out in Lemmy's rusted wail, create a cloud of threatening proto-meaning: "OVERKILL!" "KILLED BY DEATH!" "JAILBAIT!" "DANCING ON YOUR GRAVE!" "TOO LATE, TOO LATE!" "STAY CLEAN!" "BOMBER!" "STEAL YOUR FACE!" "UNDER THE KNIFE!" "SNAGGLETOOTH!" "STONE DEAD FOREVER!" etc. There is no thinking here on any level, just understanding, knowing-before-knowing the irrational at the heart of the void. Motorhead takes the substrata that drives youth culture (lust, antisocial angst, free floating anger, self-hatred) and fashions it into a perpetual motion projectile. Hammering machinegun-style against the dark empty core of existence is all that matters - everything else is secondary.

Cruising around debased mall hell the other day, Motorhead was a bracing tonic (it shouldn't need to be said that Motorhead is best in a motor vehicle - and the faster moving the better). It is counter intuitive (and ultimately wrong) to think of Motorhead as transcendent, but it shakes me like the most "transcendent" of musics. Surrounded by the gray of the landscape, weighed down by the great undifferentiated masses around me, a bereaved mourner at the funeral of meaning, Motorhead fuels the only emotion that keeps me going in the face of my claustrophobia: adrenalin rage. I was reminded of a night years ago, sometime around '87, driving my pickup out to DC to rendezvous with my pal Guy Gorman. I had been driving straight through from Bloomington. I roared through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and down through West Virgina . . . through mountains at Morgantown in the purple twilight, Giant Sand on the tape deck . . . and down into DC from the north, ratcheting crazily through the gears in my stripped-down white pickup with pirated Grateful Dead stickers mutated into Throbbing Gristle signifiers . . . the boy from the country screaming into DC with the windows down and Motorhead roaring on the stereo. Here, there was an odd joy in the adrenalin rage; in the undifferentiated monster that is Motorhead, there is plenty to be found, in spite of an almost ascetic minimalism, a sort of grungy austerity. More than most mortal rock -n- roll bands, Motorhead does not signify, Motorhead is.


Anonymous said...

I always forget Lemmy was the bassist. Too cool. Motorhead was also the band that both punks and metalheads could agree on.

If "Ace of Spades" is in your top-5 rock songs, what else makes the cut?

Bill Zink said...

1. "Ace of Spades"
2. "Ace of Spades"
3. "Ace of Spades"
4. "Search and Destroy"
5. "Ace of Spades"

Bill Zink said...

Seriously though, I'm not a real big list guy, and I only brought up that "top 5" thing to emphasize just how important the song is.

What else would I consider? Well, I will have to start at the British invasion, because I think that is were rock -n- roll really began to distinguish itself from country and r & b. I'll throw a few out to see how they roll:

"Search and Destroy" Stooges
"You're Gonna Miss Me" 13th Floor Elevators
"Paint It, Black" Rolling Stones
"Looking at You" (original single) MC5
"Substitute" The Who
"Orgasm Addict" Buzzcocks
"Whole Lot of Love" Led Zeppelin
"96 Tears" ? and the Mysterians
"Rumble" Link Wray
"Psycho" Sonics

Apropos to the Motorhead post, I think that, for several of these bands, the band sound as a whole means that while the band belongs there, there may be several different songs that could represent the band. Like, for Link Wray, would you go for "Jack the Ripper" or "Rumble"? For the Stooges, "I Wanna Be Your Dog", "Out In the Street", "1970", "Loose", or "Search and Destroy"? "Psycho" or "The Witch" by the Sonics? And, there could be as many as 15 Rolling Stones songs that should be considered.

In other instances, it's easy: "96 Tears". Period.

Anyway, those are a bunch off the top of my head. Let the discussion begin.

Anonymous said...

i've not fear of rocknroll.

5/ ace of spades
4/ born too loose
3/ jail house rock
2/ bodies
1/ love canal


Bill Zink said...

Flipper! Johnny Thunders! I'm with ya there.

Anonymous said...

Of course these sorts of lists are always kinda silly. Nonetheless, it forces you to consider what it is about the thing (in this case, rock songs) that you look for in the thing or that you think represents the thing. I'm sure I could come up with 5 other songs that would do the same, but these 5 suffice.

"Ace of Spades" - Bill already explained its value better than I could have.

"Born Too Loose" - brilliant word play in the title, fuck you I don't care what I sound like vocals and Johnny Thunders' guitar. This song alone could represent my notion of what a good rock song is.

"Jailhouse Rock" - it's about rock, itself. It's a about rockin' in jail (outlaw music is for outlaws). It hits the listener in the face with the homosexual implications of "rocking" (i.e., fucking) in jail--e.g.,"you're the cutest jailbird I ever did see"--and yet became a #1 hit in both the US and 1957! It's Elvis. Regardless of whether one thinks he deserves the title, he is the King of rocknroll. Every movement needs a charismatic leader who can deliver the message to the masses. Elvis was that guy for rock.

"Bodies" - best song about abortion, ever. Completely honest lyrics concerning one of humanity's most troublesome social issues. The verses make up the rationale for abortion while the chorus is the fetus' plea for mercy. Fucking amazing. The song rocks hard. It's the Pistols. I'd have no problem agreeing with anyone who says the Pistols are the best rock band ever or Nevermind the Bollocks is the best rock album ever.

"Love Canal" - i'm not sure what to even say about Flipper. They are to rock what Hiroshima was to the atom bomb. You really can't appreciate the totality of a thing until you see its aftermath. Flipper is the aftermath of rocknroll. One could argue the no-wave bands preceded Flipper in this
regard, but I don't think so. No-wave was always informed by out jazz and the self-righteous cultural milieu of NYC. Whereas Flipper is simply the result of rock taken to its logical conclusion. Barely vocals, barely lyrics, barely music, no rules, no pretension. "Love Canal" isn't rock song as vehicle for social issue it's social issue as fodder for rocknroll. Awesome.

Bill Zink said...

Very good point on "Jailhouse Rock". "Love Canal" as well. I'm not with you on the Sex Pistols, though. I think the Pistols are almost as over rated as the Beatles.

Love me some P.I.L., though. As stated in another post somewhere else, every morning my CD/clock/radio blares out "Public Image" at 7 am. "'Ello, 'ello, . . . "

Anonymous said...

Bill, why no love for the Pistols? I know it seems passe to like them but I still find myself biting my lip and nodding my head whenever I hear them. Punk rock (in its mature form) didn't exist prior to the Pistols. The Pistols were the impetus for punk/hardcore in the UK, Europe and the US outside of NYC. I don't think it's possible to overstate their influence on the history of rocknroll. I'd really like to hear your reasons for thinking them overrated.

Totally with you on the Beatles, though.

Bill Zink said...

Growing up in the 70's & reading Creem Magazine, I was built up to think that the Sex Pistols were the apocalypse. I heard all the ranting and raving about how they were the "end of rock -n- roll" as if they were the most radical thing out there. It was years before I heard the Sex Pistols. In the meantime, besides Frank Zappa and Led Zeppelin, I was listening to a fair amount of Captain Beefheart, Television, & the Stooges. By the time I finally heard the Sex Pistols, I thought they sounded weak, like a sloppy metal band. I admit, a lot of my disrespect comes from backlash against all the raves they got in the press. But seriously, how can you think of Never Mind the Bollocks as the "end of rock -n- roll" when you have Troutmaskreplica in rotation?

Incidentally, I'll have no Beafheart songs in my top ten, 'cause I don't really think Beafheart is rock -n- roll. If I were pressed, I would consider it blues.

To be fair, I was always lukewarm on straight ahead punk without any other defining characteristics. I was never a big Ramones fan either. I liked the Germs because they seemed to be almost Flipperesque in their debasement (and of course, you know well my love for Flipper). Dead Kennedys, no. Fear, no. Circle Jerks, no. Descendants, Milo Goes to College only. Black Flag always seemed a little more raw than most punk bands, and I liked them from the beginning up almost until the end. The Bad Brains were so fast and crazy that they were a cut above other bands, so I was a big Bad Brains fan. And I was a big Clash fan, though I didn't really consider them a punk band; rather, they seemed to me to be the heirs of the Rolling Stones (even though those wretched old bastards outlasted them).

Anonymous said...

Okay, I can buy that. I, on the other hand, have always been partial to straight-ahead punk and am too young to have ever thought the Pistols were the end of rocknroll. I just think they really rock and Lydon's an exceptional front man. But, I agree Troutmaskreplica makes Never Mind the Bollocks sound pretty normal.

The Clash have really suffered in my estimation over time. I used to think them great. Now, I have a hard time not thinking they were just whiny, wanking, privileged white kids.

With the exception of Flipper, I didn't include any of my most-beloved bands (The Fall, Sun City Girls and TBW!) because I wouldn't really know where to start. As much as I love Flipper, they are what they are. The Fall, Sun City Girls and TBW! defy even that classification.

Off topic, I hope I'm not turning your blog into Bill & Josh's Excellent Blog Adventure. I know you'd like to expand the audience for your writing and perhaps I'm stifling that. Let me know if I should keep my incessant commenting to myself or at least try to contain it.

Bill Zink said...

Naw, bring it on. I figured the lists would draw them out . . . they usually do.

I still like the Clash. I don't think their politics are any more silly than, say, the Rolling Stone's wannabe black voodo. Of course, that's pretty offputting to a lot of people as well . . . but I love me some Rolling Stones, most anything they did from their inception all the way through Some Girls.

I pointedly thought about the Fall as well, but pretty much came to the same conclusion that you did. I think of SCG stuff as anti-song.