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Motörhead – “Ace of Spades”

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Lip-synching in 1981

. . .

I’m always struck by how unaware musicians are about their greatness. Of course, greatness requires time and hindsight. But you see interviews with guys about some of metal’s most classic records, and they’re like, “We were just trying to finish the album and get on the road”. It seems incredible that they wouldn’t know they had some smoking jams on their hands.

Case in point: Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades”. This is Motörhead’s most well-known song. It has paid their rents and mortgages for decades. Yet they don’t think much of it. Here are quotes from Decibel‘s Hall of Fame feature on Ace of Spades (Issue #67, Burzum cover, order here).

Eddie Clarke: At the time we were doing “Ace of Spades” we didn’t realize it was going to be such a big track. It was just one of those tracks that lent itself to a bit of extra work.

Philthy Taylor: Even now I don’t quite understand why “Ace of Spades” has become like an anthem for Motörhead, because I don’t think it’s such a great song.

Lemmy Kilmister: I keep telling people this, but they think I’m fucking lying, but I’m not: I didn’t think it was any better than any of my other songs and I still don’t.

They sort of have a point. “Ace of Spades” isn’t that different from other Motörhead songs. It has clever wordplay and a driving beat. The descending riff is catchy; it and Lemmy’s bass tone remind me of the airplane sounds of Snoopy fighting The Red Baron. But none of these things are slam dunks for greatness.

Here’s why “Ace of Spades” is great: it’s in how Lemmy says “spades”. The way he says it has become exaggerated in the cultural consciousness; it’s not quite “SPAY-EEDS”, as many believe. But it’s not just “spades”, and therein lies the magic. He makes the long A rise enough to make it stick in our craw. The word yearns upwards, like Lemmy with his ridiculously high-positioned microphone. That little bit of spice makes the song.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two similar examples, though neither are metal. The Offspring’s “Come Out and Play (Keep ‘Em Separated)” is colossally annoying. Why? Because of the falling pitch in how Dexter Holland says “hey”. It’s a big ‘ol hook, bigger than any guitar riff. Think of how Axl Roses says “knees” in “Welcome to the Jungle”. The word skews upwards, like a bent blues note.

The technical term for this is “melisma”.

The practical term for this is “personality”.

It’s what makes good things great.

— Cosmo Lee

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