As you’ll know by now if you’ve read any of my other articles on Medium, I like song lyrics. Perhaps a little more than most people would consider healthy.
A great metaphor, an interesting turn of phrase, a juxtaposition that gives a fresh perspective to an old story…for those reasons and more, although a set of lyrics wouldn’t be a song without the music, a tune by itself is unlikely to change the world without lyrics.
And because I like good lyrics, there are sections of the music industry where I spend comparatively little time. Opera, for example, largely screeched in foreign languages I don’t understand, is something I can admire for its technical merits, but don’t particularly enjoy.
Similarly, misogynistic hip-hop is something I gladly stay clear of. And by the same token, speed metal isn’t somewhere I’d usually go to find clever lyrics. But that’s exactly where you’ll find today’s song.
“Ace Of Spades” was released by iconic British band Motorhead in 1980, and opened a door into the guitar-driven post-punk music scene.
It has to be said, this was a door you walked through wearing an old leather jacket and tatty jeans, rather than the gold lame jumpsuits, dodgy perms and sequins which were such a fixture of music during much of the 1980s.
Today, Motorhead is celebrated as, if perhaps not the actual inventors of the genre, at least one of the early pioneers of the 1980’s heavy metal movement.
Certainly their surprising chart success…to the band as well as to pretty much everyone else at the time…with “Ace Of Spades” made the music industry sit up and listen. Motorhead’s time in the spotlight laid the groundwork for speed and thrash metal to go mainstream in the years following.
Much as I like words and lyrics, the music plays a big part in today’s song too.
Conjuring up an image using only music is really hard. In fact…I’ll whisper this…much harder than doing the same thing with words, where you can deploy a variety of literary devices to help get your point across. With an instrumental, the music on its own has to convey a sense of the composer’s intentions, and that’s not easy.
It has been done, but not often. Ennio Morricone’s theme for “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” is a good example of when a tune by itself said everything that needed to be said…but there aren’t many others.
So when a tune by itself plays a significant part in telling the story of a song…as it does in “Ace Of Spades”…it’s a rare event.
The lyrics and the musical imagery complement one another perfectly. With their words and music, Motorhead create an atmosphere which is so distinctive, you know it couldn’t be any song other than “Ace Of Spades” playing.
It’s a raw, gritty, grungy sound and the frenetic pace of guitar, bass and drums really does paint the perfect sonic picture of unseemly dive bar, with black paint on the walls, earsplitting rock music, rather too many people who have been drinking heavily for several hours and possibly a fight or two going on in the corner…
Add the lyrics and you realise you’re in some late night, low-down gambling den with some distinctly unsavoury types who are indifferent as to whether they legitimately beat you at the card table or let you win and then knife you in an alleyway afterwards and take your money. But win they will…
Yes, I didn’t say this was a pretty song, just that it painted a picture really well…
And the lyrics for “Ace Of Spades” very successfully pull off a trick that’s much harder than it looks.
That trick is to use the lyrics to paint a landscape of what is going on without telling a story. Lyrics like this are hard to write because, if you’re not careful, the finished product can come across as a series of random thoughts, loosely arranged around a theme.
But not with “Ace Of Spades”. Here two plus two really does add up to more than four.
Phrases like “Playing for the high one”.
Or “Going with the flow”.
Or “I see it in your eyes”…by themselves sound innocuous enough, bland even. Unlikely lyrics, you might think, for heavy metal…
But put those phrases together with the rest of the lyrics, with the music pulsating away in the background, and you get the full picture…
Playing for the high one, dancing with the devil
Going with the flow, it’s all a game to me
…now we’re getting closer to it…and then the song ends, somewhat climatically on…
I see it in your eyes, take one look and die
The only thing you see, you know it’s gonna be
The Ace of Spades
“Ace of Spades” probably has the most blistering bass guitar in the history of the singles charts for an intro, and the pace doesn’t let up until the hugely emphatic end, when silence returns, your ears still ringing and your senses still on high alert after this musical trip to somewhere much further on the wrong side of the tracks than any sane person interested in their own self-preservation has a right to be.
Sadly, almost without exception, the videos for this track on YouTube have pretty poor sound quality. Most seem to have been recorded on mobile phones when most of the audience…and I suspect all of the band…have been drinking heavily for hours.
Sound quality on the video below is not great either, but I chose it because in addition to Motorhead’s front-man Lemmy on lead bass and in charge of shouting into the microphone, it has Slash on lead guitar and Dave Grohl on drums. (Big Motorhead fans will note that Dave Grohl’s drum kit has a hi-hat and one kick drum in it, rather than the two kick-drums famously favoured by Motorhead’s original drummer Phil Taylor.)
But if you doubt the frenetic pace…and how hard it is to keep this up for even a relatively short two-and-a-half-minute song…just keep an eye on how hard Dave Grohl is working at the back.
He always was like a bit like the character Animal from The Muppets on drums, but you can really see it here. He crams a fortnight’s worth of work-outs for most people into a short musical interlude.
Please enjoy a trip through the grungy, edgy and downright dangerous musical and lyrical landscape so expertly painted in today’s song.
Here’s Motorhead’s biggest chart hit, with lyrics that are very much harder to write than they sound, and a soundtrack like no other song ever written. It’s an iconic track for heavy metal fans everywhere…it’s “Ace Of Spades”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for your time and attention. I know you could have spent your time doing something else, so I’m very grateful that you’ve spent it with me.
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/6EPRKhUOdiFSQwGBRBbvsZ