All aboaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaardahahaha! Welcome to Riff University, where each week, Dr* Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler), with his PhD in Riffology** will walk you through some of the biggest, baddest and boldest riffs of all time, right from the genesis of rock and roll, to some of our future classics. By the end of this intensive course, you will be able to recognise a classic riff from the first note, make pub conversations awkwardly unbearable, and alienate Tinder matches from the word go.
*Abbreviation of “Dad Rock”
**Not a real PhD
Up This Week: Ace of Spades by Motörhead
Read Last Week’s Lecture on Breed by Nirvana here.
There’s a few riffs that everyone knows. From the first bar, everyone from your granny to a newborn child instantly recognises and clicks with that riff. Of course, if a newborn child does not instantly click and bond with any riff, the child is essentially useless and should be thrown away. Start your children with big riffs at an early age, folks.
One such riff that’s universally known is probably one of the most aggressive. No distortion pedals or trickery were used, just good old fashioned elbow grease, a hot rodded Marshall amp, and the most demonic frontman of his generation. From the first rattle of this riff, you’re instantly drawn in, because the magnetic force of this riff won’t let you leave. The band? Motörhead. The riff? It has to be… Ace of Spades.
Let’s be frank here, your average listener knows one Motörhead song, two at a push, but if you’re going to know one and one only, you can’t really pick better than Ace of Spades, but please, use it as a gateway into Motörhead’s wider discography. You might come out the other side with a thirst for Jack and a penchant for debauchery, but “that’s the way I like it baby, I don’t wanna live forever!”.
So, the riff… fucking hell. It’s fair to say that a lot of the aggression and the sheer magnitude of the riff comes from frontman Lemmy Kilmister’s bass setup. Famed for playing almost as a rhythm guitarist or “lead bassist”, he played a selection of Rickenbacker basses, pumped straight into a stack of Marshall amps, usually with the treble cranked up to the three o’clock position, which produced the biting sound you hear as soon as the track begins. It’s quite basic, but strummed with the force of an exploding sun, adds a whole new layer to it. Sometimes, a layer of filth actually improves the whole experience.
It’s not even fair to say, it’s just a fact of the universe that Ace of Spades is Motörhead’s most popular song. Since it was first played in March 1980 at the West Runton Pavilion, the band played it a grand total of 1,159 times, or pretty much every performance since its conception. On top of that, it’s been played a staggering 3,188 times by 354 different artists.
Though with that said, the popularity also came with a curse, Lemmy mused on his annoyance with the song in his autobiography, White Line Fever, stating:
“I’m sick to death of it now… we didn’t become fossilised after that record, you know, we’ve had quite a few good releases since then. But the fans want to hear it so we still play it every night. For myself, I’ve had enough of that song.”
However, when all is said and done, it was a setlist mainstay, and is one of the greatest rock anthems of all time for a damn good reason, though Lemmy did also say “I’m glad we got famous for that, rather than some turkey”. Whilst Motörhead did go on to have a long and storied career after Ace of Spades, it’s fair to say that their high water mark was riding the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, achieving their first and only UK number one with No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith, the live album recorded on the tour to promote Ace of Spades.
On top of that, the follow up album, Iron Fist, which paled in comparison to Ace of Spades, can’t have helped hold onto the fans that came on board with the song.
It’s hard to measure just how large the cultural impact of Ace of Spades is; the band featured on The Young Ones performing the song, and has gone on to appear on EVERY rock anthems, dad rock, stadium rock, and any rock compilation that you can think of. Quite frankly, it’s probably more confusing that you haven’t heard Ace of Spades at this point. It’s one of the definitive rock songs, and whilst it shouldn’t define the band’s career, there’s actually probably few Motörhead songs that land with the same impact. It’d probably even find its way into the top tens of even the most commited ‘Head fans in the land.
Lyrically, the song is what you expect from Lemmy; metaphoric. The rumour goes that he wrote the lyrics to this song whilst hurtling down the motorway at 90mph in the back of a Transit, but cannot be verified. However, for the sake of keeping rock and roll’s swashbuckling integrity intact, a VAR review says that yes, that’s absolutely true.
Also according to the frontman in an interview with Mojo magazine, the lyrics weren’t even that thought out…
“Ace of Spades is unbeatable, apparently, but I never knew it was such a good song. Writing it was just a word-exercise on gambling, all the clichés.”
Maybe he’s just being coy, but it’s not like he’s weaving subtle undertones with the lyrics. Over his 40 year tenure as the captain of the pirate ship, he wrote some very poignant & thoughtful lyrics, showing the depth of the band’s songwriting chops. Ace of Spades though? Not so much. Lemmy originally wanted to write it about his beloved one armed bandits, but settled for poker, as he felt that would be better expressed.
“If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man // You win some, lose some, all the same to me”
Though it may be a word exercise on gambling, there’s actually a bit of meaning in the opening line. There’s a carefree and somewhat nihilistic approach to it. Whether you win or lose, the dance carries on, doesn’t it? In fact, in the documentary focusing on Lemmy’s life, rapper Ice T echoed the same sentiments. An interesting point, hopefully true, is that instead of singing “The ace of spades, the ace of spades”, for two years, Lemmy sung “the eight of spades, the eight of spades”, and nobody noticed.
“You know I’m born to lose, and gambling’s for fools // But that’s the way I like it baby // I don’t wanna live for ever // And don’t forget the joker!”
In later live performances of the song, Lemmy would adjust the final line in the bridge to “but apparently I am”, referencing the fact that despite his fast-paced lifestyle & penchant for various indulgences, he continued to live, long after many of his colleagues had given up the game, or given up living all together. Unfortunately, the line never came true, as Lemmy sadly passed away on December 28th, 2015 at the age of 70.
However, though Lemmy passed on, the song’s legend lived on, charting as high as number 9 in the midweek charts in January 2016, after a campaign to get Ace of Spades to number one in the charts to honour Lemmy’s legacy.