My last post was the first of the “Meanwhile…” series, in which I admit I give up on top 40 radio and highlight a band that NEVER had a single in the Hot 100. The reason is simple: there was a lot of good music in the 80s that didn’t get proper attention at the time and may still be languishing in obscurity. And, frankly, it’s kind of surprising to realize that a lot of those great singles that populate 80s compilations albums, or those incredibly important genre-defining performers never actually had a hit, or even something approaching a hit. There won’t be a lot of Meanwhile, because too many would defeat the purpose of the blog, but I’ll do them occasionally to show my admiration for and express my rage about what we weren’t listening to in the 80s.
While Americans were listening to all this disco, all the young dudes in the UK drove Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” all the way to number 15. Admittedly, it happened much later in 1980 than this post suggests — it was released in October, whereas I’m mentioning it in the context of the songs that were popular in January — but I can’t pass up the opportunity to talk about it now because Lemmy just died.
I will freely admit I’m not a Motorhead fan, or even a fan of heavy metal in general. And I will freely admit that I’d never heard “Ace of Spades” before yesterday. I always figured that it was one of those songs (like most of AC/DC’s output) that I’d heard somewhere ambiently, but no, listening to it now, I realize I’ve never heard it before.
I know this because even though I don’t actually like it, I can tell it’s crazy awesome and I’d remember it if I’d heard it. It’s alive and fierce, rambunctious and driving, not merely loud the way so much of glam was (I’m giving a scornful stare at Kiss here). These guys, who along with Blue Oyster Cult pioneered the use of the heavy metal umlaut, were pioneering the hardening of rock, bringing punk and country rock into the mix to make something groundbreaking. Listening to “Ace of Spades” I’m hearing little bits of lots of things to come, from Metallica to The Clash to Ween. Yes, Ween; specifically “Gonna Be a Long Night“.
And the lyrics of “Ace of Spades” are filled to bursting with the kind of stuff American audiences think they like but don’t actually like. This is a hard-scrabble country song reimagined, putting people like Kenny Rogers to shame. This is a song about cowboys gambling, betting everything they have on a poker hand, because they know that without luck they’re nothing and they’re resigned to that. Lemmy sings that he doesn’t want to live forever, and he didn’t, but he was that joker he didn’t want us to forget; the world of music is the richer for him.