Revisiting Motorhead’s Breakthrough Album, ‘Overkill’
Released on March 24, 1979, Motorhead’s breakthrough, Overkill, now stands as a widely praised, towering achievement in heavy rock history – which is wonderfully ironic, seeing as the album should, by all rights, have never even happened.
Over the previous four years, vocalist/bassist Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister’s post-Hawkwind mission to revive unpretentious rock and roll had often seemed like a fruitless, even doomed, ambition. Motorhead, had struggled to establish momentum, enduring abuse from the U.K. press and apathy from numerous record labels (a proposed 1976 debut album – later issued as On Parole – was originally rejected by United Artists).
By the spring of 1978, following the disappointing response to their eponymous 1977 debut on the Chiswick label (which promptly dropped them, too), Lemmy, guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke and drummer Philthy “Animal” Taylor were splitting their time between living in squats or with indulgent girlfriends while considering alternative career options. They had already tried breaking up once, but they apparently couldn’t even get that right. In essence, Motorhead were living a punk rock band’s existence.
But, just as things seemed at their most desperate, their luck at last began to turn – beginning with another, one-time singles deal through the Bronze label, consisting of a cover of the Kingsmen’s "Louie Louie" that performed well enough to lead into a proper full-length album session. That album became Overkill, which, like the devastating, proto-thrash number bearing its name, reflected Motorhead’s sound, lifestyle and overall philosophy via Philthy Taylor’s signature, twin-bass drum attack.
But Overkill was not simply a speed metal watershed; Motorhead’s belated sophomore opus boasted songs of all stripes and tempos. It was no more or less than good old-fashioned rock and roll, only boosted with exceptional energy, volume and distortion, courtesy of the involvement of legendary Traffic and Rolling Stones producer, Jimmy Miller.
The proof is there for all to see in undoubtedly adrenaline-packed and astonishingly catchy motor-bangers like "Stay Clean," "(I Won’t) Pay Your Price," "Damage Case," "Tear Ya Down" and "Too Late, Too Late" – not to mention surprisingly deliberate offerings like ‘Capricorn,’ ‘Limb from Limb’ and the aptly named ‘Like a Nightmare.’
For ‘No Class,’ Lemmy simply sped up the unmistakable "Tush" lick devised by his beloved ZZ Top (simultaneously taking a swipe at himself for such brazen theft), while additional favorites like "Metropolis" and "I’ll Be Your Sister" spanned the breadth of Kilmister’s eclectic interests: from intellectual musings to whatever line would get that girl back to his place.
In other words, here were twelve nearly perfect tracks that defined the Motorhead sound and, upon entering the U.K. charts and promptly climbing as high as No. 34, paved the way forward for a group that was so close to expiring just a few months earlier. Instead, Motorhead went on to bridge heavy music from the ‘70s to the ‘80s, while adding crucial learning from the punk movement that would significantly impact thrash metal with unprecedented musical urgency and unassuming image.
In sum, the ensuing, equally stunning Ace of Spades LP gets much of the credit and attention nowadays, but most purists will tell you that Overkill is the definitive Motorhead album.