I always liked the fact that the starting point for Motörhead was somewhat amorphous. With an early repertoire reaching back into Hawkwind, Pink Fairies and beyond, there was a blurred overlap rather than a clean break, and the band kind of bled into their identity rather than arriving with the blast that mists of overview might have you assume. Two debut albums (including the shelved ON PAROLE for United Artists in 1976) compound this blurred gestation period at a time when music was changing rapidly.
Motörhead should have been dead before the first hurdle, but when you consider how they would go on to infected popular culture, something seemed predestined about their survival. The group’s legacy is twofold – as a huge musical influence and as a brand – and the symbiosis of these elements is such that those who cherish the music simply have to endure those who wear the Primark t-shirt. As with the Ramones, the commodification of their streetwise nature blinkers the fact that Motörhead concept was always more cultured and enlightened than anything after the fact gives it credit for.
After United Artists put the kibosh on their original debut and prevented the release of the LEAVING HERE/WHITE LINE FEVER 7” for Stiff, MOTÖRHEAD was sent into the studio by Chiswick Records with enough time to record a single. They recorded an album. It was more or less the ON PAROLE set over again with a couple of new numbers and covers replacing Larry Wallis’s now out of place FOOLS and Holland, Dozier and Holland’s LEAVING HERE. The results were impressive enough that Chiswick somewhat precariously bankrolled the album, thus setting the Snaggletooth loose upon us all.
Of the material that comprises the album, the Lemmy penned tracks plucked from the Hawkwind songbook, MOTÖRHEAD, LOST JOHNNY and an upbeat version of THE WATCHER are absolutely faultless. VIBRATOR has a (comparatively) cleaner guitar shuffle that distinguishes it as Motörhead of a certain vintage, although I’ve always considered the ON PAROLE recording as definitive. IRON HORSE/ BORN TO LOOSE, the track penned by Phil Taylor (allegedly) along with roadie Del Brown and some London Hells Angel named Tramp, is the slow bluesy anthem that no doubt endeared them to the biker world for years to come.
Having grown up listening to a Chiswick vinyl copy of this album, I always found the b-side, especially WHITE LINE FEVER and KEEP US ON THE ROAD, to be marred by either “difficult production” or some sort of mastering anomaly. This digital re-master addresses the issue and crystalises early qualities of the band including the magnificent bass solo on KEEP US ON THE ROAD. The R’n’B standard TRAIN KEPT A-ROLLIN’ rounds off the original album. Passed down through Johnny Burnette, Yardbirds, and Led Zepplin(and recorded by a million others), it denotes Lemmy’s old school rock’n’roll roots in the same way the LOUIE LOUIE and PLEASE DON’T TOUCH later did.
As with many of today’s reissues, it’s the extras that make a 40-year-old album a nerdy fanatical prospect all over again and MOTÖRHEAD is expanded with a dozen bonus tracks of varying worth. It’s fascinating to hear this era’s version of CITY KIDS (the version that appeared on the flipside of the MOTÖRHEAD 7”). Where Lemmy’s ON PAROLE vocal style perfectly suited that rendition, the gruffer Motorhead vocals of ’77 are uncomfortable and don’t quite achieve the song’s previous high mark – It’s unsurprising that this didn’t make the cut for the final album track list. Many diehards will, of course, pledge their allegiance to the ’73 Pink Fairies original but I always found Larry Wallis’ vocals somewhat weedy in comparison to what he was capable of on guitar and that version just seems off balance.
The next 4 tracks comprise the BEER DRINKERS AND HELL RAISERS EP issued by Chiswick imprint Big Beat in 1980, scraping the bottom of the outtake barrel to capitalise on the band’s commercial peak of that year. The title track is a fairly flat rendition of the ZZ Top classic from 1973, notable for alternating lead vocals of Lemmy and Fast Eddie Clarke. Motörhead was more than capable of pulling off the dirty blues of the original, but this suggests the “record-everything” nature of these sessions. The ’77 version of the ON PAROLE track was curiously and sadly left off the eponymous debut. At 8 tracks long, it’s not as if there wasn’t room for it. With the benefit of hindsight, it doesn’t quite have the charm of the version on the shelved United Artists debut, but its inclusion would have expanded the overall dynamic of the album nevertheless. This is followed by a short piece called INSTRO – clearly an unfinished track but definitely the shape of Motörhead to come, with all the ingredients of the proto-metal blues that shaped the BOMBER album. The final EP track puts John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers through the seminal Motörhead mincer. Combined with a Fast Eddie Clarke vocal, the results are basically golden-era Deep Purple, which is exactly what I’M YOUR WITCH DOCTOR sounds like.
The remaining 7 tracks or “previously unissued material” are alternate mixes from the album sessions. Most simply sound like early desk mixes… not exactly gold dust from the archives. Any sort of live material from the era, like a remix of the WHAT’S WORDS WORTH? Recordings (also eventually issued by Big Beat/Chiswick) would have been preferable.
Ted Carroll’s extensive liner notes cautiously avoid the rabbit-hole of prehistory and focus on the microcosmic details of this particular album, the relationship between Motörhead and Chiswick, and the struggle to survive after the United Artists debacle. With a subject where there’s so much to say, this focus is welcome and necessary. It’s a slice of Motörhead that’s long buried under third party anecdotes or overlooked in the journalistic rush to get from the Hawkwind drugs bust to ACE OF SPADES.
To this day, the 8 tracks that comprise the MOTÖRHEAD album are still infectious, tenacious and downright charismatic. Considering that a good portion of the material is cobbled together from previous bands, it still managed to both nestle at the vanguard of new music in 1977, and stand out as something waiting for the world to catch up.