Motorhead's '1979' Reissue Box Set Captures the Classic Rock in the Band's Heavy Metal Soul

Allan Ballard

Motörhead, circa 1979.

“I’m not interested.” That was A&R man Howard Thompson’s response when asked to attend a 1978 Motörhead show in order to consider signing the band to Bronze Records, his employer at the time. Intent as he was on declining the invitation, apparently history had other plans.

Motörhead’s then-manager, Douglas Smith, had run out of options, and Thompson was his last hope. “You don’t understand,” Smith had pleaded with him. “I’ve been everywhere. If you don’t sign them, they’ll probably break up.”

Thompson begrudgingly agreed, squeezing himself into a club in London’s Camden district that was stuffed beyond capacity -- where he was summarily “blown away” by Motörhead’s performance.

Thompson recounts this story in engrossing detail in the liner notes to the Motörhead 1979 box set (arriving today on Sanctuary), which contains half-speed remasters of the band’s classic ’79 albums Overkill and Bomber, alongside two newly unearthed live shows from that year and an LP of outtakes from both titles. The package features seven LPs in total, as well as a 7-inch “No Class” single, a Bomber tour program, Overkill sheet music, and a 40-page book of liners crammed with insights that’s actually a pleasure to sit down and read.

If it weren’t for Thompson’s change of heart, the face of modern music would look drastically different. Motörhead is now widely hailed as a progenitor of heavy metal as it’s known today. It’s universally acknowledged, for example, that without the band’s penchant for playing fast, Metallica never would have developed the speed-metal sound that was so crucial in spawning countless metal subgenres.

“Motörhead,” Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich told VH1’s Behind the Music in 2013, “was one of the main reasons that I wanted to start a band myself.” (Through fortuitous circumstances, Ulrich was invited into a Motörhead rehearsal when he was 16. He also met future Metallica frontman James Hetfield the following week.)

Radical as Metallica’s infusion of punk energy into the muscular riffing of metal sounded in the early ’80s, Motörhead’s growling, ear-shattering thrum is the original link between metal and punk. Iconic frontman Lemmy Kilmister, a fixture on the London punk scene, was present, for example, at touchstone moments like the Ramones’ historic 1976 show at The Roundhouse. Motörhead was certainly faster, louder, and grittier than just about anything else on the ’70s musical landscape, and Overkill perfectly captures those elements, opening with then-drummer Phil “The Animal” Taylor’s iconic double kick-drum figure that set the template for a generation of metal percussionists who followed. Helicopter-like bass-drum volleys would become the new standard by 1984 or so, but in 1979, Taylor’s footwork must have sounded like the very edge of the envelope. 

However, Overkill and Bomber remind us that Kilmister was telling the truth when he would open the band’s shows with the words, “We play rock’n’roll.” He was certainly aware of Motörhead's pivotal place in the musical timeline -- it’s not for nothing that the band established credibility with both punks and rockers -- but he also clearly envisioned the group as an extension of the same lineage that produced Little Richard and Chuck Berry.

Because the reissues don’t include all the bonus cuts from the 2005 deluxe editions of these albums, the 1979 packages don’t offer studio versions of “Leaving Here” and Motörhead's cover of “Louie Louie,” the songs where the band wore its rock’n’roll influence on its sleeve the most. Still, those roots are clearly apparent on deep cuts like “(I Won’t) Pay Your Price” and “Stone Dead Forever.” And for all of Taylor’s pedal-to-the-medal energy — he was probably closer in spirit to The Muppet Show’s Animal than any of the real-life drummers who inspired the character — he was in fact heavily influenced by Tamla-Motown R&B. Largely as a direct result of that influence, Motörhead's classic material bears traces of shuffle and boogie that directly tie to the past, but it also should be said that the band’s seminal lineup, which was rounded out by guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke, had an unmistakable chemistry that transcended its influences.

As for the bonus live material, the sound quality isn’t horrendous, but it isn’t ideal either -- or even close to the ambience that made the highly influential 1981 live album No Sleep ’til Hammersmith land at No. 1 on the British charts. So listeners should expect to let their ears adjust before they can imagine the monumental roar that Motörhead was reputed to bring to the stage.

That said, the live shows provide a clearer picture of the songwriting acumen behind all the volume. Even through spotty fidelity, one hears how the triumvirate of Kilmister, Clarke and Taylor wrote catchy, compact tunes filled with groove, swagger, and an undeniable passion for life. Much has been made of Kilmister’s signature Rickenbacher bass tone, which is indeed the music’s driving force, but as a total package, 1979 drives home how the band lost something vital when Clarke and Taylor departed. Remarkably, Overkill was only this lineup’s second album together, and all the elements that the word “Motörhead” brings to mind had fully coalesced by that point.

Kilmister’s between-song banter on the bonus discs also shows that he was aware of Motörhead's outsider status. At one point, he sarcastically points out to the crowd that the band had only just recently become “fashionable.” For the most part, Kilmister was justified in taking this view. Though he appreciated his loyal cult following, he lamented that more people bought Motörhead T-shirts than albums.

This box set captures a hungry, almost desperate group that likely wasn’t expecting to even reach the short-lived popularity level it would achieve shortly after Kilmister made that comment onstage. But 1979 gives ample evidence to view Motörhead not just as a catalyst for heavy metal, but as a definitive classic rock act, too. The band’s sound was so beyond the pale of what existed in 1979 that it’s obvious why the mainstream rock establishment had been reluctant to embrace it.

A year later, Motörhead stormed the British charts out of left field with its surprise 1980 hit “Ace of Spades,” the band's best-enduring song. Listening to Overkill and Bomber together, a case could be made for at least a dozen songs between the two records that could have found a home as staples on American classic-rock radio. Alongside the group's recently announced Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination, these reissues should further bolster the move to cement Motörhead's place in history.