Motörhead “Overkill”


I’ve been looking at two Motörhead albums very closely this week: Overkill (1979) and Ace of Spades (1980). Motörhead is a unique band with a unique relationship to genre. Many metal critics relate them to the British punk explosion (and implosion) of 1977,1 but Motörhead outlived the career of virtually any 70s punk band and remained relevant thanks in part to a close relationship with a metal scene that they were never really entirely within. Motörhead served as an influence and even a kind of godfather to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) that took off in the early 80s; Lemmy Kilmeister (RIP, Dec. 2015) was from an older generation than most of the British teenagers that formed bands like Saxon and Diamond Head at the end of the seventies, but despite steering clear of all of the musical tendencies and lyrical trappings of the kind of heavy metal these bands began producing, Motörhead frequently shared venues with the NWOBHM bands and even developed close working relationships with some of them (especially Girlschool, who released a split EP with Motörhead in 1981). The two Motörhead albums I’ve been looking at are from the year or so in which they first became successful on the British charts.2

One of Motörhead’s most famous singles is “Overkill,” and though most people say it is important because it introduced the use of two bass drums to heavy metal, I think another reason it’s significant is that it really creatively plays with the conventions of ending a song. It seems like there are only two options for ending a Motörhead song: either the band vamps on one of their riffs while the track fades out, or they end in some kind of dramatic cadence back to the tonic pitch (in other words, the “home” note of the key of the song). Out of 22 tracks on these two albums, 113 songs end with a fade out, and 104 end with some kind of cadence to the tonic.5

For the songs that end with some kind of cadence, a handful end tersely with just a couple of chords. (One example is the first song on Ace of Spades, which has the same title as the album. This song is in the key of E, and it ends with the chords: E-D-E; E-D-E.) But most of these cadences are much more dramatic, with the penultimate note sustained for several seconds, while the drummer Phil Taylor (also recently deceased; RIP) builds extra momentum with rolls on the snare or cymbals, or other drum fills, and sometimes the guitarist Eddie Clarke even adds in a lick or two, before the final note ends the song with an exclamation point.

One of the most powerful examples of this ending strategy is the song “The Hammer,” which is the last track on Ace of Spades. After the third verse, the band seems to begin another cycle of the verse music at 2:20, but then halfway through they interrupt this cycle by breaking into four out-of-time Abs (the song overall is in Eb, downtuned half a step from E). Then the band as a whole settles into a Gb with a crazed and frenetic drum fill from Phil Taylor, while Lemmy shouts, “Believe me, the hammer’s comin….” The band then crashes down to the tonic note as Lemmy finishes his thought: “…down!” The lyrics seem to depict a movie about some massive gangster named “the Hammer” catching up with his enemies and after a single moment of suspended cinematic time that seems to stretch out forever (“the hammer’s comin….”), taking them out with a single crushing blow, which matches the feeling of this type of ending perfectly.

“Overkill” is a clever play on this ending type. Just after 2:30, the band begins vamping on a new riff, and after four repetitions of this riff the band holds out a tonic Eb. Phil Taylor gives this sustained note the works, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink into a drumroll that moves from toms to snare to cymbals. But instead of leading to a tonic note, at 3:16 he re-starts the famous double-kick-drum rhythm that opened the song, bringing the whole band back in for a reintroduction similar to the song’s opening. But unlike the song’s opening, this reintroduction skips over the verses and choruses, and at 3:31 Motörhead resumes the climactic guitar solo / jam that we thought was already finished. This again pans out to a sustained Eb with a drumroll, and it is revealed as a false ending leading to yet another reintroduction that skips right to the climactic guitar solo again in 4:25. Finally, at 4:56 the band settles into the *real* penultimate note (another Eb). This time Phil Taylor throws in the kitchen sink as well, really holding nothing back as he builds anticipation with the biggest drum fill yet, and the band finally completes the twice-thwarted ending with a resolute Eb cadence at 5:09.

What a finale! If we think of the song as already ending at 2:30 when the band first begins jamming out, this double-deferred denouement takes longer than the whole main body of verses and choruses that normally constitutes the song. It’s as if “the Hammer” were catching up with his enemies, and in the penultimate cinematic pause the editor pressed the rewind button to play the last scene again, and then pressed rewind again to show the chase sequence a third time, recycling the most exciting action scene to fill the WHOLE second hour of the film! If that triple-jam ending isn’t Overkill (in a good way!), I don’t know what is.


Time chart of the ending to “Overkill”

2:34 Guitar solo 2
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspRiff C [Eb__|Db__|Cb__|Cb Bb Cb Bb Cb-Db]
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspx4 as if vamping out
3:07 Eb_______
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp(drumroll ending with ride roll)
3:16 reintroduction: double kick drum pattern
3:23 +bass
3:31 Guitar solo 2, continued?
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspRiff C x4
4:03 Eb______
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp(drumroll ending with ride roll)
4:13 reintroduction again: double kick drum pattern
4:25 Guitar solo 2, continued again???
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspRiff C x4
4:56 Eb________
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp(way more drumroll!)
5:09 Eb!!! (finally!)

  1. For example, Ian Christe introduces Motörhead at the end of a section about the ’77 punk moment. See Christe’s 2003 book Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, p. 29. []
  2. Only a few of Motörhead’s most recent albums sold well enough in the United States to make it in the top half of the Billboard 200. []
  3. Tracks 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9 on Ace of Spades and tracks 3, 4, 5, 7, and 9 on Overkill end with a fade out. []
  4. Tracks 1, 3, 8, 11, and 12 on Ace of Spades, and tracks 1, 2, 6, 8, and 10 on Overkill end with a cadence to the tonic. []
  5. The single remaining song is “Bite the Bullet,” the tenth track from Ace of Spades, which ends on a dorian 7th (flattened compared to the leading tone of a major scale). This song ends with the same figure that opens the song, which gives the ending an unfinished feel that is unique among the tracks on these two Motörhead albums. I almost expect the song to begin again instead of ending. []

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