❉ The umlaut enthusiasts’ first studio album, bigger and badder than before!
“This is proto-Motörhead, before they really came into their own sound. It’s vicious, ugly, unhinged, sloppy, improvisational, untamed. Lemmy’s grinding rhythm-guitar-on-four-strings bass style is there, but not yet as front-and-centre as it later became.”
When I was a kid, in my very early teens and first getting into the noisier and more unkempt end of music, there was a record that seemed to follow me around. Whenever I’d be flicking through the racks of cheap vinyl in Morrisons or Woolworths, that sleeve always seemed to pop up. Motörhead’s On Parole, on EMI’s Fame budget reissue imprint, with the moodily-lit photo of Lemmy on stage and the logo rendered in sunburst tones. It’s a visual cue that’s burnt itself onto my subconscious. Now, Motörhead had been the first band to really hit me in the sweet spot, but for some reason I didn’t actually buy that album until many years later – and at that time, I never even knew the story behind the thing.
Lemmy’s dismissal from Hawkwind in 1975 and his immediate move to form “the dirtiest band in the world” is well documented, but what is slightly less well recorded is the rather shaky beginning of the band originally known as Bastard. It all began promisingly enough, with a lineup comprising likeminded souls Larry Wallis (guitar, late of the Pink Fairies) and Lucas Fox (drums, formerly of the WH Pierce Band) coming together quickly, a new name, representation from Hawkwind’s manager Doug Smith and a deal from Hawkwind’s label United Artists soon forthcoming, but when the trio convened at the legendary Rockfield Studios the cracks soon started to show…
The production desk was initially manned by Dave Edmunds, but apparently due to distractions involving his own solo career he soon left the project, to be replaced by Fritz Fryer (ex-guitarist of obscure 60s beat group The Four Pennies). Lemmy was also becoming frustrated with Lucas Fox, who soon left the band. On a sojourn back to London, Lemmy fell into conversation with displaced Northerner and fellow amphetamine enthusiast Phil Taylor, who claimed to be a drummer. Lemmy convinced Phil to give him a lift back to Rockfield and told him to bring his drum kit.
On Taylor’s arrival, he soon established himself as the right man for the job and he set about overdubbing Fox’s drum parts, replacing all but one of the drum tracks (he never played the session for Iron Horse/Born To Lose due to his detention by the Monmouthshire fuzz after being hauled in for being drunk and disorderly). With the album finally in the can in February ’76, the new-look band proudly presented the finished article to their record company… who hated it. United Artists threw the masters in the back of a cupboard, dropped the band and, they thought, left Motörhead dead in the water.
Motörhead were never the kind of band that would roll over and die just like that though, and by the middle of 1979 (after replacing the disillusioned Wallis with ex-Curtis Knight guitar slinger Eddie Clarke) they had released three more albums – Motörhead on Chiswick Records, which was largely a reworking of the songs on On Parole, and the classics Overkill and Bomber on Bronze – and become a major force on the scene, and United Artists, detecting the smell of money in the air, exhumed the Rockfield tapes and bunged them out as a cash-in. The band derided the release as the cynical money-grubbing exercise it was – the first time this had happened to them, but in no way the last – but were powerless to prevent it.
So much for the history lesson then. It’s 2020, and for the third National Album Day there’s a newly remastered version of On Parole. It’s a pretty lavish package, comprising a double vinyl set – vinyl only, mind, no expanded CD release is planned – with sleeve notes by Lucas Fox, who is now the sole surviving member of this iteration of the band. (Lemmy died at the end of 2015, and Larry Wallis passed on in September 2019.) Unfortunately, for the purposes of this review I only had access to a streaming version of the album, so I haven’t seen the sleeve notes. Nevertheless, I’m sure they’re fascinating – Mr Fox’s perspective on the band’s early days is something I’ve never heard much of.
The album art is derived from a rare early issue that only appeared in Canada. Much is made of the “expanded” nature of the package; the first disc comprises the original album, while the second features six alternative versions from the Dave Edmunds sessions, though in truth only two of the bonus tracks are unreleased, the rest having featured on the 1997 CD reissue.
The rattle and roar of a twin-cylinder motorcycle engine heralds the coming of Motorhead the song; notoriously it was the last song Lemmy ever contributed to Hawkwind. Even with the benefit of over four decades of hindsight it’s still quite jarring – not only is it markedly different from the Hawkwind rendition (there’s no viola, for a start…), it’s also significantly removed from the “classic” Motörhead sound. Listeners who are only familiar with the Ace Of Spades period will be startled by just how primitive this album is. Larry Wallis’s approach to lead guitar is quite a contrast to the fat, chunky blues tones of Eddie Clarke; his trebly Stratocaster screams lash across the opening chords in a genuinely unnerving manner.
This is proto-Motörhead, before they really came into their own sound. It’s vicious, ugly, unhinged, sloppy, improvisational, untamed. Lemmy’s grinding rhythm-guitar-on-four-strings bass style is there, but not yet as front-and-centre as it later became. In a way, it’s understandable why UA shelved the album when they heard it – on paper, the pairing of an ex-Hawkwind bassist and a former Pink Fairies guitarist would seem to carry the promise of a built-in audience, but the finished product, shorn of all their former acts’ psychedelic trappings and space-poet frippery, might well have been far too terrifying for the acid-rock crowd. Also, as the next two tracks, On Parole itself and the lascivious Vibrator attest, the preoccupations of Motörhead were much less mystical and more down to Earth; less metaphysical and more, well, physical.
The biker anthem Iron Horse/Born To Lose drifts lazily in next, its atmospheric but menacing slow blues making for an intriguing change of pace. The writing credits for this track have always been somewhat ambiguous – on On Parole, it’s partially credited to Phil Taylor, which seems unlikely given that it was already recorded before he even reached Rockfield and it’s the only song on the original record that he didn’t overdub.
As an aside, the pre-release blurb states that the nine tracks from the original album feature both Taylor and Fox on drums, but every source I’ve seen over the years agrees that only Taylor’s work appeared on the album (Iron Horse notwithstanding), and Fox’s contributions were removed. Playing this version and the ’97 CD back to back, the drumming doesn’t really sound any different, and while it’s difficult to be sure (particularly in the cataclysmic tom-tom maelstrom of Motorhead) it sounds to me like there’s only one set of drum tracks there. I’m not quite sure what to make of that.
There’s a quite a lot of second-hand material included on this album – of the nine tracks on show, there are three repurposed and reinforced Hawkwind songs (Motorhead, Lost Johnny and the brilliantly sinister The Watcher), one from the Pink Fairies (City Kids) and a blistering take on the old Holland/Dozier/Holland chestnut Leaving Here. Fools is the last of the four original tracks to appear, and it’s a scathing attack on “all you managers and agents out there” from Larry Wallis. It’s unclear what his representatives had done to warrant such a diatribe, but he certainly sounds pissed off about something. In retrospect, he should probably have had a go at his A&R men instead.
A quick note about the remastering job, incidentally – it’s spectacular. The album has never sounded quite as sparklingly clear and immediate as this. On Parole has always been a notoriously muddy-sounding record, so it’s quite astonishing to hear familiar material with this level of clarity. It’s like being in the room with them, although maybe less smoky and slightly less deafening.
Disc two then, and the Dave Edmunds sessions. These all definitely feature the drumming of Lucas Fox, and a damn fine drummer he seems to be too – from reading after-the-fact interviews with him, it seems the reasons for his departure from the band were more chemical than musical; apparently, he didn’t have nearly the same capacity for speed that Lemmy had, and after a few weeks of trying to keep up, he just hit the wall and chucked the towel in. He later went on to play with London punks Warsaw Pakt, as well as providing a bizarre vocal contribution to Andrew Eldritch’s Sisterhood project (reading the field manual for the AK47 rifle on Finland Red, Egypt White). In 2018 he joined a reconstituted version of the Pink Fairies, bringing the whole convoluted tale to a kind of closure.
This is the first time the surviving tapes have been released in their entirety, with the original takes of Fools and Iron Horse appearing for the first time ever. These cuts have the historical value of being the very first Motörhead recordings, but in all honesty, like most demos they’re not really much more than a curiosity. They’re a great starting point, but the destination was still a long way off.
For a long term Motörhead fan, it’s slightly disconcerting to see a bargain bin perennial like On Parole getting the full super-deluxe treatment – as previously noted, it only escaped the archives in the first place as a cheap cash-in once the band were already big – but its importance in the development of such a legendary band means that it’s probably justified. Maybe it’s mostly for completists and vinyl junkies, but the tasty remastering job and the Edmunds demos make this the definitive edition of The Debut That Would Not Die.
❉ Motörhead ‘On Parole’ (Rhino Records 0190295264666) to be released as a double-LP and single CD on National Album Day, 9 October 2020. RRP £21.99 (2LP). Pre-order from Banquet Records.
❉ Lee Terry is a regular We Are Cult contributor and a member of The Kingcrows, Leeds’ scuzziest sleaze-punk-n-roll maniacs.