Bastards, Snake Bites, and Sacrifice: Motörhead in the 1990s
They Were Motörhead, and They Played Rock 'n' Roll!
Popular opinion would have you believe that hard rock and heavy metal died during the 1990s, pushed aside by the onslaught of new, hip grunge rockers like Nirvana and Pearl Jam...
...to which Lemmy Kilmister and his merry band of marauders in Motörhead replied, "F*** that." Musical trends be damned, Motörhead kept their noses to the grind stone and kept on truckin' around the globe all through the grunge years. Heavy metal may have been forced "underground" by the grunge movement, but that was fine with Lemmy and crew, as long as they could continue touring and blowing the minds (and ear drums) of their loyal, worldwide cult following.
Despite semi-regular hassles with record labels, personnel, and management, Motörhead were amazingly prolific during the 1990s. By the end of the decade they'd cranked out six studio albums and a live disc, effectively giving the middle finger to the music-biz pundits who'd proclaimed their style of music "dead." If you lost track of the band during those off-the-radar years, now would be an excellent time to get caught up on this underrated period of Motör-mania.
1991-92: Major Label Malaise
The '80s ended with Motörhead battling their former record label and ex-management in court, which kept them out of the recording studio for four years. However, they actually started the '90s off in relatively good shape, with a newly signed deal with a major label (WTG/Epic Records, a division of Sony Music). Their first album of the new decade, 1916, was hailed as a massive comeback, featuring killer cuts like "I'm So Bad (Baby I Don't Care)," "No Voices in the Sky," and "R.A.M.O.N.E.S." (a shout-out to Lemmy's spiritual cousins in New York). The album didn't set the charts ablaze but it was nominated for a "Best Metal Performance" Grammy (which it lost to Metallica's "Black" album).
1992's March ör Die saw the band attempt to put a slicker, more commercial sheen on the Motörhead sound, and featured guest appearances by some of Lem's famous friends like Ozzy Osbourne and Slash of Guns N Roses (on "I Ain't No Nice Guy"). The track "Hellraiser" (which Ozzy also recorded for his No More Tears album) was used in the horror film Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, and was made into a music video where Lemmy played a high stakes game of poker against the movie's villain, Pinhead. March ör Die also saw former King Diamond/Don Dokken drummer Mikkey Dee join the fold. Tommy Aldridge had played on most of the album as a hired gun, but Dee came on board in time to play on "Hellraiser." I've always enjoyed this album but March ör Die was critically ravaged, failed to sell, and led to the end of their major label period.
"I'm So Bad (Baby I Don't Care)"—1991
1993-95: Moves and Shake-Ups
Motörhead dusted themselves off and quickly produced 1993's Bastards for ZYX Music, a German company known mainly for dance and electronic music. ZYX apparently had grandiose plans to break into the rock market by giving Motörhead their own label imprint, but the company's distribution problems crippled the release of Bastards, which was barely made available outside of Germany. Lemmy would later say of the label, "Those Germans couldn't distribute free bread!"
The band recorded a new version of the Bastards track "Born to Raise Hell" for the soundtrack to 1994's rock comedy Airheads, with guest vocals from Whitfield Crane (Ugly Kid Joe) and rapper/rocker Ice-T. Lemmy also made a brief cameo in the film.
By 1995's Sacrifice, Motörhead had signed with the venerable European rock label SPV, which would become their home for many years afterward. Sacrifice also marked the beginning of a long relationship with U.S. retro-rock label CMC International Records, who distributed their albums in America for the next several years.
With their label situation sorted at last, Motörhead also took time to stabilize their lineup. Longtime guitarist Wurzel was let go, returning the band to a three piece consisting of Lemmy, guitarist Phil Campbell, and drummer Mikkey Dee. This lineup proved to be Motörhead's most stable, lasting till the end of the band in 2015.
(Fun fact: Wurzel's photo was included in the credits of Sacrifice in Europe, but he was cropped out of the U.S. edition.)
"Born to Raise Hell" (1993)
1996-99: Still Raising Hell
The re-energized trio of Lemmy, Phil, and Mikkey were on a roll for the remainder of the 1990s, grinding out two more excellent studio albums (1996's Overnight Sensation and 1998's blistering Snake Bite Love), capped off by a triumphant live concert disc recorded in front of a fanatical crowd of German fans (1999's Everything Louder Than Everyone Else). The only major "change" in the Motörhead camp during this period can be seen on the cover of Overnight Sensation, which showed a clean-shaven Lemmy, without his trademark mustache and mutton chop sideburns! (The legendary facial hair would return a few years later.)
Recycling and Re-hashing...
Due to their lengthy history with so many different record companies, Motörhead were frequently the subject of questionable "Best-Of" or "live" compilation albums released by former labels. A steady stream of such releases appeared throughout the '90s, most of which were unauthorized by the band, but they were helpless to stop them. Casual fans might be able to get by with best-of track packages like The Best of Motörhead or All the Aces, and hardcore gotta-have-everything completists will probably find from-the-vault concert recordings like Live in Brixton '87 or Live (a frequently repackaged 1983 gig from the King Biscuit Flower Hour radio program) interesting, but the studio albums are where the real good stuff is!
"Iron Fist" Live in Germany, 1998
Continuing to Crush
Motörhead's rock n' roll shock-and-awe campaign didn't stop at the end of the 1990s. They continued to steamroll their way into the 21st century, releasing an additional eight (!) studio albums and a seemingly endless number of live concert videos and CDs right up until Lemmy's untimely passing in 2015. The band left behind a catalog that's damn near untouchable in this fanboy's book, and if you're only familiar with "hits" like "Ace of Spades" or "Killed By Death," I highly recommend you take a "deep dive" into these lesser-known corners of the Motörhead discography -- it is bound to be a rewarding listening experience.
Long live Lemmy, and gimme Motörhead till I'm dead!
© 2020 Keith Abt