Behind the Album: The Tension and Strain that Plagued ‘Iron Fist’ by Motörhead

Sometimes harmony can be a great thing for a rock ‘n’ roll band. Other times chaos is the driving factor. When Motörhead laid down the tracks for their 1982 album Iron Fist, it would turn out to be the final release for the classic “Three Amigos” lineup of frontman/bassist Lemmy Kilmister, guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke, and drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor. The album was criticized by many at the time for being underwhelming, but in retrospect, some fans—and even Clarke himself—have heard it as a far superior release than many people think. Regardless, Lemmy saw it as a fitting end to that classic incarnation.

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Straining at the Seams

Despite their 1981 live album No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith going to No. 1 in the UK, Motörhead were not exactly rolling in the dough, and at the time Lemmy reportedly was enjoying the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle more than worrying about finances or the precision of the performances. Further, the band members were at odds with each other. Clarke and Taylor didn’t get along and frequently got into fights. Clarke wanted to be sober for gigs so that they could do the best show possible, while Lemmy was often off his rocker doing speed, drinking, and fornicating as much as possible. He truly embodied the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. But as any of the classic bands learned along the way, excess can weigh one down and hurt the reputation of a band if they can’t keep delivering the goods. Oddly enough, one disastrous gig at the time where Lemmy basically blacked out onstage actually emboldened their legend as rock ‘n’ rollers.

After they got into the studio to make their fifth album Iron Fist, Clarke wound up taking over behind the boards, and it was Taylor who is said to have urged him more than once to do it when he argued with producer Vic Maile over the drum sound. The band seemed happy at the time with Clarke taking over, but Lemmy later regretted the decision. He also noted that at least three of the tracks on side two of the vinyl were unfinished songs they ended up recording anyway. Clarke later spoke about how little Lemmy wanted to be there and how he wrote lyrics on the fly.

“The Iron Fist album was bad, inferior to anything else we’ve ever done,” Lemmy told Classic Rock around 2000. “There are at least three songs on there that were completely unfinished. But there you go. We were arrogant. When you’re successful, that’s what you become. You think it’ll go on forever.”

Yet in retrospect, that tension and disdain somehow worked to their advantage.

A Memorable Title Track

Even if Lemmy didn’t like the album, the title track is still a classic banger. It had dark imagery certainly apropos for the heavy metal world and audience they had. Motörhead’s combination of the metal and punk ethos meant that this song and others on Iron Fist moved along at a good clip with the kind of pile-driving sound that had made the band famous. The fat was trimmed—it was all about keeping things moving. Even then, Lemmy’s pummeling bass and Taylor’s hyperactive kit work on “Iron Fist” allowed Clarke some room to solo without needing to unleash a jumble of notes. It made for a strong balance even at high velocity.

Dark night, nothing to see
Invisible hand in front of me
Scared to death, there’s someone near
Scared to move but you can’t stay here

You know me, evil eye
You know me, prepare to die
You know me, the snakebite kiss
Devil’s grip, the iron fist

As Gary Graff wrote of the album for Ultimate Classic Rock in 2022 on the occasion of its 40th anniversary: “Lemmy’s distorted bass punishes the woofers, and his portrayal of himself as a prophet of doom, a ‘beast of evil, devil’s hound’—delivered in his trademark whiskey-soaked rasp—is genuinely frightening. He’s the horseman before he loses his head, fiercer than anything Washington Irving could have imagined three and half centuries prior.”

The End of the Classic Lineup, but a New Beginning

Iron Fist performed respectably on the UK album charts when it came out, peaking at No. 6, their third-highest ranking in their homeland. Though it sold less than their live album, the single “Iron Fist” reached No. 29 on the UK singles chart. Iron Fist also became the first Motörhead album to break the Billboard Top 200 albums chart in America, landing at No. 174. It charted in more European countries than other Motörhead releases, including hitting No. 4 in Norway and No. 15 in France. The album’s cover image of an iron hand with skull rings on its fingers certainly stood out at shoppers when combing through the vinyl bins at music stores back then. The deluxe 40th anniversary release of the album included demos and bonus tracks, including their cover of the classic instrumental “Peter Gunn.”

After this album, followed by the cover of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” Lemmy did with Wendy O. Williams and some of the Plasmatics (which was very contentious for Motörhead’s guitarist), Clarke decided to leave the band. Or was he ousted, depending upon which account of the story one chooses to believe. Taylor followed suit after the next album, the far more melodic Another Perfect Day.

Although the second incarnation and classic lineup of Motörhead fell apart after only a few years—and sadly, none of them are alive today—they left behind a strong legacy. But their ending also paved the way for rejuvenation as new members came in and other sonic ideas were explored.

In his memoir White Line Fever, Lemmy said of the classic Three Amigos lineup: “It was good for us that we fell apart when we did. We wouldn’t have been going now if we had carried on getting more and more famous. We would have wound up a bunch of t–ts with houses in the country and gotten divorced from each other. So it was just as well, I think, for Motörhead’s morale overall.”

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