In the world of hard rock and heavy metal, live albums don’t always land well, simply because recorded music can’t replicate the incredible power one feels surging to the front row in a tidal wave of sweaty bodies and rafter-shaking riffs. And while this is still the case today, it was especially true during metal’s formative years in the early ‘80s, before livestreams, high-def concert footage, or even just MTV could show fans what it was like to experience the loudest music on earth in person. Back then, if you were going to record a live album, it had make the listener feel like they were there. It had to count. It had to kick ass.
To this day, only one live metal album perfectly accomplishes this goal: No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith, the 1981 release by British speedfreaks Motörhead. Entertaining from front to back, and perfectly communicating the frantic, fun-loving energy of the band’s live show, Motörhead’s infamous concert recording is as much a gem as any of their studio material. And now, 40 years since its release on June 27th, 1981, it is still one of the most satisfying records of all time.
To Motörhead’s credit, much of what makes No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith incredible is its tracklist. The trio were touring for their timeless 1980 album Ace of Spades, whose mega-hit title track opens the charge. But while Ace… might have been the band’s first taste of universal mainstream success, Motörhead had plenty of wild-eyed, sweat-slick hits under their belts already — the long-haired groove of “Stay Clean,” the snotty bounce of “No Class,” the nihilistic throb of “Metropolis,” and of course the unstoppable frenzy of “Overkill.” Armed with this bandolier of hits, Lemmy, Eddie, and Philthy could’ve been inconsolably drunk for these recordings and still would’ve made and excellent album. Knowing Motörhead, they may have been anyway.
And yet the tightness of sound might be what takes No Sleep… over the top of most live albums’ heads. Usually, a live recording is marked by flubbed lyrics, strained vocals, and riffs that don’t sound quite as punchy in a high-ceilinged room as they do on the record. But here, Motörhead’s songs sound about as sharp, deliberate, and energized as they ever have. Some even more so — “Stay Clean” is kind of a smooth bop-along on 1979’s Overkill, but on No Sleep… it’s a razor-edged killing machine. The nerves, crowd energy, and chemical regiment of touring only elevated Motörhead’s classic material, giving it a bristle that made crowds in ‘81 lose their fucking shit.
As with any good live album, the crowd is the linchpin. The difference, of course, is that most bands don’t play to a venue packed with British and Irish Motörhead fans from 1981. The crashing waves of applause, screaming, whistling, and insults that end each track on No Sleep… inject the record with a sense of community and experience. One doesn’t listen to this album and wish they were there, one feels as though they are there, in their hearts and spirits. Modern metal is filled with people looking for that niche genre to call their own, but put on the live version of “The Hammer” and we’re all grinning like lunatics as we smash our beers into our own faces.
The importance of the live arena in metal cannot be overstated, especially after the year we’ve all just lived through. Without the energy and power of the live show, metal just doesn’t quite cut it, which is why metal live albums often feel haphazard or disappointing. But with No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith, three rabid dogs proved that any band could transport a packed house into every fan’s household with the drop of a needle. All they had to do was be as good as Motörhead. Which, hey, good luck with that.
Motörhead’s massive deluxe 40th anniversary box set of No Sleep ’til Hammersmith is out today, and available for purchase.
Words by Chris Krovatin