If you want to know how important Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor was to the development of metal, go on to YouTube. There you’ll find a clip from 2011 of “the big four” – the four founders of thrash metal, Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth – jamming together, playing the song without which they would never have had the idea to play metal at extreme velocity: Motörhead’s Overkill.
James Hetfield of Metallica dedicates the song to Lemmy, but it wasn’t Lemmy who made this song what those bands aspired to, it was Phil Taylor, who has died aged 61. Specifically, it was Taylor’s double time kick-drum pattern. When the song was released in 1979 – it came out as a single on 10 March 1979, a fortnight before the album of the same name – it was a lightbulb moment for a score of young metalheads and musicians. Hey! We thought Communication Breakdown was fast – but that’s nothing. This is playing fast.
The double kick drum was what gave thrash its intensity, its relentlessness: it was what makes thrash sound like the end of the world, rather than merely a riot.
“Motörhead was the first time I heard double bass done at that pattern,” Slayer’s drummer, Dave Lombardo, said in the Metal Evolution documentary on thrash. “I had heard of other double bass drummers, but I don’t think they did anything like that, at that tempo and that beat.”
In the same programme, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich said: “The drummer that introduced me to that double bass type of thing was Phil Taylor from Motörhead. When I first heard Overkill in early 1979, that was what blew my head off.”
Lemmy has always said he was just playing rock’n’roll. It was Taylor who took it over the top and made it thrash.
The idea, like so many great musical inventions, came about by accident. Taylor had just got himself a new kit and was messing around on it. He had two bass drums, and started playing them together. His bandmates, Lemmy and “Fast Eddie” Clarke, overheard him and realised here was something that could turn Mötorhead from a fast, aggressive band into a group utterly unlike any that had come before. They wrote Overkill on the spot, according to Lemmy.
Taylor himself seemed slightly baffled by what he had created. “I only associate thrash with what your dad did to you when he took his belt off,” he said. When Metallica supported Motörhead in 1982, Taylor recalled, he could barely recognise what kind of music they were playing, because it was so fast.
Of course, the double-time drumming wasn’t all there was to Taylor: he was an inventive and clever drummer, not just there to pummel things along while the two men in front of him did the fun stuff. On Ace of Spades, for example, Taylor lifts the song after the second chorus with a series of almost jazzy rimshots: you might think that song is all blood and thunder, but it’s really not.
He was also, by all accounts – including his own – what might euphemistically be called a “colourful character”, from which one can infer that he knew no restraint. The story of how he joined Motörhead perhaps sums him up. He had met Lemmy, and told him he was a drummer. Lemmy, though, was more interested in getting a lift back to Rockfield Studios, where Motörhead had been rehearsing. Taylor had a car and obliged. The pair stayed up all night, and in the morning – stark naked – Taylor went outside. “It’s all right,” he bellowed to any curtain twitchers who might have been looking. “I’m on drugs!” Back inside, Lemmy suggested that he’d been having problems with the group’s then-drummer, Lucas Fox, and suggested Taylor have a quick rattle round the kit to test his suitability.
Hearing what Taylor did, the group’s then guitarist, Larry Wallis, turned to Lemmy and uttered what might serve as Taylor’s epitaph: “What a horrible little cunt. He’s perfect.”