With the passing of one of the few true rock and rollers, Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby reflects on the life and legacy of a genuine rebellious icon.
Lemmy can’t die, can he? Wasn’t he supposed to live forever, like Keith Richards and ants?
But there it is. Type in Lemmy’s name in any given search engine and its right there in black and white; “Lemmy dead at 70”. We keep looking at it in shock. He learned he had an aggressive form of cancer on Boxing Day and died in his apartment just off the Sunset Strip in LA, with his favourite slot machine from the Rainbow Bar and Grill at his side.
It is hard to think of any single figure more loved in the rock world than Ian Fraser Kilmister. He was the embodiment of rock & roll. Cheesy line, right? But in this case it doesn’t even begin to do him justice.
This writer’s first “real” gig was Motörhead and Anthrax at the Manchester Apollo. Anthrax were cool and all, but when Lemmy walked out there? I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone quite so powerful in my life. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone quite so powerful since.
Not only was he leading the loudest band in the world (officially), there was the way he stood; head back, microphone at an angle. That growl. That attitude. Even at that young age, cynicism set in. Surely it was just an image?
But, no. The incredible thing about Lemmy was that the more you learned about him, the more his everyday life merely reinforced his image. He really was that much of a bad ass. He lived his life the way he wanted to live it. He unashamedly loved Jack Daniels, speed, slot machines and strip joints. You have a problem with that? Then get fucked.
He stayed true to himself, who he was and what he stood for. Through thick and thin, he stubbornly refused to change, never bowing to current trends or record company demands. Motörhead went from one of the biggest bands in the country, to a bit of a punchline, to some abstract level of uber-cool, and through it all he stuck to his guns. He was going to do it his way.
And this is exactly why he commanded the level of respect that he did. This is why we loved him so much. This, and just how approachable he was. He was an icon, but he would buy you a drink and have his picture taken with you too.
Even his beginnings include the most rock & roll stories imaginable. He saw The Beatles play in The Cavern (and remembered one noteworthy performance where John Lennon jumped off stage to beat the shit out of a heckler). After joining several bands like The Rockin’ Vicars and Sam Gopal’s Dream, he wound up in London where he got a job as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix (“he was a generous guy. He’d share all his acid with the crew”) just in time for a joint tour with Pink Floyd.
He was a regular on the scene in London. There was a little space rock band called Hawkwind whose bass player had gone missing just before a couple of gigs they had booked. Luckily he left his bass in the truck, so they whacked it in Lemmy’s hands. He’d never played bass before, so he turned the treble up and played it like a rhythm guitar, the unique style he stuck to for the rest of his life.
His time with Hawkwind was the band’s most successful, with him taking vocals on their only real hit – 1972’s Silver Machine – however he was often at odds with the band. When he was arrested for drug possession on a US tour, he was fired – though Lemmy maintained that they were looking for a reason to sack him by that point. As he put it, he wasn’t let go for drugs, but for “doing the wrong kind of drugs”. The rest of the band were on acid. Lemmy was a speedfreak.
The final song Lemmy wrote for Hawkwind was a b-side called Motorhead, which he obviously used when he set about forming his new band (apparently his initial idea for a band name was Bastard, which he reconsidered when he realised they probably wouldn’t get airplay). His idea was for a British MC5; fast, loose and loud. Very, very LOUD. The classic quote from the era is “if we moved next door to you, your lawn would die”. A pretty apt summary for a band that combined the very best elements of both metal and what was soon to become punk.
It didn’t get off to the best start. NME declared them the “worst band in the world”. The first album they recorded was shelved, and the one that was released went nowhere. After two years of slogging it out to no avail, the band planned to call it a day with a one-off single deal with Bronze Records, which label founder Gerry Bron referred to as “the worst record I’ve ever heard”.
Surprisingly their rendition of Louie Louie charted, and led to renewed interest. All of a sudden Motörhead were one of the baddest bands in the land. What followed was the run that built their reputation.
The Ramones thought they were fast, but the title track of 1979’s Overkill album changed the game. Every single thrash or speed metal band owes their craft to that one song. Drummer Philthy Animal Taylor (who also passed away recently) goes in with the double kick and the track doesn’t let up for five minutes, with not one, but two false endings. It was destined to become Motörhead’s standard set closer.
The album itself is Motörhead’s first classic. Though the title track is the album’s centrepiece, there’s also Motörclassics like Metropolis, Damage Case, Stay Clean, Capricorn and the ZZ Top-inspired No Class. Later that year, they followed it up with Bomber, and another bona fide classic title track (and an incredible stage set to match).
Then came 1980. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was in full swing, and Motörhead dropped the rock & roll anthem to end all rock & roll anthems. Ace of Spades is truly something else. As a fan, it occasionally gets tiresome. But it never fails to hit its mark in a room full of like-minded people. What self-respecting humanoid hasn’t, at some point in their lives, screamed that bridge? “That’s the way I like it, baby, I don’t wanna live forever”?
In the scuffle, they also managed to bag a #1 album, the live No Sleep Til Hammersmith. Motörhead were now one of the biggest bands in the country, headlining stadium shows (that often led to complaints about noise from neighbouring towns, such was the band’s legendary volume). But the lacklustre follow-up Iron Fist, along with changing landscapes and line-ups (1983’s more melodic Another Perfect Day featured Thin Lizzy’s Brian Robertson replacing “Fast” Eddie Clarke, which was an unpopular combination at the time, but the album has aged marvellously – like cheese) harmed their commercial standing for over a decade.
In recent years, Motörhead became cool again. If everyone who ever bought a Motörhead t-shirt bought their records, they would have remained one of the biggest bands in the world. Why did people buy those t-shirts without knowing the band? Because there’s a mythical element to the band that sums up everything that is bad ass in this world. Lemmy embodied that like nobody else.
The line-up Lemmy had over the past twenty years was the most stable of their entire career; Phil Campbell on guitar and Mikkey Dee on drums. This line-up recorded some of the finest albums (1993’s Bastards and 2005’s Inferno being particularly great) and played some of the most solid live shows of Motörhead’s career. Slowly, but surely they rose again, making enemies out of several record labels, but winning growing audiences, not to mention Grammy’s and the highest chart placings since their commercial heyday.
But Lemmy has been ill for the last few years. He had a defibrillator fitted and was forced to substitute his beloved Jack & Coke for wine (which always put a smile on my face, rebel to the end). He kept gigging, and even made two albums despite his ailing health.
In Austin, Texas this year he left the stage after just a handful of songs. What is striking is that in all of the footage posted on YouTube, there is not one “boo” heard in the crowd. Instead, they chant his name and “we love you”. When you spend your entire career with zero bullshit and showing nothing but respect to your audience, they show it back.
This writer has seen Motörhead more than any other band, but I haven’t seen them for a few years (I had tickets for their upcoming tour). Watching their Glastonbury performance this year put me in a state of shock. It was heartbreaking to see the powerful figure who so often “shot” me with his bass guitar during his end of show ritual – once in the presence of Jack Nicholson whilst supporting Alice Cooper, which pretty much defines the word “awesome” – looking weak and frail. The once-fastest band in the world were surprisingly slow (by their standards). But he was still doing it. He had to do it. As far as Lemmy was concerned, it wasn’t a choice. In fact, several media outlets reported Motörhead as the first “Glastonbury moment” of the festival. With a UK tour booked for next month, Lemmy did it until he literally couldn’t do it anymore, and he did it better than anyfuckingbody.
He used to say he wanted the theme from Laurel & Hardy played at his funeral. In a way, that probably sums up his “fuck it” approach to life. Never take yourself too seriously. But, for many of us, losing Lemmy is profound. He wasn’t just a rock star, he was the rock star.
Yet at the same time, it’s a very personal loss. Like losing your favourite uncle. He never would have publicly acknowledged the adulation he inspired, but we all know he felt it. How could he not?
Even death won’t destroy him.
But he wouldn’t have wanted all this emotional shit. He’d want his life celebrated. So that’s what we’ve done below.
Lemmy: 49% motherfucker, 51% sonofabitch. The baddest motherfucker who ever lived and a class act to the end. Killed by death.
Lemmy – Top 10
- The Dark Lord (Sam Gopal’s Dream) 
Starting off way, way, pre-Motörhead, pre-Hawkwind, pre-relevance. There’s something weirdly enticing about this late-60s recording Lemmy made with Sam Gopal’s Dream. We can’t quite put our finger on it. Maybe it’s because it’s nothing like anything Lemmy became known for.
9. Just Cos You Got The Power (Motörhead) 
Lemmy was a much better lyricist than anyone ever gave him credit for. Aside from clever wordplay, he often dealt with big issues like organised religion and politics in his work. This epic 80’s b-side is relevant in any political age. In fact, this writer blasted it following the Syria vote just a few weeks ago; just cos you got the power, that don’t mean you got the right.
- Black Leather Jacket (Lemmy) 
We don’t give a fuck, this is brilliant.
- Whorehouse Blues (Motörhead) 
Motörhead had actually slowed things down before, but this became a live favourite, with drummer Mikkey Dee unexpectedly taking guitar duties whilst Lemmy played harmonica.
Despite the acoustic-ness, there’s something about Inferno’s closing track that sums Lemmy up. “We ain’t too good lookin’, but we are satisfied”.
- Killed By Death (Motörhead) 
Fuck, yes! This is ridiculous and proud of it. I mean, listen to that first lyric! “If you squeeze my lizard, I’ll put my snake on you”. Look at that video. The moment Lemmy bursts out of his own coffin on an iron horse is potentially one of the greatest moments in the history of the music video.
You may notice Motörhead a four-piece and not a three-piece here. This was a total period of change for the band. Lemmy couldn’t decide whether he wanted Wurzel (RIP) or Phil Campbell (who remained until the end) on guitar, so went with them both. Then drummer Philthy Animal Taylor (RIP) quit on the day of auditions. The label were going to drop them, but allowed Lemmy to curate a Greatest Hits first; No Remorse, one of the defining metal albums of all time. This was one of the new cuts and remained a prominent fixture in the setlist.
- Peggy Sue Got Married (The Headcat) 
Lemmy always loved the old time rock & roll, and he had this little side project with the Stray Cats’ Slim Jim Phantom, playing old rock & roll and rockabilly classics. They made an album in 2007, which featured this Buddy Holly standard.
- Please Don’t Touch (Headgirl) 
This was technically Motörhead’s highest charting hit, though it didn’t appear under the Motörhead name. The band made a habit at the time of thrashing out EP’s with like-minded individuals. Along with the albums Overkill and Bomber, 1979 saw the only release from Motordam, a hybrid of Motörhead and The Damned, and they later collaborated with Wendy O’ Williams on an unexpected cover of Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man.
This is an old Johnny Kidd & The Pirates track recorded with touring buddies Girlschool (who were in fact due to support the band on their UK tour next month) under the moniker Headgirl.
- Overkill (Motörhead) 
This is the one that cemented the Motörsound, and inspired a bunch of kids across the pond to play just as fast. No Overkill, no Metallica, no Slayer, no thrash full stop.
- Silver Machine (Hawkwind) 
Lemmy’s first chart showing and a bona fide space rock classic to this day. The song was actually recorded live at the Roundhouse, London. Lemmy overdubbed the vocal when it was decided that vocalist Robert Calvert’s on the recording was too weak, but was sectioned under the mental health act when time came to re-record.
- Ace of Spades (Motörhead) 
“I don’t wanna live forever…”